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D. Nogueira




Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 8:18 am    Post subject: How common were swords in an army during the middle ages?         Reply with quote

My question may be rather vague, but I'll try to narrow it down a bit, the best I can.
(And first of all, sorry about my English)

How really widespread do you think was the sword as a standard (main or side) weapon for the "common" soldiery of the medieval era?
I mean... not only in the hands of knights, or "elite" warriors.

I've read many times that the most widespread weapon through middle ages was the spear, which may be easy to
understand for many reasons.
I also understand that the sword may have been more "popular" among different armies, different cultures and different periods. But if you know any specific examples, please let me know.

Did the sword ever achieved during the middle ages, the widespread use in an army as it may have had with Roman
legions at its peak, for instance, many centuries before?
Or could it be said that the sword tended to be something like an "elitist privilege"?

Thanks a lot!


Last edited by D. Nogueira on Fri 30 May, 2008 11:24 am; edited 1 time in total
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 8:42 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Contemporary artwork of the 15th and 16th c. suggest that swords were common at all levels. The absence of a sword may simply be a matter of personal choice.

Many depictions of 15th century infantrymen often show a polearm and dagger, but no sword. But consider that a glaive is simply a sword on a stick and probably not less difficult to manufacture, so money probably wasn't the issue. In fact, there are depictions of high status individuals--men-at-arms--with poleaxes and no swords.

When the polearm is the primary weapon and the dagger the last-ditch weapon of choice at close range, there's less reason to wear a sword that's neither here nor there. A polearm well-used is superior to any sword simply by virtue of its range. The addition of a sword therefore might seem very "belt and suspenders" (that's "belt and braces" to our UK friends Big Grin ) to the person who had to be in the thick of the fight.

We do see almost universal wearing of short swords in early 16th c. depictions of German and Swiss infantry. At some point in the late 15th century infantry seem to have decided that a very compact sword was preferable to a dagger as a secondary weapon at close quarters.

The early 16th c. Katzbalger is probably as close to the Roman gladius as you're likely to see in terms of distribution and size.

-Sean

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Doug Lester




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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 9:02 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It is going to depend on what you define a sword as being. If it is the classical "knightly" straight two edged sword I would have to say that it was rarely carried by the "average" infantryman. They were too expensive and they may have been restricted to a certain class of people by statute or custom, dependant upon time and place. If you include single edged weapons such as the falchion, then the carrying of swords becomes more common. A single edged weapon is easier to forge, thus something that could be made by the average blacksmith. These large knives/short swords could also have a more utilitarian purpose and would be something that the "average" man would have.

According to Oakeshott and Reinhardt pole arms were almost always the primary battlefield weapon. They had the advantage of reach. Even the knights' primary weapon was the lance. The sword was a backup weapon and it was also used when fighting at close quarters where the lenght of a pole arm was a disadvantage.
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Elling Polden




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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 9:16 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

While a sword is a rather expensive single item, it wasn't THAT expensive.
Compare to a modern rifle, which will set you back a couple of hundred dollars for a low end bolt action, to 1500$+ for a high end assault rifle.
While a rifle technically costs a months pay and up they are quite common in provate ownership.

Sword quality, of course, would vary wildly. However, a skilled smith might produce good swords at the same rate as a less skilled one, or even faster. (say, Bartha or Johnson with a coulpe of apprentices, just churning out blades, and letting the aprentices mount them.)
Second hand blades might be plentyfull as well, especially in times of unrest...
Also, there is no use in making swords so expensive noone can aford them.

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
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Bill Grandy
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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 9:18 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Doug,

Doug Lester wrote:
It is going to depend on what you define a sword as being. If it is the classical "knightly" straight two edged sword I would have to say that it was rarely carried by the "average" infantryman. They were too expensive and they may have been restricted to a certain class of people by statute or custom, dependant upon time and place.


That's not entirely true. See Sean's post above. Though I do agree that a lot depends on time and place.

Quote:
If you include single edged weapons such as the falchion, then the carrying of swords becomes more common. A single edged weapon is easier to forge, thus something that could be made by the average blacksmith. These large knives/short swords could also have a more utilitarian purpose and would be something that the "average" man would have.


A falchion isn't any simpler to make than a double edged sword, necessarily. They were definately not weapons that were relegated to the poor or commoners, as there were many falchions that were jewel-embedded and quite ornate, and you see them in period art being carried by knights, noblemen, and even as a weapon chosen by St. George.

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D. Nogueira




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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 9:22 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hi Sean. Thanks for the reply!

Just one thing. My original question was aiming towards the medieval era, rather than 16th century or late 15th (Which may belong the the modern era). Sorry if I may have been ambiguous in the post saying "middle ages"... English is not my native language and this may not have been the most appropriate term.

However, I find your post really interesting!
When you mention the example of the Swiss infantry, and their almost universal wearing of short swords... Which would you say may have been the main causes of that?
Improvement in craftmanship? Professionalization of the armies? Higher "buying power" of the Swiss at that time?

Well, sorry for asking too much Razz
Thanks a lot!
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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 9:43 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

D. Nogueira wrote:
Hi Sean. Thanks for the reply!

Just one thing. My original question was aiming towards the medieval era, rather than 16th century or late 15th (Which may belong the the modern era). Sorry if I may have been ambiguous in the post saying "middle ages"... English is not my native language and this may not have been the most appropriate term.

However, I find your post really interesting!
When you mention the example of the Swiss infantry, and their almost universal wearing of short swords... Which would you say may have been the main causes of that?
Improvement in craftmanship? Professionalization of the armies? Higher "buying power" of the Swiss at that time?

Well, sorry for asking too much Razz
Thanks a lot!


I don't know as much about earlier periods, but my impression is that the earlier you get the more valuable all steel/iron was, so I'd expect to see fewer swords among the hoi-poloi.

Why short swords later? I would guess that those arose with the rediscovery of the value of disciplined mass infantry and polearms during the Renaissance. Disciplined infantry really require uniform arming, especially where pikes are concerned. If everybody has a pike, they also need a secondary weapon. In the close quarters of a pike square you wouldn't expect men to carry longswords. Many peasant knives of the period where quite large anyway, and many men probably used those as their secondary weapons. Over time the different designs probably merged or fell away to leave what most agreed was the most useful form. It may also simply have been about status and fashion. The Landsknecht weren't issued uniforms, but they're instantly recognizable in artwork. They were elite. They dressed and armed themselves alike probably as much for esprit de corps as for practical purposes (some of their clothing seems very impractical, of course). Once something is adopted by elites, others tend to want it. How many modern military items are sold on the basis of their alleged use by special forces?

-Sean

"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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Dustin R. Reagan





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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 12:12 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Bill Grandy wrote:
A falchion isn't any simpler to make than a double edged sword, necessarily. They were definately not weapons that were relegated to the poor or commoners, as there were many falchions that were jewel-embedded and quite ornate, and you see them in period art being carried by knights, noblemen, and even as a weapon chosen by St. George.


Actually, I would have to disagree that a falchion (or other single edged sword) isn't any simpler to make than a double edged sword. Generally speaking, a single edged blade (knife or sword) of equivalent size, materials level of ornamentation/craftsmanship, etc to a given double edged blade *is* a bit easier to make. Keeping two edges straight and true all the way through the forging, heat treating and finishing process is hard and takes more skill (keeping one edge straight and true is hard enough! try it! =] )!
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D. Nogueira




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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 1:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Elling Polden wrote:
While a sword is a rather expensive single item, it wasn't THAT expensive.
Compare to a modern rifle, which will set you back a couple of hundred dollars for a low end bolt action, to 1500$+ for a high end assault rifle.
While a rifle technically costs a months pay and up they are quite common in provate ownership.


Hi Elling, thanks for the reply.

Forgive my ignorance... but in general, was it really just a matter of affording them?
For instance, when the peasantry was levied to form an army... were peasants allowed to own or use the weapons they wished (Swords, in this case)? And what about during times of "peace"? Were they allowed to have them?

Of course peasants were not always the most numerous guys on every medieval army...
What about lower class professionals or "mercenaries"... were they allowed to use swords, or carry one as a side weapon if they could afford it, or wish it?
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Justin King
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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 1:42 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

D. Nogueira wrote:


Forgive my ignorance... but in general, was it really just a matter of affording them?
For instance, when the peasantry was levied to form an army... were peasants allowed to own or use the weapons they wished (Swords, in this case)? And what about during times of "peace"? Were they allowed to have them?

Of course peasants were not always the most numerous guys on every medieval army...
What about lower class professionals or "mercenaries"... were they allowed to use swords, or carry one as a side weapon if they could afford it, or wish it?



This would depend on region, time frame, and/or the whim of the local feudal lord or occupying faction. Rest assured that all possibilities were realized at one time/place or another. There were likely laws and customs regarding this in some areas and periods but enforcing them would have been hit and miss.
This is one of those subjects that have no easy answer, other than "yes and no".
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 7:46 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Just a minor point, already strongly implied above, is that swords were rarely the *primary* weapon. They were generally secondary, while the primary weapon would have been a spear, polearm, bow, etc.

Valete,

Matthew
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Doug Lester




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PostPosted: Fri 30 May, 2008 10:17 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Bill, I don't hold myself up as a master bladesmith or even a terribly good one but I have to disagree with you that a double edged weapon is not harder to make than a single edged weapon. I have made both and keeping a blade symetrical both edge to edge and side to side is a lot trickier than it looks. Also, the longer the blade is the more difficult these probles are. I wouldn't go as far as saying that it's twice as hard but it is deffinantly more difficult and I don't think that there is a practicing bladesmith today that would agree with your position. At least none who's books I've read would. It is also easier to make a full tang than a stick tang and a sandwiched handle is generally easier that putting a handle on a stick tang. Just about any blacksmith should have been able to make a large single edged knife in the 16-20" size range, especially with sandwiched grips. Something on the order of the old langseax without a guard or pummel was pretty easy to make, especially if looks didn't count. It took a specialized craftsman to make a double edged sword in a 28-34" range and another one to put a handle on it.
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Jared Smith




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PostPosted: Sat 31 May, 2008 6:18 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have not tried to make either, yet. But, I agree with Doug Lester for different, additional reasons. Heads on pole arms often did not have to flex to nearly the same degree as a sword, and could be made from much lower quality ores and construction. A lot of axe and club like weapons had lower carbon content than swords. Were talking numbers like 0.18% versus 0.4% average (not yet homogeneous steel, but suggesting efforts to achieve springy steel in swords.) Swords seemed to be made of the most premium iron materials, and often exhibited all kinds of extra labor (pattern welding, piling, carburizing, etc.)
There is a mysterious aspect of swords (higher frequency of very ornate decoration, traditional symbol of authority/ status, etc.) that does not seem to be as strong with other weapons. Difficulty of construction might be part of the reason for this.

"Medieval age" is relative as well. Most define it as an emergence ffrom "Dark Age" beginning near the time of adopting Charlemagne type feudal structure and social innovations, and ending with Renaissance (which varies some by region.) I would generically place it around 9th through 14th century allowing +/- a century depending upon region. At least a couple of historians have written that Italian city states seemed to emerge almost directly from Dark Ages into a gradual Renaissance.

This is a guess, but I would say spread of the sword being issued to the common soldier did increase throughout the "Medieval Ages" as a result of; switch from feudal levy based armies to the indenture/ mercenary army, and increasingly efficient production of higher quality steel. Depending on how you define "common soldier", they may not have been that common a part of the armies during early feudal / Medieval periods in each region. Whenever they did exist, I would think they would not have been discouraged from using a looted enemy sword to fight with.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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Justin King
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PostPosted: Sat 31 May, 2008 8:27 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think that in general sword ownership would be predominant among those who were warriors by either profession or by feudal obligation, conscripted/levied soldiers during medieval times would be much more likely to have a simple, inexpensive weapon that is effective in formation tactics, such as a spear or even an improvised agricultural implement.
Swords require some training to use effectively, especially in a tightly packed formation.
In the medieval period large pitched battles were actually rather rare, even a monarch such as Henry V may only fight in a few battles during his lifetime (2 in this case, although Edward I is an example of the other extreme, not sure how many battles he participated in but a goodly number I would think), most "commoners", peasants, etc. would likely not be involved in enough conflicts of this kind to have any reason to own a sword unless they lived in an area of frequent warfare or were paid for military service. The average farmer/laborer being levied to fight would, in many cases, have been a once in a lifetime experiece, or at least very infrequent. Regions such as the Anglo-Scottish border may be an exception, being subjected to frequent invasion by large armies, as well as smaller scale raiding which often invovlved and/or victimized large percentages of the population regardless of class or status.
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Steven H




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PostPosted: Sat 31 May, 2008 9:18 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Justin King wrote:
I think that in general sword ownership would be predominant among those who were warriors by either profession or by feudal obligation, conscripted/levied soldiers during medieval times would be much more likely to have a simple, inexpensive weapon that is effective in formation tactics, such as a spear or even an improvised agricultural implement.

In most of the Medieval period the warriors by profession or fuedal obligation make up the vast majority of combatants. For instance, at Agincourt the French brought conscripts that out-numbered the knights. But the knights didn't let the conscripts fight. The minimum requirement for being subject to levy in England was a land owning freeman. And swords aren't that expensive; Matt Galas' research puts them at a median price of 12d-20d. Compared to daily pay of 6d for most of the archers and going up from there.

Justin King wrote:

Swords require some training to use effectively, especially in a tightly packed formation.

And since the armies were mostly 'warrior class' this isn't a problem.

Regardless of the relative cost/difficulty of single-edged vs. double-edged the majority of depictions of polearm men who have swords have double edged swords.

Also, the description of swords as secondary to polearms and lances is somewhat misleading. In the charge and initial press of combat they aren't used. But when the enemy unit breaks the swords and similar length weapons become primary. And it is at that point that a large fraction of the casualties are inflicted.

Cheers,
Steven

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GG Osborne





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PostPosted: Sat 31 May, 2008 9:55 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

No one seems to have addressed the 'opps' factor. I am a medieval infantryman issued a polearm. I am in the middle of a melee and some other inconsiderate fellow is trying to bash my brains out or skewer me with his polearm when, eh gads, the shaft of my polearm is shattered. Without an effective back-up of some sort I'm suddenly in what is technically called a pickle.

Kidding aside, I think it was just a matter of practicality and staying alive. Regardless of cost or quality having something else sharp and pointy to fall-back on was just survival. Ask any cop or modern soldier.

"Those who live by the sword...will usually die with a huge, unpaid credit card balance!"
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Justin King
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PostPosted: Sat 31 May, 2008 10:34 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I was given to understand that in England at least, all able bodied men could be called upon to defend against invasion in the name of the king or at his direct command. Also a levied landowner may be required to bring a stipulated number retainers, spearmen, bowmen, etc. in addition to himself as part of his service whether as part of a conscripted army or as part of his annual obligation. Some landowners would have professional warriors, others would have brought ordinary tenants, i.e. commoners.

Although this was not always the case, it was not unusual for non-professional warriors to make up a sizeable portion of at least one side in a battle. Again this was not always the case, an invading army is likely to have a higher percentage of professional fighters in it's makeup than a defending one, and in cases where both factions had time/resources to do so they would have selected trained and equipped fighters, but in the case of a defending army especially this was not always possible.

Sometimes I think these topics are so subjective because of one's particular areas of interest, depending on what regions/time periods one has focused thier studies on, perspectives can vary wildly and generalizations (including my own), while often a convenient answer, need to be taken with a grain of salt and a shovel-full of context.

I may have forgotten to make one intended point in my last post, that class distinction did not always define whether one was a professional fighter or not, the Hundred Years War in particular saw many "common" professional fighting forces who would certainly have carried swords.
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Matthew Amt




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PostPosted: Sat 31 May, 2008 4:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Justin King wrote:
...conscripted/levied soldiers during medieval times would be much more likely to have a simple, inexpensive weapon that is effective in formation tactics, such as a spear or even an improvised agricultural implement.


Spears, yes, but I really doubt that farm tools were anything but extremely rare in battle. Every medieval culture that I know of had detailed laws concerning military duty for commoners, with regulations about minimum equipment. Up through the 11th century or so, that was spear and shield, while English laws starting in the 12th century required a padded acketon or gambeson and spear. There were usually requirements for regular meetings to practice drill (or archery practice for the bowmen). So a completely untrained peasant who couldn't even afford a spear was not required to serve, and generally wouldn't be seen on a battlefield.

Sure, there were weapons which derived from agricultural items, such as bills and flails. But I think it's a stretch to assume that the tools were carried with any regularity before the weaponized versions appeared. Unless someone has better evidence on that?

Matthew
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Doug Lester




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PostPosted: Sun 01 Jun, 2008 9:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It looks like I hit the wrong button, again, when I tried to post last night, which is probably for the best. I could have been better put. Again, it comes back to the statement that I made in my first post. What do we mean by a sword? I brought up the falcion but I was not meaning to restrict my arguement to that weapon. Big knives would have also been carried, if that person was of a class that was allowed to carry knives. When does a knife become long enough to be a sword? If a man has a seax, or like instrument, that has a blade 20 inches long, two inches wide and about a quarter of an inch thick where it meets the handle, which is of a sandwiched construction, is he carrying a knife or a sword? The answere could be yes to both. He is carrying what would have been considered a knife in his time and we, in our time, would recognize that it was funtioning as a sword. I wonder if this man and his contemporaries would have been puzzled by our arguement. Clearly though, the broader we make the definition of what a sword is the more likely it would be that the common soldier would have one.

Then we have the effect of time. Early in the Middle Ages the common soldier was held in little reguard. They were support troops only. The main fighting was done by knights, squires, and seargents. The common soldier was there out of obligation that he owed his baron and was not payed. As little reguard was given to his arming as his welfare. If he was taken in battle he would most likely be disposed of by having his throat cut. It was later in the middle ages that the levies were payed for their service, though not necessarily regularly. This pay would not have effected what the fighter mustered with as much as one would think. He was payed after he had been serving and he would have had to muster with what he had. He might have had a sword obtain during a previous campaign or from someone who had been in a previous campain or he may have had the means to buy one but he still was responsible for outfitting himself. As time went on and the role of the common soldier expanded more attention was put on equiping him.

So we come back to the point the the answere to the original question is highly dependant upon time and place.
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James R.Fox




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PostPosted: Sun 01 Jun, 2008 12:47 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sirs-I think time and place were the main factors in this discussion. The Italian city-states freed themselves from the German Empire in the 12th century because their enoumous wealth from trade let them arm all their free citizens and require them to join the militia. This extensive arming of the lower free classes did not begin in England untill the days of Edward I and even later in the german states, if I remember correctly.The Italians were wearing helmet and mail and fighting with spear and crossbow to protect their shipping from pirates, and rapidly became famous mercenary foot on land as well.As Mr Oakshott points out in several of his books, the Italians developed the cinquedia and similar short swords, perfect for close in fighting on shipboard or in close line on lsnd.
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