Monday, 23 April 2012

At the Cutting Edge

                      I inherited these swords from my father – I remember he bought them in a fleamarket in Bolton, about forty years ago. The tale the stall-holder told him was that they had been made as a presentation gift for a naval officer. How he came about this information I’ll never know; there are no inscriptions on the swords  - the only marks are a maker’s stamp for “Weyersberg & Co., Solingen”. Solingen, in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany, is the German equivalent of English Sheffield – it is the knife-making centre of the country, producing over 90% of the country’s knives. Weyersberg & Co. merged with Kirschbaum in 1883 to form Weyersberg, Kirschbaum & Cie, so it seems likely that the swords date from before that date. Grubbing about on tinternet has brought up next to nothing – some similar style swords were issued to the French military in the 1830s, and an 1855 British pattern private’s hanger for Land Transport Corps, but nothing definite.

The swords themselves are broadly speaking copies of the Roman gladius style. The gladius was the standard issue to the legionaries, a short sword (about 24 to 28 inches), used primarily for stabbing and thrusting from behind a shield wall, but also capable of slashing and cutting. The hilt, or capulus, had a solid pommel (latterly, from the French pomme – ‘apple’, referring to its shape), which could be used offensively in close combat.

Some swords (but not these) have a ‘fuller’ (a shallow groove) running down the length of the blade. Fulling the blade adds strength to it by giving it a dual spine, and can reduce the weight by between 20-35%, also reducing the material, and thus the cost, needed to make the sword. The fuller is not, as some think, a ‘blood-groove’ – an error that comes from the fallacious idea that a blade can somehow get stuck inside a body when a vacuum is formed by the tensing of muscle tissue around it, and that the groove allows air into the wound, releasing the vacuum. The simple truth is that if a blade is sharp enough to cut its way into a body, it can also cut its way out.

The plant gladiolus gets its name from the sword shape of its leaves; the word gladius is also, of course, the root of gladiator (‘swordsman’).  The word ‘gladiator’ has come to be used as a generic term for any of the combatants fighting in the Roman arena (‘arena’ comes from harena – the Latin word used for the fine sand used to absorb blood), but there were different types of gladiators, their names derived mainly from the weapons or armour they carried. Examples include the cestus – a fist-fighter equipped with armoured gloves, the laquearius – armed with a lasso and a dagger, and the retiarius – fighting with a net and a trident. The earliest gladiatorial combats may have grown out of funereal games (think of those described in The Iliad), and may originally have been fights between slaves. Prisoners of war were made to fight in the arena, and condemned criminals were executed there, before the highly-trained professional fighters came to be used. As the Roman Empire declined (some argue, convincingly, it was bankrupted by the spiralling cost of the games), the populace of Rome were appeased with the spectacle of the arena and a dole of free grain – the ‘bread and circuses’ bemoaned by the poet Juvenal. An unscholarly, but riveting, account of the decadence of the Roman circus is Those About to Die by D P Mannix; the title references the supposed, but unsubstantiated, myth that the gladiators would salute the Caesar with the salute “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant,” – “Hail, Emperor, those about to die salute you.” This is the splendidly lurid cover of my seventies paperback copy, showing a bewildered slave girl about to be torn apart by bulls.

The word ‘sword’ comes from proto-Indo-European swer – ‘to wound’, with cognate words developing in many later tongues; Old English sweord, Old Saxon swerd, Old High German swert, Danish sværd, Norwegian sverd and Swedish svärd. The Saxons took their name from their characteristic dagger, the seax. 

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