Monday, September 13, 2010

Sword Fighting throught the Ages - Part 3

Avast, me hearties! It’s finally time for those of you who write pirate stories to take the fore (deck). Today I’m blogging on Nic Harrison’s demonstration on sword fighting with a buckler. In other words, swashbuckling.

We’re up to the 16th century now.

1305 MS with Knight carrying a buckler on his hip

A buckle is a small shield, maybe about twice the diameter of man’s fist. It was normally carried strapped to your hip with your scabbard. It was used to deflect blows – the swash. The buckle part of the term comes from the response to a swash – you “buckle”. So the rhythm of a fight went swash, buckle, swash, buckle. The style of fighting goes back to the 13th century and continue right until the 18th.

Fighting with bucklers -- MS dates 1325

Swashbuckling descended from longsword technique. The sword was still a cutting weapon. But it was lighter, even though fighters were still using the sword itself to block opponents blows. The movement of the fight was still circular. As Nic put it, you followed the movement (the arc) of the sword. On the other hand, the pace of the fight had picked up. Blows fell a lot faster (which is probably why we enjoy watching those swashbuckler films so much.)

16th century swashbucklers -- with codpieces

Oh, about now I ought to mention cod pieces. They were not there to enhance a man’s sex appeal. Nic pointed out that all through the ages, men wore some sort of padding to protect their private parts. (Now you know what was REALLY under that kilt.) In a real fight, it was no holds barred. A blow to those parts, by sword or otherwise, could immobilize you and put your totally at the mercy of your opponent.

Viking Sword 9th century
At about this point in his sword fighting techniques demonstration for the Romance Wrtiers of New Zealand, Nic had his fighters through the ages come forward with their swords and let us compare them. The trend was obvious. Swords were getting longer and thinner. They were changing from cutting weapons to piercing ones. (Well, not entirely, but more on this in a bit.)
Norman Sword 11th century

Longsword 15th century

Part of this had to do with the fact that in the late 13th century, treatises began to appear on the art of sword fighting. By the 16th century, there were schools of sword fighting with masters running them. P lus income was affecting the type of sword a person used.

All right, previously, even back in the so called “Dark Ages” income influenced the weapon you chose. Everyone had a knife, but you had to have money to have a sword. They were expensive (probably the reason why they got passed from father to son and why they were part of ceremonial burials like Sutton Hoo.) The style of sword changed little through the early part of the medieval period, but by the 15th century the speed of change accelerated. Styles of swords had changed so quickly that your father’s sword no longer was suitable for you.

About 1670, the first treatise on civilian sword fighting appeared. Fencing became “the noble art of self-defense”. (The word “fence” comes from “defense”.)

And the rapier appeared – the “Queen of Swords”. The rapier was long and elegant. It gave a skilled fighter the ability to place his thrust exactly where he wanted. But – and here’s the big “but” – learning to fight this way took time. It takes three years to train a person to “fence”.

Swashbuckling, on the other hand, can be learned in three days.

We now have two classes of sword fighters – the common soldier and the gentleman.

Sword from Rennaissance period with finger ring(s)

With the rapier, the style of fighting changed. One of the changes had to do with putting your finger over the “guard” of the hilt. This allowed you to have better control of the point of the sword, so you could direct your thrust. But you needed some sort of protection, or your finger would be cut off. The most basic was the finger loop. As time passed, wire finger guards become more and more elaborate.

Rapier (16th century) with wire hilt

Another change was the direction of the footwork. Up to this point in time, the action of a fight had been circular. Now it was back and forth – following the forward, piercing thrust of the blade.

How a fight looked was different, too. The fight starts with the two opponents’ blades circling each other – looking for a weakness. The movement is subtle, of the wrist, rather than the whole arm, in contrast to earlier fighting with the medieval cutting-type sword, where the posing at the beginning involved moving your whole arm into different positions as you probed your opponent’s defenses.

When the two opponents finally engage it is in close. The two blades press against each other, as each fighter seeks to “command” his enemy’s weapon and trust it aside. Since the stronger part of any blade is near its hilt, you want to get the lower part of your blade engaged with the enemy’s blade for maximum strength. That means your whole body needs to be closer to his. While skill is important, at this stage of the encounter, strength counts, as well. The stronger arm is more likely to take command.

This part, the pressing, can go on for several seconds, until one or the other weakens or figures out a way to break the engagement (often with a thrust). The press is usually broken with a swift movement or two (and possibly a defense or counter-thrust), a hit and a withdrawal.

The swordsman using a rapier might enhance his defense with a second weapon. From 1580 to about 1620 rapier and dagger fighting was common. (When you went out, you inevitably strapped on your sword. It was part of a gentleman’s dress. A personal knife had been a part of everyone’s dress even in the early medieval period.) Another variation was using a short sword alongside the rapier.

Swashbuckling, by the way, continued in popularity in the military right up to the eighteenth century. By the 1800’s, though, the saber had become a common military weapon in Europe. The weapon actually came to western Europe through contact with the Hungarian Hussars, and probably goes back to the curved blades of the Turks. It is the only sword that can be used for both slashing and thrusting, though according to Nic, it’s predominantly a cutting weapon.

The saber was adopted for use by the cavalry, but early in its introduction, it was scorned by gentlemen, who still preferred the rapier or foil It wasn’t until the mid to late 19th century, when firearms had long replaced swords, that the saber became popular among gentlemen.

Nic ended his demonstration showing us the corrosion on the blade of the Crimean War saber that began my discussion of sword fighting techniques through the ages.

1 comment:

  1. As usual, you do a fantastic job of describing these techniques. Thanks!