Monday, May 16, 2011

How Sharp Were Medieval Swords?

One of the issues that always causes confusion when people attempt to understand medieval combat is how sharp were the swords that were used. Some argue that they were laser-edged razors, others that they were dull, still others have a vague sense that the truth must lie between those two extremes but are not sure where.

The short answer is that we do not know. There is no “universal sharpness scale” in the Middle Ages, and, in truth, swords probably varied in sharpness based both upon their intended use and the preferences and abilities of the user (or his armorer). That is not a very satisfying answer, however, so we should dig a little deeper to see if we can apply the evidence that has been left to us in order to come up with an estimate of the norm.

The first and most common-sense approach to this question that would occur to most people is to look at medieval swords to see how sharp they are. In fact, however, this is meaningless: I shudder to think how dull my favorite chef’s knife would become if it were handled for a few hundred years, and swords are no different; a sword that was once extremely sharp might be nothing but a slab of dull metal by now because of all the handling it received over the centuries. Likewise, just because a sword is extremely sharp today means nothing. I was given an antique saber when I was a teenager, and since it was quite dull I sharpened it myself; so may it have been with any extant swords that are sharp today.

The Fechtbücher, however, give us some excellent insights into this question if only we read between the lines. There are three attacks in the Kunst des Fechtens (not counting pommel strikes): The cut, the thrust and the slice. Cuts are chopping actions and thrusts are self explanatory. The slice is effected by placing your edge against a target (usually the wrists or neck) and pushing or pulling it along the flesh as if you were carving a Thanksgiving turkey; the longer the stroke, the deeper the slice.

Experiments have shown that a dull sword will not perform an effective slice, so we know that medieval swords must have been nearly as sharp as a modern kitchen knife, at a minimum.

The farther we go along the sharpness scale, the more delicate the edge becomes, and the more maintenance it requires in order to function properly. Even minor handling, such as sliding it in and out of a scabbard, etc., will dull a razor edge quickly, and in use a very fine edge will cause severe chips to be knocked out of the blade, chips that will be problematic to repair (and yes, swords were *commonly* used for edge-on-edge displacements—read my blog entry on the subject if you still do not understand this—but why create a bigger problem if you do not need to?).

Since a sword need only be a little less sharp than a kitchen knife, and since the sharper it becomes the more problems you are likely to have, why do more? Thus, it seems very likely that, allowing for personal preferences and sharpening skill, most medieval swords intended for Bloßfechten were probably about as sharp as a modern kitchen knife or a little less. My personal sword is sharpened to that level for this reason.

What then of swords intended for halfswording in Harnischfechten? Many people who have not really worked with sharp swords using halfsword techniques imagine that swords must be very dull in order to allow one to grip the blade in a gauntlet, let alone a bare hand. They have an almost supernatural dread of how dangerous swords must be, no doubt from watching bad samurai shows on television, and believe that you will be cut badly if you grab a sharp sword in your bare hand.

The facts, however, do not support this belief. We have techniques in the Fechtbücher in which you go from a slice to a halfsword grip with your bare hand in one technique:
If you bind with him and he changes through and changes to Halbschwert, counter it with a slice from above. And as you slice you can switch to Halbschwert and thrust.” Ringeck ff. 53v-54r.
The gist of this technique is that you and your opponent bind, and he moves his sword around into a halfsword grip in order to hook your blade with his pommel. You respond with an Abschneiden, or slicing technique from above down onto his wrist, and then, after slicing him, you grab your blade in a halfsword grip in order to thrust it into him. So this technique clearly tells us to first use a slice—a technique requiring a fairly sharp sword—and then move into a halfsword technique wherein you grab your sharp blade in your bare hand.

This is possible because swords (and knives, for that matter) cut with a sliding motion. As long as you hold the blade firmly and do not allow it to slide in your grip, you will not be cut.

It should be obvious, then, that it is possible to perform halfsword thrusts while holding a sharp blade in your bare hand. In fact, all students of die Schlachtschule are required to actually perform a hard thrust with a sharp sword held in a halfsword grip into a solid target so that they can instantly refute some ARMA type when he says it cannot be done.

There is at least one source that suggests not all swords intended for Harnischfechten were sharp, however. In De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, a late-fifteenth-century Italian fighting manual, Phillippo di Vadi wrote that swords for armored combat should be dull up to a few inches from the point (the point needs to be sharp or it will not penetrate flesh well). Unfortunately, we cannot be sure how common this practice was, or even if it was actually done at all. Vadi shows a strange and very specialized sword with a flaring tip for armored combat, and we have no indication that such swords ever existed outside of his book. Moreover, it is strange that no other Fechtbuch author would mention such a detail if it were common. My personal belief, or perhaps “suspicion” is a better word given the paucity of evidence, is that this practice was not common, but we cannot be sure. We can be sure that halfswording with a fully sharp sword was possible (easy, in fact) and that it was performed with sharp swords at least some of the time. Farther than that we cannot go.

In conclusion, then, it is my belief that most medieval swords intended for actual combat, whether in or out of armor, were probably sharpened a little less than a modern kitchen knife.

(Incidentally, I recently read a comment by someone who had read my blog who wrote that I was “pedantic.” Whomever that was, I would like to thank him for the compliment, even though I know he did not intend it as such. When people hold firmly onto mistaken beliefs it is necessary to use great detail and careful documentation in arguments intended to refute their cherished misconceptions, because otherwise they will take everything you left out as a weakness in your argument. I take this anonymous individual’s comment as an indicator that I am being sufficiently detailed in both my arguments and my evidence.)

EDIT:  I was contacted offline by a professional chef who informed me that in a professional kitchen the knives are much sharper than I suggest in this essay, and that different knives have different levels of sharpness.  Let me clarify by saying that by "chef's knife" I meant a type of knife--eight-inch blade, wider at the base than the tip--not a knife owned by a professional chef, and that I was referring the the chef's knives in the home kitchens I have visited, not those in a professional kitchen.

Also, edge geometry varied considerably on swords, just as it does on many knives.  I purposefully didn't get into this issue because it's one that's not terribly well understood.  This essay paints the issue with a very broad brush because that's all the precision that is warranted by the subject; after all, as I point out in the essay, different swords surely had different levels of sharpness.  We're only able to speak in broad norms here, and for that, edge geometry isn't really terribly important:  If you place the edge on someone's wrists and perform an Abschneiden, how much force is requires to slice through?  That's our real question.

20 comments:

Sir said...

Linked via that abomination known as facebook.

Ian said...

Oh bugger. I used the wrong google account again.

Hans Talhoffer said...

Hugh, I had some early 15th century long swords originals in my hand and some of them with the geometry for fights in armor (Oakshott Type XVa or XVIIIb) had the recommended dull part in the blade for the halfsword grip. The blade is not completely dull but not as razor sharp as the rest. It is a small change of the angle of the edge, so you still can chop, but slicing through some fabrics would be impossible at that part of the blade. But the rest is sharp enough. So this dulling of a part of the blade was done more than once.

Hugh Knight said...

Whomever this is, I don't know what you've seen, but no source I know talks about differentially sharpening just the place where you left hand goes. VAdi has a special sword with a wide tip, and he says the shaft is blunt although the point is sharp. And there's a special kind of sword for armored combat thats basically an unsharpened iron bar with a hand hold notched in the blade, but you couldn't use that kind of sword for regular fighting.

But there'd be no point in just leaving the spot where your left hand goes dull because you'd be hard pressed to grab the same spot every time. My guess is that if you've seen this it's just an example of a blade that's been handled roughly so that the edge is sharper in some spots and duller in others, possibly by someone trying to sharpen it poorly in a museum or even just lots of cleaning over the centuries. The fact that the dull spot happens to be where you think it should be held is simply coincidence.

Jason Wright said...

Thnks. for sharing this informative post.During medieval times is when the sword acquired its basic forms.medieval swords blade was usually straight, double-edged, and pointed.Now days these swords are usually use for home decoration that will help to remembrance our warriors.

Hugh Knight said...

Well, actually, there are a number of curved, single-edged medieval swords, too, such as the Messer and Falchion. And some of us do more with then just hang them on the walls!

--Hugh

Matt Ward said...

Awesome article. I don't know why so many people incorrectly believe that medieval swords werent sharp. There are so many medieval sword myths that people today have. That is one of the better posts I have seen to help teach people.

Hugh Knight said...

Matt, thank you for the kind words of support. I hope you find the rest of the blog entries as informative.

Thor said...

I cannot claim any expert knowledge, but the question I've always asked is "why would I want a sharp sword?"

The counter to which is generally "to cut things/people. You can't cut with a dull blade." That may be true (I'm not convinced), but my intent isn't necessarily to cut my opponent: it's to injure/incapacitate him.

It seems to me (with no experience or knowledge) that a metal club is just as injurious as a sharp blade. I may not cut through flesh with a metal baseball bat, but I'll certainly break a bone. If the idea is to have a weapon that is easily-maintained in the field, can do significant harm to an opponent, and won't have to be repaired/replaced after every engagement, why sharpen it at all?

If you have your sharp blade and I have my false edge, I can harm you just as easily as you can harm me (assuming similar levels of proficiency with said weapon). The difference is that if the edge of your sword impacts on mine, your blade will probably be damaged while mine probably won't.

Again, I don't know what I'm talking about; with no actual experience, I can only suppose. But that's the logic by which I have always assumed that a sword needn't be sharp. And if it needn't be, why would it be?

I wouldn't presume to argue that medieval sword's WEREN'T sharp, but I do question whether they NEEDED to be. If I'm fighting an unarmored opponent, I don't need sharp because a club will hurt plenty. If I'm fighting an armored opponent, sharp doesn't help because he's wearing a thickly-padded metal suit. I'll only blunt my blade chopping away at his armor. If I've got the raw strength to swing a sword through good armor, is the sharpness of my blade really going to matter?

I understand the usefulness of a sharpish point in either case, but even knife-sharp would seem (to me) to be far sharper than necessary. It doesn't take a ridiculous amount of force to shove a blunt pole through a person's abdomen.

As I've said, I know very little. My aim is not to argue, but to understand. Regardless of whether medieval swords WERE sharp, did they really need to be?

Hugh Knight said...

Thor,
(Really--Thor?) Yes, they needed to be sharp; how sharp is uncertain (hence this essay), but simple iron bars wouldn't do. Your point about armored combat is largely accurate, although the point needs to be sharp to thrust well into the gaps--one doesn't swing an edge into armor in the period of history in which I'm interested.

But Bloßfechten, or unarmored combat, was quite different. Sure, a bar of metal could do great damage, but it would require a big, heavy swing in order to do enough damage. My reproduction sword can kill with a snap of my wrists because it's sharp, so I don't have to use baseball-bat-like actions, which ties in with the masters talking about people who used big, wide swings being poor swordsmen.

In addition, there were three kinds of attacks: Thrusts, cuts, and slices. I've covered the first two above. Slices, such as the Abschneiden, were done by placing (not necessarily cutting) your edge on your opponent (usually the wrists or neck) and shoving the blade along flesh to slice it much like carving a turkey. This is an important part of our art, and can't be done without a sharp sword.

I can't but wonder if you read the essay, because this alone proves the issue, and I addressed it there.

Hans Talhoffer said...

After having discussions like that more often than needed especially with experts never had originals in their hands or doing cutting tests with them, I taped a small video with a 600 years old falchion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Pe84bjCnJU that was not (!!!) resharpened but in the original state after hanging in a rack for centuries.

We did a lot of cutting tests, some with 15th century longswords, but they needed to be resharpened because they had seen some heavy use. They cut like modern swords with ease.

Hugh Knight said...

And there you go--medieval swords were, in fact, sharp (although that should have been obvious from the historical material alone). It's lucky this falchion hadn't been worn down too much.

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Jennifer Martin said...

The medieval swords are used as as medieval weapon and used in the wars. These medieval swords were very sharp. http://www.windlasssword.com/medieval/medieval-swords.html

Hugh Knight said...

Jennifer, your comment lacks any substance or support. What does "very sharp" mean? And what evidence do you have for your opinion? Adding a link to a site selling garbage sword-shaped-objects with little connection to real swords does not add anything to your argument.

I would suggest not posting anything until you do some actual research on scholarly sources.

Jeff said...

Ive handled some authentic swords that were fairly sharp (and a headsman's sword that was razor sharp after 400 years). I'd imagine that a fighter would want his sword as aharp as possible without that sharpness becoming a liability. A sushi knife may have a razor edge, but if used for hacking through meat and bone would become more dull and worn than a knife that started less sharp. And as for grabbing the blade, I'd assume a chainmail glove would be common sense.

Hugh Knight said...

Jeff: Please read the article. I addressed the issue of the apparent sharpness of extant swords; when you read that, I hope it will be plain that this is an irrelevant question since we can't be sure of what happened to the sword from its last day of use until now. As I said, I *already* covered this.

As to grabbing the blade, I already covered this, as well. Very sharp swords--sharp enough to slice flesh when pulled across it--were routinely used in a bare hand. It was *commonplace* to do so. Moreover, all of my students are required to thrust a very sharp sword into a resisting target while holding the blade in a bare hand, just so they can be *sure* it really works--and evidence always trumps guesses.

Finally, there is no such thing as "chainmail." The word is "mail." Moreover, other than the mail mufflers worn in the Age of Mail and the parrying gloves of light mail worn in the Renaissance, mail gloves were so uncommon there are almost no indications they existed at all. And since this blog is about that period between those two extremes, mail gloves were almost never used in any of the activities discussed herein. You can safely and easily fight with a sharp sword while holding the edge in your bare hand. This is not open to serious doubt, as would be plain if you had actually read the article.

Making guesses without research will almost never result in accurate claims. as I hope this has shown you.

viel nast said...

i am thinking about starting using edge swords for cutting practice and what you say is quite right except the fact about half-swording. i believe that most long swords were sharpened in the upper half or third of the blade as it is difficult to cut with the lower blade.

Hugh Knight said...

Viel, you should *never* do cutting practice, it teaches incredibly bad form. See http://talhoffer.blogspot.com/2008/02/myth-of-test-cutting.html and http://talhoffer.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-failure-of-test-cutting-or-bad-form.html.

As to partially sharpened swords, please actually read my blog post: It gives one example of a technique in which you *must* have the blade sharp for the entire length *and* in which you take up a bare-handed halfsword grip. It is not necessary to have a dull blade, my students are required to thrust into a solid target with a sharp sword using a halfsword grip in a bare hand. I wish people would stop pretending this is dangerous to do--I wrote all about it here!

Hugh Knight said...

People, *please* actually read this post before commenting on it. Many of the comments being posted make claims or points that I address thoroughly in the blog.

It is *perfectly* safe to do halfswording barehanded with a sharp sword, and I cite a reference showing that it was done in period.

And no, the sharpness of an extant sword tells you *nothing* about how sharp it was during the period when it was actually used.

Come on, folks, it's insulting to have you comment on things I already made clear with evidence based on your "gut feelings."