Migration Period sword

Migration Period sword
Hilt of a Vendel period sword found at Valsgärde.

Swords of the Migration Period (4th to 7th centuries AD) show a transition from the Roman era Spatha to the "Viking sword" types of the Early Middle Ages.

The blade is normally smooth or shows a very shallow fuller, and often has multiple bands of pattern-welding within the central portion. The handles were often of perishable material and there are few surviving examples.

Surviving examples of these Germanic Iron Age (Vendel period) swords had blades measuring between 28" and 32" (710 and 810 mm) in length and 1.7" to 2.4" (45 to 60 mm) in width. These single handed weapons of war sported a tang only some 4" to 5" (100 to 130 mm) long, and had very little taper in their blades ending in usually rounded tip.


Names and terminology

There is no single term that can be reconstructed as having referred specifically to the spatha in Common Germanic. There are a number of terms and epithets which refer to the sword, especially in Germanic poetry.[1]

  • *swerdan "cutting weapon" (whence sword). Beowulf has the compound wægsweord (1489a)referring to a pattern-welded blade (the wæg- "wave" describing the wave-like patterns). A mære maðþumsweord "renowned treasure-sword" (1023a) is given to Beowulf as a reward for his heroism. The same sword is called a guðsweord "battle-sword" later on (2154a)
  • heoru/heoro/eor, tentatively associated with the name of Ares (identified with Teiwaz) by Jacob Grimm
  • maki/meki/mækir/mece (also hildemece "battle-sword"), found in Gothic as well as in Old English and Old Norse, perhaps related to the Greek μάχαιρα; in any case, Gothic meki in Ephesians 6:17 translates this Greek word. The compound hæftmece in Beowulf, literally "hilt-sword", presumably describes a sword with an exceptionally long hilt.

Terms for "blade", "point" or "edge" which pars pro toto could also refer to the sword as a whole include

  • *biljo "splitter, cleaver" (West Germanic only); a bill could be any bladed tool, especially farm implements such as scythes or sickles; the compound guðbill, wigbill, hildebill "battle-blade" refers to the sword, but also the simplex bill is used. Heliand (v. 4882) has billes biti "sword-bite". The Hildebrandslied has a parallelism establishing bill and suert as synonyms (v. 53f. suertu hauwan, bretun mit sinu billiu "[he shall] hew [at me] with [his] sword, lay [me] low with [his] blade").
  • *þramja "edge, blade", perhaps Tacitus' framea "spear, lance", but Old Norse þremjar means "edges, sword blades"
  • *agjo "edge".
  • ord "point"
  • *gaizo- meaning "cutter", the normal term for "spear", but in the early period may also have referred to the sword (see Bergakker inscription)

From the testimony of Germanic mythology and the Icelandic sagas, swords could also be given individual names. Examples include the magic sword of Högni, named Dáinnleif after the dwarf Dáinn (Skáldskaparmál), Skofnung and Hviting, two sword-names from the Kormáks saga, Nægling and Hrunting from Beowulf, and Mimung forged by Wayland the Smith.

Early development

Depiction of a late Roman spatha on a diptych (dated to AD 406)

The spatha came into widespread use in the Roman army during the 3rd century. It was during this time that the early Germanic tribes adopted the weapon. There are types of the spatha, dated to the 3rd and 4th centuries, associated with the northern parts of the empire (Germania), such as the Straubing-Nydam type, but these are usually still classed as late Roman spathae, as they are still found in a Roman military, not a "native Germanic" context. An early find of Roman spathae in a native Germanic context (as opposed to Roman military camps in Germania) is the deposit of sixty-seven Roman swords in the Vimose bog (3rd century).

A native industry producing "Germanic swords" then emerges from the 5th century, contemporary with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Germanic spatha did not replace the native seax, sometimes referred to as gladius or ensis "sword", but technically a single-edged weapon or knife. It rather establishes itself, by the 6th century, at the top of the scale of prestige associated with weapons. While every Germanic warrior grave of the pagan period was furnished with weapons as grave goods, the vast majority 6th to 7th century grave have a seax and/or a spear, and only the richest have swords.

Swords could often become important heirlooms. Æthelstan Ætheling, son of king Æthelred, in a will of ca. 1015 bequeathed to his brother Eadmund the sword of king Offa (d. 796), which at that time must have been over 200 years old.[2]

Krefeld type

An early type of recognizably Germanic sword is the so-called "Krefeld-type" (also Krefeld-Gellep), named for a find in late Roman era military burials at Gelduba castle, Krefeld (Gellep grave 43).

The military burials at Gelduba begin in the late 1st century with the establishment of a Roman camp in Germania Inferior, and they continue without interruption throughout the period of withdrawal of Roman troops and the establishment of early Frankish presence in the mid 5th century.

The Krefeld type spathae appear in graves from approximately the 430s through the 460s. In these graves, the exalted prestige of the sword is not yet fully developed, and some of them are surprisingly poor. They rather seem to still continue the tradition of military graves of the Roman period, of warriors buried with their personal weapon, the presence of a sword perhaps indicating service in the late Roman army.

Six Krefeld type swords are known from Francia, four from Alamannia, and another two from England.

Gold hilt spatha

5th century Alamannic gold hilt spatha found at Villingendorf.

The gold hilt spatha was a very rare and prestigious type of sword in the later 5th century. Specimens are known mostly from Alemannia (Pleidelsheim, Villingendorf), but also as far afield as Moravia (Blučina).

An "Alamannic type" is distinguished from a "Franconian type" based on scabbard mounts and hilt design by Quast (1993). A total of 20 examples are known, ten of each type.[3]

One of the "Franconian" examples is the sword of Childeric I (d. 481), recovered from his tomb at Tournai. Some authors have suggested that Childeric's sword was a "ceremonial sword" not intended for combat, perhaps produced for the occasion of his burial. [4]


The 7th century Gutenstein scabbard, found near Sigmaringen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany shows a warrior in wolf costume holding a ring-sword.

The ring-sword (also ring-spatha, ring-hilt spatha) is a particular variant of the Germanic migration period swords. Ring-swords are characterized by a small ring fixed to the hilt (not to be confused are Late Medieval to Renaissance Irish swords with ring-shaped pommels, also known as "ring-swords").

Ring-swords come into fashion in the last phase of the Migration period (or the beginning of the Early Middle Ages, in the 6th and 7th centuries. They are found in Vendel era Scandinavia and in Anglo-Saxon England as well as on the Continent (Saxony, Francia, Alemannia). These swords were prestigious, prized possessions, probably reserved for kings and high nobility. The ring is interpreted as a symbolic "oath ring".[5]

The design appears to originate in the late 5th century, possibly with the early Merovingians, and quickly spreads to England (from the earliest phase of Anglo-Saxon presence) and Scandinavia. The Beowulf poem uses the term hring-mæl, literally "ring-sword" or "ring-ornament",[6] and scholars who interpret this as referring to this type of sword can point to it as one indication that the Beowulf poet was still drawing from an unbroken tradition of the pagan period, as ring-swords disappear from the archaeological record with Christianization, by the late 7th century.[7]

Examples include:

  • Continent
    • the Beckum ring-sword, dated ca. AD 475-525, found at Beckum, Germany
    • Wünnenberg-Fürstenberg, grave 61, 6th century.
    • the Schretzheim sword, found in tomb 78 in the Schretzheim Alemannic cemetery, Dillingen, Bavaria, dated to between AD 580 and 620. The sword is a rare example of a blade inscribed with an Elder Futhark inscription, four runes arranged so that the staves form a cross shape.
  • England
    • the Kent (or Dover) ring-sword[8]
    • Sutton Hoo ring-sword
    • the Chessel Down II (Isle of Wight) ring-sword), early 6th c.
  • Scandinavia
    • the Snartemo sword, found 1933 in tomb 5 at Snartemo, Vest-Agder, Norway, dated to ca. AD 500.
    • Vendel ring-sword, found at Vendel, Uppland, Sweden, 6th century.
    • the Vallstenarum sword, found in Gotland, provides an important indication of the spread of the fashion. The sword was made in the early 6th century, and a ring was added only later, around AD 600, damaging part of the existing hilt decoration.[9]

See also


  1. ^ A monographic treatment of the question can be found in May Lansfield Keller, The Anglo-Saxon weapon names treated archæologically and etymologically (1906). See also C. Brady, '"Weapons" in "Beowulf"' in: Martin Biddle, Peter Clemoes, Julian Brown (eds.) Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN 9780521038652
  2. ^ Dorothy Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge (1930), 171.
  3. ^ Frank Siegmund in Ian N. Wood (ed.), Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian period: an ethnographic perspective, Boydell & Brewer, 1998, ISBN 9780851157238, p. 192.
  4. ^ Brady (2007:94); L. Nees, Early medieval art, Oxford (2002), 83.
  5. ^ H.R. Ellis-Davidson. "The Ring on the Sword." Journal of the Arms and Armour Society 2 (1958).
  6. ^ Old English mǽl has a range of meanings, "mark, sign, ornament; cross, crucifix; armor, harness, sword; measure; time, point of time, occasion, season"
  7. ^ Raymond Wilson Chambers, Beowulf: an introduction to the study of the poem with a discussion of the stories of Offa and Finn, 2nd edition (1932), 349-352.
  8. ^ V.I. Evison, "The Dover Ring-sword and other Sword-rings and Beads." in Archaeologia CI, 1967.
  9. ^ Frans Theuws, Janet L. Nelson (eds.), Rituals of power: from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages, ISBN 9789004109025, p. 425.
  • Elis Behmer, Das zweischneidige Schwert der germanischen Völkerwanderungszeit, Stockholm (1939).
  • H. R. Ellis Davidson, The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: its Archaeology and Literature, Oxford (1962).

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