Back to Medieval Swordsmanship

A SUMMARY EXCERPT

The Medieval long-sword is a familiar and ubiquitous weapon, but one surrounded by a great deal of myth and misconception. It is seen in countless adventure films and fantasy settings such as Highlander, Braveheart, Conan, and many, many others. Yet, the long, straight, double-edged "knightly" sword with simple cross-guard is a weapon which is in fact, generally misunderstood. Its many forms represent a major branch of only one class of medieval sword.

First, it must be understood that there is a major distinction between the "typical" one-handed Medieval sword which was by far more prevalent, and the larger form of long-sword or war-sword which is our subject. For the most part, medieval swords were almost always one-handed weapons used in conjunction with a sturdy, metal-rimmed shield. This familiar type essentially developed from those of various Dark Age tribes and Celtic, Scandinavian, and Anglo-Saxon blades.

Medieval swords existed in great varieties over a number of centuries. They have been classified (typically by hilt design) into a great many categories by curators, collectors, and military historians. But certain common characteristics can describe the "generic" medieval sword as a long, straight, double-edged blade with a simple cross-guard (or "cruciform" hilt). This common form was a one-handed weapon used for hacking, shearing cuts and also for limited thrusting. Their blades wide and fairly thin, with chisel-like edges and a flattened or hollow hexagonal cross-section. They are intentionally designed for cutting through mail armor ("chainmail") and deep into flesh and bone with a quick, forceful blow. Thus, they needed to be light, agile, and stiff, yet very flexible. This is in stark contrast to what is so often depicted in countless Hollywood films and stage-fighting performances. As well, the vast majority of the fantasy and replica swords available today are thick, inflexible, poorly balanced, and much too heavy.

Terminology for Medieval swords is not exact. Our Medieval warrior forebears did not distinctly clarify differences between types of swords for us. Often they were not consistent or didn't agree themselves. Plus, word meanings can change over time. Scholars and arms experts over the last century and a half have tried to categorize and classify items according to various criteria of design, age, function, nationality, and style. Curators, collectors, and historians have also included their knowledge while fencers and theatrical choreographers have added in their own opinions. All this now makes applying historically accurate terms challenging for students and scholars of the sword today.

At the time, long bladed, hilted weapons in Western Europe were referred to simply as "swords", or often as a "sword of war" or "war-sword" (epee du guerre). Sometimes they would even be called a "long" sword. Various languages might refer to them as schwert, svard, suerd, swerd, espada, espadon, or epee. When worn on the belt of a mounted knight they might be called an arming–sword. This often distinguished a longer, thrusting, "anti-armor" blade from a one-handed "cut and thrust" type.

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FROM THE BOOK:

"The Medieval long-sword is not wielded in the standard "hack and slash" style so familiar from movies and TV. It has a different center of balance and is used in a tighter, closer manner that employs its hilt, utilizes thrusts, and emphases its length offensively and defensively. When swung with both hands long-swords are capable of delivering tremendous and devastating wounds. Used in this manner they have a well-rounded and symmetrical offense and defence. Parries are made with the flat of the blade and it’s cross-guard can be used to block, bind, or trap an opposing weapon. Its pommel can be grabbed to give power to thrusts or it can be used to strike with when close in. Those lighter more rigid blades with narrower tips can also make use of numerous thrusts and maneuvers allowing the armored second hand to be employed in helping guide the weapon or in grabbing the adversary. Such anti-armor blades are also further distinct in their handling from broader slashing blades. The brutal style of the Medieval long-sword is one of power and practical efficiency, but one with an artistry all its own.

"In contrast to the slicing slash of a curved, single-edged, Japanese katana, Medieval long-swords were made for hacking, shearing cuts delivered primarily from the elbow and shoulder. It is a mistake to think a straight, double-edged sword with a cross-guard and pommel is handled liked a samurai’s katana. Instead it strikes more with the first 8-10 inches of blade and has two edges to work with (it can "reverse cut" upwards or back). Also, a medieval sword’s simple cross-guard (or "cruciform hilt") is intended not so much to protect the hand from incoming blows, but to allow the blade to bind and lock up another weapon then quickly slip off (it does also offer some protection from hitting into an opposing blade). It also protects the hand from slamming into an opponent’s shield ¾ which is moved to greet and to smack attacks not left just hanging (contrary to myth, a medieval shield was far too strong to simply cut through with a few blows)."


During the later Renaissance, the English also had their own various terms for earlier medieval swords. The term "arming-sword", while not very descriptive of any singular form of Medieval sword, apparently was used to distinguish a thinner, pointier, one-handed sword (more for fighting against plate-armor) from those longer war-swords. The term is first recorded in the year 1431 but was surely in use earlier than that. Arming-swords can also be classed as "riding-swords" (also "parva ensis" or "epee courte"). It is this single-hand form which is so closely associated with the idea of the "knightly sword" (c. 1300).

Today, when discussing Medieval swords it is generally acceptable to distinguish between short-swords, long-swords, great-swords and two-handed swords. The line between exactly what constitutes a long-sword and a great-sword, or between a great-sword and a two-handed sword is not always clear. As a convenient classification, long-swords include great-swords, bastard-swords, and estocs.

The familiar term "broadsword" is commonly misapplied as a generic synonym for Medieval swords or for any long, wide blade in general. Although, the first actual appearance of the term is likely from one of William Hope's various Scots Swordsman works from circa 1710, it did not take on its popular meaning of referring to medieval swords until the 1800's. Prior to that in the late 1600’s, the term likely originated as a way of distinguishing from newer civilian small-swords and the older, rapiers. During Hope’s time a gentleman's blade had become the slender small-sword, whereas the military still used a cutting blade. Those cage-hilt and basket-hilt swords used by cavalry starting in the 1640's were also broadswords in form, as they were gripped and used much as earlier Medieval swords.

Modern use of the now popular misnomer "broadsword" in reference to medieval blades actually originated with Victorian era collectors. Fascinated by all things Medieval, they described swords of earlier ages as being "broader" than their own thinner contemporary ones. Although, the first actual appearance of the term is likely from one of a fencing book from 1710, it did not take on its popular meaning of referring to wider medieval swords until the mid 1800's. 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 a cutting blade. Many military blades of the 1700’s and 1800’s, such as spadroons, cutlasses, hangers, and straight sabers are also classed as broadswords. But the weapon known as the true broadsword is in fact a form of short, basket-hilted, naval cutlass developed around 1630. Today, arms collectors, museum curators theatrical-fighters, and fantasy-gamers have made the word broadsword a common, albeit historically incorrect, term for the Medieval sword.

Although not often realized, the use of a longer sword gripped in two hands was actually not all that common during the medieval period. Fighting sword and shield was by far the norm and use of spears and axes even more so. It was of course more common for knights to fight mounted rather than on foot. But the changing nature of Medieval warfare due to longbows and crossbows and massed pole-arms forced warriors more and more to fight on foot. Long-swords or war-swords gained favor with both knights and men-at-arms since they could be wielded either with one hand or two. While on larger horses, they were long enough to reach targets on the ground, but still short enough to use while on foot, some even with a shield. Some long-swords were intended more for cutting while others were more for thrusting. But, improved armor also meant that a shield for defense was not quite as mandatory. This freed the second hand for the necessity of using a longer blade (or for grabbing at the opponent). Using both hands on a weapon allowed for a stronger blow against more heavily armored combatants. Despite changing to meet the need for bashing and stabbing at plate-armor, a sword still needed to be able to cut effectively at other lightly armored opponents.

A long-sword or great-sword style only really became practicable when full, articulated plate-armor became common for foot combat during the 1300's and 1400's. There are only sporadic accounts of such weapons being employed prior to this. The development of plate-armor itself however, was a response to the threat of more powerful swords, pole-arms, and missile weapons. But to overcome improvements in armor there was always a great deal of experimentation going on with sword designs. The challenge of articulated plate-armor in the 1300’s (the Age of Plate) forced many blades to be made longer, narrower, pointier, and thicker, but also more rigid. No sword can hack through full plate-armor. It is nearly invulnerable to cutting. Instead, it must be cracked, dented, battered, and pried open. A wide variety of specialty weapons were conceived for this very purpose (e.g., pole-axes, halberds, war-hammers, etc.) ¾ and were more effective at it than swords.

We know at the time that that long-swords were really just larger versions of typical swords ¾ except with stouter blades, but they did distinguished great-swords ("grant espees" or "grete swerdes") from "standard" swords in general. Long-swords and great swords are each characterized by having both a long grip and a long blade. Great swords however, were infantry weapons only, whereas long-swords could be used on horseback and some even with shields. True "two-handed swords" (or more precisely the "Renaissance two-handed sword") are really those specialized forms of the later 1500-1600’s, but the term has come to be applied to larger Medieval great-swords as well.

The largest long-swords came to be known as great-swords. These longer, double-handed swords saw use from the 1200’s up to the early Renaissance. They are often considered the antecedents to true two-handed swords, but occasionally classified as war-swords or even just long-swords. A Medieval great-sword might also be called a "twahandswerds" or "too honde swerd". The Scottish two-hander or Claymore comes from the Gaelic word "claidheamh-mor" (for great sword). This two-hander was used by the Highlanders in various forms and is often confused with a later Basket-hilt "broadsword" (a relative of the earlier Italian schiavona) whose hilt completely enclosed the hand in a cage-like guard.

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 dopplehänder/bidenhänder (zweihander is actually a fairly modern term), used for fighting against pike-squares (they would hack paths through lobbing the tips off the poles). English ones were sometimes referred to as slaughterswords (after the German schlachterschwerter). Two-handed swords are not wielded in the same manner as a long-sword or even a great-sword. Their size and weight demand a variety of different movements and actions. In Germany, England, and elsewhere schools of defence taught their use even for single-combat. Typically their blades could range over six feet long but only weigh 4-6 pounds. They were well-balanced for wide, sweeping blows and could also employ spear-like moves. They had extra-long handles, enlarged pommels, and often had large ring-hilts and pointed lugs or flanges on the extended ricasso. A common technique was to grab the ricasso in the other hand to quickly shorten the blade’s length and increase its maneuverability.

By the mid 1400’s long, tapering swords with specially shaped handles for using either one or two hands developed. These became known as hand-and-a half or bastard-swords around 1450. This may be because they were neither true one-handed nor true two-handed weapons, and thus not a member of either "family". Their handles typically had special "half-grips" which could be used with either one or both hands. These handles have recognizable "waist" and "bottle" shapes. The unique bastard-sword half-grip is both versatile and practical. When gripped, their handle’s "waisted" shape with its wider center tapering towards the pommel allows better control by either one or both hands. It should be pointed out that the term "hand-and-a-half" itself is not historical and is actually another one of modern collectors (although, German forms of the phrase were used by the late 1500’s, long after these swords had fallen out of military use). 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 apparently called a "reitschwert" ("cavalry sword") or a "degen" (knight’s sword).

Bastard swords, like many later long-swords, also made use of the technique of "pommeling", in which their rounded or plum-shaped pommel is partially held in the palm of the second hand. Their method of use also differed by the addition of a "compound-hilt" of side-rings and finger-rings. These were later called finger-rings or annelets, and side-rings or anneus. The addition of these extra bars and guards developed as a result of a new method of gripping which came into use. Improved point-control for thrusting into armor openings was gained by wrapping the index finger around the cross-guard. Gripping in this manner required more protection for the exposed fingers and necessitated the development of the close or compound-hilt. Warriors were also going more and more without heavy gauntlets and these newer hilts offered greater hand protection, particularly against intensifying attacks by thrust. The close-hilt offered superior defense and was used on many bastard-swords, some long-swords and even two-handers. Later, improved close-hilts became the swept-hilt found on most forms of Renaissance cut & thrust swords. Bastard swords continued to be used by knights and men-at-arms into the 1500’s.

One form of long-sword or great-sword was the Italian spadone. It had a triangular or diamond blade cross-sectional shape and a narrower point and was intended for fighting heavier armors. Their blades were made stronger to resist the trauma of hitting tougher armors. They were much more rigid but still quick for their size. These swords were most popular in Germany and Italy. Another form of specialized thrusting long-sword was the estoc. This was a rarer form of specialized sword with a very rigid, pointed, edgeless triangular or square bladed weapon designed exclusively for fighting plate-armor by beating on it and thrusting into its openings and gaps. The estoc was essentially an armor-piercing rod with a hilt. It could not cut but could be used almost like a club. Called a stocco in Italian and a tuck in English (the root word is derived from a thrusting term and English rapiers are sometimes mistakenly referred to as tucks). They could be used in one or two-hands, with the second armored hand often gripping the blade itself.

Methodical and practical methods for skillfully using Medieval long-swords had been practiced for centuries. Unlike for methods of the later Renaissance, there are very few historical references on Medieval fighting still in existence. However, there are indeed some dozens of rare instructional manuals from the era which have survived for us. These works, along with depictions of fighting in artwork and literary descriptions of battles at the time, provide for us a firm historical foundation for Medieval martial arts.

One of the earliest of these is Hans Lichtenawer’s "fechtbuch" (fightbook) of 1389, actually compiled by Hanko Doebringer. Doebringer was a priest who at one time appears to have studied fighting under a great master by the name of Lichtenawer (or Liechtenauer), who's teaching's he sets forth. Another manual of great significance for the single sword is the Italian Fiore dei Liberi's "Flos Duellatorium in Armis" from 1410 on the use of the great-sword or Italian long-sword. The techniques and stances shown by dei Liberi for the unarmored use of great-swords give a fundamental understanding of the historical fighting postures in use for some time for the single sword. Another Italian work, by Valera in the early 1400's, show the beginnings of the focus on civilian swordsmanship and the transition toward the cut & thrust forms of the early Renaissance. Many of the Renaissance manuals include some portion of single long-sword (such as Marozzo’s of 1536, Lovino’s of 1580, and Jacob Sutor’s fechtbuch of 1612). We can also examine the rare Harleian Manuscript 3542 ("The Man That Wol") written in Middle English on the use of the two-handed sword.

Another major work, which retains elements that reflect more the nature of late Medieval fighting, is the more widely known fechtbuch of Hans Talhoffer from 1443. His work was reprinted many times during the 15th century but actually consists of various editions from the 16th & 17th centuries. Talhoffer, likely a student of Lichtenawer reveals an array of great-sword and two-handed sword techniques, sword & buckler moves, dagger fighting, seizures and disarms, grappling techniques, and the Austrian wrestling of Otto the Jew. Like many others, Talhoffer’s work includes fighting with swords while unarmored as well as in full plate. His methods reflect somewhat those of the coming Renaissance with its changing forms of warfare.

Another fechtbuch is that by Hans Lebkommer (or Johannes Leckuechner) published a fechtbuch around 1482, "Der Alten Fecter an fengliche Kunst". This is said to actually be the work of one "Christian Egenolph" and as with many of the others, includes materials from earlier works on the sword such as those by Andre Pauerfeindts of 1516, and Sigmund Ringneck of circa 1440. The material includes the use of sword, falchion and other weapons and consists of various editions from the 16th to 17th centuries.

The Germans and Italians were particularly industrious in the 1400’s and early 1500’s with regard to producing books on their sword arts. The manuals by Italians include Fillip Vadi’s treatise on long-sword/great-sword, "Ars Gladiatoria" from 1480 or 1495, and Diego de Valeria's treatise on Arms also from the late 1400s. A master by the name of Pietro Monte produced his own book on swordsmanship and other weapons in 1509. There are more than a dozen other significant German works remaining on great-swords, two-handers, and long-swords that have yet to be fully analyzed. Many of the works show apparent influence from one another. In the early 1500's the master Gregor Erhart wrote a work on great-sword, falchion, spear, and dagger, which is now reportedly lost. Also, Peter von Danzig produced one on the long-sword in 1452. Another German master, Peter Falkner produced his fechtbuch in 1490, while H. von Speyer offered one a year later in 1491. Another major work that has survived is that of Albrecht Duerer’s from 1512 on the long/great-sword.

Outside of historical-fencing enthusiasts and re-creational or living-history societies, few people are aware of the multitude of instructional manuals by European Masters from the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. These experts developed and taught a craft which they had learned through life and death encounters. Their works reveal a variety of weapons and unarmed techniques as well as the trend from the powerful Medieval long-sword to the early Renaissance cut & thrust style, and then the vicious and methodical thrusting rapier. These various manuscripts are invaluable resources by which to direct and guide the serious study of Medieval swordsmanship and fighting arts. They present us with sophisticated aspects of historical Western martial culture and are richly deserving of careful study.

Due to the advent of firearms and modern warfare, Medieval swords for facing battlefield armor and shields were to give way to civilian blades with newer methods of urban self-defence. As a fighting tradition, historical martial arts in Europe eventually became extinct and no direct lineage now exists. Although they have mostly been lost to antiquity and no traditional schools or masters survive, today many enthusiasts are hard at work reconstructing and replicating these fighting skills. Though the efforts of modern practitioners studying the manuals of the historical masters and training with accurate replica weapons, our Western martial heritage in the art of the Medieval long-sword is slowly but surely being recovered from common misrepresentation in theatrical-combat and fantasy performances.

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See Also: "Renaissance Swordsmanship: The Illustrated Use of Rapiers and Cut & Thrust Swords"

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