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Blades and the Art of Cutting

The falchion in Eastern Europe during the 13th – 16th centuries

The falchion in Eastern Europe during the 13th – 16th centuries

photo by One Lucky Guy

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Today we’ll be looking at falchions and similar weapons recovered in archeological digs in Eastern Europe, specifically from the geographic areas of what are now the Czech Republic, Poland and eastern Germany.

Falchions are one-handed, single edged, relatively heavy short swords.  They combine the best features of the axe and sword, delivering heavy cutting blows which can penetrate some armour, and delivering blunt force injury even when the blade’s edge was itself stopped by armour.

In almost all cases, falchions have cutting edges which curve up to meet the back point;  the blade itself is much wider from edge to spine than standard broadsword swords.  The basic design varied widely, from an almost machete-like appearance, to a heavy long-knife, to a heavy version of what we would call a cavalry saber.  Some few two-handed versions have been found (particularly German Langes Messers or “big knives”, as per A Falchion / Langes Messer Fencing Treatise by Johannes Lecküchner (1482). Many had standard crossguards as found on knightly swords, but there are varieties with circular guards, ball-guards and many others with no crossguard at all.

 

 

English falchionThe most common Western European falchion design often had a symmetrical pommel (round or wheel-shaped), with a heavy quillioned crossguard.  An example of an English falchion from the period is seen on the right:

 

Eastern European falchions could have symmetrical pommels, but were often found with down-turned style called “knife-shaped” or “saber”  pommels, making it very apparent the sword could only be grasped and used in one direction (example below, with no crossguard)

 

 

The popularity of this form of weapon in Eastern Europe can be noted by the number of times figures bearing falchions appear in Church decorations from  the 14th through the 16th centuries:

 

Falchions in Church decorations

 

The Falchion in Poland

Within Poland, after the 16th century there were two distinct classes of falchion:  the “kord”, which resembled an enlarged knife with an asymmetrical hilt, as pictured above;  and the “tasak”, with a round symmetrical pommel and a longer blade, which could be used to thrust as well as chop.  Previous to the 16th century, these terms appear to have been interchangeable.

In Swords and falchions from the Polish-Silesain-Brandenburg borderland (13th – 16th centuries) Preliminary thoughts, Arkadiusz Michalak reviews a number of blades found in the area of what is now the Polish-German border region.  This is a highly technical treatise which include classifying the sword types according to Oakeshott’s Typology, and the pommels according to Oakeshott, Petersen, or Marek.  Mention is made of Lech Marek’s Typology of Falchions, which at this point available to the public only in Polish, much of which appears in:  Średniowieczne i nowożytne kordy ze Śląska / Medieval and Renaissance falchions from Silesia.

Falchion in stained glassA much more in depth technical and historical view of the subject is given in Falchion And Its Technology In Poland (14th-16th Centuries).  In this work the authors go into great detail exploring the history of the falchion in Poland, indeed suggesting the importance of the falchion in Polish culture, as well as the reason it appears so frequently in Polish iconography — either in the hands of torturers in scenes of passion, or as the weapons of saints — comes from a falchion kept in the Cathedral of Poznan.  Called the Sword of St. Peter, it was purported to be the sword which St. Peter used to cut off the ear of the priest during the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

They note:

The oldest mentioned falchion in the Polish sources is a record of 1297: gladium vel cultellum quod vulgariter dicitur kord.  The written sources of this weapon is the latin terms longum cultellum, magnum cultellum, cultellum cord, cultellum alias kord magnum19. The latter term accurately reflects knife shape of the most of falchions with straight back and the blade, evenly tapering towards the stabbing, Perhaps, however, the term „long knife” or „big knife” was applied only to the characteristic of the blade and the falchion with asymmetric hilt and stem with riveted linings.

As part of their exploration, they researched documents from various merchant guilds in the 14-16th centuries;  these guilds set standard prices for weapons, including the falchion.  Interestingly,  at first there seems to have been a dispute between the Guild of Knifemakers and that of Swordsmiths for the rights to make this weapon, with records showing the swordsmiths quickly won out.  An overview of falchion prices and options available over two centuries demonstrates both the popularity of the weapon and the fact that a wide variety of blade quality and weapon finishes were available.  Thus not only was the weapon used by nobles, but period documents describes cheaper versions being worn on a daily basis by foot soldiers and town guards, as protection against bandits.

They were able to conduct one metallurgical study on an expendable blade.  While detailed results are not made available in the paper, it is mentioned that the study showed that the blade was of high quality:

For analysis two samples were used: one from the edge and the other from the back part of the blade. The analysis shows that the carbon content of the blade was 0.85%, while on the back of the blade 0,57%. It is worth
mentioning that the value of 0.85% C is characteristic of high-carbon steel40, which was characterized by very high hardness and the loss of flexibility. Much more flexible was medium-carbon steel, which made the rest of the blade. We can conclude that the person performing the object was perfectly aware of the property needed for the blade used for the combat. The analysis showed that to produce the weapon of Bielica it was necessary not only a knowledge of blacksmithing, but also a satisfactory understanding of mechanical properties of the blade elements.

 

The Falchion in the Czech Republic

Of the three documents we’re examining, one of the most interesting is the last, coming from the Czech Republic region:  Dussacks with broad blades and a probably method of their manufacture. “Dussack” is a type of falchion of the short, heavy-bladed, knife-like variety.  The authors describe it as:

The type can be described as a one-handed dussack with a relatively broad blade. The blade only slightly narrows towards the point, which was presumably axially situated and rather indistinct. The blade has two shoulders, which bear two shoulder-plates. The shoulder-plates were most likely corrugated. The shoulder-plates were attached to the blade by two rivets in the place of shouldering.

As can be seen in the picture below, most of these weapons very short and extremely heavy.  These are the 15 blades which were made available to the researchers for intensive study and analysis.

 

They were allowed to conduct destructive testing on two of the blades, allowing them to determine metallography and hardness.

  1. Item from the Regional Museum of Klobouky U Mrna:  The edge section of the blade near the tip had a carbon content of .7%, exhibited martensite structures and had a hardness rating of 468 (Vickers).  The edge area near the base of the blade was much softer, with a carbon rating of .o7 and a Vickers harness of 174.  One might expect this in a well-forged weapon, as some flexibility in the metal in needed near the base of the blade to prevent fracturing under the stress of heavy impact;  meanwhile the dense structures and higher hardness rating makes the cutting area of the blade capable of maintaining a sharp edge.  Formal assessment by the authors:

    The blade is of a good quality with a steel edge (approx. 25% volumetric part in the blade), a steel back (approx. 25% share), and iron middle portion. The entire blade was water quenched and then tempered.

  2. Item from a private collection:  The blade had a carbon content of .45-.75% throughout.  Near the tip, the blade exhibited tempered martensite structures with a hardness of 524 (Vickers).  Near the base of the blade the same structure and almost the same level of hardness are found, with a Vickers rating of 451.  Formal assessment by the authors:

    The blade consists of a steel edge (approx. 10% volumetric part in the blade), a steel back (approx. 20% part), and a middle portion being steel in the place of the blade sampling; however, the carbon content might fluctuate along the length of the blade and, most likely, the middle portion was at least partially made of wrought iron. The heat treatment of the blade consisted of quenching in water followed by tempering.

Tang with visible shoulder platesFor the remainder of the blades made available to them, the authors measured, photographed and recorded information in detail, which is available in the report.

These details include length, height, width, the presence  or lack of fullers, corrugation, etc. Photographs of the hilts of all blades, as well as all pommels are available, and include some details at to the makeup and construction of the pommels.

Fortunately, as some of the blades were badly corroded, the report authors were able to examine interior makeup of the steel without destructive testing.

From this data they were able  they were able to conjecture four major variations in manufacturing process, specifically in how steel and iron were welded together to create the finished blade (A through D below).

Under microscopic examination, they also noted that almost all blades exhibited micro-cracks in the steel cutting edge, caused by improper quenching technique, also noted in the diagram:

 

Styles of manufacture

 

 

Sources