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Swords of the Renaissance

The soldier of the mid-i 500s witnessed dramatic advances in military technology. Swords, bows and pikes were now being challenged by early artillery, hand-held guns and complex siege weapons. In response, combatants became more heavily armored. The sword evolved from being a purely slashing weapon to one that could pierce and break through plate armor. New sword types also appeared, from the huge two-handed broadsword of the Landsknecht to the handy short-bladed falchion of the ordinary infantryman.

 

The Estoc or Tuck Sword

Stiff, lozenge or diamond-shaped thrusting blades were now replacing the wide-bladed and cruciformhilted swords typical of the medieval period. This new type of sword was known to the French as an estoc and to the English as a tuck. The estoc featured a long, two-handed grip, enabling the bearer to achieve maximum effect as he thrust the sword downwards into armor. This sword was particularly effective at splitting chainmail and piercing gaps in armor. Due to the narrowness of the blade, it had no discernible cutting edge but a very strong point. Opponents who had lost the protection of their armor during the heat of battle were still dispatched by the traditional double-edged cutting sword, held in reserve for just such an eventuality. Versatility and a range of weapons to hand was still an important and practical factor. Downward-curving cross guard

ABOVE: A Polish estoc, which would have been used by the cavalry. The needle-like blade was ideal for penetrating armor.

 

The “hand-and-a-half” Sword

Common throughout Europe from the beginning of the 15th century, the “hand-and-a-half sword” is also referred to as a “longsword”. The contemporary term “bastard sword” derives from it being regarded as neither a one-handed nor a two-handed sword. Despite these perceived drawbacks, it possessed a reasonably long grip and shorter blade, which allowed one hand to hold the narrow grip firmly, while a couple of fingers placed strategically on the forte gave the soldier extra leverage and maneuverability when wielding. The length of these swords was around 115—145cm (45.3—57in).

ABOVE: The “hand-and-a-half” sword has a short grip that accommodates one hand, while the fingers of the second hand are placed on the blade forte to allow extra leverage and control when swinging the blade.

 

The Falchion

Although the falchion’s design had originated in ancient Greece, the sword experienced a widespread revival during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy, France and Germany. This short-bladed sword had a straight or slightly curved blade, with cross guards either absent or very simple.

The falchion was primarily a side-weapon and was usually carried by the infantry. Because of its short blade and ease of maneuverability, the falchion became the precursor to the hunting sword.

ABOVE: This Milanese ceremonial falchion, c.1600, features a strong, broad blade with curved, double-edged point.

 

Two-handed (Zweihänder) Swords

Very large broadswords called Zweihänder or two- handed swords, became very popular during the 15th and 16th centuries, and are probably best known for their association with the famed Landsknechte, or mercenaries. Established during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian 1(1459—1519), and drawn mainly from Germany and eastern Europe, Landsknechte fought in numerous battles throughout the continent, particularly during the Italian Wars of 1494—1 559.

ABOVE: A two-handed Zweihänder sword from c.1550, used by mercenaries employed by the Holy Roman Emperor.

Their Zweihänder swords had a length of up to 1 .8m (5.9ft) and weighed 2—3.5kg (4.4—7.7lb). The hilt was of massive form, with extremely large pommels and hilt guards. The sword could also be utilized as a form of short lance when gripped firmly at the blade forte. Because of its immense size, the Zweihänder would also have been extremely effective at attacking and breaking up massed ranks of infantry or pikemen.

Another sword favored by the Landsknechte was the Katzbalger (cat-skinner or brawler), a short sword, or hanger. It was a sturdy, wide-bladed sword, with a distinctive “figure-of-eight” guard. It was 75—85cm (29.5—33.5in) long. The sword’s name is thought to derive from the practical reality that it would have been a weapon of last resort and used in close, confined combat, when the soldier would literally have to fight like a cornered feral cat. The Landsknecht carried it alongside his Zweihänder.

ABOVE: The Katzbalger was a secondary sword of the Landsknecht, and used when his larger, two-handed sword was unavailable.

 

The Cinquedea, or “five-fingered” Sword

Another distinctive short sword that developed in Italy during the Renaissance was the cinquedea. The shape and form of the cinquedea typifies the Renaissance belief in the importance of artistry, combined with a newly rediscovered passion for the classical world. It was worn mainly with civilian dress and comprised a very wide blade of five-fingered span. The hilt was normally of simple form, with a severely waisted grip. Because of its wide blade, many swordsmiths took the opportunity to embellish the swords with exquisite engraving and gilding. The sword would have been worn in the small of the back in order that it could be drawn laterally.

There is some debate as to whether the cinquedea was actually a dagger rather than a sword. The average length is noted at 40—50cm/16—l9in (and there are even two-handed versions known), so this probably indicates that the cinquedea fits more comfortably within the broad family of swords rather than dagger types.

ABOVE: A cinqueda sword, with typical pronounced medium ridge, or spine, running down the centre of the blade.

 

Ceremonial Swords

The increasing power and wealth of the European monarchies and city states during the Renaissance meant that the sword did not only serve a purely military function. It also became a manifestation of the rank and status of the privileged, and its most notable appearances were at royal coronation ceremonies. Although the medieval cruciform-hilted sword had fallen out of favor on the Renaissance battlefield, being superseded by more complex and enclosed-hilt forms, it was still retained for ceremonial purposes perhaps recalling a more “knightly” time when a gentleman or courtier swore allegiance to his king by the kiss of a knightly sword. These “bearing” swords were carried before kings, queens and senior clergy. The sword of Frederick I of Saxony, presented to him by Emperor Sigismund I of Germany in 1425, has a cruciform hilt inset with rock crystal and heavily gilded in gold and silver. There is also a massive 15th-century bearing sword, supposedly made for either Henry V of England or Edward, Prince of Wales, which has a total length of over 228cm (88.6in). Ceremonial swords were also presented as symbols of state office. From the 14th century onwards, English mayors were granted the right (usually by the monarch) to carry a great civic sword on ceremonial occasions. This tradition was upheld for centuries and many historic towns in the United Kingdom still retain these swords. The earliest recorded civic sword still in existence is to be found in Bristol and is thought to date from around 1373. Constables of France, including such notables as Bertrand du Guesclin and Anne de Montmorency, carried bearing swords.

RIGHT: Sword and scroll of Anne de Montmorency, 1493—1567, from the Hours of Constable Anne de Montmorency.

In terms of sheer brilliance of decoration and craftsmanship, the ceremonial swords presented by the Renaissance popes must rank as the apogee of 16th-century sword decoration. Given with a richly embroidered belt and cap by the pope each year on Christmas Day, invariably to members of the European Catholic nobility, these great two-handed swords were fabulously ornate and featured a profusion of precious stones and extensive gold and silver metalwork.

 

The Development of Hunting Swords

Hunting had always been the favored and exclusive pursuit of the nobility since the early medieval period and Renaissance hunters continued this pastime with vigor. The depiction of the royal hunt was a popular subject for artists and many painters and weavers of tapestry found the drama of the chase and final kill with sword and spear irresistible.

The falchion sword, or short hanger, was well known to the infantry as a side-weapon. It was first adopted during the 14th century, specifically as a dedicated hunting weapon. In later years, a saw-back blade was also incorporated for ease of cutting up the kill, followed by the development of a specialist set of tools for pairing. This combination of sword and skinning tools was known as a garniture, or trousse. As the owners of these hunting swords invariably had great financial means, decoration of the swords became ever more elaborate.

RIGHT: An illustration of a hunting sword with pommel and crossbar decorated by birds’ heads. It has a saw-back blade for cutting the kill.

 

Swords of Justice, Swords of Execution

Great swords were also employed as both symbols and facilitators of judicial law. Many local courts of justice placed a large bearing or executioner’s sword on the courtroom wall. The presence of the executioner’s sword was not purely symbolic for it had a practical application in the actual beheading of prisoners. It was often highly decorated and engraved with prayers for the condemned, warnings against transgressions and vivid images of beheadings, hangings and torture.

ABOVE This German executioner’s sword has a double-edged blade with a blunt, lightly rounded point. Many surviving “execution swords” are actually swords of justice which would be carried before the judge to indicate his power over life and death.

 

ABOVE: In this detail from the above sword, an etched inscription can be seen. In German it reads “Ich Muf straffen daI verbrechen Als wie Recht und Richter sprechen”. Translated, this means “I have to punish crime as the law and judge tell me”.

Executioners’ swords were more common in continental Europe from the 1400s, particularly Germany, with England still preferring the axe. The sword hilt was normally of conventional cruciform shape with a large counter-balancing pommel. It was very well constructed, with high-quality steel used for the manufacture of the blade. The blade edge was extremely sharp and it was a requirement of the executioner to keep it well honed so that the head of the victim could be severed in one mighty blow. Blades were broad and flat backed, with a rounded tip. The sword was designed for cutting rather than thrusting, so a pointed tip (as in the case of military blades) was unnecessary.

An executioner’s sword in the British Museum, London, has the following words engraved on the blade in Latin. It translates as: “When I raise this sword I wish the sinner eternal life / The Sires punish mischief: I execute their judgement.” When no longer used for executions, swords became ceremonial.

 

Another sword designed solely for the hunt was the boar sword. Based on the triangular-bladed estoc or tuck, its greatly stiffened blade was designed to withstand the power of a charging boar or other large animal. The boar sword was introduced during the

14th century and by around 1500 it had developed a faceted or leaf-shaped spear point. A crossbar was later added near the end of the blade to prevent an animal running up the length of the blade and so making it difficult to retrieve.

ABOVE: A German boar sword, c.1530. Only the bravest of hunters used swords rather than spears for boar hunting.

 

 

 

 

 

The Rapier

Spain is normally cited as the first country to have introduced the rapier, or espada ropera (sword of the robe), during the late 1400s. This designation highlighted the new-found ability for a gentleman to wear these swords with ordinary civilian dress, rather than needing to don his armor. Italy, Germany and England adopted the rapier soon afterwards.

ABOVE: A German rapier dating from c.1560—70. It has a large spherical pommel that counterbalances the weight of the blade.

In its most complete and recognizable form, the rapier came into full prominence during the early 16th century. In the mid- 1400s, precursors of the rapier (including the standard cruciform-hilted sword) had begun to develop a primitive knuckle guard and forefinger ring or loop. By 1500, a series of simple bars were joined to the knuckle guard to form a protective hilt. At this time, the blade was still a wide, cutting type, and it is only well into the 16th century that the slender rapier blade was fully developed. This typically thin blade was deemed impractical for use during heavy combat on the battlefield so the rapier was viewed primarily as a “civilian” duelling sword. The new rapier hilt, however, was adopted by the military but with the retention of a wider, more traditional broadsword fighting blade.

 

The Blade

Sword blades were manufactured in Toledo and Valencia (Spain), Solingen and Passau (Germany), and Milan and Brescia (Italy). They were sold as unhilted blades and then hilted locally at their eventual destinations throughout Europe. Some blades are marked by their maker, although many are plain. Notable bladesmiths’ names include Piccinino, Caino, Sacchi and Ferrara from Italy, .Johannes, Wundes and Tesche (Germany) and Hernandez (Spain).. Respected names were often stamped on blades by lesser-known rivals to enhance the value of an inferior sword.

 

A) ABOVE: Italian rapier, c.1610. Of true swept-hilt form, it has deep chiseling to the knuckle guard.

B) ABOVE: A North European dueling rapier, c.1635, with a distinctive elongated and fluted pommel.

C) ABOVE: A Spanish cup-hilt rapier, c.1660. The cup and hilt are extensively pierced. It has very long, straight, slender quillons with finials to each end.

D) ABOVE: An English rapier with a finely chiseled cup hilt, c.1650. The blade is stamped “Sahagum”.

 

 

 

 
 
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