The sword is probably the most common association that most people have with the Middle Ages. And while most can probably imagine that a sharp sword was a deadly weapon the process of how a sword was sharpened in the Middle Ages is oftentimes overlooked.
In the following, I would like to present how newly forged medieval swords were sharpened and how knights could restore the sharpness of their swords after they had used them in battle. Sharpening a newly forged sword for the first time took a total of 5 steps.
- Grinding off the marks of the forging process
- Filing down the blade to create the contours of the blade
- Refining the contours of the blade with fine-grained whetstones
- Use a cloth soaked in oil to clean the blade and apply a protective film
- Sharpening the blade
Let`s find out more!
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How were newly forged swords sharpened?
Have you heard the myth that medieval swords weren`t sharp at all? Probably yes, I myself heard it several times and from several different people.
And just like most myths, the myth that medieval swords were not sharp has a small speck of truth in it since the blade of one type of (late) medieval sword was indeed not completely sharpened.
If you are interested in that type and the reasons behind keeping the majority of the blade of that type of sword dull then you might want to check out my article here.
But we can say that the majority of medieval swords were indeed sharp. And that brings us to the question of how swords were sharpened during the Middle Ages.
But before we can turn to the process of sharpening a newly forged sword I would briefly look at the tempering of the sword since that was the last step before the blade could be sharpened. By the way. If you want to find out more about how swords were made during the Middle Ages (and how the art of sword making in western Europe was concentrated around a few centers) then you might want to check out my article here.
During the tempering, the blade of the sword was heated until it glowed cherry-red (a sign that the blade reached a temperature of 1472° F (800° C)) and was then quenched in water or blood. Some medieval sources do indeed claim that sword blades were quenched in blood. And while that might sound like superstition it did have some real benefits!
Quenching a sword blade in blood instead of water had the advantage that the nitrogen compounds within the blood hardened the surface of the blade even further compared to quenching it in water. By the way, urine would have produced even better results than blood but offered less prestige than quenching a blade in blood.
So when you read Moby Dick*, a book that I can highly recommend, and you read the passage where captain Ahab orders that the tips of the harpoons should be quenched in the blood of the harpooners then that is not just made up but actually makes sense.
But back to the sharpening of a blade after it was tempered.
First Step: Grinding off the marks of the forging process
The first step on the way to a sharp blade began after the tempering of the blade when the blade still had the rough shape that the blacksmith had hammered out.
The marks that remained on the blade from the forging process were roughly sanded off with big, coarse-grained whetstones that were driven by either waterpower or foot-/handpedals.
By the way, the presence of streams and rivers that could be used for waterpower was one of the reasons why the centers of medieval western-European sword production would be established in cities like Solingen (where excellent blades that you can find here* on Amazon are forged until this day).
The area around the German city of Solingen had already been a center of sword production in the Early Middle Ages. And the Frankish king Charlemagne (748-816) issued an export ban for those high-quality swords to prevent his enemies from getting the same weapon technology that his armies used. One could say that that was an early version of a weapons embargo…
Other European centers of swordmaking apart from Solingen were the Spanish Toledo, the Italian Milan, but also the German Passau which had already been a center of sword manufacturing when it was still part of the Roman province Raetia.
You can find more information on how the steel for the swords was made in my article here.
But let`s return to the sharpening of the sword.
Second step: Filing down the blade to create the contours of the blade
After the most obvious marks that the forging had left were sanded off by coarse-grained whetstones the next step was the creation of the contours and outlines of the blade. Until now the blade only had its rough shape but now the refinement of the outlines of the edge would begin.
The blade was now filed in a vertical direction with a metal file. That process created the contours and outlines of the edge as well as eliminated any marks that the whetstones had left.
While this step was done to create the rough outlines of the edge the next step was all about refining these outlines. And for that, the equipment was changed from a metal file to a fine-grained whetstone.
Third step: Refining the contours of the blade with fine-grained whetstones
After the rough outlines of the blade were made with metal files the worker, more on who sharpened the new swords later, would switch his equipment once more.
Now a fine-grained whetstone would be used to refine the contours of the blade. That whetstone had to be permanently cooled with water to prevent the blade from heating up which would have ruined the hardness of the blade that had been archived through the tempering.
Another benefit was that the water washed away any small metal particles on the surface of the whetstone. When the contours were adequately refined the next step would be to clean the blade.
Fourth step: Use a cloth soaked in oil to clean the blade and apply a protective film
After the contours of the blade were refined enough a piece of cloth that was soaked in oil would be used to wipe off any remaining metal particles. Additionally, the oil would also give the blade a protective film to prevent any rusting.
It wasn`t until now that the blade was finally sharpened.
Fifth step: Sharpening the blade
So now we have finally reached the point where the blade was actually ready to be sharpened.
After the blade had received its final contours it would be sharpened. In order to sharpen the blade, multiple whetstones with progressively finer granulation would be used until the blade was sharp enough for combat.
Do you wonder how sharp medieval swords were and where the rumor that medieval swords weren`t sharp at all came from? Here you can find out more about the sharpness of medieval swords.
As soon as the blade was sharp enough the sword would be ready for attaching the hilt, the pommel, and the quillons. But especially during the Late Middle Ages that (just like the sharpening) was no longer the task of the swordsmith. So let`s now look at who was responsible for sharpening the blade and putting the different parts of the sword (blade, pommel, quillions, and hilt) together.
Who sharpened and put together the newly forged swords?
Now one might think that the question of who sharpened the blade and who put together the different parts that made up a sword is pretty simple. Obviously, that`s a job for the swordsmith who forged the blade in the first place.
But it is actually more complicated than that.
The forging of swords was highly regulated and centralized during the Middle Ages. Pretty quickly individual blacksmiths would start specializing themselves in producing different parts of a sword. So one blacksmith would only produce the blades, another one only the quillions, and another craftsman would be responsible for sharpening the blade and putting the sword together.
That last part, the sharpening as well as the task of putting the individual parts that made up a sword together was the task of the polisher.
After that, the sword could be sold. Here you can find out more about how expensive such a sword (and other parts of a knight’s armor) were. A high-quality sword was a formidable weapon, more on that here.
However, just like any blade a sword also had to be occasionally sharpened.
Let`s now look at how knights would sharpen their swords after they used them in battle. By the way, if you want to find out how medieval battles worked and how they differed from the battles shown in movies then you might want to check out my article here.
How did knights sharpen their used swords after a battle
So we have just looked at the sophisticated process that was necessary to transform a newly forged sword blank into a sword with a sharp blade. But swords, just like any modern-day knife, had to be sharpened from time to time especially when they were used.
That process of making a used sword sharp again was similar to the process of making a sword blunt sharp although many of the first steps to carve out the contours of the blade could be skipped. A knight would use several whetstones with progressively finer granulation to sharpen his sword after a battle. So with a little bit of experience, a knight could sharpen his sword just as well as a modern chef can sharpen his knives.
Maintaining the sharpness of a sword was crucial for maintaining its terrifying power. However, during the Early and High Middle Ages swords were not as common then one might think. For more information on which weapon was much more common than a sword (and the reasons for that) I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Thomas Laible: Das Schwert. Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Bad Aibling 2008).