Monday, May 16, 2011
How Sharp Were Medieval Swords?
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.