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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Sun 12 Nov, 2006 10:59 am    Post subject: Early Great Sword         Reply with quote

There have been many threads on this site regarding the earliest true great swords. We often think of them as 13th century weapons, usually more mid-to-late13th century than early. However, more recent scholarship shows that great swords existed eariler than that, perhaps even in Viking times.

I came across this earlier example of a great sword and thought people might enjoy seeing it. Its grip length seems to make it one of those more rare Type XIII swords, not the longer-gripped Type XIIIa.



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Full-length shot.

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Hilt.

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With other sword in the catalogue for scale.

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Catalogue text.

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PostPosted: Sun 12 Nov, 2006 11:14 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Chad,

Do you have any idea how the offeror established this estimated date? There are at least of couple of other examples. Some items like the Vastera's sword was dated by the surrounding equipment and wreckage found with it.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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PostPosted: Sun 12 Nov, 2006 11:29 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Wow thats amazing!



Never knew they were that early in history. Thanks for the post Chad.
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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Sun 12 Nov, 2006 11:36 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jared Smith wrote:
Chad,

Do you have any idea how the offeror established this estimated date? There are at least of couple of other examples. Some items like the Vastera's sword was dated by the surrounding equipment and wreckage found with it.


I don't. You see in my first post all the info I've seen on this sword, from the Sotheby's catalogue whose cover is the 3rd picture. Happy

I can guess that the similarity to the three single-handed swords they mention is a factor. Sotheby's also lists a fairly large reference section at the beginning of the catalogue, and also lists Thomas Del Mar, Ian Eaves, and Nicholas McCullough as consultants/experts. So they combine book research with expert consultation and their own experience as an antiques dealer since 1744.

The hilt also gives it a date that wouldn't be much later than what they list, and would likely be earlier.

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PostPosted: Sun 12 Nov, 2006 11:38 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Grayson C. wrote:
Wow thats amazing!



Never knew they were that early in history. Thanks for the post Chad.


No problem. There are examples that might date even earlier. This isn't the earliest one I've heard of.

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PostPosted: Mon 13 Nov, 2006 11:04 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hello all!

Chad,
Thanks for posting that! I have an interest in early examples of "great swords". They did sometimes occur earlier than was once thought. There are a few twelfth-century, or possible twelfth century, examples in Oakeshott's Records of the Medieval Sword. His "Appendix B" even gives a fairly in-depth discussion about why the inlays in at least one "great sword" probably date it to the first half of the twelfth century. He argues that the "handwriting" on the inlays is very similar to other swords that date circa 1120.

I've included pictures from Records of the Medieval Sword showing these early examples of "great swords", or type XIIIs of the same general style as the larger "great swords".

Number 3 is XIII. 3 from Records. Oakeshott dates this sword circa 1200-50, but notes that the hilt form suggests a century earlier. Its blade length is 32 inches, so it's more of a "general" type XIII than a true "great sword". (Oakeshott defines a true "great sword" as a sword with a long blade and a long hilt, but these are all swords that are a bit larger than the normal sword of the period.)

Number 4, XIII. 4 in Records, is another "general" type XIII that Oakeshott dates circa 1150-1200. It has a broad blade that's 33 inches long.

Number 11 (XIIIa. 11 from Records) is a "great sword" with a long and narrow fuller, reminiscent of the blade on an Oakeshott's type XI. The blade is 35 inches long. Oakeshott dates this example circa 1200-50, or more likely 1100-50. He points out that the faceted pommel is of a type found in the Leppaaho Viking swords, and gaddhjalt type cross was used by the Vikings. This could make the earlier date far more likely, especially since it seems to be a "great sword" version of a type XI (which he dates circa 1100-1175).

Number 13 is a "great sword" with a shorter blade than most (33 1/2 inches), but a grip length that firmly places it in the "great sword" category. It's XIIIa.13 in Records. Oakeshott dates this one circa 1120-50, based on an examination of the inscriptions. He says the inscriptions imply a date of circa 1120, as compared to other examples. This is a significantly early great swords, but he points out in "Appendix B" in Records that there are earlier examples of long-bladed and long-hilted swords, including examples in art from the 2nd century AD to the 12th!

There were also long-bladed but short-gripped swords. In Sword in Hand, Oakeshott mentions (with photo, but I can't post that one) that a sword found near Pontirolo of circa 1150 has a huge blade 40.5 inches long! The whole thing is 47.25 inches long and weighs just under 5 pounds! This isn't a true "great sword" because of its short grip, but it is longer than the "normal" sword of the period. In the same work, Oakeshott again mentions that there is evidence pointing to the use of the true "great sword" as early as the beginning of the 12th century.

Here are the pictures from Oakeshott's Records of the Medieval Sword:



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Early Type XIII and Type XIIIb swords from Records of the Medieval Sword.

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Eric Myers




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PostPosted: Mon 13 Nov, 2006 11:34 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Very interesting, but I'm wondering why these are classified as great swords, rather than longswords? The blade is broader like a stereotypical greatsword, but the short blade length and short grip is more characteristic of a longsword.

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PostPosted: Mon 13 Nov, 2006 11:41 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Eric Myers wrote:
Very interesting, but I'm wondering why these are classified as great swords, rather than longswords? The blade is broader like a stereotypical greatsword, but the short blade length and short grip is more characteristic of a longsword.

Regards,


I'm assuming this is because period terminology is being used rather than the modern propensity for hyper-catigorization. I think Chad is correct in his stance that swords of this type were around earlier than is commonly believed. However, based on the information we have I think it's safe to say they really hit their stride and became more common, or a piece of standard equipment if you will, by the mid-13th century. In this period they were known as Swords of War or Grete Swerdes (Great Swords), hence the terminology. The term longsword seems to be a later medieval definition.
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PostPosted: Mon 13 Nov, 2006 12:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Patrick Kelly wrote:

I'm assuming this is because period terminology is being used ...<snip> The term longsword seems to be a later medieval definition.


Fair enough, thanks.

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PostPosted: Mon 13 Nov, 2006 12:57 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hello all!
Eric Myers wrote:

Very interesting, but I'm wondering why these are classified as great swords, rather than longswords?

Perhaps because that's what Oakshott called them, as well as what they called them in the medieval period!

Here's Oakeshott's definition of a sword of war or great sword:
Ewart Oakeshott wrote:

Swords of type XIII are of a very striking and individual shape; some of them are very large-"swords of war" they were called in the time of their popularity between about 1280 and 1340. These Epees de Guerre are massive weapons, but are not to be confused with two-handed swords...
The War Sword had a blade some 36 in. to 40 in. long with a very long hilt, from 6 in. to 8 in. between cross and pommel, but it can be wielded in one hand, though provision is made for using it with both. Most Type XIII swords are large like this, but there are several of more ordinary dimensions, though they have hilts long in proportion to their blades.
(From Archaeology of Weapons)

Thus it seems that the war-sword was not regarded as a two-hander. What other, then, can it be but this very big sword of a kind which, in its later forms, is familiar as the Bastard or hand-and-a-half sword?...
We may perhaps take it, since there are as many references to "swords of war" as there are to "great swords", and since both seem to indicate the same sort of weapon, that it was indeed so-the type was used in war, and was not the everyday sword of the knight...
It does not seem likely that because a sword of this kind has a very large blade, it can be classified as a great sword, any more than it can be if it has a long grip. It has to have both long grip and big blade together to qualify for the title...
(From Sword in the Age of Chivalry)

A really massive weapon, but its grip is only 4.25 inches long, so in no way can it come into the same category of other types of Great Sword, or War Sword, whose grips are between 6 inches and 8 inches long...
(From the description of the sword found in Pontrirolo, Italy, in Sword in Hand)

The sub-type, XIIIa, is the "Grete War Sword" par excellence, with its very large blade 32"-40" (81.2-101.7 cm) average length and long grip of between 6" and 10" (15 cm and 25.5 cm)...They are often mentioned in inventory, poem, and chronicle as "Swerdes of Werre", "Grans Espee d'Allemagne", "Schlachtschwerte", "Grete Swords", "Espees de Guerre", "Grete War Swords", and so on, always indicating their large size and specific purpose...
(From Records of the Medieval Sword)

Note the different period names for these big swords: " Swerdes of Werre", "Grans Espee d'Allemagne", "Schlachtschwerte", "Grete Swords", "Espess de Guerre", "Grete War Swords". In another work, Oakeshott also mentions the term "Grant Espees".

The period terms for these swords were "great swords", "swords of war", "Great Sword of Germany", or a combination of these terms. Oakeshott tends to call long-bladed and long-hilted type XIII swords "swords of war" or "Great swords". This is one of those instances where the period terms were actually pretty specific, and Oakeshott followed their example.

I hope this all made sense!

Note: Some of the swords I posted from Records of the Medieval Sword wouldn't technically be "great swords" according to Oakeshott's criteria, but they are early examples of his Type XIII, of a same general style as the larger "great swords".

Stay safe!

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PostPosted: Mon 13 Nov, 2006 9:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It's really interesting to know. I believed I've read somewhere that the development of longsword emerged when armor was developed to the degree where the use of shield was no longer necessary. If such reason holds true, it means the mail popular in the 12th century was already quite attack-proof that one started to abandon the use of the shield. And this seems to verify modern test on historical-accurate mail that the armor held up very well under sword attacks. Hmmm....
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PostPosted: Mon 13 Nov, 2006 11:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Lancelot Chan wrote:
It's really interesting to know. I believed I've read somewhere that the development of longsword emerged when armor was developed to the degree where the use of shield was no longer necessary. If such reason holds true, it means the mail popular in the 12th century was already quite attack-proof that one started to abandon the use of the shield. And this seems to verify modern test on historical-accurate mail that the armor held up very well under sword attacks. Hmmm....


Lance, It's my understanding that the Longsword developed out of the Greatsword, which was designed for use against mail,
(Being very large and heavy on one end, and thereby having an effect more like unto that of an axe then the one handed swords of the period.)

Also, we tend to see most of our information on Longswords being from after the coat of plates came around, which I strongly suspect were a result of increased lance performance and halberds rather then to counter a sword.

Of course, shields were used by fellows with this first generation plate harness, so we can't say the sword came out because the shield was dumped, as it was kept by the warrior elite for a significant time after mail was no longer the top armor on the market.

Of course, if anyone has any fact I'm not privy to, please correct me.

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PostPosted: Tue 14 Nov, 2006 2:09 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I don't think we should try to read any conclusions about armor into the dates of the early great swords; it's quite likely that some offense-minded fellows simply preferred to fight with both hands on a large sword -- just as some preferred two hands on a large axe. Big Grin

And Chad, thanks very much for posting those pics -- this is a topic of great interest for me.
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PostPosted: Tue 14 Nov, 2006 8:49 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Also, keep in mind that a long grip does not automatically equal two handed use.
It is also the simplest way to balance a long blade.

Several of the type XI blades are as long as the later greatswords. These where, as theorized, used by cavalry and hung on the saddle, in addition to the arming sword around his waist.
The great sword would be a direct development from these, basically featuring a elongated handle to improve balance. As time went by, dismounted knights probably found out that the greatsword, held in two hands, was supperior to the single sword, and thus started to carry them as sidearms when fighting dismounted with spears or polearms.

The greatsword is still not as good as a sword and shield, but if you are not carrying a shield anyhow, it is preferable.

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PostPosted: Tue 14 Nov, 2006 11:16 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hello all!

I want to echo what Elling said regarding the great swords. They weren't necessarily meant to be used exclusively with two hands. The longer hilt could have functioned as a counterbalance for the longer and heavier blades (some weighed close to 4 pounds). They are not quite of two-handed proportions; they are more like early, slashing-versions of the later hand-and-a-half or bastard swords (Oakeshott's types XVa and XVIIIa).

Here are some excerpts from various Oakeshott books describing the use of these great swords:
Ewart Oakeshott wrote:

These Espees de Guerre are massive weapons but are not to be confused with two-handed swords...
it can be weilded in one hand, though provision is made for using it with both.
...their clumsiness is perfectly suited to the work they had to do-to deal enormous, slow, sweeping, slashing blows from the back of a horse.
(From The Archaeology of Weapons)

Thus is seems that the war-sword was not regarded as a two-hander. What other, then, can it be but this very big sword of a kind which, in its later forms, is familiar as the Bastard or hand-and-a-half sword?
The "swords of war" of Type XIIIa are indeed admirably adapted for the work they had to do-to deal slow, ponderous slashing blows from the back of a horse at a well-protected adversary some distance away.
(From The Sword in the Age of Chivalry)

This next illustration,Figure 84, shows an even finer example in the great Burrell Collection in Glasgow...I have never fogotten the "feel" of it: well-balanced, not too heavy to be used comfortably with one hand.
(From Sword in Hand-describing the same sword described as Type XIIIa. 9 in Records of the Medieval Sword, where Oakeshott states that the sword weighs about three and three-quarters pounds)

When we look at these Great Swords-or more particularly, when we look at pictures of them-it is easy to understand how they may be mistaken for two handed swords. There is no doubt, however, that in the 13th and 14th centuries, there was a clear and positive distinction between the "Grete Sword" and the "Twahandswerd".
(From Sword in Hand)

Though (like most XIIIa's) it looks clumsy, it handles well so long as one swings it in the manner for which it was designed, that is to deal great slow, slashing blows with a straight arm and swung from the shoulder using the strength of the back to supplement the weight of the sword-nearly 4 lbs...
(From the description of Type XIIIa. No. 8 in Records of the Medieval Sword)

Now, just like the later cut-and-thrust bastard swords, these slashing great swords could be used in two hands. In several of his books, Oakeshott shows a drawing he did from an image in the margin of a folio in "The Tenison Psalter". It shows a knight fighting a giant snail with one of these great swords. The knight is swinging the sword using both hands (with straight arms, mind you, just like Oakeshott described regarding the use of these swords). There are a couple swords that Oakeshott classified as Type XIIIa that could be so large as to be true two-handed swords. Type XIIIa. Number 2 in Records of the Medieval Sword is one example; it has a blade 39 1/2 inches long, and a grip 7 3/4 inches long. Another depicted in Sword in Hand, a sword in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, has an overall length of 46.5", with a hilt 9 1/16" long. However, most type XIIIa great swords have somewhat shorter hilts, more along the lines of "hand-and-a-half" proportions.

These weapons were not meant to be used in any sort of complicated fencing, they're too slow and heavy for that. (Heavy relatively speaking as compared to other period swords-Oakeshott stated in Sword in Hand that they average about 4 pounds.) They were meant to deliver slow, heavy blows, either using two hands or just with one.

I hope somebody found this of interest!

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PostPosted: Tue 14 Nov, 2006 12:39 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hello again!

Oakeshott seems to believe that these great swords were adopted, in part, to counter the additions being made to the mail hauberk. This is what he said about the great swords and armour:
Ewart Oakeshott wrote:

They may have developed as some kind of answer to the avowedly more efficient armour of this period at the start of transition from mail to plate, when certain reinforcements were worn over mail, such as poleyns and couters, greaves and plated gauntlets, and under it, coats-of plates and "curies"...there were various efforts made during the first half of the 14th century to cope with improvements in armour. This, which was simply the age-old idea of smiting an adversary with mighty, shearing blows by providing an even stouter and heavier cutting blade, may have been the first.


George's comment about these big swords being used more like axes is interesting; I've had the same thought. All the modern tests against mail aside, historical accounts do seem to indicate that these big war swords could be effective against mail. In The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, and again in a slightly more in-depth form in Sword in Hand, Oakeshott describes the events surrounding the battle of Benevento in 1266. Apparently, the German mercenaries of Manfred of Sicily gave the French a seriously hard time with their plate armour (coat-of-plates) and large great swords. Here's the relevant description from Sword in Hand:
Ewart Oakeshott wrote:

Gallant and knightly, but ridiculous, Manfred's army was a heterogenous melange of assorted mercenaries (who could be relied upon to fight as long as they were paid) and his own barons and their feudal levies, who (as Manfred knew) could be relied upon to run away or change sides as soon as threr was an opportunity.

About half of these mercenaries were Sicilian Sarascens, some infantry armed with bows and with no real defensive armour, the rest light cavalry. The better part were some 1200 German men-at-arms, large, heavy, well-trained, disciplined warriors on big horses armed with long war swords (Type XIIIA's, which we met before) and well armoured with the new reinforcements of plate over their mail.

Manfred sent his light Saracen bowmen out first as skirmishers to harass the French; then the rest of his army followed in three divisions. First came the 1200 Germans, followed by a second division of 1000 Italian mercenaries. He led the rear "battle" himself, composed of the rest of his faithful Saracens combined with the untrustworthy barons of the Regno with their followers.

The French could hardly believe their eyes when they saw this. Manfred had handed Charles the battle, and his kingdom, on a plate. What followed is hardly worth describing except for one thing which is the whole point of this long tale. Charles' men were very worn out, starving and well outnumbered, but in spite of Manfred's idiocy, they very nearly lost the battle after all-because those heavily armoured Germans, with their great swords, seemed to be impervious to the utmost that the French and Provencal knights could do to them. They began to mow their opponents down, keeping knee to knee together and steadily forcing their way forward, hewing down all in front of them. Then somebody noticed that when they lifted their arms to strike, a more or less unprotected place appeared under their arms. All the chroniclers who wrote of this battle emphasise that the French were armed with swords quite different from those of the Germans, shorter and more accutely pointed. The knight who noticed the weak, unarmoured place under the Germans' arms yelled out "a l'Estoc!, a l'Estoc!" "Use the point!" And they did, thrusting their sharp little swords into the Germans' chests. Very soon, their solid formation began to break up...

The significance, for our purpose here, of this absurd, nasty battle which affected the whole history of Europe for another two centuries-to our own day, if it comes to that-is that here in use, vividly described by eye-witnesses, are the two types of sword which I have called XIIIA, the "Grant Espee d'Allemagne", and the shorter, lighter, swifter, pointed one I've called Types XIV and XV. A very interesting point here is that we find the Germans clad in the very latest kind of armour, yet using older offensive weapons, while the French, clad in outmoded mail, used a much more up-to-date and effective weapon of offense...


There are several interesting points about the description of this battle. Firstly, the large German swords of war seemed to have been devastatingly effective against the French armour; their effectiveness coupled with their heavier armour almost won the day! If the great swords weren't effective against mail, then why were the French mown and hewed down? Both sides should just have beat on each other until one side tired, but that clearly wasn't the case.

Secondly, it implies that the French swords may have been effective against the German armour if the Germans hadn't had plate reinforcements. The French didn't seem to know what to do at first when confronted with the heavily armoured Germans.

Thirdly, the way the Germans used their swords was clearly with great slashing blows, since they raised their arms significantly to strike, almost the way an axe is wielded (a downward "chop"). The Germans obviously exposed their vulnerable armpits each time they raised their great, slow, slashing swords. The French had quicker, lighter swords that were better at thrusting, and used them to their advantage.

I hope this all made sense! I always found this description of the battle of Benevento to be interesting with regard to arms and armour development!

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PostPosted: Tue 14 Nov, 2006 8:13 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have expressed this theory previously, but think it is still relevant.

Fighting from horseback, one may make greater advantage of a heavy bladed, slow, one-handed, sweeping blow. Extra reach and long grip length could be preferred even if one assumes one handed use from horse. Not every aspect of sword handling has to be evaluated in terms of unmounted combat and German style technique.

I have wondered if these types of swords were ever really popular in terms of a majority (say roughly 50% of knightly combatants) actually possessing them... or if they were basically uncommon in nearly all periods with a rough century or two marking them as being more noticeable in terms of surviving examples.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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PostPosted: Wed 15 Nov, 2006 9:15 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hello all!

Jared Smith wrote:

I have wondered if these types of swords were ever really popular in terms of a majority (say roughly 50% of knightly combatants) actually possessing them...

Jared,
I think Oakeshott has already answered this question; these swords were indeed popular in certain areas, especially Germany, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The slashing great swords became popular again in the last quarter of the 15th century, but these examples could be old blades re-hilted. These are the remarks Oakeshott made regarding the distribution, in both time and place, of the type XIII and type XIIIa swords (from The Sword in the Age of Chivalry):
Ewart Oakeshott wrote:

...we find several examples in art which give the date between about 1260 and 1310 (of type XIII); but it is the far more important sub-type, XIIIa, which gives us ample and convincing evidence that both type and sub-types belong to the period 1240-1350.

In the literature of the late 13th and early 14th centuries we find many references to these "espees de guerre", "Grant espees", "Grete Swerdes", and so on. In art of the same period we find many portrayals of very large swords of Type XIIIa, and there are a considerable number of survivors...

...there are many (representations in art) showing swords of Type XIIIa at the knightly belt. Datable ones, too. Fig. 19 (from the Tenison Psalter, English, before 1284) shows one admirably. This is a miniature from a psalter made before 1284 for the short-lived prince Alfonso (a son of Edward I of England) who died in that year...Another English manuscript, an Apocalypse of St. John made c. 1300-1310, shows many of these great swords worn at the belt. A sculpture where we might reasonably have expected to see the sword hanging from the saddle is the little figure on the canopy of the tomb of Edmund, Earl of Lancaster, in Westminster Abbey (ob. 1296), yet it is at his belt.

There are a great many of these swords, some of type XIII and some of XIIIa, on the sculptured figures in Frieburg Cathedral, all made between about 1295 and 1310.

We do not often see these great swords on tomb effigies. There are a few in Germany dating in the 1340's and 50's, and there are at least two in England, one of rather small proportions on the figure of a knight c. 1350 in the church at Puddletown in Dorset, and another full-sized one on the effigy of Sir Oliver Ingham (+1343) at Ingham in Norfolf. (This may be of Type XVIa or XVII.) A third is on the figure of Sir John de Ifield (c. 1325) at Ifield, Sussex. We may perhaps take it, since there are as many references to "swords of war" as there are to "great swords" and since both seem to indicate the same sort of weapon, that it was indeed so-the type was used in war, and was not the everyday sword of the knight such as might be shown on his monument.

However, there are many effigies in England showing swords with very large blades, which though sheathed, by their outline suggest Type XIII blades; but they have hilts of a more normal size, only about 5" long, in spite of the very long blades...

There are a few survivors of Type XIII (for example, one in the Tower of London), many of XIIIa, and several of XIIIb...

It (Type XIIIa) seems to have become very popular again during the last quarter of the 15th century, judging by the number of specimens there are of this period. Many have 15th century blades, but there are many with old blades of the 13th-14th century-as can be told by the marks and inlays on them-which have been fitted with hilts of a kind which were up-to-date between 1475 and 1525. A very good example of the former is in the Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, and of the later the famous "rose leaf" sword in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and one in the Wallace Collection in london (no. A 477, old no. 49).

In Sword in Hand, Oakeshott talks a bit more about the time period and regions where these great swords were popular:
Ewart Oakeshott wrote:

...German it was in origin and fashionable use, and great was it in size. Its period was within the years ci. 1250-1360. This is well attested by the frequency of its appearance in works of art, MS illustrations, sculpture and tomb effigies, particularly in Germany and Spain, where monuments of that period show considerable numbers of them. Their prime characteristics were a long grip (some 6" to 8", as compared with the average of 4.5" for the ordinary one-hand sword) and a long blade (averaging 36" to 40" long, and about 2.5" wide at the hilt). These blades had very little taper, the edges running almost parallel to a very rounded, spatulate point. The average weight of them was around 4 lbs...

Though there is no doubt that these "Grete Swerdes" were very widely used during this particular period of c. 1250-1360, the type seems to have become popular again late in the 15th century; and we now have sufficient good evidence to show that it was used (how widely we do not yet know) as early as the beginning of the 12th century...


More from Archaeology of Weapons:
Ewart Oakeshott wrote:

Neraly every German military tomb effigy of the period between about 1280 and 1350 has one of these big swords, and several are shown on English effigies, as for instance at Astbury in Cheshire...


And again from Records of the Medieval Sword:
Ewart Oakeshott wrote:

They are often metioned in inventory, poem, chronicle as "Swerdes of Werre", "Grans Espees d'Allemagne", "Schlachtschwerte", "Grete Swords", "Espees de Guerre", "Grete War Swords", and so on, always indicating large size and specific purpose.

They are generally referred to as of German origin, too, an attribution borne out by the frequency with which they appear on German tomb effigies of the 14th century; they are found nearly as often upon Spanish effigies of the same period, and occasionally on English ones. There are so few French knightly tomb effigies left since the destructive efforts of the Revolutionaries of 1789 that it is not possible to quote a simgle French example. The very fact, I believe, that the French in the 13th and 14th centuries always referred to them as "big German swords" is proof enough that Germany was their area of origin and greatest use.

Those shown in art are generally datable between say c. 1250 and 1370; the German and Spanish effigies between 1320-1370. There is, however, archaeological evidence to suggest very strongly that these big, had-and-a-half gripped swords were not uncommon as early as the 12th century.

Sorry if the excerpts were a bit repetitive, but Oakeshott often changed his mind over the years, shifting swords from one type to another, and changing dates. However, he remained roughly consistent with his views about the time period and region where the great swords were most popular. They were very popular in Germany and Spain, but perhaps less so in France and Italy. The description of the battle of Benevento I posted earlier implied that most of the German mercenaries of Manfred of Sicily used the big German great swords, while the French knights of Charles' army used shorter and more sharply pointed swords. To have had the effect the Germans had, most of Manfred's knights must have been equipped with the big great swords.

In Records of the Medieval Sword, Oakeshott shows a total of 19 great swords of type XIIIa (XIIIa 1-15 and Multiple Miscellaneous 5-8). This does not include the more modestly sized Types XIII or XIIIb, or the swords of great sword size of other types, like Type XIIa. (Type XIIa. is a great sword type with a slightly tapered blade, as opposed to having edges that are almost parallel.)

Since there are archaeological examples from the 12th century, and other examples dating from the late 15th century, these swords seem to have been popular for a long time. They were most popular in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, at least as indicated by period art.

I don't think we can ever say for sure the percentage of knights in a particular army that used the great swords; I'm sure it varied depending on location, time period, and circumstance. It would seem that a higher percentage of German knights would have wielded these big swords, and you would have seen a higher percentage of these swords in use during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The knight that used one in the 12th might be an oddity, but it did occur. You could see a rise in the percentage of warriors with these big swords again in the late 15th century, but it's really impossible to give an exact number.

By the way, Jared, I agree with you regarding the use of these swords. These weren't swords to be used in any sort of complicated fencing technique; they were too ponderous for that. They aren't only heavy (3 and 3/4 to 4 pounds), but they balance further down the blade (toward the point) than their smaller kin. Oakeshott did a good job in eloquently describing how these swords were used to deal slow, ponderous, heavy blows. You swing them using a stiff arm, and use your back as well. They are not the sort of sword for someone who wishes to "fence", there are better tools to use for that sort of sword play.

I hope this made sense, and was of interest!

Stay safe!

"I'm going to do what the warriors of old did! I'm going to recite poetry!"
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Jared Smith




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PostPosted: Wed 15 Nov, 2006 7:18 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I appreciate it Richard.

I have targeted a transition era 13th century "kit" (small amounts of plate on mail) for a while now and have actually begun calling for an anvil and some starter equipment today. I wish to build a complete ensemble of armour and great sword. I will forego the expenses of an appropriate well trained horse though (have all ready been through the expenses of the English Eventing thoroughbred thing with a daughter....)

The popularity of the great sword and longer grip longswords is a difficult and interesting post. It was certainly known during the 12th century, classified as popular during the 13th century by some, but survives in quantities in museums mainly from later centuries. Some real life figures (the Black Prince) were characterized by eye witness accounts as consistently carrying uncommonly long swords with long grips in battle, but depicted with more classical single handed swords in their effigies. I consider it possible that the great sword got short changed in art and credit in terms of its popularity.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Wed 15 Nov, 2006 7:31 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jared Smith wrote:
Some real life figures (the Black Prince) were characterized by eye witness accounts as consistently carrying uncommonly long swords with long grips in battle, but depicted with more classical single handed swords in their effigies.


The sword on the Black Prince's effigy is indeed of hand and a half proportions, as is the surviving sword Oakeshott attributed to him.

This is the sword on the effigy, from our article on the Black Prince:


Happy

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