You probably have a high idea of swords. You think they are noble, knightly, honorable or something. Like many book readers, movie enthusiasts, gamers. Like many people who like period movies like Robin Hood, Three Musketeers, medieval stuff and whatnot.
That fast, witty, heroic – rogue like – characters use swords to deliver fast sword plays to outdo dastardly opponents, while delivering witty remarks. In games, swords are depicted as the agile, poetic and merry characters’ weapon. Or, the sly rogue’s. And that’s the perception you have of swords. And its wrong.
Not your fault.
In games, movies, period drama, literature – practically every medium, swords are depicted as such. Its natural that people come to perceive them like that.
But the reality is that, swords were totally different and served a totally untold purpose.
Useless in Warfare
Yeah. You heard right.
Swords were useless for warfare. Especially in middle ages, the era in which they are depicted to be a staple of warfare.
Swords are cutting devices. Therefore they need to be able to cut the target they are used on. Now, pay attention to this ‘cutting device’ remark – it will be very important in just a little bit.
So, swords needed to cut to be effective. For, if you use them only for stabbing, almost 90% of the point of using a cutting weapon goes away, wouldn’t it?
But what can you ‘cut’ in a battlefield in which people are laden with varying degrees of armor, with the weakest armor being thick leather or heavy tribal clothing? Chainmail, plate mail (later periods), ring mail and all versions of metal armor is out of the question. For even if you can harm your opponent in certain unprotected locations, you need to be very swift, agile and lucky to do that, and spend considerable time to get results.
In the chaos of a battlefield there are no such things. Someone will bash your head in before you can do anything like that.
But lets say that you can be effective with a sword against some segment of the opponents. Very weakly armored, not well armed, close by. And assuming someone is not shoving a spear or a pike up your delicate parts.
Would it be sane to enter a battle with a weapon which is effective only against a certain segment of an opposing army? Leave aside ARMING an entire army or a certain segment of that army with swords?
Naturally, the commonplace weapons found in most of middle ages were Spears and Axes. Things that have momentum and works with penetration – even if axe is a cutting device, it relies on heavy momentum. And most axes had piercing or thrusting additions on them.
And in later periods, Maces, mauls dominated the battlefield. And something very, very nasty and disturbing – the “Military Pick”.
As you can see, these are all devices designed to penetrate armor, overcome armor, bash in armor – everything is designed against armor. All of them are impact weapons.
There were some regions in which some swords like Bastard Swords or Claymore Swords were used for very short time periods. But as you can see, these are actually devices which work with impact – not much different than an axe. And instead of trying to swing such a thing around, it would be a much safer bet to use a mace or a military pick anyway. Not surprisingly, they weren’t used much or in abundance.
So, swords were useless in battle. Then, what were they used for, and why they were so widespread?
Remember that the sword was a cutting weapon?
With a sword, you can easily wound an opponent with multiple cuts, causing them to bleed and eventually having to surrender or pass out due to blood loss. That was why it was used so widely and for that long.
Guess whom used it and whom they used it against…
Aristocrats used them against everyone else.
No one could carry a sword, but an aristocrat. As per the law in most of Europe in throughout Middle Ages.
Serfs, Villagers, Common Folk, Freemen, Merchants, Blacksmiths – whomever you are, if you were not a noble, you couldn’t carry sword, well into the baroque era – leave aside middle ages.
Why was such a law necessary?
To prevent retaliation against aristocrats, to be able to repress reacting villages, to put down rebellions. In addition to defend themselves when they are out in the village or the city and the ‘rabble’ (aka, common people) get ‘rowdy’ – confronting or assaulting them. So much that French Aristocracy was widely carrying their swords around in the days leading up to French revolution.
In short, Repression…
Yeah, the so much beloved knightly weapon of literature, movies and games, was a rather disgusting tool for repression. Leaving aside the very concept of a ‘knight’ being an aristocrat which is permanently designated to enforce the aristocrat king’s will to the serfs under the knight’s direct aristocratic control – the very guy who suppresses the people at the bottom of the aristocracy ladder.
Takes a lot of the magic around the device, doesn’t it…
But why the different depiction?
Yeah the depiction of swords, how they are used, the people who use it are totally different in literature, movies and games.
But pay attention – those who use swords are predominantly aristocrats or ‘well to do’ people. Or, people who are of such origin, but have fallen into ‘hard times’. With ‘hard times’ being the normal usual desolate way their entire society lives.
Like Robin Hood – its so great a ‘wrongdoing’ him losing his ancestral castle, and having to live in a forest, surviving by hunting and wiping his ass to leaves.
Of course there are exceptions – in literature and in games too – especially in games. But games do not follow real history closely, in general – like Science Fiction.
So, its a dominant narrative in literature to portray swords as such honorable, knightly devices. Why is that so?
First, literature evolved mainly from aristocrat or well to do circles, and not only were written by them, but also written FOR them. Readership for early literature was mostly limited to upper classes in the early 17th and 18th centuries. You can’t depict yourself as repressing your loyal subjects, can you – even if that practice was one of ~200 years ago and more. For Baroque era and on it wasnt so easy to repress people via swords, but it was still used by nobles for self defense against the ‘rabble’ – aka ordinary people.
And then there are modern literary requirements – while writing a period piece, creating a character or more than one character to get the readership to like, you give them many attributes. “Honorable” and aristocrat or “aristocrat-like” attributes are among those.
You cant just give a brutal mace in the hand of a handsome, sharp looking bloke who is the main protagonist – you instead give him a sword, a ‘gentlemanly’ weapon which has a lot of connotations from nobility to selective due to its heritage.
You avoid the parts in which that noble protagonist needs to occasionally use that weapon to repress the undefended villagers so he can enjoy the luxuries he is having in his mansion with the feudal tribute from them…
And due to these an undeserved and totally fake impression of this repression-device was created through history of creative works in the past ~300 years – leave aside modern literature and narrative.
Next time you see a sword somewhere, think of a weapon which was used to wound hapless villagers into submission…
Update: Here are a few resources to explain the narrative above:
This short slide is very informative in a concise fashion, even if not so academic – it explains middle age’s popular weapons from start of middle ages to high middle ages. Indeed in early Middle ages axes were the main weapon and they were widely used by all ranging from saxons to francs and vikings. The very name of french nation, France, comes from Frank, which comes from Francesca – a small axe franks used to throw in the opening stages of war. Check decorative carpets and other painted illustrations of that time, and you will see Anglosaxon army meeting William I with axes and spears. The picture doesnt change from Charlemagne to that point.
Below is a link to illustrations regarding Norman conquests. Notice the exclusive prevalence of axes and spears – of course, talking about original, medieval-era illustrations.
Nobles with horses use swords on occasion in addition to their spears. These are however a fallback weapon, and they are not expected to be unseated from their horses at all.
When you go check illustrations of medieval wars in general, you will be facing a sickening picture of spear and pike forests. People killing people from ~10 meters away by poking each other – a picture of grotesqueness in which a sword cannot play any role.
However notice nobles again, you will see that majority of them do carry swords (in addition to their lances when they mount horses of course), but you will notice that most of the time these nobles are the core of their corps, at headquarters or commanders who generally stand away from war. And in most illustrations they are surrounded by pike forests. Also note the fact that kings or great nobles are often ‘planted’ into these illustrations – fighting in the front with their swords at times, surrounded by their own pikemen, against the opposing army. Whereas in reality they would be away from the heat of the battle – no one could risk losing a king just like that.
Though Medieval and Renaissance illustrations of warfare should be enough, here are a few in-depth discussions and narratives of the concept :