The Development of the Sword Throughout Medieval History

From ancient times to Hollywood, the sword has represented power, justice, and the fight against evil. It’s both magical and deadly. The sword has influenced the outcome of great moments in history, inspired famous myths and legends, and the skill of it’s makers has turned it into an object of desire. It’s a perfect fusion of form and function, and it has the power to thrill and appall in equal measure.

Today there are many reminders of our sword-fighting past. A man buttons his coat left over right, leaving his right hand free to draw his sword. We shake hands to show we’re not armed. A gentleman escorts a lady by the right arm because his sword hangs on his left.

With the touch of a sword, a man is knighted. With the breaking of his own, he is disgraced. Whole armies were surrendered by the giving up of a single sword. And swords have been ritually sacrificed to the gods in order to evoke their protection.

Compared to many wild animals, we’re defenseless creatures. So from the earliest times we’ve had to make weapons which cut and pierce in order to hunt, eat, and to defend against enemies. The first weapons were made of flint which were honed by grinding, using antler or bone to create a good cutting edge. The first known metal was gold, but it’s always been precious and usually belonged to royalty. Copper was the first metal to be used for making tools and weapons, discovered 6,000 years ago.

Egyptian Flint Knives

Around 3,500 years ago, copper was exported from Wales to northern Europe and the Mediterranean. A copper sword was a top of the range weapon but it had it’s drawbacks. Copper is soft, though when it’s mixed with tin it becomes bronze. Bronze is three times stronger than copper and is more suitable for casting. This enabled swords of a similar quality to be produced in greater numbers. Those who controlled the production of bronze controlled their territory.

Bronze sword found in Hungary (1550-1200 BC)

The sword, unlike the spear or arrow, is a close-range weapon. That’s what makes it so special, so personal, and so terrible. In much of northern Europe the tribal system of fighting put greater emphasis on individual bravery. Tactics and a coordinated approach to battle was seldom adopted. But whatever fighting system was used, there were still problems with swords. Bronze, though better than copper, could still deform in the intensity of a fight.

It took hundreds of years for new materials, knowledge, and skill to cross the continent. With a discovery and exploitation of iron in 1,500 BC in central Asia, warriors had a harder material with which to make their weapons. The sword evolved along with metallurgy. Iron was much more abundant than copper, and more widely distributed across the world. It could be forged into much sharper, and more lethal weapons. Swords became longer and heavier. Unfortunately few remain from the early iron period because of they’re susceptibility to rusting.

Iron Sword from Celtic Period

Swordmakers were highly regarded. Smiths who made instruments meant to take life and who transformed raw material seemed to have power over nature. If you manipulated the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water you were empowered by the gods to manipulate a fifth element, magic. The swordsmith often worked in a forge with a spiral-shaped entrance to keep the light out. The colors of orange, red, and white would be read by the swordmaker like a special code. The blacksmith would work from these colors, and such that nobody could see what he was doing. The only people who knew these secrets would be the swordsmith’s son or apprentice.

Swords were thought to have spiritual powers beyond their earthly use, and even went on to the afterlife. They were often buried with their owners in special places. There are many examples of Celtic graves where the warriors are dug up with their blades folded so that they can’t be used by a mere mortal. If they were needed in the other world the warriors could unbend them. The Celts evoked the power of lake goddesses to assist them in battle by giving up their swords as sacrificial offerings. When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, they didn’t underestimate the influence of the spirit world on their enemy.

The strength and power of iron was exploited by the Romans more successfully than any other civilization. The Romans used new ideas and technology to such advantage that they dominated the known world for centuries. The real essence of Roman success was discipline and collective skills. The Roman legionary fought as part of a team that was well organized in tactical terms. He was a soldier rather than an individual warrior.

Around the middle of the first century AD, the Roman soldier was to benefit from two significant changes in equipment. Bands of plate armor with mail, and a sturdier cut and thrust sword made from steel. Both were very effective against their enemies. Romans trained rigorously. They even practiced with wooden swords, something that their dangerous entertainers, the Gladiators, used to duel.

1st Century Roman Centurion Armor made by Ermine Street Guard Reenactment Group

The word gladiator comes from the name of their primary weapon. These warriors used a sword called a gladius. Gladiators have always pulled in the crowds. They were better trained than the average soldier. They were expensive, highly skilled killers. Their training was eventually adopted by the Roman army.

Ancient Roman Gladiators

In total, the Roman army had thirty legions of 5,000 men each. They also had as many auxiliary troops, recruited from the subjects of the empire. When emperor Claudius invaded Britain he brought 40,000 troops with him, 15% of the entire army, and it took 20 difficult years to defeat the natives.

In the late 8th century there was a new threat from the North. Vikings began to raid the coast of Britain in western Europe. For the viking, the sword was the principal weapon. It’s value was considered so great that it was handed down from father to son. If the sword was old or belonged to a famous warrior from the past, then it would have even greater value.

Steel is either hard and breaks, or soft and bends. A sword needs to be hard to keep a good working edge but also needs to be softer and pliable to take the shock of combat and parry the physical force of a blow. So a sword is a contradiction in terms of metal, which is why they are so expensive and difficult to make.

The Norsemen of Northern France, the Normans, invaded England in 1066. The viking style swords were pattern-welded from soft iron twisted with steel to make them both strong and flexible. The Normans took control of England and Wales.

8th Century Style Viking Sword

Within a hundred years a new sword culture developed, one based on romantic notions. Inspired by the legends of King Arthur and the knights of the round table, the sword status was enhanced by the development of the chivalry code, a guide to acting with courage and honor, which united knights across Europe.

Medieval smiths saw the transition from chain mail to plate armor as a response to developments in infantry weapons such as mail-piercing arrows. Shields too were gradually made redundant by full armor and began to disappear from the battlefield, atleast for knights. By the late 14th century, a technical rivalry was developing between swordsmiths and armorers. Armor impacts on sword design just as the sword impacts on armor. A blade smith is constantly thinking of new ways to cut through armor, while an armor smith looks for ways to defend against new weapons.

By the 15th century, plate armor was impressive to look at, but what was it like in action? At the royal armories there are international jousting events that put it to the test. Tournaments began as contests between teams of knights. Though there were casualties, the idea was not to spill much blood. It was meant to provide additional training for the knight, but the stakes were high. Knights on the losing side were taken as prisoners and ransomed. Fortunes could be made in this way. After jousting, knights would often continue fighting on foot. They used two-handed great swords. At tournaments a fixed number of blows would be agreed before-hand and knights would take it in turns to hit their opponent. On the battlefield the two-handed sword was used to smash through armor. It looked heavier than it was but nevertheless it required considerable skill in action.

Renaissance-era depiction of jousting in late medieval armor

Some of the best swords of all time were produced in the far east. For over a thousand years, one blade dominated the battlefields of Japan. This was the Katana, used by samurai warriors. The legendary katana is born in a clay furnace called a tatara. This furnace will burn for three days and nights. It is fed by iron reduced to a sand-like form. The iron is incredibly pure and forms a unique steel once it is combined with the carbon from the charcoal flakes. The raw steel is tamahagane. When the smith looks into the bed of fire, he can tell from the color of the steel whether or not it has become tamahagane. They will tend to the flames day and night until the process is complete.

Modern katana sword different views

Modern Katana Sword Produced by Swords of Northshire

The carbon provides shock absorption to withstand huge punishment when fighting. The samurai, the warrior and gentleman of Japan, was defined by the two swords he wore at his side. He wore a long sword called the Katana and the short sword called a Wakizashi. Almost no one else in Japanese society was allowed to wear a sword. This was the sign of a samurai. The Katana was more than simply one of the most effective fighting weapons ever designed. It was something that went to the very center of the samurai ethos, it was the soul of the samurai.

After three days, the special tamahagane steel is drawn from the furnace. The swordsmith leads a spiritual way of life. He prays to Buddha for a perfect sword. The forge is regarded as a sacred site. In all countries with a martial tradition, the sword has been elevated to a symbol of power and justice. But in Japan, it’s more than this. The samurai’s spiritual development was achieved through the way of the sword.

The tamahagane is covered in paper with a holy script, then a light covering of clay and ash are added to limit the amount of air in the process. The smith’s hammering welds all the pieces into one and drives out impurities. The katana is now a block of steel. Next it is hammered flat and folded on top of itself around 12-15 times to further remove impurities and even out the carbon content. Upwards of 30,000 layers would be left in the steel from this process.

In most cultures the smith has an important role. He’s the man who is putting into the sword more than simply practical qualities. He’s imbuing it with something of himself. He will very often make the process of forging quasi-religious. He’ll sign it with pride. So much that good swordsmiths often had their signatures counterfeited like great artists might. In Japanese society this fervor takes a very extreme form. The smith would abstain from drink and sex, and would almost become like a monk during the period of forging the sword.

Samurai warriors were an elite class. Their particular Buddhist belief meant they had no fear of killing or dying. Raids on Korea and China gained riches for the warlords of medieval Japan. The katana sword brought wealth, it was a blade of distinction. Katanas were made from two kinds of steel. Hard on the outside but with a softer core to give it toughness and flexibility. In the middle ages, katanas were used in executions but they were also tested on the corpses of criminals. Swords were graded according to how many bodies they could cut in one stroke.

Test cutting of a live body

One of the final stages is the polishing process. The task is to sharpen the sword and to reveal the structures of grain that were built into the sword during the forging process. Eventually the beauty of the metal shines through and the hard and soft layers are revealed. The samurai was always close to his sword. At night it remained by his bed. It was a sign of authority, and only death would part him from it.

While the samurai were at their most powerful, Europe was entering the age of enlightenment. In the west, the renaissance of the 15th century brought about a new age of learning. Between 1450 and 1500, more books were produced than in the previous 1,000 years. The development of printing allowed experts to reach a wider audience. The publication of guides for sword-fighting proved popular.

At this time the sword was still the weapon of choice in a fight but it was soon to bow to a new and terrible weapon. Gun powder had been invented by the Chinese in the 9th century and was originally used by the artillery. By the 16th century, it had been developed and used in hand-held muskets. The development of gunpowder weapons had a huge effect on the whole of warfare. It meant that armor was quickly losing it’s value. It meant that although hand-to-hand fighting would continue, and swords would even still be used by infantry for quite a while afterwards, most of the damage and killing would be at the hand of a gun . Once gunpowder brought it’s fury to the battlefield, the days of the sword were ever since numbered.

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