Today we are introducing Dr. Fabrice Cognot, Burgundian swordsman, polearms specialist and bladesmith. Many of you already know him well, but perhaps not his excellent work on knives as much. The article is split into part interview and part commentary on the actual knives that I have kindly been given access to. All three knives are up for sale.
So Dr. Cognot, can you tell me...
...a bit about yourself, and your own relationship to swords and knives?
I am Dr. Fabrice Cognot and I've been living in Dijon, France for over 20 years, originally from southern Burgundy and moved here for my studies. I was born in 1975, am a father of two, and I have a PhD in archaeology, in medieval archaeology, to be precise.
I have spent 10+ years in museums, both far and near, studying original arms and armour, though more of the former, and I finished my studies in 2013 summa cum laude with felicitations from the jury. I was also associate commissioner for the exhibit "L'Epée. Usages, Mythes et Symboles" at the Musée National du Moyen-Âge in Paris, back in 2011.
I am also the founder and director of De Taille et d'Estoc, France's second oldest HEMA group, and AFAIK the largest with currently 134 members. I am in charge of the annual HEMAC event in Dijon and I am also a founder of the French HEMA federation, an early HEMAC member, and currently the vice-president of the IFHEMA... Let's just say I am a bit involved in HEMA.
As for my relationship with swords and knives... Well, about 18 years ago I made a major life decision, trying to find within myself what I really liked or enjoyed in this world, and what I really wanted to do. I had been studying science until then - only doing what I had been told to do, not really trying to find what I really wanted... And maybe it's because of too much reading (and movies and games - I'm an old pen-and-paper RPG geek who started in 1984), or maybe it's for so many other reasons, but the answer did sum up in just one word: swords. So...what could one do in order to "do swords", as vague as these words are? Possible answer is given above. That is, I tried to make sure I knew stuff about swords. I tried to dig deep in said stuff, in a way.
Knives... Less so than swords. I do like knives, and I respect them. Or rather: I'm natural with knives. I mean, they're as much a natural tool to mankind as, say, clothes (basically tools to keep you warm and/or covered). I'm not a knife afficionado. I don't collect them, I don't 'worship' them. But I remember spending minutes (not hours, as my mother would disagree) staring through the knife shop window when I was a kid. Also, my grandma offered me a Swiss army knife in 1988 that has almost never left my pocket since.
I guess, though, that I had a renewed interest in knives over the course of my studies. By seeing the work of old, and trying to reproduce or emulate it, I started to really enjoy making them. And beginning to understand knives, both large and small. And having fun making them. Real fun.
...About your background as a bladesmith?
I started bladesmithing ten years ago, in July 2004. I had seen bladesmiths or smiths at work before, and read about the craft and frequented specialized forums ; but came back to it, again, in the course of my studies, as picking up a hammer became pretty much required to be able to go deeper in understanding of things.
Ok, I'll be honest and confess that I've always been attracted to this, to the forge. The mythical figure of the smith (both in myths and in litterature) - and Metal (yep, Metal is my life). I'm not saying the PhD was an excuse, but it allowed this age-old urge to become real. I've been fortunate to meet some of the finest people who kindly shared their skills and passion with me, and who still are an inspiration to me. I am still learning though - as were they. I never 'learned' under one 'master'. Instead I picked up things here and there, but mostly tried and learned on my own.
...about your particular profile as a bladesmith, i.e. what signifies your work?
I believe the above kind of explains it. I try to work as much as possible following the 'old ways' - also because material reasons prevented me from aquiring and working with modern tools ; but since I wanted to know how things were done "back then", it was just fine.
I'm a scholar who forges steel. I am a smith who is also an academic. When making a history-inspired object, I try to come as close as possible to the methods, the steps - but also limitations - of my forefathers. Of course, sometimes I have to take shortcuts (never taken lightly though). But working this way allows me to reach the same quality (or flaws) as one can observe in actual real museum items. But there's more, or so I hope, than this 'historical' approach. Or rather: I do believe that working from this historical background, from within these limited technical and technological possibilities allows me to reach deeper (or higher, farther - your call) into 'fantasy' products. That might sound preposterous, but I sometimes think my 'Fantasy' productions are 'fantastically accurate', ie 'historically accurate in the scope of a Medieval or Renaissance-Fantasy world). And I'm having fun making them - as much as I have fun sticking to historical work.
Could you please describe the three knives with regards to inspiration, material and construction?
The big Bowie knife....It is an old file from my granddad's. Too rusty to use (but all my grandfather's tools that were in a decent state found their way into my shop, and still serve well). So I offered it another life. Whittle-tang construction and olive wood handle. I wanted to make a big knife, a fighter/hunter. But something different from your common Bowie, Something that'd still respect the family traits nonetheless.
Point is centered with the middle of the guard, itself large enough (and symmetrical) to be of good use. Fingering with the index is also possible thanks to the ricasso, depending on the use/style you have for this knife. PoB is 1-2 cm in front of the index finger. It still has some heft, but not too blade heavy. And olive is a fine, fine wood. Good in hand. Smooth. Familiar. And smells good too :). And nice patterns in that wood sometimes.
I wanted it to be rather dark. Dark, big, and menacing. And with a 'Fantasy' look, hence the fileworked spacers and scabbard fittings. And the blueing, I really like the changing hues of green and blue and purple steel gets when treated this way. Brass was added to highlight these, to act as an eye catcher that would almost immediately be swallowed by the complexity of the hues and the filework.
Small knife with goat horn scales is an attempt at making a small scale bushcraft thingy, although somewhat on the short side. Thick and sturdy blade, good fit in hand, solid weight. Next ones will be bigger (in terms of blade).
The goat horn I cut and cleaned myself, and hot fit to shape to the tang sides. I like the transparency and feel of horn. Gave it a scabbard made in just one piece of leather. Nice fit.
Other knife was first started as a commission work - a fixed blade inspired by the shape of the traditional Sardinian folding knife. Steel is a broken Hanwei Feder [editor's note: a training longsword by Hanwei]....
Again, an attempt at testing my own skills and at a design both traditional and effective. It feels good in hand (your mileage may differ). Scabbard, OTOH, was a direct inspiration from XIIIth-XIVth century examples, first because it didn't seem to interfere with the modernity of the knife, second because I believe such shapes and decoration can be a nice change from what's usually seen for such knives.
I know it's a bit of a stretch, but I like the idea of, in addition to reproducting what's old because it's good, bringing back today what was good in this old stuff. With such a scabbard, the blade and handle are better protected, and still very much readily available, than with some modern designs. Attach the scabbard to your belt with a cord, and just pull the knife using your last two fingers. Very effective - Fred Perrin invented nothing 😉
As a bladesmith, what are your hopes for the future?
That my work keeps being appreciated the way it seems to be, and my curiosity keeps being both satisfied and growing. I'd love to see - as there seems to be actually - more and more people keen on the historical aspects of manufacture: not just dimensions and what not, but also the steps and processes and, dare I say, 'soul' behind all this. Something still hazy for me, but that definitely leaks through the objects I had the chance to study.
I have tons of projects, and maybe some more. I hope they'll become real some day. And that, as these things must be said too, it will allow me to live this life (and yeah, feed my kids 😉 ) so I can continue on the path I started on so many years ago.
The editor's thoughts
First seeing the works of Dr. Cognot one is first struck by the beauty and roughness of these knives. Each knife is unique and full of personality. Upon closer examination one can also feel a bit disturbed by the small imperfections in them, but through these imperfections the beauty of the knives is also enhanced, much like a mouche, and as Dr. Cognot himself notes; the imperfections occur naturally during the making and are left quite intentionally, attempting to replicate what is seen on historical knives, thus giving them strong character and distinct personality. This is far from factory made, mass produced knives. It is artistry and craftsmanship.
The small horn handle knife is, obviously, full tang and very sturdy with a beautiful black & rough blade and a slight convex double-bevel grind. It is small, comfortable with three fingers on the grip for more delicate work and it feels nice and heavy in the hand, despite its small size.
The larger knife is more delicate in design, lighter in hand and less crude looking, but still with a lot of personality. Again, a full tang knife with an almost straight edge and the back curved instead. This knife too has a slight convex double-bevel grind, but could use a bit more sharpening as the sharpening is slightly uneven being the sharpest nearest the hand. That is easy enough to do oneself though.
The big Bowie is of course the Xena Warrior Princess of them all. Big, hot and capable of picking a man apart in seconds. The blade and grip are both stunning with the brutal black steel vs the shining olive wood! It is more slender than some would expect from a Bowie but still feels quite solid in hand, even allowing you to comfortably put your index finger or thumb over the excellently designed curved fingerguard, for more control in more delicate tasks. It has some intentional raw details that I adore and the blade is very nicely sharpened. Overall it really is an amazing knife that I will hate to send onwards...
In general, the only negative criticism I can come up with is that the sheaths are a little bit too simple and rough compared to the knives. Although all decorated I feel that the knives themselves get more attention than the sheaths do. That is a very small criticism though as the knife is what it is really about.
These knives suit both collectors, reenactors, larpers and just about anyone with an interest in knives. Even the fantasy knives look, and feel, "genuine", like something that has been passed down by one's forefathers, through the generations. They are very, very cool in that way.
Pricewise these knives will cost you a fair bit, but knowing the amount of work that goes into them they are still far too cheap. Handmade things have always costed, which is why up until modern times and factory made things, people have always cherished their possessions dearly, taking good care of them and often leaving them for the next generation to inherit, even shoes and pieces of clothing. We are spoilt with cheap third-world produced factory products and the general public have lost much of its respect for the work of real craftsmen and artisans. It is a shame and I sincerely hope people see the talent and skill that is inherent in the works of Dr. Cognot and realize its actual worth.