Join Date: Feb 2019
Location: Bay Area
I just read through the Feuerbach article, and I have some concerns with it. But I am also intrigued by it. We can do no more than speculate about many of the details of this time period, and Feuerbach’s speculation is a fun one!
For the concerns:
First, most of her articles are about crucible and Damascus steel from central Asia. So she might be biased towards seeing central Asian steel? She strongly cites A. Williams for finding that all of his Group A designated Ulfberhts were made of crucible steel. However, Williams research found that 9 of the 14 swords in Group A had at least some high carbon hypereutectoid steel and therefore are likely crucible steel, and the remaining 5 could be crucible steel, though of lower carbon content. A sample size of 14 may also not be statistically relevant for extrapolating to the chemistry of the steel for all Ulfberhts of a certain period. Williams also notes in “Crucible Steel in Medieval Swords,” that other researchers suspect that lumps of high carbon steel from Viking Age steelmaking sites found far west of Central Asia were the result of decarburizing cast iron, though he believes they are the result of smiths not properly handling crucible steel. It seems that there is a lot of research left to do! Maybe it was crucible steel? Or some of it was? And where were those swords forged?
Second, Harald Fairhair is semi-mythical. There is also no contemporary evidence of the existence of a Norwegian king named Haakon the Good though there is contemporary evidence of his brother. It seems that the English chroniclers would have been eager to record that Aethelstan had fostered a Norwegian king? I’m not sure it’s responsible to conclude as strongly as the article does that Haakon the Good commissioned the early Ulfberhts, and that “+Ulfberh+t” is a hybrid pagan-Christian symbol born of a king whose Catholicism may have been an invention of much later chroniclers. There is also not good evidence that berserkers fought naked, and I’m not sure that identification of your own side in battle would be a strong factor. Though a prominent Ulfberht inlay could be a powerful symbol of the wielder’s prestige and their sword’s quality. And we think that Viking Age Scandinavians believed that the written word, when executed properly, possessed and conferred magical qualities.
There is also the chronological problem of the earliest Ulfberht’s with Mannheim hilts dating from the mid-8th to mid-9th century, and Haakon the Good, if he existed, was born circa 920 AD.
In summary of my concerns: she is less cautious about her conclusions than the evidence suggests she should be. Anne Stalsberg’s article on Ulfberhts, by contrast, is a more academic exercise in asking the questions we don’t know while only answering what we do and can know.
Where I am intrigued (mostly where Feuerbach and Stalsberg overlap):
Stalsberg writes that Ulfberht, and, especially, the consistency of the spelling of the Ulfberht swords she examined over the mid-8th through late-11th century is linguistically Scandinavian. Scandinavians had dropped the ‘W’ around 800, to when the Ulfberhts are first dated. Whereas, variations on Ulfberht were more common in the Frankish realms until the end of the 11th century, including Wolfbert, Wolfbertus, Uolfberht, Uolfbernt, Uolfbernus, etc. So maybe the word on the blades, as argued by Feuerbach, had a Scandinavian source rather than a Frankish source.
However, Stalsberg also writes that the inlay is written in Latin/Carolingian characters which suggests that it was a Frank who was inlaying, or directing the inlaying of, the blades.
Stalsberg does not look at the Greek cross as a symbol of Christianity. She also seems to take it for granted that Ulfberht is someone’s name, which could be a mistake. Instead, she asks who was literate and signed their name preceded by a cross? Abbots and bishops. And these bishops and abbots employed a lot of slaves who would be doing the actual smithing. She also suspects that the second cross may indicate a second person, likely the overseer or “swordmaster,” who either had the same name as Ulfberht, or was just represented by the second cross (E.g., Ulfberht & Ulfberht, or Ulfberht & Son(s)). She is careful to write that she can’t conclude that it is the signature of an abbot or bishop because no contemporary abbots or bishops with that name have yet been found.
Ulfberhts are traditionally (What can I say? I’m an American; 100 years makes something “traditional”) believed to have come from the Lower Rhine due to the finding of the name Wulfberti in the bequest of a villa to the abbey St. Gallen in 802 AD. But Stalsberg writes that there is a need for an academic analysis of the Confraternity books of the abbeys of the Lower Rhine to find out whether there were abbots or bishops or other people named Ulfberht associated with abbeys to draw a more conclusive connection between the Ulfberht blades and abbeys of the Lower Rhine.
Stalsberg’s maps show that most of the early and mid-Viking Age Ulfberhts have been found in Norway and not in the Frankish realms. Ulfberhts from the late Viking Age are more evenly found across Northern Europe. It is unlikely that a Frankish smith could be commissioned to make the blades for Haakon or that they could have been traded for, as analyzed by both Stalsberg and Feuerbach. Frankish sword blades were not for traders; they were to be paid as tax to the king/emperor or to be used to arm the Bishops’s levies in service of the king/emperor. Feuerbach and Williams write that they could have been forged by Baltic smiths at the terminus of the central Asian trade, which was certainly robust as that time. Stalsberg suggests that they likely arrived as either loot or as a ransom payment for bishops and abbots, but that we just don’t know yet.
If Haakon indeed existed, then he had a long reign for a Norwegian king! This supports the idea that he could have been alive long enough for the mass production of a blade with a specific signature. But, again, Ulfberhts pre-date Haakon.
Preserved Viking Age Scandinavian art is mostly in the form of metal work which is not delicate enough to reveal blade decorations. European Viking Age art is not really interested in swords. Anglo-Saxons weren’t very interested in portraying swords in art until the later Viking Age, and there are very few, if any, other than the following, examples portraying blade decorations. However, there is one piece of Anglo-Saxon art in a miscellaneous manuscript that could be an Ulfberht sword, and I attached a photo here.
This appearance in a manuscript suggests that there could have been general knowledge about what a fine inlay like this meant in regards to the quality of both the sword and the man who wielded it. But it is also, again, a limited sample size. I wanted to write that it meant we could draw the conclusion that the Ulfberht symbol was at least widely regarded amongst the warrior and authority classes as a symbol of quality and prestige, but I think we can only draw the conclusion that maybe it was regarded as such.
Some Speculation Incorporating Feuerbach
I wonder if there was an early abbot named Ulfberht? Haakon, or someone similar, owned a sword, maybe a valued ancestral sword that was one of these Ulfberhts. His Ulfberht fascinated him because of its beautiful iron inlay, powerful magic from the runes and its history of having been wielded by powerful ancestors, and Ulfberht, as read to him by one his Frankish slaves, was a homonym with beasts important to Norse paganism, plus it had a cross, a powerful symbol of the southerners’ god who sacrificed himself to himself, similar to Odin.
He commissioned many Ulfberhts after he got rid of his brother. Some of the swords he gave to his sword host were made from crucible steel in the Baltics, some were partially made from crucible steel, some were made from bloomery steel, and some were older swords. The Ulfberht sword then proliferated across northern Europe in the late 10th and early 11th century as Scandinavians saw greater use as mercenaries and particularly with Cnut’s considerable empire.