Friday, February 13, 2015

What is a Rapier?


The question which is asked in this article is one which needs to be considered by anyone who would consider using a rapier, talking about rapiers, or indeed having an interest in rapiers. For the most part the question itself belies the complexity which is involved in such a discussion. There are many elements which need to be discussed to have a complete discussion of this particular topic, and what is presented are some of the arguments toward that discussion.

            What is a rapier? This is a question that has been posed by curators and historians alike, and contrary to some beliefs, it is not exactly the easiest question to answer. The biggest problem is, “it is hard to define something which comes in many shapes and sizes.” (Anglo, 2000:99). This is one of the greatest problems associated with answering the question. The fact that the rapier came with many different hilts, blades of different lengths and widths makes defining exactly what a rapier is a very difficult prospect. There are types of rapier which contradict one another in their form as well.

“the ambiguities of the rapier are, however, in a class of their own. As A.V.B. Norman puts it, with masterly understatement: ‘the evidence for what is meant by the word rapier at a particular period is confused’. This would matter little had historians of fencing not tended to equate scientific swordsmanship with the Renaissance,” (Anglo, 2000:99)

            What historians of fencing feel is that the rapier is an evolutionary step toward the perfection found in the foil and epée found in modern fencing. From their point of view, the arts found in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were not particularly well formed and required development. In order to circumvent this particular problem in many areas it is best to go back to the original sources, but in the case of the rapier, this is not particularly helpful as contemporary definitions are hazy at best, even those which had practical experience with the weapon (Anglo, 2000:101). This creates a real problem in the definition of this particular weapon. The word itself does appear in period, but its presence is very limited.

“there never was any general agreement as to what a rapier might be. It was only in England and Germany, around the middle decades of the sixteenth century, that rapier came to be used to denote a long sword which, though designed both for cutting and thrusting, placed emphasis on the use of the point rather than the edge: and in neither country has it been possible to establish a conniving etymology.” (Anglo, 2000:99)

            What this means is that there was only two countries and only for a short period of time where the word “rapier” was actually used in a period context. Of course there have been many who have decided that to establish the meaning of the word it is important to look at its origin, and thus establish an etymology of the word and thus find its origin nationally. This would seem to be a great idea, but it has led many curatorial experts and fencing historians along a very interesting path. One of the many sources cites this as the origin.

“The origin of the term “rapier”, first noted in 1474 in a French document, is believed to be from the Spanish words for costume sword – espada ropera. By the early 16th century the term had come to mean a sword for use by gentlemen; and shortly after the middle of the century is was accepted as meaning a long, pointed and slender fencing sword for use by civilians.” (Valentine, 1968:7)

            The French term found was “epee rapiere” and this was compared to the Spanish term which has been cited for re-emphasis and legitimisation. What will be noted later on is this is not necessarily the case, and that calling this the origin is not necessarily accurate. Of course through searches of etymological data, several ideas have been expounded. Bull (1990) gives three different origins for the word rapier; from the German “rappen” meaning to tear, from the Spanish “raspar” meaning to scratch and finally from the Spanish “espada ropera” meaning robe sword (Bull, 1990:96). If an examination of the period documents is done, the results put some of these discoveries and theories in a bad light.
            The best source currently available for this information about the rapier is Anglo’s (2000) The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, in which he states that the French and Spanish never used espee rapier or espada ropera (Anglo, 2000:100). Further in the English translation of many manuals from the period of the popularity of the rapier, especially in England, and later, Italian manuals in which the word spada, meaning sword, was used, this is often interpreted as “rapier” (Anglo, 2000:100). This is how such manuals which were translated into English in the Renaissance period such as Di Grassi’s His True Art of Defence of 1594, were the word spada is used and it is translated as “rapier” as this was the weapon commonly used in the period and also the one which was most popular at the time.
            What is also important to note is that even in the case of the places where the practice of rapier-play originated, “Italian, French and Spanish authors had several words indicating different types of sword; but rapier was not one of them.” (Anglo, 2000:100). This gives us pause for thought at this point in time. Had some other word been used in the English translations, would that be the one that was used now? It is not to say that some of the original words proposed were not used, this is not the case. There is a rare occurrence of rapiere in French Renaissance account, keen edge, alludes to cutting sword (Anglo, 2000:100). This is exactly what the rapier was not, truly it could cut but it was not primarily a cutting sword.
            The Italians did have a different word, which does appear in period texts, for a primarily thrusting sword, but it is not “rapier”. This weapon which is described is also often mistakenly said to be the precursor of the rapier, where actually it is not.

“the only weapon given a specific name was the estoque... occurs only twice in the Valencia documents to indicate on of a number of long, sharp, narrow-bladed thrusting swords” (Anglo, 2000:100)

            These long, sharp, narrow-bladed thrusting swords were designed to be used from horse-back against armoured opponents. They were often used as a substitute for the lance or as a sword when the other had broken. This weapon was designed to puncture through the gaps in armour something that the rapier was certainly not designed to do. Also the fact that this was a military weapon and not a civilian one also removes it from contention as the father of the rapier. Some of the reasons for this evolutionary history of fencing have already been given, but in order to understand this issue, more detail is required.

“central issue for nineteenth-century historians and their followers was the development of the rapier - a notion which they used to denigrate the medieval masters and, indeed, most swordsmanship prior to the seventeenth century. Nowadays the word rapier conjures up visions of a long, thin-bladed, sharp-pointed weapon capable of being wielded with virtuosic speed and dexterity to delude and, ultimately, to run through an opponent.” (Anglo, 2000:99)

            Historiographically, especially with regard to the nineteenth-century historians, they had a particular thought in mind when writing these histories and this needs to be taken into account. The fact that they were attempting to show the medieval and Renaissance masters in a less pleasant light than the later ones who worked with the small-sword and later weapons demonstrates the idea of an evolutionary point of view with regard to the weapons used. The estoc evolved into the rapier, which evolved into the small-sword, which evolved into the epée and other modern weapons. With new research that has been done of late this problem is being addressed, of course problems still persist.

“the polyglot nature of fencing literature further complicates matters; and, for anyone interested in how people used swords for fighting, curatorial concerns (more with hilts than with blades) are of limited value. It is self-evident that, in order to understand sword play, one must understand the types of sword used.” (Anglo, 2000:99)

            The multiple different languages of fencing literature make the discovery of the “true rapier” problematic to say the least. Even in translations of other languages into English the bias of the interpreter needs to be taken into account. For the more practical angle for the Renaissance fencer, studies of hilt types are less useful as how the sword was used is vastly more important. Even where a curatorial study is made, hilts are more the focus, rather than the blades, this gives an incomplete description and often mislabelling of weapons occurs.
            Even in the use of the weapons if that is to be the primary delineation as to what a rapier is and is not there are issues to contend with, “for most of the period with which we are concerned, cutting was as important as thrusting.” (Anglo, 2000:99). If the point is the focus, as it was in histories of fencing, those weapons which could also cut effectively were often discarded, even though they may fill the criteria perfectly in other areas. For the purposes of description of the period rapier, it is to the manuals which actually used the weapon where some answers lay.
            How the weapons are described along with those illustrations found in these manuals can give a doorway into discovering an accurate description of the weapon and therefore some answers (Anglo, 2000:101). Of course, in the case of pictures this relies upon the artist depicting the weapons as they actually were and not an interpretation of their own, and in translation it once again relies on the person who actually wrote the book. For those translated into a different language it again relies upon the actual translation.

“The blades of the single-hand sword shown in Marozzo’s Opera nova are all fairly wide at the hilt and generally provided with a side ring and finger ring, while the edges, although not completely parallel, are more or less straight until they suddenly taper to a point.” (Anglo, 2000:102)

            This would describe a weapon which has utility for both cutting and thrusting. The hilt design is something close to an earlier rapier also. Of course this is contradicted by the fact that Marozzo describes many cutting actions with these weapons which would eliminate them from being rapiers according to some interpretations. This is one example of the problems associated even when dealing with the weapons from one manual, but this problem actually exists across manuals also. Many different rapiers are depicted by different masters, in some cases different within the same treatises. There is however, a distinct change from broader blades to narrower blades as time progresses, but still there is no uniformity. (Anglo, 2000:102).

            The result of the above description could be the question of whether or not the rapier in the classical sense actually existed at all. It is important that in the discussion of a weapon assumptions are disregarded and the facts of the matter are stuck to in order to get the most accurate answer presently available. 
            What needs to happen for any discussion of the weapon to occur in any sort of reasonable way is a common understanding of what this most perplexing weapon is. For the most part this will be dependent on the point of view of the people discussing the weapon. For my own purposes I assume that the rapier is a long-bladed, single-handed weapon, designed for civilian use, which may be used for either cutting or thrusting, but is primarily designed to thrust. This gives a general form of the weapon and how it is used, both of which are significant, needless to say it is vital for a common definition to be made for people to discuss this weapon.


Anglo, S. (2000) The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, Yale University Press, London, UK

Bull, S. (1990) An Historical Guide to Arms & Armour, Victoria and Albert Museum Press, London, UK

Valentine, E. (1968) Rapiers: An Illustrated Reference Guide to the Rapiers of the 16th and 17th Centuries, with their Companions, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, USA

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Discussion of the Form of the Longsword (Part 2)


What follows is the second part of a discussion of the longsword. This is from a more curatorial examination rather than a practical "how to" discussion of the weapon. This is designed to introduce the reader to the form of the weapon and encourage some thought as to the weapons actually being used to recreate what is presented in the manuals.



Oakeshott’s Typology

“So the following typologies are based purely and simply upon an aesthetic standard, form and proportion being the only criteria. This may seem to be a serious archaeological heresy; the only excuse I can offer for it is that it works.” (Oakeshott, 1998:22)

            Oakeshott’s Typology has become the standard for the classification of the medieval sword at least. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the typology works for the higher proportion of weapons, more to the point it is based upon the actual form of the weapon and in comparison to other weapons rather than some arbitrary classification. These two keys to the classification of the weapons takes into account not only their form but also their use and this is because it is based upon blade forms.
 Oakeshott Typology (Oakeshott, 1998:24)

Blade Classification

            The previous section on the form of the longsword introduced the idea of the classification of the sword and indicated that this was based on blade classification. The blade is used because it is the truly operational part of the weapon, “for the form of their blades gives the essential key to any classification. In fact, to attempt to classify these later weapons on hilt forms alone is impossible;” (Oakeshott, 1998:21). This is especially the case as hilts could be removed and replaced. A weapon of one nationality could be re-hilted with a hilt from an entirely different region, and especially in the case of generational swords, could be replaced to suit the current fashion. Thus the classification of “the sword itself must depend upon its blade-form and the relative proportions of its parts,” (Oakeshott, 1998:22). Of course, even with this foundation for the basis of classification, it does not mean that external factors may not alter the form of a blade and thus possibly its classification.

“one thing about these sword-blades needs to be said: the variations in their form for the most part are very subtle, especially between Types XII and XIV; many surviving swords cannot be pigeon-holed into a type at all, because the shape of their blade’s outline has been changed either by corrosion or by grinding.” (Oakeshott, 1996:212)

            The fact that there are subtle differences between the types in many instances, and changes in the blade through various factors can change the classification means that some weapons are difficult to classify as one or the other type. This makes dating and classification somewhat difficult and the examiner of the weapon needs to take into account various factors in the classification of any single weapon, and in some cases the weapon cannot be classified due to these external factors.

Weapon Types

“The typology of swords may seem to have serious omissions, but these are deliberate. It is for the straight, two-edged, cross-hilted sword of the kind which is generally (and very rightly, if somewhat romantically) called "Knightly". ... Two-hand swords, before about 1520, are only very big examples of some of the ordinary types,” (Oakeshott, 1998:23)

            In some ways this simple statement should invalidate much of what is presented, especially in relation to the longsword, however the typology is still useful even for the longsword, as will be demonstrated as even though double-handed weapons seem to be omitted, they are present in the typology and it will be these weapons which are the focus of this investigation. More to the point, as has been previously presented the longsword is clearly not simply a two-handed weapon but one which may be use with one or two hands.
The process of the investigation will highlight those types found in the typology which are most clearly weapons of the appropriate type to be called longswords and will highlight their characteristics. This will enable the reader to get an appreciation of the development of the weapon over time in somewhat more detail than has been previously presented. These weapons will be presented in the same order as they are found in Oakeshott’s typology.

Type XII

            While the Type XII is not identified as a longsword per se, and is clearly a single-handed weapon, “The grip is a little longer than in the preceding types, averaging about 4½".” (Oakeshott, 1998:37). This weapon could indicate a pre-cursor weapon to the longsword having a blade of the same length as a single-handed weapon but a longer handle to accommodate the use of a second hand. This general shape and development in the style of the weapon is continued into the Type XIII.


“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 Epées de Guerre are massive weapons, but are not to be confused with two-handed swords. There were a few such as early as 1350, but they were considerably bigger and were always referred to as Epées a deux Mains or even “Twahandswerds”. 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. These are broad and flat, with edges running nearly parallel to a spatulate point;” (Oakeshott, 1996:207)

            The form of the Type XIII is clearly in a longsword form, this is evident by the image in the typology, but also by the description of the weapon given. These war swords were clearly a development to allow the use of a second hand on the weapon, as indicated in their description. What needs to be noted here is the clearly defined difference, as asserted by Oakeshott between these weapons and the Renaissance two-handed sword. The naming of two-hand here is based upon the use of the weapon; indeed the weapon described above is clearly a longsword.
The blade length of these weapons along with the handle length means that the weapon could be comfortably used with either a single or two hands, thus falling into the definition of a longsword as established. This weapon shows the clear progression toward a weapon which was purposefully designed for the dual use of either one-handed or two-handed operation. Further to this particular element is the form of the weapon itself, tending toward a weapon which has a dual purpose of cut and thrust.

“During the second quarter of the fifteenth century swords seem to have reverted to the dual function of cut and thrust. A type of blade which appears early in this century gives an admirable all-purpose sword, much lighter than the massive late fourteenth-century thrusting swords (about 2½ to 3 lb. as against 4 to 5 lb.) with very sharp points but of sufficient breadth at the centre of percussion, and a flat enough section, to provide perfect cutting edges. This blade, with minor variations of breadth and taper, was used extensively throughout the fifteenth century and remained popular until the eighteenth.” (Oakeshott, 1996:303)

            The indicated weapon is one which fell out and came back into favour due to its shape and its ability to be used for both cut and thrust. What will be found in this discussion is that some weapons were clearly biased toward one direction or another, obviously in order to deal with armour however the dominant weapon form will be one which serves the dual purpose of both cut and thrust. The weight of the weapon is significant as indicated in the form previously, the fact that these weapons were lighter means that they could more easily be wielded by the combatant, and thus used more effectively. The form of the weapon clearly indicates a multi-purpose weapon designed to be used single- or double-handed.

“A broad blade, nearly as wide at the tip as at the hilt. Most examples show a distinct widening immediately below the hilt, thereafter the edges run with an imperceptible taper to a spatulate point. The fuller generally occupies a little more than half of the blade's length. The grip is long in proportion to the blade—average length 6".” (Oakeshott, 1998:41)

Type XIIIa

            The separation of Type XIII and Type XIIIa is a matter of size. The Type XIIIa is a larger sword as depicted in the image for the typology presented in the early part of this presentation. “This is generally the same shape as Type XIII, only much larger. The blade, of similar form, is generally from 37" to 40" long, while the grip ranges from 6½" to 9" in length.” (Oakeshott, 1998:42). The separation between Type XIII and Type XIIIa would seem to be a piece of pedantry however the size difference is significant as this would affect the operation of the weapon. This is one of the few times in the typology in which the size is the determining factor for the type.

“The size of a sword has not hitherto determined its type, but here, and in swords of the 14th and 15th centuries, it will be found to do so. The reason here is partly that the XIIIa's are very big weapons, partly because in their own time they were distinguished from their smaller contemporaries by the term "espées de Guerre" or "Grete Swerdes".” (Oakeshott, 1998:42)

            The term “great sword” has often been used to refer to a two-handed sword in the spirit of the two-handed sword of the sixteenth century. What is of significance here is that the term is being used to describe a weapon, admittedly large by comparison to other contemporary weapons, but clearly in the same class as the longsword as it has been so far depicted. This idea of the “great sword” is more likely a nomenclature in order to describe the size of the weapon in comparison to other weapons of a similar period, namely single-handed or arming swords.

“The expression "Grant Espée" would distinguish Types XIIIa from the "epée courte" or "parvus ensis" which may have been the short weapon of Types XIV or XV, better known by its 15th century name of "arming sword".” (Oakeshott, 1998:44)

            More to the point, and especially with regard to the relative size of this weapon as compared to other weapons in the “longsword” category, this weapon while clearly larger than some, was clearly one which could be used in a single-handed fashion or a two-handed fashion. Further to the point and going back to the previous description of a longsword as one which could be worn and drawn from the belt there is evidence of this type of sword being worn on a belt (Oakeshott, 1998:45), clearly placing this weapon, while large, in the longsword category. What is even more interesting with regard to this is the evidence presented that not only was this weapon worn and used alone, but also the distinction is clear that the longsword was considered a separate weapon type.

Type XV

“A strongly tapering, acutely pointed blade of four-sided "flattened diamond" section. The edges are straight, and taper without noticeable curves to the point, which may be strongly reinforced. The blade may be broad at the hilt (some 2"–2¼") or quite narrow (about 1¼").” (Oakeshott, 1998:56)

            The Type XV presents a weapon which was clearly biased toward the use of the point, merely due to its shape. This is further evidenced by the reinforced point of the weapon. This is a weapon which was designed to defeat the armour of the day. “Type XV seems first to have appeared in the second half of the thirteenth century.” (Oakeshott, 1996:307), about the time that armour was changing and the addition of plates on armour was beginning to occur. This weapon was clearly designed to punch through mail and get in the gaps in plate. This form of weapon has clear trends toward the form of the longsword as depicted.

“Many swords of this type [XV] have long grips, like the war-swords of Type XIII. After about 1350 nine swords out of ten seem to have such grips, and are to-day variously referred to as “Hand-and-a-half” or “Bastard” swords. The latter term was used in the fifteenth century, but it is not certain that it was applied to this particular kind of weapon. “Hand-and-a-half”, though modern, is a name far more apt for it; these swords were single-handed weapons, but being furnished with long grips, could at need be wielded easily in both.” (Oakeshott, 1996:308)

            The idea of the “bastard sword” is one where the hilt of the weapon was suitable for the use of one or two hands. This obviously would have to be complemented by the rest of the weapon in the form of balance and length in order for this to be useful. These weapons were referred to as “bastard” due to the hand-and-a-half grip which was neither single- nor two-handed in nature. The advantage in this design was the resulting versatility presented by the use of one or both hands if required.

“All these [Type XV] are hand-and-a-half swords, with grips about 7 in. long, sharply tapering blades of four-sided section about 32 in. long, straight crosses tapering towards the tips, which are abruptly turned downwards and large pommels of Type J.” (Oakeshott, 1996:309)

            Once again, the description presents a weapon which has a substantial grip presented, which could be used for single or double-handed use. The blade sharply tapers toward the tip giving it a great advantage in the thrust, rather than a broad blade for use in the cut. This is a weapon by its form is able to be used in true longsword-fashion, utilising its shorter blade and longer handle for speed and accuracy, while maintaining the advantage of a double-handed grip should the wielder require.

“The type [Type XV] seems to have gone out of favour for a time in the early fifteenth century, but after about 1440 it became extremely popular again in its earliest form, particularly in Italy.” (Oakeshott, 1996:309)
            This is no doubt the type of weapon which Filippo Vadi describes as being his perfect weapon in his treatise, and which Fiore dei Liberi alludes to in his. This is a weapon which is designed for the use of both edge and point, but would seem to bias itself toward the point. The Type XVa which follows is a clear follow on from the principles of this weapon.

Type XVa

“The blade is similar [to the XV], though generally narrow and slender. The grip is much longer, from 7" to 9" or even 10". Forms of pommel and cross are the same as for Type XV.” (Oakeshott, 1998:59)

            Once again, as with the Type XV, a weapon with a slender and pointed blade is presented with a longer handle to be used by one or two hands depending on what is required by the user at the time. In this particular instance the weapon is clearly biased toward the use of two hands due to the extended handle as compared to its predecessor. What is even more interesting is that this weapon was heavily biased toward use against armoured opponents in the additions to the form of the weapon.

“In the Tower of London is another (with a "scent-stopper" pommel) of Type XVa; this is particularly interesting as it has, just below the hilt, a piece about 6" long where the edges are thickened and squared off, forming a long "ricasso". The purpose of this was to enable the wielder to bring his left hand forward to grasp the sword below the cross, so that he could make a powerful two-handed thrust with a shortened blade in close fighting.” (Oakeshott, 1998:60)

            While this is a specific example of the Type XVa sword, the addition of the ricasso, combined with the already tapered and reinforced point of the weapon heavily biases this weapon toward foot combat between armoured opponents. The two-handed thrust of the weapon in what is known as “half-swording” is evident in many period manuals. This is designed to allow the weapon to be levered into place so that a short hard thrust may be made between plates, or in some instances, to punch through the plates of the opponent. Just like their parent type, the XV, they are well known in form as “bastard swords”, having utility for actions with both one and two hands.

“These swords are of the well-known "Bastard" or "hand-and-a-half" kind. Eight out of ten military effigies and brasses of the period 1360–1420 show swords like this; there is only a limited variety in the forms of hilt, and the blades are long and slender.” (Oakeshott, 1998:60)

Type XVI

            The Type XVI is a single-handed form of weapon and thus would seem to be out of the scope of this investigation however it does form the basis of the following longsword form which follows it. Thus an examination of this weapon will reveal some of the characteristics which are found in the following type. The first note which needs to be made about this type is in comparison to two previous types the XIV and XV.

“Type XVI is really a compromise between Types XIV and XV, for the upper half of the blade retains the old flat fullered section while the lower half (the business end of the sword) is four-sided and acutely-pointed.” (Oakeshott, 1996:309)

            This is a weapon which is clearly designed for both cut and thrust actions. It has the tapered point for thrusting actions while retaining a broad blade clearly designed for cutting actions. This demonstrates a shift in ideas about how the weapon can be utilised against an opponent and the realisation that both cut and thrust can be effective.

“The most striking thing about these blades [Type XVI] is that they seem very clearly to be made to serve the dual purpose of cutting and thrusting. The upper part of the blade is in the old style, while the lower part is acute enough, and stiff enough to thrust effectively.” (Oakeshott, 1998:61)

            The idea of the utilisation of the weapon for both cut and thrust is one which forms the basis for the following Type XVIa, a larger weapon, formed in such a way that it can be equally used for both cut and thrust. This is weapon is based on the form of the single handed Type XVI, which is presented above. It is necessary to see the foundation of the weapon in order to understand it.

Type XVIa

“A long tapering blade, broad at the hilt, with a sharp point often strongly reinforced. The fuller is well-marked, often quite short (about 1/3 of the blade's length) rarely more than half the length. The lower part of the blade is not of diamond section, but of a stout, flat hexagonal section. The grip is long, as in Types XIIIa and XVa, the tang of stout rectangular section, often with the fuller running up into it.” (Oakeshott, 1998:63)

            What can be seen in the description above is a lot of similarities in the form of the weapon between it and the previous XVI. Both have blades which are quite wide at the hilt and with a strongly reinforced point, thus giving the weapon the dual function of both cut and thrust. The grip in the case of the XVIa is long, as can be expected and thus it clearly falls into the idea of the longsword in form. Much has been argued about the origin and dating of these weapons and their relationships to other types.

“These swords are generally said to belong to the late 14th—early 15th centuries, but the evidence does not uphold this. It might be said that Type XVIa is merely another variety of Type XIIIa, but it does seem, on the whole, to be a development of it, though undoubtedly in use at the same time.” (Oakeshott, 1998:63)

            The questions of dating and form in this particular case highlight the issues of dating and classification in general. The similarities between the Type XVIa and the Type XIIIa bring in questions about the form and the dating of the weapon, and as to whether or not they are too similar not to be ignored. The biggest difference is in the point, where it is tapered and reinforced in the Type XVIa and not so in the Type XIIIa. Further questions arise as to the dating of this particular type.

“There are many of these swords, nearly all once thought to be of the late 14th or early 15th centuries. The earlier dating which I suggest is well supported by a number of clearly shown swords in Italian paintings of the early 14th century.” (Oakeshott, 1998:65)

            Regardless of the dating of the weapon, what is presented in the form of the weapon is clearly that the weapon is presented in such a form that it would be utilised for both cut and thrusting effectively by the user of the weapon. The addition of the longer handle and the longer blade from the previous single-handed type, XVI, clearly puts this weapon in the hand-and-a-half or longsword bracket. The type which follows, the Type XVII, is an interesting weapon as it seems to be designed for a single purpose, rather than the dual of the XVIa.


“Type XVII ... was perhaps the sword most in use during the period 1370-1425. Its section is usually hexagonal and very solid with sometimes a very shallow fuller in its upper half.” (Oakeshott, 1996:311)

            The fact that this type was most used during this period is fascinating in some ways and quite expected in others. More detail is required to examine the weapon more fully, but needless to say it is the shape of this weapon which is the most significant in this instance. In some ways it is similar to the previous weapon, but there are also significant differences which must also be noted.

“A long, slender blade acutely tapering. Many are reminiscent of 16th century rapier blades, but others are nearly as broad at the hilt (1½"–2") as some of the XVIa blades. The section is generally hexagonal. Many examples have a shallow fuller in the upper quarter of the blade, though some do not. The grip is always long. The tang usually very stout, of a quadrangular section.” (Oakeshott, 1998:65)

            Being that the blade of the weapon is most significant to the use of the weapon this is the focus of the description above. The form of the cross-guard and pommel has no real significant effect on the use of the weapon, at least in comparison to the blade of the weapon. The slender form of the blade would imply that the primary purpose of this weapon is thrusting. This is further reinforced by the solid shape of the weapon.
The form of the weapon is similar to the XVIa; however this weapon is heavily biased in favour of the thrust, with much less cutting ability. In some ways it is much like an estoc, a specialised thrusting weapon, “It is essentially a thrusting sword, some being more like stout, sharp-pointed bars of steel.” (Oakeshott, 1998:65). This is a weapon which is designed to either punch through the armour of an opponent, or have the point moved around the plates to find the gaps in the armour. The idea of using the weapon to thrust with and thus get around armour is reinforced by the presence of the ricasso.

“Type XVII with one of these pommels [T3]. Its blade, incidentally, has a ricasso about 6 in. long, the purpose of which seems to have been to allow the left hand of the man wielding it to be brought forward to grasp the blade below the hilt so that the sword can be “shortened” in close fighting on foot.” (Oakeshott, 1996:315)

            Clearly this weapon was designed primarily for armoured foot combat against an opponent who had a significant amount of armour and plated at that. The shortened grip on the weapon is designed for a much stronger thrust against an opponent in armour, and images of the weapon used in this fashion can be found in the manuals of the period such as Fiore dei Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum.

Fiore dei Liberi Flos Duellatorum (1410)

This shortened grip is also designed so that the weapon can be more easily used in close quarters combat for leverage against the opponent’s weapon and also to move the point of the weapon into a position to thrust against any gap in the armour. While this is not the common form of the weapon its presence does easily represent this idea and direction in use.


            The Type XVIII is an interesting weapon to say the least. This is one weapon which could be really referred to as general purpose and generic, both in terms of use and also in terms of form, “Type XVIII is a general all-purpose sword which varies a good deal in the shape of its blade’s outline as well as in its hilt styles.” (Oakeshott, 1996:313). The variation in the weapon is one thing which makes this type difficult to isolate, and thus there are some sub-types present. The weapon is depicted as a single-handed weapon going by the image of the typology, so the question is why is it present in this discussion? The description of the weapon assists with this.

“A broad blade (2"–2½" at the hilt) of four-sided "flattened diamond" section; the edges taper in graceful curves to a sharp point. The grip is of moderate length (3¾"–4") but some are big swords with grips over 5" long. A feature of the grips of these swords—many are preserved—is a noticeable swelling in the middle (as plate 46D, fig. 75, p. 104).” (Oakeshott, 1998:67)

            What the description gives is a weapon which has a hilt which can vary in length, along with variation in the blade length. This means that there are examples of the Type XVIII which quite comfortably fit into the form of the longsword as well as those which do not. The sub-typing of the weapon presented by Oakeshott, some of which will be discussed in the following types assists with classification of this type. The form of the weapon was very much generic in form having various variations depending on the actual weapon.

“This type [XVIII] of blade was used extensively all through the fifteenth century, some being broad like Henry V’s and others much narrower. Most of them had a four-sided section showing a definite mid-rib and slightly concave faces to each of the four sides, but after about 1450 many of them had sharply defined ribs and flat faces, similar to the later blades of Type XV” (Oakeshott, 1996:313)

            These variations make it a little difficult to specify exactly the form and attributes of this particular type, however the variations do fall within a general form and thus type of weapon. What should be noted, and is of real interest in the actual use of the weapon, is that unlike the Type XVII which came before it, the XVIII reverts back to the idea of the use of the edge as well as the point, thus cut and thrust in operation, rather than purely thrust.

“In XVIII, the edges run in curves, and the lower part of the blade looks broader. The type is, in fact, admirably adapted for a cut-and-thrust style of fighting, and seems to be a logical development of Type XVI. The strong midrib gives great rigidity, yet toward the point at the centre of percussion there is plenty of width to each edge.” (Oakeshott, 1998:68)

            The form of the weapon allows it to be used equally effectively for both cutting and thrusting actions, and as indicated, it bears resemblance to the Type XVI which came before it, and carrying much of the same characteristics. Needless to say this generic form of weapon would have great advantages being able to cut and thrust and this would assist in its longevity simply due to its utility. Being that this is the primary weapon and having sub-types, it is of importance that such sub-types, and such a wide variety of sub-types, would have only eventuated had the original type been of such use, and also in such a generic form that modifications could be made from it. Needless to say, as far as types go the XVIII and its sub-types have one of the greatest sustained longevities.

“This type, and its four sub-types, were the most widely used swords between c. 1410 and 1510 all over Europe. It may well have been in use in the late 14th century, but the earliest date we so far have for it is 1419;” (Oakeshott, 1998:68)


            Three of the sub-types of the XVIII will be discussed being XVIIIb, XVIIIc, and XVIIIe. These weapons are the ones which conform to the idea of the longsword the closest. While the others may have similar characteristics, they are missing an element which is necessary for this classification, and thus have been omitted from the discussion. What will be noted are their common characteristics which can be found in the parent-type, the XVIII.

“A long, slender, acutely pointed blade, generally of "flattened diamond" section, often with the point reinforced. The grip is very long, often as much as 10"–11". The pommel is most frequently of one of the wheel forms, but second to those in popularity seem to have been the scent-stopper and fruit shaped ones of Types T and T5. Crosses are generally long and slender, more often straight than curved. The grip is of a very characteristic shape, with a waisted lower half which merges with a slender upper half.” (Oakeshott, 1998:70)

            The Type XVIIIb has the main characteristics of its parent-type, as can be expected. The reinforced point on this type is one area in which this sub-type varies with the original. This is continued with the extended and waisted shape of the grip on the weapon. The flattened diamond cross-section of the blade allows it to give it the extra length of the weapon while maintaining a true cutting edge. Thus the weapon has equal utility for cutting as it does for thrusting. The characteristics of this weapon clearly place it in the expected form of the longsword as presented previously.

“One may unhesitatingly say that here [Type XVIIIb] is the very epitome of a "hand-and-a-half" sword of the second half of the 15th century, a German one exactly similar to so many carried by Dürer's saints and knights.” (Oakeshott, 1998:70)


“A broad, heavy blade, of "flattened diamond" section, the faces nearly always flat or slightly convex, generally about 34" long. The grip is long, rather like those grips of some type XVIII swords with a sharp swelling in the middle. As these big swords are hand-and-a-half weapons, the swelling is nearer to the cross than to the pommel. The pommel is generally of one of the wheel forms.” (Oakeshott, 1998:71)
            The Type XVIIIc conforms to the “classic” form of its parent-type. It has the flattened diamond cross-section on the blade. This weapon is a little shorter than the Type XVIIIb, both in the blade and the handle, but it has the same shaped handle with the swelling in the middle of it. The weapon here is broader than the previous one thus giving it more ability to cut, however it retains the tapered point typical to the parent-type, thus also giving it thrusting capability. This weapon has more in common with the parent-type than it does differences.


“A long, narrow blade generally with a long (5"–6") ricasso narrower than the blade itself; occasionally with a fuller running most of the length, but more commonly of "flattened diamond" section. Pommel of pear form, and the cross is curved sharply downward.” (Oakeshott, 1998:72)

            The basic design of the Type XVIIIe is much the same as the parent-type for the XVIII however it is not all the same. The addition of the ricasso is significant as it allows the user to gain more leverage over the opponent when placing a hand on the weapon, known as half-swording. This idea has been presented previously in the form of the Type XVII. This weapon is more unique in form however and is most likely Danish in origin going by examples of the weapon; this is a different form of weapon, purpose designed (Oakeshott, 1998:73). This makes this type one of the few which can, for the most part, be identified by location. This is rather unique amongst swords, as has been previously indicated. This weapon, purely by its longer shape and the presence of the ricasso would be more likely used for thrusting than cutting, while retaining at least some ability to cut.

Type XX

“A large, broad blade sometimes extremely wide at the hilt. Many examples have three shallow fullers in the upper half, two side by side immediately below the hilt, and a single one in the middle of the blade below them. Others may have two very narrow, deep fullers side by side extending about a quarter of the blade length. Hilts are usually long (about 8"–10") with scent-stopper pommels of Type T. Some may have wheel pommels. Crosses are generally long and slender, curved slightly—or rather, each arm inclines at an angle downward, but remains straight” (Oakeshott, 1998:75)

            The reinforcing fullers on the weapon are designed to both strengthen the blade but also to keep it reasonably light in the hand. The longer handle places it clearly in the form of the longsword, being able to be used either with one or two hands. The Type XX has a broad blade, much like the earlier types. This makes the weapon primarily designed for cutting rather than thrusting. “Some of these swords are war-swords, a sort of late development of Type XIIIa, in use at the same time as the late examples of that type.” (Oakeshott, 1998:76). This relationship demonstrates how the weapons were very much developed based on the experiences gained from the previous forms.

Longsword “Type”

            After examining the thirteen types of sword as presented by Oakeshott, what can be clearly said is that there is no one type of sword which is clearly “the” longsword type. Rather that the longsword came in many different variations and shapes. These shapes were heavily dictated by the use of the weapon, and thus the weapon needs to be classified by the blade of the weapon rather than by any other part. Hilts and other attachments can and often were changed to suit the style at the time.
            What have been presented are some different forms of the longsword for examination. What is important is that this is merely a glossing over of the information which is presented by Oakeshott and a person should treat it as such. This is an introduction to the Oakeshott’s Typology and much more can be said of it. What has been presented here is designed to point the researcher in the right direction as to where to find the longsword in amongst the many weapons which are described, and also to demonstrate that this weapon is present in the Typology even if it is not clearly separated from other weapons.
            The modern researcher and indeed the modern recreationalist should take note of which weapon that they are using and how it is being used; ask whether or not it is actually the best weapon to be recreating what they are doing. The information found in more curatorial sources such as Oakeshott’s Typology is significant as it details much of the form of the weapon and also approximately when this weapon would have been in use. It is important to be able to match the appropriate weapon to the appropriate use in order to perform the actions presented in manuals of the period properly.


            The discussion which has been presented has been designed to present the longsword as a weapon and it has been designed to discover the form of the longsword and what the weapon actually is. This means that the discussion, for the most part, has been from a curatorial standpoint in order to classify the weapon and demonstrate its differences and similarities with other weapons.
            The first place for identifying the longsword was with regard to terminology. This did not go into the very simple aspects common amongst all swords but kept to terms which are more directly associated with the longsword, and like terms. The result of this was that the weapon now called the longsword was also called a two-handed sword, a hand-and-a-half sword, a bastard sword, a great sword and also a war sword. All of these terms were demonstrated to indicate the same general form of weapon, while having some particular characteristics of their own.
            This then moved on to a practical definition of the weapon, one which was based on how the weapon is handled and fits into the hand. In this particular case the longsword was identified as a weapon which had the facility to be wielded with two hands due to the grip, but also had the length and weight characteristics which enabled it to be used with a single hand. Thus the longsword was identified as a weapon of great utility.
            The second part moved on to the form of the longsword. This searched for common physical characteristics of the weapon which could be identified easily. The first identifier was that the usage of the weapon affected its form. Thus it was long enough to be used two-handed but short enough to be used single-handed. This measurement characteristic was further emphasised in the weight and length aspects which were identified both as a matter of fact and also advice from one of the masters of the period. This led on to the discussion of the changes in the weapon due to the developments in armour. The weapon changed to suit the situation in which it was found some weapons having distinctive thrusting aspects while many retained the equal ability for both cut and thrust. This led on to the question of classification and dating which set up for the discussion of the Oakeshott Typology.
            The Oakeshott Typology has been used, and various weapons selected from the typology to fit into the form which is the longsword, and these types were discussed in some detail. The idea of this was to identify the longsword of various periods in a curatorial form in order that the changes in the weapon could be identified. What should be noted here are the difficulties in clearly stating to which period or even nationality a weapon belongs due to the many influences the weapon may be subject to. Thirteen types were identified as either distinctively longsword in form or at least related to a form which was. These forms give us an idea about how the weapon changed and the various different forms of the longsword. Its place in history and the location and use of a particular type should be at least in the back of a practitioner’s mind in order that the correct or at least passingly similar form of longsword is used for the method that is being used.
            There are many different forms of the weapon which is called the longsword. This investigation has identified a general form of the weapon and also some more specific examples of the weapon. The research presented is designed to introduce the idea of the form of the longsword and what it was, and to clear up some of the confusion with regard to terminology. What is presented is foundation and introductory research; there is much more to be found about the longsword and it is encouraged that further research is made upon this subject.

For convenience a pdf version of the complete discussion is available here:


dei Liberi, Fiore (1410) Flos Duellatorum,

Oakeshott, R. E. (1996) The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour From Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, Dover Publications, Inc., New York

Oakeshott, R. E. (1998) The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, The Boydell Press, Woolbridge

Porzio, L. and Mele, G. (2002) Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi: 15th Century Swordsmanship of Master Filippo Vadi, Chivalry Bookshelf, Union City

Windsor, G. (2013) The Swordsman’s Companion: A Modern Training Manual for Medieval Longsword, Guy Windsor

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Discussion of the Form of the Longsword (Part 1)


What follows is a discussion of the longsword. This is from a more curatorial examination rather than a practical "how to" discussion of the weapon. This is designed to introduce the reader to the form of the weapon and encourage some thought as to the weapons actually being used to recreate what is presented in the manuals.




“a most noble weapon which once had high significance in the minds of men, and fulfilled the most vital and personal service in their hands.” (Oakeshott, 1998:11)

            The question of the sword is one which has delighted the minds of many for many years. For some reason this weapon above all others has excited and interested people of all kinds for many years, even into ancient history. There is no other weapon which, even cross-culturally, has achieved the level of attention of the sword.
There are many different types of swords over the ages in order to cover all of these swords over all of these times takes a great deal of work and time. It is better that efforts are more focused on single types of weapons and to this point, and as the title has indicated, the focus here will be the longsword. Some will question the time period of the weapon, and as such the focus will be on the medieval longsword, taking a lot of the information from the Oakeshott Typology of swords. This would seem to miss out the longsword of the Renaissance, but the weapon passes through into this age, the weapon was changed to the purpose to which it was suited, as will be demonstrated.
What needs to be emphasised is that what is presented here is foundation research. It lays the foundation for much a much more in depth study of the weapon, both as an artefact, but also as a weapon of use. The both of these are connected in that the form of the weapon will determine the most appropriate and effective use, this a weapon which is primarily designed for less armoured targets will do less well than a weapon which is designed for it. Thus part of the aim of what is presented here is to address practitioners and encourage them to investigate the weapon which is being used and consider whether or not the form of the longsword which they have chosen to use is actually the most appropriate for the actions and the form of combat that they have chosen.
            What will follow in the body of the discussion is three parts, each pertaining to the longsword in their own way. Each of the three sections is significant for the understanding of the weapon and to see the weapon in a different way. The order of the discussion proceeds from more general ideas about the longsword to the more specific elements present in the weapon.
The first part of the discussion is about terminology in order that the longsword may be found with regard to the terms used for it. This is in order that the weapon which is being discussed may be understood from a literary, and will address the varied names given to the weapon. This is followed by a general discussion of the form of the weapon from different points of view and will present some of the issues with regard to the classification of weapons by type and date. The final and most technically specific part of the discussion will look at Oakeshott’s Typology of the sword, and address the longsword by the type of weapon as specified in this typology.
As has been stated already this is an overview of the longsword as a weapon, and much more information can be found on this weapon in many different texts. Indeed more than what is being presented can be found in the Oakeshott sources and in museum pieces. This discussion presents the longsword not as a standardised weapon but one of many different forms which changed over time to suit the circumstances in which they were used. The changes in the weapon are as significant, if not more so, than what stayed the same as this also marks different usage of the weapon, affected by the form of the weapon and vice versa. These considerations should be significant for any person interested in the weapon either from a curatorial point of view or a more practical one.

A Question of Terminology: What is a Longsword?

“Sword types tend to blend into each other:” (Windsor, 2013:30)

            In the discussion of the longsword, one of the greatest issues is one of terminology. The issue of the of sword types blending into one another means it is difficult to identify the longsword, or even terms which mean similar or the same weapon. Unlike some weapons, there is no one single form of the weapon; so many terms are created to describe them. What is presented in this part of the investigation into the longsword is an introduction to terminology.
            The following discussion will attempt to clear up some of the issues with the identification of the longsword, especially with regard to terminology. What will be evident in this discussion is that the terminology which is presented here will re-appear in other sections of the investigation, and some other terminology, explained in the parts where they are found, will also emerge. The first discussion that will be made with regard to terminology is the difference between the longsword, the bastard sword and the two-hand sword. This will be followed by a more practical approach to the definition of the weapon from a certain point of view. These two questions, for the most part will cover the foundation questions with regard to the weapon and assist in its identification so that the form of the weapon can be discussed in a later section.

Sword Type Terms

            To begin with the weapon needs to be described at least in general. The weapon being discussed here is one which has a handle which can accommodate the use of one or two hands which has a blade which is of a length to be suited for this use and may be used for both cutting and thrusting. With this general idea of the weapon established, terms can be discussed. There are five terms which are often used with this form of weapon: longsword, bastard or hand-and-a-half sword, war sword, great sword and two-hand or two-handed sword. The fact that there are five terms would indicate five different weapons however this is not necessarily the case.

“In fifteenth-century English “longsword” referred to a two-handed sword. What we call a longsword today was, in English up to quite recently (late twentieth-century), usually called a hand-and-a-half sword, or bastard sword.” (Windsor, 2013:30)

            Already three of the terms have been used above to describe a single weapon; the first referring to the form of the weapon as being used with two hands, as it is referred to in the few English treatises on the weapon, and the other two being used to describe the weapon in a similar sense. It would seem by this that the terms have all been used either replacing or being used at the same time as one another to describe the same weapon. The clearest delineation in this with regard to the terms is the presence of one or two hands on the weapon, however as will be demonstrated this is not necessarily a clear line drawn, and it would seem neither is the purposed use of the weapon.

“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.” (Oakeshott, 1998:46)

            So the terms “war sword” and “great sword” are also introduced into the question of terminology. As is stated above, at least it is indicated that both of these terms refer to the same sort of weapon, a weapon suited for use in war. These weapons would be indicated to be large, hence the use of the word “great” in their description, however this does not divorce them from any of the terms previous, thus also having these terms refer to the same weapons which have already been indicated previously.

“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 find it distinguished in a class of its own, for instance, in the inventory of the effects of Humphrey de Bohun (ob. 1319)” (Oakeshott, 1998:43)

            So, it would seem that the war sword, and great sword by association of the terms, bastard or hand-and-a-half sword are the same weapon, and by association this would also mean that they are also longswords and two-handed swords as indicated above. Thus it would seem that all of these terms, rather than referring to separate weapons, actually refer to the same ones, or do in this particular case. Evidence for this is further supported by Philippo Vadi’s referring to his weapon as a “de ſpada da doi mane.” a two-handed sword (Porzio and Mele, 2002:44). A note should be made that this weapon is not to be confused with the much larger cousin of the longsword, which was a purpose-built weapon designed to be used with two hands, not the longsword, a weapon which could be comfortably used with one or two.
            What needs to be stated here is that there are five terms which have been indicated, and each has been used to describe the weapon about which this investigation is being made. Where a hand-use is indicated would imply the only time where some level of specificity may be made. For example a bastard, or hand-and-a-half sword, would indicate a weapon which has a handle which may accommodate one or two hands and be used with one or two hands, where as a two-hand sword would indicate a weapon which has a longer handle and thus is more suited to be used with two hands. This being said, in this particular context, both weapons could be referred to as longswords, or great swords, or even war swords, depending on their use. With this being said it is necessary that a practical definition of the longsword based upon its use, and clearly defining it, is most helpful.

A Practical Definition

“For convenience, I prefer to define them by the length of their handles. An arming sword’s handle con only comfortably fit one hand; a longsword can fit two, but the weapon is light enough and the handle short enough, to be wielded with one hand (a very long handle gets in the way if your other hand is not on it), and a two-handed sword has a handle and mass that clearly requires both hands.” (Windsor, 2013:30)

            Windsor (2013) describes the weapons from the single-handed sword, increasing in size to the two-handed sword. These definitions are based upon the use of the weapon and thus are useful, as it is the use of the weapon which gives us the best definition of the weapon. Curatorial descriptors can only do so much, especially for the practitioner. His definition of the longsword is broad enough that it does cover the five terms which have been indicated, and focuses on the use of the weapon, which leads to the form of the weapon, which is often the best way to describe the weapon.
            There are many terms which are used to describe weapons of many different forms, not just the longsword. There is a certain assumption in the discussion that the reader will already understand the parts of the sword, and thus no description or explanation has been of these. These parts of the weapon are an inevitable part of the discussion as are other terms and elements which have not been described here. Where necessary, these terms will be indicated and discussed within the text as it follows. What has been presented is the idea of the weapon which is being discussed and the terms which have been used, and are being used to describe it indicated. With this foundation laid it is possible to move on to the general form of the weapon.

The Form of the Longsword

            The terminology which was discussed in the previous section lays a simple literary foundation for the discussion of the longsword. The aspect of the weapon which will be addressed in this part is the form of the longsword, its actual physical form. This is being presented in order to give a general idea of the form of the weapon used. It should be noted that there are many different forms of longsword, and many of these will be dealt with in a later section.
            The following is a general introduction to the longsword, to give its basic form. This will address its physical characteristics in a general sense and also examine a very brief examination of its usage and how this affects the form of the weapon. The different forms of longsword and the changes and developments of the longsword, affected by changes in armour and usage, will be addressed also. The final element which will be examined is the classification and dating of the longsword as a curatorial artefact. This will lead on to a more in depth discussion of the particular forms of the longsword in the section which follows this examination of the general form of the longsword.

Usage Affects Form

            The use of a weapon will affect its form. A military weapon will have to take into account any sort of armour that the opponent may be wearing. Likewise, if the weapon is to be worn there is the question of length and size which needs to be taken into account. With regard to this Guy Windsor (2013) demonstrates how effectively the longsword was taken into civilian circles due to its form, and of course this affected its form.

“As a civilian side-arm, the longsword had many advantages. It was the longest weapon that could reasonably be worn at the hip. Indeed, the ideal length for your longsword is the longest on that you can draw in one movement from a belt-slung scabbard. This gives you the maximum reach for your point, and the maximum tip-speed for your cuts ... The sword being primarily used with two hands, and manoeuvrable enough for a strong defence, ... The beauty of this weapon is that being light enough for single-handed use, the left arm was available for disarms, locks and throws.” (Windsor, 2013:31)

            In his description Windsor highlights certain aspects of the longsword which need to be taken into account when considering the weapon. The length of the weapon is one which was discussed, and will have more detail given to it further along in this discussion. More importantly in discussing the form is the description of the weapon being able to be used both single and double-handed. This specifies a weapon which is purpose-designed to be used alone. “The longsword was probably the first sword designed primarily to be enough on its own.” (Windsor, 2013:33), Needless to say the weapon had to be suitable to be used for both attack and defence in simple or complex motions. This indicates a weapon which is not overtly heavy or cumbersome, likewise that was suited to defend and attack alone without the use of any other device, “it should be light enough to be used with ease and to come back easily into guard.” (Porzio and Mele, 2002:12).


            The description above given by Windsor indicates a weapon which is reasonably light, so that it can be moved relatively easily. More to the point it is a weapon which can be advantageously wielded both single and double-handed; this simple characteristic limits the weight of the weapon to a certain degree in order for the swordsman to achieve this. The concept of the heavy, cumbersome medieval weapon has been disregarded as false thanks to research made.

“In fact the average weight of these swords is between 2 lbs. and 3 lbs., and they were balanced (according to their purpose) with the same care and skill in the making as a tennis racket or a fishing-rod. The old belief that they are unwieldable is as absurd and out-dated,” (Oakeshott, 1998:12)

            The weight indicated above by Oakeshott (1998), who made great strides in the understanding of medieval swords, and swords in general, means that the longsword as depicted was actually quite light in comparison to some weapons. This lightness allowed for a better balance in the weapon and also better handling. Along with the question of weight is the length of the weapon, especially as one affects the other quite markedly.

Measure of Weapon

            The measure or length of the weapon is important as this will determine its best use and how effectively the owner of the weapon may use it. For the most part, many masters of the longsword do not describe how long the weapon should be, possibly due to inherited weapons or that it may be the swordsmith’s job to know the appropriate size of the weapon, or it may be determined by the conditions of a duel.
However, Filippo Vadi does specify the weapon to be, “proportionate to the wielder, reaching from the ground to the armpit, with a long hilt, rounded pommel and an equally long, squared and pointed cross guard.” (Porzio and Mele, 2002:12). This means that the weapon should be not too long or too short for the wielder being fitted to the user. He does give further details as to the form of the weapon which is most interesting, he states that the handle should be a hand span, and the cross to be the same length as the handle and pommel together (Porzio and Mele, 2002:45). This gives all the measurements a student would need in order to order a weapon which is appropriate according to Vadi.

Change in Weapons Due to Armour

            Weapons change to suit the armour against which they are fighting against, as has been indicated previously. In the case of the longsword, the weapon was to change to suit the circumstance to deal with armour. “During the latter part of the thirteenth century a type of blade whose chief purpose was to thrust had come into use.” (Oakeshott, 1996:301). This thrust-orientated weapon was designed to deal with the developments in armour at the time however the change in weapons would match the change in armour, so much so that the form of the longsword changed radically in the medieval period.

“During the transitional period between 1320-50, when more and more pieces of reinforcing plate were being added to the old harness of mail, blades of a transitional type were developed too, though the old blunt-ended cutting blades were still popular. These transitional forms combine the acute, rigid points capable of effective thrusting with the wide, flat, fullered section in the old manner.” (Oakeshott, 1996:302)

            What can be seen in these transitional blades is an attempt to combine the advantages of the thrusting point with a cutting edge in order to achieve a more rounded weapon; one that could be used effectively for both cutting and thrusting. As more and more plate was added to armour, the cutting weapon lost its effectiveness against such armoured targets, so once again the thrusting longsword re-emerged. “After 1350, when the complete harness of plate was universal, blades became instruments designed almost entirely for thrusting;” (Oakeshott, 1996:303). These weapons were clearly biased to thrusting in their form, and had very little cutting edge, if any at all. The dominance of the thrust-orientated weapon, with very little cutting ability was not to remain, but was to be over-shadowed, once again by the dual-function weapon designed for both cut and thrust.

“During the second quarter of the fifteenth century swords seem to have reverted to the dual function of cut and thrust. A type of blade which appears early in this century gives an admirable all-purpose sword, much lighter than the massive late fourteenth-century thrusting swords (about 2½ to 3 lb. as against 4 to 5 lb.) with very sharp points but of sufficient breadth at the centre of percussion, and a flat enough section, to provide perfect cutting edges. This blade, with minor variations of breadth and taper, was used extensively throughout the fifteenth century and remained popular until the eighteenth.” (Oakeshott, 1996:303)

            The chronology and form of the longsword will be presented in some detail in the next section which addresses those weapons appropriately identified as longswords from the Oakeshott Typology. This would indicate that the weapon, due to its form is a relatively easy piece to identify and place in a particular period of history. This is simply not the case, the classification and dating of swords is not as cut and dried as it may seem.

Classification and Dating

“when we consider sword types of the later Middle Ages we have to reckon with many differing blade forms which have an all-important bearing on classification:” (Oakeshott, 1996:203)

            What needs to be stated here is that it is blade classification more than any other part of the sword which is the key to identification of the weapon. The hilt may be changed from one to another. The blade is where the work of the sword happens and thus is the more significant part. So dating should be a simple matter of identification and placement, this is not actually the case.

“Though it has been possible to classify the European sword into clearly defined types and sub-types, it is not possible with the knowledge and material at present available to lay down any precise definitions of date or place.” (Oakeshott, 1998:14)

            The types and sub-types, which will be described and had significant detail presented in the next part of the discussion, are a way to classify the weapons and get a general idea about where the weapon belongs. This does not necessarily give a confirmed date as to when the sword was made or used. A perfect example of one of the complications with regard to this is the concept of generational sword-passing. The passing of a sword from father to son means that a sword may be passed down generations from when the sword was originally made.

“in trying to date a sword or a sword-type, it is perhaps more practical to look for a period during which it could have been in use, though this might cover a span of time too long to be of value.” (Oakeshott, 1998:16)

            This means that weapons can be classified by type in some form but dates are much more difficult to come by which are useful. A generationally passed weapon may be hundreds of years old by the time it is laid to rest. Further to this complication is that as communications increased in the medieval period so too did the passing of weapons. “In the High Middle Ages we do not even have these regional classifications to help us.” (Oakeshott, 1998:19). A blade forged in Spain may have an Italian hilt attached to it and then presented to a noble of England. This makes the original location of the weapon difficult.
Those in the archaeological community would claim that the weapon should be dated and located by where it was found. This is not necessarily as useful as it might seem and Oakeshott (1998) clearly states, “So I firmly adhere to the archaeological heresy that knowledge of the find-place of any sword is utterly valueless in dating or placing it.” (Oakeshott, 1998:20). A weapon may be found in a particular place, but was it dropped, buried or placed in that particular position. Misdating of weapons has occurred due to the location and association of other items found in the same location.
Further to the classification and related dating of weapons it should be noted that the popularity of a weapon form may emerge and then dissipate and then re-emerge. This can be found in at least two classifications of weapons identified by Oakeshott and then had these weapons follow the exact pattern which has been described.

“Another thing to remember is that certain types – particularly XIII and XIV – lasted for a very long time. In the last two decades of the fifteenth century, for instance, Type XIII became very popular again, so much so that many old blades of the early fourteenth century were re-mounted in fashionable hilts;” (Oakeshott, 1996:212)

Needless to say much care must be taken in the classification of the longsword to a particular period. It needs to be recognised that the form of the longsword existed over centuries and changed over this period. The significant thing is that there is a general form of the longsword and more specific classifications as well. The indicated weapon is one which is of an appropriate length to be used with a single or double-hand action, weighted and balanced to be suitable to be used alone. The length of the weapon is dependent on its form. This is a general idea of the longsword.
Much more detail will be presented using the Oakeshott Typology in the next part in order to give a clearer, more curatorial and academic examination of the weapon. This information is useful even to the practitioner in order to find the most appropriate weapon to the style which is being performed with the weapon as function is important to the form of the weapon.