What is a seax?
The seax is the knife that was common place among the Germanic tribe, the Anglo Saxons and was popular from the 5th century until the 11th. It’s popularity spread all over northern Europe. The Vikings also had a very similar tool which is commonly referred to as a Viking Seax but it was the Anglo Saxons who were historically first to develop the knife that we know today as the seax. The Anglo Saxons conquered Britain and it’s where we get the English language from.
It was an everyday knife, it was a hunting knife, fighting knife, a general all round knife. The reason it’s so famous, even today is because if you’re a knife enthusiast you can’t help admire just how spectacular seax knives look. Here are some modern recreations:
The most famous type of seax is the broken back seax as shown in the image below:
Below you can see all the different types of seax’s. They varied in size, design and blade point significantly but when you see a seax, you know it’s a seax and you can’t really mistake it for anything else.
The first image is the best explanation. It shows the broad seax categories of:
- Narrow longseax
- Heavy Broadseax
- Light broadseax
- Narrow seax
- Short seax
It also shows the different types of blade points:
Seax – key characteristics
I’m just going to put the key characterists of seax’s below because that’s the easiest way to understand the similarities between the blades.
- Blade length 18-80cm
- No false edge like a bowie knife.
- No sharpening notch
- No ricasso
- No distal taper
- Blades were thick 1/4-3/8″
- Blade geometry was a full-flat grind and sometimes slightly convex
- Blade edge was not perfectly straight, there is always some curve even if it is a slight curve
- The blade is widest at the ‘hump’ of the blade and then tapering from there in both directions
- Some were pattern welded which is another reason why they have so much visual appeal.
- No guard
- Hidden tang
- Metal handle fittings were rare
- Handles were generally very long
There are few surviving in tact handles but what we do know is this, they were hidden tang just like swords of the era and just like early bowie knives. Metal handle fittings were rare.
The other thing about the handles was that they were extremely long by modern standards. The Aachen seax which is often referred to as the knife of Charlemagne has a handle of almost 9″ which is massive. Most modern knife handles are about 5″.
So why would a seax handle be so much longer than other knife handles? The reason I believe is this, the seax was used as a fighting knife and was a chopper (I go into greater detail about whether it was a chopper or thruster below). If your seax had an extra 4-6 inches of handle, if you gripped the seax at the butt of the handle it gave you an several extra inches of chopping reach which if you were in battle could be the difference between life and death. Steel was expensive so by making the handle longer you could have the same effective chopping reach as having a much longer knife blade.
For example, a 10 inch blade and a 5 inch handle make 15 inches. A 6 inch blade and a 9 inch handle also make 15 inches of effective reach when chopping in battle. The second knife was far cheaper to produce in the middle ages because it has far less steel and steel was very expensive back then. As a chopping weapon though, the performance would be similar.
It’s a very clever thing to do. When not in battle you would choke up on the blade and the extra handle length wouldn’t make any difference.
What’s interesting is how the seax was worn. It was worn horizontally or at an angle with the blade edge facing up on the front side of the body. Why is this the case? Because the blade is so long, if you had it by your side it wouldn’t be very practical unless you were actually fighting and seeing as it was an everyday tool it was more practical to have it in front. It actually had brass rings which were attached either via leather or chain to the belt.
This is an awesome video showing how to make a seax sheath:
How the seax was worn
Seax – chopper or thrusters?
No one really knows but the seax knife has no guard so as a stabbing knife, it would have been very dangerous to the user. Once you’ve got one in your hand and feel the weight balance, you’d have to say that it was a chopper. There are some continental examples with guards but they were so small they were more likely to be just a measure to stop your hand riding up onto the blade in general use, the guards were just too small to be used as a guard to protect from stabbing. If you were to thrust and hit any type of armor, you would end up cutting your own hand.