Reviews of “The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature” by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1962)

Review by: J.D.A. Ogilvy

Source: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Oct., 1962), pp. 908-909

1206325._UY200_Besides archaeology and documents ranging from wills to epic poetry, this book draws upon modern knowledge of metallurgy and on contemporary experiments in producing pattern-welded swords. Although it deals chiefly with English swords, it contains Continental and Scandinavian material in both text and illustrations when such additions furnish supplementary information.

The book begins with a discussion of where, and under what conditions, swords have been found. Then it proceeds to the making of the blade and tang. Metallurgical technology in the early Anglo-Saxon period seems to have been such as to render the making of a really first-class blade a matter of skill combined with luck. Thence, perhaps the reputation of such exceptional blades as Unferth’s Hrunting, Arthur’s Excalibur, and Roland’s Durendal. In this period, pattern-welding was the best method of offsetting the uncertain quality of the smith’s raw material; and the appearance of the patterned blade accounts for many of the descriptions of fine swords in epic poetry. The construction and decoration of other components of the sword and of such accoutrements as the scabbard and belt are next discussed. Inscriptions on both blade and hilt–some, apparently, makers’ marks and others indications of ownership–are dealt with; and maps showing the distribution of finds of Ulfberht and Ingelrii makers’ marks are included as Figures 28 and 29.

Davidson discusses the rather surprising shortness of Anglo-Saxon hilts, and is inclined to agree with Oakeshott, whose theory is supported by early manuscript illustrations, that the pommel was gripped against the heel (or perhaps even the palm) of the hand. Some support for this theory might be found by observing the habit of a good many modern sabre fencers of grasping the hilt an inch or so back from the guard. Experiments with hilts of the Anglo-Saxon type might reveal that such a grip would give greater flexibility in wielding a cutting blade than one in which the hand was wedged between the guard and the pommel.

A section of text and a number of illustrations are devoted to early sixth century hilts with rings attached to the pommels, and the purpose of these rings-probably ceremonial-is discussed. If the ring had served a practical purpose, it would hardly have been displaced as it afterwards was by a boss adorned with a sort of vestigial ring. A study of these hilts and of other hand some sword-trappings should help to dispel the low esteem in which early Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship is traditionally held.

The second section of the book presents evidence concerning swords in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian documents. A long appendix, with diagrams, deals with the experiments of J.W. Anstee in making a pattern-welded sword, and a brief one by R.E. Oakeshott describes the Shifford sword, the first Ulfberht sword to be identified in England.

A work such as this, which cuts across several specialities, is of interest to a variety of readers–students of literature, of the history of technology, and even of the history of art, since hilts, pommels, and other sword-trappings are among the most beautiful artifacts which have survived from this period. On the other hand, the writer exposes herself to the criticism of a variety of specialists, each of whom can be trusted to find something to carp at. The literary scholar, for example, might take exception to the explanation of Beowulf’s motive for fighting Grendel with his bare hands (p. 198) or point out that Wiglafs use of the point on the dragon should be added to that of Beowulf on the sea-monster on the same page, þaet ðaet sweord gedeaf (Beow., 2700b: ‘so that the sword plunged’) pretty plainly refers to the point sliding home like a diver cleaving the water. It would be a very poor description of a cut.

The explanation of handseax (pp. 41-42) might have included the information that the term is used in the Old English Bede to translate the sicam bicipitem of the original (Hist. Ecc, II, 9). In accepting Bede’s statement that the seax was poisoned (p. 132), the author overlooks the possibility that Bede’s source may have been some such figurative expression as those she discusses on pages 130 and 131. Bede, it is true, is very definite about the poison and adds that it was used so that if the wound were not in itself enough to kill the king, it would be aided by the virulence of the poison. The last part of the statement, however, may have been merely a logical inference from the first. Bede, who entered Jarrow as a young oblate, may have had very little first-hand knowledge of weapons, and only a limited acquaintance with secular poetry.

But these are very minor criticisms of a careful and thorough piece of work which will help the scholar to a better understanding of the treatment of the sword in Anglo-Saxon literature.

D. A. Ogilvy, University of Colorado

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Spatha, an Ulfberht sword, from the Rhine at Mannheim, 1st half of the 9th century, displayed at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.


Review by: D. H. Green

Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct., 1962), pp. 591-592

Of the various weapons used by the Germanic warrior pride of place belongs to the sword rather than to the axe or the spear. This is in some measure due to its very expensiveness, for this led to its being regarded as the essential weapon of the warrior leader or as the invaluable heirloom to be handed down from generation to generation. Beyond such practical reasons, however, we find that the sword is also invested with a wealth of other associations: it can be employed on ceremonial occasions in close connexion with the Germanic lord as wielder or giver of the sword, it can be described in poetic language as the prince’s eaxlgestealla or even given its own personal name and it can occasionally even be seen to play a role in Germanic religion.

Such a combination of the utilitarian with the non-practical is in itself a justification of Mrs Ellis Davidson’s approach to her theme, for she treats the sword first from the archaeological and then from the literary point of view. Here we must be grateful for any attempt to bridge the gulf between neighbouring disciplines and must wholeheartedly agree with her contention that the evidence of archaeology can often fill in gaps in our literary testimony, whilst literature is in its turn sometimes capable of returning this service. The author therefore divides her material into three parts. In the first part she treats of ‘the making of the sword’, discussing the archaeological evidence for its various parts (blade, pommel, grip, etc.), in the second she turns to the literary evidence to be found in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, analysing it in part according to the various genres and in part according to the different parts of the sword. A third part (‘The using of the sword’) shows us the sword in its totality and in action.

For the literary historian the justification and the value of the first part will lie in the illumination it provides of obscure passages in our literary evidence. Here the author has been successful in giving us new explanations (or in confirming old ones) on a number of points. Amongst these we may mention the symbolical equation of the ring on the hilt (pp. 75 ff.) with the moral bond existing between the lord and his followers or the explanation of the association of the sword with poison by reference to the acid used in its making or to the serpentine patterns to be found on the good blade (pp. 132 f.). The valuable results of thus combining archaeology with literature are also to be recognized in more detailed cases, as with the author’s interpretation of scurheard in Beowulf (p. 133) or of the phrase mæl ofer mearce in Waldere (pp. 200 f.).

Such insights are a welcome addition to our knowledge, but it is precisely this that makes it the more surprising and regrettable that the author should not have developed other worthwhile strands in her argument. She is aware that the poverty and ambiguity of our evidence compel us to collate evidence from archaeology and literature, but she appears not to have considered the possibility that the purely linguistic evidence may help us just as much. There is therefore no discussion of the implications latent in the probable connexion of the Germanic word sax with Latin saxum, no reference to the fact that a word corresponding to the Gothic term for the sword méki occurs in various Slavonic languages, no hint of the etymology of the word sword itself and no evaluation of the occurrence of terms such as brant in  personal names. Whereas the author may well be justified in omitting any detailed discussion of sword-names themselves (p. v), the same is not true of the words used to designate the sword, for such terms are generally of considerable antiquity (they antedate our literary sources and in many cases also our archaeological evidence) and can be used to shed light on the function of the Germanic sword.

The same hesitancy is apparent in the treatment of the symbolism of the sword, an aspect of the sword’s function which the author rightly stresses in addition to its utilitarian employment. In a work on the sword in Anglo-Saxon England one might have expected some discussion of the vexed problem of the term for the Saxons themselves, some suggestion as to whether this tribe took their name from their weapon or perhaps from the name of their god Seaxneat or whether conversely the god was named after his worshippers or the sword. That the Germanic sword could be used in solemn ritual is of course known to the author for she discusses it in connexion with oath-taking (pp. 85 f.) and also with reference to a Christian continuation of practices which were probably pre-Christian in origin (pp. 182 f.). It is, however, exactly for this reason that such problems should have been tackled in a work which deals with the sword not merely as a weapon, but also as a symbol. The same is equally true of the sword dance (which is not mentioned in this book), and a knowledge of P. E. Schramm’s Herrschaftszeichen und Staatssymbolik would have given weight to the author’s scattered observations on the sword as the symbol of the Germanic lord. Such problems, unlike the question of sword names, emphatically belong to the group of questions considered by the author, so that their absence creates a void which cannot be filled by individual insights and interpretations, however convincing and however frequent.

Yet even on points of detail minor criticisms must also be made. On pp. 24 and 25 reference is made to plates Ic and Id, but on the plate itself the swords in question are Id and Ie respectively. On p. 100 the name Fjorsváfnir is divided at the end of a line in a manner which destroys its sense (Fjors-váfnir instead of Fjor-sváfnir) and on p. 109 the location of Liineburg as ‘west of Berlin’, whilst strictly true, hardly betrays a close knowledge of German topography. On p. 132 the antithesis between Scandinavian and Germanic is false; ‘South Germanic’ is presumably meant. As regards the plates included in the book, although the excellent photographs on plates I-IV are to be welcomed, the line-drawings in the remaining plates cannot give us the evidence we require in sufficient detail or accuracy. Here the worst offender is the drawing of the Thames sword (no. 18), where accuracy and legibility are completely wanting. Furthermore, so many drawings are crowded into one plate that, presumably in order to save space, they are often arranged in an arbitrary and infuriating manner. Nos. 49a-55, for example, are arranged with more regard to economy than to the reader’s convenience.

Finally, the work is marred by an excessive number of printing mistakes in foreign words. Here only a random few can be singled out. On p. xxvi we find Romanische instead of Romanischer, on p. 13 Ringerrike instead of Ringerike, on pp. 42 and 43 Englehardt instead of Engelhardt, on p. 82 Buxtehede instead of Buxtehude, on p. 89 Die Alemannenfriedhof, on p. 102 Kreiz Kowel, on p. 114 wellenformig in place of wellenförmig, on p. 143 romanische und englische instead of romanischen und englischen. If these were the only errors it would be regrettable enough, but this is far from being the case. The result is a work produced in a manner which brings little credit to the Clarendon Press and which leaves one surprised that the author should have concluded her preface by thanking the staff of this Press for the standard they set in the preparing and correcting of manuscripts.

CAMBRIDGE                                                                                                                    D. H. GREEN



Review by: F. E. Harmer

Source: The Review of English Studies, Vol. 14, No. 55 (Aug., 1963), pp. 276-277

To the poet of Beowulf swords were precious heirlooms with gleaming blades and richly ornamented hilts. It was on his sword that the warrior depended to protect his life. Moreover, the sword was often used as a symbol. The purpose of this book is to discover with the aid of archaeological, historical, and literary evidence what can be learnt of the actual facts underlying the rich and romantic associations that have gathered round it, and to show how at many points one kind of evidence supplements another. The author’s technical examination of the characteristics of the sword in all its parts–blade, hilt, pommel, scabbard, and the rest-and of the everyday use of the sword in Anglo-Saxon England is largely based upon the abundant and constantly increasing Anglo-Saxon and Viking archaeological material found in the British Isles. No full account of this has hitherto been available, and it is here considered against a background of finds from western Europe. Much information can be gathered as to the appearance and qualities of swords from the statements of contemporary observers; as, for example, from Cassiodorus, secretary of Theodoric the Great, in the early sixth century; from Arab writers who from the ninth century onwards give knowledgeable and detailed accounts of swords of the Vikings in eastern Europe; from descriptions of swords in Anglo-Saxon wills. To these can be added the contributions made, among others, by poets.

Swords sent as presents to his master Theodoric were praised by Cassiodorus for the ‘polished clarity’ and the mirror-like surface of their blades. He continues (in the author’s translation):

The central part of their blades, cunningly hollowed out, appears to be grained with tiny snakes, and here such varied shadows play that you would believe the shining metal to be interwoven with many colours. This metal is ground down by your grindstone and vigorously burnished … until its steely light becomes a mirror for men. …. Such swords by their beauty might be deemed the work of Vulcan, who is said to have perfected his craft with such art that what was formed by his hands was believed to have been wrought by power not mortal but divine.

It has long been realized that swords such as these were produced by a special forging technique, one that was in use at least from the second century to the ninth. The convenient term ‘pattern-welding’, introduced by Mr. Herbert Maryon in 1947, is for reasons given by the author (p. 15) to be preferred to the ambiguous term ‘damascening’ or ‘false damascening’. The discussion of this technique had until recently remained virtually, so far as is known, at a theoretical stage. But the author is now able to give precise technical details of the intricate and laborious procedures involved, based on the successful production (in itself a contribution to knowledge) by Mr. John Anstee in 1955 of a pattern-welded  blade (plate Ie). It is to be noted that the rusted sword with jewelled pommel and hilt taken in 1939 from the seventh-century royal cenotaph at Sutton Hoo has been found by laboratory investigation to have a blade of this type. Scholars have differed as to the interpretation in Beowulf of descriptive epithets compounded with OE. mæl ‘mark’-a term implying ornamentation of some kind, some preferring to suppose that some at least of these terms refer not to the blade but to the hilt. For this, reference may be made to Miss R. J. Cramp’s article, ‘Beowulf and Archaeology’, Medieval Archaeology, i (1957), 59 ff., and to the author’s own detailed discussion of the various possibilities, pp. 121 ff. She maintains that some of the descriptive epithets compounded with mæl in Beowulf are properly applied to sword-blades; that they arise out of a poetic tradition based on familiarity with pattern-welded blades; that there is nothing colourless or conventional about the epithets employed; that the emphasis is in fact on different aspects of the blade, its gleaming silvery surface (gregmæl), its patterns like rich material woven or embroidered (bro(g)denmæl), its twisted patterns (wundenmxæl), its branching, curving shapes (sceadenmæl).

A serious weakness is the inadequacy as illustrations of the drawings at the end of the book. No indication of size is given here or with the photographic plates, so that no comparison is possible; the drawings are often placed out of their given order on the page; the feature to be illustrated, in several cases (e.g. figs. 86, 87), cannot be discerned in the drawing. On pp. 24, 25, references should be corrected to plate Id (Ely Fields sword) and le (Mr. John Anstee’s) respectively. The period covered by the bibliography ends (so far as I have noted) in 1957, except for one or two references to 1958. F. E. HARMER

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Sword pommel from the Bedale Hoard

Review by: Vera I. Evison

Source: Medium Ævum, Vol. 32, No. 2 (1963), pp. 136-140

The net has been cast wider than the title implies, for swords as far apart as the Danish bog finds and those used by the Vikings have been brought into the discussion, and Old Icelandic literature as well as Anglo Saxon has been drawn upon. The book has been divided into three main sections : the first ‘is a survey of what is known of the making of swords in Anglo-Saxon times and of their appearance and qualities’, the second ‘deals with the literary evidence for the appearance and use of the sword’. These are followed by a third section on the using of the sword, an appendix describing Mr. J. W. Anstee’s experiments in pattern welding, and illustrations consisting of four plates and sixteen plates of sketches. In the first part of the book the various parts of the sword are examined in turn, the blade, the hilt, accessories and the scabbard. This arrangement is excellent in dealing with the blade, for the changes it underwent in shape during the eight hundred years under review are few and uncomplicated. The technique of pattern-welding was practised for most of the time, and recent work in this subject is here clearly summarized. The hilt, scabbard and accessories, however, are discussed under ten separate headings, so that one sword has to make its appearance on repeated occasions under a number of these headings. In this way, impressions both of any one specific sword, and of developments in general become rather blurred. A chronological grouping system of swords as a whole would have been less confusing.1

Comments on the text:


  1. The author says that from about the eighth century onward ‘there is a strongly marked groove or fuller down the blade’, and gives two earlier examples from Abingdon. This feature is, in fact, often apparent on pagan swords, but since the usual source in this early period is the grave, the outline of the blade is generally obscured by the remains of the scabbard, whereas from the eighth century onwards most of the blades are river finds, so that the blade is naked and well preserved. No attempt is made to give a detailed archaeological description of pommels, etc. and indeed this would be out of place in the main body of the text, but the short descriptions given are sometimes misleading, 55. ‘A pommel from Fetter Lane . . . like the  Seine pommel has in its central division a pattern in a spiral design which seems to be an imitation of filigree ornament.’ la fact the central division of the Seine pommel is carried out in ribbon filigree, and the central part of the Fetter Lane pommel contains two pairs of birds’ heads, an animal head and curl motifs, and shows no recognizable affinity to filigree ornament,
  1. 62. In discussing the guards, the author loses the opportunity of pointing out the development of the early type from a simple wooden cross bar, later covered by a thin upper and lower sheet of metal riveted through the wood: the central wooden bar was later replaced by a metal one, sometimes ornamented, and finally a single wide metal bar was fitted, occasionally imitating the earlier sandwich construction by its shape. The sword from Vendei I referred to on p. 62 (fig. 59) is said to have ‘the spaces between the bars filled with decorative work io silver and niello’. In fact, fig. 59 shows the sword from Vendei I which has a central bar of gilt bronze bearing some panels of silver and niello surface decoration as well as inset garnets. The second sword from this grave, like a number of other swords, has a central bar to the guards of which the black and white effect in a photograph may give the impression of silver and niello, but these are in fact solid iron or bronze bars inlaid with silver or bronze wires.
  1. 87, n. 4. ‘The two thin iron objects like inverted boats’ found with a sword at Alfriston are not likely to be attachments similar to pyramids. They are no doubt the usual type of strap slide, and are now placed on the scabbard in Lewes Museum in the appropriate position.

The second section shows evidence of widespread searching in written records, which are invaluable in conveying to the student of the twentieth century the importance of a keen cutting blade to a warrior of that time, and the aura of respect, affection and ritual surrounding a sword sheathed in splendour and hilted with gold.

The author wavers in her terminology for the single-edged weapon. In the list of swords at the beginning of the book, for instance, she names a ‘knife’ from the Thames at Battersea, a ‘short sword’ from Little Bealings, Suffolk, whereas the pommel from Windsor, Berks., she suggests, comes from a ‘sword or dagger’ – the latter term conjuring up the double-edged weapon never favoured by the Anglo-Saxons. The ‘knife’ from the Thames is 28 ļ inches long, and the ‘short sword’ from Little Bealings is 32 inches long.

This uncertainty is brought about because the author has not faced the problem of whether a single-edged weapon was really a sword to an Anglo-Saxon, with all that that term connotes. She does include a number in her survey, but as far as one can see, the Saxons used the word seax to indicate a single-edged weapon as well as a knife. It seems that not so much reverence was accorded to the seax as the sword, for almost without exception it lacks the extravagantly embellished hilts of the sword. It is true that by the ninth century there are a few with splendid metal-inlaid blades, but even these are still without a metal holt. The evidence of archaeology therefore seems to show that this  weapon was never regarded in the mind of the Anglo-Saxon as the possession indicating high rank, leadership or reward for prowess. The word seax does not seem to have been used by the Anglo-Saxons as an alternative for the words used for a two-edged sword – bill, mece.

The two mentions in Beowulf, 1. 1545 (Grendel’s mother) and 1. 2203 (Beowulf) show that a seax or wal-seax was a weapon small enough to líe worn on the person in active combat, and was not drawn until other methods of fighting failed. There was, indeed, a type of full-length single edged sword used by the Norwegians, which was provided with hilts of the same type as the double-edged swords, but there is as yet no evidence that these were adopted to any extent by the Anglo-Saxons. The story of an attack on a gigantic creature underwater occurs in both the Grettissaga and Beowulf, and the fact that the killing is associated in one case with a weapon known as a beptisax and in the other as a hœftmece seems to confirm an original common origin of the story. There is, however, no possible connection between the weapon names as they stand. The Beowulf weapon is Hrunting, a pattern-welded, two edged sword, a mece. The Grettir weapon is classed as a fleinn = spear; it can be used for both thrust and cut, has a wooden shaft with no decoration, and it is called a sax. The first half of the words, i.e. hæft and hepti, seem inexplicable if they mean ‘handle’ (although seaxes with a long, double-handed grip exist), but as the weapons themselves differ so much, it is probable that the meaning may be connected with some thing altogether unsuspected and be a lost memory of the ritual of exorcism, e.g. hæft – captive.

One of the pitfalls lying ready for the unwary who would scoop up all evidence available in the entire Germanic world to find an explanation for one specific reference or object is exposed by the explanation of the hilt of the sword from the lake. This is said to have the story of the destruction of the race of giants writen on it. The author considers this cannot have been in pictures as no such hilt of the Anglo-Saxon or Viking period exists, and suggests (on the analogy of her hypothesis that the runic stave brought up from the lake by Grettir was the shaft of the hepti-sax) that the story was written in runes. The date of most of the armour in Beowulf seems to be generally of the sixth century (ring-swords, Sutton Hoo helmet, etc.) and there is a sword from Snartemo, Norway, of the early sixth century which has clear pictures in repoussé of men and animals on the metal plates covering the grip. The illustration, fig. 14, shows nothing of this. At least seven animals and five men appear on the grip alone. A couple of the men represented are kneeling and gesticulating, with hair intertwined, and some of the animals are busy eating. Giants being destroyed by water could easily be depicted in this way in an equally limited space. Although the Snartemo sword has been quoted before to illustrate other parts of this Beowulf passage, the aptness of the ornamentation on the grip has been entirely overlooked—possibly  because the intricacies of zoomorphic ornament are less easily decipher able by a student of literature than by an archaeologist. Further, it is quite impossible that a sword of this period should have an inscription in runes long enough to tell a story. Up to this time, inscriptions were extremely short, giving litde more than a name. It was not until the runes passed into use by the priests of the new religion that inscriptions of any length appeared, e.g. the poem on the Ruthwell cross, for these priests were accustomed to use characters for articulated writing. As to the hepti sax cited as a parallel from the Grettissaga, the date of the events was probably eleventh century, and the story was probably written down in the thirteenth century at a time when runes were customarily used for long inscriptions.

In the chapter on the using of the sword, the author points out two exceptions in Beowulf to the normal practice of using the sword with a hewing motion, but suggests no explanation. There would seem to be excellent reasons for these. In fighting a dragon, as Sigemund was, a hewing blow would fall ineffectively on the dragon’s scaly head or back, and only a thrusting motion would get at its soft belly. (Both Beowulf and Wiglaf aimed for the middle of their dragon to finish him off after earlier blows on the head had shattered Nœgling.) In the second example, Beowulf slew the sea monster underwater with the point of his sword because a swinging blow would obviously be useless in water, and no doubt instructions on the technique of fighting in water formed part of the curriculum of budding Anglo-Saxon warriors.

It is very useful to have in this book the section on the results of Mr. Anstee’s experiments in pattern-welding. Its usefulness would have been increased by the inclusion of diagrams of pattern-welded blades, particularly in view of the inadequacy of the first plate of photographs. These, and all the drawings, are on a ridiculously small scale. Moreover, there is no indication of scale provided, nor is there the slightest attempt at uniformity of scale. This is particularly to be regretted since it deprives the reader of the advantage of making visual comparisons of the size of the hilts and blades – in fact there is nothing to help him in this way since the text, too, is almost completely innocent of accurate descriptions or measurements. The numbering of objects lacks system, so that the eye has to scour the page, for instance, on page 1 of the drawings, No. 8 follows 3b and id follows 7. This task is made more difficult as the references in the text are not always correct, p. 5 5 Fetter Lane should be PI. III b and c, not fig. 40 ; p. 55 Norwich Museum should be fig. 40 not fig. 41. The illustration of the Chessell Down scabbard mount No. 103 is upside down, which would not have been of any great consequence had it not borne a runic inscription. The mount is incomplete as illustrated, but is more correct than the text on p. 103 where it is stated ‘this inscription was hidden inside the scabbard’. As the drawing shows, it was on the outside of the back of the mount, and so, although it  would not have been visible when the scabbard was worn on the belt, it could certainly be seen at all other times. On p. 5 7 fig. 1 14 is referred to as an MS. illustration of a ‘tea-cosy’ or ‘brazil-nut’ type of pommel, but it is a tri-lobed variety.

The total result is an exhaustive rather than selective collection of physical examples and literary references, together with a summary of research so far published which will be a valuable guide to students, but it should be noticed that research in this and neighbouring fields is going ahead so fast that a number of further works appeared even while the book was printing. From this collection may be judged the various contributions which archeology and literature have to offer. Archaeology presents the actual swords used by our ancestors, and every detail of them may be seen and admired. The literature presents descriptions, some details of which may be readily recognized in the actual objects, such as the ring on the sword, and pattern-welded blades, but many of the descriptions are too vague to be significant. Perhaps the author is a little more hopeful than is justifiable by the results: for instance, ‘the exact type of ornament described as wrættum gebunden is hard to determine with certainty’ (p. 133) is a profound understatement. It could refer to any ornamented sword in existence. On p. 147 is a fair summary of the information Anglo-Saxon literature has to offer, and while Old Norse literature provides many interesting and human details, it must be used with caution in view of its geographical and historical remoteness. But it is the literature that shows us that ‘the sword was closely associated with much of what was most significant in a man’s life – family ties, loyalty to his lord, the duties of a king, the excitement of batde, the attainment of manhood, and the last funeral rites’. And perhaps one more thing, not sufficiently stressed in the book, but of transcending importance to the Anglo-Saxon – public esteem accorded to the possessor of fine rewards. We are given to understand, for instance {Beowulf, 1. 1048), that Beowulf would be proud to show off the rewards given to him by Hro]? gar, and these included a precious sword.

Vera I. Evison.


  1. Some inaccuracies in the text are: pp. 9 and 95 : Hooton Kirby= Horton Kirby; p. 62: n. 1 refers to ‘J. Werner 2’, but only one of Professor Werner’s works appears in the list of abbreviations; p. 68: Combe, Kent=Coombe, Kent; p. 82: Buxtehede= Buxtehude; p. 88 n. 3: this figure should presumably have been placed after the word ‘Finglesham’ for there is no reference to a Harold in Berkshire on the page of Med. Arch . mentioned, neither is there a mention of Harrold, Beds., which is presumably the site intended. This is an M. o. W. excavation not yet published.

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Broken-back seax from Sittingbourne in Kent.

Review by: H. M. Colvin

Source: The English Historical Review, Vol. 79, No. 310 (Jan., 1964), p. 140.

The present rapprochement between documentary historians and archaeologists is by no means complete. It is still possible, for instance, for Mr. Eric John to maintain that the origin of the common duty of maintaining fortifications should be sought in eighth-century Mercia without realizing how neatly his theory fits in with Sir Cyril Fox’s work on the Mercian dykes; or for feudal historians to argue interminably about the survival of the five-hide unit on the estates of Worcester Cathedral Priory without noticing Dr. Picht’s demonstration of a similar conservatism in the priory’s scriptorium. Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are still too often dug by those who think more in terms of the grave-goods than of the men and women for whom these objects were fashioned, and continental historians would be amazed by the persistence with which English archaeologists believe that the Middle Ages began in 1066. The subtitle of H. R. Ellis Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 962. 55 s.) is therefore to be welcomed as much as the subject itself. For this is a book in which literature and archaeology are both exploited with equal expertise to throw fresh light on the weapon which for so many centuries stood for ascendancy in war and for authority in peace. The literary student will find here an admirably lucid account of the complicated techniques of sword-making as practised in northern Europe between the fifth and eleventh centuries, while the archaeologist will rejoice to find all the literary references so conveniently collected together in a single chapter. As for the historian who knows nothing either of pattern-welding or of the heroic poetry in which the sword plays so prominent a part, he can turn with profit to the concluding chapter, in which Mrs. Ellis Davidson not only shows how well the archaeological and the literary material fit together, but also how closely the sword ‘was associated with much of what was most significant in a man’s life-family ties, loyalty to his lord, the duties of a king, the excitement of battle, the attainment of manhood, and the last funeral rites ‘.

St. John’s College, Oxford                                                                                    H.M. COLVIN                                                                                                   

The Battersea Sword


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