I’ve been catching up on Arthurian legend/history recently, and have twice come across the interesting suggestion that the “sword in the stone” could have originated as an idea from the Bronze Age practice of casting a sword in a stone mould. Interesting, but ridiculous. This idea seems to originate with Francis Pryor, an eminent archaeologist of prehistory (not, in fact, the Migration Period/Dark Ages), who raises it in his ‘Britain A.D.’ series, and again in a Time Team special.
The biggest issue here is one of time; 1,200 years (minimum) to be precise. The casting of bronze swords ceased around 600 BCE in Europe. Yet the story of the sword in the stone doesn’t appear until Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, written circa 1190-1210 CE. This is the relevant section, from a later (C15th) Middle English translation;
“Some of the peple yede oute of the cherche where ther was a voyde place. And whan they com oute of the cherche, thei sawgh it gan dawe and clere, and saugh before the cherche dore a grete ston foure square, and ne knewe of what ston it was — but some seide it was marble. And above, in the myddill place of this ston, ther stode a styth of iren that was largely half a fote of height. And thourgh this stithi was a swerde ficchid into the ston.
Whan the gode man that sange masse herde this, he toke haly water and caste upon the stith. And the archebisshop lowted to the swerde and sawgh letteres of golde in the stiel. And he redde the letteres that seiden, “Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste.”
Before this story there is no prior tradition of swords in stones in folklore or history that would imply any continuity at all between the practice of casting bronze swords and this late 12th/early 13th century story. As the Bronze Age is literally prehistoric, there could be no written tradition of cast bronze or copper swords, and we have no dated examples from the historical era. There is a tangential link to swordmaking insofar as the sword in the poem/story was driven through a blacksmith’s anvil and *then* into a hard stone (a “perron” or mounting block), but anvils (and indeed blacksmithing) have nothing to do with the making of bronze swords. If anything this hurts Pryor’s hypothesis because the sword isn’t just in a stone – it’s in an iron anvil. If de Boron was trying to evoke ancient swordsmithing, why introduce that element?
There is also the point that bronze swords were also cast in sand or clay moulds; it was much easier to press an existing sword into these materials to create a disposable mould than to laboriously chisel the correct shape out of stone. Stone sword moulds (which had the advantage of being reusable) are not common (and of course clay and sand are unlikely to survive), and were used early in the (pre)history of bronze swordmaking (see Wileman, 2014, p.109). So the ‘meme’ of swords emerging from stone moulds is by no means secure, and would have to have to survived even longer than the end of the Bronze Age to the early 12th century. Even if this knowledge had somehow survived (let’s say a mould had been dug up somewhere or found re-used in a wall or something), I also have to question the likelihood of a medieval poet coming across such arcane and ancient knowledge. Stone moulds were used to make metal objects until the 18th century, but never iron or metal swords. At best, for this hypothesis to work we would have to assume that de Boron was inspired to imagine a sword stuck in a stone by the mistaken belief that swords were cast rather than forged, or simply by having seen another metal object being cast. Even then, we have zero evidence of this, and may as well speculate (off the top of my head) that Tony Scott was inspired to direct the film ‘Top Gun’ because he had a toy helicopter as a child. It has a chance of being true, probably isn’t, and adds nothing to our understanding of the story. Pryor’s suggestion might carry more weight if we were talking about an early Welsh folkloric story of Arthur that might reflect some oral tradition, or even the late 1st Century pseudohistories that fleshed out the King Arthur that we know today. But here we know that de Boron came up with the idea in the process of writing a fictional story based upon those prior tales. Perhaps Pryor did not realise that the sword in the stone was part of the French romantic Arthurian tradition and not any kind of traditional British version. Therefore, not only is the idea that a Medieval author somehow possessed knowledge of prehistoric swordmaking implausible, it isn’t even necessary to explain a wholly fictional aspect of the lore.
This sort of retrofitting of the evidence is a constant theme in the never-ending quest by many to historicise Arthur (who very likely never existed by the way – a post for another day perhaps). To quote the brilliant Bad Archaeology blog:
“It starts with an assumption that there was a Camelot to be found and that there was an Arthur to hold court there, then goes out to find the evidence. Without the later stories of ‘King’ Arthur, there is nothing in the archaeology of these places that would lead us to postulate the existence of such a character. We bring our later preconceptions to bear on the interpretation of the data, which is definitely Bad Archaeology.”
In closing, I should point out that there is a much more likely historical inspiration for the medieval sword in the stone. It’s a medieval sword. In a stone. I speak of the sword of Saint Galgano, which actually predates the fictional Arthurian version both as an extant (and genuine) artefact and as an historically attested incident (by which I mean it was known prior to de Boron putting pen to parchment). As this academic article suggests, it’s possible that de Boron heard of this sword and stone and used that as his inspiration. This is still somewhat speculative, but far more likely than Pryor’s bronze sword claim which, as far as I can tell, has never been proposed in a scholarly fashion at all.