Spathology of Medieval and Renaissance Sword Forms
In the continuing effort
to bring greater learning and scholarship to the serious study and
practice of European weaponry, ARMA, as the premier Internet site
for Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts, presents the following
general definitions. This brief list is intended to aid students in
study and dispel some of the many myths and misconceptions surrounding
Swords from the
Dark Ages to the
High Middle Ages
The Viking Sword
From mostly the 8th to 11th centuries, Norse swords were noted for the unique design and the tempering patterns that were often visible in their blades. What made the weapon stand out was that it was resilient and robust against the kinds of armor and shields they regularly encountered. Wielded one-handed in conjunction with a shield it could make ferocious slashes and chops, deliver good thrusts, do all this without breaking or bending yet still hold a keen edge. It combined sturdy reliability and sharpness with lightness and strength to make a versatile weapon that in the right hands could penetrate hard chain or leather armor as well as softer furs and cloth. That it was also a beautiful object whose manufacture was part mystery only added to its allure. Though the Norse came to eventually adopt easier to produce designs of continental origin, and also used short single-edge blades, such as the scramasax or scramanseaxe (from which the Saxon people derive their name), it is the double edge variety with a wide flat pommel and short guard that became associated with them.
A term popularly misapplied as a generic synonym for medieval swords or any long, wide military blade. The now popular misnomer "broadsword" in reference to Medieval blades actually originated with collectors in the early 19th century -although many mistranslations and misinterpretations of Medieval literature during the 19th and 20th centuries have inserted the word broadsword in place of other terms. They described swords of earlier ages as being "broader" than their own contemporary thinner ones. Many 17th-19th century blades such as spadroons, cutlasses, and straight sabers are classed as broadswords as are other closed hilt military swords. The weapon known as the true broadsword is in fact a form of short cutlass. The term "broadsword" does not appear in English military texts from the 1570s - 1630s and noes not show up in inventories of sword types from the 1630's, and likely came into use sometime between 1619 and 1630. Descriptions of swords as "broad" before this time are only incidental and the word "broad" is used as an adjective in the same way "sharp" or "large" would be applied. Leading arms curators almost always list the broadsword specifically as a close-hilted military sword from the second half of the 17th century. Those cage and basket hilted blades used by cavalry starting in the 1640's were in form, "broadswords." During this time a gentleman's blade had become the slender small-sword, whereas the military used various cutting blades. Today, arms collectors, museum curators theatrical-fighters, and fantasy-gamers have made the word broadsword a common, albeit blatantly historically incorrect, term for the Medieval sword.
The various kinds of long bladed Medieval swords that had handles long enough to be used in two hands were deemed long-swords (German Langenschwert/ Langes Swert or Italian spada longa). Long-swords, war-swords, or great swords are characterized by having both a long grip and a long blade. We know at the time that Medieval warriors did distinguished war-swords or great-swords ("grant espees" or "grete swerdes") from "standard" swords in general, but long-swords were really just those larger versions of typical one-handed swords, except with stouter blades. They were "longer swords," as opposed to single-hand swords, or just "swords." They could be used on foot or mounted and sometimes even with a shield. The term war-sword from the 1300's referred to larger swords that were carried in battle. They were usually kept on the saddle as opposed to worn on the belt. A 15th century Burgundian manual refers to both "great and small swords." As a convenient classification, long-swords include great-swords, bastard-swords, and estocs. In the 1200’s in England blunt swords for non-lethal tournaments were sometimes known as "arms of courtesy." There is a reference to an English tournament of 1507 in which among the events contestants are challenged to "8 strookes with Swords rebated." Wooden training weapons were sometimes called wasters in the 1200's or batons in the 1300's and 1400's. Knightly combat with blunt or "foyled" weapons for pleasure was known as à plaisance, combat to the death was à lóuutrance. In Germanic lands during, special practice longswords with flexible blunt blades and rounded points were usually known as Federschwerter or "feather-swords."
Those blades long and weighty enough to demand a double grip are great-swords. They are infantry swords which cannot be used in a single-hand. Originally the term "great-sword" (gret sord, grete swerde, or grant espée), only meant a war-sword (long-sword), but it has now more or less come to mean a sub-class of those larger long-swords/war-swords that are still not true two-handers. They were even known as Grete Swerdes of Warre or Grans Espees de Guerre. Although they are "two hand" swords, great-swords not are the specialized weapons of later two-handed swords. They are the swords that are antecedents to the even larger Renaissance versions. Great-swords are also the weapons often depicted in various German sword manuals. A Medieval great-sword might also be called a "twahandswerds" or "too honde swerd." Whereas other long-swords could be used on horseback and some even with shields, great swords however were infantry weapons only. Their blades might be flat and wide or later on, more narrow and hexagonal or diamond shaped. These larger swords capable of facing heavier weapons such as pole-arms and larger axes were devastating against lighter armors. Long, two-handed swords with narrower, flat hexagonal blades and thinner tips (such as the Italian "spadone") were a response to plate-armor. Against plate armor such rigid, narrow, and sharply pointed swords are not used in the same chop and cleave manner as with flatter, wider long-swords and great swords. Instead, they are handled with tighter movements that emphasize their thrusting points and allow for greater use of the hilt. Those of the earlier parallel-edged shape are known more as war-swords, while later the thicker, tapering, sharply pointed form were more often called bastard-swords. One type of long German sword, the "Rhenish Langenschwert," from the Rhenish city of Cologne, had a blade of some 4 feet and an enormous grip of some 14 to 16 inches long, not including the pommel.
In the early 1400's (as early as 1418) a form of long-sword often with specially shaped grips for one or two hands, became known as an Espée Bastarde or "bastard sword." The term may derive not form the blade length, but because bastard-swords typically had longer handles with special "half-grips" which could be used by either one or both hands. In this sense they were neither a one-handed sword nor a true great-sword/two-handed sword, and thus not a member of either "family" of sword. Evidence shows the their blade were typically tapered. Since newer types of shorter swords were coming into use, the term "bastard-sword" came to distinguish this form of long-sword. Bastard-swords typically had longer handles with special "half-grips" which could be used by either one or both hands. These handles have recognizable "waist" and "bottle" shapes (such grips were later used on the Renaissance two-handed sword). The unique bastard-sword half-grip was a versatile and practical innovation. Although, once again classification is not clear since the term "bastard-sword" appears to have not been entirely exclusive to those swords with so-called "hand-and-a-half" handles as older styles of long-sword were still in limited use. Bastard-swords varied and they might have either a flat blade or narrow hexagonal one for fighting plate-armor. Some were intended more for cutting while others were better for thrusting. Bastard swords continued to be used by knights and men-at-arms into the 1500's. Their hilt style leads toward the shorter cut & thrust sword forms of the Renaissance. Strangely, in the early Renaissance the term bastard-sword was also sometimes used to refer to single-hand arming-swords with compound-hilts. A form of German arming sword with a bastard-style compound hilt was called a "Reitschwert" ("cavalry sword") or a "Degen" ("knight's sword"). Although these might have been forms of single-hand estoc.
The familiar modern term "hand-and-a-half" was more or less coined to describe bastards swords specifically. The term "hand-and-a-half sword" is often used in reference to long-swords is not historical and is sometimes misapplied to other swords (although during the late 1500's, long after such blades fell out of favor, some German forms of this phrase are believed to have been used). While there is no evidence of the term “hand-and-a-half” having been used during the Middle Ages, either in English or other languages, it does appear in the 16th century. In his 1904 bibliography of Spanish texts, D. Enrique de Leguina gives a 1564 reference to una espada estoque de mano y media, and a 1594 reference to una espada de mano y media. In the Ragionamento, the unpublished appendix to his 1580, Traite d Escrime (“Fencing Treatise”), Giovanni Antonio Lovino describes one sword as una spada di una mano et mana et meza (literally “hand and a half sword”) which he distinguishes from the much larger spada da due mani or two-handed sword (the immense Renaissance weapon). The term spadone was used by Fiore Dei Liberi in 1410 to refer to a tapering long-sword and Camillo Agrippa in 1550 called the spadone a war sword. Later it was defined by John Florio in his 1598 Italian-English dictionary as “a long or two-hand sword.”
The term "two-hander" or "two-handed sword" (espée a deure mains or spada da due mani) was in use as early as 1400 and is really a classification of sword applied both to Medieval great-swords as well Renaissance swords (the true two-handed swords). Such weapons saw more use in the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Technically, true two-handed swords (epee's a deux main) were actually Renaissance, not Medieval weapons. They are really those specialized forms of the later 1500-1600's, such as the Swiss/German Dopplehander ("double-hander") or Bidenhander ("both-hander") or Zweihander / Zweyhander are relatively modern not historical terms. English ones were sometimes referred to as "slaughterswords" after the German Schlachterschwerter ("battle swords"). These weapons were used primarily for fighting against pike-squares where they would hack paths through lobbing the tips off the poles. In Germany, England, and elsewhere schools also taught their use for single-combat. In True two-handed swords have compound-hilts with side-rings and enlarged cross-guards of up to 12 inches. Most have small, pointed lugs or flanges protruding from their blades 4-8 inches below their guard. These parrierhaken or "parrying hooks" act almost as a secondary guard for the ricasso to prevent other weapons from sliding down into the hands. They make up for the weapon's slowness on the defence and can allow another blade to be momentarily trapped or bound up. They can also be used to strike with. The most well-known of "twa handit swordis" is the Scottish Claymore (Gaelic for "claidheamh-more" or great-sword) which developed out of earlier Scottish great-swords with which they are often compared. They were used by the Scottish Highlanders against the English in the 1500's. Another sword of the same name is the later Scots basket-hilt broadsword (a relative of the Renaissance Slavic-Italian schiavona) whose hilt completely enclosed the hand in a cage-like guard. Both swords have come to be known by the same name since the late 1700's. Certain wave or flame-bladed two-handed swords have come to be known by collectors as flamberges, although this is inaccurate. Such swords developed in the early-to-mid 1500's and are more appropriately known as flammards or flambards (the German Flammenschwert). The flamberge was also a term later applied to certain types of rapiers. The wave-blade form is visually striking but really no more effective in its cutting than a straight one. There were also huge two-handed blades known as "bearing-swords" or "parade-swords" (Paratschwert), weighing up to 12 or even 15 pounds and which were intended only for carrying in ceremonial processions and parades. In the 1500’s there were also a few rare single-edged two-handers such as the Swiss-German Grosse Messer or later sometimes called a Zwiehand sabel.
A form of long, rigid, pointed, triangular or square bladed and virtually edgeless sword designed for thrusting into plate-armor was the estoc. Called a stocco in Italian, estoque in Spanish, a tuck in English, Panzerstecher or Dreiecker in German, and a kanzer in Eastern Europe. They were used with two hands and similar to great-swords (but were unrelated to later rapiers). They were used in two hands with the second hand often gripping the blade. Some were sharpened only near the point and others might have one or two large round hand guards. Because single-hand versions persisted even into the 17th century, rapiers are sometimes mistakenly identified to as tucks, as there is evidence that during the early 16th century some early rapiers may have been referred to as such by the English. In French "estoc" itself means to thrust.
Identified with the Scot's symbol of the warrior, the term "Claymore" is Gaelic for "claidheamh-more" (great sword). This two-handed broadsword was used by the Scottish Highlanders against the English in the 16th century and is often confused with a Basket-hilt "broadsword" (a relative of the Italian schiavona) whose hilt completely enclosed the hand in a cage- like guard. Both swords have come to be known by the same name since the late 1700's.
A rarer form of sword that was little more than a meat cleaver, possibly even a simple kitchen and barnyard tool adopted for war. Indeed, it may come from a French word for a sickle, "fauchon." It can be seen in Medieval art being used against lighter armors by infidels as well as footman and even knights. The weapon is entirely European and not derived from eastern sources. More common in the Renaissance, it was considered a weapon to be proficient with in addition to the sword. The falchion is similar to the German Dusack (or Dusagge), and has been dubiously suggested as possibly related to the Dark Age long knife, "seax" (scramanseax), and even later curved blades such as sabres (or sabels). Similar to an Arabian "scimitar," the falchion's wide, heavy blade weighted more towards the point could deliver tremendous blows. Several varieties were known, most all with single edges and rounded points. A later Italian falchion with a slender sabre-like blade was called a "storta" or a "malchus." Another similar weapon in German was the saber-like Messer. Large two-hand versions, called Grosse Messers, with straight or curved single-edged blades were known by 1500.
Cut & Thrust Swords of the Renaissance
The generic term "cut and thrust sword" is a general one which can be applied to a whole range of blade forms (field swords, side-swords, spada di lato, arming swords). However, the Renaissance military sword is generally characterized by a swept or compound-hilt, a narrow cut-and-thrust blade with stronger cross-section, and tapering tip. A direct descendant of the Medieval knightly sword, the cut and thrust sword was used by lightly armed footmen as well as civilians in the 16th and 17th centuries. During this time they were employed against a range of armored and unarmored opponents. They were popular for sword and buckler and sword and dagger fighting. They utilized an innovative one-handed grip fingering the ricasso (a dull portion of blade just above the guard). Renaissance cut and thrust swords should not be referred to as "early Renaissance swords" since they were actually in use throughout the period. Military and civilian forms of them existed before, during and after the development of the rapier. For example, similar blades (with and without ricassos and compound hilts) saw use in the English Civil War and even later. They should also not be referred to as "sword-rapiers" or "early rapiers," although in a sense, some of them were. Renaissance cut & thrust swords were their own distinct sword type. Although sometimes considered a "transition" form, this is inaccurate as they were both the ancestor and contemporary of the rapier for which they are often misidentified. Some forms of cage and basket hilts blades are occasionally referred to as "riding swords" by collectors and curators, and sometimes even as "broadswords." However, the 16th century Italians did sometimes distinguish between spada da cavallo, or a blade for horsemen, spada da fante, an infantry sword for foot-soldiers, and later spada da lato (side sword), a civilian cut-and-thrust sword, a form of which only later became the rapier (in modern times sometimes called a stricia).
The back-sword or Backe swerd was a less-common form of single-edged renaissance military cut & thrust blade with a compound-hilt (side-rings or anneus, finger-rings, knuckle-bar, etc.). Most popular in England with a buckler or target from at least the 1520’s, it was long enough for both mounted and infantry and favored because its single-edge designed allowed for a superior cutting blow. It was also popular in Germany. Back-swords may be related to later single-edged European blade forms and came in a variety of hilts and lengths. They also include later Hangers and hunting swords, as well as Mortuary-hilt and Walloon-hilt broadswords.
A form of agile Renaissance cut & thrust sword with a decorative cage-hilt and distinctive "cat-head" pommel. So named for the Schiavoni or Venetian Doge’s Slavonic mercenaries and guards of the 1500’s who favored the weapon. They are usually single edged back-swords but may also be wide or narrow double edged blades. Some have ricasso for a fingering grip while others have thumb-rings. The Schiavona is often considered the antecedent to other cage hilt swords such as the Scottish basket-hilted "broadsword."
A form of typically one-handed sword with a shorter blade and invariably "S" shaped guard. It was favored by pikemen and the Swiss/German Landesknetchs for fighting close in amidst pike-squares. Many were originally longer, wider blades which were cut down and remounted. The name likely derives from a word associated with cat-gut or cat-skin. Their lengths varied from short to mid-sized.
Popular in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the rapier was a dueling weapon whose form was developed from cut and thrust swords. Its use was more brutal and forceful than the light sport fencing that we know of today. Originally, starting about 1470, any civilian sword was often referred to as simply a "rapier," but it quickly took on the meaning of a slender, civilian thrusting sword. There is also an English document from the 1500's that uses the term "rapier-sword" for advising courtiers how to be armed, indicating the understanding that there were new slender blades coming into civilian use. Eventually developing into an edgeless, ideal thrusting weapon, the quick, innovative rapier superseded the military cut & thrust sword for personal duel and urban self-defense. Being capable of making only limited lacerations, earlier varieties of rapier are still often confused with the cut and thrust swords which gave gestation to their method. As a civilian weapon of urban self-defense, a true rapier was a tip-based thrusting sword that used stabbing and piercing, not slashing and cleaving. True rapier blades ranged from early flatter triangular blades to thicker, narrow hexagonal ones. Rapier hilts range from swept styles, to later dishes and cups. It had no true cutting edge such as with military swords for war.
The so-called "sword-rapier" is actually a term invented by collectors in the last century and is not a historical one. Increasingly, many Renaissance cut and thrust swords are mistakenly labeled as such. With the ascendancy of rapiers over swords in personal duel and private quarrel, there were many attempts to combine the slashing and cleaving potential of a traditional military sword with the quick, agile thrust of a dueling rapier. This lead to a great deal of experimental blade forms, many of which were dismal failures with neither the cutting power of wider swords, nor the speed and lightness of true rapiers. Made to do both, they typically did neither very well and few examples of these blades forms survive. They do appear to have been popular with high-ranking military officers during the mid 17th century (who of course, would be among those least likely to engage in battlefield hand-to- hand combat). They are also sometimes mistakenly called "cutting rapiers" or assumed to be some form of "transition" blade between swords and rapiers.
An unusual waved-bladed rapier popular with officers and upper classes during the 1600s. It was considered to look both fashionable and deadly as well as erroneously believed to inflict a more deadly wound. When parrying with the flamberge, the opponent's sword was slowed slightly as it passed along the length. It also created a disconcerting vibration in the other blade. The term flamberge was also used later to describe a dish-hilted rapier with a normal straight blade. Certain wave or flame-bladed two-handed swords have also come to be known by collectors as "flamberges," although this is inaccurate. Such swords are more appropriately known as "flammards" or "flambards." Such blade styles exist in numeorus forms and even appear on two-handed great swords of the 1500s.
The Baroque Small Sword
This Baroque descendant of the rapier became the gentleman's side-arm of choice in the 18th century. Sometimes known as a "court-sword," a "walking-sword," or "town-sword," small-swords developed in the late Renaissance as a personal dueling tool and weapon of self-defense. Most popular in the 1700's it is sometimes confused with the rapier. It consisted almost exclusively of a sharp pointed metal rod with a much smaller guard and finger-rings. Its blade was typically a hollow triangular shape and was much thicker at the hilt. Most had no edge at all, and were merely rigid, pointed, metal rods. Some forms were simply shortened and re-hilted old rapiers, others were special models crafted with extra large ricassos to resist the slashes of sabers and cutlasses. They were popular with the upper classes especially as decorative fashion accessories, worn like jewelry. In a skilled hand the small sword was an effective and deadly instrument. Until the early 1800s it continued to be used even against older rapiers and even some cutting swords. It is the small-sword rather than the rapier which leads to the epee and foil of modern sport fencing.
Curved Blades in the Medieval and Renaissance Eras
While it is the straight-bladed cruciform sword style that for both war and duel was perfected in Europe as no where else, curved swords were hardly unknown. Many forms were known from the ancient convex-bladed Greek kopis and Iberian falcatta, to the laengsaex curved Viking blade, as well as the short-sword/long-knife seax or scramsax. There is also the Medieval falchion and the German curved Messer, Grossmessr, and bohemian Dusask The Italians used the curved storta, the straight bladed but curved-edge braquemart and the curved badelair (baudelair, bazelair, or basilaire) as well as the short curved braquet. Finally, wide varieties of sabers, sabres, sabels, and cutlasses were used from at least the mid-1500’s. Indigenous European curved sword forms such as the Czech tesak, Polish tasak, and Russian tisak were used since at least the 7th century.
Many sword types are closely identified with a particular style of hilt. Yet hilts were very often replaced on blades over time a weapon. Thus, a sword cannot be classified or categorized by whatever kind of cross, pommel, or grip it has, but by the length, form, and geometry of its blade.
Hilt - The upper portion of a sword consisting of the cross-guard, handle/grip, and pommel (most Medieval swords have a straight cross or cruciform-hilt). Called the Handhabe in German. In Old French the crosspiece was called helz, the grip called poing, the pommel called pom, and the handle might be bound with metal rings called mangon.
Cross - The typically straight bar or "guard" of a Medieval sword, also called a "cross-guard." A Renaissance term for the straight or curved cross-guard was the quillons (possibly from an old French or Latin term for a type of reed). Fiore Dei Liberi in 1410 referred to it as the crucibus. Fillipo Vadi in the 1480s termed it the cross-guard or "crosses," Elza term. Called the Gehiltz or Gehultz in German. Called the Kreuz in German and Croce in Italian.
Quillons: A Renaissance term for the two cross-guards (forward and back) whether straight or curved. It is likely from an old French or Latin term for a reed. On Medieval swords the cross guard may be called simply the "cross," or just the "guard."
Pommel: Latin for "little apple," the counter-weight which secures the hilt to the blade and allows the hand either rest on it or grip it.
Forte': A Renaissance term for the upper portion on a sword blade which has more control and strength and which does most
Foible: A Renaissance term for the lower portion on a sword blade which is weaker (or "feeble") but has more agility and speed and which does most of the attacking.
Fuller - A shallow central-groove or channel on a blade which lightens it as well as improves strength and flex. Sometimes mistakenly called a "blood-run" or "blood-groove," it has nothing to do with blood flow, cutting power, or a blade sticking. A sword might have one, none, or several fullers running a portion of its length, on either one or both sides. Narrow deep fullers are also sometimes referred to as flukes. The opposite of a fuller is a riser, which improves rigidity.
Grip - The handle of a sword, usually made of leather, wire, bone, horn, or ivory (also, a term for the method of holding the sword).
Lower end - the tip portion or final quarter of blade on a sword
Pommel - Latin for "little apple," the counter-weight which secures the hilt to the blade and allows the hand to either rest on it or grip it. Sometimes it includes a small rivet (capstan rivet) called a pommel nut, pommel bolt, or tang nut. On some Medieval swords the pommel may be partially or fully gripped and handled.
Ricasso - The dull portion of a blade just above the hilt. It is intended for wrapping the index finger around to give greater tip control (called "fingering"). Not all sword forms had ricasso. They can be found on many Bastard-swords, most cut & thrust swords and later rapiers. Those on Two-Handed swords are sometimes called a "false-grip," and usually allow the entire second had to grip and hold on. The origin of the term is obscure.
Shoulder - The corner portion of a sword separating the blade from the tang.
Tang - The un-edged hidden portion or ("tongue") of a blade running through the handle and to which the pommel is attached. The place where the tang connects to the blade is called the "shoulder." A sword's tang is sometimes of a different temper than the blade itself. The origin of the term is obscure.
Upper end - The hilt portion of a Medieval sword
Waisted-grip - A specially shaped handle on some bastard or hand-and-a-half swords, consisting of a slightly wider middle and tapering towards the pommel.
Annellet/Finger-Ring: The small loops extending toward the blade from the quillons intended to protect a finger wrapped over the guard. They developed in the middle-ages and can be found on many styles of Late-Medieval swords. They are common on Renaissance cut & thrust swords and rapiers they and also small-swords. For some time they have been incorrectly called the "pas d`ane."
Compound-Hilt/Complex-Guard: A term used for the various forms of hilt found on Renaissance and some late-Medieval swords. They consist typically of finger-rings, side-rings or ports, a knuckle-bar, and counter-guard or back-guard. Swept-hilts, ring-hilts, cage-hilts, and some basket-hilts are forms of complex-guard.