Lost Relics of the Knights Templar?

Still a clearer picture of the Knights Templar than this show…

Well, maybe. But you aren’t likely to find out from this programme.

‘Lost Relics of the Knights Templar’ is another low-effort effort from the so-called History Channel. The preamble before each episode states that this and the other objects were “gathered in the 1960s from the Templar Convento de Cristo and castle complex at Tomar in Portugal and then scattered before being ‘brought back together’ by two ‘self-made millionaires’, Carl Cookson and Hamilton White.

I can find absolutely nothing online about this alleged ‘hoard’ or this sword prior to the announcement of this series (there’s a fairly detailed press release here that explains that these are only parts of a supposedly much larger cache – two caches in fact). Not one mention of a sword associated with Tomar at all, never mind one with Templar provenance. If these artefacts are genuine discoveries, they should have been presented to subject specialists for examination and analysis, yet they apparently have not been. Series historian Dan Jones even alludes to this in a Daily Mail article;

‘The scholar in me says take them to the British Museum and ask the curators there to verify them… The rebellious streak in me says go and find all about them yourselves.’ 

Ridiculous, and all too common in sensational ‘finds’ (whether relics or bits of Sasquatch) that are kept from expert scrutiny and invariably turn out to be fake or lacking in relevant provenance when they do see the light of day. As for the two owners, these quotes from the same article are hardly encouraging;

‘Carl and Hamilton are cagey about where they procured them, but are in no doubt about their authenticity.’ 

‘I’d be happy to go to court and fight the first clown who says these items are not real,’ 

Seems legit doesn’t it? Refuse to reveal the immediate provenance and threaten any sceptics with legal action. Classy. Happily for my non-existent legal fund, I am not about to claim that they aren’t real. But it’s a long old chalk from ‘real’ to ‘actually associated in any way with the Knights Templar.’

I simply haven’t the time to cover the whole series, so I’ll focus here on episode 3, which features an alleged Knights Templar sword. The sword appears to be a genuine relic condition European sword, and the three crosses pattee – two encircled crosses inlaid into the blade and another simpler cross on the pommel – also appear to be original to the piece. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, the thing seems to lack any provenance whatsoever, despite appearing in a 45 minute long programme supposedly devoted to finding some. 

First the two show the sword to Dan Jones, who although a bona fide historian, is no arms and armour specialist. Why did they not approach the Royal Armouries or the Wallace Collection? Probably because the curators would not wish to be associated with yet another dubious ‘documentary’ about the endlessly mythologised Knights Templar. The crosses do seem to have flared tips, which would make them subtle examples of the cross pattée. As usual with these programmes however, the ‘investigators’ leap to the assumption (and do not discuss any other possibility) that a cross pattée is necessarily a KT cross. This is just not so. As actual medieval historian Karen Ralls states in the ‘Knights Templar Encyclopedia’ (2007, p. 151);

‘The red cross was a symbol of martyrdom, added to the mantles of the Knights Templar in 1147, when Pope Eugenius III regarding this and other matters. Although a cross is referred to in this bull, the exact design of the cross is not specified. Generally, the Templars did not use crosses that were unique only to them, as they were also used by other religious communities as well, so it cannot be said that the Templar order had only “one type” of official cross.’

Ralls does also state that ‘…one of the more commonly employed designs was the croix pattee—a four-sided cross with equidistant arms that “splay” out at the ends’, so it’s certainly plausible that it could have belonged to a Templar knight. It could equally have belonged to a knight of another religious order, or even just about any knight. Knights in general were big fans of Christianity, funnily enough.

Dan Jones tells us that the sword’s ‘…got a real weight on it…’ (thanks Dan) and asks if it is ‘late 13th century’? The sword’s owner, who claims to know his swords, states that it is (and it is, in fact). Unfortunately he then shows his ignorance of edged weapons by grabbing a 14th century longsword and correcting Dan that it’s not for stabbing but rather for ‘…trying to bash your way through very severe plate armour’. This is completely, hilariously wrong. Having already made a big leap from ‘probable medieval sword with crosses on it’ to ‘Knights Templar sword’, we then make the equally ridiculous jump to the idea that this could be the sword of the Templar ‘Grand Master who fell at Acre’. Jones says ‘we know that the sword survived’, referring to the fact that de Beaujeu’s sword was apparently collected by the Knights and could therefore have been smuggled to safety, but in terms of posterity, what does it matter whether it was rescued by the KT or not? Captured swords, if anything, would have been more likely to survive as trophies, yet none have survived to the present day with provenance intact. We have no description of the sword belonging to Grand Master Guillaume de Beaujeu to which we could try to match this sword. It’s of the right period, and has the right iconography. If it had a secure provenance to Tomar or another KT site, we could at least say that it is likely a KT sword, but we could still not say that it is likely de Beaujeu’s.  

Jones is, to be fair, very circumspect about the sword in this scene, and even the two owners refer to the ‘limited amount of evidence’ that they have; they ‘can’t state that it did’ because there is ‘not enough evidence’. This is an unusual level of honesty for a programme of this nature, and if this were a 15 minute short, we could end there and it would have been quite an interesting find of a previously undocumented medieval sword. But of course there are another 40-odd minutes to fill… They first take the sword to ‘antiques restorer’ Jonathan ‘Jonty’ Tokeley-Parry who is, shall we say, a very…’colourful’ character with an interesting past. Tokeley-Parry says ‘nobody will doubt the sword unless they are a complete idiot’. Weirdly defensive again, but OK. He is at least correct not to doubt it. He looks at the inlaid crosses on the blade and pommel, confirming that the copper inserts are genuine because a medieval decorator would have hammered a ‘raggedly jaggedly splintery circle’ to receive the copper, and shows what he says are visible hammer blows. These aren’t visible on-screen amidst the many corrosion pits, but I will take his word for it (again, there’s no reason to doubt that the sword is a genuine medieval sword).

Sadly, literally no evidence is forthcoming for the rest of the episode as we follow the presenters on the usual fruitless foreign travel talking to barely relevant people and looking at barely relevant buildings. They manage to conclude only that it is possible that Templar relics could have been smuggled to safety, and the episode ends abruptly at that point. No new provenance is uncovered, no firm link to de Beaujeu or even the KT is made. This is ‘Hunting Hitler’ levels of filler that leads absolutely nowhere.

That’s it, really. Not much meat to get into on this one. I started into episode 4 just out of morbid curiosity, but ten minutes in and we’re already onto Nazis….and, I’m out. Maybe the final episode reveals where this sword really came from, but I doubt it.

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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. 

A Fuller Understanding

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“Ere, Fred, pass me the fuller; I think this ‘un needs a fuller fuller!”

A few weeks ago I received this interesting comment on my article about the so-called ‘blood groove’ on blades. Thank you to Charles for this, and for pointing out that the term derived from the tool used to create it, something that I was aware of but did not comment upon as the thrust (ha) of my article was more the concept of the blood groove than the term itself. However, I want to react by explaining why that fact in itself does not by any means make ‘fuller’ incorrect. It’s an odd quirk of language that the word now refers to both tool and its product, but that’s just the way things have worked out. In fact, it is the dictionary definition of a groove made by the tool of the same name. Standard dictionary definitions aren’t enough, however, as technical language is distinct from colloquial speech. ‘Blood groove’ does appear in dictionaries, but it’s not technically correct. However, technical dictionary entries from 1848, 1855 and 1868 show that ‘fuller’ was in use at least that far back. Importantly, it is also the preferred term used within the relevant field of study; that of arms and armour. Non-academic specialists also favour the term. It’s worth noting also that even the word ‘fuller’ to describe the tool is only attested from 1864. So whilst it must assuredly have come first as Charles suggests, we don’t actually know that ‘fuller’ was a pre-modern term for the type of hammer used to create the groove. Even if it was, it may not have been long before people were describing a fullered blade as possessing a ‘fuller’.

Ideally speaking, technical words would remain fixed in their meaning, but this ignores the reality of language, in which even technical meanings drift. Charles uses the term ‘flat iron’ as an example to show that the tool is not its product, but just because this as a phrase did not lend itself to that adaptation does not mean that other words didn’t drift like ‘fuller’. The very obvious rebuttal is the jigsaw, originally the type of saw used to create it. Yes, its fuller (ha) name is ‘jigsaw puzzle’, but just plain ‘jigsaw’ has been in currency for over a century and makes no more logical sense than ‘fuller’. This example might suggest that we are missing an intermediate stage for ‘fuller’ too, something like ‘fuller groove’, contracted to simply ‘fuller’ just as ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has become simple ‘jigsaw’. Another example is ‘brand’ to refer to both the hot iron tool used to mark cattle, and the distinctive mark that it creates on the animal. There’s also ‘bulino’, a form of Italian punched decoration named directly after the tool used to create it. Similarly, ‘scrimshaw’ was originally the act of carving bone or tooth, but for a long time  now has also described the carved object itself. There’s even an equivalent from the arms & armour world, in the the word ‘rifle’, which was originally the act of cutting grooves into the bore of a gun, resulting weapon being termed a ‘rifle gun’. By at least 1700 however, people were referring to simply ‘rifle’, for short, before the more specific term ‘rifle/rifled musket’ was even in use.

All of this shows that language adapts where there is a gap; a recent example being the adaptation of ‘text/texting/texted’ to describe the act of sending an SMS text message. In Charles’ example, the flat iron flattens the hair, yes, but it does not create a discrete new feature upon it that demands description. It’s enough to say that the hair is ‘flat ironed’. In the case of blades, the fuller fulls the blade, but also creates a distinct groove, a new feature that then begs to be named. ‘Fuller’ has most likely been adapted to fill this gap because it allows precise and efficient description. ‘Blood groove’ serves the same function, with added implication of gory intent. What else would we use? ‘Blade groove’ doesn’t really do it, because there are other grooves that might appear on a blade that are not a fuller (e.g. a decorated blade). ‘Fuller’ also has the advantage of being only one word long. ‘Groove’ is perfectly fine, in fact C19th military textbooks use ‘groove’ for sword and bayonet. It just isn’t very precise unless you qualify it.

Did those who made blades historically use ‘groove’, ‘fuller’, or something else entirely? I have no idea. It would be interesting, though difficult given the limitations of written history, to properly research period usage. Given the rate of change in language (witness arquebus, harquebus, hackbutt etc), correct usage in one period is likely to be out of use in another. Charles doesn’t directly offer an alternative term that he feels is more correct than ‘fuller’, but based on his comments it looks like he favours ‘gutter’. Perhaps ‘old timer’ knifemakers and other blade-smiths did use it, but we’ve no evidence of this. You won’t find it in a dictionary or an arms & armour publication. I’ve no problem with it as a descriptive word, but I feel it’s misleading to the layman. Like ‘blood groove’ or ‘blood gutter’, it clearly implies a function that does not exist; the collection and direction of fluids.

To address the suggestion that ‘fuller’ is wrong because other languages don’t have an analogue, that’s just irrelevant, I’m afraid. Yes, my link above shows that terms like ‘goutierre’ (gutter) and ‘cannelure’ (channel) were preferred European terms. That has no bearing on either correct contemporary, or even period English usage. Some words are shared between languages either intact as loan-words, or adapted as variants, but by no means all. ‘Fuller’ is one of many unique English words.

None of which changes the fact that ‘blood groove’ is (technically) incorrect and ‘fuller’ correct, both in terms of the purpose served by the groove (which was the point of my article) and its lack of favour in academic and specialist circles. But again, there’s colloquial language and technical language, and ‘blood groove’ is both in popular usage and in the bloody dictionary, so I can only get so precious about it!