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Daniel Parry




Location: UK
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PostPosted: Mon 13 Jul, 2020 2:05 pm    Post subject: Sword length and period height         Reply with quote

One thing I was thinking as I was doing measurements for my rapiers (which I had promised to do for those interested a while back but have been delayed/lazy) is how much do we consider when looking at sword or historical fencing techniques or replica swords the relative height of people in that period.

I was looking at heights of British people in the 17th century (shorter than the middle ages apparently) which according to different sources (which vary a bit) seems to have been about 5ft 5 compared to just over 5 ft 9 now. This gives a difference of about 6%.

So then I was thinking that would make my long rapiers with blades of 44 inches, about 46.5 inches relatively. Many 16th century rapiers were around 41-42 inches (variable so plenty of outliers) so that would make them around 43 - 44.5 inches and so on. The balance would be adjusted by the hilt and pommel but was just thinking long rapiers seem long to a modern fencing sensibility clearly,, and may seem long even to a historical fencing sensibility (so I am told), but in reality we should be imagining them even longer.

I was holding out my longest with a 45 inch blade from the guard and imagining it with 47.5 inch blade. Stuck a piece of cardboard 2.5 inches long to the tip with blue-tack. 6% is not a huge percentage but seemed very long indeed !

Just a thought.
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Johannes Zenker





Joined: 15 Sep 2014

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PostPosted: Mon 13 Jul, 2020 2:19 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'm not sure if average height is the right factor to consider when evaluating sword length, at least for a good bit of the time when swords were used.

In the medieval period swords were, from my understanding, more a weapon for the wealthy. Usually we associate wealth with more and better food, which is in turn associated with people growing taller.

If these two suppositions are true (swords are for the wealthy, the wealthy are taller because good food), then would that not imply that swords were commonly used by people of above average height?

IIRC it was not until the very late medieval period that swords became readily available to the common soldier, but I'd defer to the many more versed people on this forum in that regard, and I certainly don't really know about the availability and spread of rapiers in the 17th Century.
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Hadrian Coffin
Industry Professional



Location: Oxford, England
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PostPosted: Mon 13 Jul, 2020 4:06 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I concur with Mr. Zenker, and would like to add that average hight based on archaeological/grave records is a minefield of misinformation.

One of the biggest things is the high infant mortality, and youthful (i.e. pre-fully grown), mortality. You also frequently have sexing issues from skeletal remains. These factors can massively, and I mean quite massively, influence data sets.

The class and type of man that would have been carrying a sword in most of the medieval and Renaissance period, would be someone fit and healthy, with a healthy diet. It is unlikely that the average height would be vastly dissimilar from the average height of a British man going into service in the second world war.

All the best,
Hadrian

Historia magistra vitae est
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Houston P.




Location: United States
Joined: 20 Apr 2015

Posts: 76

PostPosted: Mon 13 Jul, 2020 4:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

If you’d like to get an opinion on relative rapier length, I think Thibault’s treatise has a way to find a recommended length. Granted, it would be different for different times and systems, but it gives a close approximation. I generally think sword dimensions are something everyone should play around with, but I am of the opinion that most period sword lengths are too small for modern people. Granted, I’m a bit tall, but longswords under about 38 inch blade length just feel like toys to me. The Maximilian feels incredible, for example, but I could almost use the Talhoffer as an arming sword. Using Vadi or Silver’s method of finding an ideal length gives me a blade of around 41 inches, and I think that’s about right. For rapier, I get somewhere around 47 inches, which also feels quite good. Try drilling with swords of different lengths until you find what’s ideal for you.
...and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. (‭Luke‬ ‭22‬:‭36‬)
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Daniel Parry




Location: UK
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PostPosted: Mon 13 Jul, 2020 5:06 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

All good points. Thanks for that. It would be necessary to look at how the height data was gathered in detail to assess how class and diet etc factored into the end result. Perhaps for the 17th century costume collections might help, like the V&A, as preserved costume is often that of the wealthy and you can judge physical size to a degree from it perhaps. Though not sure if there would be enough to get a statistical sample. Interesting.
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Hardy Lewis




Location: United States
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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jul, 2020 5:08 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Even using diet as a factor is a tricky thing, and largely dependent on location and period specifics. There were many circumstances where the common diet of nobility was at least as physically debilitating as that of the peasant eating porridge for every meal. More often than not, the middle class (or what may have passed for it) had the most well rounded diet.
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Benjamin H. Abbott




Location: New Mexico
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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jul, 2020 9:36 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The evidence I've seen indicates that men in England averaged around 5' 8" in the rapier's heyday. This study claims average male height reached 173-174 cm in the 1400-1650 period, but fell after 1650. However, average male height may have been a little lower in other parts of Europe.

In any case, I agree 16th/17th-century rapiers could get extremely long. Ridolfo Capo Ferro's recommended length comes out to about a 48in blade for me, at 5' 10". George Silver's 37-40in blade was a "short sword" in context; he noted that many used rapiers 6+ inches longer than his perfect length, which would be rapiers with 43-46+in blades. Sir John Smythe mentioned 45+in rapier blades. Gérard Thibault complained about the excessive length of rapiers many used & suggested a shorter measure. I get a 42-43in blade with Thibault's instructions.

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
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Daniel Parry




Location: UK
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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jul, 2020 11:20 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Interesting Benjamin. I looked at a few online references and they seemed to vary a bit but that is certainly taller than the ones I saw, which had people in the middle ages (men) at about 5ft 7 or 5ft 8 and then getting shorter in the 17th century to about 5ft 5 or 5ft 6. But I havent seen the detail of how they arrived at those figures.

The rapier lengths you mention - is that measuring including the ricasso or from the top of the guard (which is the measurement I always use). If from the guard, 44/45 inches is on the long side I think from what I have seen/handled. 47/48 inches from the guard is very long I think, though there are examples of that length and greater. There was also great variability in the length of rapier blades particularly in the first half of the 17th century.
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Benjamin H. Abbott




Location: New Mexico
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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jul, 2020 11:35 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Daniel Parry wrote:
The rapier lengths you mention - is that measuring including the ricasso or from the top of the guard (which is the measurement I always use).


I include the ricasso in blade length & suspect 16th/17th sources did as well. Most didn't address this. Thibault did specify that the quillons should come to exactly the height of the navel if the rapier is held by the wielder standing upright with the rapier's point on the ground between their feet.

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
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Daniel Parry




Location: UK
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Reading list: 39 books

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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jul, 2020 12:26 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

OK that makes sense in terms of length then.
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Daniel Parry




Location: UK
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Reading list: 39 books

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PostPosted: Tue 14 Jul, 2020 2:48 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Actually Benjamin, thinking about it, the quillons at the level of the navel is interesting as I am 6ft exactly and just trying it out now the shorter, lightweight duelling rapiers from Northern Europe ( 1620-1640) I have come up to about my navel at the quillon point but most of the 16th century rapiers and 17th century rapiers are higher than that by a couple/few inches and the longer ones (44/45 inches from the guard are quite a lot above the navel at the quillon point. (Maybe I have short legs !)

And notwithstanding the insights above about the reliability of estimates of historical height, if it is probable that people were at least a little bit shorter, that would make the quillon at navel height shorter still, which would put Thibault's blade length a bit shorter still, relatively.

But I was thinking that may fit with his time learning and then living in Northern Europe, as I understand it, in Antwerp as a young man and later in the Netherlands, as the simpler, shorter and light weight rapiers of pre-1650 generally are thought to have come from that region. And may fit with what I understand to be his preferred grip which is more akin to a pinch either side of the ricasso/quillons, more akin to a smallsword grip except with the thumb on the back of the quillon rather than pinching the other side of the ricasso/quillon block, than the traditional rapier grip with the finger (or fingers) locked over the quillon and thumb on opposite side forming a tight and strong but less agile grip. I think his grip, if I understand it correctly, is harder with heavier and longer rapiers, but easier with the lighter and shorter 'duelling' rapiers in Northen Europe in that period.

So those things may be factors. I think a lot of late 16th century rapiers and different forms of 17th century rapiers would exceed his navel test. But may be intrinsic to his fencing style. That's why the early 17th century is so interesting.... so many variant forms.
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