A brief guide to medieval knife and seax scabbards

From the earliest finds to the sixteenth century, knife scabbards are decorated. They are civilian items rather than wargear, expressing personal taste and fashion. Finds  range from those clearly decorated by skilled craftsmen  to the rather inexpert efforts of someone tarting it up at home in an attempt to keep up with Sven from next door’s new scabbard.

Construction

Larger (7″ upwards) early medieval seaxes are suspended horizontally from two loops with the cutting edge facing upwards.

The scabbard is “closed” (i.e. the two edges are joined) above that top edge. In Britain this is usually done by stitching and riveting, as shown on the right of the image below. Smaller seaxes hung vertically from a single loop and were frequently closed by stitching along the back of the blade, as shown on the left.

Where the seax is top-closed, the top edge is usually riveted because stitching could be cut by the blade inside. Some of the York finds have washers below the rivets and interestingly, if the washer is made of a ferrous material then the rivet itself is non-ferrous and vice versa.

Some Scandanavian finds have metal edges along the top closure, as shown below, but there is no evidence of this in any of the British finds.

Post-Conquest, fashions change with the horizontal seax falling out of use and knives of all sizes hanging vertically with a back closure.

Form

In the early medieval period the underlying design for the decoration of seaxes follows a distinct form, dividing the scabbard into seven sections which are then decorated.

The front of the scabbard is divided into four: the handle, the blade, the gap in between, and a top ridge, as shown below.

Perhaps surprisingly since it would rarely be seen, the back of the scabbard is also decorated, albeit less elaborately.  The back is divided into three sections: handle, blade, and gap.

Smaller knives are consistently divided into handle and blade sections, but there is much greater variety in what else is decorated.

Post-conquest the style starts to shift and the gap and ridge decoration are lost, leaving just the blade and the handle. This goes hand in hand with the change in how the the knife was worn: the handle is now the “top”.

Patterns

The two main British collections of early medieval finds are from York and from Dublin, and although they all follow the division into seven sections, the actual patterns embossed in those sections differ.

The Dublin finds tend to show mostly geometric patterns such as triangles, crescents and straight lines, as in the image below, whereas the York finds tend to show interlacing and knotwork.

Note that neither style of decoration appears on wargear such as shields or sword scabbards: they are practical items which show no significant levels of personalisation.

It is tempting to see the differing patterns as evidence of regional variation in fashion, but it isn’t certain that that’s the case. We know that there was extensive trade between York and Dublin and style and method of construction suggests that some of the Dublin scabbards came from the same workshop as one of the York ones, so there must have been substantial cultural exchange between the two.  The differences may therefore come down to two different craftsmen’s styles, rather than regional variation.

Geometric designs continue to be common until decorated knife scabbards go out of fashion, but we have very little evidence for zoomorphic and foliage patterns such as those shown below before the late tenth century.

Once zoomorphic and foliage designs become more common, we can also see much greater variation in artistic fashion, if only because there are many more ways to draw a tree than a square. As a result artistic designs are often used to date later finds, although how reliable this is is left to the reader to decide.

Decorative technique

Early medieval leatherwork is all embossed, with stamping coming into regular use post-Conquest. These continue to be the primary methods of decorating leatherwork, because the more modern technique of engraving (i.e. cutting) can weaken the leather. Not only does embossing create relief, but also darkens the leather where it is compressed.

Embossing is a very simple technique, which can be done by anyone of any age. It makes an easy activity for bored children on site, requiring few materials and limited potential for injury!

The leather must be slightly damped, e.g. by rubbing a wet finger across it. Don’t spit on it or spill water on it as it will get too wet, and when wet it is easy to inadvertently tear or  punch through the leather and weaken it.

The design is then impressed into the leather using a blunt point. At home, a darning or knitting needle will do the job. On site, the tip of a bone pin should be pointy (yet blunt) enough. The goal is to press into the leather, not to scratch, cut, or puncture it.

And that’s it! Happy embossing!

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