Clarifying Definitions: Some Common Medieval Weapons

The historic basis of the equipment available in swords n sorcery roleplaying games, cannot be denied, but over the years it has become a mishmash of poorly understood terms among roleplayers and roleplaying games in general. I am simply seeking here to straighten out some of these misunderstandings.

Many historic swords were actually compromises in design that attempted to combine in one weapon those elements best suited for both slashing and stabbing. The great variety of sword types are a testament to the many possible design solutions. There are types of swords with straight backs yet curved edges, and others that widen toward the point but then taper sharply. In most cultures, acutely pointed cut-and-thrust swords existed side by side with more dedicated cutting and chopping blades for centuries with neither replacing the other.

Falchions and braquemarts comprise a type of short sword, straight backed and single-edged with a thick, heavy chopping blade that widens towards the end where it curves up to meet the back, somewhat reminiscent of the Persian scimitar or shamshir. The braquemart is somewhat larger of the two. The falchion’s wide, heavy blade is weighted more towards the point so it can deliver tremendous blows. It is equipped with a quilloned cross-guard for the hilt in the same configuration as a long-sword. It combines the weight and power of an axe with the versatility of a sword. Indeed, so good were falchions historically for chopping that they were often used for chopping wood in peace-time. The falchion was a low quality sword made of iron with steel edges applied, and generally deemed unworthy of a knight. A rarer form of sword, it was little more than a meat cleaver, possibly even a simple kitchen and barnyard tool adopted for war. Indeed, it may come from a French word for a sickle, “fauchon”. It can be seen in Medieval art being used against lighter armors by infidels as well as by footman and even knights of the West.

The weapon is entirely European and NOT derived from eastern sources.

More common in the Renaissance, it was considered a weapon to be proficient with in addition to the common sword.

The sword of war is also known as a bastard sword. Bastard swords are considered “late” in period for the purposes of the “medieval” basis of these games, as they were developed as a form of “long sword” in the early 1400’s (as early as 1418), when a form of “long-sword” became known as an Espée Bastarde or “bastard sword”. It was recognized by being equipped with specially shaped grips for one or two hands. The bastard sword receives its interesting name from its design. The length of the blade was not all that much longer than that of a common sword, around 2″ wide and 42″ long overall, typically more tapered and narrowly pointed. The weapon had longer handles, however, special “half-grips” long enough to fit about one and a half hands which could be used with either one or both hands at need. These handles have recognizable “waist” and “bottle” shapes (such grips were later used on the Renaissance two-handed sword), usually equipped with side-rings and finger rings to protect the hand (at least from slashing, cutting or chopping attacks).

This unique sword is also called a Hand-and-a-Half sword.

The bastard-sword half-grip was a versatile and practical innovation. In this sense they were neither a one-handed sword nor a true great-sword (two-handed sword), and thus not a member of either “family” of sword. It couldn’t really be categorized as either a one or two-handed weapon, making it a bastard as far as swords are concerned.

The executioner’s sword of the 16th century was inspired by the bastard sword design. The strong and fearless Swiss and Germans originally carried these early weapons, although bastard swords soon became popular in other regions the British Isles and Europe. This style of sword was much used by the German man at arms of the late 15th century. It is depicted in many illustrations of knights from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, “A Knight, Death and the Devil” by Albrecht Dürer being one of the most famous. In fact many of Dürer’s Knights carry such a sword.

The medieval great-sword might also be called a two-handed sword, a “twahandswerd” or “too honde swerd”. Those blades long and weighty enough to demand a double grip are great-swords. They are infantry swords which cannot be used in a single-hand. Whereas other “long” swords could be used on horseback and some even with shields, like the sword of war or bastard sword, great swords were strictly infantry weapons. One type of long German sword, the “Rhenish Langenschwert”, from the Rhenish city of Cologne, had a blade of some 4 feet and an enormous grip of some 14 to 16 inches long, not including the pommel. Their blades might be flat and wide or, especially later in period, more narrow and hexagonal or diamond shaped. These larger swords were capable of facing heavier weapons such as pole-arms and larger axes and were devastating against lighter armors. Long, two-handed swords with narrower, flat hexagonal blades and thinner tips (such as the Italian “spadone”) were a response to the fully developed suits of plate-armor. Against plate armor such rigid, narrow, and sharply pointed swords are not used in the same chop and cleave manner as with flatter, wider swords. Instead, they are handled with tighter movements that emphasize their thrusting points and allow for greater use of the hilt.

These weapons were used primarily for fighting against pike-squares where they would hack paths through by lobbing the tips off the poles. In Germany, England, and elsewhere schools also taught their use for single-combat. True two-handed swords have compound-hilts with side-rings and enlarged cross-guards of up to 12 inches. Most have small, pointed lugs or flanges protruding from their blades 4-8 inches above their guard. These parrierhaken or “parrying hooks” act almost as a secondary guard for the ricasso to prevent other weapons from sliding down into the hands. They make up for the weapon’s slowness on the defense and can allow another blade to be momentarily trapped or bound up. These “parrying hooks” can also be used to strike with. The most well-known of “twa handit swordis” is the Scottish Claymore (Gaelic for “claidheamh-more” or great-sword) which developed out of earlier Scottish great-swords with which they are often compared. They were used by the Scottish Highlanders against the English in the 1500’s. Another sword of the same name is the later Scot’s basket-hilt broadsword (a relative of the Renaissance Slavic-Italian schiavona) whose hilt completely enclosed the hand in a cage-like guard. Both swords have come to be known by the same name since the late 1700’s. Certain wave or flame-bladed two-handed swords have come to be known by collectors as flamberges, although this is inaccurate. Such swords developed in the early-to-mid 1500’s and are more appropriately known as flammards or flambards (the German Flammenschwert).

 

A Word about “Longswords”

Longswordswar-swords, or great swords are distinguished from the common one-handed sword of the period by having both a long grip and a long blade. Medieval warriors did distinguish war-swords or great-swords (“grant espees” or “grete swerdes”) from “standard” or common swords in general, but the so-called “long-swords” were really just those larger versions of typical one-handed swords, except with stouter blades. They were “longer swords”, as opposed to single-hand swords, or just common “swords”. They could be used on foot or mounted and were sometimes accompanied with a shield. The term war-sword or sword of war from the 1300’s referred to larger swords that were carried in battle. They were usually kept on the saddle as opposed to worn on the belt.  This is why there is a “Common” sword on the roster but no entry for a “long sword” as a distinct type.

 

A Word about “Broadswords”

Arms collectors, museum curators, theatrical-fighters, and fantasy-gamers have made the word “broadsword” a common, albeit blatantly historically incorrect, term popularly misapplied as a generic synonym for medieval swords or any long, wide military blade.

The now popular misnomer “broadsword” in reference to medieval blades actually originated with antique arms collectors in the early 19th century, although many mistranslations and misinterpretations of medieval manuscripts during the 19th & 20th centuries have inserted the word broadsword in place of other terms, as well.  These historians described swords of earlier ages as simply being “broader” than their own thinner, contemporary ones.

The term “broadsword” does not appear anywhere in the English military texts from the 1570’s  to the 1630’s and does not show up in the inventories of sword types from the 1630’s. It most likely came into use some time between 1619 and 1630. Descriptions of swords as “broad” before this time are only incidental and the word “broad” is used as an adjective in the same way “sharp” or “large” would be applied. Leading arms collectors and curators commonly list the broadsword specifically as a close-hilted military sword from the second half of the 17th century.  Those cage- and basket-hilted blades used by cavalry starting in the 1640’s were in form, “broadswords”, especially in comparison to the thinner lighter blades in use at that time, such as rapiers and small-swords.

This is why they have been ommitted from the equipment lists in Realms of Myth.

 

Maces & Flails

Mace” is the proper name for the bludgeoning weapon consisting of a smooth, heavy globe headed mounted on either a shorter “horseman’s” haft, or a longer “footman’s” haft, but in either case indicates the weapon in and of itself.

Between the flail and mace, the main difference is that the mace’s head is firmly fixed to the end of the haft while the head of the flail is not. It does just that – it flails about on either stout ropes (which are subject to being cut by a skilled and savvy opponent) or chains (which can kink-up and become unwieldy). The player and GM may well have seen examples of flails composed of a longer and a shorter wooden shaft, hinged with a couple of chain links between, or the popular “ball-and-chain”, or those that consist of 2, 3, or as many as 5 or 6 smaller iron balls each with their own rope or chain.

Mace and flail are commonly confused with one another, but they are also often confused with the term “morning star”. A “morning star” is not an object, however. It is in fact an adjective describing a treatment applied to a mace in which short, sharp spikes are attached to the business end of the weapon so that they radiate out like the rays of the “morning star”. This adds a (limited) penetrating factor to an already impressive high-impact attack that can, over the course of a number of successful strikes, shred the armor.

The flanged variety and other similar types of maces were used only briefly historically. They were considered failed experiments, discovered to be too easily trapped in the armors they breached, too difficult to recover again after a stroke in battle. Once used, they had to be abandoned.