The Bronze Sword in the Stone?

Not the stone you’re looking for… Molds for bronze swords and other items, from the Nordheimer Hohl, Neckargartach, Stadt Heilbronn, c. 800 BC, Lettenhohl sandstone – Landesmuseum Württemberg – Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia/Daderot

 

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. 

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Veni, vidi, vampire?

An English ‘vampire’, from ‘Medieval Towns’ by Schofield and Vince, 2003 edition

The always-fascinating Magia Posthuma blog has posted a really nice update on that ‘vampire of Venice’ story from 2009. It puts the original claims in perspective and provides much-needed insight into the academic side of the ensuing controversy that most of us haven’t been privy to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my biggest gripe with the idea that this ID6 skeleton was an Italian ‘Nachzehrer’ (or ‘shroudeater’) remains valid – because there ARE no Italian Nachzehrer! It’s a Germanic phenomenon. The fact that there’s no Italian analogue means that, at the least, the (now contested) conclusions found in ‘Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice’ (paywalled) and in the media versions that most people read should have been presented in a more tentative manner.

However, it did get me thinking about analogues to the practice of placing a stone or brick in the deceased’s mouth however, as this is more widespread than the shroud/self-devouring version of the ‘vampire’ (and strictly, I should use the more general word ‘revenant’ there).

The stone/brick-in-mouth (or under chin) apotropaic does appear outside the bounds of (modern) Germany. Folklorist Jan Perkowski refers to the practice amongst the Kashubs of Poland (who did actually cary the Nachzehrer belief with them also), and Paul Barber cites Stora’s ‘Burial Customs of the Skolt Lapps’ as describing a similar practice amongst the Laplanders.

Then there’re the skeletons of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, one of which was found with a stone inserted between the jaws of its disembodied head. The skull was also placed between the feet, which is something that Perkowksi and Barber also refer to in the Germanic and Slavic worlds.

Finally, there is a lesser-known British connection. A helpful source at the Museum of London referred me a while ago to two instances. First are 11th/12th century burials at St Nicholas Shambles church in the City of London, where small stones were found in the mouths of four inhumations. These were interpreted as a substitute for the ‘ferryman’s’ coin, aka ‘soul-scot’ in the Anglo-Saxon world. More were found at St Botolph’s church in Billingsgate, my MoL source reports that several 15th-17th century burials also had stones in their mouths, a few being ‘the size of cannon balls.’

Two more were found at Fillingham in Lincolnshire, and another at Raunds Furnells in Northamptonshire. Note however that stones, big and small, are a feature of medieval graves in England, and seem to have served more than one purpose. Unlike burials elsewhere, we lack any real historical or folkloric evidence to back up the idea that these placements were aimed at keeping the dead…dead, but given the stones found in the two eye-sockets of one of the two Fillingham bodies (and bearing in mind the analogue practice observed even today of coins over eyelids), deliberate placement at least seems highly likely (more discussion here, including the connection with heavy stones perhaps used to weigh down the dead).

This doesn’t really aid the ‘Vampire of Venice’ claim any, as we still lack even support in an Italian context for the stone-in-mouth burial practice. But together with the rebuttal by the authors, it does perhaps increase our confidence that this was a deliberate effort by somebody, and by analogy, may indeed have been to prevent the return of a revenant of some kind. If so however, the shroud-eating hypothesis remains dubious, and the relevance of the term ‘vampire’ is, I suppose, a matter of definition. It certainly attracts a lot more press than ‘revenant’.