By Federico Buldrini
Since the subject is so broad and the reference material not always so easy to find, I will limit myself to discuss the broken back profile only in its western context.
We can find blades with strongly clipped points or spines abruptly angled in razors, knives and folders Greeks and Romans, as early as the 4th century BCE. However the profile isn’t quite what we’re searching for here, since the majority, fixed blades especially, were more like scaled down versions of kopis, sica and falcata swords.
According to German historiography the very first examples of knives classifiable as seaxes are also dated around the 4th century BCE and seem to come from Swedish Skåne, at the time inhabited by what are considered to be the first clans of the Lombards. With the migration towards south the knife then spread across the Alemanni tribes north of the Main river, then towards the Danube and finally west reaching France.
Still these knives didn’t have our profile of interest, on the other hand keeping the spine straight or just dropped enough to form a spear point, usually around the central axis of the blade. This last type of profile will be also very common in Frankish scramasax, with some exceptions.
A medium sized blade with a profile nearing our subject is among the findings from the Pictish burials of Rhyne, dated to the 5th-6th century CE.
Knives with an increasingly marked broken back profile were found in the Vendel period (450-790) ship burials in Sutton Hoo, England and their Swedish counterparts in Uppsala and, precisely, Vendel.
The similarities in the types of burials, the objects, the style of decorations and metallurgy techniques among findings from Vendel, Uppsala and Sutton Hoo has led some scholars to theorize that the warriors buried may had been part of a specific caste or, more likely, a brotherhood of arms.
It has to be said that the broken back knives from the Vendel period were seldom seax, but rather small to medium sized belt knives in male graves and brooch knives in female graves.
However in Finland it has been recently discovered a Vendel period seax with a blade already leaning towards a style similar to what will eventually evolve in the British Islands,
while in the Aachen cathedral is kept a broken back seax, dated to the 8th century, called “Charlemagne hunting knife”, but without any real proof of its actual owner.
The broken back profile, in this case called Hedeby type 6, is the second most common among the knives and blades found in Heiðabýr, today in German Jutland, while part of the Danish kingdom during the Viking Age (790-1066) and from here probably spread in the south of Sweden and Norway, while becoming less common towards the norther regions.
Also, a good number of such blades, but with the spine angle changing already before half its length, has been found in Jórvík, nowadays York, established in 867 by Halfdan Ragnarsson, following the conquest by the Great Heated Army, led by Ivar the boneless, of the Anglosaxon harbor of Eoforwic, in turn built over the Roman Eburacum. In this case too the knives are usually middle to small sized.
Folding knives with a central pivot and blades with a broken back point on one side and a spear point of the other, probably used by leather workers have been found in England, at Jórvik, Canterbury and London and in Russia, at Novgorod. All the findings are dated from the 10th to the 12th century.
Around the year 1000, while in continental Europe the seax had started to loose popularity, Anglosaxon perfected its English counterpart, by many considered to be the maximum expression of this knife though somewhat influenced by the later Frankish ones. Anyway is undeniable that some Anglosaxon specimen shows a level of metallurgic and decorations complexity rarely seen elsewhere.
Some 10th century seaxes found in Dublin are particularly interesting, on the other hand, for their strongly clipped point, almost anticipating the 17th century Spanish navajas.
To conclude, Anglosaxon seaxes, regardless of their size, have a doubly tapering spine, thickening towards the hunch and then thinning towards the tip.
Anyway with the end of the 12th century seaxes were completely set aside on the British Islands too.
From this point on a kind of broken back profile, but way more leaning towards a sharply clipped point was adopted continuously until the 16th century on various declinations first on the falchion
and on to the messer
both being single edged swords utilized primarily, but not exclusively by infantry soldiers. In the same period, but in civil context, were developed the bauernwehr, big hunting knives from Germany and Bohemia, sometimes the size of a small sword and, especially in these cases, very similar to a messer without a cross guard.
After the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711 new weapons were introduced in souther Europe. Scimitars, jambiya daggers and generally curved bladed weapons were called alfanje in Spanish and this name ended up being used also to describe similar swords manufactured by Spaniards. Following Spanish and Muslim trades around the Mediterranean Sea, especially with the Venetian Republic, these swords were appreciated and forged outside of Spain and gave origin to the Italian storta, the southern counterpart to the falchion and messer of central and northern Europe.
Between 1600 and 1700 Europe saw the growth of industrial production of folding knives and some of these, English penny knives in particular, already in 1650 had blades with such a strong broken back profile which almost eliminated completely the point. It’s quite safe to assume that these blades will be the base for the sheepsfoot and lambsfoot profiles.
As for the western folders, from the 17th century on, those knives that had an actual point and a straight spine shifted towards more elegant and softened profiles. Such examples are the Savoyard knives, both Italian and French, the Laguiole, the Spanish navajas, all somewhat influenced by the shape of the Ottoman yatagan sword. From these knives will evolve the modern clip point and texas toothpick profiles.
Meanwhile in the United States of America, since 1785, existed the barlow knife which, compared to its European counterparts and had a very strong profile.
In the last years of 1600, after the establishment in 1670 of the Hudson Bay Fur Trade Company, Sheffield’s knife factories were commissioned with the creation and production of a camp knife to be issued to the hunters and trappers working for the Company. The namesake knife,
which profile reworks the Anglosaxon seax, will remain in production until the 1820s, when it was eventually replaced by butcher knives first and by English made bowie knives then.
With the end of 19th century the broken back profile has almost disappeared. Beside historical replicas, few contemporary declinations are the Varusteleka Skrama, the Morakniv steak knives, which sport a very Jórvik styled blade and, somewhat similar to the Pictish blades of Rhyne, the Mora knife classical profile, firstly introduced in 1891 by Frost-Erik Ernström.