15th Century Portuguese Weaponry III – The Rondel Dagger

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

Versatile weapon, everyday tool, status symbol. Daggers are one of the oldest, most enduring items in a warrior’s arsenal – and, during the Middle Ages, a frequent companion to folk up and down the social ladder as well. The dagger that concerns us today is the rondel dagger. I would highly recommend Alexi Goranov’s “Spotlight: The Rondel Dagger”, of which this presentation of the Portuguese rondel is, in a way, a redux version – apart from any information concerning Portuguese rondels specifically.

Complicated Origins – A (Very) Brief Overview

It is curious that we know close to nothing about daggers before the 11-12th century, and very little before the 14th century. We know they existed: we have records of them, we have archaeological finds [1].

Adagas 2.png
The earliest known depiction of a dagger, an odd scramasax, or just a very small sword? Detail of the ‘Guido Relief’ inside Zürich’s Grossmünster  (ca. 1120).

And yet, there are almost no depictions of daggers in a military context until the first years of the 14th century. After that date, however, daggers do appear – and with a vengeance, adopted by all classes and in a wild array of styles and types, one of which is the rondel.

Rondels turn up all over the place – England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia… and, of course, Iberia. According to Ada Bruhn de Hoffmeyer, rondels start turning up in Iberian iconography in the 13th century [2], more or less the same time as they did in other European nations. Alfonso X’s Cantigas de Santa Maria include, according to her, some of the best early depictions of 13th century roundels, “worn by civilians” [3].

A Rondel for You, A Rondel for Me

But what are rondels, exactly? The name “rondel”, or “roundel” – which, it should be noted, is a modern denomination – comes from the dagger’s disc-shaped guards. In Portuguese they’re known as “adagas de rodelas” or “punhais de discos”, both of which refer to the exact same thing – the discs of the guard.

Rondels were primarily designed for stabbing. This is evidenced by their sharp tapering points, sometimes reinforced to ensure a great degree of penetration. They still retained  functional edges (one or more, depending on the type of dagger). 15th century rondel dagger’s blades varied wildly in size and shape:  from small to relatively long; from single-edged with triangular cross-sections to double-edged with diamond cross-sections – and even “on a rare occasion thin, square blades foreshadowing the emergence of the stiletto” [4]. Whatever the profile of their blade, however, their use remains one and the same.

large_DI_2011_0291
Single-edged rondel dagger (ca. 1400-1430), found in the Thames. Notice the blade’s hollow-wedge section, with a small ricasso at the top. The grip is a modern replacement. Royal Armouries, X.1.
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Maximilian I’s “Burgundian” rondel dagger (ca. 1490-1500), Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, KHM A48.

But the grip really is the focus of the rondel. Rondel grips were initially straight and cylindrical in the 13th century, “likely made from a single piece of wood, horn or bone. The grips of the higher-quality daggers were almost always fluted, spirally carved, or engraved” [5], and this tendency for decoration (and over-decoration) according to its owner’s means continued in the 14th, and especially the 15th centuries. The rondel’s widespread use and variation in form make it extremely different to assign different “styles” to it, as one does with most common objects of the era. Goranov points out two possible regional “styles”: the “English” rondel, “with grip pierced by hollow rivets” [6] and the “Burgundian dagger”: “These were developed in the 15th century and are characterized by a pommel rondel that has a domed or mushroom-shaped, often fluted top, straight or convex, but always carved, grips of wood or horn and sometimes brass for decoration” [7]. These daggers owe their name to the fact that they appear quite frequently in Burgundian/Flemish tapestries and illuminated manuscripts. The Pastrana Tapestries, woven as they were in Tournai, do depict plenty of rondels as well – though as with every other piece of equipment in the Tapestries, they represent what was effectively used in Portugal at the time.

Rondel sheathes, like all sheathes in the period, were always form-fitting, with a body of plain or tooled leather. Rondel sheaths were distinct in that the mouth of the sheath could be made to accommodate the lower rondel (as per the example below).

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Tooled sheath for a rondel, in wood and leather, purportedly Italian (ca. 1500), Metropolitan Museum of Art, 25.135.105.
Dagger Chape 1
Brass dagger chape from Belmonte Castle (14th/15th centuries).  I.P.P.A.R./Belmonte Town Hall, CBE 95.IV.44/45.(3).1

Metal chapes were usually added to the tip of the sheath, to reinforce it [8]. Like the sheath itself, these chapes ranged from simple bits of brass molded to shape, to intricate designs in gilded brass, or silver. Even cast brass chapes weren’t usually without a bit of decoration. A 15th century Portuguese specimen found in Belmonte Castle in Portugal, which can be seen to the left, is a perfect example of what these simple yet gorgeous patterns looked like [9].

As with all other late medieval daggers, rondels were worn tucked in, or suspended from, the wearer’s belt, either at the back, near the right hand side (so they could be quickly drawn in combat), or slung at the front. The Pastrana tapestries invariably depict them worn at the back, at the ready to deliver a killing blow.

Uso Adagas 1.png
Left: detail of the tapestry Siege of Asilah (ca. 1475); Centre: detail of the La geste ou histore du noble roy Alixandre, fol. 48v (ca. 1450-1500); Right:  Detail of the painting Saint Vincent at the Stake by Jaume Huguet (ca. 1455-1460).

Not Your Everyday Dagger?

In Portuguese, there are two words for dagger: adaga (and a multitude of medieval variations: adagua, dagua, adarga, dagaa, daga [10]) and punhal, the distinction being that “adagas” had longer, doubled-edged blades, and were “civilian” weapons, and  “punhais” were seen as shorter, single-edged versions of daggers, intended for military use [11]. Considering the 15th century dagger’s myriad combinations of blade lengths and profiles, grips and decoration, the distinction between one type and the other borders on the useless.

Adaga 2.png
Detail of the tapestry Siege of Asilah (ca. 1475).

The rondel is a perfect example of the concept’s lack of applicability. The fact that it developed almost exclusively with the single objective of penetrating armour would quickly lead us to the conclusion that these are, first and foremost, daggers for military use – which could go a long way to explain their ubiquity in the Pastrana Tapestries. Rondels are extremely versatile – stab, yes, but also cut and slash, according to training manuals of the time. Even hitting someone with a sheathed dagger’s pommel or body was considered an effective strike [12].

However, though “they are thought of mostly as military weapons and often are associated with the knightly classes (…). It is worth noting that there are illustrations of commoners wearing rondel daggers, and there are crudely constructed extant originals, which suggests that these daggers were not entirely reserved for the aristocracy” [13]. In fact, as with most other objects in the Middle Ages, daggers could be, and sometimes were, simply worn as status symbols [14]. And in 15th century Portugal, as in most other European nations of the time, they were absolutely everywhere. In his essay “Armas de Guerra em Tempo de Paz”, the medievalist Luís Miguel Duarte tells us never to “never forget the economic dimension – the cost of weapons – and the social dimension – the prestige inherent to carrying certain types of weapon. There’s a direct link between a person’s wealth and the weapons they avail themselves of (…)” [my translation] [13]. Daggers are almost  a part of an essential wardrobe, to the point where they are hardly counted as weapons in their own  right [15].

But what did rondels in Portugal look like? As with many things, given our lack of sources: we simply don’t know. There are a few dagger fragments scattered in museums throughout the country, but they’re usually too badly damaged to be able to tell us much. We do have one (moderately) good example of a 15th century rondel (including its chape) found behind a 15th century house in Silves (in the Algarve):

Dagger Belmonte 1.png
Rondel dagger and its chape, steel (?) and copper alloy (ca. 1400-1500), Museu Municipal de Arqueologia de Silves, SILV. 3-Q1/C2-13.

Though not the most well preserved of finds, this rondel dagger does yield some important bits of information. While the top rondel broke off, the two discs at the bottom of the grip suggest that the lower rondel was made up of a layer of wood sandwiched two layers of metal [16]. Much like the famous A.726 dagger at the Wallace Collection, the grip probably included two panels of wood riveted to the tang, as well as a medium-to-long sized single-edged blade. This find suggest some affinity with English and/or Burgundian tastes, much in keeping with what we find in other pieces of armament. I would consider it safe to assume that, at least to some extent, whatever types of rondels were preferred in Burgundy or England were also appreciated in Portugal at the time.

The Rondel in Reenactment

Oddly enough, the rondel is one of very few items that is almost impossible to get fully wrong in reenactment. Make no mistake – shoddy rondels do abound (I’m looking at you, Marhsal Historical), and they should actively be avoided! That having been said, the concept is so simple that it’s always, at the very least, functional, and perhaps even tolerable with minor adjustments. This doesn’t apply to the sheaths that are often packed along with these items, which are almost invariably terrible in both quality and appearance.

Tod Dagger 1.png
A modern “Twisted Rondel Dagger” by Leo Todeschini (Tod Cutler). All rights reserved to the artist.

A dagger – rondel or otherwise – has to look the part, as well as your clothes and other accessories do. Make sure to invest in a good rondel from a trusted maker. I acquired a Burgundian rondel (see above) from Tod Cutler, which I can’t recommend highly enough, based on these (admittedly few) findings in Portugal – notice the discs, with their layers of wood and metal. Invest in a decent rondel, and you’ll never need another dagger again (need one. You’ll want many).

 

[1] See, for example, the two specimens in Barroca, M. J. and Monteiro, J. G. (Coords.) (2000). Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português. Palmela: Câmara Municipal de Palmela, pp. 339-340.

[2] Brunn de Hoffmeyer, A. (1972). Arms & Armour in Spain: A Short Survey, Volume 1. Madrid: Editorial CSIC – CSIC Press, p. 200.

[3] Idem, ibidem, p. 79.

[4] Goranov, A. (2004). Spotlight: The Rondel Dagger. Retrieved from https://myarmoury.com/feature_spot_rondel.html

[5] Idem, ibidem.

[6] Idem, ibidem.

[7] Idem, ibidem.

[8] According to Ward-Perkins, “Metal dagger chapes were only used on the sheaths of military daggers or of the more elaborate forms of civilian dagger. The great majority of surving leather sheaths belonged to ordinary knives or knife-daggers and these have no metal terminal”. In Ward-Perkins, J. (1940). London Museum Medieval Catalogue. London: H.M. Stationery Office, p. 284.

[9] This chape has much in common with other such chapes found throughout Europe. See Ward-Perkins’ Type II in ibidem, p. 285.

[10] See Agostinho, P. (2012). Vestidos para matar: o armamento de guerra na cronística portuguesa de quatrocentos. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, p. 123.

[11] “Daga (current designation: adaga): cold steel weapon, pointy and double-edged (at least near the tip), longer and wider than a punhal” [my translation] (“Daga (designação actual: adaga): arma branca, pontiaguda e com dois gumes (pelo menos junto à ponta), mais comprida e mais larga do que um punhal.”). In Monteiro, J. G. (1998). A Guerra em Portugal nos finais da Idade Média. Lisboa: Editorial Notícias, p. 538.

[12] Duarte, L. (2000). “Armas de Guerra em Tempo de Paz”, in Barroca, M. J. and Monteiro, J. G. (Coords.) (2000). Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português. Palmela: Câmara Municipal de Palmela, p. 196.

[13] Goranov, A. (2004), ibidem.

[14] Bashford Dean wrote: “(…) as an arm designed for adornment, the dagger could readily be brought into the scheme of the costume of all classes, military or civil. It thus became, as Chaucer says (c. I 3 90), “gaie” and “harneysed well.” (…) For many centuries the dagger found wide favor among wealthy civilians and soldiers as an object of luxury. The greatest artists were employed to design and to decorate it, whose drawings and engravings in numerous cases still exist (…)”. In Dean, B. (1929). Catalogue of European Daggers 1300-1800. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 5. These words remain as accurate now as they were then.

[15] “Nunca se perca de vista a dimensão económica – o custo das armas – e a dimensão social – o prestígio que acarreta exibir determinado tipo de armamento. Há uma relação directa entre a fortuna de cada um e as armas de que se serve (…)”. In Duarte, L. (2000). ibidem, p. 191.

[16] In Duarte, L. (2000). ibidem, pp. 195-196.

[17] Barroca, M. J. and Monteiro, J. G. (Coords.) (2000), ibidem, p. 341.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Agostinho, P. (2012). Vestidos para matar: o armamento de guerra na cronística portuguesa de quatrocentos. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra

Barroca, M. J. and Monteiro, J. G. (Coords.) (2000). Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português. Palmela: Câmara Municipal de Palmela

Brunn de Hoffmeyer, A. (1972). Arms & Armour in Spain: A Short Survey, Volume 1. Madrid: Editorial CSIC – CSIC Press

Dean, B. (1929). Catalogue of European Daggers 1300-1800. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Duarte, L. (2000). “Armas de Guerra em Tempo de Paz”, in Barroca, M. J. e Monteiro, J. G. (Coords.) (2000). Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português. Palmela: Câmara Municipal de Palmela, pp. 173-202

Edge, D. and Paddock, J.(1988). Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight. New York: Crescent Books.

Monteiro, J. G. (1998). A Guerra em Portugal nos finais da Idade Média. Lisboa: Editorial Notícias

Ward-Perkins, J. (1940). London Museum Medieval Catalogue. London: H.M. Stationery Office

VISUAL SOURCES

(ca. 1475). Siege of Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Siege_of_Asilah_(Cerco_de_Arcila)

(ca. 1475). Disembarkation in Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Disembarkation_in_Asilah_(Desembarco_en_Arcila)

(ca. 1475). The Taking of Tangier [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/The_taking_of_Tangier_(Toma_de_T%C3%A1nger)

(ca. 1475). Assault on Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Assault_on_Asilah_(Asalto_de_Arcila)

La geste ou histore du noble roy Alixandre, roy de Macedonne (ca. 1450-1500). Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, BNF Français 9342. Retrieved from https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6000083z/f106.item

Hughet, J. (ca. 1455-1460). Saint Vincent at the Stake [oil on wood]. Barcelona: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

ONLINE SOURCES

Goranov, A. (2004). Spotlight: The Rondel Dagger. Retrieved from https://myarmoury.com/feature_spot_rondel.html

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