A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors

An Introduction to the Sword: Part I
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The sword is an edged weapon with a long blade designed for delivering cutting blows or thrusts, or both. It first appeared in the prehistoric period; once copper had been mastered, the dagger was fitted with an increasingly longer blade, until it became in effect a short sword. This new weapon was clearly superior for combat at close quarters and, accordingly, led to the decline of the dagger, which took on a secondary, complementary role and remained in use for hand-to-hand combat.

The copper swords had been based on the forms of earlier stone daggers; later, bronze was cast to resemble the copper swords. This new metal easily satisfied the requirements for producing longer swords, and as a result their length increased from 27-31" to more than 35"; the typology also changed, and both long and short swords were manufactured.

The shape of the blade also showed the influence of the dagger and was designed solely for thrusting. The strong central ribbing and the two smaller side rings on both flats gave it total rigidity under the impact of a violent blow. The Mycenaean swords of the second millennium B.C. were likewise designed for delivering thrusts. Little by little the need was felt for swords capable of cutting blows as well, and as a result double-edged swords started to be made with more or less parallel cutting edges and a strong point. Changes in combat techniques obliged craftsmen to solve the problem of fitting the blade to the handle more solidly. As long as the blade was in alignment with the grip, the two or three small nails or rivets which held the two parts of the grip together were sufficient for the task. In the new type of sword, which was to be used for both cutting and thrusting, this join had to be made stronger. This was done by inserting the shoulder of the blade into a specially made slot in the grip and fixing it with several rivets. Another way of making a more reliable weapon was to cast the blade and the tang as a single piece, with the tang fashioned like a handle; this usually involved covering the sides of the tang with small plaques of wood, bone, or other material which was easy to shape and attach with rivets.

The different ways of fashioning the sword did not follow a chronological order in the European sphere; the availability of expensive metal, and the level of mastery of casting it, which gave rise to the many jealously guarded secret, meant that there would be local preferences for one system over another. In the south the bronze swords were decorated on the handles with gold, ivory, and semi-precious stones; in the north there was a preference for decorating the bronze with elaborate engravings. Even in this early period the pommel became an essential part of the grip, and from its original form as a simple projection or swelling it started to take on specific shape depending on its function. In order to protect elaborately made swords, the blade was kept in a sheath made of wood, leather, or sometimes bronze; chapes served to protect the point of the weapon; a metal mouthpiece was added to reinforce the sheath.

The discovery of iron, and how to make it, gave added momentum to the development of the sword, and in one of the same cultural environment swords made of bronze and of iron presented the same form and coexisted for a long period of time. Bronze was a rare material, imported for the most part from regions of the eastern Mediterranean; iron was more common, but it was more complicated to work. The transition from cast bronze to forged iron was neither speedy nor simultaneous in the European region as a whole; for three centuries at least the two techniques existed together, with preferences for one or the other based on the differing economic technical possibilities.

In the Hallstatt culture (900-500 B.C.) swords made of bronze and swords with iron blades coexisted and were modeled after earlier forms. Swords with long, lancet-shaped blades were typical of this culture, these blades had a broader section with the ridge beyond the center of the blade, and ending in a right-angled point. A mushroom-shaped pommel, typical of the culture, surmounted the grip and was often decorated with gold or other precious materials. An iron-bladed example from the Hallstatt tomb still had its magnificent grip made of ivory with carved bands of zigzag patterns and traces of the original coloration. Another grip typical of this culture was the "anthropomorphic" type; the lower limbs, carefully fashioned, were positioned on either side of the blade; the upper limbs, raised above the shoulders, shielded the head; the body formed the actual handle.

The pre-Roman iron swords were similar in form to those in use in the late Bronze Age, with the length in some cases exceeding 40". But as fighting techniques evolved, the Romans developed a preference for the short version of the sword called a gladius, which was better suited to their rigidly arrayed troops, who had to be able maneuver swiftly and with precision. Their "barbarian" foes were for the most part armed with long swords, but the reason for the barbarian victories can be found in their strategic techniques and warrior spirit rather than in any intrinsic superiority of their arms.

In the La Tène culture (from 500 B.C. to the beginning of the Christian era), the somewhat angular lines of the sword blade typical of the Hallstatt culture were softened. The edges of the blades were parallel and the right-angled tip took on an ogival shape. In this period, the sword changed from the elaborate object-cum-weapon into a simple and practical fighting weapon which was lighter and easier to wield. The swords that have survived to this day are all without handles and have a broad double-edged and pointed blade; the only surviving decorative element is around the mouth of the scabbard. This period also saw the addition, near the mouth of the sheath and on the back of it, of a metal ring or loop (through which a carrying strap was passed. Some sheaths of the La Tène period are made entirely of bronze and decorated with engravings. In the last three centuries B.C. the most common sword in the European region was the long Gallic sword of the La Tène culture. Tombs of this period have produced examples of blades, spear, swords, and axes made of iron, found together with weapons made of bronze.

The eventual and definitive supremacy of iron for the manufacture of the sword blades and other arms relegated bronze to being used for accessory parts: grips, sheaths, and the reinforcing mounts for wooded sheaths, which were sometimes covered with hide and fabric. During the Hallstatt culture there had been a gradual lengthening of the sword; during the La Tène period the length was first reduced, then increased once more to between 31-35", as progress in metalworking made it possible to construct lighter and stronger blades. In many instances the craftsmen who made swords impressed on the blade a "trademark" identifying the maker. The malleability of these blades meant that they could be twisted in such a way as to form a spiral or three or four turns without breaking; in fact, in the La Tène period there is evidence of the first examples of this type of metal working, which is called "pattern welding." But the fact that the blade could become deformed on impact often meant that the combatant had to interrupt the fight to straighten the blade, with the help of his foot or with a rock. It was with these swords that the Teutonic and Gallic horsemen who fought against Caesar's legions were armed.

The roman gladius, a development of the Hallstatt sword, had a double-edged blade with a strengthened trip; the grip was ringed, giving the soldier a good hold. The grip was made of wood, ivory, and bone, ending in a sphere-shaped pommel. The gladius was carried on the right side slung from a baldric, which passed over the left shoulder. Although Rome defeated its foes that were armed with the long sword, because its army was so highly disciplined, the Romans nevertheless acknowledged the functional qualities of that weapon when used on horseback; accordingly the Roman cavalry was equipped with a similar sword. When the upper hand was eventually gained by the various Teutonic peoples migrating southward, the gladius, which had barred their passage on so many occasions, was replaced by the long sword, and the dagger by the short sax, which was dated back to the Bronze Age and remained in use up until the Carolingian period.

During the great migrations the sword clearly showed the influence of the type in use in the latter stages of the La Tène culture. It had a broad, double-edged blade and a rather blunt point, and measured between 30-37" in length; a wide shallow fuller ran down the blade in the center of both faces, almost to the point. The handle was shorter, but structurally similar; a small oval metal plate, between the shoulder of the blade and the grip, protected the latter from being damaged against the metal rim of the mouth of the sheath, and at the same time provided a better grip; in addition, because it was somewhat salient, it protected the hand. This in fact marked the beginnings of the guard, the hand-protecting device—although it was no more than embryonic at this stage. A second small plate rounded off the grip at the top, and a point surmounted this. The sword retained these forms in the Meroyingian period; the only modification was a gradual thickening of the plate between the grip and the shoulder of the blade. The handles of these swords were richly decorated with gold and silver inlays. Forging soft and hard steel rods that were bent several times during the process made the blades.

Early narratives and documents have given us the names of various valiant knights and their swords, and sometimes the names of the craftsmen who forged them as well. Siegfried thus carried out his acts of valor with "Balmus"; Roland routed brigands and infidels with his faithful "Durandal," which was made by Madelger of Regendsburg with such skill that when the hero was finally felled during the battle of Roncesvalles, he was unable to break it. In the Chanson de Rolandwe find the following words: "Roland felt that his life was about to end. Summoning his strength he raised himself to his feet. His face was pale. Before him lay a grey rock. With pain and rage he struck the rock ten times with his sword. The steel clashed but neither broke nor splintered." In another passage we find the following description of Charlemagne with his sword: "He was wearing his fine white coat of mail and his helmet with gold-studded stones; by his side hung Joyeuse, and never was there a sword to match it; its color changed thirty times a day. We know well the fate of the lance with which Our Lord was transfixed upon the cross. By the grace of God, Charles possesses the tip, and has had it set in the golden pommel of his sword. Because of this great honor the sword is called Joyeuse." The sword of King Arthur was made on the island of Avalon and was called "Excalibur." If one reads sagas and chansons de geste it is not hard to see the important differences between defensive and offensive arms; all the fights are reduced to a single well-placed blow that overwhelms the foe and pierces his mail, his shield, or his helmet.

In the Carolingian period the various parts of the grip became more defined and specialized in their function; the elongated small oval plate peculiar to the Merovingian period was turned into a small four-sided bar about 4" long, i.e. the guard. The wooden grip ended in a pommel with a rectangular base that was larger and more massive at the center. The form of Carolingian sword clearly show shows that it was an excellent fighting weapon designed for cutting; larger and longer than earlier swords, it measured 37-40", the increase in length, and thus weight, being counterbalanced by a more massive pommel.

At the beginning of the Romanesque period (11th-12th centuries) the sword retained the form of the Carolingian period, but the blade became slightly broader and the name of the maker started to appear in the fuller; the quillons were lengthened; and the pommel—which had been made up of two parts, one flat and the other swelled, and which had been so common among the Nordic peoples—was replaced by a type which was hemispherical or parabolodial in shape. Later, in the latter half of the 12th century, the blade was made broader still; the quillons measured 8-9", although the length varied according to local preferences. In Italy and elsewhere south of the Alps the quillons remained considerably shorter than those found north of the Alps, The pommel, which up until this period had a flat base, now adopted an upward-curving base and took on the form of a clove.

The sword was used in this period solely for delivering cutting blows. The Bayeux Tapestry (1066-77), whose various sequences depict the feats of William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings, shows all the combatants wielding swords, busily cutting at their adversaries; none of them is making thrusts. In the Hortus delliciarum of the abbess Herrade of Landsperg (Alsace), an illuminated encyclopedia of the second half of the 12th century, almost all the warriors are smashing helmets and breastplates with cutting blows, but some are also thrusting with their swords. After many centuries the sword had reassumed this function and as a result the blade was modified; now it adopted a form which was suited both to thrusting and cutting: the pommel was clove-shaped, the long quillons were fairly flattened at the tips, and the blade was long with a sharp point.

In the Gothic period the sword became a more specialized instrument depending on whether it was to be used on foot or on horseback, or to be carried on parade of in ceremonies. Earlier blades were remounted with new hilts, especially in weapons for troops made up of vassals and peasants. Among these swords the types carried by the 14th-century knight was especially remarkable for its strength, beauty, and harmony of its lines. The sword was some 47" in length, with the blade accounting for almost 40"; the blade was in the form of a long isosceles triangle. The robust hilt was straight, and the pommel, which was larger and heavier than previous types, was polygonal or disc-shaped. This latter form of the pommel became common throughout Europe, although it had variations from country to country. In Italy it was fairly flat or slightly convex when compared with examples from north of the Alps. A knight might well have several swords, according to his preferences and requirements; swords with blades having parallel edges and a point, for cutting, swords with stout triangular- or rhomboid-section blades, for thrusting; and swords designed for both cutting and thrusting. These forms developed as principal local types: in southern and western Europe there was a preference for thrusting weapons; elsewhere on the Continent cutting swords were preferred.

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Based on content by Simon and Schuster and reproduced with permission

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