The Evolution of Swords
John Wilkinson Latham
& Robert Wilkinson Latham
Possibly the most famous, or should I say infamous, sword that is known to the English speaking nations is that synonym of suspense, the Sword of Damocles. At the beginning of what are called the Middle Ages – about the fifth century A.D. – all the legendary heroes whose names are preserved for us in the many heroic sagas had their Swords, each having a name and each as famous as the wielder himself.
Everyone must have heard of the "Excalibur of King Arthur" and there are many others such as the “Hunting of Beowulf ", "The Alteclre of Olivier", "The Tizona of the Cid", "The Querstenbeis of Haakon" and "The Preciosa of King Poligan" to name just a few. Each one of these was a long iron sword renowned for the temper of the blade and having a hilt which was elaborately chased and then inlaid with precious metals. The owner's name was engraved on the blade in Runic letters, and if we can believe the legends the sword would not be satisfactorily wielded by any other than its owner.
The Franks, a barbarian race which eventually became the conquerors of Rome, were pre-eminent among the warring tribes of Europe for approximately four hundred years from the 5th Century A.D. They were, at first, equipped in the most rudimentary manner with only a shield for defence, an axe or "Francisca", a Lance and a short Sword called a "Scramasax". This weapon was in reality a long Knife and was rarely over 22 inches in length with the blade two inches wide at the hilt, tapering to an acute point. It had a central ridge up both sides of the blade and was hollowed out on each side of this ridge in order that the blade might carry poison.
The true sword of the Franks was carried by the officer or clan chief class. It had a flat, double-edged blade, between thirty and thirty-two inches long and was parallel for most of its length, coming to an obtuse point. It was housed in a scabbard of wood or leather on which was engraved a decorative pattern, which was then filled with copper.
The Frankish sword of the reign of Charlemagne differed very little from the previous pattern, except that the ornamentation of the hilt and cross-guard was far more decorative and the metals used were now the precious kind, such as gold, silver and refined copper. The grip was not solely of wood but more often of ivory or bone and the scabbard was tipped with a chape of metal to prevent wear.
When we are identifying swords of the Middle Ages we are apt to find that historians and sometimes antiquarians base a lot of their descriptive writing on the various tapestries, columns and tombs, which show fighting men of the period concerned, together with their arms and armour. This can be a dangerous practice, as artistic licence has been evoked for as long as artists have practised their art, and the temptation to improve the beauty of a weapon without considering the effect this would have on the balance and utility has in the majority of cases not been resisted. Readers may recall a recent case, in which an equestrian statue in London of a First World War General was found to have its spurs upside down! The swords of the time of the Norman Conquest have been minutely described by some writers by reference to the Bayeux Tapestry, but remembering the warning above, and considering that the tapestry was woven by women who, although artistic, had no technical training and was designed mainly from the descriptions of the returning warriors, it would be dangerous to accept these detailed descriptions. In broad outline, the blade was straight, tapering to an acute point and double-edged. As the Normans were descended from the Saxon and Danish races, this type of blade is to be expected. The quillons are shown on the tapestry to be straight and short, the grip parallel and the pommel spherical. The scabbard was suspended on the left side by a cord around the waist. Later Norman period examples have been discovered with the quillons curving upwards towards the blade.
In case you have been left in suspense by an earlier paragraph, Damocles was one of the courtiers of the elder Dionysius of Syracuse. When he spoke in extravagant terms of the happiness of his sovereign, Dionysius is said to have invited him to a sumptuous banquet at which he found himself seated under a naked sword suspended by a single hair.
From the earliest days up until about the 16th Century, the development of the sword in Europe was very slow and gradual and never really advanced much from the straight, double-edged blade, broad at the hilt and tapering to a point, with a wooden grip, a flat disc-shaped pommel and a straight cross-guard. With this weapon it was possible to thrust, although its main purpose was for cutting, and being a sword of great weight made it unsuitable for guarding, so that the forearm and hand had at first to be covered with a gauntlet of cuir boulli (leather moulded in boiling water) and later by a metal gauntlet.
With the beginning of the 16th Century the firearm began to come into use and with it came the gradual falling into disuse of body armour, which was found to be very little protection against a bullet unless it was thickened up to be of such a weight that a man could hardly carry it.
With the dying out of armour, the science of swordsmanship made very rapid advances, and with these advances came the improvements to the defensive qualities of the sword hilt, to do away with the need for wearing a gauntlet. The ancient type of sword referred to above now developed into the rapier, which had a long, narrow, two-edged blade, very pointed, but still of considerable weight, which was first of all used for both cut and thrust. However, the length soon increased, and with it the blade and hilt were lightened, turning it into a purely thrusting weapon. Soon it became of extravagant length and the hilt became more complicated, with curved guards, counter guards, and very wide cross guards, which protected the hand admirably against the cut, but were not very effectual against the thrust.
Rapiers, of course, were naturally of use for single combat and were, in the main, carried only by Naval and Military officers, the enlisted men being armed with hangers and cutlasses of more simple design but with heavier cutting blades and very little pretence at thrusting qualities.
These alterations to the sword brought in an entirely new science of sword-play which required far greater skill in use. Up to this time swords had been exclusively weapons of war and were not worn with civilian dress, as the poignard and dagger were considered more becoming and more useful if a civilian needed to go armed. From approximately 1525 onwards, the sword was adopted as part of the everyday costume of a gentleman, which brought about an amazing increase in the demand for these weapons and of course a great change in the social customs of the people, mainly owing to the increasing popularity of the unofficial duel and various codes of honour which were imported from the Continent.
The 17th Century brought with it possibly the most popular era of the sword, when the rapier was superseded by a far simpler weapon rather akin to the fencing epee of today. There was, in this century, a great difference of opinion between the Southern and the Northern Europeans as to what constituted the best type of Military sword. The Southerners favoured a light-straight-bladed thrusting weapon, whereas the Northerners began to go in for a heavy, curved cutting weapon. Reference to the build of the people in these parts of Europe shows why this is so, the Mediterranean peoples and the Latins being of light build and very quick on their feet, whereas the Northerners were a heavily built, very strong people but slow and ponderous in their movements.
John Wilkinson Latham
& Robert Wilkinson Latham
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