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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Comparing Medieval images of European and Japanese sword polishers

Comparing Medieval images of European and Japanese sword polishers

photo from Oxford Museum

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Several recent discussions on various blogs, web forums and images from middle-to-late Medieval and early Renaissance texts to see how people of those periods sharpened swords.  For those unfamiliar with marginalia, you can see a full manuscript page with illuminations at the bottom, here.

I  noted that many of the images showed use of the commonly expected grinding wheel;  it was mentioned, however, that in most cases the illuminated marginalia  did not indicate if the image represented a newly-forged sword being rough-ground into shape — much as modern smiths use grinding wheels to do — or if this was actually the final stage of sharping.


grinding wheel sword



Certainly, the second image — and many others I’ve seen — seem to be more indicative of iron tools being sharpened than true swords;  a great many of these images depict knives, scythes and other tools being honed.   .  As we have discussed elsewhere, the final geometry of a blade’s shape has a great deal to do with both the strength of a sword as well as being a determiner of how sharp a blade can be made.   In most cases a sword geometry sweeps down to a final thickness, on which a final bevel is ground, creating the final cutting edge.   Changing the blade’s geometry from the swordsmith’s intended design could greatly reduce the edge sharpness the blade would be capable of, and potentially weaken the structure of the sword itself.

Sharpening by use of a grinding wheel would also certainly be easier on simple iron or mild-steel tools such as axes, knives, scythes etc., which are general forged in a simple chisel “V” shape, will no final edge bevel, such as can be seen in the second image. above

While the use of a grinding wheel for sharpening has certainly been propagated in movies and popular literature, it must be remembered that the production of high-quality weapon steel was prized knowledge, and the final product highly valued.  Before the formation of the great guilds of the late Medieval period, a smith who had learned — or been taught — the secrets of producing quality weapons would be a dearly held resource of the nobility.    In fact, in several old documents, sword smiths are listed as part of the important resources of great fiefs.  The value of metal implements during this period cannot be understated.   While metal tools and weapons became common in much later periods, researchers of the early to middle Medieval period often track “horded” treasures of iron and mild-steel implements as signs of political, technological and cultural development. Blacksmiths, Warriors and Tournaments of Value: Dating and Interpreting early medieval hoards of iron implements in Eastern Europe.

This also begs the question of who could afford huge grinding stones of a quality and hardness to effectively grind and sharpen steel edges, arguably one of the hardest material in existence during these periods.  Certainly nobles and great cities or guilds could, but once removed from centers of power or finance, the likelihood of every blacksmith possessing the tools to do so would seem to drop dramatically.

Unsurprisingly, there is evidence that maintenance of steel weapons was also a prime task for specialized swordsmiths / armourers, or at least their journeymen or apprentices.  In Tasting Misery Among Snakes:  The Situation of Smiths in Anglo-Saxon Settlements,  researchers found there were indications that only selected smiths were allowed to actually maintain these blades.  Indeed, the act of sharpening itself was closely related to fealty:

…the sharpening of weapons seems to have possessed special symbolic significance, as surrendering arms to be honed would have constituted an act of submission, a ritual possibly inherited from Celtic kingship (e.g. Enright 2006; Shapland 2008). Such a legacy may partly explain the veneration of smiths across northern Europe in Iron Age societies (Barndon 2006).

Another document from 12th century Iceland indicates there were special tradesmen licensed and allowed to travel, offering their services for making, repairing, and sharpening blades. Viking age and medieval craft in Iceland: Adaptation to extraordinary living conditions on the edge of the Old World

Wandering smiths are known, and the Grdgds reports that swordsmiths or sword grinders had permission to move from place to place and work for wages or to occupy a booth at
the Althing.

One would surmise that if a warrior could simply use a whetstone or grinding wheel to sharpen a sword themselves, such  special craftsmen and attendant ritual would not have been necessary.

How then would these specially trained European smiths have sharpened these extremely valuable tools of war?    The same manuscripts and illuminations mentioned about supply a possible answer, one that would seem to have much in common with the Japanese togishi or sword-polisher  In the following images, taken from European manuscripts from 1100 CE to the Renaissance, workers are shown carefully polishing and honing sword blades by hand, using stones, in many cases obviously paying special attention to the final beveled cutting edge, in a manner extremely similar to images of Japanese sword polishers.



European polishing

European sword polishing two


These images suggest there is much more involved in the sharpening of a true “castle-steel” weapon than simply running it across a grinding wheel.  Of course, in times of war or when a specialist sharpener might not be available, a warrior would likely have more than enough experience to perform a simple re-alignment of the edge, or light edging, with a whetstone or sharpening steel.  A late-period German woodcut shows precisely this scene, where an executioner is using a simple stone or sharpening steel to re-edge his blade:


Executioner sharpening sword


Some have dismissed the action in these  images as being that of  simply “shining” a blade, rather than any true sharpening.  Yet, in the illuminated manuscripts, these scenes are given equal size and prominence to the grinding images;  traditionally in illuminations, important images are of a certain size, with less important actors or actions with the image simply being drawn smaller.  This suggests the activities being displayed were considered of equal importance.

When compared to images of Japanese sword polishers, taken from various manuscripts and artworks from the early Edo Period (roughly 1600) through to the modern day, there is a remarkable similarity in activity being displayed.  This at least invites conjecture as to the existence and importance of specialized of European sword sharpeners, prior to the period of the great guilds and the common production and use of high-grade steel.

Much as in Europe, the position of a smith in Japan — and particularly swordsmith —  held religious overtones, with Japanese smiths being at times considered on a par with Shinto priests.  As in Europe, a master smith in Japan would be in charge of creation of the steel and forging of the blade, but would pass the in-progress blades on to other sub-specialists or craftsman for finishing.  Such sub-specialists included the sword polisher, who — in addition to bringing out the beauty of the swordsmith’s craft — would also be responsible for the honing of the final edge.  Togishi were respected craftsmen, often called on to maintain and re-edge blades for warriors.

Thus, I offer the following images for your consideration and comparison, and invite your comments on the proposition: that there seems to have existed — at least within the framework of swordsmith and journeymen — a specialized sub-class of European sword sharpeners in the early to mid Medieval period.


Togisihi 1


Togishi 2

As you will see in each of these images, the polisher works with a variety of fine honing stones, from coarsest to finest, to both polish the blade and bring it to a razor edge.

Togeishi 4


The final image is of a togishi, circa 1900

Togishi photo





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