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Richard Gessman

Location: Pittsburgh
Joined: 04 Oct 2006
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PostPosted: Thu 04 Jan, 2007 6:42 am    Post subject: German Sword of Justice         Reply with quote

Hello, I was wondering if anyone could give me any information on German executioners swords. I have been interested in these swords for a while, but I don't know much about them. Any information on the history and usage of these weapons would be much appreciated.
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Richard Fay

Location: Upstate New York
Joined: 29 Sep 2006
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PostPosted: Thu 04 Jan, 2007 12:48 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hello all!


German executioners' swords were used to, well, execute condemned prisoners. They were favoured on the Continent, whereas the axe was favoured in England. Anne Boleyn specifically asked to be executed by the sword, in belief that it did a cleaner and quicker job than the axe.

Here's what Claude Blair said about executioners' swords in European & American Arms:
Claude Blair wrote:

Executioners' swords. These were widely used on the Continent in place of the axe favoured in England. At first flat-bladed versions of the contemporary bastard-sword, they developed a special form about the middle of the sixteenth century. This last had a broad, flat blade with parallel edges, cut off straight or rounded at the tip, short, straight quillons and a very long grip. It remained in use in Germany with little variation until the early seventeenth century. The blades of many of these weapons are etched with scenes and inscriptions appropriate to their purpose.

And here's what Frederick Wilkinson said about them in Edged Weapons:
Frederick Wilkinson wrote:

A specialised form of the hand-and-a-half sword came into prominence during the 16th Century; this was the executioner's or headsman's sword. In England beheading had traditionally been carried out with the axe, but on the Continent the sword was preferred, and the hand-and-a-half sword was adapted for this purpose. The blade was made wide and elliptical in section, and since the sword was intended only to cut, the end of the blade was usually slightly rounded or cut off square, whilst a large hilt enabled the executioner to obtain a firm grip. In keeping with the solemnity of the occasion on which these swords were used the blades are frequently etched with scenes of the execution, appropriate mottoes or even quite long moral homilies. These heading swords were also carried in processions as symbols of office, as indeed were the larger two-handed swords, in which case they were known as Swords of State.

There's even a bit more information in the chapter "The Renaissance Spirit" by Donald J. LaRocca in Swords and Hilt Weapons:
Donald J. LaRocca wrote:

Judicial beheading by means of the sword, as opposed to the axe, was favoured in France and central Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although derived from the two-handed war sword, the executioner's sword had become rather specialized by the second quarter of the sixteenth century. Typically the grip was straight, long enough to be comfortably grasped in both hands, the quillons were also straight, and the pommel was spherical or pear-shaped. The blade was straight, long, broad, and flat, with little or no fuller, and rounded or nearly squared off at the tip - this more than anything else made its form and function unmistakable and immediately recognizable. Not infrequently it was decorated with scenes of execution or simply implements of execution, such as the wheel, hook and gallows. Inscriptions on the blade, alone or in conjunction with the above, ranged from the poetic ("Maiden's love and bird songs are sweet and fleeting") to the moral ("When I raise my sword so God gives eternal life to this poor wretch"). Headsmen who had mastered the sword were considered skilled professionals, the best being commissioned to perform important executions. For her execution, Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII's six wives, disdained the axe and so a headsman practiced in the sword was brought from Saint-Omer, near Calais. While accounts of the event differ with respect to other details, all agree that the executioner was neat and efficient, performing the task with a single blow. The sword continued to be an instrument of execution until the early eighteenth century.

I hope this helped give you some information regarding executioners' swords.

Stay safe!

"I'm going to do what the warriors of old did! I'm going to recite poetry!"
Prince Andrew of Armar
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Richard Gessman

Location: Pittsburgh
Joined: 04 Oct 2006
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PostPosted: Thu 04 Jan, 2007 2:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Wow, thanks for all of the information!

I knew that they were used for executions of course, but I didn't know whether or not they were used exclusively for beheading, or if they were ever wielded in battle. Anyway, thank you again, you were a great help. Happy
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