WHAT IS A LONGSWORD? 

 

 

About us
Training
Fiore dei Liberi
Other Italian Masters
18/19thC martial arts
Topics/Articles
Historical art
Photo Gallery
Videos
Equipment
'Schola Days'
News/Events
Links
Contact & location

 

 

The name longsword has become the widely preferred term in the WMA community in recent years for any type of medieval or renaissance sword which is usually used in two hands, but can be used in one hand. There are no scientific differentiations to be made between a 'bastard sword', a 'hand-and-a-half sword', a 'war sword' and a 'longsword' - historically these terms and many others were used to describe similar weapons, and in many sources any type of sword is often simply called 'sword' (or the equivalent in another language). Fiore calls his sword simply sword (spada), differentiating between using it in one hand or using it in two hands.

Similarly, while there are many different names that can be applied to the same longsword, the border between what we might call a longsword and a true two-handed sword (for some reason often called by modern people by its German name of 'zweihander') is a debatable one. It comes down to personal interpretation of what constitutes a longsword exactly, but most people would probably agree that to them a longsword can be used reasonably effectively in one hand, while a two-handed sword, also sometimes called a greatsword, can not be used effectively in one-hand except for limited actions such as a pommel-strike or thrust. While the longsword can be used in one hand, most surviving examples are not as manageable in one hand as a one-handed sword - however, some examples exist of smaller longswords which are in some ways more like a single handed sword (in terms of blade length), but with a longer hilt - so they truly have equity between single-handed and two-handed use; some people argue these are more correctly termed 'bastard swords', being a cross between two groups of sword. The jury is still out, in my opinion, as to whether the historical data supports that assertion, but it seems possible given further evidence.

The longsword seems to have had its mainstream birth in the mid-late 13thC. It is proposed that there were examples of long-hilted cruciform war swords a bit earlier than this, with some residual text reference to great two-handed swords even earlier in the 12thC, but for this short text I will stick to the mainstream. From art of the period we can see that in the later 13thC a type of big sword starts to appear with a longer hilt, which is sometimes shown gripped in two hands (single-handed swords are also shown gripped in two hands occasionally in 13thC art). The form of the sword is basically similar to other knightly swords of this period ( Oakeshott's Type XII and XIII ), but just scaled up. This was noticeably a 'knightly' weapon, shown in the hands of armoured men-at-arms - for this reason it has been standard practice amongst antiquarians of the last 150 years to suggest that larger, more powerful swords were needed to hew through, or at least bludgeon, opposing men-at-arms, who at this time were wearing usually a full mail hauberk over padding, great-helm and as the 13thC progressed probably more and more frequently a coat of plates (a steel plate and leather/fabric defence worn over the mail around the torso, but under the surcoat and hence not visible in most art of the period; see Thordeman, 1939). Whether the development of the two-handed sword was due to the race against armour is of course open to debate; men-at-arms had been wearing similar defences for a long time, with perhaps only the coat-of-plates being a recent addition in the mid-13thC - there is even evidence that a leather defence (possibly explaining the popularity of the name cuirass (cuir = leather in French) and the distictive shape of 12thC knights' shoulders) had been common previous to the coat of plates. In addition to this, the sword was rarely the weapon of first choice for the knight or squire; that honour instead being given to the lance, or spear, in the 13thC. The sword was of course an important weapon, but secondary nevertheless. The knightly shield continued in popularity until about the mid-14thC, so we must ask ourselves what drove some men to abandon their shields in the later 13thC and reach for the two-handed sword. Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, during the 14thC there seems, from contemporary art, to have been an increased popularity in swords with longer hilts and longswords proper. These were still however the broad, fullered cutting swords familiar to that period. It is another point of contention as to whether the increased length we see on sword hilts on monumental effigies and brasses in the 14thC was truly to allow occasional two-handed use, or for some other reason (the emergence of plate gauntlets in the first half of the 14thC has been given as a possible influencing factor). In the later 14thC we start to see longswords appearing more and more in art and the written sources. The longsword seems to have become almost the predominant knightly sword from about the 1370's for the next century in many areas, especially when fighting on foot. It seems to have enjoyed favour especially in the Holy Roman Empire, France, the Low Countries, England and parts of Eastern Europe (eg. Bohemia, Hungary, Prussia). We currently have access to the greatest number of late-14th and 15thC combat treatises from what are now Germany, Austria and Italy, and in those treatises it is clear that on foot the longsword was the prefered knightly sword of choice at the time. We have three short 15thC English handwritten notes on fencing repertoir, and these all seem to describe the use of the two-handed sword or longsword (and staff as well in one case). On tomb effigies and brasses of the late 14thC and 15thC we see numerous representations of longswords, or hand-and-a-half swords, being worn by the knightly classes, as well as in other forms of art, where we occasionally see the longsword or two-handed sword in the hands of common soldiers (seemingly increasingly as the 15thC goes on).

There is an important difference between the blade types of the 13thC and early 14thC longswords and those we start to see after the middle of the 14thC. Before this change blades had generally been of a broad type, fullered, and generally of flatter section. They tended to be slightly tapered, but only very slightly, often with what many people now term a 'spatulate' point (See Oakeshott Types XII and XIII). After the middle of the 14thC we increasingly see more tapered blades, finishing in a smaller point, more often with a flatened-diamond or hexagonal section, either with no fuller or a vestigal one for the first part of the blade nearest the hilt (See Oakeshott Types XV, XVI, XVII and XVIII). Surviving examples of late 14thC and 15thC longswords also often have quite a thick blade section, ranging up to about 7mm in thickness at the base (forte) of the blade. While both the early and later longswords are often thicker at the base of the blade than single-handed swords, they both display distal-taper - that is, they get flatter in section throughout their length, looking at the sword edge-ways; however, the more tapered type of swords generally seem to start off thicker and have less distal taper throughout their length than the earlier broad types, resulting in a stiffer blade (but not necessarily heavier, because they are tapered rather than broad, looking at the flat blade) and a more pointed, robust and thick point (square-section in some cases). Clearly swords were evolving to become better able to deal powerful and stiff thrusts, and the developments in armour, with the increasing coverage of plate in the middle and second half of the 14thC probably being a driving-force behind this development. The treatises of the early 15thC show armoured fighting with swords predominantly consisting of using the sword in two hands - one gripping halfway up the blade, like a small pole weapon, and ultimately aiming at trying to get the stiff and thick tip of this type of longsword between the plates of the harness and into the mail or padded covering underneath and into the opponent (either directly at the exposed parts, or by grappling to get to these parts). My best guess is that the earlier types of broad longsword used predominantly against mail were used in a manner more similar to what we see for the unarmoured fighting styles in the 15thC treatises on combat - the nature of fighting a mailed person being so different to fighting a plated one. But surely this would be an interesting subject to expland on. Similarly it would be interesting to try and explain why the longsword gained such popularity as a sidearm for gentlemen not engaged in armoured conflict and why the long-hilted sword was needed or prefered for armoured fighting when the vast majority of armoured fighting in treatises shows the left hand gripping the blade rather than the hilt. Clearly there were many factors at work in the rise of the longsword's popularity and these should not be brushed away so simply with the old resort of the antiquarian who asserts that they developed in order to deal more powerful blows to armour. This was clearly not the main purpose of the majority of late 14th or 15thC longswords.

Later in the 16thC we see broader and flatter longswords (and single-handed swords) come back into vogue, as heavy plate and mail armour once again became less widespread on the battlefield. In fact the broader, more cutting-centric, blade types had remained in use throughout our period, but in many parts of Europe they simply became less popular than the new more rigid and pointy blades. The broad, fullered and spatulate-pointed longsword is to be found in 15thC art, but it had simply become less prefered as an armoured man-at-arms' weapon in much of Europe, re-emerging again later, as warfare changed. The great two handed swords of the 16th and 17thC usually had broad and quite flat blades, thick at the forte but very distally tapered - what their relationship is to the two-handed swords of the 15thC is somewhat hard to trace. Certainly the great two-handers of the mid-late 15thC had been more like scaled up longswords, with pointed and tapered blades, and usually diamond or hollow-ground diamond section blades (Often Oakeshott Type XVIII eg. those found in the River near Castillon and reported on by Oakeshott and others. Also an example in the Wallace Collection). This type also appears in many contemporary manuscripts (eg. the late-15thC versions of Froissart's Chronicles).

This short article can not avoid generalisation in it's length - there are residual swords from different areas and times which seem to go in contrary to the general trends; for example some of the Italian hand-and-a-half swords from Alexandria and dating to the early 15thC, exhibit very flat, broad and tapered blades. It has been speculated (Clive Thomas, Park Lane Arms Fair Catalogues 2004 & 2005) that these swords were specifically commisioned by the Kings of Cyprus as part of their annual tribute, and that they were made so unusually flat and broad because of the different sword-requirements of the North-African rulers and the lesser use of heavy armours. Although there are lots of exceptions to the rules, there is also an amazing degree of uniformity amongst longsword types used throughout our period, or at least patterns which should be studied more. I am attempting to gain data to further my research in this direction and any assistance is always most appreciated. My ideas as outlined here are of course a work in progress and new data may more greatly inform our opinions, or change them completely. This then stands a a brief look at how I see, at the moment of writing, the longsword in our period.

Easton 21/03/2005

 

 

This page was composed by Matt Easton - Last update: 07/04/2005

Contact: schola-gladiatoria@hotmail.co.uk

 

TOP

 


 

 

?>