• Adrian J. Boas

On a Weapon of Choice

The thirteenth century Morgan Bible, the Morgan Library, New York

When I began basic training in the army, we were issued with Second World War 98k Mausers of Czechoslovakian manufacture, refurbished by the Israel Defence Forces. The Mauser was in service in Israel from the 1948 Independence War until as late as the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Nicknamed the "Czechi", it was also sometimes referred to as a "broom", a name that probably originated in the Yiddish expression - "If God wills it, even a broom shoots". But that suggests that the effectiveness of the Mauser, indeed the very possibility that it might actually fire a bullet was miraculous, whereas, in fact, the "broom" was not only capable of shooting but was regarded by many as the finest of all bolt action rifles. From the time of its development by Peter Paul Mauser in 1898 it became the standard weapon in the German army, and by the end of the Second World War 100 million pieces had been manufactured and it had been in use in over 30 countries. It was indeed a weapon of choice.

The sword was most certainly the weapon of choice for the medieval knight. There were other weapons that knights wielded; battle axes, spears and lances, maces, but the sword was perhaps the easiest to use and the most effective of all hand weapons. The typical crusader sword was used with one hand. It was around 70 to 80 centimetres long, weighing about 1.5 kilograms. It had a straight, double-edged blade with a fuller (central groove along its length). It had evolved out of the Viking spatha of the ninth century via the eleventh century Norman sword, at which time it developed the full cross-guard that gave it the distinctive cruciform shape. This was the type of sword that appears on the Bayeux Tapestry. What made it a favoured weapon was the ease of its use and its effectiveness in hand-to-hand combat, and it had the added virtue of its cross-like form. What could be more symbolic of the role of knights fighting religious wars; symbolism that was not lost on the designers of the stone memorial crosses with attached bronze swords that stand in British war cemeteries.

Bayeux military cemetery memorial cross [Photo by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, July 2008.K72ndst [CC BY 3.0 (]

The few crusader swords have survived and been recovered in excavations at 'Atlit, Montfort and elsewhere are, not surprisingly, no more than fragments of corroded iron. The occasional intact swords displayed in museums and private collections, generally appear to be in suspiciously fine condition, and sometimes of doubtful form. Of these, the most famous is the sword that allegedly had belonging to Godfrey of Bouillon. Together with what are claimed to be the duke's spurs, it has been on display in a side chapel of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at least since the destruction of the royal tombs following a major fire in 1808. The sword appears in some nineteenth century accounts of visitors to the church, as early as 1820 when it was mentioned by the Englishman William Turner who had apparently seen it already in 1815, and among later writers, by Mark Twain who wrote:

“But the relic that touched us most was the plain old sword of that stout Crusader, Godfrey of Bouillon - King Godfrey of Jerusalem. No blade in Christendom wields such enchantment as this - no blade of all that rust in the ancestral halls of Europe is able to invoke such visions of romance in the brain of him who looks upon it - none that can prate of such chivalric deeds or tell such brave tales of the warrior days of old.”*

Twain, for all his sharp eye and well-known scepticism seems, like many others including some present-day scholars, to have been taken in by the claims of Latin priests that this is an authentic relic, although, in his usual style and humour, he shortly breaks into a revelry of imagination that reminds us that this is after all Mark Twain, who doesn't take himself, let alone what he is told by others too seriously:

"I can never forget old Godfrey's sword now. I tried it on a Moslem, and clove him in twain like a doughnut. The spirit of Grimes was upon me, and if I had had a graveyard I would have destroyed all the infidels in Jerusalem. I wiped the blood off the old sword and handed it back to the priest...".

In any case, it is clearly not a late eleventh century sword, and if not actually a forgery, it must date to some centuries later than Godfrey. To the best of my knowledge it is not recorded prior to the 1808 fire, and this supposed blade of the first ruler of the kingdom of Jerusalem might, by not too discerning minds, be thought to have been salvaged from the duke's tomb at the time of its desecration by Greek Orthodox priests who used the fire as an opportunity to remove the Latin royal sepulchres.

* Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, New York, 1911, p. 403.