Show me some nice swords: How to talk to a German sword cutler in the 17th century

I recently posted a translation of this text from Daniel Martin’s Acheminement de la langue allemande, published in 1635, on my Facebook page which gathered a lot of interest, and so I thought I would republish it here along with some more details on the fourbisseur, schwertfeger or sword cutler trade. I thought at first that this volume was published in 1663 (then known as the Guidon Allemand), but in fact it seems to date from 1635. Note that the pages I am using are from the 1693 edition, but are virtually identical to the original one minus a few spelling differences.

The book was published in Strasbourg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was an interesting time to publish such a book, as the region was caught in the 30 Years War. It’s even more intriguing that Martin makes it clear that this book is made for the French soldier visiting Strasbourg and “the French nobility wanting to exercise their virtue in the current German War”. Acheminement is clearly meant with war in mind, as it focuses its themes around what a soldier or officer might need in a campaign. The city was then neutral in this conflict, but was ultimately conquered and annexed to France at the end of the wat. To put things into perspective, Meyer published his famous treatise 65 years before, in the same city.

Much like a modern day travel guide, Martin’s book gives a few example of conversations that could happen with various people in German speaking towns. The most interesting for us, of course, is the one with the fourbisseur, which could be translated as furbisher or sword cutler.

Show me some nice swords.
What kind?
All kinds.
Broadswords, cutlasses, riding and hunting swords.
A rapier, a hanger or knife.
A sabre or scimitar, a foil.
A dagger, a bayonet.
Here are some new and old ones.
What kind of old rapier is this?
It’s a very nice old wolf’s blade. [probably a Passau running wolf blade]
I would like it better than a Spanish blade if it had a fashionable hilt.
How much would it cost me with the hilt?
I must first know which hilt.
Silvered, with a somewhat weighty pommel, an artistically worked pas d’âne, and the grip of silver wire.
It must also be sharpened and polished.
I will arrange it and will sharpen the point some more.
When it will be ready, you will have the choice to take it or leave it.
Good merchandise always finds its merchant.

There are quite a few interesting details from this discussion apart from how immersive this feels for a sword enthusiast today. First is how certain words get translated. Bayonet is translated in German as stillet. This might seem confusing to someone today, as modern Germans would call it a bajonett, but what is important to note here, and this seems to have escaped many historians writing on the bayonet, is that the word was first used to refer to various types of knives associated with the Bayonne region. It’s only by the late 17th century, and possibly even the early 18th century, that the word began to be used to refer exclusively to a blade mounted on a musket. It is then very much possible that what is intended in this text is instead a stiletto type dagger.

This image is part of a series called Les Costumes Grotesques : Habits des métiers et professions, Published in Paris in 1695. It shows different tradesmen wearing the tools and products of their profession. Here, the furbisher wears swords and knives, including two that appear to be some unusual socket bayonets, probably among the first of their kind.

Next is the lame au vieux loup, or “old wolf’s blade”. This expression is encountered a few times in French texts, and though it is never quite clear what the intended meaning is, it is most probably referring to what we now call a blade marked with the “Running Passau Wolf”. There are a few mentions made of these blades being called “foxes” in Britain, though I have found very few clear mentions in period texts. The wolf was usually a mark of Passau sword makers, using the emblem of their city. Of course, like many such marks, it came to be reproduced by many other swordsmiths unrelated to Passau.

It’s also interesting to see the pas d’âne being already mentioned. This term usually refers to the bilobate type guards used on smallswords as well as various other types such as what we now call Walloon hilts.

The furbisher

A sketch for an elaborate trade card of a Parisian furbisher, ca. 1680. The overly patriotic theme shows a group of Musketeers of the Guard fighting off, in single rank, enemies from different nations armed with their stereotypical weapons and dress. They range from a Spaniard with rapier and dagger, Hungarian and Polish soldiers with sabres, and even, in the background, what seems to be an Indigenous warrior from America with a bow and arrow.

Another interesting thing to consider is the profession of furbisher or sword cutler itself. Although the name now refers to knives and cutlery, it was also used to refer to what the French would call a fourbisseur who would mount, polish and sell swords. Indeed, we often think of European swords being the work of one swordsmith or at least one workshop, but while it could be done this way at times, the trade was actually organized a little bit more like what we would see with traditional Japanese swords.

A furbisher would buy different blades and fittings from different workshops, and assemble them together to fit his client’s tastes, often times decorating the blade itself with engravings and blue and gilt. The French furbishers and sword cutlers gradually joined into one trade starting in the 16th century. This trade was kept up in the 19th century, with numerous furbishers in France, and retailers in England, buying blades from factories to mount and sell them to clients, but meanwhile, factories increasingly centralized production within their own companies. Furbishers seemingly disappeared in the 20th century, absorbed by the larger companies, but a little bit of research shows that many sword companies today are still in this type of business, but are somewhat hiding the fact that their swords are produced elsewhere and only finished or assembled in their own facilities.

This following wooden sign was made for a French furbisher in the 1760s. It shows its different products in incredible details, including smallswords, sabres with folding guards, bayonets as well as hunting swords and sword knots. Click here for a detailed analysis of the piece by Michel Pétard.

Some sharp expressions

Another interesting part of Martin’s book are some of the expressions he presents. He introduces them as an exercise to show how certain things cannot be literally translated, apparently learning from an earlier mistake he committed in a previous book and which earned him a lot of mockery, and so attempts to literally translate a German expression while sometimes giving us the french equivalent. Unfortunately, most of these expressions have now disappeared, and are so colorful that they hardly make any sense or are hard to decipher. Perhaps some German speaking readers still know their meaning, if so please do share. A few of them relate to swords, or at least to their use so I thought it would be interesting to include them here:

Il déchire dehors comme peau de brebis, pour dire il ne se défend que de l’épée à deux pieds.
“It is ripping outside like sheep’s skin”, to say “he only defends with the two feet sword.” The meaning of two feet sword is quite unclear here. It could refer to the length, but may also be a play on words on an épée à deux mains, or two handed sword.
On l’a abattu de la gale, pour dire trancher la tête.
“They felled him from the scabies”, to say “they cut his head off.”
On l’a fait porteur de planches, c’est à dire on l’a raccourci de la tête.
“They made him a plank bearer”, which means “they shortened him from his head.”
Mon couteau coupe tout ce qu’il voit.
“My knife [messer] cuts everything it sees.”

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