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