Given the strategic and cultural importance of these weapons, and the six century duration of the period, we might expect to see an ‘adaptive radiation’ of fundamentally different sword types, with different vocabulary preserved in literature, yet the design of Anglo-Saxon swords appears to have been highly conserved - tweaked and improved gradually over time but not splintering off into substantially different types. While it may always be tempting for weaponologists to introduce technical vocabulary and typology, such as the glossing of all swords from the Migration Age until the Crusades with the exotic and anachronistic term “spatha” (which refers more particularly to the related Roman “long” sword), the lack of coexisting diversity of blade types for most of the Anglo-Saxon period renders this unnecessary; it is perfectly sufficient to refer to all such weapons with the word they themselves used, and handed down to us; “sword”.
That being said, a variety of terms do occur in Old English texts to refer to these noble double-edged weapons. While most can be interpreted merely as kennings - figurative circumlocutions or euphemisms used in the place of the word “sword” in poetry to add colour, variation and/or to better fit the metre - one example; the word “mēċe” shows up surprisingly frequently and has its own set of compounds alongside “sword”. Could “mēċe” actually represent a distinct form of blade? Did the Anglo-Saxons use two different types of swords after all?
“Flōdweard geslōh unhlēowan wæg alde mēċe." (Ex.494-5)
‘The Guardian of the Flood struck the unfriendly wave with an ancient sword.’
Another example, in compound form ‘hæft-mēċe’ appears in the epic poem "Beowulf":
“…wæs þǣm hæft-mēċe Hrunting nama …” (Bw.1457)
‘… was the long-hilted battle-sword; Hrunting was its name …’
The term occurs 9 times in Beowulf alone, demonstrating the familiarity of the term both to the author(s) and their audience. However, the use of ‘mēċe’ is still greatly outweighed by its more prosaic cousin ‘sweord’; in the Beowulf poem ‘mēċe’ occurs 9 times, compared to 43 times for 'sweord' and 4 times for ‘swyrd’.
That ‘mēċe’ was a well-known and well-understood poetic term is demonstrated by its use as the primary word in a range of compounds. These include; beadu/o- mēċe (battle-sword), sige-mēċe (victory-sword), hilde-mēċe (war-sword) and hæft-mēċe (hilt(ed)-sword).
Particularly given its frequent use in Beowulf ‘mēċe’ seems to be the Anglian and Kentish poetic variant (likely pronounced "maich") but a West Saxon dialectic variant also survives in the form “mǣċe” (pronounced like "match").
This is not a uniquely Anglo-Saxon word, having relatives (cognates) in Old Norse (meki, mækir) and Gothic (mēkeis). Its ultimate derivation is the Proto-Germanic *mēkijaz and the Proto-Indo-European root *MAGH. It may also be related to the Greek μάχαιρα whose modern meaning is knife, although in classical Greek meant sword. Interestingly, this term ‘makhaira’ found its way into the Bible, being the word used for the sword used by Peter to cut off the ear of a slave, called Malchus, during the arrest of Jesus:
"οὖν Πέτρος ἔχων μάχαιραν εἵλκυσεν αὐτὴν καὶ ἔπαισεν τὸν τοῦ ἀρχιερέως δοῦλον καὶ ἀπέκοψεν αὐτοῦ τὸ ὠτάριον τὸ δεξιόν. ἦν δὲ ὄνομα τῷ δούλῳ Μάλχος"
‘Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it and smote the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus.’
The word μάχαιραν (machaira) is understood to mean a ‘slaughter-knife’ or a short-sword used mainly for stabbing.
Now from its use in Beowulf, it appears that the term ‘mēċe’ was used synonymously with ‘sweord’ but it has been suggested that it may have had a more specific meaning: denoting a long, slender, sharply-pointed sword (Mortimer, 2019). Oakeshott (1996) strongly suggests that the Old Norse term ‘mækir’ was used to distinguish a specific type of sword:
“The four basic types of Migration period swords are hilt types. They were all fitted with simple two-edged blades which varied a good deal in size but not much in shape. There was however one distinction; some blades were comparatively slender and quite acutely pointed; while the majority were broad, with almost parallel edges and spatulate points. The Norse peoples themselves made a distinction, for they had four words for a sword; two of them, svaerd and maekir, seem to be applied to these two kinds of blade; svaerd, the more usual term, seems to apply to the broad slashing blade, while maekir denotes the slender pointed type.” (Oakshott, 1996).
This distinction may be hinted at in the Prose Edda, where Sigurðr’s sword Gram is called a ‘mæki’, following the hero’s slaying of the dragon by stabbing it.
“Hverra ertu manna mögr, er þú á Fáfni rautt
þinn inn frána mæki? Stöndumk til hjarta hjörr.” (Fáfnismál, verse 1)
‘Whose son are you, that you should redden your shining sword on Fáfnir? The blade stands in my heart.’ (Larrington, 2014)
This suggestion had always been rather tenuous until recently, when an extensive review of sixty-four 5th-7th century Anglo-Saxon swords (Mortimer, 2019) showed a bi-modal distribution of blade size. Notwithstanding regional variation or change over time, if all swords were regarded by warriors or smiths as 'of one kind' we should expect to see their dimensions form a bell curve, naturally varying around a single average size, while a bimodal distribution (two humps) is suggestive of the manufacture of blades regarded at the time as being of two distinct specifications.
The majority of swords in the Mortimer (2019) sample seemed to fall into two groups: heavy swords with blade-widths between 52-60mm and (presumably) lighter, narrower swords with blade-widths of or below 51mm. Similarly, an earlier (Thompson, 2005) review of 40 Migration-Age swords found that they fell into two main forms: large broad-bladed, parallel-sided types and narrower, slightly tapering types with more pronounced points.
As the width measurement of iron sword-blades is subject to unavoidable error due to edge-corrosion, it was gratifying to find that data from the Staffordshire Hoard (Fern, 2019) was consistent with the above findings. Where early Anglo-Saxon swords had metal hilt-plates, the lowermost of these encircled the blade (rather than the shoulders or tang), carefully shaped to fit relatively tightly, and so, non-ferrous metal hiltplates offer a glimpse of a sword’s cross-section unaffected by corrosion. Of the numerous gold hilt-fittings in the Staffordshire Hoard, there were eight lower-guard hilt-plates which were intact enough to determine the slot-size and thus the maximum blade-width. As gold does not corrode in the soil, these measurements give valuable corroboration as to the widths of these swords when new. These measurements give a maximum blade-width range of 49-62.5cm, of which four were 52-57mm. Two, however, were 62-62.5cm wide, which compare to the two widest extant blades - those from the Prittlewell princely burial (60-62mm) and Sutton-Hoo mound 1 (c. 64mm). It has been suggested that there might be a correlation between social status and blade-width, although this might also be explained by the wider blades being older, more valued ancestral blades (māððumsweords) rather than the newer, more refined tapered blades, which may have come into vogue in the late 6th to early 7th century (Thompson, 2005).
There thus appears to have been at least two popular specifications for sword blades, represented in early to mid Anglo-Saxon archaeology, and it is very tempting to connect these two the rival terms “mēċe” and “sweord” which occur in later texts. Based on hints from the contexts in which they are used it is possible that the term ‘mēċe’ may have referred to longer, slimmer swords, more optimized for thrusting, while the term ‘sweord’ - more generic, may have been preferred for referring to the heavy, broad-bladed weapon optimised for heavy slashing blows.
Nevertheless, the differences in archaeological blade profiles remain subtle, and would be largely imperceptible to anyone but the elite weaponsmiths who produced such blades, and the professional warriors experienced in handling, wielding and comparing them. In practice it is quite hard to imagine a poet or scribe being intimately familiar with the technical differences between different varieties of swords - most trying to get through life without ever seeing one too closely. Instead, it seems likely that poets utilised all the various sword-terms in their ‘word-hoards’ to project a picture into their audiences’ minds, whose memories would be already primed with a general familiarity with the swords of their day and the terms linked to them. Thus while these terms might hint at some technical differentiation between sword forms in the minds of smiths and perhaps some warriors, we cannot assume that they were not wielded by writers as effectively synonymous.
Following the sharing of this article a number of learned comments have been made, particularly with regard to the meaning, origins and cognates of the OE word "mēċe" which are worth addressing.
- A number of readers have commented that similar words exist in modern Eastern European languages, which mean "sword". These include miecz/meicze in Polish, meče in Czech, Мач, Mač, Mjac, Меч, Meč, Miecz, Mječ in Slavic languages, Miekka in Finnish and Mõõk in Estonian. These are almost certainly related, likely deriving from a shared Germanic root, though it may have originally had a Greek or Macedonian origin.
- Some have suggested mēċe might be etymologically related to, or literally mean, a mace - the later medieval bludgeoning weapon. The context and descriptions which accompany the word in Beowulf do not offer the possibility of this being anything other than a sword; the famous named sword Hrunting, for example, is referred to with this word and vividly described. Mace derives from the Old French mache / masse, (possibly short for short for "Masse des armes") which derives from the Vulgate Latin *mattia/mattea and itself from the Classical Latin mateola – a mallet or beetle-hammer. This derives from the Proto-Germanic *mattukaz and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *-MAK meaning ‘to pound’. .There resemblance of the words appears to be a "false-friend"; there appears to be no linguistic connection between the two words.
- Similarly, the German term ‘messer’ is not cognate with ‘mēċe’. Messer has a quite simple origin; being derived via the Middle High German messer and the Old High German mezzeres/mezzisahs (meaning knife). This derives from the Proto-West Germanic *matisahs/matiz-sahs (knife used for cutting food – literally ‘meat-sax’, whose ultimate derivation is from the Proto-Indo-European root *-MAD/MAT – to chew.
- One questioner raised the matter of large seax - effectively single edged swords, which certainly do occur in Beowulf and other texts, with their own sets of compounds, but are entirely distinct from sweord and mēċe . This is best illustrated in Beowulf, where a seax weilded by Grendel's mother is clearly distinguished from the sweord / mece "Hrunting" which fails Beowulf, and the "ealdsweord eotenisc" (ancient sword of giants) which he then resorts to weilding. Likewise Beowulf draws his "waelseax" (slaughter knife) against the dragon only after his sword has failed him. The latter instance is suggestive of wearing a seax together with a sword/mece, as a backup weapon, even though they almost never co-occur in Anglo-Saxon burials. Indeed that the generic "seax" is used to refer to non-sword heavy hacking weapons, despite also being the word for the smallest penknife, suggests that despite their "sword-like" nature the biggest war-seaxes were nevertheless regarded simply as big knives, not swords. This is supported by their metallurgy and structure - almost never comparable to the elite craftsmanship universal for sword blades. Indeed, the waelseax may have been popular not just because of its particular combat characteristics, but also precisely because it was less expensive to produce, and not subject to the same cultural baggage, taboos or restrictions that swords were.
- Finally, it has been commented that use of this word in poetry could entirely be a matter of poetic convenience - broadening possibilities for alliteration beyond the word "sword", and therefore, that nothing can be read into the use of the term with respect to actual weaponology. As discussed at the end of the article above, we do not suggest that the Beowulf poet is making a strict, typological distinction, but rather, is making poetic use of a range of terms which already existed in the lexicon, in order to be comprehensible to their audience. The alternative - that the term exists purely for poetic convenience, is to suggest that the Beowulf poet was in the business of inventing nonsense terms to plug gaps in the alliteration and metre, which is not plausible, especially as this word occurs repeatedly, shows up in other texts, and can be traced etymologically to earlier precedents in other language zones. While many other terms used for sword are euphemistic or figurative, mēċe is used exclusively to refer to swords; the frequent use of both mēċe and sweord in Beowulf is evidence of both terms having been familiar in the time of its composition, and it is by no means certain, but nevertheless plausible that this might be underpinned by some differentiation in meaning.
Brunning, Susan Elaine. The ‘living’ sword in early medieval northern Europe: An interdisciplinary study. Diss. UCL (University College London), 2013.
Fern, Chris, Tania Dickinson, and Leslie Webster. The Staffordshire Hoard. An Anglo-Saxon Treasure. Society of Antiquaries of London, 2019.
Larrington, Carolyne, ed. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press. 2014.
Mortimer, Paul, and Matt Bunker, eds. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: From the 5th to 7th Century. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2019.
Oakeshott, R. Ewart. The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armor from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry. Courier Corporation, 1996.
Thompson, Logan. Ancient weapons in Britain. Pen and Sword, 2005.