A Weapon Through the Ages

On Sunday afternoon in the Hyatt, Thomas Riley and Josh Waters presented “The Evolution of the Medieval Sword.” They explored the changes in swords by function and typography. The program focused on European swords because the katana has not changed in hundreds of years.

The discussion began with an explanation of the parts of a medieval arming sword, which is a one-handed sword or the sword a knight would carry when he was armored and armed. The sword was not the primary weapon but a secondary one, with the poleax the main weapon. Such a sword has the blade, a crosspiece or quillon, grip, and pommel. These parts were standard on most European medieval swords. The channel in the middle of the blade is not a blood groove, having nothing to do with blood, but a fuller, which is designed to make the weapon lighter. Functioning as an I-beam, the fuller also makes the blade stronger.

Swords viewed in cross-section can have a variety of shapes. The diamond adds rigidity, while the hollow ground, which is like a diamond with slightly concave sides, makes the weapon but doesn’t diminish its rigidity.

Swords evolved in response to changes in armor. A sword with a cutting edge could hurt someone wearing mail, even without penetrating the mail. As plate armor developed, beginning in the late thirteenth century, a sword made primarily for cutting became less effective.

The early Middle Ages were the Viking Age. Metal was very expensive. Only the very wealthy—lords, house carls, and chiefs—could afford it. Most foot soldiers had no armor, carrying only a spear and shield. The rich could afford swords, which were very effective against the unarmored, so the sword kept roughly the same shape for a couple of centuries.

The fuller was very important during this period. Metallurgy was not consistent, so the fuller was added to strengthen the blade. These swords weighed only a couple of pounds, so a combatant could swing one easily without tiring. As shields grew smaller, the cross guards became longer to offer more hand protection. Blades retained the same shape, with parallel edges and no acute point.

By the mid fourteenth century, sword size varied, but the blades still had parallel edges and a fuller running most of the length of the blade. Mail was still the primary form of armor. The sword retained roughly the same shape from about 400 to 1350 AD, approximately a millennium. Then came plate armor, which was impervious to cuts. Combatants needed swords that could deliver an effective thrust. This became the dominant style through the Renaissance. Swords had acute tips to thrust into gaps in armor. This shape also allowed thrusting into the rings of mail.

Photo by Brandilyn Carpenter
Photo by Brandilyn Carpenter

Around the fourteenth century, fabric armor like gambesons became available for common foot soldiers. Cutting edges were ineffective against that, so a thrusting weapon became necessary for this as well. Bodkin arrows and spears also functioned well against fabric armor.

From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, swords needed to deliver both cuts and thrusts. As swords became effective against armor and guns came into use, knights wanted thicker armor. That led to development of better guns, which led to double layers of armor. Going into the Renaissance, armor was not as effective and faded out of use. At that point, cutting swords became dominant again. In summary, sword design emphasis went from cutting to cutting and thrusting and back to cutting.

Falchions, messers, estocs, and zweihanders are also types of swords. The falchion has a three-sided blade and is designed as a cutting weapon. The messer, in contrast, is a large knife. Knife makers started making swords, and the sword makers’ guild objected. The knife makers responded by making very long knives. Instead of a tang that was a metal extension of the blade continuing through the grip, with a pommel at the end, the tang of a messer is sandwiched between two grip plates and often has no pommel.

The estoc has a diamond cross-section and is intended for thrusting. The zweihander is a two-handed sword. It could be used as a pole arm but was built by like a sword. Weighing about eight pounds, it’s unwieldy to use.

The fader is a feather sword, designed to be blunt and used in practice. It has a secondary guard, called a schilt (meaning shield) to protect the fingers in practice. The top third of the blade bends when thrust hard against an unyielding surface.

Photo by Brandilyn Carpenter
Photo by Brandilyn Carpenter

Demonstrating with this blade, Riley and Waters explained that a longsword can be gripped halfway down and used as a spear. They repeatedly emphasized that this should be done only by people who have been trained and know what they’re doing.

The program presented a wide range of sword designs. Classifying swords as two-handers or bastard swords (can be used with one or two hands), and so on began after the Victorian era, and has continued with various classification systems. To the people who used them in real life, a sword was just a sword.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.

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