By Björn Hellqvist
On the highway between Geneva and Rome is a small town called Saint-Maurice-en-Valais, which in Roman times was known as Agaunum. This town is connected with one of the early legends of Christian martyrs, and thus with two of the best preserved medieval swords known to us. The story of the martyrdom has been preserved for us by Saint Eucher, the bishop of Lyons (died 494 AD) in his work Passio martyrum Acaunensium. He collected information on something that had happened almost 200 years before, thus creating one of the many legends connected with Christian saints. So, what happened in Agaunum 1700 years ago, and what has it to do with the swords? Let me start in the late years of the Roman Empire…
During the reign of the co-emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Constantius and Galerius, there was, according to the legend, a Roman legion raised in Upper Egypt, known as the "Theban Legion". It numbered 6600 men, all of whom were Christians and commanded by an officer named Maurice. In 286 CE (or thereabouts), the legion was part of a force led by Maximian to quell an uprising among Christians in Gaul. After the revolt was put down, Maximian issued an order that the whole army should attend the offering of sacrifices, including the killing of Christians for the Roman gods for the success of their mission. Only the Theban Legion dared to refuse the order to join the rite. The legion withdrew and encamped near Agaunum. Maximian was enraged by the insubordination of Maurice and the legion and ordered it to be decimated (i.e. every tenth man was to be executed). The penalty was carried out, but still the legion refused to comply. Maximian was enraged and another decimation was made. When Maurice and his legion persisted, Maximian ordered that the remaining men should be executed. The men offered no resistance, but went to their deaths convinced that they would become martyrs. Every man was put to the sword, including Maurice and his fellow officers. Those elements of the legion that weren't at Agaunum were hunted down and executed.
Bishop Eucher collected tales of miracles connected with the martyrs, and many became saints. Foremost of these was Maurice, who became a popular saint in southern Germany and northern Italy. Before that, the bodies of the martyrs of Agaunum were discovered and identified by Saint Theodore, the Bishop of Octodurum, who was in office around 350 CE. He built a basilica in their honor at Agaunum, the ruin of which is still visible today. In the Middle Ages Saint Maurice was the patron saint of several of the Roman dynasties of Europe, and later on of the Holy Roman emperors. Kings, noblemen, and church leaders wanted relics of the saints in order to build churches in their honor. It is small wonder that a couple of swords were attributed with Saint Maurice, as the means of the execution is usually displayed together with the saint. Saint-Maurice-en-Valais has always remained the main focus of veneration of the Theban legion and a significant pilgrimage resort. In the monastery that bears his name, the monks perform a special devotion to the saints every day, and celebrate their feast on September 22 of each year. In the monastery carrying his name in Switzerland, the vigil "Tasbeha" has been chanted continuously (24 hours a day) without stopping for more than 500 years now.
Study of the legend was stimulated by excavations during the later half of the 1940's at Saint-Maurice-en-Valais. An analysis of the legend made in 1956 by D. van Berchem (a specialist on the history of the Roman army) claimed that the legend was based on an oral account given by Bishop Theodore of Octodurum. The bishop brought the legend from the East, where one Saint Maurice was said to have suffered martyrdom together with 70 soldiers under his command. Van Berchem claimed that the soldiers were neither Thebans nor an entire legion. This stands to reason, as the martyrdom of many of the early saints were exaggerated in order to impress the people. The early Church needed heroes and what better than staunch Christians whom defied a pagan Emperor? It is also highly unlikely that an entire legion was made up of Christians, as they were persecuted and hardly trusted with weapons, let alone organized into a fighting unit. The same goes for the swords attributed to Saint Maurice's martyrdom. They were obviously made in the High Middle Ages, whereas the real Maurice (if he ever existed) was probably executed with a Roman gladius or spatha.
Today, there are two swords attributed to St. Maurice. One is kept in the Weltliche Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) in Vienna, Austria, the other in the Armeria Reale (Royal Armory) in Turin, Italy. Both are prime examples of swords from the High Middle Ages. Let's take a closer look at them…
This handsome sword was the coronation sword of the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (basically Germany and Austria, sometimes with parts of Italy) for over 700 years. It is kept in the Weltliche Schatzkammer, Vienna and has the inventory number SchK XIII 17. The age of the sword is uncertain; the museum thinks it was forged in France around the end of the 12th century, while Ewart Oakeshott thinks it is older than that, putting the date at around c.1050 - 1120. One way of determining the age of the hilt is to date the engraving on the pommel. It carries the personal arms of Otto IV (died 1218), and was probably made for his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 1198. Either way, we can safely assume that the sword is at least 800 years old. The overall length is 1100 mm (43.3"), with a blade-length of 953 mm (37.5"). The sword weighs 1300 grams (2 lbs. 14 oz).
The pommel is an Oakeshott type B, 40 mm (1.57") high and made of gilded iron. It is engraved with the arms of the Holy Roman Empire (an eagle displayed) on one side and the personal arms of Emperor Otto the IV (a demi-eagle impaling three leopards) on the other. The latter coat-of-arms is inverted, indicating that the sword was carried point upwards at ceremonies. The lower edge of the pommel bears the inscription: "BENEDICTVS DOS DES MEVS QVI DOCET MANVS". The 95 mm (3.75") long wooden grip is wound with twisted iron wire, with "Turk's heads" (rings made of pleated brass wire) at both ends. It is likely that the grip wrapping is of a later date. The cross is an Oakeshott style 1, 205 mm wide (8.1"), made of gilded iron and with the engraved motto: "CHRISTUS VINCIT. CHRISTUS REINAT." on one side and "CHRISTUS INPERAT." on the other. It should probably read: "IMPERAT(OR)". The legend, a war cry from the Third Crusade, translates as "Christ conquers. Christ rules. Christ (is the) Emperor.", if I'm not totally off the mark. All in all, the hilt is very well proportioned and in its simplicity a prime example of its type.
The blade is an Oakeshott type XI. It is long and slender, with a narrow, shallow fuller running almost the whole length of the blade. The blade is 953 mm (37.5") long and 43 mm (1.7") wide at the base. There are no inscriptions or other marks on the blade. It could be that the blade is older than the hilt with maybe 50 - 100 years, but nothing is certain on this point.
It is very rare that medieval scabbards have survived to our day. In the case of the Viennese St. Maurice, its very richness and importance has ensured its survival. The museum thinks that it was made in Italy in the last quarter of the 11th century. It is made of olivewood and mounted with somewhat battered stamped gold panels with regal-looking figures, seven on either side. These are executed in 11th century style, indicating that the scabbard and blade can be of an earlier date than the hilt. The regal figures are oriented with their heads towards the tip of the scabbard, which might indicate that the sword was carried sheathed with the point upwards. In addition to the panels, there are bands in cloisonné work. These are geometric enamel patterns in red, white and blue, possibly added in the 12th century. The scabbard is 1010 mm long (yes, it is 50 mm longer than the blade) and weighs 990 grams (2 lbs. 3 oz).
As it has been shown, it is obvious that St. Maurice was a popular saint in the region. According to the museum, the attribution to St. Maurice dates from the 14th century. There is no other connection, so no-one knows why. Maybe it was kept together with relics of St. Maurice. Apart from the gilding and engraving, it is a plain fighting sword, probably never used for anything other than ceremonies. The last coronation where the sword was used was in 1916, when the Emperor Karl I of Austria (1887-1922) was crowned. He was also known as King Karl IV of Hungary (the two countries were joined in a dynastic union). He ruled from 1916 to 1918, and was one of many European crowned heads forced from power in the aftermath of World War I. The sword had served at coronations for 818 years. Now it rests in the Treasury in the Museum of Art History in Vienna.
The sword was originally in the Treasury of the Abbey of St. Maurice in the Valois (Switzerland). In 1591 Carol Emanuele I of Savoy transferred the sword, together with half the bones of St. Maurice, to the Royal Chapel at Turin. Since 1858, the sword is displayed in the Armeria Reale (Royal Armory) in Turin and has the inventory number AR G 25. It is in a very fine state of preservation - it looks almost like it was forged yesterday. The sword is believed to have been made in the first half of the 13th century. Unlike its name-sake in Vienna, this is very much a no-frills fighting sword without any embellishments. It has a total length of 1051 mm (41.4") and weighs 1330 grams (2.93 lbs.).
The iron pommel is a so-called "Brazil nut" pommel of Oakeshott's type A. The grip is made of wood covered with thin, brown leather or parchment, some of which has dried and peeled away during the centuries. The 195 mm (7.7") wide iron cross is of Oakeshott's style 6, slightly bent-down and with flattened tips.
The steel blade is an Oakeshott type XII, 916 mm (36") long and 54 mm (2.12") wide at the base. It has a rather broad (1/3 of the blade width), shallow fuller running about the three quarter's length of the blade. There are some marks inlaid on both sides of the blade: H + H and + H +, respectively.
The scabbard is preserved, too, which is even more rare. It is a simple affair, made from two wooden slats and covered with vellum (very fine calfskin). There is a seam down one side and curiously enough not on the back. There are remnants of a belt fitting near the scabbard mouth, executed in a style typical of the 13th century. There's an iron chape at the end of the scabbard. Length: 947 mm (37.3"). Weight: 285 grams (10 oz).
One reason why the sword is in such a fine condition is probably because it was stored in a special leather case. The case is made of finely tooled and decorated dark brown leather and gesso duro (a type of plaster). It was fashioned in the years 1434-38, which is evident from the style of armor worn by the saint painted on the hilt end of the case. Other decoration are the arms of Savoy, Piedmont and Genoa, and an inscription in Latin: O bone mauricii defende tui cor amici ut nunquam subici laqueis possit inimici.
Unlike the sword in Vienna, the Turin St. Maurice was kept together with relics of the saint. It might be possible that people honestly thought that the sword had been used to behead St. Maurice - in medieval times, faith accounted for a lot, so why bother with the exact date of a sword? The sword was constantly being handled, as tradition had it that the power of its touch could aid barren women to attain their world's desires.
There are no less than three replicas of the swords of St. Maurice on the market. The Viennese sword is represented by two versions, while the Turin sword is found in only one. None is a really accurate replica, but they are close enough.
& Armor's "St. Maurice Sword" (#145)
Length: 1100 mm (43.75")
Blade length: 953 mm (37.5")
Blade width: 44 mm (1.75")
Cross span: 174 mm (6.85")
Weight: c. 1480 grams (3.25 lbs.)
This sword is the only known replica where most of the hilt detail is reproduced. If you want a good replica of the famous sword, then this is it. It differs from the original by having a more prominent fuller as well as a shorter cross. The inscription on the pommel edge isn't reproduced, most probably due to the fact that the majority of the available literature doesn't mention the full text. The tang is threaded, the pommel being screwed on. The sword has a POB (point of balance) about 150 mm (6") from the cross, according to Craig Johnson of A&A. The center of percussion about 30" from the cross, which is quite OK. Arms & Armor will make changes to the sword this year in order to get it more close to the original.
Tin's "Sword of St. Maurice" (#2133)
Length: 1000 mm (39.4")
Blade length: 840 mm (33")
Blade width: 54 mm (2.1")
Cross span: 235 mm (9.25")
Weight: c. 1600 grams (3.52 lbs.)
This is a pretty fair replica of the Viennese sword. It differs from the original mainly by not having the inscriptions and other detail on the hilt, as well as sporting a longer cross and a shorter blade. The pommel is riveted in place, just like the medieval counterpart. It is rather heavy for a one-hander, but handles pretty well if you like swords with a punch. The POB is c. 160 mm (6.3") in front of the cross, but the weight makes it a second to the 2130.
Tin's "Sword of St. Maurice" (#2130)
Length: 980 mm (38.6")
Blade length: 840 mm (33")
Blade width: 54 mm (2.1")
Cross span: 220 mm (8.7")
Weight: c. 1430 grams (3.15 lbs.)
LOA: 1020 mm (40.1")
BL: 880 mm (34.6")
BW: 54 mm (2.1")
Cross span: 220 mm (8.7")
Weight: c. 1450 grams (3.2 lbs.)
The Del Tin 2130 is based on the sword from Turin, and is the only known replica of this particular weapon. It is very accurate in the proportions of the hilt, but the blade is 40 mm (c. 1½") shorter than that of the original in order to improve the handling. The POB is about 170 mm (6.7") in front of the cross, but it handles better tahn the 2133. For those interested in a full-length version, Del Tin can make it with the longer blade. As for the performance of the standard sword, check Gus Trim's review in this issue of SFMO.
I would like to thank David Counts, Patrick Kelly, Sieglinde Kunst at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, Fulvio Del Tin of Del Tin Armi Antiche and Craig Johnson of Arms & Armor in providing invaluable information and comments during the writing of this article. Thanks to Paul Kilmartin for the proofreading. Special thanks to Boydell & Brewer Ltd, publishers of Ewart Oakeshott's books, for their kind permission to use pictures of the Viennese sword of St. Maurice.
The pictures of the original swords aren't the best that could be found, but we had to settle for them due to copyright issues and cost factors. If you want to see good full-color photographs of the swords, I would like to recommend "Swords and Hilt Weapons", p. 37 for the sword in Vienna and "Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight", p. 63 for the sword in Turin.
Bertolotto, Claudio et al, L' Armeria Reale di Torino Bramante Editrice, Milano 1982
Boccia, Lionello G. and Coelho, Eduardo T.: Armi Bianche Italiane Bramante Editrice, Milano 1975
Cope, Anne (editor): Swords and Hilt Weapons, Multimedia Books, London 1989
Dolínek, Vladimir and Durdík, Jan: The Encyclopedia of European Historical Weapons, Hamlyn, London 1993
Edge, David and Paddock, John M.: Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, Bison Books, Greenwich 1988
Laking, Sir Guy Francis: A Record of European Armour and Arms Through Seven Centuries, G. Bell and Sons Ltd., London 1920
Oakeshott, Ewart: The Archaeology of Weapons, Lutterworth, London 1960
Oakeshott, Ewart: The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge 1964, 1994
Oakeshott, Ewart: Records of the Medieval Sword, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge 1991
Schulze-Dörrlamm, M.: Das Reichsschwert. Ein Herrschaftszeichen des Saliers Heinrich IV. und des Welfen Ottos IV., Jan Thorbecke Verlag, Sigmaringen 1995
Seitz, Heribert: Blankwaffen, vol. 1, Klinkhardt und Biermann, Braunschweig 1965
The Legend of Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion was found on CoptNet (http://cs.bu.edu/best/copt-net.html).
© 2001 Björn Hellqvist