Literature Review #2: German Swords and Swordmakers by Richard H. Bezdek

By Helen Steadman, Oct 25 2016 12:35PM

In total, Richard H. Bezdek has written five books on swords, and this is his fourth. He is a US-based sword enthusiast who has collected American and European Cavalry swords for more than twenty-five years. This book took him ten years to put together, and it’s easy to see why. It provides a very comprehensive insight into German swordmaking, and its extensive bibliography will help me to find further useful reading materials. Some chapters are more pertinent to me because of their subject matter and period, but I’ve listed all the contents below in case they’re of interest to others.

German Swords and Swordmakers by Richard H. Bezdek

German Swords and Swordmakers by Richard H. Bezdek

1 Rulers of Germany

Rulers of the Holy Roman Empire: Ferdinand III, Leopold I and Joseph I (1637–1711) and Kings of Prussia: Frederick I (1701–1713) cover the period I’m interested in.

2 German Confederations (876–1806)

German states in the Holy Roman Empire during the period I’m interested in.

3 German Blade Markings

This chapter explains the various kinds of sword markings. For instance: unit markings, U for Ulanen (Lancer); regiment markings, 4/H/5/158 (4th Regiment/Hussars/Squadron 5/Weapon 158); special marks, Eisenhauer (originally, iron-cutting blade, but later a general mark of quality), and G for Guss-stahl (cast-steel); royal cypher marks, which are crests, but these only appear from 1816, so they’re out of scope for me.

Of much greater interest are the markings on p.11, which show the City of Solingen blade mark – various forms of running wolf. This mark was originally used by swordmakers in Passau, Bavaria and then later by Solingen, Prussia. I intend to look into the symbology of the running wolf as part of my novel about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, so I’ll be interested to find some of these marks on swords when I visit Solingen’s blade museum and other sword collections.

4 Translation of German Words Relating to Swords

I will need to seriously brush up my schoolgirl German before venturing to Solingen – at the very least, I need to be able to understand enough so that I can eat, drink and find my way about on public transport. But it is good to learn some specific swordmaking terms:

• Harter – temperer

• Klingenschmiede – bladesmith

• Me Fecit Solingen – made in Solingen

• Schleifer – grinder

• Schwert – sword

• Waffen – weapons

5 German Sword-making Centres (aka the Chapter of Gold for me)

This chapter contains some interesting information about the history of swordmaking in Solingen. Originally, Passau, Bavaria was the biggest centre in the 1300s, but Solingen, Prussia eventually overtook it. The Crusades (1096–1270) greatly increased the need for swords, and also ‘helped’ the Solingen swordmakers to develop new techniques. I say ‘helped’ because it seems the Solingen swordmakers were so keen to learn Muslim blade-making techniques that the Knights of St John of Jerusalem imported Solingen swordmakers to the Holy Land. Damascus steel (pattern-welded) was in particular demand and Adolph IV of Berg was only one noble who brought Damascus bladesmiths to Solingen. This newly gained knowledge (whether by means fair or foul) helped to make Solingen the swordmaking centre of the world.

This chapter also contains a list of all the Solingen swordmakers who left for other countries. The earliest recorded departure was 1350 to Madrid, but the swordmakers left for all of the following countries between 1350 and 1840:

• Alsace

• Austria

• Denmark

• England

• France

• Netherlands

• Poland

• Russia

• Spain

• Sweden

• USA

I’m most interested in those who came to England, and particularly to Shotley Bridge. The first swordmakers to come to England arrived in Greenwich (1603 & 1629), and then in Hounslow (1629, 1649 & 1660). Some time later, more came to Durham (1660) and finally, the swordmakers came to Shotley Bridge (1687 & 1725).

In particular, I’m interested in the fact that so many swordmakers had been leaving Solingen for such a long time, with so many different destinations. Yet, it seems the authorities took a dim view when they departed for Shotley Bridge and issued a court order demanding they return, or risk forfeiting their property and lives. This is something I will need to look more into – was this threat issued to all who departed, or were the Shotley Bridge swordmakers the final straw?

This chapter then goes on to list the Solingen swordmakers in alphabetical order, giving the dates they were in Solingen, the town, country and dates of immigration. There is also a list of Burgermeisters (mayors) who were also swordmakers. I noted with interest that there are three mayors with the surname Clauberg (Peter 1632, Herman 1651 and Lutter 1677). The Claubergs were the second-oldest swordmaking family in Solingen and were present from 1303. (They are preceded only by the Schaffs, who were recorded from 1185.) Third in line are the Voes (1374). The Clauberg family makes me prick up my writerly ears. They are the second-oldest swordmaking family in Solingen, with three Burgermeisters in the space of forty years. Yet, Johannes Clauberg was one of the swordmakers who left for Shotley Bridge in 1687. I wonder why he left Solingen and how it affected his remaining family. There must be an intriguing story here, and I will try to find some descendants of the Clauberg family either in England or Germany to interview.

6 Early Teutonic Sword Makers

Covers 900–1300, so out of scope for me. The most interesting (albeit grim) fact I gleaned was that the armourers marked their names on the sword in the fuller (aka the blood gutter), which filled my mind with lovely images of blood running over men’s names. (It’s a good job I’m a writer and not a serial killer.) But this one fact really reminded me that swords were killing machines first and foremost – whereas my intererest is largely aesthetic, industrial and cultural. So this is something important for me to bear in mind when carrying out further research: how did the swordmakers feel about making swords and knives, which were used for offence and defence? It might also be worth talking to people who currently make arms to see how they feel about it…

7 German Arms Manufactories

These run from 1811 onwards, so out of scope for me.

8 Listing of German Sword Makers (another Chapter of Gold for me)

This chapter lists all of the swordmaking families of Solingen, their trade (most of those who came to Shotley Bridge are listed as sword grinders), where they lived (ie whether they left Solingen or not) and dates of birth and death. From this section, I learned that many men are called Johann or Joannes (Latin ending); as with England, lack of education meant that many names were spelt differently, which is something I’ll need to consider for my book. Also, many of the swordmakers changed their names after arriving in England, and I’ll need to think about that too. For instance, Ohlig to Oley, Mohll to Moll, Wupper to Woper and Dell to Bell. (On that note, I must interrogate my sister-in-law in case her family is descended from swordmakers.)

In the main, families stayed in Solingen, with one or two swordmakers from a wider family leaving. So, this makes me wonder about the possible tensions caused: did the families who stayed behind suffer because of the death threats made against those who left? Something to add to my questionnaire in due course.

9 Listing of German Armouries

This lists armourers in Solingen and elsewhere (Augsberg, Nuremberg, Dresden and Landshut). There’s not much for me here, but my favourite entry is the Bavarian designer and etcher, Peter Pan!

10 Rulers of Austria

Lists rulers ranging from the Babenberg Dynasty (976–1156) onwards. My period of interest is during the House of Hapsburg (1276–1740).

11 Listing of Austrian Sword Makers

Nothing for me here, except that I like the name of Wolf Ernst Wirsberg…

12 Listing of Austrian Armourers

Nothing to note here, other than men seem to be called Hans, Casper or Christian.

Appendix German Sword Makers Who Exported Swords to Northern and Southern Dealers during the American Civil War (1861–1865)

Nothing for me here, as this is outside my period. However, it is followed by maps, drawings and photos. There is a very useful picture of Solingen drawn in 1640 that shows the town from a distance. The most notable feature is the height of the church spire compared with all other buildings. There are also paintings and drawings of some swordmakers. None of them are of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, but three of them may be relatives, which might indicate family resemblance: Carl and August Hartkopt; and Carl Schimmelbusch (who seems quite a fetching fellow according to his portrait).

There are also screeds of German swordmaker marks, which range from simple line and circle drawings through to very complex markings. Some personal favourites include:

• Bleckman: a stack of kegs (one horizontal line, topped by two circles, with one circle on top)

• Bontgen & Sabin: a booted foot kicking a ball

• Peter Bras von Meigen: a devil’s head

• Johann Wilhelm Hoppe: the symbol for Saturn

• Johann Hoppes the Elder: a wildman (perhaps Iron John)

• Konrad Pols: sigils for Sagittarius and Venus

But best of all is the mark of Peter Schimmelbush: a very complex logo showing a self-portrait within an oval frame that contains the swordmaker’s name and Made in Solingen, all finished off with decorative scrolls. That’s quite a lot to fit on a fairly narrow strip of metal. So I wonder whether this was a bit of showing off of craftsmanship… It’s easiest the fanciest mark there is. I’d be interested to see how it translates onto the blade, and I’ll look out for some of these marks when I visit the German Blade Museum in Solingen (Deutsches Klingenmuseum).

Finally, there are lots of large drawings and photos of swords. They’re mainly from after the years that I’m interested in. But still of interest are the photos of swords for royalty, which are extremely fancy, and even their blades are very ornate, being engraved down the whole length. There are helpful photos of three 17th century swords (pp. 226–227): a rapier and a swept-hilt rapier; and best of all, a broadsword, which clearly shows the running wolf motif . I’m most interested to see that the wolf is running towards the tip of the blade, which I presume means it’s running into battle and not away from it… but this will need further investigation. When I looked at the various drawings of running wolf motifs, most of them were running from the right to the left; so I will also need to find out what (if any) the significance of this is – my understanding of the left being that it is associated with the sinister (devil and so on).

The bibliography contains lots of potentially useful sources for further reading (and Mr Bezdek has been in touch with a great many many sources in the north east of England and in Solingen).

If you’re interested in the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, or German swordmaking generally, this is a fascinating book. You can buy it direct from the author here or you can get it from the usual online outlets. It’s not especially cheap, but it’s a lovely, glossy volume and would make a lovely gift (to yourself, if necessary).

References

Richard H. Bezdek (2000) German Swords and Swordmakers: Edged Weapon Makers from the 14th to the 20th Centuries. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.

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