Some facts about swords to end the semester with

Credit: Cody Read

As the school year finally wraps up and stress builds due to the constant threat of final grades and the inevitable summertime absence of structure, the best remedy I’ve found for post-pandemic academic angst is a good, healthy distraction. What better form can a distraction such as this take than swords?

Swords (and all other assorted weaponry) are outdated weapons if you think about it practically, but they have a long, complicated, and fascinating history. From the weapon’s first appearance in 3300 B.C.E with the Swords of Arslantepe to its current appearances in fantasy media and gaming, as well as modern stage combat, swordplay, and fencing, the glorious piece of dangerous metal shows no signs of going out of style anytime soon.

One of the best examples of romanticized swordplay is the entire medieval era. It’s not for nothing, though—medieval swords were one of the most important physical relics a knight could own, and they symbolized a sense of class and respectability, unlike other weapons of the era. Swords were the primary weapons of medieval knights and the most handy for close-range combat. Swords went from being wide and bulky in the 13th century to being thinner as armor design advanced, the end of the blade coming down to a finer point in order to get in the small gaps in chainmail armor. Sword fighting styles were often rough and powerful. Every attack had to have enough force behind it to severely damage the armor of the opponent, and ideally reach the opponent with enough force to kill them. While still practical and stylistic, every attack had to be with the intention of delivering lethal damage. It was by no means the prettiest of eras or techniques, at least in the west. Other medieval weapons included lances (long thin weapons to use on horseback), maces (large, blunt, and often spiked weapons, sometimes on chains), axes, and spears. The Medieval era is also heavily associated with the Legend of King Arthur and the sword in the stone: Excalibur, the sword of the wizard Merlin and, later, King Arthur.

A sword believed to be found in a river in Germany, dated c. 1350-1400. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art

For obvious reasons, my personal favorite type of swords are cutlasses: pirate swords. Most commonly recognized for their slightly curved blade, shell-shaped guards (the part above the handle of the sword that protects your hands), and dramatic elegance, the cutlass was used mainly during the 17th-18th centuries (1650-1720, otherwise known as the Golden Age of Piracy) during naval exploits and combat. Unlike other stylized weapons of their era such as rapiers, cutlasses were simple and direct: strong but lightweight, and useful enough to be used as both weapons in combat and simple tools. They’re also smaller and less fragile, so much easier for close combat such as fights that take place on a ship.

There are plenty of different shapes, lengths, styles, and purposes for different kinds of swords, but it’s easy to group them into smaller categories. For example, daggers (which I’ll go into more detail about later), short swords, and two-handed swords, to name a very simplified three. A short sword is usually light and airy, designed for short, thrusting movements that mimic those of a dagger. Longer, lighter swords, like rapiers and fencing weapons, were usually less practical for lethal combat and used for more refined movements and swordplay (like fencing). Two-handed swords, like broadswords, are usually much heavier and harder to control. They’re used mostly for heavy, momentum-based slashing movements, and they can be helpful for close combat if you’re strong enough to wield one with control over it—but hard to manage for a smaller person.

Another important thing to mention when we talk about swords is the clear difference between western fighting styles from their Eastern counterparts—the most famous example being the famous Japanese samurai. Like medieval knights, samurai were paid warriors, and held a highly respectable position in the social ladder of their time. Their fighting style, however, was much different (and arguably, much better). For one, samurai often used two swords in combat—one being the katana, the longer and primary weapon, and the other being the wakizashi: a short sword that complimented the katana. Along with utilizing smoother, more dynamic movements in combat, samurai had many iconic techniques that weren’t replicated in the west. Iaido was a technique centered around the smoothness and awareness one had when drawing their blade. It also contributed to a dangerous play in which the same movement used to draw the sword was used to attack the opponent. It, among others, was a move that the west was never able to take advantage of. Along with Iaido (and many others) some samurai used a technique called the Tamiya-ryu Technique. This one required a sword with a long hilt (the lower area of the sword, consisting of the grip, guard, and pommel) that made the sword stabler and easier to wield. The stance of Tamiya-ryu was important, with the samurai’s sword arm raised above their head to distract their opponent from complicated and dynamic footwork underneath. All in all, the samurai were powerful and iconic warriors, with fighting techniques that would probably have demolished western knights.

A katana and wakizashi. Credit: Khan Academy

Of all the modern adaptations of historical sword-play we can easily spot, fencing is probably the most direct. One of the many instances of making something light and airy out of something heavy and dark, like making a game out of death and killing, the idea of play-fighting has been around forever. Fencing itself has been part of the Summer Olympics since the first international Olympic Games in 1896. Today, modern fencing is split into three different subsections, designated by sword type: Épée, foil, and sabre. Épée is the heaviest fencing discipline, the only sword with a triangular blade, and the only discipline in which the entire body is fair game. Foil is the most common discipline in fencing, featuring a rectangular blade. Only hits to the opponent’s torso are legal. The third discipline, sabre, is the only one where cuts using the edge of the blade are considered legal. The blade is rectangular in shape, and only hits to the top half of the body are legal. All swords used for fencing are blunted, and protective wear that covers the entire body is necessary to keep people from getting hurt. Sportsmanship and prestige is important, unlike in fencing’s violent roots of lethal combat. I believe it’s transcended something, in a way: the act of turning something like the pursuit of violence into such a respectable game is no small feat.

Besides swords, there’s plenty of other weapons that are equally as interesting—such as daggers, battle axes, and maces. Each of these weapons probably deserves an article of their own, but for the sake of time and space I’ll try to run through them quickly. Daggers are a short weapon for close combat, typically using a quick jabbing motion. Due to their small size, they’re one of few weapons that are often used as decoration, and made into pieces of art that aren’t meant to be used in combat. Battle axes, on the other hand, were used by Norse Vikings as a brutal and deadly weapon. While still remaining fairly light (unlike more popular media depictions of axes as heavy, clumsy weapons) battle axes were able to inflict a lot of damage, especially in the hands of Vikings. Maces are large, often spiked weapons that evolved from clubs (a long blunt stick). Maces often had separate handles, unlike clubs, and were sometimes attached to a chain for more powerful impact. Unlike long-range weapons like spears, bows, and lances, maces were used primarily in close-range combat.

Swords are one of my favorite things. They’re powerful without losing their artistry, dependable and timeless without losing their charm and class, and overflowing with rich history from every time period. There are plenty of examples now, but as media continues to evolve and more fictional swords appear, it seems likely that some research on the topic will come in handy—and luckily, mainstream swordsmanship doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

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