Slinging swords and casting corns – a brief foray into experimental archaeology

One of the downsides of being a taught student is having to submit multiple pieces of work on completely different topics – in this case three essays which together weighed in at a little shy of 10,000 words – on the same day. Never before have I been involved in three concurrent major projects that culminated at the same time, and I shudder to think of non-academic scenarios in which this occurs (having triplets?). Such is postgrad life. The good thing is receiving great marks for all of them does, if you’ll forgive me for briefly sounding like a stereotypical Oscar/BAFTA/other shiny statuette winner, make it all worthwhile.

After catching up on all the hours of sleep lost in the first two weeks of 2014 in the name of this trinity of essays, I finally got around to doing something I had had in mind to try out for quite some time. The starting point was the subject matter of the longest and, at the risk of sounding like I’m contradicting the opening paragraph, most interesting of the essays, namely the following remarkable and problematic passage in one of the two sets of Old English charter bounds for Battersea (appended to an otherwise-unrelated diploma and calendared as S 645):

swa ðonon to bæueriðe · Ealswa feor swa an man mæi mid anen bille gewurpen ·  an friman  mid fif bere cornen

so thence to beaver-stream [Beverley Brook], as far as a man may throw with a bille and a freeman with five barleycorns

The key contention I explored and I believe went a long way to justifying is that this records a real-life action rather than a metaphorical reference to distance, and that bille stands for a sword (Old English bill, predominantly but not exclusively a word found in poetry) equivalent in form to a small number of swords of later Anglo-Saxon date recovered from the channel of the nearby River Thames on or close to the Battersea estate boundary. I alluded to the idea in a blog post I wrote so long ago that it engenders almost extracorporeal feelings when I think back to where I was at the time, but suffice to say that the one-two blows of travelling and moving to London knocked it far down my agenda. Fast-forward a couple of years and I feel like the essay allowed me to answer most of the questions I posed myself, albeit in the confines of a linguistics-based essay which meant I had to go easy on the relevant archaeological and historical material.

One thing I could not do in the coursework essay nor in any future (hopefully-published!) incarnation of it is to establish quite how far a bill-type sword or five barleycorns may be thrown. So, having the good fortune of being able to access a re-enactor’s replica of such a weapon, I seized the opportunity to find out for myself by taking a trip to the local park, where I had seen members of the University of Nottingham’s sword-fighting society practicing and thus reasoned it would be the place where my experiments would generate the fewest raised eyebrows/calls to the police. It just so happened a couple of members of the society were there to practice their combat – it turns out they use foam replicas, so the metal weapon I was using gained me extra respect (although I get the sense that if I were in their shoes I would have accorded the same treatment to a stranger who rocks up in a public park with a sword in a carrier bag).

My weapon of choice – a riff on the Wheeler Type VII hilt if I’m not mistaken

But if only it were as simple as going down the local park and chucking a sword about for a while. The longer you think about the variables at play in conducting such an exercise, the more ones come to mind. For a start there was the sword itself. Unfortunately, it had been taken out of its original packaging a long while ago so I don’t know the exact make and model, though it looked quite a lot like the “Hanwei Irish Sword”. The stated weight of this type of replica works out at a little under 1.1 kilos, which seems a touch on the light side in comparison to the sword I was using – I must confess that I didn’t weigh it. Unhelpfully, the reference works on their early medieval prototypes I have consulted (primarily Ian Peirce’s Swords of the Viking Age) provide dimensions but no information on weights. Therefore, I can only assume that the weights (and for that matter lengths) of the tenth-century and twenty first-century weapons are more or less equal.

Second is me. There are numerous possible interpretations of the word man (= Old English mann) in the text which, interesting as they are, need not delay us here. Instead, working on the assumption that swords tend to be associated with males, the next set of questions to be answered concern how representative I am of the sort of person who had responsibility for throwing the bill back in the day. At a guess my height is above that of the later Anglo-Saxon male mean. In terms of upper body strength, while I don’t perform much manual labour, I do go to the gym on average twice a week and do other exercise intermittently (is this starting to read like a weird Anglo-Saxon online dating profile?). Again, I am left to conclude that whatever the differences, physically I am not so abnormal as to make the results completely divergent from what might be expected of the mann tasked with performing the same action over a millennium ago. The same applies for my clothing and the extent to which that helped or hindered my throws (I was appropriately dressed for being outside in the middle of a sunny-ish day in the English East Midlands in January).

Here I go again – just an average Sunday afternoon in Highfields Park

To an extent the related questions of strength and throwing ability are offset by my decision to try a number of different techniques to launch the sword, namely:

  1. Overarm, holding sword by the hilt with one hand
  2. Sword held vertical, hilt upwards, with hand below the guard
  3. Sword held horizontal in flat palms of both hands
  4. Underarm, holding sword by the hilt with one hand
  5. Spinning clockwise, holding sword by the hilt with one hand

For all of the above which require the use of just one hand I used my right hand as this is the one I write and hold a tennis racquet with. Not long after completing the exercise and having returned the sword, it dawned on me that one technique I didn’t think of was to project it in the manner of a javelin or throwing spear. However, subsequently I came to appreciate that this is inappropriate for performing with a sword since the best results necessitate the sword being held by the middle part of its blade, not the safest place! In the end, therefore, I think that the five ways I threw the sword represent the most credible options.

Another observation I made during the exercise was that my earlier sets of throws were perhaps not as hard as the last ones, as I was more confident the sword wouldn’t bend or break on impact with the ground (I wasn’t throwing it into water multiple times in the name of absolute authenticity). Deriving an average from three throws can smooth out any wayward individual results, but it does then raise the intriguing question of whether the thrower lobbed the sword as hard as he could. In delimiting a boundary in the best interests of the Battersea estate with which he was associated, the presumption has to be that he did, but given the extraordinarily idiosyncratic nature of the act there can be no certainty about this.

Sword in the grass (this is harder to do than you might think)

In the absence of a decent tape measure, I had to pace out the distance between the baseline from where I was throwing – the edge of a manhole cover – and the centre (often no more than a best guess) of where the sword and barleycorns landed. The boots I was wearing measure 32 centimetres heel to toe, making conversion of the distances from boot length to metres (which is the unit of measurement of all the tabulated figures below) fairly straightforward. Taking direct distances ignores lateral deviations from the maximum possible straight-ahead line; I’ll wager that the original sword-thrower was perhaps rather more accomplished in the task of throwing to this optimal line than I was.

Bill distances

The same throwing techniques were used for the five barleycorns (albeit with modifications where necessary; the two hands were held together for the “horizontal” throw). Extra variables were at play here. I was using some organic barleycorns I bought from my local health food shop, the only such grains I could find on sale, which I can only guess are not wildly dissimilar to their Anglo-Saxon forebears. The corns had been processed to the extent that they weren’t in their husks, something that – as my sword-fighting companions in the park pointed out to me when we were chatting about what I was doing – may not have been the case on the occasion of the original boundary marking. There is also a strong likelihood that the distances thrown may have been impacted by the wind – or did the freeman wait until any breeze had subsided in order to achieve a greater distance? Barleycorn distances Straight away it can be seen from the barleycorn results that, not unexpectedly, the average distances derived from the quintet of throwing methods are without exception inferior to those for the sword. However, I would note that the technique-for-technique averages are not so far apart, even if the difference between the overall means is well in excess of 1.5 metres. If the median measures are used as a gauge of the same thing, then there is surprising little difference – 55 centimetres to be precise. What this suggests to me is that any practical differences between the two means of distance measurement were accepted but considered less important than the symbolism of the two actions. Such things may be capable of being better understood with further research, especially into the link between the barleycorns and freeman status.

Five barleycorns in the hand…

I would be naive to think these experiments in concert with the research which went into my earlier essay have cleared up all the question marks hanging over the idiosyncratic textual reference. Basic points, such as whether the measures define distance(s) across or along the stream, remain unanswered. Nevertheless, the implication that the two types of projectile could yield distances of between 4 and 14 metres, with a mutual tendency to cluster around the 8-9 metre mark, fits the idea of favourably marking a distance part-way across a small stream presumably fringed by boggy areas unsuitable for standing on (particularly not while wielding a sword). If nothing else, my throwing experiments have gone some way to rooting a hard-to-understand documentary reference in some kind of empirical reality.

Thanks to Hayden for the loan of the sword, and to my ever-patient girlfriend for taking the photos and writing down the measurements.

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Battersea, Charters, Nottingham, Old English, Ritual, Surrey, Swords, Topography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Slinging swords and casting corns – a brief foray into experimental archaeology

  1. Pingback: Post no bills? Reflections on visits to place-names in the Surrey Weald | Surrey Medieval

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