By Michael “Tinker” Pearce
People always ask me about Medieval swords and what they are like. That’s like asking “What are cars like?” or “What are guns like?” We can make a few sweeping generalizations, but to do so does not begin to do any of these subjects justice.
The European Middle Ages are generally defined as the period from 1066 AD to the 15th Century. They span centuries and about a million square miles of territory occupied by a few hundred distinct cultures. Wars, a schism in the western world’s largest church, an apocalyptic plague or two, the rise of the Middle Class, the collapse of feudalism, several technological revolutions – all interwoven into a homogenous lump we call ‘the Middle Ages.’ Naturally the swords and other weapons used reflect this complexity.
I’ve been thinking about this because tomorrow I have to do a panel on ‘period correct’ Viking and Medieval costuming.Given the description of the period above, imagine my delight. Especially after you add to all of that significant climate change, fashion, international trade affecting the availability of materials…
Oh yeah. Big Fun.
The design of Medieval swords reflected the needs and immediate conditions they were expected to be used in – except when they didn’t, of course, because swords were generally very expensive and seldom used, so a sword might remain in use long after changes in armor had rendered it obsolete.
We can’t even say with any authority what medieval swords were made of. We have examples made from excellent steel and others made from poor steel. Some are made from work-hardened iron or wrought iron with a steel edge. The only thing we can say with any real confidence is that by the end of the Medieval period swords were usually less expensive and more likely to be made of decent steel. These things were not so much due to ‘need’ as they were to technological improvements in production.
There are some generalities we can rely on. The weight of swords meant for a given use remains more or less constant throughout the period. By and large, Medieval swords have a wrought-iron tang forge-welded to the base of the blade. Handles are usually hardwood sandwiched over the tang, then wrapped in cord or wire and covered with leather or fabric. Pommels are retained by passing the tang through them and riveting the iron tang over the pommel or a ‘nut.’ We can say all of these things with reasonable certainty and little fear of correction even though there are exceptions to most of these statements.
Another generality we can make is that regardless of the type these swords, if intended more for use than decoration, handling them felt ‘good’ to a knowledgeable swordsman. This is because these were highly refined, very sophisticated artifacts. By the Middle Ages, western sword-makers could draw on a body of knowledge and experience spanning over two thousand years. They understood swords in a way that modern people generally don’t – from the perspective of a user. Makers would have had to learn what their customers wanted and needed, and designed their swords accordingly.
Of course, referring to ‘makers’ opens a whole other can of worms. In most times and places during the period there was no such thing as a ‘sword-maker.’ The Guild structure of Medieval Europe made such a thing unlikely. Each aspect of the creation of a sword was governed by a different Guild, each with different skills and jealously guarded prerogatives. Miners had their own Guilds. So did Carters, Charcoal Burners, Smelters, Bladesmiths, Temperers, Cutlers (handle makers), the Sheathers that made the scabbards and the Furbishers that decorated them. These Guilds had greater or lesser prominence and power in different times and places, and sometimes a craftsman might belong to more than one Guild.
Do we really need to wonder why I am prone to headaches?
Not only is nothing about Medieval swords, their production, marketing and distribution simple, it’s often mind-numbingly complicated. Thank God using them is less complicated; physics, physiology and the conditions under which the fight occur mean that certain things will be predictable. After all, human bodies only work in certain ways, and when the goal is to cut or stab another human being while keeping from being cut and stabbed, it’s going to work pretty much the same, allowing for variations to accommodate differences in protective gear and clothing.
Mind you I’m not saying that martial arts of whatever kind are simple and do not require intensive training and study. Just that they are refreshingly straightforward compared to the study of swords themselves. Which is a good thing, because if you really want to understand swords you’re going to have to learn the fundamentals of how they are used.
So, the study of medieval swords is intensive and fiendishly complicated. Taking that as a given, and with the limitations of time, energy and money that most of us can apply to our mutual hobby, we should be charitable with one another. Understand that each of us will have a different, unique experience of what a medieval sword is, and that experience will always be limited. We need to acknowledge with humility that our own knowledge is incomplete and remain willing to learn. We need to consider that however much we ourselves know, there was a time when we knew much less, and cut people newer to (or less obsessed with) the hobby some slack. We need to admit that we don’t have all of the answers, and be as willing to learn as we are to instruct. That will make us more pleasant to deal with, increase our enjoyment of this field and advance the study of swords by creating a better environment for learning.
About the author:
In addition to having been a sword-maker since the early 90’s, Michael Pierce is also the author of The Medieval Sword in the Modern World and The Sword Geek blog and podcasts. He is a trained theatrical fighter and a student of Historical European Martial Arts.