Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Bludgeoning with Swords

On multiple occasions, from European History teachers and martial arts instructors, I have heard it said that during the Middle Ages, the Asian sword was a thing of perfection while the European sword was an ugly thing that knights used to bash each other over the head. Whether or not the Asian sword was perfect is irrelevant to this post, but the statement about European swords is false.

Of course, the term “medieval sword” is a vague term since the roughly 1000 years that encompass the Middle Ages saw a wide variety of sword designs and developments. For purposes of this post, think of “medieval sword” as meaning any sword with a roughly cruciform shape, a tip suitable for thrusting, and two cutting edges, either of one-handed or two-handed design. Think of the type you see most often in movies. I will occasionally contrast this sword with a katana, which is the type of Asian sword I have most often heard referenced in these types of arguments (with ignorance to time period issues).

The myth persists that the medieval sword was nothing more than a metal club with a pointy end: “One sometimes reads that the medieval sword was a clumsy weapon, blunt and unwieldy. No one who had ever held a genuine sword in his hand could say that, since they feel so perfectly designed for their purpose as soon as one’s hand closes round the grip.” [1] Constance Brittain Bouchard says that “Modern attempts to replicate these swords have proved extremely difficult, reflecting the high level of craftsmanship of the period.” [2] The stereotype of bludgeoning with swords requires two things: knowledge of what a sword ought to do, and a perception that medieval swords failed to do it. The Middle Ages already had the mace, which was a bludgeoning weapon far more suited to the purpose than a sword, so it seems odd to insist that a sword would also be used primarily for bludgeoning.

Some confusion may come from merely looking at the design of a medieval sword. The heavy pommels look unwieldy, especially when compared to a katana, but they were intended to balance the weight of the blade and lead to a cleverly-made weapon. [3]

How Swords Were Used

A knight’s sword could be used in the following ways:

  • cutting
  • thrusting
  • hilt bashing
  • bludgeoning

Swords were designed for one or both of the first two purposes. A cutting sword would have a rounded tip with a wider blade and sharpened edge. A thrusting sword would have a sharp tip and a narrow blade intended to pierce armor; thus, it wouldn’t have much of an edge, if it had one at all. This may have contributed to the stereotype of medieval swords being dull.  Many swords were intended for both thrusting and cutting. The 14th century dual-purpose swords that survive to this day in their original condition are still “very sharp indeed.” [4]

Cutting was used when parts of the enemy’s body were unprotected or when armor, particularly chain mail, was of low enough quality that it could be cut by a good blade. Thrusting was used primarily between the plates of armor or to punch through chain mail; this technique could cause the links in mail to separate or burst. Early plate armor could be pierced by a thrusting sword, but armor became heavier to make this technique less feasible. Hilt bashing rarely shows up in literature, but sometimes occurs when both combatants lack full armor.

Bludgeoning was used to bruise/break bones when the enemy wore plate armor or chain mail that couldn’t be pierced, as the shock would transfer through the metal. However, plate armor also helped distribute the shock over a wider area. Bludgeoning with swords occurred, but swords weren’t designed to be used that way, so bashing was not the most effective use of that weapon. Maces and morning stars are bludgeoning weapons—swords aren’t.

Using the Whole Sword

I have heard it said that the Asian sword is superior because the martial artist is trained to use the entire sword while European swordsmen were only trained to use the blade. It is not true that European swordsmen only used the blade. Hilt bashing was considered ignoble and thus doesn’t often appear in fiction, but a few examples appear in literature and it was certainly practiced. Knights trained whatever techniques were necessary in a fight, so this included kicking, punching, or grappling during a swordfight if the opportunity presented itself. Since wrestling was considered a low-class sport [5], it doesn’t often make its way into chivalric fiction, though real knights practiced it.

European swordsmen were trained to be resourceful. Swords (warning: generality) tended to be duller next to the hilt and sharper at the tip. There are instances in Arthurian literature where a knight has to fight in close quarters, which would necessitate a short sword, but all he has is a long sword. Thus, he holds the sword by the blade, next to the hilt and fights with that “shortened” sword. [6] This shows resourcefulness rarely attributed to the European swordsman in popular imagination.

Some Examples

Arthurian literature can make it hard to tell how weapons were used because it doesn’t always give us action-movie descriptions of the battle. Most often, tales just say that combatants gave each other “great blows,” relying on the audience to recognize what’s going on. However, readers can tell when combatants are using sharp weapons:

“[Lancelot] attacked Sir Gawain very rapidly and gave him such a great blow that he made him stagger. Sir Gawain was so affected by the blow that he had to use all his strength to right himself. Then Lancelot began to strike him and give him great blows with his sharp sword, and to gain ground on him…. [Sir Gawain] defended himself with such great difficulty that in his exertion the blood burst from his nose and his mouth, not to mention the other wounds he had, which were bleeding more than was good for him.” [7]

The king with Caliburn knightly him strikes,
The cantel of his clere sheld he carves in sonder,
Into the shoulder of the shalk a shaftmonde large
That the shire red blood shewed on the mailes!
He shuddered and shrinkes and shuntes but little,But shockes in sharply in his sheen weedes;
The felon with the fine sword freshly he strikes,
The felettes of the ferrer side he flashes in sonder,
Through jupon and gesseraunt of gentle mailes,
The freke fiched in the flesh an half-foot large;
That derf dint was his dede, and dole was the more
That ever that doughty shoulde die but at Drightens will!Yet with Caliburn his sword full knightly he strikes,
Castes in his clere sheld and coveres him full fair,
Swappes off the sword hand….
The king strikes [Mordred] knightly with Excalibur,
The cornerpiece of his fine shield he carves asunder,
Six inches deep into the shoulder of that man
So that the shining red blood showed on the mail!
He shudders and shrinks and flinches but little,
But dashes in sharply in his armor;
The felon with the fine sword freshly he strikes,
The rib plates of the farther side he slashes asunder,
Through gipon and hauberk of fine mail,
That man pierced his flesh half a foot deep;
That dire blow was his deed, and sorrow was the more
That ever that valiant man should die but at God’s will!Yet with Excalibur his sword full knightly he strikes,
Throws up his good shield and covers himself well,
Cuts off the sword hand…. [8]

The first passage from the Vulgate Cycle states directly that Lancelot’s sword is sharp. Sir Gawain’s bloody nose could easily be the result of a concussive blow, but the passage emphasizes a great deal of blood, which means that the combatants have cut each other multiple times. The second passage is King Arthur and Mordred’s showdown from the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Even if we take the removal of a hand as literary exaggeration, the passage describes slashes and piercing blows, not bludgeoning.

Viking Mediocrity?

I suspect that the stereotype of sword bludgeoning is related to how the word “medieval” is defined. Due to linguistics, scholars of medieval English literature make a clear distinction between the Anglo-Saxon period and the High Middle Ages. However, if “Middle Ages” is defined as “after the fall of Rome,” then the Anglo-Saxons are medieval. Some stereotypes of the medieval sword may come from some inferior Anglo-Saxon metalworking.

The term “Viking sword” is nearly as broad and unhelpful as the term “European sword.” The general stereotype is that Vikings only had the skill to make poor-quality steel, if they could make it at all, so their swords couldn’t hold much of an edge. However, I’ve read on internet forums that some surviving Viking swords are still sharp enough to cut paper. I won’t deny these claims, but I’d like more detail since I still haven’t found scholarly verification.

Researchers vary as to the amount of control they claim the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings had over steelmaking. Some claim great control; some claim none at all. Regardless, Vikings still had less resources and control over the quality of their metal than would be found in the High Middle Ages. [9] Their early iron swords were soft and prone to some bending; pattern welded blades were made of equally inferior materials, but the forging process made them stronger with better elasticity. [10] However, the latter were still made of iron and low-grade carbon steel. [11]

I’ll conclude that the Viking sword was generally inferior to the medieval sword, allowing for specific exceptions and the problems of summarizing such a vast period. The Vikings made swords that were effective and deadly for their time, but I am still suspicious of the episode of The Deadliest Warrior where a Viking sword cleaves a pig in half with one stroke. We should find no insult in the fact that a typical sword made in the 1200s would be of better quality than a sword made in the 800s. Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from this post is one of philosophy class’s most basic rules: always define your terms.

  1. Norman, A.V.B. and Don Pottinger, English Weapons and Warfare: 449–1660 (1996, New York, Barnes & Noble Books: 1992), 92.
  2. Bouchard, Constance Brittain, Knights in History and Legend (Buffalo, Firefly Books: 2009), 88.
  3. Norman, English Weapons, 49.
  4. Norman, English Weapons, 92.
  5. Knight, Stephen, and Thomas Ohlgren, ed., “A Gest of Robyn Hode,” Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (1997, Kalamazoo, TEAMS: 2000), 157.
  6. I’ve spent months trying to locate this passage, but I just can’t find it. I’m fairly certain that the knight was Sir Gawain. Let me know if anyone remembers this passage, and feel free to disbelieve my evidence until I can find it.
  7. Cable, James, trans., The Death of King Arthur (1971, Bungay, Suffolk, Penguin Books Ltd.: 1976), 183.
  8. Benson, Larry D., ed., “Alliterative Morte Arthure,” King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure (1974, Kalamazoo, Teams: 1996), 4230–44.
  9. Grancsay, Stephen V., “A Viking Chieftain’s Sword,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 17.7 (1959): 173.
  10. Ibid., 174–75.
  11. Maryon, Herbert, “Pattern-Welding and Damascening of Sword-Blades: Part 1 Pattern-Welding,” Studies in Conservation, 5.1 (1960): 28.

Comments

Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Bludgeoning with Swords — 4 Comments

  1. This post’s a bit old, but you’ve got comment moderation on so presumably you’ll see this anyway, and it’s more related to the question than some of your newer posts, so:

    Out of curiosity, what was the name of Lancelot’s magic sword in the original texts (I think it was also used by the Knight With Two Swords)? I remember it being named as Arondight in Fate/Zero, but Fate/Zero’s a mix of accurate depictions of the legends (i.e. Excalibur’s energy blast), and complete bullshit (Alexander the Great’s size and Gilgamesh’s presentation in general), and I’m not sure which its presentation of Lancelot’s sword falls into.

    • I can’t find any instances of Lancelot having a magical sword in any medieval literature. Of course, there’s so much medieval literature that I could have easily missed it, but I can at least affirm that if such a depiction exists, it is rare. When I did some digging, this is the only information I found on a sword named Arondight: http://sonic.wikia.com/wiki/Arondight. If we track down the reference to Lancelot given by Sir Bevis of Hamptoun, we come to Lancelot’s extremely brief dragon-slaying in Malory’s Syr Trystrams De Lyones. The sword here is not named, and I don’t see an indication that it’s magical. Lancelot is given various swords in various stories, sometimes from the Lady of the Lake, sometimes from Guinevere, sometimes on adventures, but they’re always ordinary swords.

      Excalibur/Caliburn is the only consistently-appearing magical sword that I can think of, and Lancelot never wields it. There are a couple of other named swords, such as as Galantyne (Gawain’s) and Clarent (Arthur’s), but they aren’t magical swords. An internet search brings results for Lancelot using a sword named Seure/Secace, which is still not magical. I would suppose that Arondight is a post-medieval addition to the Arthurian canon.

      • Cool beans, thanks! Makes me wonder where it originally came from, if not the original medieval texts. Didn’t Sir Balin, the Knight With Two Swords, have a magic sword as well, though? I think he got it from the Lady of the Lake’s sister (or something, Wikipedia’s explanation of their family trees confused be a bit).

        • If we tracked this one down, I’ll bet it would probably come back to Victorian retellings of Arthurian myth. I’ll have an answer for you once I’ve gotten the chance to do the dissertation thing. :)

          I’ve never been clear on whether Balin’s sword that delivers the Dolorous Stroke is magical or simply ill-fated. I expect we could probably find both interpretations in different versions.

          Arthurian family trees are always confusing. I’ve yet to find a genealogy software that can handle it!