Swords in History vs. Modern Popular Culture
by The Yogi
The sword was not the first weapon created specifically for homicide – the club carries that dubious honour – but it’s without question the most iconic weapon of all. It’s not only the archetypical weapon of war, representing all others, from clubs to nuclear-tipped missiles in figures of speech and thought, it also has become the very incarnation of the warrior codes of old, from the Roman Legions to Samurai of Japan and the Knights of Medieval Europe. It’s THE weapon of legends and sagas, with the bow following a very distant second. While relegated today to mostly ceremonial duties, the sword is undiminished in culture, or in fact, perhaps more popular than ever.
Yet perhaps because of that, swords have been so extensively used, and misused in popular fiction, such as fantasy books, films and RPGs that even within the community of medieval martial arts buffs misconceptions and myths about the swords of history abound.
Some of these false ideas have become so widespread that a “fantasy” history, classification and description of swords could be compiled and recognised as truth by most. Here goes an attempt at just that; please note, hardly a word of it is true.
“The swords of antiquity were crude and short because their metal was so poor, so longer weapons would bend on impact. As a result, the Roman Gladius, for example, was mainly good for thrusting. With improvements in metallurgy swords could be made longer and heavier for causing greater cutting damage. By the middle ages, the normal western sword was the one-handed Broadsword, a broad-bladed heavy weapon for single hand use. There were also longer, single-handed swords called Longswords, and large, incredibly heavy two-handed swords who only the strongest could wield. An in-between type was the Bastard Sword which could be used single- or double handed, although only real beefcakes, such as your typical knight or barbarian had the muscular strength to throw around these heavy brutes with one hand. Overall, western medieval weapons were still crude and unrefined. Their edges were quite blunt, to better withstand the rigours of combat and the still poor metal in them meant they had to be made very heavy. In Japan, by contrast swords were made with far superior skill and better steel and were immeasurably sharper, lighter and better in every way. A good medieval Japanese Katana could would have cut through a European sword like butter. Only by the end of the middle ages had European sword-making and metallurgy progressed far enough that thin light blades like the rapier could be made out of good flexible steel, and since body armour had largely been abandoned with the advent of gunpowder weapons, these completely superseded the broadswords of old after the renaissance.”
The real deal
Of course, the real history of swords requires many volumes to be told, not just a few sentences, and it requires being written by a true scholar and not a happy aficionado like myself. Thus I might well be wrong about a great many things below, but nonetheless, here goes;
Classification of Roman and Medieval Swords
While it is possible to assign type names and periods to swords, an important caveat to remember is that swords in all lengths, sizes and shapes have existed since iron supplanted bronze as the main metal for sword making. There have been finds of great two-handed Germanic swords from Republican Roman times which would not have looked too far out of place in the early Renaissance battlefield.
Single hand swords
While it’s true that the iron or steel at the time was not as good as it would later become, the reason the Romans opted for a short, heavy sword like the Gladius when equipping their Legions is the manner in which they fought, shoulder to shoulder in tight formation. This gave little room for swinging, so a fast stabbing weapon was needed, and the Gladius was just that. All else equal, a longer sword is slower than a short one in the handling, but the Gladius was no flimsy weapon – in loose order or individual fighting it could deliver extremely powerful cuts with lightning speed. It is, in fact heavier than most medieval single hand swords and recent test-cutting have proven that it handily outperforms them in cutting power. The reason the Legions eventually went over to the longer Spatha was probably because with it’s greater length, it was better suited for the Legions primary way of fighting, ie giving greater reach for stabbing, but not better cut performance.
The Spatha and similar weapons remained the typical European swords for the next few centuries, while mounted warriors gained in importance. Fighting from horseback requires longer reach, and while the Spatha was originally a cavalry weapon, better steel and more advanced designs meant longer swords could be made without sacrificing too much handling. After going through some transitional stages (Migration period, Viking), longer single hand swords had evolved by the XI century which are today called Arming Swords or Knightly Swords. With a blade typically between 70 and 80 cm in length and weighing only a little over a kilogram (2 pounds), they were emphatically NOT the “Conan’s Broadsword” monstrosities imagined in fiction. The Arming or Knightly swords remained in use until the XVI century as the sidearm of a nobleman, and would eventually evolve into the cut-and-thrust swords of the late renaissance, and finally into rapiers (the name of which is derived from Spanish “Espada Ropera”, “clothing sword” which is synonymous with “Arming Sword” in the sense of “arming” of getting dressed; like the Arming Sword in later middle ages the Rapier was part of a gentleman’s proper attire). But the Rapier it was NOT a light, nimble weapon. Typically, it was heavier than an Arming Sword with a long, stiff blade and had abominable handling characteristics for anything but thrust and recovery. That was the reason it became popular to use a long dagger, or “Main-gauche” (fr. for Left Hand) to aid in parrying. The mental image most have of the rapier corresponds better with the XVIII century Smallsword, which was shorter, more flexible and lighter than the Rapier.
To counter improvements in armour, scaled up versions of Arming Swords for primarily two-handed use appeared by the time of the III Crusade (ca 1200 AD)– these were known as “Swords of War”, but the term has also been applied to the Arming Sword itself so the classification is not clear cut. Especially large swords were known as “Great Swords”, but again that is not a clearly defined class of weapon, rather a description of large individual weapons. To compound the confusion, the Anglo-Saxon word for “Sword of War” sounds a bit like “kregsword” (not sure about spelling), compare to equivalent “Krigsswärd” in modern Swedish, so the “classification” might even be a case of mispronunciation. With blades of up to almost a metre in length, although much larger and heavier than Arming Swords, even a heavy Greatsword would rarely reach two kg in weight.
In the XIII century, longer, thinner swords specifically designed for two-handed use emerged in response to ever improving armour, replacing the Sword of War as main battlefield sword. These were called Longswords, and with their longer grips, it became possible to take advantage of the leverage of a really long blade for delivering devastating cutting blows. A subclass of Longsword was the XV century Bastard Sword, which thanks to a heavily tapered blade (which moves back to point of gravity at a given weight and length) was so agile it could also be used comfortably with one hand. Proper “Twohanders” (often referred to as “Zweihänder”) only appeared during the Renaissance to deal with plate armour, horses and pikemen – not the pikes themselves, as is sometimes thought, but the men wielding them. Heavily armoured soldiers carrying these great swords would brave the wall of pikes to wreak havoc in close. These men received double pay, but I doubt it was because only a select few were strong enough to wield them: even the greatest Twohanders would not weigh much above three kg (excepting ceremonial weapons unsuitable for combat) and could be as light as half of that. Rather, it would take a lot of monetary motivation to make a man try to wade through a forest of pikes trusting his armour to keep him alive until he reached swinging range.
In Japan, something similar happened – the quite Spatha-like Jian-type swords were replaced by XI century with longer, but curved blades, not straight ones like in Europe. The reason for that might have been better or more ubiquitous European armour, necessitating good thrusting capabilities for finding weak spots. Of these curved blades, the Longsword equivalents were known as Tachi, not Katana, and the Twohander ones as Odachi, not Nodachi. The better known Katana began to replace the Tachi in the XV century and was shorter and straighter, probably for being better suited for dismounted combat. Just as in Europe, by this time pole-armed infantry was beginning to dominate the battlefield and the Samurai in the Sengkou wars increasingly had to fight on foot. The ossification of Japanese culture and warfare after the end of the Sengoku period meant that the Katana never was replaced by a Japanese Rapier-equivalent but was kept in use until the XX century, smoothly transitioning from Samurai battlefield weapon to the role as ceremonial officer’s sidearm of European Cavalry Sabres.
The Real Broadsword
And what of the Broadsword, dreamed of dripping crimson in barbarian fists? There actually was a sword named so – it was an XVIII century short broad-bladed footman’s sidearm (called so because it had a traditional, medieval broad blade in a time when most swords where thin Smallswords). In the sense most people think of it, it never existed or was an Arming Sword.
Edge and Metal
Contrary to a somewhat popular misconception, Ancient and Medieval swords were sharp, even razor sharp. We have seen ossuary evidence of what they could do - the technique of cutting at the legs under the rim of the shield was popular since Viking days, and in the Visby mass grave (XIV century), a skeleton was found which had had BOTH legs severed across the shins with one blow, probably the work of the Sword of War or Longsword of a Danish Knight. There were also split skulls and chopped off limbs, none of which would be possible with a blunt edge. Also, era pictures show Swords of War splitting steel Great Helms. Medieval poetry go to great lengths describing armoured warriors split from shoulder to saddle seat by powerful sword blows - probably an exaggerated claim, but not so much so that it would have been laughed out by the intended audience, knights and noblemen who knew damn well what a Sword of War could and could not do. In sharpness they differed little from Japanese swords of their time, although later Japanese sword smiths with their extraordinary attention to detail achieved even sharper weapons.
As for the relative quality of steel, the problem of combining the properties of steel (hard, brittle) and iron (softer, flexible) began to be addressed by the early Roman period through the introduction pattern welding (i.e. the folding together of different metals to even out their properties) by the Celts in around 300 BC. By 500 AD it was in general use in Europe. This was the same technique used in Japan, although because of the extremely poor quality of iron ore available to Japanese smiths, they had to fold their metal more. The end result was no better, but not worse either than contemporary European swords, a fact that speaks creditably about the skill of Japanese swords smiths, given the poor materials they had to work with. The very best sword steel was known as Damascus or Wootz steel. To this day, the exact technique to produce is unknown, although Indian vanadium-rich iron ore, which ran out around 1700 AD might be part of the explanation.