Where do Misconceptions About Medieval Swords Come From?

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Categories: Medieval, Modern

Most misconceptions about ancient Greek and Near Eastern swords come from peer-reviewed books by professional researchers who never opened a site report or spent time really seeing what was behind glass in museums. But the people who really like medieval swords are worried about misinformation too, and they blame some different culprits. Recently, several of them have given talks or written essays where they blame the same three sources. Because their comments are mixed up with other things or scattered across different places, this week I have gathered them together.

  1. Shows and vlogs like “Forged in Fire” which perform ridiculous tests of swords like using them to cut down trees or strike steel bars. “Forged in Fire” is a reality TV show, and reality TV thrives on drama and spectacular failures which are not what happens when you get experts on camera. I have not had TV or streaming video for so long that I never saw this show, but Darrell Markewitz of Wareham Forge in Ontario has some rants on this which are too long to quote: Forged in Fire (2015) and Forged in Fire? Not this Professional (2017).
    • Maciej Kopciuch, “Testing modern swords and more…”: “you cannot use a sword like an ax, e.g. to strike against hard, stable objects such as a tree trunk. The sword was not designed and intended for such things. Use the right tools, take an ax.”
    • Arms & Armor (MN, USA) “The Care and Feeding of Your Weapon”: “One should not use a sword against hard objects such as a tree or concrete. While this might look good in the movies (prop departments and special effects units use many tricks to enhance the storyline), it would destroy any real sword no matter what it is made of or how it was made. These were tools that evolved over thousands of years with one basic purpose, and though gruesome, that purpose was to inflict harm on one’s opponent. They were not designed to (or ever could for that matter) hack down a forest or cleave an anvil in half.”
  2. Expecting a sharp sword to feel like a blunt designed for various modern games. Most training swords today are altered to be blunt and flexible for safety, long-handled to let wearers in bulky gloves grip them, or heavy to survive abuse or reduce maintenance.
    • Dr. Nathan Clough “Individual Training Sets”, Arms & Armor News and Blogs “if a trainer has exactly the same weight, dynamics and dimensions as a sharp sword, it will just be a sharp sword. Many things have to change to make it safe while staying as true to the dynamics of the sharp as possible. For a training sword to be relatively safe it must have edges that are far thicker than those on a sharp, and it also needs to be reasonably flexible despite this thickness. To accomplish this training swords are usually more narrow than the sharp swords that they seek to approximate.”
    • Michael Edelson, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Practice (CreateSpace, 2017) p. 71 “The majority of available steel training longswords are designed for competitive fencing in bulky protective gear, and are not ideal for practicing body mechanics. Using a training sword that is too large can lead to problems as you will be forced to compensate for the sword’s size. Although blade length can be an issue, due to the light weight and balance of most training swords, the handle length is usually more problematic.”
    • Craig Johnson, “What to think about when purchasing a HEMA/WMA Trainer – Part 2,” Arms & Armor News and Blogs “If you frequently train with a partner who tries to ‘manfully’ hew you into concussed oblivion you should not expect a slim or delicate guard to remain unscathed in the process. Cross guards are there to protect you. Many sharp swords have fine and elegant guards that were never designed for day in and day out abuse. Rather, if you got into a duel, survived, and noticed that your cross was heavily damaged while saving your life it was a rather acceptable trade off. The rigors of training today mean that durability should be a significant consideration when choosing a guard for your Feder or other trainer.”
    • Craig Johnson, “How to Make Swords,” The Sword Guy Podcast Episode 33 “Today, I see people really struggling with changing the items from the historical model to be part and parcel with other choices they’ve made like safety, and I’m not advocating not being safe with something, but if your gauntlets are so large that you have to extend your grip a couple of inches to make the sword usable in the art you’re using, then you’re altering it, and so don’t get hung up on doing it that way with this product, because you’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole.”
  3. Belief that the best sword (and best edge) is the one which cuts straw mats or vegetables or pop bottles the best, because you often strike your sharp swords against these but not against what swords were meant to strike.
    • Dr. Nathan Clough and Craig Johnson, “Choosing a Sword for Test Cutting” “There are three primary factors that make a sword excel in test cutting: The relative thinness of the blade, the relative width of the blade, and the wieldiness of the sword. Generally speaking, swords with wider, thinner blades will cut with less effort and will tend to ‘self align’ if they strike the target at a sub-optimal angle. For compound cuts a sword needs to change direction easily and track well. It is these qualities that account for the prevalence of type XVIIIc longswords in competitions over the past several years. Our Leeds Castle Sword really epitomizes all of these qualities. It is a very close replica of the widest and lightest of the so-called Alexandria Arsenal swords. It tracks very well, and despite its size it changes direction easily and cuts very well. However, these were a relatively uncommon type of sword optimized for a very specific context of warfare against unarmored foes on crusade. … Due to our friendship with the late Ewart Oakeshott we had the great honor to hold, examine, and minutely reproduce this sword from the original, making our (Oakeshott Type XVa) Black Prince Sword an excellent piece for folks interested in historical accuracy. While swords like this one are well-suited to Fiore’s art, they can be challenging for someone who is just beginning to cut tatami mats and other difficult targets due to the geometry of the blade. Make no mistake, these swords are perfectly capable of delivering devastating cuts, you just need to have excellent form and edge alignment, just as knights of the late 14th century did.”
    • Maciej Kopchiuh, “Passau blades cross-section”, Art of Swordmaking “most of medieval swords were designed to be used against more or less armoured opponents. The edge of the blade was always reinforced, it was not designed for cutting soft objects, such as fruits or meat, like in modern testing. Very thin edge is designed to cut, not to crash and break at the same time. Just compare a kitchen knife with any original sword blade… It is worth to notice that important difference, to understand medieval swords functionality and purpose.”
    • Edge Geometry on Medieval Swords, Arms & Armor News and Blogs

    Sources from Xenophon to Sakakibara Kozan describe people striking swords and spears against various objects to test the weapon or the target, but the anonymous website historicaleuropeanmartialarts dot com says that cutting rolled mats first became common in the 20th century in Japan: Markus Sesko, Tameshigiri: The History and Development of Japanese Sword Testing (lulu.com, 2014) ISBN 9781312327030 (author’s website). Before the 20th century the Japanese tested the edges of their swords on condemned prisoners or struck the back of the blade against bundles of sticks.

It worries me that thoughtful people in Ontario, Minnesota, and Poland notice the same three misconceptions from the same three sources.

Many people have noticed how television and movies and plays teach people many things, but the people who make them refuse to take responsibility except in a few limited cases. Hollywood and Canadian films and TV now show safe firearms handling, and most journalists limit how they talk about acts of violence to not traumatize victims or encourage copy-cats, but history-lovers don’t have as much power as the groups who made them adopt these policies. Educated people in the UK keep citing Shakespeare’s history plays as a source for 15th century history (in Canada we just stage the tragedies and comedies). On the other hand, you can avoid the first problem with Matthew Amt’s simple rule: “assume anything you see in a movie or on TV is false!” Anyone can learn this.

The second and third problems are more insidious, because they seem to come out of experience. Fencing with blunt swords or mangling mats do teach you things about swords. Experience is very convincing, but sometimes people don’t understand what is generally true and what only true in a specific context. Experts in violence like Marc MacYoung warn about people who have survived one assault, or played one combat sport, and proclaim that this teaches them THE ONE TRUE ANSWER. If you broaden your sources of information, try things in different contexts, and always ask yourself what the limits to what someone is teaching are, you have a chance of avoiding mistakes like the second and third. Solving the epistemic crisis will require systemic changes, but until then we can take individual actions.

Matt Easton of ScholaGladiatoria Channel (YouTube) has some posts on these topics if you like videos. It was Jona Lendering who observed that most of the misconceptions people brought to him were not from cranks but from experts speaking outside their area of expertise.

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(scheduled 19 April 2021)

Edit 2021-07-31: added the parallel to Shakespeare and British memory of their history

1 thought on “Where do Misconceptions About Medieval Swords Come From?

  1. Some Thoughts on “Cutting with the Medieval Sword” – Book and Sword says:

    […] for cutting things up, and another in sparring or drills. As we will see in a scheduled post (where do misconceptions about medieval swords come from?), cutting rolled and soaked straw mats (tatami) is a 20th century Japanese practice. Sword which […]

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