Broadsword  or Broad  Sword?
Settling the Question of What’s in a Name

 

By John Clements

ARMA receives a considerable amount of email and correspondence from people who use the term "broadsword". Sometimes they‘ll ask us how we "practice or teach broadsword", or they’ll tell us how they "train in broadsword" or what kind of "broadswords" they own, while others will ask us questions about how other swords compare to "Medieval broadswords". These inquiries come form a range of students, sport fencers and followers of Asian martial arts, fighters from living history and reenactment groups, Highlander fans, Medievalists, renn-fair participants, and members of various historical-combat societies. As the following article taken from a forthcoming Historical Fencing Compendium makes clear, each time we have to first stop them and ask, "What exactly do you mean by broadsword?"

 

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Clam-shell
broadsword, c. 1640

To be serious students and scholars of the sword and to accurately promote its study, it makes sense to use terminology that is historically valid. The term "broadsword" is today popularly applied as a generic synonym for Medieval swords or freely used to refer for any long, wide military blade. Arms collectors, theatrical-fighters, sport fencers, fantasy-gamers, and even museum curators have helped make the term a common, but historically incorrect misnomer for most any Medieval sword. It seems one cannot visit a cutlery shop, Renaissance fair or sword website today without hearing this ubiquitous term bantered about freely as a catchall for almost all non-rapier-style, non-saber-like European swords. Expressions such as "two-handed broadsword" or "Viking broadsword" are not uncommon in television, movies, games, and fantasy literature. Even in casual conversation curators of arms collections can be found using the term when discussing Medieval swords. But the manner of using the term in these ways is unsupported by any evidence and can be thoroughly discredited.

The familiar practice of using it as a word for any long, fairly wide European sword appears to have first originated with Victorian writers and collectors (in the mid 1800’s). Following the example begun by swordsmen and soldiers of the late 1600’s, 19th century writers began to describe swords of earlier ages as being "broader" than their own thinner contemporary dueling ones. Yet, the etymology of the word "broadsword" can certainly be traced. No Medieval sword, whether long or short, flat or wide, thick or tapering, was called a "broadsword" by Medieval knights and warriors. The great variety of Medieval blade styles precludes referring to any single type as a representative of a generic "broadsword". There is also so far no known reference or solid evidence for the term used in reference to Renaissance military blades from the 1500’s or early 1600’s. By time the actual term even came into use during the late 1600’s, only a fraction of the diverse forms of earlier swords were still seeing use.

It is vital to note that nowhere in the many Medieval fighting manuscripts by Masters of Defence is such a term as "broadsword" ever used (not surprisingly, no mention of the term is made in the Hispano-Italian master Pietro Monte’s encyclopedic volume on weaponry published in 1509). Nor do Renaissance masters of half a dozen nations ever mention it—and if anyone would do so, surely it would be those who at the time wrote on how to use swords. Italian fencing treatises, from Medieval times to modern, refer to "spada" (sword) whether it is a cutting sword, rapier, or sport epee. No mention is made of any equivalent term to "broadsword", or what is sometimes called "spada a lama larga" (large blade sword) in modern Italian. In German, the generic term for "sword" has always been simply "Schwert" while the fairly modern "Breitschwert" (broad bladed sword) is an extremely generic and non-historical term. Various languages also called the sword as svard, suerd, swerd, espada, esapadon, spadone, or simply epee. Similarly, there are many terms across Europe from languages other than English that simply do not translate as "broadsword".

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English blunt backsword, c. 1600

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English Backsword c. 1650

The true "broadsword" can actually be defined as a sword with a wide, straight, double-edged blade used mostly by mounted troops from the 1700’s to 1800’s. The appearance of broadswords belongs to the late 1600’s as a distinction from civilian thrusting swords. During this time a gentleman’s blade for personal defence had become the slender small-sword descended from the rapier, whereas the military (and specifically cavalry) used wider cutting blades. These weapons are in fact a form of short cutlass. The various cage and basket hilted "mortuary" blades used by cavalry starting around the 1630’s were also in form, "broadswords" (though such forms of hilt were in use as early as 1520). Many 18th-19th century blades such as spadroons, cutlasses, Walloons, Pallasches, cavalry swords, basket-hilts and straight sabers, sabres, and sciabola were all called "broadswords" at one time and typically today this classification continues by English speaking collectors.

In his book Broadsword and Single-Stick of 1890, Lord Headley gives the following: "The word "Broad-sword" may be taken to include all kinds of cut-and-thrust swords. It is the generic term for ship’s cutlass, infantry sword, and heavy cavalry sabre, which are all cutting weapons, and, though varying in length and curvature of blade, can be used for pointing." (page 24 ). In their Complete Encyclopedia of Arms & Weapons (Bonanza Books, 1979), Leonid Tarassuk and Claude Blaire define the broadsword as: "A general term applied from the 17th century to heavy military swords with large double-edged blades, designed mainly for cutting, and either a basket hilt or a well-developed shell guard." They go on to describe them as favored by heavy cavalry into the 1800’s and state they can be divided into many types based on their hilt.

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Clam-shell military broadsword, c. 1620.

Before 19th century writers started applying "broadsword" to almost all earlier swords that were not rapiers or small-swords (a habit modern enthusiasts followed unquestionably), the term was limited only to military blades with basket and cage hilts. The Scottish swordsman Sir William Hope may have been first to use the word in its accurate contemporary sense in one of his many fencing texts, the 1687 Scots Fencing Master ("Of a man defending himself with a small-sword, against a broad"). The term is also mentioned in this same manner in a 1711 book by Zachary Wylde (on the use of the English basket-hilt cutlass and quarterstaff). Given this, there is reason to suspect it likely was used earlier that decade in the effort to distinguish military swords from the rising popularity of civilian rapiers and the newer small-swords. There are other sword texts from the 1700’s and 1800’s on the use of various straight to curved broadswords none of which has any direct relation to any form of Medieval sword. It is easy to see then how later generations would adopt the term as common for any type of older archaic swords with wide, flat blades

In William Hope’s 1707 New Method (on the "Art of the Broad and Small sword"), he offers a passage on the names of different kinds of sword blades:

"There are different kinds of Sword-Blades, some whereof are only for Thrusting, such as the Rapier, Koningsberg, and Narrow Three-Cornered Blade, which is the most proper Walking-Sword of all the Three, being by far the lightest; Others again are chiefly for the Blow, or Striking, such as the Symiter, Sabre, and Double-edged Highland Broadsword; and there is a Third Sort, which is both for Striking & Thrusting, such as the Broad Three-Cornered Blade, the Sheering-Sword with two Edges, but not quit so Broad as the aforementn’d Highland Broad Sword; and the English Back-Sword with a thick back , & only one good sharp Edge, & which with a good point, & close Hilt, is in my Opinion the most proper Sword of them all for the Wars, either a Foot or Horse-back." (p. 200, Chapter VII).

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German Close-hilt
c. 1550

Interestingly, in a letter from fencing master William Machrie to William Hope included at the end of his 1707 "New Method…", Machrie comments on Hope’s small-sword method being useful against "the strongest, and most bloody weapons, such as sheering-sword, sabre, battle-ax…". This use of the term "sheering-sword" is perhaps indicative of the very similar thinking behind the origin and use of the term "Broad".

The Scots soldier and swordsman Donald MacBane offered a number of lessons on the use of the smallsword and backsword in his 1728, The Expert Swordsman’s Companion. In this autobiographical account he relates anecdotes of his encounters including one in 1690 against an "Old Bold Soldier" stating, "…we drew on each other, I had a Small Sword, he had a Broad". Later he recounts asking his sword master, "…what Guard I should keep with a small Sword against a Broad,…?". As with William Hope, the indication here is that just as in England the smallsword (known also as a town-sword, walking-sword, or court-sword) acquired its own distinctive name by the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, so too did the basket-hilted and cage-hilted military blade become known as the Broad Sword. For this very reason fencing scholar and military swordsman Lord Alfred Hutton in his famous 1901, Sword and the Centuries, devotes a whole chapter to "the Broadsword" –a chapter which he reserves specifically for the 18th century Highland weapon.

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18th century Scottish Claymore Broadsword

The esteemed Oxford English Dictionary suggests the origin of the modern word "broadsword" as 11th century German ("Da he healdan mihte brad swurd"). But this merely implies the adjective "broad" as in the phrase "a sword that is broad" and cannot be mistaken as an equivalent appellation of "broadsword". If anything it refers to the origin of the word as it was later used. The Oxford dictionary even cites a line from a chronicle of the 1550’s wherein a student is smacked on top of the head with the flat of a "broad-sword" —hyphenated. Again, rather than any use of nomenclature at the time this only describes the characteristic of a sword which is broad-bladed (incidentally, this same dictionary also lists the term "long-sword" as being from 1553, when it was in fact first used in the 1100’s). Keep in mind that in both the above case examples this is not an original English term in itself at all, but a later English translation of Norse wording (!).

Yet, a poem from chapter ten of the 11th century Norse tale "Cormac’s Saga", features the following closing lines:

"I am famed for the slaughter of warriors.
May the fiends have my soul if I stain not
My sharp-edged falchion once over!
And then let the breaker of broad swords
Be borne—and with speed—to the grave!"

The fourth line above is referring in general to blades that are broad –including the falchion in question. Of course, a reference to a "broad" bladed sword does not mean "broadsword", since virtually all swords at the time this was written were in fact "broad" (in comparison to what else we must ask?). In this sense, the poem is akin to other citations of weapons being called "sharp sword" or "strong sword" or "bright sword", yet we don’t go around now saying "sharpswords" or "strongswords" or "brightswords". Even when slender, tapering, thick blades (that were not "broad") came into use during the late 1300’s, older blades still did not acquire any descriptive moniker of their own describing them as "broad". Plus, these Norse sagas were translated during the 19th century and surely are not entirely accurate. If a modern translator is not sensitive to sword terminology words can get plugged in without concern for what they actually denote –such as using "scimitar" and "saber" as synonyms, or spear and lance, or dirk and knife, etc. Indeed, the use of the word "falchion" is clearly anachronistic, so too "broad sword" may very well be. Although they did use some short curved blades, the Vikings were not known to have ever use falchions and both the word itself and that type of blade did not really even develop until the mid 1200’s at the earliest.

The facts are that there is no historical reference to Medieval swords at the time being referred to as broadswords, but rather just "swords" as well as other specific names. Terminology and names do change over time, but no such descriptive terms such as "long-broadsword" or "short-broadsword" were ever devised. "Broadsword" was therefore never a "classification" of any actual family or typifycation of any bladed Medieval weapon as it was in the case of others (i.e., warswords, epee du guerre, longe swerds/langenschwerter, grete-swerdes, grant espees, bastard swords/espee’ bastard, shorte-swords, arming swords, riding-sword, and Schlachtschwerter or twa-hand-swerdis).

Since broadsword actually denotes a specific weapon, when the term is used today, sword students can sometimes find themselves having to politely ask something to the effect of, "Uh...wait...exactly what sword type do you mean actually?" Because there are students of the sword actually training in 18th & 19th century broadsword styles according to the military manuals of the period, plus those collecting these specific styles of weapon, we must ask for this kind of clarification. Interestingly and significantly, the term never appears in any language other than English. In England during the 1500’s, a variety of close-hilted swords and back-swords possessed basket and cage hilts. On the continent such sword forms were also used, particularly in Germany and Italy (the schiavonia and Reitschwerter or Degen for example). Into the 1600’s swords of many hilt types were freely called "short-swords" by the English (as both sword masters George Silver and Joseph Swetnam do in each of their period fighting texts).

Calling a flat, wide, European blade of the Middle Ages a "broadsword" then is like calling every Japanese sword a "Samurai sword". It may sound good, but it’s not accurate or proper. It may be "convenient", but it misinforms rather than educates. The average person may know what you mean, but the distinctions are muddled. This kind of loose application of terminology may be okay for those who just don’t know any better, but serious students of European swords should uphold a higher standard. Instead of making understanding clearer or offering easy identification, loose use of the term broadsword clutters and muddles the larger picture. If the meaning of a historical term is "expanded" it creates ambiguity. After all, we don’t accept people going around calling every Renaissance blade, whether back-sword, hanger, or court-sword, just a "rapier" (nor do we call rapiers "narrow-swords").

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17th century Schiavonia

But some people might still argue, "So what if broadsword isn’t historical? Lots of terms aren’t exactly, like cut-and-thrust sword or sword-rapier, I like it anyway." As well, saber or sabre actually mean a specific type of sword but now are commonly misused to imply a whole general category of straight and curved-bladed weapons with bell-hilts. Even "rapier" is used to clarify a civilian trusting sword that the Renaissance Italians and Spaniards themselves only called "spada" and the English at one time or another called everything from Ffile to Tuck. Fortunately popular opinion and general consensus are never criteria of historical fact. Regardless of whether or not a fencing coach, or karate teacher, or stage-combat performer, or sword vendor calls Medieval swords "broadswords" it is really valid endorsement for such misidentification? If words are not exactly "period terms", they should at least increase not decrease clarity. For example "cut & thrust sword" is not period for early Renaissance weapons (it wasn’t first used until the 1700’s) but it does denote particular historical sword forms which weren’t given any distinguishing name at the time (and the phrase cut-and-thrust was later used in just this manner). Unlike Medieval swords, most of which did have their own historical names, only a few swords of the 1500’s and 1600’s were identified by distinct names.

Use of the term "broadsword" to denote all broad-bladed European swords actually dilutes its true historical application to a narrower category of specific weapon. Considering the great variety of sword forms in the Middle Ages (not to mention numerous cutting blades of the Renaissance), many of which are quite slender with acutely pointed tips, it is wrong for the sake of convenience or habit to just refer to them as "broadswords". Given that there is no historical evidence they were ever labeled as such at the time, doing so does a disservice to the diversity of Western martial culture. It is also wrong even to selectively apply this designation only to wider and flatter Medieval swords. This was never done at the time and only leaves the problem of ignoring all those that do not fit such characteristics (such as the estoc, stocco, tuck, Panzerstecher, or Dreiecker –hardly "broad" in any sense of the word).

Therefore, to be more precise, to bring more credibility to our subject, and to use the very same terminology of those who historically used these weapons, we should when possible make every effort to not misapply definitions or use false names. It’s not unreasonable to ask those insisting on continually using (or misusing) terms to offer the evidence for their doing so.

When you read the English word "broadsword", it should imply a basket-hilted sword of the late 1600’s to early 1900’s, not one of more than five classes of cruciform Medieval sword. If you state you practice with a Medieval long-sword or a Medieval short-sword, great-sword, or falchion, then say it succinctly just as you would if you practiced rapier fencing or staff-fighting. By appropriating a historical term and giving it an "ahistorical" meaning, you create not knowledge, but confusion. Is that something any serious sword student really wants?

 

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