Early Anglo-Saxon sword blades are increasingly recognised as magnificent works of historic smithcraft. Usually found in horrendous states of preservation, their artistry can be revealed through x-radiography and metallography, then brought to life by painstaking reconstruction by historic bladesmiths. Handling of such replicas in turn has led to commentary on the handling characteristics of these weapons, providing inferences about the early medieval battlefield. However while we can be confident about the length, width, approximate shape, and construction of such blades, critical data concerning thickness of blades is lacking, in turn casting doubt upon the weight, balance and handling of these weapons. Precisely how thick - and therefore, heavy, were early Anglo-Saxon swords?
Most cultures across Northern Europe share a love for alcoholic drinks made from the fermentation of malted barley; a love which has persisted for at least 6,000 years. The wide range of elaborate drinking vessels in early Anglo-Saxon princely burials, and later written descriptions of mead-hall culture, revelry and ritual-drinking strongly evidence the important role consumption of alcoholic drinks played in social life, and functioning, of Anglo-Saxon society. In ‘Beowulf’ it is made very clear that drinking binds warriors together and cements loyalty of troops to their leaders; unable to party in the hall due to Grendel’s attacks, Hrothgar’s fellowship dwindles. Also described is the serving of drinks by the women hosts within the hall – in strict social order (Pollington, 2003) suggesting that women tended to be in charge of brewing and rationing the drinks, and hinting at the soft-power they wielded at feasts by judging and signalling the social pecking-order (Herbert, 1997).
Outside of feasts and social gatherings though, it appears that ale was the staple drink of day-to-day life. Ælfric’s Colloquy – a 10th century ‘classroom textbook’ for teaching Latin literacy (with Old English gloss) describes an imagined conversation between a ‘master’ and a novice monk / boy who describes every-day life, including his “sober” diet (Hagen, 1995). When asked by the master “what do you drink?” he replies “ale, if I have any. Water if I have no ale”. When asked why he does not drink wine, he replies that it is too expensive, but also, that wine is unsuitable for “the young and foolish” and implies it is too intoxicating for a child. This is strong evidence that among Anglo-Saxons water was drunk, routinely, but that ale was preferred as the everyday, daytime drink (including for children) and that this ale cannot have been particularly alcoholic.
It is often said that medieval folk subsisted entirely on ale because water was contaminated and unsafe to drink; we can see from Ælfric’s Colloquy that, at least as far as the Anglo-Saxon period is concerned, this is an oversimplification. Water from streams in more remote and upland areas – such as where monasteries were often sited – would usually be perfectly safe to drink; water from further downstream and especially near major settlements, less so. Early medieval folk could have no knowledge of microbiology but it would not take a genius to notice that those who drank more water, and less ale (considered "strengthening" and generally associated with good health) were often more likely to suffer stomach upsets, leading to the evolution of a habitual preference for ale over water as part of early medieval people’s daily routine.
It's clear, therefore, that ale was central to both every-day life in Anglo-Saxon England, and to social functioning. Its worth examining then, what precisely Anglo-Saxon ‘ale’ and 'beer' were, how it was made, and why it became so important.
Compared to the famous shield from Sutton Hoo Mound 1, the shields from the other treasure-filled princely Anglo-Saxon burials lack ostentatious decorative fittings. In the first chapter (link) we discussed the striking similarity of these shields, which appeared to be high-performance gear for warrior princes, optimised for agility rather than ostentation. In the second chapter (link) we reported on our project to produce an authentic replica of such a shield, and explore just how light weight they could have been.
Despite the minimal fittings, its hard to imagine the shields of the late 6th century princely burials were entirely plain, and new evidence has come to light concerning early Anglo-Saxon paints, and the painted designs preserved from the late Iron Age, which has allowed us to more confidently wade into the painting of early Anglo-Saxon shields for the first time.
Researching and experimenting these paints, exploring the evidenced designs, and how they relate to decorative motifs seen in other media across both Anglo-Saxon material culture and adjacent cultures, we were finally able to finish our replica princely shield with a plausible painted design.
Aside from the magnificently decorated, heavy shield from Sutton Hoo Mound 1, remains of early Anglo-Saxon shields suggest they were typically relatively plain. Curiously the shields from the other treasure-filled princely burials – Taplow, Broomfield, Prittlewell, Sutton Hoo Mound 17 and others appear especially so, not befitting the status of these burials, with little in the way of decorative fittings, and very minimal, unusually simplified bosses.
In the previous chapter (link) we revealed that (in contrast to the wide variability of shields from contemporary graves) the late 6th century princely burial shields were all practically identical, with suites of four simple disc mounts on the board, simple 1a(i) iron grip reinforcers, and innovative SB-4b / Dickinson’s Type 6 shield bosses – the smallest and lightest of all Anglo-Saxon bosses. In a number of these cases the boards were also made of ultra-light-weight willow. This is the lightest combination of fittings possible, among those evidenced from early Anglo-Saxon graves. We have therefore argued that the princely shields represent a class of very carefully made, high-performance versions of the standard Anglo-Saxon shield, with weight-reduction prioritised over ostentation.
In 2021 we undertook a project to reconstruct such a shield – to explore precisely how light such a shield could be for a given diameter, and to explore methods consistent with archaeological clues which might have been employed to embellish such shields, commensurate with the status of their owners, without compromising their performance. The result would provide a theoretical minimum weight for an early Anglo-Saxon shield of practical size, and represent our tenth and most ‘authentic’ shield reproduction to date.
Exploring the history, archaeology and cultures of the "Anglo-Saxon Period" (encompassing the Migration and Viking Ages).