When reading Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson, I noticed a few words I didn’t recognize. The one I’ve decided to focus on for this entry is the word, halbert. The footnotes say that it is a weapon in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with an axe-like blade and a steep spike on a long shaft (Stevenson). This definition was fine, but it confused me a little, so I decided to research it more.
The first thing I discovered is that the word itself has changed. In the book it is spelled with a ‘t’ at the end, but now it is spelled as halberd with a ‘d’. This either means that it has phonetically changed since the publication of the short story or there are simply multiple spellings of the same word. After looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, it is clear that both forms are accepted and are used interchangeably (Oxford English Dictionary).
A halberd is a weapon that was primarily used in the Middle Ages by foot soldiers. It is basically a six-foot tall spike with an axe head welded onto it. On the backside of the axe was a hook, used for snagging riders off of their horses. From what I can tell, this was the main purpose of the halberd. It was far too long to use in close combat, so soldiers would knock riders off of their horses and then proceed to fight with daggers or swords in close combat. Sometimes, soldiers also attached metal rims on the axe to grapple with other fighters. In such cases, the halberd became more useful, allowing the possessor to fight off sword attacks. Also, the axe was useful in chopping off limbs of the enemy if they were found injured or immobile. Usually a blacksmith made this weapon from iron and steel (Halberd).
Though this weapon is only mentioned briefly in the story, I feel it still has relevance. This is a story about a murderer, and he just so happens to notice the medieval killing tool in the corner. It reveals that his psyche is preoccupied with murder even when it doesn’t mean to be.
“Halberd”. <http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/halberd.htm>. n.p., n.d. Mon. 14 Feb. 2011.
Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989; online version November 2010. 14 February 2011. http://www.oed.com:80/Entry/83367.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Markheim”. The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Short Fiction. Ed. Dennis Denisoff. New York: Broadview Press, 2004. 331-345. Print.