Medieval Sword Found in Poland

With the help of a metal detector, an amateur archaeology enthusiast found a sword last year in northern Poland that dates back to 1410.

It is not only significant as an archaeological artifact, but also as an important historical one for it may have been used by a medieval knight during the Battle of Grunwald.

Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko (1878)

In addition to the sword, Alexander Medvedev found, in Olsztyn, pieces of metal that were once a sheath, or scabbard, along with two knives and a belt. The sheath and knives were  attached to the belt and worn in battle, experts say.

The Battle of Grunwald was a historic one, fought between Poland and Lithuania against the Knights of the Teutonic Order. The Order was founded during the Crusades; its mandate was a simple one: spread Christianity as far as possible. But after this battle, which the Order lost, its power began to wane and its growth along the shores of the Baltic Sea lessened.

Lithuanians fighting with Teutonic knights (14th-century bas-relief from the Castle of Marienburg)

According to archaeologists who have examined the sword, the discovery is the sort that happens perhaps once every four or five decades. According to an archaeologist at the Museum of the Battle of Grunwald in Poland, where the sword has been placed, all the artifacts found by Medvedev were “extremely well preserved.”

Medvedev donated his discoveries to the museum as soon as he found them. Staff immediately began cleaning and testing them, then put the sword on display.

Once staff finished working on the artifacts, they turned their attention to the location where they were found.  “We have some suspicions about the medieval sword owner,” said museum director Szymon Drej last year.

He added that his team hoped to further excavate the site, to better contextualize the reason it was left there. Did the owner in fact die in battle? Was he fighting for the Order, or Poland? Drej said there was much still to learn about the sword and the reasons it has lain there for more than 600 years.

The Battle of Grunwald occurred in mid July, 1410. According to various sources more than 65,000 people fought in this pivotal conflict.

The Teutonic Order was committed to overcoming devotion to other religions and installing Christianity as the ruling theology wherever it could.  Any neighbouring country that wasn’t Christian was in jeopardy, including Lithuania. (The Order was based in Prussia).

While Lithuania’s king had indeed converted, the military leaders of the Order doubted his commitment. They began a war against the country and Poland in 1409. Almost 40,000 Polish-Lithuania troops were ultimately killed in the conflict, including the king.

But at the Battle of Grunwald, the Polish-Lithuanian soldiers prevailed.

Tannhäuser in the habit of the Teutonic Knights, from the Codex Manesse

The battle has since become the subject of many differing interpretations. Germany views the Knights as heroic for spreading the Gospel and converting others to Christianity. Slavic peoples view it as a turning point for Poland and Lithuania, a defining moment after which they became powerful nations in eastern Europe.

Eventually, the two sides came to what one source quoted as “mild peace.” Most of the Knights were either killed in battle or imprisoned.

The medieval sword discovered last year is symbolic of the importance both sides place on this battle, even hundreds of years later.

Neither side agrees, even today, on who won the battle. While it may seem curious to still argue over a fight that happened so long ago, it goes to the heart of each nation’s pride and belief in its history.

The Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania within their vassals between 1386 and 1434

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Historians have a saying: “History belongs to the victors.” If that’s true, then clearly the victor was the Poland-Lithuania alignment, and the sword belongs precisely where it is – at a museum in Poland dedicated to explaining that fight.