Saturday, 5 July 2014

Named Swords and Trial by Combat

Named Swords

In the days before the first millennium, swords were individually crafted. Swords that stood the test of time earned an individual name.  In the sagas, they were referred to with respect and keenly sought to settle legal disputes.  

Some swords were straightforward. Such was the great sword Skrymir owned by the warrior Steinar. Named after one of the mythic giants, it was said to be never dirty nor troublesome to handle.

Other swords were troublesome. Skeggi owned the sword Skofnung which was often sought by lawyers. The sword had to be carefully prepared before trial.  The sun was not to shine on the pommel of the sword.  The blade was not to be withdrawn from the scabbard until trial.  Skeggi gave the following directions before trial: “Sit by yourself and draw it there, hold out the sword blade in front of you and blow on it, then a little snake will crawl out from under the hilt.  Turn the sword sideways and make it possible for him to crawl back under the hilt.”

The warrior-poet Kormak didn’t believe in magical snakes.  When he got into legal strife (which poets do from time to time), he had cause to borrow Skeggi’s sword (sometime between 955AD and 970AD).  

He listened to Skeggi’s explanation on how to use the sword.  After listening he exclaimed “What will you sorcerers think of next?”  

Suffice to say, Kormak did not bother to follow the instructions (like most poets, he was impetuous, and often jumped into trouble before looking). Have a little sympathy for poor Kormak.  When was the last time you read the instruction manual before using that new piece of equipment?

The sagas record that, when he drew the sword, Skofnung came out of its scabbard howling and Kormak went on to lose his case (fortunately with only a split thumb and the loss of the duel ransom).  

But look again at Skeggi’s sword spell.

Sit by yourself before the battle.  Catch your breath and relax.
Draw the sword and hold the blade out in front of you.  Consider your position and the consequences of continuing.
Blow on the blade.  Watch as your breath reveals the detail of the design etched into the metal, of a serpent protected by runes. Recall you are wielding a sword unbroken by past battles.
Turn the sword. The design is replaced by the sharp edge of the blade. Take the responsibility for wielding a named sword.

It is a powerful spell.  But, if the spell does not work, and you get hurt, Skofnung had one more trick up its scabbard.  Attached to it was a healing pouch.  

What will they think of next?

Kormak's Saga: written 1250-1300 - saga text available at

Trial By Combat

In the old days before the first millennium, northern laws provided strict means for settling disputes – either through formal proceedings before a panel of respected law speakers or by combat.  

Law Courts, Goulburn

In a trial by combat, a litigant could appear in person, or by their lawyer. Some successful lawyers advertised their profession by appending the title “the dueller” to their name.

Each litigant brought or borrowed a sword (preferably a named sword), obtained 3 shields and brought a second, to bear the shield for them.

The field was prepared by pinning a square cloak onto the ground by special pins.  Surrounding the cloak, hazel poles were placed at a short distance from the cloak.

The trial took place by a formalised series of blows struck, alternatively, by each of the litigants.  Initially, one became the attacker and the other the defender.  After one blow, the positions were reversed.  While a defender still had a functional shield, the defendant’s second held it to protect the defendant, and the attacker directed the force of the blow towards shattering the shield.  When all three shields were destroyed, the second withdrew and the defender was left standing, on the cloak, to parry the alternate blows directed at him with his sword.

The trial continued until a drop of blood fell on the cloak or a defendant was pushed, by force of a blow, beyond the surrounding hazel poles.  If one foot was placed beyond the hazel, the defendant was said to have retreated.  If two feet were placed beyond the hazel, the defendant was said to have run. The difference went to reputation – no action for slander could be brought for calling someone who had run a coward (although action could be taken to suppress a poem which was designed to provoke ill feeling).

Loss of a duel resulted in the loss of the case and any damages flowing from that.  In addition, about 950AD, a duel ransom of 2 marks of silver was payable.

In some ways, litigation has not changed much. You are a mug if you do not bring the sharpest sword you can find to court.

The image above is from a couple of days ago: a modern cloak in the ground in the form of the fine law courts at the city of Goulburn.  Built to serve a growing population that never came, the building is quiet for much of the time – which is probably a good thing, because the public spaces inside the building leave a bit to be desired.

(I am back working on the issue of mandatory detention – but tripping over all manner of interesting diversions.)

Peter Quinton
July 2014

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