Book review: The Book of Magic edited by Brian Copenhaver

The Book of Magic edited by Brian Copenhaver

The Book of Magic is a masterpiece of scholarship. The editor, Brian Copenhaver, selects texts, from antiquity to the Enlightenment, demonstrating how the idea of magic changed through the centuries. Each section begins with a short introduction on the author but the scholarship is best demonstrated in the copious footnotes, that provide a running, explicatory and illuminating commentry to each original text. A demonstration of how scholarship can shine light on the past.

Brief Bios of Anglo-Saxon kings: Harold

Harold Godwinson (c.1022 – 14 October 1066)

The son of Earl Godwin, Harold was the most powerful man in the land after his father’s death – more powerful than King Edward. While his sister was married to the king, Harold himself had no direct claim on the throne. Nevertheless, he claimed it when Edward died, there being no one in England powerful enough to oppose him. But, across the Channel, Duke William believed that Edward, who had grown up in Normandy, had promised the crown to him. Their rival claims would be settled on the most famous date in English history.

Brief Bios of Anglo-Saxon kings: Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor (c.1003 – 5 January 1066)

Edward grew up in exile in Normandy. Returning as king without a local power base, Edward needed help from Earl Godwin, the most powerful man in the land. In return, Godwin had his daughter marry Edward – despite Godwin’s part in the death of Edward’s brother, Alfred. In 1051, Edward expelled Godwin and his sons, and put his queen in a convent, but the Godwins returned next year with an army, forcing their reacceptance. The childless Edward made no public proclamation of who he wanted as heir, leaving the throne to be contested when he died in 1066, thus setting in motion the conflagration that would consume the House of Godwin later that year. It’s hard not to see it as Edward’s belated revenge upon a family that he hated but could not dispense with.

Brief Bios of Anglo-Saxon kings: Eadwig

Eadwig caught in flagrante delicto by an unamused Abbot Dunstan.

Eadwig (c.940 – 959) famously excused himself from the banquet following his own coronation to exercise himself with a noblewoman – and her daughter. Abbot Dunstan was sent to bring Eadwig back and, apparently, had to use force to get the king from the women’s bed. The relationship between the king and the reforming abbot did not improve thereafter.

Brief Bios of Anglo-Saxon kings: Edgar the Peaceful

Edgar the Peaceful.

He wasn’t. But, during his reign, England was. So great was his mastery over the British Isles that Edgar summoned the kings of the realms surrounding England to his consecration and, taking the helm of a boat, had the royal oarsmen row him down the River Dee and back again. Edgar lived from c.944 to 8 July 975, ascending to the the throne on 1 October 959 when he was only 15 after his brother, Eadwig, died.

Brief Bios of Anglo-Saxon kings: Edward the Elder

Edward the Elder as played by Timothy Innes in The Last Kingdom.

Edward (c.874 – 924) was the eldest son of Alfred the Great. As a young man, he helped Alfred defeat the final Viking invasion of his father’s reign and then, as king, he reconquered the Danelaw, with the help of his formidable sister, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. The Last Kingdom TV series portrays him as callow and foolish. In reality, he was a formidable and determined ruler.

The Katana

The swordsmith Masamune forging a katana with his assitant.

The katana, a single-edged, curved blade, was the legendary sword of the samurai of Japan. Extraordinary legends have been attached to these blades, from the blood thirst of the Muramasa swords to the holy sword of Masamune, which would only harm that which was evil.

As the pattern-welded blade was rising to prominence and then being replaced by mass produced, inferior blades in Europe, a similar technology was rising in Japan. The technology was startlingly similar, yet very different. The tatara, a form of industrial smelting, was used to extract tamahagane steel and iron from the iron sands that are the main ore source in Japan.

Tamahagane is high quality steel, but the carbon content is variable. The bladesmith separated the steel into highest and lower carbon. The low carbon steel (shingane) was forged into a core and the higher carbon steel was forged into layers which were then sandwiched together around this forged core into a blade shape. The outer blade could be folded many times to form a laminated sword in which the impurities were spread evenly throughout the blade, much like in pattern-welded swords.

Between each forging the blade was coated in clay mixed with ash. This helped to draw out impurities from the steel as it was heated and burned off in the intense heat of the forge.

The skill in forging a katana lay in making certain that the soft core and laminated outer skin were correctly aligned and positioned in the finished blade. Like a pattern-welded blade this skill took a life time to master.

The katana was not heat treated in the same way as a European sword. The softness of the back of the blade was maintained by coating it in a thick layer of clay. The clay was thinned towards the blade edge. This kept the high heat that hardened the blade confined to the cutting edge, thus allowing the other parts of the blade to remain soft and springy.

Using clay could produce a blade without tempering, but usually a light temper was needed to reduce brittleness. The clay also created a beautiful wavy line down the blade (hamon). A perfect hamon was (and is) a sign of an excellent blade and acted as a mark of quality.

The forged blade was passed to the polisher who cleaned and polished the blades using decreasingly abrasive water stones. This polishing could take weeks and is itself a fine art.

The finished blade was then sent for a finely decorated handle and scabbard.

The finest Japanese swords were made by a group of skilled craftsmen. The bladesmith was a Master and directed a group of apprentices. The Master did little of the heavy work, but directed exactly. Often, he would tap the metal with a light hammer and the weight and location of the strike was duplicated by an apprentice with a larger hammer.

The master was there for his skill not his strength. Japanese Master bladesmiths achiveed mythological status and there are many folk tales that describe smiths meeting each other and holding a forging competition. For instance, Muramasa was supposed to have challenged Masamune to see who could make the better sword. Blades made, the two masters hung their swords in a stream. Muramasa’s sword sliced everything: fish, leaves, the air itself. But Masamune’s blade touched nothing. Thinking he had won, Muramasa jibed his master, until a watching monk explained that, while the first sword cut everything, the second, Masamune’s blade, was superior, since it discriminated, leaving untouched that which did not deserve to be harmed. Sadly, this wonderful tale is apocryphal: Muramasa and Masamune were separated by generations and never met. 

The 7 Steps to Forging the Perfect Sword

Step 1: Choose the Metal

The single most important aspect of a good sword was the material it was made from. It needed to be light and strong, flexible but not brittle, and capable of achieving a sharp edge and point.

Iron is soft and will not hold an edge well. Steel can be sharpened and will hold an edge, but the increase in hardness makes it much more brittle. The ideal trade off was a weapon that has a flexible iron core and a sharp steel edge welded on.

Step 2: Forging

The best swords are fusions of iron and steel and the only way to successfully put the two together is to forge them. The superheating of the metals creates thousands of tiny welds that unite them. An added bonus of forging is that any impurities in the metal are spread evenly around the blade, reducing the chances of failure through stress. This can cause the blade to bend or even snap – not good in the midst of battle. Bars of good grade iron were twisted in a regular pattern. This working further disaggregated any impurities. The bars were welded together to make a solid core and the steel edge was then welded on. 

A channel was opened around the edge of the core and the steel was welded into this. Closing the channel locked the steel into place, making a strong bond.

Step 3: Annealing

Iron and steel were hammered into a blade shape and then heated until the metal ceased to be magnetic. This made the metal soft enough to work easily for shaping.  It was essential to heat the blade along its entire length to get a uniform finish. The charcoal in the forge needed to be arranged so that the length of the blade was in maximum contact with the flames, to keep all of the blade at the same temperature. The sword had to be cooled very slowly: either the fire was allowed to cool, or the sword was buried in hot sand that retained heat.

Step 4: Grinding

A variety of methods were used to grind a blade, from water powered wheels down to sand on a piece of leather, although hand files, and  stone wheels and hones were generally used. The blade was moved through a variety of grinds, the grit gradually getting finer until the desired shape was achieved.

The main point of grinding was to remove the material that could not be easily removed by forging.

The fuller was also finished at this stage, having been forged in earlier. A fuller is often described as a blood groove and is said to allow a sword to be pulled out easily, but this is not true. The fuller lightened the blade and increased its strength.

Step 5: Hardening

The sword was reheated to a dull orange, until non magnetic. It was essential not to overheat the point and edge as carbon can easily burn out of the steel. Knowing his forge was essential for the swordsmith.

The sword was then quenched in water. A thermal jacket formed around the blade from the steam, so movement was essential to allow for a better quench. This process aligned the crystalline structure in the iron and steel and promoted grain growth.

Step 6: Tempering

The blade was brittle after hardening, so it had to be reheated precisely.  This was done using colour. Heated metal glows different colours depending on its temperature. For tempering, the swordsmith heated the blade until the edge was a straw colour and the centre, where more metal was, a deep purple. The blade was then allowed to cool slowly, thus allowing some flex back into the blade to ensure it did not snap in use.

Step 7: Completion

The blade was forged, but it looked a sorry state: dirty and blackened, so it had to be cleaned thoroughly. Abrasives were used to scour away the forge detritus. The blade was polished slowly, using gradually less coarse media. After a final sharpen, the blade was etched in a caustic medium to highlight the contrast between iron bands and steel. This created the patterning that pattern-welded sword are famous for.

The hilt of a fine sword was always on display, so jewelled, precious metal hilts with prestige materials such as exotic wood or ivory were used. The hilt was composite and the pommel and guards were adjusted to balance the blade for its owner. The scabbard was similarly made of fine wood, bound in leather and lined with sheepskin. The lanolin in the lining helped maintain the blade.

How to Make the Perfect Sword

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

The Bamburgh Sword was far more than a weapon. It was a 7th century work of art rivalling the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was a statement of intent and an announcement of its owner as a superior warrior – and one likely to kill you.

The technology required to make the Bamburgh Sword, and similar pattern-welded weapons, was staggering. The finest bog ore was smelted to make iron and steel.

Then the iron was forged into regularly twisted bars which were welded together to form a perfect chevron pattern and the basic sword shape was formed. The very finest blades had wootz (crucible steel) added to reduce imperfections in the material.

The steel edge was welded to the core. The iron core made the sword flexible and fluid in the hand. The steel edge made the blade wickedly sharp. It was the interplay between iron and steel that was the key to the success of these magical blades.

The blade was fullered and ground to shape. The entire blade was heated and quenched several times to normalise. Then it was heated and quenched in water or brine. At this point the metal was brittle, so it was reheated to a lower temperature and allowed to cool slowly.

The final step: sharpening.

The Swordsmith

Owen Bush, bladesmith.

The Bamburgh Sword, forged in the 7th century, excavated in 1960 and rediscoverd in 2001, is possibly the finest sword ever made, being made of six strands of pattern-welded iron. An extraordinary weapon like this was the work of more than one man.

The blade, the hilt and the scabbard were made by different people, each a master of his craft. The technology that went into creating a pattern-welded sword is extremely complicated and takes a lifetime to perfect. The men who had this skill were venerated and rewarded richly. However, the technology was jealously guarded, so bladesmiths were not free to leave the king who employed them. In a time when science was a thousand years in the future, the creation of a perfect blade was a process of magic and ritual.

The very best Early Medieval blades had wootz steel (crucible steel imported from India) alloyed into the pattern welding. It raised the technology hugely.

The hilt was made up of precious metal and precious stones. Garnets were a favourite;  each one was hand shaped by cutting and laboriously polished with a mix of fat and crushed stone loaded onto a leather pad. The goldwork was extraordinary and the level of minute detail huge. How this was done without magnification is a mystery still.