13 November 2017
Magic swords just aren’t cricket
Did you have to hand in your wand when you came to the British Library to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic? There’s a reason for that.
When Arnau de Cabrera entered judicial combat with Bernat de Centelles in Barcelona in 1274, both parties had to declare before King Jaume I “I swear I am carrying no magical weapons” [quod non deferebant aliquid quod haberet virtutem].
Mediaeval knights in combat from Jean d'Arras, Roman de Mélusine, c. 1450. MS Harley 4418, f. 56.
Arnau de Cabrera however denounced his opponent for bearing the sword of Vilardell: no-one who bore it could be defeated or killed [“portavit ensem de Villardello, qui quidem ensis habet virtutem ut nullus subcumbere vel superari possit qui illum in bello detulerit”]. It also had the quality that if it was put point down it righted itself.
Apparently, Bernat’s father, like any good parent, had bought the sword for him for 500 maravedis. He had also asked the Prior of St Paul’s in Barcelona for a shirt which again prevented its owner from being vanquished in battle.
And what’s more Bernat was wearing an iron cap which contained a precious stone called diamas, supplied by his brother Gilabert: the bearer’s bones could not be broken.
The king found for Arnau.
The Sword of Vilardell acquired its powers because it was forged at a particularly propitious astrological conjunction.
Relief from Barcelona Cathedral showing Vilardell fighting a griffin with his magical sword. (Photograph by Pere López from Wikimedia Commons.
The sword’s original owner, Vilardell, went out one day with an ordinary sword to cut wood. He did a kind deed for a poor man who replaced his old sword with a new one and then disappeared. Vilardell tested the new sword by splitting a rock with it (still to be seen) and then slayed a dragon. So in the early accounts it was a holy weapon not a magic one.
The sword eventually found its way to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, where you can see it.
Virtually nobody in the Middle Ages doubted the existence of magic, or its efficacy. What the Church for instance objected to was the use of magic for evil ends.
Modern-day surveillance equipment will (hopefully) pick up any concealed weapons, but magic ones (and I don’t want to alarm you) might be beyond its reach.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies
Martí de Riquer, Llegendes històriques catalanes (Barcelona, 2000) YA.2001.a.38498
Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford, 1988) YC.1988.a.7138