Short Swords and Arming Swords
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Categories: Medieval, Modern

Short Swords and Arming Swords

In an earlier post I talked about how some people in 15th and 16th century England and France thought that a sword for war should be shorter than was ideal in an unarmoured duel. This week I would like to return to that and talk about how the medieval concepts of “short sword” and “arming sword” are closely related.

Back when people waged war in armour with swords, an arming sword was the sword you wore with your armour, as contrasted with a hunting sword, a riding sword, a court sword, etc. Ewart Oakeshott redefined it to mean “a single-handed sword.” But there are some hints that arming swords, or the sword worn at the side with armour, were considered to be relatively short. We saw how Sir John Smythe and the French treatise on military costume suggest that an armoured man should wear a sword with a relatively short blade. The Michigan Middle English Dictionary has other examples:

(1397) “The property of the earl of Arundel,” Sussex archaeological collections, vol. 91: j longe espe de burdeux oue le hilt’ & pomel herneis dargent enorrez x s iiij courtes espes de guerre sanz herneis darg’ xxx s x aut[re]s espes plus longes ascuns fortz ascuns t[re]nchantz xx s j espe de guerr’ oue ij vantplates p[u]r les lystes vj s viij d “one long sword of Bordeaux … 4 short swords of war … 10 other longer swords, some strong, some cutting …” (good blades for cutting tend to be wide and thin near the point, so can be fragile and certainly don’t give a strong thrust; this has been re-edited and translated in Ralph Moffat’s Medieval Arms and Armour: A Sourcebook vol. 1 source 144)

(1415) Reg.Chichele in Cant.Yk.S.42 (Lamb 69) 48 : Y wil..þat John Cheyne..have þe short armyn swerd harnaised with gold.

(1453) Proc.Privy C. 6.129 : The seid parties shuld do that bataill with certen weppens..with gleyve, short sword, dagger & with axe instede of longe sword.

(1460-1470?) How a Man Shall be Armed : And then hange his daggere upon his right side. And then his short swerde upon the lyfte side in a rounde rynge all nakid to pulle it oute lightli. … And then his long swerde in his hande.

In these texts, I think a short sword is a sword with a hilt that will only easily fit one hand, has a slightly shorter blade, and can easily be worn at the side, and a long sword has a hilt that will easily fit two hands and has a slightly longer blade (you can’t reach as far when you hold your sword in both hands as when you hold it in one, because your body has to remain square to what you want to cut or stab, so a two-handed sword is usually longer in the blade as well as longer in the hilt). The long sword is physically longer than the short sword, but it is also designed differently. Since its the 15th century, the basic meaning of “sword” or “espee” is a knightly or cruciform sword with a straight blade, a crossguard, a hilt and a pommel, but these texts seem to use “short sword” and “long sword” to mean something more specific than “a sword that is short” and “a sword that is long.” Regardless, Smythe, the French treatise, and the English document from 1415 all describe arming swords as “short.”

If “short sword” had associations of a practical military sidearm, that might explain why George Silver insists that his preferred sword with a giant 37-40″ (94-102 cm) blade is a short sword in 1599. George Silver is utterly oriented towards fencing, duelling, and streetfighting, and never claims to have fought for his queen, but like many later martial artists, he insists that his art has military value to attract students and avoid the stigma that his teachings just teach people to disturb the peace. Silver’s name for what we call a longsword is two-handed sword (“The perfect length of your two handed sword is, the blade to be the length of the blade of your single sword.” – Brief Instructions).

In German fencing treatises, usage is a bit different. Das lange Schwert is the sword held with both hands on the hilt, as contrasted with holding it with one hand on the hilt and one hand on the reins, or one hand on the hilt and one hand on the blade to use it like a short spear. I don’t know whether this meaning was confined to fencing treatises or appears widely in early German texts, and unfortunately I don’t know of a good historical dictionary of 14th and 15th century German with detailed examples (the Gebrüder Grimm thought das lange Schwert could mean “longsword” but their first example is from 1590) . Ad fontes!

So on one hand, the basic meaning of short sword is a sword that is short, a long sword is a sword that is long, and an arming sword is the sword you wear with your armour. These terms have never had a single precise technical meaning, and archaeologists, tabletop gamers, and fencers each use them differently today. But there are some reasons to think that a 15th or 16th century English person’s idea of arming sword leaned towards swords with relatively short blades and hilts, and that long sword sometimes had the technical meaning of “a moderate-sized two-handed sword.” Our modern technical definitions don’t perfectly match usage in the past, but I don’t think they are completely different from it.

Edit 2024-05-20: Sidney Anglo, Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, p. 101 points to Florio’s Italian-English dictionary from 1611: Stocco: a short or arming-sword, a tuck

Edit 2024-05-25: Pedro Paulo Gaião pointed me to some related expressions, French Espee d’armesépée and Portugese and Castillian espada de armas. Without further research I can’t say whether they had exactly the same connotations as “arming sword” in England.

(scheduled 12 August 2023, updated 23 September 2023)

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