Breaking Medieval Myths: Swords

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After disappearing from military significance after the widespread development of firearms, swords saw a rebirth in popularity with the advent of film. Actors like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn captivated viewers with their tales of pirates, outlaws, and knights. In the last hundred years, swords have played a central role in hundreds of genre films across the world. Modern fantasy films and even some science fiction films have relied heavily on the use of swords.

Most of these films, however, have relied on old forms of stage combat to design their hand to hand combat sequences. Most of these films, especially the older works, based their fights on what looked best on screen. Sword fights were made flashier and more elaborate to enhance the drama of the scene. The practical realities of armed combat were sacrificed or ignored in order to maintain ‘the coolness factor’ of what appeared on film.

Common Misconceptions About Medieval Swords

One of the most common misconceptions about swords is that they were heavy. Although it is true that the swords used in many films are made of light steel or aluminum, making them much lighter than real swords are, the truth is that actual ‘battle-ready’ swords, some of which are still sold today, are not nearly as heavy as some films made them out to be.

Keep in mind that a sword, unlike an axe or a mace, is not a brute-force weapon. Its primary task is not to crush, but to cut or thrust. Finesse, not strength, is the most important factor in wielding a sword effectively. The faster a sword could be swung, the greater the chance of successfully getting a blow past an enemy’s guard, or deflecting one.

To be effective, a sword must be properly balanced at a point just ahead of the crossguard, meaning that the hilt must weigh as much as the blade. Any excess weight in either the blade or the hilt would effectively triple the total weight (and cost) of the sword. The heavier the weapon, the harder it is to swing, and the more tiring it is for the person using it. Weight was generally not an asset in a sword, apart from a few later exceptions. Even the longest swords ever made (the so-called ‘greatswords’), which were up to six feet in length, did not generally exceed eight pounds.

Another common mistake in the films is the idea that one sword can be blocked simply by holding up another sword, almost always edge-to-edge, and always resulting in the other sword simply bouncing off. This is actually one of the quickest ways to destroy a good sword. Keep in mind that these would both be razor-sharp cutting weapons. The end result of two swords striking each other edge-to-edge would be a pair of notched sword blades. This sort of damage, though inevitable, was largely irreparable, and warriors would have done their best to avoid it whenever possible.

Medieval warriors relied largely on their shields to deflect an opponent’s blows, or dodged them altogether (a tactic known as ‘voiding’). If they did have to use their sword for blocking, they would not simply hold it up into the path of the other sword – they would use a counter-swing to deflect the path of the oncoming weapon instead, probably followed up by a counter-attack with the shield. (Shields were not simply passive defensive items, either; while they were used for defense, they were also technically defensive weapons.)

Using Swords in Combat

Medieval warriors were fully-trained martial artists, capable of using any part of their swords or their bodies during a fight. A sword fight was up-close and intensely physical, involving punching, kicking, tripping, and pummeling (a word derived from the term pommel, the heavy metal knob or cap that served as a counterweight at the end of the sword hilt), as well as grappling and wrestling techniques.

The idea that a sword could magically slice through even the sturdiest of armor plating is another common myth. Swords, like all other weapons, were not one-size-fits-all implements of war. The earliest European swords (the ostensible ‘broadswords’) were straight, double-edged weapons designed for cutting or thrusting. As armor evolved, the shape and thickness of swords changed to better exploit the inherent weaknesses in it. While cheap armors made of cloth or leather could be sliced through by a cutting edge, metal armor was, in fact, designed to prevent just that from occurring.

By the late Middle Ages, the best way to deal with a warrior wearing full plate armor was actually to use blunt force trauma, disabling him by applying crushing force to the skeleton without having to penetrate the armor plating at all. By that time, the swords used were designed primarily for thrusting, with narrow blades that tapered to a very fine point that could exploit the unarmored joints.

The advent of plate armor had essentially eliminated the need to carry shields; thus the knight could use a much longer two-handed weapon. Wielding a thrusting sword two-handed gave the knight much greater power and leverage when attempting to pierce the body of his opponent. Plate armor was not yet very thick at this point; while rendering a man nearly impervious to cuts and swings, it was possible to drive a sword point through it with enough penetration to cause fatal injuries.

The types of elaborate, drawn-out fights that we see in television and film are generally not realistic in terms of what we know about actual medieval hand-to-hand combat. In a real battlefield encounter or duel, the only objective was to kill the other combatant – there were no extra points awarded for style or extravagance. The man who could outmaneuver his opponent quickly and efficiently would be the one to walk away alive; therefore sword fighting was about economy of movement and practicality.

Recent Developments in Portrayal of Swordplay

Filmmakers in recent years have begun, perhaps slowly, to move away from the heavily dramatized forms of stage combat that prevailed in the 1930’s and even into the 1990’s. As audiences become more discerning, they are beginning to accept, even expect, a greater degree of realism in their media. Even modern science-fiction and fantasy films, with their extravagant special effects, are beginning to film things as realistically as possible in order to satisfy viewers’ expectations that the experience should seem ‘real’.

In terms of the portrayal of swordplay in film, this new realism has perhaps been aided by the fact that over the last few decades, historians have begun to re-examine the historical techniques used by European swordsmen, primarily in the form of a number of German, Spanish and Italian manuals written in the 14th and 15th centuries. This resurgence in ‘Western Martial Arts’, as they are called, has led to the establishment of hundreds of fencing groups throughout the United States and Europe, where both men and women attempt to master the lost combat techniques of their medieval forefathers.

While it is unknown if the martial arts of Europe will ever come close to achieving the popularity of ‘Eastern’ martial arts, many of these groups are at least helping to clear up some of the popular misconceptions regarding the fighting styles of the Middle Ages.