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Old 11th October 2010, 08:45 PM   #1
Mauro
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Default Renaissance executioner sword from Germany

Some months ago I bought this German exectioner sword that probably was made in the XVII century. The blade is in good conditions and still very sharp. It has many engravings. A justice wheel and a hang bar inlaid with copper, the cross over skull, "IHS". At both sides of the blade there is an inscription: IN DIESER STUNDE// GOTT STEARKHE MICH: IN THIS HOUR//GOD STRENGT ME. It has a maker mark in shape of a animal, apparently a dog (?). Also engraved 2 court of arms at both sides of the blade and I shall be happy if somebody knows to which family it belong. At both sides of the perry pole iron cutted crosses ! The blade has also overall nice pitting. The complete length is ca. 113 cm (44,5 inches). Width of the blade: around ca. 4,8 cm (1,9 inches). Any additional information and comment is welcome. Is anybody able to explain the use of the three holes at the end of the blade. A feiedn told me wwere used to add weight but it is not clear how they did.
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Old 11th October 2010, 09:53 PM   #2
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Spectacular. Best I've seen in private hands.
Not sure about leaning it on a skull though, thats a bit macabre.
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Old 11th October 2010, 10:03 PM   #3
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these photos were made by the previous owner. He received the sword from an uncle that also had the skull in his collection !!
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Old 11th October 2010, 10:53 PM   #4
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Hi Mauro,
Excelent condition.
These swords often have one hole in the blade tip, which is used for hanging them.
I wouldn't know what the purpose is, when they have three holes .
... but hardly for adding weight, i would say
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Old 11th October 2010, 11:51 PM   #5
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Wow! Now that's somethin'!
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Old 12th October 2010, 12:40 AM   #6
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The sword in saltire was perhaps a symbol of his office, I cannot recognize the crown. At first glance a marquee hat comes to my mind.

Very interesting on the other side is the coat-of-arms of Saxony (barry of ten or and sable a crown of rue) at first look, but again after counting the horizontal bars on the shield it has only eight. Such shield I have seen on the Lords of Kuenring (a bastard line of the Duke of Saxony). Maybe the reason the crown (hat) is not Ducal.

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Old 12th October 2010, 10:24 AM   #7
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The three holes near the tip of the blade are of course not for making the piece lighter by 2-3 grams (!) but are the last Baroque decorative element of the older Gothic trefoil (Dreipass).

This of course is no longer a Renaissance sword as that epoque ended in the early 17th century. It is of High Baroque type (2nd half 17th c.).
Best,
Michael
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Old 12th October 2010, 03:20 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Matchlock
The three holes near the tip of the blade are of course not for making the piece lighter by 2-3 grams (!) but are the last Baroque decorative element of the older Gothic trefoil (Dreipass).

This of course is no longer a Renaissance sword as that epoque ended in the early 17th century. It is of High Baroque type (2nd half 17th c.).
Best,
Michael


The three holes are supposedly not for removing but rather adding weight by attaching two pieces of steel via nuts or rivets. This is probably an urban myth, the reason is purely decorative and religious, a trefoil indeed. However not all beheading swords of this type have the three holes. I can think of a secondary benefit created by the holes: a sinister whistle while the blade spins rapidly in mid air... Unlike the axe, the motion was paralell to the ground and the executioner had to build up speed with 2-3 free spins, before the death blow was struck.
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Old 12th October 2010, 03:25 PM   #9
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Exactly, broadaxe!

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Old 12th October 2010, 09:54 PM   #10
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Many thanks to all of you for these very interesting informations. I am always surprised from the many simbols are hidden in an old sword. I enlarged the photos of the shield and I can note that the horizontal bars are surely 9. I checked the coat of arms of Saxony in wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Saxony) and it has 9 stripes so many many thanks. One of the coat of arm seems surely Saxony. I don't know the meaning of the other but I shall continue to search in that direction.
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Old 13th October 2010, 01:33 PM   #11
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Looking into wikipedia trying to follow the coats of arms of Saxony I found a coat of arms that could represent the second shield. It is made of two sword crossed. “The lower right fourth quarter shows in sable and argent the electoral swords (Kurschwerter) in gules, indicating the Saxon office as Imperial Arch-Marshal (German:Erzmarschall, Latin:Archimarescallus), pertaining to the Saxon privilege as prince-elector, besides the right to elect a new emperor after the decease of the former. The Lauenburg branch duchy adopted this coat-of-arms, used before by the other brach duchy Saxe-Wittenberg until its extinction in 1422, in order to enforce its failed claim to succession in Saxe-Wittenberg.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sachsen-Lauenburg.PNG
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Old 14th October 2010, 06:51 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mauro
Many thanks to all of you for these very interesting informations. I am always surprised from the many simbols are hidden in an old sword. I enlarged the photos of the shield and I can note that the horizontal bars are surely 9. I checked the coat of arms of Saxony in wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Saxony) and it has 9 stripes so many many thanks. One of the coat of arm seems surely Saxony. I don't know the meaning of the other but I shall continue to search in that direction.



Hi Mauro, All Saxon coat of arms are always barry of 10 Sable (black) and Or (gold)...regardless of branch, or period from duchy, Kingdom until it became a state. The coat of arms on your sword I noticed has barry of 8 (8 bars horizontal). This interests me since such shield are used by the Lords of Kuenring. If you can wikipedia the coat of arms of the Princes of Liechtenstein you will notice on the 2nd quarter a similar shield with 8 bars of yellow and black. This signify their Kuenring ancestry. No conclusion on my part but just an observation.
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Old 14th October 2010, 10:09 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Reichsritter
Hi Mauro, All Saxon coat of arms are always barry of 10 Sable (black) and Or (gold)...regardless of branch, or period from duchy, Kingdom until it became a state. The coat of arms on your sword I noticed has barry of 8 (8 bars horizontal). This interests me since such shield are used by the Lords of Kuenring. If you can wikipedia the coat of arms of the Princes of Liechtenstein you will notice on the 2nd quarter a similar shield with 8 bars of yellow and black. This signify their Kuenring ancestry. No conclusion on my part but just an observation.


Thanks Reichsritter, I understood and I agree. What do you think of the second coat of arm ? It could be the swords in the Sachsen-Lauenburg coat of arms ? thanks Mauro
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Old 14th October 2010, 10:47 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mauro
Thanks Reichsritter, I understood and I agree. What do you think of the second coat of arm ? It could be the swords in the Sachsen-Lauenburg coat of arms ? thanks Mauro



It is my guess as I mention on early post that the shield per fess (horizontal partition) swords in saltire (crossed) was a symbol of office. Yes it could be, the two shields are similar.

Well, I am not in authority to say that your sword was once in the service of the Saxon Lords ;-)
I'm still trying to figure out the cap/ crown on top of the shield. Damn, now I'll have to pull something in deep storage and dust some books !
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Old 5th April 2011, 05:48 PM   #15
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Default The three holes in the tip of some execution swords

Greetings.
I am new here and I collect and have researched execution swords for some time.
I read here with interest, (as I have also read elsewhere on the www), people wondering what the three holes that sometimes appear in the tips of execution swords are for.
While some dealers of such weapons and even some authors have mistakenly stated that these three holes were for the attachment of extra weights to give the executioner a more powerful swing, this is not the case at all.
The actual reason this was done on some execution swords was because of a superstitious belief that had nothing at all to do with function. In boring such holes through the tip of the blade it was believed that some of the evil energy stored in the blade from beheading so many bad people would be allowed to escape from the sword and thus render the weapon easier for the executioner to “control.”
While in modern times we would look upon any sword as a common object or a tool, executioner’s swords in medieval times were believed to possess a “killing soul” of sorts that was always thirsty for human blood. It was believed that only the executioner had the power to control the sword’s desire for killing and that it essentially had a mind of its own.
This supernatural power and the executioner’s ability to control it were very important.
There is at least one case on record of an executioner putting a large group of prisoners to death in a single session. When the local justice officials suggested that the remaining executions be halted and continued the next day the executioner claimed that he was not in the least bit tired and could go on beheading prisoners all day. He then made the grave mistake of claiming that he would in fact have no trouble beheading every single person in attendance, including the local justice officials. This boast terrified the populace and they in turn had the executioner put to death because they now believed him to be possessed by the evil spirit of his execution sword and utterly helpless to curb its desire for blood.
In addition to possessing an inherently murderous spirit, old execution swords were also believed to provide protection for those about to go into battle. Coveted by early warriors, old execution swords that had taken many lives often had their blades cut into small triangles of metal which were then sewn into the clothing of a knight. In doing this, it was thought that the power of a sword which had killed many people would transfer its energy and protective powers to the warrior and keep him safe in battle.

I hope this information may be of some help.

Cheers, Steve
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Old 6th April 2011, 03:36 AM   #16
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Welcome Steve!
Its great to have you joining us, and thank you for bringing up this thread with this fascinating information. While this topic is of course macabre, it is indeed intriguing and has entered into discussions a number of times through the years.

The points you bring up about the weapon itself in a metaphysical sense is something that does come up with them in many cultures, and there were many superstitions concerning them during Medieval times also. The three dots have been an anomaly that seems to have drawn a number of ideas as seen in posts here.

While the number three is of course well known also in symbolism of many areas, with its association to the Holy Trinity significant to Christianity, I have been under the impression that three crosses signify Calvary and the Crucifixion. I am wondering if perhaps the three holes in this case, which seem to have one elevated, flanked by two others might mean the same on these sword tips. Execution swords seem to often have inscriptions and themes of devotional nature and for the redemption of the sinner, and rather the absolution of the executioner for carrying out this duty.

On one German example 17th century is inscribed;
"...when I raise this sword I wish the sinner everlasting life.
The Lords judge evil and I execute thier judgement".
"Torture and Punishment" publ. by
Royal Armouries, p.19

At the Crucifixion, the two criminals executed alongside Jesus, with one repenting, the other mocking him. Perhaps the significance of either turn might be the significance for Calvary's three at the end of the blade, and the resolution will be at the moment of truth.

There is of course a certain credence to the idea of lore that pertains to piercings and apertures in blades that followed beliefs that might seem strange to us today, such as the idea of dispelling evil from the tainted weapon. In these times there were superstitions that pieces of wood from the tortuous breaking wheel that killed a criminal had talismanic properties when added to weapons. It was once believed that holes placed in blades would allow air into wounds causing death, and other grim ideas abound in others.

Since most of these 'executioner swords' became in actuality bearing swords signifying the authority of life and death of the personage in power in various principalities or states, it would seem that much of the symbolism was vestigial. It seems hard to say what the holes original purpose was, but the noise making idea seems quite plausible from a pragmatic view.

Again thank you for writing here!! I hope you will share more on your weapons and tell us more on them. The research you have done is fascinating and give great perspective on these.

All the best,

Jim
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Old 6th April 2011, 02:20 PM   #17
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Default Thank you

For the kind words and welcome Jim!

I myself have just finished authoring a book called, "The Catalog of Cruelty: An Illustrated Collection of Ancient Restraints and Instruments of Torture and Execution."

In doing research for the book I travelled to Germany and Switzerland and while in Switzerland I stayed with my good friend and fellow collector/historian Mr. Guido Varesi. Guido owns and curates a small but very impressive private museum called "The Henkermuseum" (Hangman's Museum) in Sissach, Switzerland.

Guido has what has to be one of the finest collection of authentic medieval period execution swords in private hands in most of Europe and I was afforded the chance to not only study and handle them but also to learn many of the little known superstitions associated with such "tools of the trade."

Of particular interest to me were also the commonly held beliefs concerning the executioner himself. He was feared, a social outcast who could not live in the village proper, and yet he fulfilled an appointed position in the legal system of the time and provded a much needed service.

I found it very interesting that following the death of the executioner, and if no replacement could be found, (this would be hard to do because almost no one wanted to be the executioner and become a social outcast), the local justice officials would sometimes place an execution sword on the floor of the local courtroom and invite males into the room. The first one to pick up the sword that happened to by laying on the ground was crowned the executioner!

A pretty underhanded way to give an unknowing soul a poor job but it did happen!

As for the 3 holes in the tip having been installed to give the sword a more sinister sound as it sliced through the air, I do not agree this was the reason for thier placement. I say this because during my travels I had the chance to swing many an execution sword and I did not hear any differing sound when doing so.

For this reason I think it is more likely that the holes were for the draining of the "bad energy" the sword had accumulated via many beheadings. It is also likely that the holes were three in number to denote or represent the holy trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and this bless the accursed tool of death.

Once again, thank you for the very warm welcome!

Cheers, Steve
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Old 6th April 2011, 02:27 PM   #18
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Default One more thing of interest

Concerning execution swords.

Mr. Varesi in Sissach believes that it was the execution swords with very few, or perhaps not any, engravings on the blades that were used the most for actual executions.

He believes that the justice swords with the most elaborate engravings were most likely used in a ceremonial format such as when pronouncing sentence, etc.

I have two execution swords in my collection that bear no engravings or marks on the blades at all yet there is no doubt they were used for beheadings.

Another school of thought is that once a sword had killed many people or when the executioner had died the sword itself was retired from killing. It was at this point that additional engravings were added to the blade to make the sword a more ceremonial justice tool instead of a killing one.

Cheers, Steve
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Old 6th April 2011, 04:14 PM   #19
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Hi Steve,
Thank you so much for the response and for adding this intriguing detail on this extremely esoteric topic. Congratulations on the book you have authored! This topic,as well can be imagined, has been little attended to in most reference material concerning weaponry and general history. It sounds as if you have done some definitive research and I am personally looking forward to learning more on this, has the book been published yet?

I am very much inclined to agree with you on the placement of the three holes, and it would seem that if noise making were the purpose, there would have been variations in shape or number, much as in strategically placed designs for this purpose.
The tremendous forces of superstition and religious beliefs were well established among the general populus in medieval times and into the 18th century. What we know today as popular folklore was profoundly believed dogma in those times, and with anything as dramatic as this kind of an instrument of death, these applications seem well placed.

Interestingly, I have seen a native execution sword from Cameroon which was of course, probably 19th century or even later, but which had the three holes at the tip of the blade. There have been blades in other African context which appear to have been trade blades in Saharan regions which had markings reflecting similar on some of these 'swords of justice'. I always wonder if perhaps colonial influence might have passed on these kinds of details into native culture.

Also, on another thread with a medieval sword with a very old blade, there were markings which resemble those seen on swords used by the 'Free Judges' of the Vehdic courts, usually associated with Westphalia. Were these tribunals actually responsible for executions using these swords, or were these simply bearing swords representing authority as I have understood ?

All the very best,
Jim
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Old 6th April 2011, 05:18 PM   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JUSTICESWORDS
For the kind words and welcome Jim!

I myself have just finished authoring a book called, "The Catalog of Cruelty: An Illustrated Collection of Ancient Restraints and Instruments of Torture and Execution."

In doing research for the book I travelled to Germany and Switzerland and while in Switzerland I stayed with my good friend and fellow collector/historian Mr. Guido Varesi. Guido owns and curates a small but very impressive private museum called "The Henkermuseum" (Hangman's Museum) in Sissach, Switzerland.

Guido has what has to be one of the finest collection of authentic medieval period execution swords in private hands in most of Europe and I was afforded the chance to not only study and handle them but also to learn many of the little known superstitions associated with such "tools of the trade."

Of particular interest to me were also the commonly held beliefs concerning the executioner himself. He was feared, a social outcast who could not live in the village proper, and yet he fulfilled an appointed position in the legal system of the time and provded a much needed service.

I found it very interesting that following the death of the executioner, and if no replacement could be found, (this would be hard to do because almost no one wanted to be the executioner and become a social outcast), the local justice officials would sometimes place an execution sword on the floor of the local courtroom and invite males into the room. The first one to pick up the sword that happened to by laying on the ground was crowned the executioner!

A pretty underhanded way to give an unknowing soul a poor job but it did happen!

As for the 3 holes in the tip having been installed to give the sword a more sinister sound as it sliced through the air, I do not agree this was the reason for thier placement. I say this because during my travels I had the chance to swing many an execution sword and I did not hear any differing sound when doing so.

For this reason I think it is more likely that the holes were for the draining of the "bad energy" the sword had accumulated via many beheadings. It is also likely that the holes were three in number to denote or represent the holy trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and this bless the accursed tool of death.

Once again, thank you for the very warm welcome!

Cheers, Steve



Hi Steve,

I'll begin by echoing the welcome!

Interesting reading about the role of the executioner.
I find the 'random' nature f the choosing to be quite suprising. After all, beheading akneeing man with a two handed sword is a relatively skilled task.
well, it's a skilled task if you want it done 'cleanly'

Best
Gene
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Old 6th April 2011, 08:21 PM   #21
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Default Not always random

Hi Gene and thank you for the welcome.

Choosing the next local executioner was only random if the local justice officials could not find a family of executioners with a son needing a position.

Indeed, the "take up the sword" method was something of a last resort.

Because the local executioner was a social outcast, no one in the local district where he lived would marry him. If it was bad luck to even touch the executioner, as was believed, it was even worse to marry him. His bride would also become an outcast and so would his children.

So serious was this shunning that the local executioner had to raise his own livestock and make his own bread and cheese. No one in the village or town would trade goods or do business with him. This led many executioners to become something of a "poor man's doctor." Already with some understanding of anatomy due to the unusual nature of their job, many executioners were early herbal medicine healers and the poor, who could not afford medical treatment in the town or village, would, if they were brave enough, make a pilgrimage to the home of the executioner if they needed tending.

In regards to replacing an executioner who has died or was infirm, the local officials would first send notice to other districts that an executioner was needed. Even though it was bad luck to marry the executioner such tradesmen did in fact take wives and would often travel many miles to find another executioner who had been gifted with a daughter that they might marry to avoid the social stigma. Thus, many execution families inter married and although not an offical "guild", they were, by neccesity, a tight knit group.

Of course, in a perfect world, the offspring of the executioner and his wife would be male and then would of course grow up to also follow the trade in large part owing to the fact that no one else would employ them to do anything else.

In answer to an earlier inquiry, yes, my new book, "The Catalog of Cruelty" will be in print and officially published within the next ten days.

Cheers, Steve
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Old 7th April 2011, 03:10 PM   #22
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Hi Steve,

welcome to the forum, also because there is little knowledge of these type of swords, I certainly do not.

I have heard two myths about these swords;
- after a certain number of deaths the sword was thrown into a river because people were afraid that the lust for blood of the sword would be unstoppable.
- executioner swords were never engraved with the name and place(town) of the executioner, but........ there are examples known ?

'm curious about your opinion.

Regards from Holland,
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Old 7th April 2011, 08:51 PM   #23
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Hi Steve,

And welcome here!

Jasper, engraved symbols (gallows and Catherine/breaking wheel) were very common on such blades.


See attachments, from top:

- woodcut of a decapitation, early 16th c.

- various torture and execution styles, 1509

- various torture and execution styles, mid-16th c.

- marker at a historic South Bavarian place of execution, Aholming, early 16th c.

- three Swyss executioners swords, 16th to 19th c.

- 3 details of them

- sword, 17th c.

- sword, ca,. 1530, inscription 18th c.
- detail

- sword, 17th c., Mus. Aholming, Bavaria

- 4 details of 17th c. swords in the Museum Erfurt, Thuringia



Enjoy, and best,
Michael
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Old 7th April 2011, 09:13 PM   #24
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- 4 details of a 17th c. executioners sword and a few hewn off delinquents' hands, Museum Erfurt, Thuringia

- a breaking wheel with heavy iron blade, 17th-18th c.
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Old 7th April 2011, 09:21 PM   #25
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Hi there,

One basic thought for discussion.

Actually I have never quite understood why executioners swords are generally ranked among weapons. Strictly speaking, they are tools of justice, after all ...

Best,
Michael
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Old 7th April 2011, 09:22 PM   #26
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Let's hope the package is now complete !!
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Old 8th April 2011, 12:32 AM   #27
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Default Swords bearing names, etc.

Known examples of justice swords bearing the name of the executioner who owned/used the sword do exist.

The same goes for select execution axes.

But it is not common.

I have not seen any research that proves used justice swords were thrown into a river to put an end to the sword's thirst for human blood.

In fact, I am inclined to believe the following:

1) The swords actually used for beheadings bore fewer engraved symbols than is commonly believed. Usually just the wheel image and perhaps a simple engraved saying. Th executioner was a poor tradesman who was payed a very meager wage. He likely would not have had the spare funds to be able to hire a master swordsmith to engrave his weapon with anything more than the basic elements he felt he needed.

2) That once a beheading sword was "decommisioned" it was then that the 3 holes were bored into it's tip to release the pent up bad energy of the evil people it had killed, and,

3) Once decomissioned and used for ceremonial pursposes it was then that images of the Lady Justice figure and other more elaborate engravings were added to the blade.

I should state that the above 3 points are merely theories of mine but they do seem logical.

Of course, many things about these curious tools are lost to time and all we have to work with are examples to compare as well as written information from the time period to base our theories upon.

Oh yes, and perhaps the most important ingredient of all... good old fashioned common sense!

Cheers, Steve
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Old 8th April 2011, 03:12 PM   #28
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Hi Steve,

Oh yeah, there are so many sayings about justice and beheading swords ...

We should keep in mind that they are not the same. Justice swords were just symbols of justice and had no practical use.

Also, the three holes sometimes found in the tips of beheading swords are just a stylistic decorative relict of the Gothic period when they were used as the utmost simplification of the trefoil (Dreipass) ornament. In traditionally made tools the obsolete Gothic style lived on thru the periods, over the 18th to the 19th c. when the Neo-Gothic style reenlivened those traditional forms. We also find the trefoil decoration on many later axe heads, first drilled and in later times just punched.

Best,
Michael

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