Well, looks like I’ve been allowed to make a blog post here at JL. Muahahaha! *ahem* *cough* Sorry about that–I don’t know what happened there.
Okay, moving on. So, today I get to talk about my favorite sharp pointy things: swords.
Alas, this isn’t one of mine. In fact, I wonder why I didn’t just take a picture of one of mine. Oh right: because I’m lazy. Answered that.
Those of us who are readers of fantasy know that swords are pretty prevalent in the genre. And by “prevalent” I mean it’s like nobody has ever heard of other weapons. Unless the character’s a dwarf. Then he gets an ax. Or if he’s an elf. They get bows. Seriously, could somebody wield a mace or a halberd now and again? But the truth is, I’m guilty of this, too. *stares contemplatively at a wall for an overly long amount of time until Melion’s eyes get scratchy* Yeah, now that I think about it, I don’t know if I’ve given one of my characters a weapon that isn’t a sword. I should probably fix that.
The thing is, swords are just cool. More than that, they were a historically popular weapon across most of human history since metallurgy met warfare. Swords were functional, and they also came to be linked to status and worn as a mark of social class. A medieval knight might have found a mace or an ax more practical in combat, but he wouldn’t have seen himself as a knight if he didn’t wear his sword–that sword denoted his rank in the world. And if real knights entwined psyche and sword, why wouldn’t a knight in a pseudo-medieval setting? Well, actually, there are plenty of reasons why, in the name of creativity, that could change. But that’s not the topic of this post.
The topic of this post is swords. Now, just saying “swords” is to sweep my arms and encompass a tremendously vast topic, one which I couldn’t even begin to cover in any meaningful way in one post. So what I specifically want to look at are some of the misconceptions we might have about European swords. And I do mean only “some” because whole books have been written on the topic, and we have a lot of erroneous ideas about swords and combat. However, we shouldn’t feel too guilty about that considering so many of these misconceptions are reinforced through books and movies.
I’m joking. Except I’m not. Except it’s true. Except when it’s not. I’m actually that helpful with life advice.
Truth is, what really began challenging so many of the things that I “knew” about swords was when I began to formally study European sword fighting through an academy. Which I suppose means I should back up a little and answer the question readers might be thinking: okay, so . . . did you watch a YouTube video, or something? Well, yes, I have watched YouTube videos. But I’ve also formally trained for almost a decade in several European styles, and I’ve had the opportunity to study from some of the original fechtbücher, or fight books, which have preserved medieval and Renaissance sword training. One of those manuscripts, the Royal Armouries I.33, has greatly informed the master’s thesis I’m currently researching. Besides which, I’ve studied Eastern martial arts for nearly twenty years in total, and I won’t go into my personal history too much because it ain’t the focus, but I’ve also had to put those skills to use back when I was young and dumb. So, does this make me an expert? Oh heck no. It makes me a practitioner and it makes me knowledgeable, but I would never consider myself an expert.
But clearly not bad a** enough to type out the full swears. Courage Wolf would not approve.
So, all that in mind, where do I start? Let’s start with a couple of knights. How ’bout these knights:
I know. It’s a stock photo. I don’t have real knights who’d pose for me–something about me needing a time machine. I dunno. Science-y stuff.
So here we’ve got our knights pummeling each other relentlessly with cumbersome lengths of metal. And these two will keep hitting one another until the stronger guy wins this battle of resource attrition. Well . . . maybe not. While the picture might be more or less fine, the idea I’ve presented is actually pretty inaccurate. And yet, that’s how most of us think a medieval sword fight would go down.
If that idea’s wrong, what’s the matter with it? I’m glad you asked. Let’s break down a few of the highlights. The first is that swords aren’t cumbersome and heavy. In fact, they’re rather light and need to be well balanced in order for the fighter to hit with the optimal strikes and maneuver the blade quickly enough to ward against an attack. The average medieval sword weighed less than 4lbs with many weighing less than 3lbs. Which makes sense when you think about it because fighting is tiring, and a heavy weapon means a combatant will tire even easier. And a tired combatant is a dead man.
Why? Well, for many reasons, but one of the reasons is that a tired person loses his form and his skill. No matter how strong the fighter is, he can be overcome by an opponent who relies on training and skill. That part I mentioned about the balance of the blade? Balance wouldn’t matter much if swords were just swung with wild abandon. But balance matters because skill matters. Medieval sword masters such as Johannes Liechtenauer recognized this basic fact and he advised that if swordfighting were only about strength against strength, there would be no point in devoting time and effort to studying the science. Sure, Liechtenauer needed job security, but if he peddled crackpot ideas that got people defeated, well, a job would end up being the least of his worries.
Liechtenauer’s work was recorded and used by another swordsman, so I’m guessing ol’ Johannes’s skills were pretty effective and transformed his students into deadly fighters. Or somebody was a troll. Either way.
Returning to our image of knights beating the everlasting snot out of each other, we also have the matter of armor. Knights could barely move. They were encased in rigid shells that restricted their movement so dramatically that they needed to be hoisted onto their mounts. They–oh? How’s that? Mark Twain had it wrong in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? Say it ain’t so! Actually, I can forgive Mr. Twain because 1) he was an acerbic genius and 2) he wasn’t trying to be historically accurate . . . I think (look, I’m not an English major and I don’t even play one on TV).
Since visuals are excellent, I highly recommend checking out this link to a YouTube video demonstrating the mobility of knights (yeah, I admitted to watching YouTube videos up above, so let’s not point fingers and scream, “Hypocrite!” all at once). This is a great short that addresses what people could do in armor. Also, the clip is in French, but it’s easy to get what’s happening. Knights could climb, they could wrestle, they could move with tremendous dexterity.
Now, I will grant that the armor in the video is only one style. What about when knights wore primarily chain mail? I’ve heard it argued that chain mail was more restrictive than plate armor, and I can believe it since chain mail drags heavily upon the shoulders (although the weight can be shifted to the hips by the aid of the belt). To be honest though, I’ve never worn more full plate, and I’ve only worn a chain mail shirt briefly, so I can’t compare the styles from personal experience. In fact, if anybody reading this would like to give me the opportunity to try some sparring in armor, let me know–I’ll take you up on that.
What I can say is that mobility was important in battle, and the fight books I mentioned all include a lot of wrestling and grappling, which means that an armored fighter was expected to be mobile enough to wrestle his opponent. If armor’s too restrictive, that obviously can’t happen. As an aside, I’ve had people remark while reading my stories that swords can’t be used while grappling. It blows minds when I point to the manuscripts where grappling combat with a sword is a very real and very serious topic.
Well, it’s here that I realize I need to be wrapping up the post. The icon in the sidebar says my readability “needs improvement” and it sure as heck won’t get better if I just keep typing. Knowing my luck, I’ve probably already crashed the website.
What’s also a shame is that I could keep going on and on about swords. Look, I’m a dork, and I love medieval weaponry, but I’ve got one blog post to handle a whole lot of history and a whole lot of misconceptions. And I haven’t done this subject justice. What about the different styles of swords? Or the different techniques? Or shields? I never even got to shields. I got cows setting things on fire, and I didn’t get shields.
And women. I didn’t even get to the part about women learning swordsmanship (swordswomandship? Whatever). Which is a bit ironic since that’s a large portion of my aforementioned thesis. But unfortunately, there’s only so much that I can get into one post, and I figured I’d add memes because I can get really pretentious and pedantic when I start talking, and memes make me seem like a real person and not some sort of sword-wielding robot (actually, that sounds cooler than I probably really am. Why couldn’t I have just been born a sword-wielding robot? Is that too much to ask?).
However, I will leave you with one of my favorite paintings because it’s got not just knights, but a knight with a sword and another with a mace.
There’s something very evocative about Delacroix’s use of motion that highlights the violence and mobility of the scene. What’s more, there’s skill and there’s planning evident in the attack of both knights.
Was this ridiculously basic? Yeah, I suppose it was. At the end of all things, however, I hope that I’ve helped clear up some notions about medieval arms and armor so that the next time you read a fight scene with swords and armor, you’ll have an expanded idea about what’s happening. Or you might head out to research more on your own–or join a historical fencing academy and study the art for yourself to see what you can then teach to the rest of us. And if you’re already a student of the blade and just want to discuss swords, hit me up because I love talking about the medieval military world and I’m always happy to learn from those with more practice and skill than I.