Medieval sword fighting

Find out how ancient swordsmen use medieval swords in combat and the development of medieval sword fighting techniques

Toddlers, schoolchildren, and even adolescents seem to know more about medieval sword fighting than adults. They can swish and flick a toy sword complete with sounds and speed. They may even feign death when necessary.

All these they learn from medieval fantasy swords games and popular films and animations. This is distressing for historians however. The younger generation might be learning history the wrong way.

Cutting, slashing, and thrusting are not the only skills required to use Viking swords, Knights Templar swords, and Knight swords into effective, efficient use. As a matter of fact, it took hundreds of years for medieval swordsmen to master the art of swordsmanship.

The Lost Swordsmanship of the Romans

The Romans were the first people who have started using sword in a large scale. The swords gladius and spatha were prominent in military campaigns against the Greeks, Celts, and Germanic tribes of Europe. Together with scutum, which was a type of shield, the Romans charged through enemy lines with ferocity and power.

The fall of the Roman Empire ushered in the Medieval Ages. But it was unfortunate that the Roman sword skills were largely disregarded, if not forgotten. Medieval sword fighting started with the Vikings, who ironically did not use swords for war.
This was a step back in time, since the Romans were noted militarists and war strategists. The Vikings made contribution to the history of medieval swords through their noblemen and elite gentry. The ownership of swords was highly symbolic, so they were solely possessed by high-ranking class of wealthy traders, commanders-in-chief, and generals.

The rise of knighthood, the Christian call for Crusades, and other imminent wars against kingdoms have put a lot of pressure for medieval swordsmanship to be taken seriously. What is a medieval sword and what is its purpose were the frequent questions that confronted people at that time.

Should it be used for nobles alone, or should it be distributed to every soldier? These questions were even made more pressing as skills in axe and spear could not keep up to the challenges of war and conquest prevalent in Middle Age.

With the discovery of steel, armory and metalworking improved. The use of sword became widespread again. Shields or bucklers were in vogue. Plate armors, which the Romans have pioneered, were seen in the battlefield once more. It seems the lost Roman swordsmanship was resurrected.

Medieval sword fighting techniques

The following sword skills are in no way academic and does not contain any in-depth study on swordsmanship of Medieval Age swords.

Striking

Striking refers to the use of the sword to inflict physical harm to an opponent. It consists of three parts: cutting, thrusting, and slashing.

Timing

Miyamoto Musashi says timing is important. Medieval masters focused on promoting aggression as a way of controlling the combat, whether it is in a duel or a massive battle. Timing basically points to position of the enemy and the corresponding offensive position of the protagonist.

Distance

Distance refers to the proper area to be observed between swordsmen in a duel. It is defined according to the type of medieval age sword used. For example, a Viking sword would have a different distance to that of the Late Medieval Age longsword.

It is also important, as this can decide the timing for an attack or for a defensive stance. There are two types of distance: unengaged, when the two swordsmen cannot launch a successful strike; and engaged, when either of the two can launch a successful strike.

Treatises

Medieval sword fighting styles reached its peak with the introduction of treatises. Treatises were manuals for sword fighting and were considered central to the education of the swordsmen.

They laid down the basic principles on the use of different Middle Age swords. The first recorded manual on medieval sword fighting styles was written in Germany around 1300 AD.

On the other hand, Asian medieval sword fighting techniques were not laid into writing until the late Middle Ages. For example, Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi did not write his Book of Five Rings (a book that deals with correct samurai attitude, the swords to be used in combat, and the philosophy of war) until 1645.

Chinese’ Ji Xiao Xin Shu (a book that deals with the correct forging of the sword to the styles in combat) was written much earlier, in 1560s. These ancient treatises are the foundations of modern art and sport of fencing.

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