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 ┼┐pada 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.