Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My new toy: a longseax

My new toy is a replica of the seax of Beagnoth, thought to be of ninth-century Anglo-Saxon origin. Though in my opinion (neither particularly expert nor particularly humble) it could very well be tenth-century.

It's huge, nearly as long as an early gladius, about 29"--including the hilt, which is around 7". In a pinch I could use it two-handed but for a thick-thewed thegn it would be a one-hander. It's heavy--heavier than a gladius because it doesn't have that nipped-in waist about a third of the way down. I'd say it weighs a smidge under 2 lbs. The blade is single-edged--the longer side is the sharp one. Runes run the length of the blade. In the original, they were inlaid with gold wire.

To convey the size, here it is on a chair:
not called a longseax for nothing
The runes are a bit of a puzzle. By the late ninth century runes weren't really used much anymore: the Latin alphabet was more the thing (both for Latin and Old English--though Old English has those interesting little additions, e.g. eththorn and wynn). If I had to guess, I'd say this was a ceremonial piece (a parade seax) presented to a man who--for some reason or other--was hugely proud of his ethnic heritage. Or it could have been a weird magic thing: runes would have added a lovely hint of mystic woo. The runes don't spell anything--it's just the futhorc, the runic alphabet, followed by the name Beagnoth (and a couple of symbols that haven't been interpreted). I think the runes were shaped by a smith who wasn't used to them; he got things a bit wrong here and there.

Now for a bit of a wander into subjects I've read about but on which I certainly can't claim to be expert--about which I nonetheless have strong opinions. (Those opinions, though, are weakly held, so if you actually know about this stuff I'd love to hear your thoughts.)

First, pronunciation of seax. S, like the s in almost anything, e.g. saxophone. The ae, though, is a dipthong, pronounced something like the a in hat followed by the a in Cuba, with emphasis at the beginning. X, well, I'm guessing it wouldn't be far off the way we say it today: cks, as in, well, saxophone. So seax would end up sounding something like sah-ucks. Or, when in a hurry, sax as in... Oh, never mind.

Second, etymology (or maybe philology, or onomastics, not sure exactly which pot to put this in). Every now and again I hear the suggestion that Saxons were named for their seaxes, just as--supposedly--Franks were identified with their franciscae (throwing axes) and the Welsh got their name because the Angles called them wealh: foreigners. On this particular topic, I don't have a definite opinion. But because I like to make things up, I'll say it could be possible that some of the explanations stuck because of their use by old-school pedants of the time (I'm thinking of people like Isidore of Seville, or Bede) as nifty mnemonics for their students and readers. If you can remember that a certain set of people are called Franks, you're more likely to remember that the axes they're flinging at you are franciscae...

Third... Well, right this minute I can't even think of the term for the study of use-of-weapons-of-long-ago, so bear that in mind when temped to lean on the, ah, scholarship of this paragraph*. But, eh, here goes. In the sixth century, seaxes were ubiquitous, 'even women' were said to have worn them. They were not dedicated weapons of war but utility tools. They were used for everything: hack off a tree branch, butcher a deer, stab at your enemy if you'd stuck your spear in someone else and couldn't get it out in time. They came in all different sizes and shapes and levels of ornamentation, depending on the owner, their culture, and their particular requirements. Longseaxes were a later development. Technically, this longseax of Beagnoth's is known as a broken-backed seax.

Okay, back to firmer ground, that is, pure opinion. If I were making this replica according to the principles I've used in imagining Hild's world, I would have done three things differently.
  • The hilt would have a pommel--this was a high-status item, and the Angles and Saxons of the time would not have been able to resist the opportunity for display. The Anglo-Saxons loved their bling, the gaudier the better. They particularly liked garnets and were very skilled at bringing out their flash and sparkle by foiling the settings. (Gold foil behind a stone really enhances the shimmer of the stone.) When it comes to wealth and hierarchy, subtlety was not a cultural value.
  • The sheath (or perhaps scabbard might be a better term for something this size) would most probably have been highly ornamented. If it were leather, it would be tooled and dyed a brilliant colour. It would have metal chape and throat. But I think it's equally likely that with a blade of this size and status the scabbard would have been more like those for swords: wood, covered in (decorated) leather and lined with fleece.
  • The scabbard fittings would have been more like those for a sword: this blade is so long that that no one, excepting exceedingly stout giants, could wear it as a normal seax: suspended horizontally from and parallel to a belt. With something this size I would certainly want a baldric. But if I were a stout giant who could only afford plain brown leather, I'd at least put the loops on the other side of the sheath so the blade hung edge-up and so didn't cut it's way out in a week.
By now I'm sure it will surprise no one to learn that Hild had a seax. But Hild's blade was nothing like Beagnoth's. I've imagined something half the size (though, even so, it was definitely too long for manners):
Hild leaned back from her half-eaten bread trencher and fingered her black-handled seax. It was a big blade, far bigger than any ten year-old should wear by rights, a slaughter seax.
The seax was handsome, with a black horn hilt, and a blade inlaid with patterns in a silver and copper mix, and hung edge-up in its supple black sheath suspended by two loops parallel to her belt, silver chape to her left. It had a battle edge with a very hard, sharp point. It could open a man's throat, cut twice-baked road bread, or joint a roast.
I think of it as a gorgeous but deadly cross between a knife and machete. As Hild gets richer and more influential she may have gussied it up a bit: exchanged the sheath for one of embossed and tooled red or royal blue leather, swapped the silver chape and throat for figured, inlaid gold, put a whacking great jewel in the pommel (she is more fond of blue than red), etc. She's an Angle; tasteful understatement was not her thing. There again, Hild being Hild, she might have enjoyed wearing a stark black killing tool to enhance her reputation. It depends what would have served her purpose most readily. And her purpose changes as she changes.

In the middle of writing this post I realised that I hadn't quite visualised the seax, so I got out my trusty Sharpie:

I dithered about the pommel; it's possible the handle could be plainer. On the sheath, the buckles would be at the top but it was easier to draw the buckles hanging down, and I forgot to flip that part of the image, so...

If we say that Beagnoth's seax is mid-ninth century, that is, circa 850 CE (though as I've said I think it's later), and if we say that Hild's is right around 600 CE (though as I've imagined it was a trophy from a skirmish fought a generation or two before she acquired it, it's probably closer to 580 CE) then that's at 250 years difference, minimum. Consider the change in knife design and production between knives of today and those of, say, 1750 and you begin to get an idea of how vast the cultural and manufacturing gap might have been.

I like them both. I think I might be developing seax acquisition syndrome...

* Anything I got right can be credited to Anglo-Saxons Weapons and Warfare by Richard Underwood (Tempus, 2001). Anything I got wrong is mine, all mine. Hey, I'm a novelist. I make shit up.