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Old 13th January 2018, 12:54 AM   #1
Madnumforce
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Default Help to identify a machete-falchion-billhook thing

Hello there,

Since I know are very highly knowledgeable people round here, I would like to ask for your help. A while ago, I stumbled on Facebook by accident on a picture taken in an Italian museum of a thing that, I feel, is the actual "missing link" to explain were early falchions sprouted from. The museum it comes from is apparently the Museo Archeologico Nazionale della Siritide. I've tried sending a mail (in English) to a mail address given on what seems to be a branch of the Italian Ministry of Culture, it was in early december and I didn't get any reply. It could be an outdated mailing address, it could be an issue with English, it could be they lack time, it could be they just don't care, it could be pretty much anything. So I'm posting it here.

Of course, everyone can recognize, line for line, that this is just the exact shape of the Cluny falchion blade. But on the other hand, with its apparently thin and wide blade and full tang construction, technologically it's what we would today call a machete, and the word machete itself quite likely comes from machaera/machaira, which it seems Romans had adopted to a point, at least the word, but so far I have no meaningfull archeological or literary proof that it was falchion/machete like (it could have been pretty much any edged weapon that could have been called that way to sound classy).

But it is still linked with billhooks of the time because the "butt" of it is shaped like the "butt" of Roman billhooks of that era, as can be seen in the pictures (the first one is the famous Pompei billhook, the second one is from an exhibition at the Palazzo Massimo when he went on visit to Rome, knowing I am a die-hard billhook fan). That type of "butt", with both a hook for the little finger and a protrusion extending "backwards" would later evolve to become a common feature still seen on early 20th century Italian billhooks, as can be seen from that catalogue page (they call the hook the "gancio", but it has taken many shapes over time and with local diversity).

Actually, the butt of that machete-falchion-billhook is a transition between these old style Roman billhooks handles, and the more modern "gancio" type of handle. Bot the Roman billhooks seem to have a "half full tang", as was also still seen on many billhooks (my grand-grand-father who lived in the South of France had one with this type of tang, though the shape of the handle is much simpler and not specific)

The thing is that machete-falchion-billhook thing is quite alien to any typology, and it isn't even clear what it was: the shape of the butt, the machete-like construction have me say it is some kind of tool, a sort of machete actually, but it is exactly the shape of the Cluny falchion. It really seems to be transitional (both in the shape of the handle, between the Roman billhook and the more modern billhook, and as a general tool/weapon, bearing the construction of a billhook handle, but not really fit to be called a tool, and with the exact blade shape of a later dedicated weapon), but I have no dating, no provenance, nothing actually usable.

So, have you ever seen anything similar, read any period description it could fit, or have any actual bit of information of what this thing is, and when it was made.

Thanks for your consideration.

P.S.: you can see the Palazzo Massimo billhook and the roncola number 394 in the catalog are pretty much the same, except for the evolution of the tang and gancio. They are two thousand years apart.
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Last edited by Madnumforce : 13th January 2018 at 01:08 AM.
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Old 17th January 2018, 06:46 AM   #2
Philip
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Default etymology

Quote:
Originally Posted by Madnumforce
Hello there,



and the word machete itself quite likely comes from machaera/machaira, which it seems Romans had adopted to a point, at least the word, but so far I have no meaningfull archeological or literary proof that it was falchion/machete like (it could have been pretty much any edged weapon that could have been called that way to sound classy).
.


Somewhere along the way, I was led to believe that the term machaira was Greek and it referred to some sort of short sword, perhaps a version of the kopis ? The term falchion does seem to have come to us via the Latin falx (sickle, pruning hook, also a hook-like implement for pulling down fortifications under siege), and falcatus sickle-shaped or curved. The Romans applied the name falcata to the broad yataghan-shaped short swords of the Celtiberians; in modern Portuguese, the word for "knife" is faca. A version of the falcata was also used in classical times by the inhabitants of Corsica (around 6th cent. BC), and its hilt has an extended hook-like pommel that with little imagination can be regarded as a possible inspiration for the modern gancio. (see Coe, et al, Swords and Hilt Weapons (1989), illus. p 22 for an example)
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Old 17th January 2018, 07:06 AM   #3
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Default have you read this...

This has the potential of growing into an interesting discussion of the evolution of agricultural into military implements, a reversal of the "beating...spears into pruning hooks" process. Looking at the process from the standpoint of pole weapons, are you familiar with Arturo Puricella-Guerra's article, "The Glaive and the Bill: The evolution of farm tools into the most basic of pole arms", in Art, Arms, and Armour (ed. Robt Held, 1979), pp 3-11)? The author points out that the transition from the war scythe to the glaive (this process featuring the change from a concave to convex cutting edge but adhering to the essentially curved shape) occurred in the period 1200-1400. By the end of that period, the Italian and French forms had added a dorsal spike and the tip became more slender and attenuated to improve its thrusting capability, but in essence their blades still displayed a somewhat machete-like profile.
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Old 17th January 2018, 01:01 PM   #4
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The word "machaira"/"machaera" is indeed Greek in origin (μάχαιρα), and as far as I know it's still unclear what it referred to. From what I had read, it meant different things in different contexts in different periods, though it was always something edged. The Romans borrowed it from the Greeks, and though it seems also unclear what it referred to, it apparently was only used in a military context, so to refer to a weapon. I can't be absolutely certain the word "machete" derives from "machaira"/"machaera", but it's the best contestant so far. First, I literally found this etymology in a customs collection of South-West of France from the 17th century (it was used in a context where the machete was used as a weapon), and there basically is no other plausible etymology possible (I had looked in a Spanish etymology dictionary, and it was bullcrap: they claimed it was the contraction of "macho" (man/macho) and "hacheta" (hatchet)). If the English language recorded it as spelled "matchete", it's because in the South of France, the "ch" sound was often hard, and actually sounded "tch". It's not rare to find old French spelling "matchette", widely used in the 19th century.

As for the falc* radical, indeed it had a great linguistic productivity in romance languages. The word for scythe is falce in Italian and faux (old spelling faulx) in French. In France, there is a kind of stout scythe used to cut brambles and such called fauchon. Sickle it falciole in Italian and faucille in French. In Portuguese, the word for billhook is foice. There is also faca that you mention, and fação just came to mean "(large) knife", and thus is used to refer to machetes. Fação is the Portuguese sibling of the falchion/fauchon/falcione familly. So in Brazil today, machetes are called falchions. No wonder really: words and meanings used to be much more fluid even just centuries ago, since there was no centrally-organized mandatory schooling that could normalize and standardize language, and common language (not literary) was basically a juxtaposition of dialects that had evolved in a very complex fashion from what was left after the fall of the roman empire of the lingua franca that roman occupation, trade and administration, and christian religion, had gave rise to.

I'm not familiar with the book you mention, but I'm with the concept and fact. The scythe is the worst possible tool to make a weapon from, though. A scythe is really, really thin. Like, really. I've recently found a picture of a 3th century roman scythe excavated in the South of France, and though it isn't the same fixation method as modern scythes, it's the same kind of blade: not at all fit for military use. It is known and documented that scythes were converted into makeshift weapons but... eurk... they probably didn't last long. The agricultural pole billhook on the other hand is almost a ready to use weapon. Actually the spike on the back is a very common feature on pole billhooks.

The problem is that even I, as a billhook fanatic, have extreme trouble finding any archeological documentation about medieval billhooks of any kind. Archeologists regard them as almost worthless, and they are practically treated like scrap metal. For example, in the excavation I mentioned, two billhooks and three axe heads were found, we see them on the picture, but the INRAP, the institution that did the excavation, didn't even bother to publish detailed shots, while they took and published detailed shots of actual worthless crap like metal bands for reinforcing furniture and doors. This lack of interest archeologists have towards tools is crippling research in that field, because these simple everyday objects get zero attention from authors and chroniclers, and their depiction in art (miniatures and tapestry) is extremely rare, and most of the time only pertaining with vine-growing.

So while extreme care is taken in preserving polearms, and they're displayed in museums, etc, none is taken in preserving/promoting the tools from which they come from, and there is a lack of data. Well, Italians seem to do a poor job in general at international promotion, but that machete-billhook-falchion thing is extremely interesting, rare and noticeable, and should be much better known. I don't exactly know what it is, it may or it may not be a "missing link" between billhooks and falchions, but it certainly is something worth studying.
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Old 17th January 2018, 04:21 PM   #5
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Default functionality of scythes

Quote:
Originally Posted by Madnumforce

I'm not familiar with the book you mention, but I'm with the concept and fact. The scythe is the worst possible tool to make a weapon from, though. A scythe is really, really thin. Like, really. I've recently found a picture of a 3th century roman scythe excavated in the South of France, and though it isn't the same fixation method as modern scythes, it's the same kind of blade: not at all fit for military use. It is known and documented that scythes were converted into makeshift weapons but... eurk... they probably didn't last long.




A scythe blade has to be thin to be able to mow hay and grass efficiently; I've used them on occasion for this job and light weight is a virtue when you have to swing it for hours on end. The L-shaped reinforce at the spine also limits the depth of a cut into anything more substantial than the vegetation it was designed to cut. As you say, this doesn't translate into great utility as a military weapon. But consider for a moment who the likely users of scythe-cum-polearms were during the Middle Ages -- peasant levies who were conscripted into feudal armies as ad hoc auxiliaries. They were in large part not equipped by their masters and had to provide whatever they could use in battle. Admittedly, scythes had their shortcomings but mounted on a longish pole they had more reach than a shovel. And as far as durability goes, yes, the thin edge gets chewed up, but perhaps that wasn't a big deal considering that the men served on a short-term basis (they had to get back to the farm eventually to feed their families) and their survival rate in battle was not all that favorable anyway. And who might these guys face in the field with their scythes, forks, and billhooks? Probably the peasant levies and lowly foot-soldiers in the ranks of the other side, who wore little or nothing in the way of real armor.

Once the inherent thinness of an agricultural scythe is designed away, it becomes a quite effective thing. It's easy to see how a more robust version effective against human or equine opponents could be made by blacksmiths and from there began its evolution into something a regular soldier or a mercenary would find usable: the glaive. By the same process the pruning-hook morphed into the roncone or the bill.
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Old 17th January 2018, 05:41 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Philip
... As you say, this doesn't translate into great utility as a military weapon. But consider for a moment who the likely users of scythe-cum-polearms were during the Middle Ages -- peasant levies who were conscripted into feudal armies as ad hoc auxiliaries. They were in large part not equipped by their masters and had to provide whatever they could use in battle... the men served on a short-term basis (they had to get back to the farm eventually to feed their families) and their survival rate in battle was not all that favorable anyway. And who might these guys face in the field with their scythes, forks, and billhooks? Probably the peasant levies and lowly foot-soldiers in the ranks of the other side, who wore little or nothing in the way of real armor ...

So true Philip, so true. As so described and illustrated, for one, by Jorge Tavares, in his work GUERREIROS MEDIEVAIS PORTUGUESES (Peonagem).

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Old 17th January 2018, 07:26 PM   #7
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Red face May i digress a bit, Geoffroy

Quote:
Originally Posted by Madnumforce
...I can't be absolutely certain the word "machete" derives from "machaira"/"machaera", but it's the best contestant so far... (I had looked in a Spanish etymology dictionary, and it was bullcrap: they claimed it was the contraction of "macho" (man/macho) and "hacheta" (hatchet))...

It seems as, in a more serious Spanish theory (Corominas) a different acceptation of the term "macho" is given, as not being "male" (not man), but a large "mazzo" (mallet), thus with a distinct approach. If you find the time or disposition to have this article translated, you will most probably find it interesting:
http://armasyarmadurasenespaa.blogs...el-machete.html

Quote:
Originally Posted by Madnumforce
... In Portuguese, the word for billhook is foice...

Well it depends from which end you pick it from; a foice is at first the highly curved one to cut grass and wheat; a billhook is more like a hafted hook version for pruning, usually called podão or podoa.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Madnumforce
...There is also faca that you mention, and fação just came to mean "(large) knife", and thus is used to refer to machetes...

The large knife is facão, not fação; a hell of a difference .


Quote:
Originally Posted by Madnumforce
... So in Brazil today, machetes are called falchions...

Is that so ?
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