Swords and sword-fighting are a long time issue of ours, and once we’ve gotten past our amusement with the Russian and Russophile fascination with shovel fighting, we know that the art of sword fighting was once the peak of combat effect, and it seems obvious that the best guides to that art would be found in historical materials from that period.
Of course, sword-fighting never went away from popular culture, and it’s been a staple of Hollywood for nearly a century. But one has an instinctive feeling that Hollywood’s choreographed swordfights are as phony as their fist- and gun-fights; and that they’re doing it wrong. Sword expert J. Clements of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts agrees in a long essay:
It is the stuff of Hollywood sword-fights and renaissance-faire fight shows: a swordsman cuts with his or her blade and in defense the opponent lifts their own sword to directly receive the blow at 90-degrees on the center of their blade. The two blades clash in the middle edge-on-edge with a loud “clang!” There is just one problem. No two cutting-swords—historical or replica, authentic or modern, Asian or European —would withstand such abuse without their edges being severely gouged in the process. This is a problematic issue of historical fencing exploration that can be addressed reasonably and factually.
When it comes to historical swordsmanship, such a description stands in direct contrast to how edged weapons were actually handled and employed. It contradicts the very dynamic of effective and efficient fighting and resembles little in the way of sword combat described in Medieval and Renaissance fencing literature.
He goes on at rather great length about the historical sources, so it’s worth reading the whole thing. But here’s another taste:
In the chronicle of the deeds of the 15th century knight, Don Pero Niño, we read how in a fight against the Moors, “the blows fell upon good armour, though not so good but that it was broken and bent in many places. The sword he used was like a saw, toothed in great notches, the hilt twisted by dint of striking mighty blows, and all dyed in blood.” At the end of the siege of the City of Tuy in 1397, we are also told again how Niño’s sword “blade was toothed like a saw and dyed with blood.” Later, Pero Niño sent this sword by a page to France, “with other presents to my Lady of Serifontaine.” (De Gamez, p. 196.) Given the context of this description, where Nino’s shield, armor, and sword are all damaged from especially heavy fighting, it would not seem unreasonable that he then gives his ruined sword away as a token of his chivalric courage. Certainly, we have no way of knowing if his sword edge was damaged from striking armor and shield rims or from striking other blades, let alone from parrying cuts (something less likely if he had a shield and full armor as described). Regardless, the recognition that Nino’s sword edge had sustained heavy damaged so that it looked “like a saw” and was “toothed in great notches” from use is indicative that such a condition was certainly not a good thing for a functional blade. Above all, he did not enter combat with his prized weapon in such a condition.
Yes, that’s one single dense paragraph in the original.
Now, perhaps some of this is the well-known tendency for martial arts entrepreneurs to see no merit in, and consequently trash-talk, their competitors. An example which seems to be Clements doing just that is here. But Clements’s approach of going back to period sources is to be commended. There is a great deal more information on the site.
HURSTWIC is an organization which takes a similar approach, not to the combat of the 13th through 15th centuries but to the earlier Viking era. Theirs, too, is an approach that combines archival research (in this case, in Norse sagas, mostly) with athletics. Compared to Renaissance and even medieval European sources, of course, Viking primary sources are few and this gives rise to some problems of interpretation. A page on Sword and Shield Combat Technique is one of many restatements of this problem on the Hurstwic site:
[W]e don’t really know how weapons were used in the Viking age. We don’t have any material that teaches us how Vikings used their weapons. The best we can do is to make some educated guesses based on a number of sources, as described in an earlier article.
This article summarizes some of the fighting moves we believe were used by Vikings when fighting with sword and shield. Not surprisingly, as we continue our research, my opinions on the nature of Viking-age combat have changed. Our interpretation of the moves is always in flux. So, please be aware that the techniques illustrated in these web articles may not always represent our most current interpretation. Notably, in the past, we have depended more heavily on the later combat treatises than we currently do. That bias remains in this and other articles on the Hurstwic site. We plan to edit the articles to reduce those biases as time permits and as our research unfolds.
Our most current interpretation is outlined in the article on the “shape” of Viking combat and illustrated by several videos on that page showing fighting moves from the sagas.
That article s found here and it is fascinating to watch the Hurstwic team grapple with these mysteries, to understand ancient armed combat, as they have only a few sources. Even these few have their limits: the sparse descriptions in the sagas, the known characteristics of Viking weapons, and their own powers of logic. Their own opinions have changed as their knowledge has grown, which is inevitable in a scientific approach to almost anything. They are keenly aware that their scientific approach rests on a foundation of assumptions, but what they’re doing is extremely interesting.
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.
2 thoughts on “Come for the Shovels, stay for the Swords”
Thanks, Hognose! That’s some really awesome stuff.
Short is doing his damnedest to keep it real and historically accurate! Clement is trying hard too. I applaud them both for their efforts. The Salle-d’armes of the the 16th and 17th come to right to mind when I think of modern shooting schools. I laugh when I think of people pouring over Green Eyes, Black Rifles in 300 years.