How great was Great Pier? (the sequel)

Breaking! Great Pier measured around 2.30 meters in height! This question has been bugging the Frisians for centuries. Now we know. How? Keep reading…

Granted. We asked ourselves this very same question in a previous blog post. We explored how great Pier was… as a leader. This time we are asking the same question, but taking it quite literally: how tall was Great Pier?

No, we did not find and measure Great Piers remainings. We know where he is buried, but we don’t know exactly where! Let’s clarify that statement. He is buried in the Martini Church in Sneek. That we do know since it has been recorded in historic literature. But in the church itself, we do not exactly know where Grutte Pier’s grave is. You might argue it is a simple task. Just start with the largest grave in the church. Well, many graves at that time were similar-sized. Good luck with that!

So, how can we tell that Grutte Pier measured around 2.30 meters then? Well, a ridiculously large sword was kept for centuries in the city of Leeuwarden.

It measures 2.13 meters. It ultimately ended up in the Frisian Museum in 1882. When I was working as an intern at that very same museum back in my twenties (around 1994), I was convinced it was a forgery.

Seriously, the size of the sword would even be huge for Conan the Barbarian (or his impersonator: Arnold Schwarzenegger). Remember that the average height of people was 170 cm back in that century. Looking at the size it, the sword must be looking down on its owner instead of the other way around. There was simply no soul tall and strong enough to lift that thing, let alone giving it a good swing on the battlefield.

Case closed. So I thought. Boy, was I wrong…

Because in 2022 the sword has been dissected, for the first time in centuries, by the ISIS Neutron and Muon Laboratory in Oxford and the University of Groningen. Here is the documentary featuring the research results (in Dutch). The international research institutes looked at all the different aspects of the sword such as (documented) ownership, metal, wood, and length. We have summarized the results for you below. Here we go.

Documentation

First off, there is historic documentation where this sword is mentioned. This documentation is mostly about ownership. Let’s travel back in time and see what the documents tell us.

What we do know are some dates where the sword is mentioned.

  • In 1882 the sword of Grutte Pier was mentioned in a loan document to the Frisian Museum by the city of Leeuwarden.
  • In 1832 it was mentioned in a document to measure 2.13 meters and 6,5 kilos.
  • In 1725 two swords were mentioned: the one from Grutte Pier and his contemporary Grutte Wierd (see documentary 12:24).
  • In 1595 Ubbo Emmius was asking for the specs (size and length) of the sword. The answer has not been found in the records so far.

Unfortunately, based on these documents it cannot be established that this sword traces back to Grutte Pier himself. This is a dead end. Bummer. Time to take a closer look at the metal and wood datings.

Metal

Not only the metal of the sword was examined, but also its welding process. Additionally, special marks were found on the blade of the sword. It features a bishop’s crosier and a running wolf. Both elements are pointing to the German diocese of Passau, on the border of Austria. That city was the center of sword manufacturing in the 15th and 16th centuries. The finest you could get at the time.

Furthermore, the letters INRI are displayed on the blade, which means ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. This indicates that the sword dates from before the Reformation. After that time Catholic texts no longer appeared on German blades.

There are two more interesting facts to mention about the metal itself. The sword was not only made for fighting, it has been actually used!

The welding method is of very high quality. It is also proven that this high quality was not done by a modern process. To be able to be used in combat, the outside of the metal demanded an extra hard crystallization, called martensite. This means it was meant to be used in combat.

Since parts of the structure of the martensite blade were damaged it indicates it is ‘very likely’ that it has been actually used on the battlefield.

Wood

Then there is the wooden handle of the sword. The Carbon-14 method was used and matched against a database spanning 50k years of wood. Two periods emerged, each with different probability scores.

The most likely period the wood originates from is between 1451 and 1518 (71,5%). Grutte Pier lived from 1480 to 1520, so that fits nicely.

Length

So, we may conclude that the metal and wood research both do not exclude the era of Grutte Pier. So far, so good. But then there is still the problem of the ridiculously large sword. As said, it measures 213 cm. The handle indicates it is a sword that needed to be handled by two hands.

According to scriptures dating from that time, a sword handled by two hands would straight up reach the lips of the owner. That would mean that the owner would measure at least 213 cm, but more likely in the area of 230 cm (see documentary 13:53).

All the evidence does not exclude that the sword is dating from Grutte Pier’s era. But also does not prove that he was the actual owner. There is still no smoking gun in terms of a direct link between the sword and Grutte Pier.

Let’s do the math

The sword simply could have belonged to anyone of that height, we thought. But that made us wonder: “Exactly how many ‘anyones of that height’ were wandering the Frisian clay back in those days?”

Maybe it is time to do some research of our own. To be more precise, we should do some probability calculations and calculate how many men measuring 230 cm lived during Grutte Pier’s era.

Let’s start with some facts and numbers.

  • The owner of the sword measured more than 213 cm, but must have measured more (around 230 cm) in order to swing it.
  • The average height was around 170 cm.

Source: Our World in Data

Here is the normal distribution with a mean of 170 cm.

Let’s write down what we see in the bell curve above.

  1. 426 men measured 186 cm or more around 1500
    • 2σ = 97.73%
    • (100% – 97.73%) / 2 = 1.135%
    • 1.135% * 75,000 = 851.25 people
    • 851.25 / 2 people = 425.6 men
  2. 24 men measured 194 cm or more around 1500
    • 3σ = 99.87%
    • (100% – 99.87%) / 2 = 0.065%
    • 0.065% * 75,000 = 48.75 people
    • 48.75 / 2 people > 24.4 men
  3. 4 men measured 198 cm or more around 1500
    • 3.5σ = 99.98%
    • (100% – 99.98%) / 2 = 0.01%
    • 0.01% * 75,000 = 7.5 people
    • 7.5 / 2 people = 3.75 men

Seriously? Only 4 men measuring more than 198 cm around 1520?

If the owner of the used sword measured 230 cm, then his (contemporary) historians and “backdoor” neighbors (Petrus and Worp van Thabor from Tirns, 4.8 km from Sneek where Grutte Pier resided) must have done a really poor job in not mentioning a soldier of this strength and height next to Grutte Pier.

We would say with a probability bordering on certainty, that this sword must have belonged to Grutte Pier.

But hey, that is just us! Two Frisian bastards, hikers, amateur historians and amateur mathematicians. We’d welcome it if you challenge this approach and share your 5 cents!


Note – A big thank you to Gjalt Riemersma for being a great sounding board for the math part!

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