The Sword and Dagger

By Mike Ingram, Historian & Harrington Companye Master of the Rolls.



To arme a man….Hang his daggere up on his right side. And then his shorte sworde on his lyfte side in a round ring all naked to pulle it out lightly….And then his long swerd in his hand”

How a man schal be armyed c. 1450

The word sword is probably derived from either the Anglo-Saxon sweord or the Scandinavian svaerd word to cut. In its most basic form the sword is a long, four-sided iron bar sharpened along its edges and at the tip. Its purpose to cut, slice and stab. However, this is a gross over-simplification, as by the late medieval period it had become a highly engineered and finely crafted symbol of power, synonymous with the medieval knight.

To be effective, the sword needs the right mechanical properties. It needs to be hard enough to keep its strength and edges sharp, although if it is too hard it becomes brittle and will shatter or snap. It also needs to be soft enough to absorb the energy and vibrations of a blow, but not so soft that the blade deforms and does not return to its original shape. The perfect solution then is to have hard edges and a soft core. This may sound simple, but in practice needs an understanding of metallurgy and advanced metalworking skills. The properties of iron are controlled by the amount of carbon in it. the more carbon the harder it becomes, transforming it from a metal, which in its purest form is soft and malleable, to what we now call steel. Combinations of heating and cooling (quenchingandtempering)), carburising (case-hardening) or hammering (work-hardening) can also be used to manipulate its properties.

Iron begins as a rock or mineral ore. In both the iron age and medieval period the only way to extract the iron was by heating it in a furnace known as a bloomery. This was normally a chimney with heat-resistant walls made of earth, clay, or stone fuelled by charcoal. Near the bottom, one or more pipes enter through the side walls. These pipes either allowed air to enter the furnace, by natural draft, or forced with bellows. The bloomery does not generate temperatures high enough to completely melt iron and steel. Instead the iron oxideorereduces into particles of pure iron, which then join into a mass of sponge iron. The temperatures are sufficient to melt the impurities however, and these run off and harden as slag. Because the bloom is porous, its voids also fill with slag, So, to remove it, the bloom then has to be reheated and hammered to produce a billet of nearly pure iron, called wrought iron. The main problem of the bloomery was that the carbon was not uniformly distributed throughout the bloom so that one part may have none, another loaded. Therefore part of the smith’s art was to identify these parts and separate them. Another problem was the amount of iron it could produce at one time. And it was this limitation that controlled the development of not only weapons, but armour as well. Most bloomery’s could only produce a billet of 1-2kg until the 6th or 7th century, although the Romans seemed to have been able to produce larger ones up to 20kg in weight. Between the 7th and 10th century the average weight of a billet increased to around 6kg. By the mid fourteenth century, the average yield was 15kg, and by the turn of the century, 90kg. With the bigger yields came larger plates, which in turn led to full plate armour. This new development re-ignited the arms race as weapons manufacturers sought a way of defeating the armour, leading to many different sword designs.

Another method of iron production came from the near and middle east. Small pieces of iron were placed in a sealed crucible packed with charcoal until it melted into a cake of steel. It was called Wootz and characterised by the patterns on its surface resembling flowing water. Today is more commonly known as Damascus steel although the technique seems to have originated in India around 300B.C. Ingots of Wootz were first exported to the middle east and then on to Europe. Swords made from this steel had the reputation of being tough, shatter resistant and capable of keeping a very sharp edge.

The ability to make blades from a single piece of iron was not common until the 14th century. Instead the majority of blades and tangs were manufactured using a technique called ‘Piling’ which entailed stacking smaller billets together parallel to the longest axis and then forge-welding them by heating and hammering. Sometimes the bars or rods would first be case-hardened (carburised) which was packing it in charcoal and heating so that the surface was infused with carbon, making it harder. The billets could also be hardened by quenching which is heating the metal to between 800o and 900o Celsius and rapidly cooling it. By using different liquids, such as oil, urine, or even blood, the speed of cooling could be controlled further to give different degrees of hardness. However this process makes it very brittle. So, to restore some ductility and durability, the billet is then tempered by heating the billet again, although this time to much lower temperatures. The temperature to which it is heated to, determines the amount of hardness removed, and without the benefit of a thermometer, as with all heat treatment, had to be judged by eye from its colour. The billet was then quenched, cooled by plunging in water.

The Roman’s seem to have had a reasonably high understanding of metallurgy as Pliny lists a number of liquids suitable for quenching in his Natural Histories. He also describes how it is customary to “quench smaller iron forgings with oil, for fear that water might harden them and make them brittle.” Plutarch also refers to heat treatment in his Moralia, noting that “just as steel is made compact by cooling, and takes on a temper as a result of having first been softened by heat.” There are no written records of Celtic sword manufacturing techniques. A survey of cross sections of 59 celtic swords by Radomir Pleiner, published in his book The Celtic Sword found that 8 were made from steel. Most were made from iron and forge welded, several of which were made by piling. Of these, 38 were made from iron with layers of steel, whilst the remainder had no steel at all. Few showed signs of heat treatment and most were only work-hardened. This variability in quality may have given rise to reports by Polybius that the Gauls at the Battle of Telamon in 224 BC had inferior iron swords which bent at the first stroke and had to be straightened with the foot against the ground. Plutarch, in his life of Marcus Furius Camillus, similarly gives an account of their swords bending easily.

Another method to improve the qualities of a sword was to first twist iron rods, usually the length of the sword, then bundle them together and forge weld them. Alternating between hard and soft rods forms a complex pattern, which become visible on the finished sword when etched with acid. Often, harder cutting edges were also added by forge welding. This method was christened ‘Pattern Welding’ by Herbert Maryon in 1947. It seems to have been in use by the 3rd century A.D. and was popular with the Saxons and early Vikings. By the 10th century as metal working techniques improved, pattern-welding seems to have slowly died out, with its last known use being in the Baltic states in the 12th Century.

Sword Typology

There have been several attempts to classify the many types and styles of sword. Although Dr. Jan Peterson and Sir Mortimer Wheeler developed a typology for Viking swords in the 1920’s, it was Dr. Ada Bruhn-Hoffmeyer who carried out the first scientific study of later medieval swords in the early 1950’s. Her typology divided swords into Romanesque Swords (1100-1550) and Gothic Swords (1350-1550). However, it was Ewart Oakeshott who compiled the best known and most comprehensive study of swords. His work was published in his 1960 book The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry. In it he continued Peterson and Wheelers typology, categorizing swords into 13 main types labelled X to XXII, by their main components, the blade, pommel, and guard. He identified that swords fell into two main groups, those made between 1050 and 1350 (group I) and those made from 1350 and 1550 (group II). In the introduction of his 1991 book, Records of the Medieval Sword, he also divided them into twelve families (A-M) of similar characteristics. Swords are notoriously difficult to date, as is their period of use as they could be in use for considerable lengths of time, even generations and may have been repaired or rebuilt with new guards, handles and pommels. Funeral monuments and art can only indicate when a sword was in use and not when it was made.

Parts of the Sword

The sword is made up of two main parts, the blade and the hilt by which it is held. Whilst early Romans swords were short stabbing weapons often with a flattened diamond section, early Celtic blades were usually parallel sided with both edges sharpened and with a rounded point,between 34 to 44 inches long. In cross-section, they were usually lenticular, that is to say, shaped like double convex lens. To compensate for the lack of rigidity, the blade was usually made thicker although this made them heavy, slow and not particularly manoeuvrable. Over time, to overcome this, the fuller, a groove running along the length of both the flat sides of the blade was introduced, saving weight and improve rigidity (and not as it has sometimes been suggested, a blood groove). The design of the fuller varied considerably, some running the full length of the blade, others just a part of it. And later, there could be more than one, although these were usually short and close to the hilt. Deeper thinner fullers are sometimes referred to as flukes. Another later development was the rib or riser, which was a ridge usually along the central axis, again to improve rigidity particularly for thrusting. Many early sword blades carried inscriptions of various forms, sometimes elaborately inlaid others punched or etched. Over time, as blade shapes changed, they became simplified to just a few letters and the practice seems to have died out around the end of the thirteenth century. The practice starts again around a hundred years later and a favourite phrase seems to have been “O Mater Dei Memento Mei”. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, pictorial designs were also introduced.

Although its use would not become widespread until the 15th century, some swords began to appear around 1200 with the section of blade closest to the hilt thickened and un-sharpened, initially this part was no more than 3 inches long, and was probably a place to rest the forefinger. It is now known as the ricasso, although the term itself did not appear until the renaissance. As sword-fighting techniques began to change and blades became longer, the ricasso grew too, in some cases up to 10 inches long, and probably became an additional place to grip the sword. Around the end of the Viking age, as understanding of metallurgy and manufacturing techniques improved, the blade also began to subtly change shape. From around two thirds along the blades length, it began to taper to a more acute point, which would become known as its ‘profile taper’. It also changed in the other plane too, so looking from the side, it tapered for the last few inches to the point, and would eventually be called the ‘distal taper’. At the opposite end of the point is the tang. This is a extension of the blade onto which the hilt is fitted. Usually tapered, it is around half the width of the blade and runs the full length of the hilt. It was also the softest part of the blade so that it absorbed the shock of impact.

The hilt consists of the cross, the handle, grip, and pommel. The word hilt, probably coming from the Viking word for the guard, hjalt. As well as the place to hold a sword, the weight of the hilt provides the balance for the blade. The pommel (from the Latin “little apple”) acted as a counter-weight for the blade, and also to prevent the hand slipping from the handle, but could also be used to bludgeon an opponent if the need arose. Normally, the tang ran through the centre of the pommel and the protruding end was hammered over to lock the hilt in place. On later swords, the end of the tang could be threaded and a pommel, bolt, or tang nut used to lock the assembly in place.

Over forty types of pommel have been identified. Up until the twelfth century tea-cosy shaped ones were the most common. From around 1150 to 1500, it is the disc or wheel shaped pommel that seems to be the most popular. This had a number of variations, some with convex faces, others with chamfered edges, a number having enamelled or etched centres. Hexagonal or octagonal pommels also seem popular between 1360 and 1450. Early in the fourteenth century, the so called scent-stopper or pear shaped pommel first appeared, although it does not seem common before 1360. Again there are a number of variations including one resembling a fishes tail, another shaped like a leaf (although it is called “key-shaped”), and others flower like.

The sword was held by the handle which was around 4 to 5 inches long. This was normally made from a core of wood, bone or horn, usually oval in shape although some later handles are square with rounded corners or octagonal. One method of construction was to make the handle in two halves and then carve out the centre to fit the tang. After 1250, the more common method was to bore a hole through the centre, heat the tang, and then push the handle onto it whilst hot. Thereby burning the handle for an exact fit. Once the handle was fitted, the grip was added. This could be a binding of cord, leather or wire to prevent the sword slipping out of the hand. Some later grips would also have an additional layer of leather over the binding. In profile, the handle could be tapered towards the pommel, barrel shaped or swollen in the middle. After 1370, handles began to grow in length to what is now called the hand-and-a-half, a raised rib began to appear in the centre. These were typically 7 or 8 inches long, often with the handle tapering towards the pommel with either one or both halves waisted. These could be fitted to all types of sword and were not just restricted to long ones. Another version of the hand-and-a-half handle was bottle shaped although it seems to have fallen out of use by around 1430.

The swords cross-guard has now become a symbol of knightly virtue. The Italian fight manual Fiore Dei Liberi written around 1410 refers to it as the crucibus. Fillipo Vadi in the 1480s called it the “cross-guard” or simply the “cross“. The term quillion which is often used to describe the cross does not appear until around 1570. Early swords had short and stubby crosses but by the ninth century had started to evolve into the cross we recognise today. The Vikings even had their own word for it – Gaddhjalt or spike-hilt. Oakenshott has identified twelve different styles but they are basically square, occasionally hexagonal, or round bars, some tapered towards the end, or waisted. A feature of some crosses from around the early thirteenth century is the cusp or écusson, a protrusion of the cross in the centre where it is fitted on the blade. Beginning in the 13th or 14th century, swords also began to appear fitted with a chappe which was a semi-circular piece of leather fitted to the cross which appears to have acted as a rain guard for the blade whilst it was in the scabbard. Some surviving examples seem to have had metal, rather than leather chappes.

S’ shaped crosses began to appear around 1420, one side curving towards the blade, the other towards the pommel. On some single edged swords this arm was extended to form a simple knuckleguard. A type of sword known as a hanger said to be found on the site of the 1460 battle of Wakefield had such a cross. It also possibly had another bar extending from the centre of the cross at right angles to the blade as well, but this had corroded away by the time it was found. There are also examples in art of a knuckleguard extending out from the pommel towards the hilt, but not joining it, although none survive today A number of contemporary images of men wielding swords, show the forefinger extended onto the ricasso, often onto the edge. Around 1420, finger-rings also called annelets started to be added to one or both sides the cross, in line with the blade, and offered a degree of protection to the extended finger. Side-rings, which were fitted in the centre of the cross at right angles to the blade were also introduced soon after. Combinations of two finger-rings and side-rings seem to have been in use by 1460. These rings are now collectively known as the Pas d’âne, the name possibly coming from their resemblance to hooves. By the later half of the fifteenth century knuckleguards began to be fitted to double edged swords. Rather than an extension of the cross, they were a separate arm extending out from the base of the cross, curving towards the pommel and in some instances joined to it. When combined with finger-rings and side-rings this type of handle is generally referred to as a close-hilt or compound-hilt in modern terminology and a feature of swords well into the seventeenth century.

The sword was usually carried in a scabbard, which was two slats of wood carved out to fit the blade, glued together and then covered in leather or fabric. At the point end, an iron or copper-alloy chappe was fitted to protect the point and prevent wear and after around 1310, a metal locket was also added to the open end. Early scabbards were often attached to belts worn over one shoulder called a baldric. In the fourteenth century, it was normal to wear the scabbard vertically on the hips on the left side, on a broad belt, with the ends of the belt looped around the mouth of scabbard. During the last quarter of the century it became fashionable to add highly decorated plates to the belts. From 1420, belts became narrow and were worn at the waist with sling straps on the right side, that ran across the body and still allowed the scabbard to be hung on the left hip. Metal rings were attached to either side of the scabbard mouth, to which the ends of the straps was hooked. A later variant was that two rings were fitted either side of the scabbard and the straps split to form ‘Y’ shaped ends. However, swords were becoming longer and could no longer be kept vertical, so additional rings were added further down the scabbard. Another short sling strap was added to the left side of the belt, and hooked over the additional ring. This then kept the scabbard at an angle and stopped it dragging on the ground. Rather than use rings, the ends of the belt could also be repeatedly wound round the scabbard at the mouth and half way along its length. The Hastings manuscript, written around 1450, which describes how a man should be armed says that a knight had both a long and short sword. The long sword was to be held in the hand and the short sword kept “in a round ring all naked to pulle it out lightly.” When two swords were carried, the larger was normally carried on the right side of the saddle. In the fourteenth century, there are also examples of chains attached to the pommel at one end and the armour at the other, to stop the knight loosing the sword in battle.

And swords were not only worn for war, but with everyday dress as well. The parliament that was held at Leicester in 1436, was later known as the ‘Parliament of Bats,’ because swords were not allowed to be worn, and instead those that attended brought wooden bats and cudgels.

Arming Swords

The Roman name for their short stabbing sword was the gladius. It was the weapon of choice of the Roman legions, ideal for their close order, close in, style of fighting. Polybius writing in the second century B.C described the gladius as sharpened at the point and how they were “able to direct their thrusts against breasts and faces of the enemy to give wound after wound without remission.” That does not mean they did not use the edge, which was as equally sharp as the point as there have been numerous finds of bones in the graves of their enemies that show slicing blows were common. The enemies of the Romans in Europe were the Gaul’s, the Celts and Germanic tribes, who preferred the longer, heavier slashing sword. These were typically straight edged blades, elliptical in section, between 30 and 32 inches long and with a rounded point. This type of sword suited their open order style of warfare where individual prowess was of prime importance. Comparing the two, Vegetius wrote in 390 A.D. how :

The Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armour. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal.”

However, the Celtic sword was a weapon of the elite, a symbol of power, frighteningly expensive and frequently handed down through the generations. For the ordinary soldier, the spear was the most common weapon. The Roman’s also adopted a longer sword called the spatha, initially for their cavalry where the longer reach was necessary. But then as more Celts, Franks and Germans swelled their ranks, it became common in the army as well. The general design of the sword changed little until the ninth century when the blade started to become narrower and started to taper. The Vikings seemed to distinguish between their longer slashing sword which they called a svaerd and a thinner, more pointed type which was known as a maekir. The sword continued to evolve into what is generally known today as the knight’s sword or arming sword, a double-edged, single-handed sword, typically between 27 to 32 inches (69 to 81 cm)long (Oakeshott types X to XIV). It was light and had an excellent balance, although it was still essentially a cutting rather than thrusting weapon.

Even at this time there was an arms race going on between weapons and armour manufacturers, albeit at a very slow pace. Mail was thought to have been invented by the Celts around the fourth century BCE and by the time of the Vikings had become the normal body armour across Europe. When worn with a padded jacket it provided an effective defence against slashing blows from swords and thrusting weapons such as spears as well as arrows and crossbow bolts the way to defeat it. So for just over a thousand years a delicate status quo had been achieved. The balance was upset sometime around 1250 with introduction of the coat of plates. This was a tabard type of coat, buckled or tied at the sides and worn over mail. On the inside were a number of iron plates riveted to a fabric backing. On 26 February 1266, at the battle of Benevento fought between the troops of Charles of Anjou and Manfred of Sicily in modern day southern Italy. In his army, Manfred had 1,200 German mercenaries wearing the very latest coats of plates. The French on the other hand, all wore mail coats and were equipped with shorter and more acutely pointed swords but still used them to slash. Hugues de Bauçoi and Guillaume de Nangis who both witnessed the battle describe how the French sword cuts were ineffective against these plates, and to start with they seemed unstoppable. Suddenly it was noticed that the Germans were raising their arms to strike and at the same time were exposing their weakly armoured underarm. A cry went up from the French “use the point.” Changing fighting style, the French quickly overcame the Germans and the tide of battle turned against Manfred, whose army was soon in full retreat. Soon after, swords with more acute points began to appear that were capable of a thrust as well as a cut. By 1320 most armies were wearing coats of plates.

Around this time there seems to have been a leap forward in iron production, as it became possible to make larger billets of iron. As a consequence, larger plates could be hammered out, which in turn meant that instead of a coat of small plates, one large plate could be made. The first breastplates, made from a single sheet of iron or steel began to appear around 1340. Plate covering for the limbs followed soon after. Slashing swords were completely ineffective against this type of protection, so a new type of sword was needed, one that could be thrust to find weak points in the armour or punch right through it. Swords not only became narrower and more acutely pointed but also changed in section to a flattened diamond making it more rigid. How effective these swords were in defeating armour is not known, however, Froissart recounts on more than one occasion in his chronicles how swords pierced armour. It is possible that at this time, techniques to harden these plates had not been discovered. Things were different the following century however as, the anonymous author of Knighthoode and Bataile wrote in 1450, “the sword may not through steel and bonys bite.” A popular style of thrusting sword between 1370 and 1425 had a long, slender blade, hexagonal in section, and occasionally with a shallow fuller on the upper quarter of the blade(Oakeshott type XVII). A sword that was popular from the middle of the fourteenth century and continued to be used into the sixteenth century was one that was wide at the hilt, around 32 inches long, straight for around the first two-thirds of its length and then acutely tapering to the point (Oakeshott type XVIII). In section, it was either a flattened diamond or flat with a raised ridge in the centre, making it an ideal duel purpose, cut and thrust weapon. The handle of this kind of sword was typically 4 or 5 inches long, and featured a large wheel type pommel. The cross is usually curved up at the ends towards the point and the hilt either standard or hand-and-a-half style. The best known example of this type of sword is the one associated with the tomb of the Black Prince and can be now found in the museum of Westminster Abbey.

In the late 1970’s, 80 swords were found in two casks at the bottom of the River Dordogne. It is now believed that these were lost shortly after the battle of Castillon, the last battle of the Hundred Years War in 1453. It is also likely that they were the spoils of war, taken from the English after the battle. The find gives us an interesting snapshot of the types and varieties of swords in use at that time. One thing of particular interest is how similar they are. These swords broadly fall into two groups, one group are all single handed, with short wide blades around 620mm long that taper to an acute point. They all have disc pommels and the majority have crosses that turn up at the ends towards the point. The other group is of hand-and-a-half swords with narrower, longer blades.

Long-swords, Bastard-Swords, and Two-handers

Sometime after 1350, a new type of sword appeared that remained in use until the middle of the sixteenth century. As plate armour continued to improve and cover the whole body, there was no longer a need for the shield, which then freed up the knights other hand. He could now hold the sword in two hands, which not only meant he could deliver more power, but also could fight with heavier, longer swords that could defeat armour. It is not clear when the two handed sword first appeared, but the Tenison Psalter of 1284, shows a knight wielding a sword in two hands and carrying his shield on his back. There are also a number of fourteenth century references in poems and chronicles to Twahandswerds or Espées a deure mains. Froissart also refers to Canon de Robesart holding a “sword of two hands” in 1348. Exactly what is meant by this term is unknown as no two-handed swords from this period survives. However, after 1350, there are numerous references to long-swords, grans espée,Grete Swerdes of Warre or Grans Espees de Guerre, as well as the German Langenschwert/ Langes Swert or the Italian spada longa. Although there are a wide variety of styles, they are essentially the same weapon, characterised by a long cross with a grip between 7 and 15 inches long, and with a straight double edged blade up to 48 inches long. Whilst early examples are flat and wide, later ones are narrower have hexagonal or diamond section. A typical example is Oakeshott’s type XX which normally have one long fuller in the centre and a smaller, shorter one each side. They were quick, effective weapons in the hands of a skilled swordsman. And, it was not just the blade that could be used as the weapon, as the cross could be used to hook and the pommel used to smash. Another fighting technique that seems to have become popular in the fifteenth century, although first seen in thirteenth century illustrations, is known today as half-swording, called halben schwert (half-sword) in Germany and in Italy, mezzo spada (middle-sword),where one hand was on the hilt, the other gripping half way down the blade.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century a new term appeared – the Espée Bastarde or “bastard sword”. Today, these are generally refered to as hand-and-a-half swords, Many are similar to arming swords, but with longer handles. There is no evidence of the term “hand-and-a-half” having been used either in English or other languages, before the sixteenth century. The term may therefore refer to the sword being neither a long-sword or an arming sword. On the other hand, it may refer to the fact that it is an arming sword retrofitted with a longer hilt.

The estoc (from the French to thrust), was a variation of the longsword and was in use from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. It was called a tuck in England, a stocco in Italy, estoque in Spain,  Panzerstecher or Dreiecker in Germany, and a kanzer in Eastern Europe and designed specifically for fighting against mail or plate armour. The estoc  usually between 0.91 metres (36 in) and 1.32 metres (52 in) long. straight and stiff with a triangular or square section and with virtually no cutting edge, only a point . Most varieties of estoc have a hand-an-a-half or two-hand grip and some also have longricasso. Two of the swords found in the Castillon horde are distinctly two-handers, and can possibly be described as estocs , one of which has a 1100mm long tapered diamond section blade that is 55mm wide at the hilt. The Cross hilt is 250mm long with a straight cross that has spherical ends and a pear shaped pommel. Another similar type of sword was the espada ropera (lit. “dress sword”) first mentioned in an inventory of Don Álvaro de Zúñiga in Spain during 1468. Wether this was either a contemporary or forerunner of the estoc is not clear, but as the name suggests, primarily for civilian use. It was however, the lightly forerunner of the rapier, the French calling it the espée rapiere.  

The true massive two handed sword that we recognise today did not appear until the end of the fifteenth century and was used primarily for hacking a path through a formation of pikes by chopping the tips off the poles. The Swiss and German version was known as the Dopplehander (“double-hander”) or Bidenhander (“both-hander”) or Zweihander and in England, “slaughterswords” after the German Schlachterschwerter (“battle swords”). Italian, Paolo Giovio, describes how in 1495 during the battle of Fornovo,:

around 300 picked young men who are called “the forlorn hope” issued forth from each flank of the infantry body and with their great swords which they wielded with both hands began to chop up those enormous pikes with such boldness that nearly all those pikemen, aghast, turned their backs in flight without waiting for the main body of the infantry to come up.”

Two-handed swords with a wave or flame-shaped blade have come to be known today as flamberges, first appeared in the early 1500’s and are more appropriately known as flammards or flambards from the German Flammenschwert. In the early 1500’s there were single-edged two-handers as well, such as the German Grosse Messer or Zwiehand sabel. The Scottish had the “claidheamhda laidbh”, which translated from the Gaelic means two-handed sword. The term Claymore used to incorrectly describe these large swords and comes from the Gaelic “claidheamh-mor” or big sword, and used to distinguish it from a short sword. Like the term broad-sword, it refers to weapon of a much later age. There were also huge two-handed blades known as “bearing-swords” or “parade-swords” (Paratschwert), which were intended only for carrying during ceremonial processions and parades.

The Backsword

Not all swords had two edges, the backsword (later called a hanger) was characterised by a straight single edged blade usually of triangular section with a fuller down the spine to improve strength and rigidity. Some examples have a false edge on the back near the tip that was sharpened to enable the sword to thrust as well as cut. One of the few surviving examples, said to be found on the site of the 1460 battle of Wakefield is now in the Royal Armouries collection. It has a distinctive beak-shaped pommel which is joined to the ‘S’ shaped cross to form a knuckleguard. It is hard to assess how popular this type of sword was although it generally taken to be the sword of the ordinary infantry and archer. However, although there are many found in illustrations, often in combination with bucklers, the Bridport Muster Roll only lists one, and only a handful survive today. Another similar weapon was the German Meßßer. This was a single edged sword with a straight cross and often with an extra guard at right angles called a Nagel (lit. nail). The handle was made by sandwiching the tang between two wooden plates and pegged together.

The Falchion

The Falchion first appeared around the eleventh century, the name most likely coming from the French fauchon or Latin falx, both meaning sickle. It was a single handed single edged sword similar to the German Dusack (or Dusagge), and possibly a descendant of the Saxon long knife known as a “seax” (scramanseax). Although there are many in contemporary art, less than a dozen survive today and two basic types can be identified, the cleaver falchion and the cusped falchion. The cleaver falchion has a distinctive machete or cleaver like blade that broadens towards the point. One surviving example, known today as the Conyers Falchion has an overall length of 890 mm (35.04“) andhas a blade about 39 mm (1.53″) wide at the base, and at its widest, 109 mm (4.3″) about 140 mm (5.5″) from the point.Along the back edge, there is a shallow fuller, running along three-quarters of the blade’s length, curling slightly upwards by the end.  Its hilt has a bronze disc type pommel and a bronze cross that turns up towards the point at the ends. It is also highly decorated suggesting a high status weapon; however, it has a straight back, unlike one found in Hamburg or those depicted in art, which all have curved backs, and may be a one-off or a type not recorded in contemporary art.

The second type, the cusped falchion has a straighter blade but is cusped or clipped at the tip similar to the much later kilij of Turkey. One surviving example, known as the Thorpe Falchion has an overall length of 956mm (37.6 inches), an 803mm blade, 48mm (1.8 inches) wide at the hilt and 55mm (2.2 inches) at the widest point. This has a disc pommel and a wide guard with cross shaped slots at its widest point. Another, which was the only falchion found in the Castillon horde has a rare Venetian style, upside down pear-shaped pommel, and a cross with bulbous ends. It also has the remains of gold inlay floral patterns and inscriptions on the blade.

The mid-thirteenth century Maciejowski Bible shows a weapon similar to a Falchion except it is mounted on a 300 – 600mm pole and may be a forerunner of the glaive or even the two-handed sword mentioned in early manuscripts. A later Italian falchion with a slender sabre-like blade was called a “storta” or a “malchus“. Large two-hand versions, called Großße Messers, with straight or curved single-edged blades around 1500mm long were also in use before the end of the fifteenth century.


Learning to fight with a sword was an essential part of a nobles or knight’s training, which began from around the age of seven. There are a number of early manuscripts such as Jean de Mecin’s treatise on chivalry (Sloane 2430) that show knights practicing on a wooden post called a pell.The fifteenth century, Knighthoode and Bataile follows Vegetius’s late Roman manual in that it recommends that double weight swords and shields should be used for training. Sometimes it was necessary to practice on each other and for this knights used wooden swords called wasters in the 1200’s, and batons in the 1300’s and 1400’s. Tournaments could further hone skills where combat with blunt or “foyled” weapons for pleasure was known as à plaisance, and combat to the death was à lóuutrance. In the 1200’s in England, blunt swords for non-lethal tournaments were sometimes known as “arms of courtesy”.

The sword was not just a weapon of the elite. When the Peasants Revolt first broke out in England in 1381, the chroniclers record that many men from Essex brought rusty swords with them. The Holkham picture Bible from the early 1300’s. shows peasants fighting with swords and buckler, two different falchions and a number of other weapons including the two-handed falchion. The Bridport Muster Roll of 1457, lists those from the town available to fight. Of the 201 men and women recorded as having weapons, sixty-nine carried swords of some description, the second most popular weapon after the longbow. How any of them came by these swords is unclear, however many men must have fought in the Hundred Years War and some were no doubt looted from towns or battlefields. There are many contemporary images of archers having swords and bucklers hanging from their belts and the earliest known German illustrated fight training manual dated to around 1295, called simply I.33, is dedicated to sword and buckler fighting. Most English children learned to fight with a sword from an early age, usually in conjunction with a small circular sword called a buckler. Italian spy Dominic Mancini, after visiting England around 1483 noted that: “It is a particular delight of this race that on holidays, their youth should fight up and down the streets clashing on their shields with blunted swords or short staves in place of swords.” Whilst the English peasantry was positively encourages to carry arms, this was not the case elsewhere in Europe and in both France and Flanders war was a preserve of the elite and peasants were not allowed to own weapons of any kind.

With the advent of full plate armour, the head, especially face and throat were the main targets not only for swordsmen but for other staff weapons as well, as attested by contemporary fight books. The groin and kidneys appear to have been the main secondary targets. Of the remains of the men discovered in a massed grave at the site of the 1461 battle of Towton, 65 percent had received sharp force trauma to the head, many with more than one wound.The remainder having blunt force or puncture wounds to the head. Four of these bodies also showed older, healed head wounds, including one with a huge slicing wound across the lower jaw. Bladed staff weapons such as glaives or bills could have also caused these wounds, however these weapons would deliver a far more powerful blow, and the wounds are not consistent with this type of attack. Only a small number had leg wounds. By comparison, of those found at the site of the battle of Wisby, fought one hundred years earlier, had a large number had lower leg wounds.

Throughout early medieval Europe, trial by combat was an intrinsic part of the judicial process. This was a trial in which the person accused fought with the accuser, the idea being that god would give victory to the person in the right. It soon became common practice to employ professional champions to fight on both accusers and the accused behalf, or for those not already skilled in arms to go to an established master at a school to learn how to fight. England moved away from trial by combat in 1166, when Henry II reformed English civil procedures in the Assize of Clarendon, introducing the trial by jury. However, the occasional trial by combat still took place, mainly over property disputes. Fight schools were banned in London around 1189, although it is recorded that in 1220 a Walter de Stewton who had been arrested and charged with murder, had been released on bail to learn to fence before his trial. In 1285, a reminder that fight schools had been banned was issued proclaiming that “none shall keep school nor teach the art of fence within the City of London under pain of imprisonment for forty days.” In 1311 Roger le Skirmisour was jailed for “Enticing thither the sons of respectable persons, so as to waste and spend the property of their fathers and mothers upon bad practices.” Despite the ban, a few professionals continued to sell their skills. For example, in 1446, Phillip Treher was employed by Henry VI to train John Davy, who was to fight a judicial duel after accusing his master, William Catour of treason.

In Europe, fight masters were regarded in higher esteem, despite, judicial duelling being abolished in France during the 1260’s by King Louis, as few seem to have taken any notice. This can be seen from the fact that in 1478, Gómez Dorado was made ‘maestro mayor’ by royal licence to examine masters of arms in Zaragoza, Aragon. And, ten years later, Emperor Fredrick III gave the fight school at Nuremberg its first royal licence. Twelfth century German poems often mention fight masters (schirmmaister) and as early as the thirteenth century, Guilds of combat training, such as the Marxbrüder in Frankfurt were established to teach combat with various weapons. Books on how to fight, commonly called Fechtbücher (“combat manuals”) also began to appear. One of the earliest known masters of the sword is Johannes Liechtenauer who established a fight school in Germany in the mid-fourteenth century. Around1389, his methods were written down by an anonymous author (possibly Hanko Döbringer) in what is now known as Codex HS.3227a. The author stresses that there is “only a single art of the sword” that had been devised and thought out hundreds of years earlier. The author also claims that Liechtenauer had travelled many lands to learn the art and that not one part on the sword is without its use or reason. Much of the text is in a verse calledZedel  or “epitome” which was a mnemonic aid for students to help them remember what they had been taught. However, nothing is in detail, and according to the author, done deliberately to hide meanings from the uninitiated. Although the book focuses on the Long-sword, it does go on to mention spear, dagger, and staff fighting, as well as wrestling.

The earliest surviving Italian fight book Flos Duellatorum (Flower of Battle), dates from 1410. The author, Master Fiore dei Liberi states in his introduction that he studied both the Italian and the German methodology but seems to be mostly inspired by Liechtenauer. Three different versions of Liberi’s work are known to still exist, the “Pissani-Dossi” the “Flos Duellatorium in Armis (The Best of the Duelists) and “Fior Battaglia(The Flower of Battle in Arms). All three are richly illustrated and includes a range weapons including the sword (spada), the great-sword (spadone), the spear (lancia), the daga (dagger), and the pollaxe (azza). Johannes Liechtenauer teachings dominated German swordsmanship for the next 250 years. More fight books covering long-sword, messer, sword & buckler, dagger, wrestling, and judicial combat, generally following Liechtenauer’s traditions soon followed. These include Peter Von Danzig’s “Fechtbuch” from 1452, Paulus Kal’s 1460 “Fechtbuch”, “Codex Wallerstein acollection of anonymous German text from around 1470, and the “Book on the Art of Fighting With Sword” by Fillipo Vadi, written between 1482-1487. Out of all these Hans Talhoffer is probably the most famous. He was the author of at least six illustratedFechtbücherwritten between 1443 and 1467, which include sections on siege equipment and mechanical weapons as well as fight techniques. Not all Fechtbücher followLiechtenauer’s teachings. Two manuscripts,Vindobonensis B 11093, kept in Vienna, and “Gladiatoria“, which focuses on armoured combat, discovered in Poland, both dating to the mid-fifteenth century seem to come from a different, as yet unidentified school. There were probably many more Fechtbücher published that no longer survive. Despite the ban on fight schools in England, two short texts on sword fighting survive. The first, sometimes referred to now as The Man Who Wol“, (MS. 3542, ff 82-85). is a fifteenth century English text written in verse on the use of two-handed or great-swords. The other, known only as “Additional Manuscript 39564” is handwritten on vellum and closer to a series of notes than a set of instructions. However, both are cryptic and near indecipherable despite being in “English”. 


The term dagger seems to be derived from the French dague and was first used in England around 1380. In Germany, this type of weapon was normally called a doltch or degen. It was an essential part of a knight’s or man-at-arms equipment and used as a secondary weapon in close quarter fighting and principally designed for use with a stabbing action, either underarm, or over arm with a reverse grip.  Many of the fight manuals of the later middle ages such as Talhoffer, have sections devoted to dagger fighting. The earliest known example of such a knightly dagger is the so-called “Guido relief” of around 1120 inside Zürich’s Grossmünster.  There are also illustrations of a knightly dagger in the mid-thirteenth century Morgan Bible. However, few are seen on monuments or in art before 1300. After then, daggers are always shown hanging from the right side of the sword belt when worn with armour. In civilian dress, they were normally worn at the front in a pouch, much like a sporran. How far this practice was carried into the peasant population is unclear; however, only 64 daggers are mentioned in the Bridport Muster Roll.

There were four main types of dagger in use during the middle ages, differentiated mainly by the style of hilt. The earliest type was generally called a cultellus from which the word cutlass is derived. The cross-hilt dagger appeared around the middle of the thirteenth century. This was in effect a miniature sword with either a short flat diamond section or triangular section blade. Pommel’s were typically disc, octagonal or spherical in shape, although some early examples have antennae shaped ones.

Another type was the Basilard. These seem to have originated in Basel, Switzerland but by the fourteenth century, popular all over Europe. The Basilard had a double edged blade 8-12 inches long, broad at the hilt and acutely tapering and flattened diamond in section. The hilt was typically ‘H’ shaped with the wood or bone handle usually made in two pieces and riveted to the tang. Although, initially a weapon of the elite, by the beginning of the fifteenth century it was an essential fashion accessory, as the rhyme of that period (Sloane MS 2593) attests:

There is no man worth a leke

Be he sturdy, be he meke

But he bear a basilard

It was this type of dagger that was reputedly used by William Walworth to despatch Wat Tyler at the end of the Peasants Revolt of 1381.Its later use seems to have been associated with hooliganism and several fourteenth and fifteenth century German laws outlaw the carrying of a basler inside a city.

The rondel dagger evolved in the fourteenth century from the basilard, as a result of improvements in armour, and by the fifteenth century, had become the standard side-arm for knights. The name coming from the two horizontal discs or rondels that made up the guard and pommel either side of the long cylindrical wood or bone handle. The blade was typically long and slim with a tapering needle point, often over 12 inches (50 cm)long. Early examples are flattened diamond in section and double edged, but later examples are triangular and single edged. Although they would have been unable to punch through plate armour, the rondel could be forced through mail, between the joints in a suit of armour or eye-slits in helmets to deliver a coup de grâce. Although it was essentially a military dagger, the rondel also became popular amongst the emerging middle class during the fifteenth century. In one French painting by Girat de Roussillon dated 1448, all the merchants and tradesmen can be seen wearing rondels. 

The Ballock dagger first appeared around 1300, its name derived from the phallic shaped hilt accentuated by the common practice of wearing it at the front of civilian dress. The prudish Victorians changed its name to the kidney dagger in the late 1800’s. Although there were a number of blade types, the most common was the triangular single edged blade, tapering from hilt to point, and typically 7 inches to 10 inches long. Sometimes the point was also reinforced, and quadrangular in shape. By 1400, a double edged version was popular and one with a diamond section that often included a ricasso after 1450.

The hilt was characterised by the two lobes that formed the guard. In its simplest form, both the handle, which was in the shape of an inverted cone, and guard were carved from a single piece of hardwood. In the fifteenth century metal reinforcing plates were often added to the top of the grip and between the lobes and blade. In France, Flanders and Germany is was common to make the lobes from metal too. By the end of the fifteenth century three lobed versions began to appear. Also, in France, Flanders and Germany, the metal plate between the lobes and blade was often enlarged and curved towards the point making an additional guard.

A further type of dagger, the Cinquedea (five fingers) or Langues de Boeuf (ox-tongue) was an almost exclusively an Italian weapon in use between 1460 and 1520. The blade was characterised by a wide flat blade tapering to a point with multiple fullers or ridges and intricate decorative etchings on both sides. The length of the blade could be anywhere in size from 10″ to 28″, so could also be used as a small sword. The hilt has a small pommel and the cross curved towards the point.


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