Is this a dagger which I see before me?

8 minute read

The knife is one of the most ancient forms of weapon in recorded human history, the oldest surviving metal examples dating back to the 1330s BC, and their use continues into the present day [1]. During the medieval period, the term ‘dagger’ first appears in English, distinguishing itself as something more than simply a bladed implement [2]. It gained a symbolic as well as practical function making its use more than merely a weapon. The many medieval daggers that are housed at MAA are examples of everyday items worn and used by all members of society; they were a vehicle for social and personal expression. Daggers demonstrated the wearer’s place in the social class, with a ‘hierarchy of materials’ and also allowed scope for personal fashion, identity, and affiliation in their style and display.  

What can we learn from the late medieval daggers that are stored and displayed at MAA?

Two medieval daggers. The top dagger has a copper pommel and cross guard. The bottom dagger has a silver-looking pommel and cross-guard.

Figures 1 and 2. Top – An iron quillon dagger with a copper alloy cross guard and pommel. Wicken Upware, Cambridgeshire. 14th century. Donated by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. MAA 1922. 425. Bottom – An iron quillon dagger with a single-edged blade. England. 14th century. Collected and donated by Cole Ambrose. MAA 1922.732.

Medieval culture around the world was both profoundly visual and strictly hierarchical, this meant that the dagger as a piece of everyday wear lent itself to expressions of wealth and status in a ‘hierarchy of materials. The better the value of the metal and the more expensive a dagger was the higher up in the social ladder the wearer would be seen to be, and as almost everyone from serfs to kings carried daggers there is a wide range of quality [3]. The daggers listed as items 1922.425 and 1922.732 are examples of middle-end daggers from the late medieval period (14th – 15th centuries). Both daggers would now be termed ‘Quillon Daggers’ but during the 15th century, they were better known as Misericords (literally Mercy Strike Daggers), so called because they were often used to deliver a finishing blow to a fallen enemy [4]. Their fine quality can be seen in the use of yellow metals for the pommels and ‘quillon’ cross guards. Both 1922.425 and 1922.723 have copper alloy hilts, not the most durable of metals, but something that looks more decorative than wood and imitated the high-end gold and silver hilts of the elite nobles [5]. 1922.425 has a single edge which was more popular among the working classes, allowing the dagger to be used for push cuts as a tool as well as for self-defence.

These daggers, however, are far more than only tools or purely functional weapons, the cutlers making them have spent time and effort to chisel patterns into the hilts to make them more aesthetically pleasing. The pommels, particularly on both the daggers, have been laboured over and incised to create coronet-like decorations.

A copper pommel of a medieval dagger. Lines diverge from the top of the pommel towards the bottom.

Figure 3. A decorated pommel of an iron quillon dagger. Wicken Upware, Cambridgeshire. 14th century. Donated by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. MAA 1922. 425.

These daggers most likely belonged to the burgeoning middle class of the era who profited from higher wages after the Black Death and demonstrated their upwardly mobile social aspirations with ornamented daggers [6]. The craftsmanship has not detracted from their clear lethality and both blades are still sharp to the touch 600 years later. 

With the expense and social display involved in dagger commerce, quality assurance was very important to both the buyers and the guilds producing them. In 1365, with the Hundred Years War raging on the continent, Edward III decreed that

makers of swords and knives and other arms in the City of London shall put their true marks upon all their works…the work of everyone may be known by his mark’ [7].

These marks became status symbols in their own right with famous dagger makers’ marks being as important as the daggers themselves. These makers’ marks, like modern-day branding, were hotly guarded by their distributors, and knock-off workshops copying well-known marks was a common problem. In 1452 a widow who had taken over her dead husband’s bladesmith business won a case to continue using his mark against a certain John Morth, who was forging blades with their crescent mark [8].

Dagger 1922.425 has an inlaid latten copper maker’s mark, unusual as most English inlaid marks were brass or tin, suggesting a possible origin for the blade in the Low Countries where the zinc required to make latten was cheaper [9]. The blade and cross guard for 1922.425 do not quite fit together seamlessly and were perhaps made by separate craftsmen and fitted together at a later date, suggesting an imported Flemish blade completed in another workshop.

Close-up of the copper cross guard of a medieval dagger.

Figure 4. The cross guard of an iron quillon dagger. Wicken Upware, Cambridgeshire. 14th century. Donated by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. MAA 1922. 425.

This only creates more questions about the dagger, was it cheaply imported or brought back by a returning soldier? Or perhaps it was a family heirloom that was reworked through the generations?

Daggers were very personal objects for Medieval people. They were often used as signs of allegiance, diplomatic gifts or handed down as legacy items by relatives. The distributing of weapons by nobles to their followers had a strong tradition dating back hundreds of years by the late Middle Ages and was a demonstration of the trust and reciprocal relationship between a lord and supporter [10] Daggers would often be used as symbols of this and were frequently decorated with a noble’s heraldry letting the noble display their generosity and the follower show off the high esteem they were held in by their patron [11]. There are also examples of medieval daggers being given as diplomatic gifts, or more unusually as presents between lovers. Several of these love daggers are still on display in Germany with images of the paramours depicted on the scabbards curved in the finest ivory [12]. These items would obviously be highly sentimental perhaps exchanged as marriage presents.

Daggers were also frequently left in wills. Henry Gildeney a Bristol merchant owned as many as seven daggers that he left in his will, several of them decorated in silver and ivory, while Roger Rusell left his son John two of his ‘best’ daggers in 1413 [13]. These objects would obviously not only be valuable moveable goods but also nostalgic mementoes and heirlooms that established a family heritage.

Close-up of an iron cross guard of a medieval dagger.

Figure 5. The cross guard of an iron quillon dagger. England. 14th century. Collected and donated by Cole Ambrose. MAA 1922.732.

The dagger not only demonstrated status but also personal choice and taste, with a huge variety of styles and decorations available for the wearer to express themselves with. These can be seen on both 1922.425 and 1922.732 where fashion has clearly had an impact on their design; the crown-like pommels are very similar in size and shape, illustrating a social trend for people choosing this as a popular style that was solely for appearance and had little difference in function. 1922.732 has its quillon cross guard curved down in a way typical of post-14th century daggers with no real use other than giving it a ‘new’ distinctive look. Both daggers have now lost the high polish on their blades, hilts, and marks, and would originally have had wooden or bone handles, covered in brightly dyed leather [14]. Each dagger would have an equally impressive coloured scabbard or sheath decorated with enamels or embossed leatherwork with metal fittings [15]. The manner in which a dagger was worn would also have been a personal decision, often fitted behind the owner’s money pouch or on a long girdle as many women wore them [16]. These would have made daggers stand out like expensive pieces of jewellery that were expressive of fashion choice and individual style.

Close-up of a painted manuscript. Two men and two women are standing on the branch of a tree and are having a conversation. On their right is a bird sitting on another branch with some flowers.

Figure 6. Taymouth Book of Hours. England 14th century. Image credit: British Library

How should we interpret these two medieval daggers? They were both most likely owned by people from the yeoman or freeman class; they meant more to their owners than just utilitarian weaponry; and they were items that displayed their owners’ class and status. Their simple yet decorated materials mean that they are objects for display and their fashionable designs show that their owners wanted to make a personal statement by wearing them. They most probably had personal associations for the owner – perhaps they were gifts from a patron or relative – or kept as a memento of home by a Flemming living in England. We can think of these daggers as everyday objects bought, worn and used for a multiplicity of purposes by everyday people 600 years ago [17]. 

Notes

[1] Daniela Comelli et al, The Meteoritic Origin of Tutankhamun’s Iron Dagger Blade. (Meteoritics & Planetary Science vol.9, 2016).

[2] Bashford Dean, Catalogue of European Daggers (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1929) p.5. 

[3] Logan Thompson, Daggers and Bayonets: A History (Spellmount, 1999) p.23. 

[4] B. Dean, Catalogue of European Daggers, p.5. 

[5] Interestingly because of their better-quality materials we have a disproportionate number of surviving higher-end daggers.

[6] Arkadiusz Michalak, Manifesting fealty or status? Breaking the Code of a late Medieval Dagger Chape from Wronki, Greater Poland (Fontes Archaeologici Posnanienses, vol. 58, 2022) p.182.

[7] J. Cowgill, M. Neergaard & N. Griffith, Medieval Finds from Excavations in London 1: Knives and Scabbards (Boydell Press, 2008) p.33.

[8] Ibid.

[9] R. Brownsword, Medieval Metalwork: An Analytical Study of Copper-Alloy Objects (Historical Metallurgy vol.38) p.99.

[10] Susan Brunning, The ‘Living’ Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe: An Interdisciplinary Study (PHD thesis, UCL).

[11] Arkadiusz Michalak, Manifesting fealty or status? p.180.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gillian H. Nicolson, The Medieval Wills Of Bristol: With Special Reference to those of the Merchants (Ma Thesis, University of Bermingham)  P.104, p.321.

[14] J. Cowgill et al, Knives and Scabbards, p.24.

[15] Ibid.

[16] B. Dean, Catalogue of European Daggers, p.51.

[17] L. Thompson, Daggers and Bayonets, pp.22-23.

Bibliography

Arkadiusz Michalak, Manifesting fealty or status? Breaking the Code of a late Medieval Dagger Chape from Wronki, Greater Poland (Fontes Archaeologici Posnanienses, vol. 58, 2022).

Bashford Dean, Catalogue of European Daggers (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1929).  

Daniela Comelli et al, The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade (Meteoritics & Planetary Science 1–9, 2016).

Gillian H. Nicolson, The Medieval Wills Of Bristol: with special reference to those of the Merchants (Ma Thesis, University of Bermingham).

J. Cowgill, M. Neergaard & N. Griffith, Medieval Finds from Excavations in London 1: Knives and Scabbards (Boydell Press, 2008).

Logan Thompson, Daggers and Bayonets: a history (Spellmount, 1999).

R. Brownsword, Medieval metalwork: an analytical study of copper-alloy objects (Historical Metallurgy vol.38). 

Susan Brunning, The ‘Living’ Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe: An Interdisciplinary Study (PHD thesis, UCL).

Comments

  1. John says:

    Fantastic read, but I am sure only scratching the surface.

    I am having trouble interpreting what the handles are like and what they would have been like.
    I would love to see an artist rendition of now and then.

    Also would be nice to see them being held to get a sense of their scale and presence.

    Thanks for this

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