An Introduction to the Sword: Part II
In the 16th century the thrusting function of the sword became increasingly accentuated. The blades became more rigid, although they still remained broader in northern areas than they were in Italy and Spain; the hilt became a complex web of rings, bows, and bars designed to give the hand the greatest possible protection from the opponent's thrusts. In the 17th century a further effective defensive element developed in the form of two strong shells, either solid or pierced, which complemented the guard. The evolution of the sword's guard now followed a trend that led, in southern Europe toward the middle of the century, to the hand being completely protected by a hemispherical cup guard. It was no coincidence that this type of guard evolved in southern Europe: the Mediterranean countries had always shown a preference for thrusting swords and corresponding swordplay, wherein it was necessary to shield the hand against the long, sharply pointed rapier.
By the end of the 16th century firearms were playing an increasingly effective part on battlefields, and the sword found its role limited more and more to the dueling ground. Specialized swords were made for dueling, and from the end of the 15th century attempts had been made to standardize dueling weapons and the rules of the duel itself. In the first half of the 16th century the first treatise on fencing was published; this manual laid the foundations of the Italian school of fencing which subsequently became prevalent throughout Europe and which, together with the Spanish school, reached a very high level of accomplishment. There is documentary evidence that the custom of wearing the sword with everyday attire appeared in Spain in the 15th century. From Spain the fashion then speared throughout the rest of Europe and until the late 18th century, a distinctive form of nonmilitary sword with a long, rigid blade and a sharp point, known as the rapier and the smallsword, became part of the parcel of the attire of every gentleman as a status symbol. The fact that a man carried his rapier at all times meant that it could be used in a flash for self-defense or to settle a matter of honor.
In military circles, too, the sword was now carried in peacetime out of respect for tradition rather than for more practical reasons, for it had become too cumbersome and heavy compared with weapons regularly used in duels. The sword had come full circle, and a new military sidearm called the dress sword took its place to be worn with uniform in peacetime. The sword as a weapon of war was still widely used in the early 20th century, but later it was issued mostly in versions designed for uniforms, for ceremonial use, or for presentation.
Presentation Sword. A sword of honor offered by sovereigns, princes, popes, associations, and admirers in general as an award or token of recognition to important figures for their achievements in war or political life. The Italian tradition in this respect is very old indeed: the Church had long rewarded princes, military leaders, and anyone else who had distinguished himself in the defense of Christianity with the gift of a papal sword which had been blessed on Christmas Day. Presentation swords were also given to persons admitted as members of the Knighthood of St. Peter, and two of these are now in the Waffensammlung in Vienna.
The custom of awarding a saber, a dress sword, or a smallsword spread in the 18th and 19th centuries to France, England, and America. Presentation swords were invariably elaborate objects worked on by designers, swordmakers, jewelers, and engravers, ending up as nothing less than works of art. The various surviving examples testify clearly to this: for example, the sword offered to King Frederick VII of Denmark (Rosenborg castle in Copenhagen), the sword given to General Lafayette (National Museum of Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome), and those presented to Major General William Scott and General Ricciotti Garibaldi (in private collections).
In Russia, there was an old tradition of the monarch to present a saber with a gold-inlaid dedicatory inscription to selected Coassacks as a reward for bravery and loyalty. In the early 19th century presentation swords for officers of the regular forces were often introduced under the name "Golden Weapon" since the hilt and scabbard mounts were made of gilt bronze. In addition, the hilt was decorated with the motto "For Bravery" and the badge of the Order of St. Anne, with the sword knot on the ribbon either of this order or that of St. George.
Papal sword. A long sword used by popes to reward princes and military commanders for their achievements as "defenders of the faith." The custom of presenting a sword to defenders of Christianity did not occur much before the year 1000. The first papal sword that can be dated with certainty goes back to 1386, when on the morning of Christmas Day, in Luca, Pope Urban VI presented the city's gonfalonier with a papal sword and cap, both duly blessed. From the early 15th through the 17th century this tradition of blessing a papal sword and cap was continued. Few Christmases at the Vatican passed without some prince or general being rewarded with this gift. Leo XII presented the last papal sword in 1823, to the Duke of Angouleme for his successful storming of the Trocader. A subsequent sword, which was never actually presented, is still in the Vatican. Only on one occasion was the papal sword presented to a whole nation rather than to an individual; this was the sword dispatched by Julius II in 1611 to the Swiss Confederation in recognition of the conduct of the Swiss Guard (the pope's bodyguards). This sword is now in the Landesmuseum in Zurich. If one runs through the list of people who received this gift, the historical and political relations between the papacy and the various other powers in Europe emerges clearly.
The manufacture of the papal sword and cap was entrusted to the best artists and craftsmen of the day. The grip was usually cast in solid silver, engraved and gilded and in some cases the pommel bore the insignia of the pope. The broad, two-edged blade usually had a wide fuller in the upper section. With the name of the pope, the year of the papacy, and sometimes an exhortation to fight for Christendom, in addition to the year of presentation, on the forte itself. The wooden scabbard was mounted with embossed and gilded silver and covered in velvet. The papal gift included a special cap as well; this was a large dome-shaped hat embroidered with the figure of a dovethe symbol of the Holy Ghostand a girdle.
Coronation sword. The sword worn by a sovereign as a symbol of his authority at the investiture or coronation. Charlemagne, who was crowned in Rome on Christmas Day in the year 800 as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, had his sword buckled to him in St. Peter's Basilica. The sword, with which Frederick II of Swabia was crowned in 1220, again in Rome, is currently in the Schatzkammer in Vienna. The sword used at the coronations of the kings of France, dating back to the 12th century, is now in the Louvre in Paris.
Coronation swords represented the very best products of the goldsmiths, craftsmen, and armorers of the day. Modeled on a sword which had been in active use, the coronation sword had to retain the appearance of the true weapon and these various artisans would set to work on it, expressing the taste of the times with a wide variety of elaborate decorative techniques.
Bearing sword. A weapon carried during public ceremonies to signify the authority of the wearer. This ritual usage was derived from the Byzantine Empire, where an arms-bearer would follow the emperor with an unsheathed sword with the point pointing upward to testify to the emperor's powers. The papal sword given by the pontiff to princes who had fought for Christianity was likewise a bearing sword. A typical ceremony in the Venetian republic, from the end of the 16th to the early 18th century, was the presentation to distinguished persons of a broadsword, which then was displayed during public ceremonies as a symbol of powers bestowed upon them. These large ceremonial swords had a broad blade in the form of an acute isosceles triangle, with a central rib. Venezia (Venice) and Giustizia (Justice), both legible when the point of the weapon was raised upward, were inscribed on the furniture. The hilt was made of cast bronze, gilded and engraved; the scabbard was covered with crimson velvet.
Many two-handed swords became ceremonial bearing weapons when they were no longer used for fighting purposes, and they continued to be made long afterward for their new role. The forms of the blade and the quillons are evidence enough of this: additional elements in the form of curls on the guard and decorative fringes on the grip turned these arms into a display of craftsmanship rather than a fighting instrument. For use at festivals and tournaments Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria had a sword made in 1626 with the blade embellished with the Bavarian coat of arms, highlighted in blue and gold.
The largest bearing sword that has come down to us would seem to be the one which Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward V), ordered for his bodyguard when he was created Duke of Chester (1475). It had a German blade, bearing the "running wolf" mark of Passau that was double-edged and ribbed, with a central fuller and an ogival point. It had long, straight quillons, and the grip ended in a flag, octagonal pommel. The sword measured 89" in all.
Executioner's Sword. A sword slightly more than 40" long, with a blade measuring 33-35" in length and 2.5-3" in width, with a rounded point. The quillons were quite short, and mainly straight, but sometimes curved in an S-form; a pear-shaped, mushroom-shaped, or faceted pommel surmounted the long grip. Throughout the 17th century it was widely used in central Europe for beheadings, but this use ceased altogether in the early 18th century. The earliest such sword dates back to 1540, although the form and lines of this example recall those of the two-handed sword in use in the late 15th century. The blades of executioner's swords were often decorated with designs representing justice, the gallows, the rack, and the Crucifixion, or with moralistic inscriptions. When it was no longer used for executions, the sword sometimes continued to be used in ceremonies and processions as a symbol of power.