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Old 17th September 2011, 06:54 PM   #1
Samik
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Default Headsman's sword from Levoča - possible conversion?

Greetings gentlemen !

A friend of mine asked me about this particular piece from Levoča (Slovakia). According to the local museum staff the sword is an executioner's weapon. My acquaintance handled the sword himself (he does a bit of hema) and remarked that for an executioner's weapon its relatively swift and has somewhat conspicuously long cross-guard and handle. He proposed that it might have even originally been a training weapon for fencing - perhaps later converted for a headsman's sword... He would greatly appreciate your knowledgeable insight

What do you think?


Pictures:


http://imageshack.us/f/690/levocasword1.jpg


http://imageshack.us/f/16/levocasword2.jpg/

Cheers and best wishes,
Samuel
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Old 17th September 2011, 08:55 PM   #2
Matchlock
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Hi Samuel,

You are definitely right, this is an executioner's sword of ca. 1680 although the hilt conveys quite an early impression.
I guess the leather was meant to be a blood guard for the executioner's hands.

I reworked the photos and post them here.

Best,
Michael
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Old 18th September 2011, 03:29 PM   #3
Dmitry
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This is a bearing sword for religious and court processions. The leather flap is quite typical of these swords. A sword like this was carried point up, the leather flap would cover the bearer's hand/hands, and examples are sometimes seen with studded or embroidered decorations. See if there is anything on the other side of the flaps. I can't be sure, but it appears that this example had the decorations removed some time in the past. You can see the holes in leather, where some type of decoration was affixed.
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Old 18th September 2011, 10:38 PM   #4
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As far as I can see, I would agree with Michael. I've never heard of cutting the blade tip on ceremonial swords (ahh, forgot the exact term, meaning literally "sword which is to be held"), but that was common practice for an executional swords.

Also, I've seen several swords meant for military use with similar thing on a guard (which is actually meant to prevent the occasional water from going inside the scabbard, for example, during the rain), but on all of them it was considerably smaller and made as aт original part of guard, not as a crude later addition which would be quite reasonable in case of an executioner's tool, fashioned from an old sword.
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Old 19th September 2011, 03:21 AM   #5
Jim McDougall
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These two hand swords are often referred to as executioners swords, however in most cases they were indeed bearing or processional swords borne before the ruling magistrates of principalities. It seems these are mostly of German make, though they are if course known through much of Europe. In my experience they are often termed the 'sword of justice' and as such characteristically often are inscribed with macabre symbols of death or execution such as gallows, "breaking)wheel, and devotional phrases for the soul of those about to be punished.
In the words of Peter Finer in 2003, "...they were not, as popularly thought, used for execution, but were carried upright before a lord or a prince as a symbol of his power as a lawgiver".
Along with the motif on most blades, the tips were seemingly always rebated or squared, and many have three pierced holes at the tip, signifying calvary and the atonement for sins as I have understood in research.

While typically these were in effect ceremonial, they were quite functional and certainly used in many recorded cases. It is known that the covert organizations of 'Free Judges' in Vehmic courts in Westphalian regions in Germany had such swords, and again these were primarily symbols of power showing authority to those called to the courts.

Regarding the leather cover, the 'rain guards' often secured as flaps over the crossguard center in many arming swords and rapiers of medieval times were quite small relative to this element. I am inclined to agree that this large leather boot or flap is likely to be an embellishment to display a cypher or element of regalia pertaining to the figure being represented by the sword, and more visible as the sword is being held upright (as typical presentation posture for a sword).

The grim business of execution by the sword when actually practiced was quite contrary to the depictions in movies and popular literature, and often more of a travesty than the suggested merciful quick business in those tales.

It is interesting that this sword does not seem to have the typically presumed symbols, passages on the blade, but does well suit the image of a bearing, or processional sword. As noted, whether it may have served for its suggested purpose is its own secret, but it is possible.

There were a number of interesting discussions on these over the years.

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 19th September 2011, 11:55 AM   #6
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Thank you very much for your brilliant insight gentlemen! Is there any literature and/or iconography you could recommend to my colleague on the (somewhat obscure though nevertheless fascinating) subject ?

Much obliged,
Samuel
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Old 19th September 2011, 03:49 PM   #7
Jim McDougall
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Samuel, it is a grim but indeed most intriguing topic. I am glad to answer your request by sharing references from misc. notes on this over the past 7 or 8 years, and I found that by using the search feature here on this forum...if you pull up "European Executioner Sword" (12/10/06) you will see an extensive discussion that took place back then.
In retrieving my notes and reviewing that thread I found some additional information your colleague might find useful.
It was suggested that actual executioner swords had lenticular section blades contrary to the lozenge type of true combat weapons. These also were inclined to have the balance toward the tip, thus making them quite unsuitable for actual combat. Apparantly in literature there were some cases of writers suggesting that headsmen also used thier swords in combat, which by this note was patently incorrect.
Apparantly among European executioners with the sword, the French were the most proficient, and the Sanson family most renowned having some seven generations in this macabre profession. The only instance of a sword being used in England for execution was that of Anne Boleyn (1536) by her request, and for this the headsman was brought from France. The sword used as a 'bearing sword' in England from the time of Henry III was named 'Curtana' (=cut short) and had the squared tip. Termed 'sword of mercy' it was not used for executions.

As mentioned, while France apparantly was known for proficiency, the swords themselves are typically found to be of German make.

For your convenience, the best references are as follows:

"European Arms and Armour" Claude Blair, #82 (Tower of London item IX875)
a German example c.1600

"Torture and Punishment" (Royal Armouries publ. p.19)

"Encyclopedia of Arms and Armour" Tarussul & Blair p.51

"Swords, Daggers and Cutlasses" G. Weyland, p.26

"Cut and Thrust Weapons" E. Wagner, Prague, 1967, plate 34
and associated text (cross referenced)

"Wallace Collection , European Arms and Armour" Sir James Mann, 1962
A721 c.1540 German
A722 c.1561 German
A723 c.1610
A724 c.1620 Hungarian?
pp.367-369

"Capital Punishment" David Padfield, 2004

"Edged Weapons" Frederick Wilkinson, 1970, p.19, 25 fig. 14 by Johannes Wundes, Solingone, also fig.21

In Germany, contact:
Kriminalmuseum
D-9154 Rothenburg
Burgasse 3-5 Germany

info@kriminalmuseum.rothenburg.de

For information on the "Vehmic Courts" which were technically 'League of the Holy Court Vehmgericht (Vehm)" use the following course.
These were secret tribunals of Westphalia from the time of the Middle Ages, apparantly principally seated in Dortmund. As mentioned, these 'Free Judges' were represented in many principalities in Germany and may have used such swords as symbols of authority, including orders of execution. Symbolism seen on these blades often used the letters 'S S' (=sacrificum sanctum)
three crosses (of atonement, Luke23:32-33) and other of previously noted symbols.

Hopefully these details and references might offer a benchmark for your colleague to continue research on the interesting weapon you have posted and possibly associated material.

All the best,
Jim
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Old 19th September 2011, 06:24 PM   #8
fernando
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How long would this blade be? It seems unproportional to the grip, whatever purpose it might have. Justice (execution) swords would have a blade average length of 90 cms, width 7 cms., so i learned.
This type of grip is not uncommon; you can (at least) see similar ones in the Switz Landesmuseum, in XVII century examples, said to be of Zurich origin ... rather than 'more popular' German.
One amazing detail is that, probably for esthetic reasons, the smiths make these swords with quillons and even parrying guards, something rationally unnecessary for their job function.
The fullers on the blade are also rather uncommon, but they do appear sometimes; the German one in the Oporto Military Museum has two deep wide grooves.
Perhaps this is a setup, the blade having been reworked; no tip for a processional style and no length for a swinging executioner.
It is easy to assimilate that the leather protection once had some badge or insignia.
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Old 23rd September 2011, 03:15 PM   #9
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Big thanks to Jim for his numerous references and Fernando for his insight !
My colleague sends his regards and I firmly believe your replies will guide him on the right track in his research

Again much obliged everybody - we appreciate your help immensely.

With kind regards,
Samuel
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Old 23rd September 2011, 05:25 PM   #10
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You are most welcome Samuel ! It was interesting to revisit this seldom discussed topic. May we ask to know of your colleagues progress and to also hear of any new findings? It would be great to add to our own notes here.

All the very best,
Jim
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Old 23rd September 2011, 06:07 PM   #11
fernando
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Samik
Big thanks to Jim for his numerous references and Fernando for his insight ! ... l


Oh nothing really categorical from my end; just guesses and hints. Others were more sure of what they were saying .
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