Medieval swordfights are one of the most commonly depicted and debated parts of the Middle Ages. But while Hollywood loves to show long sword fights that last for half an hour or even longer others like to portray sword fights as something that was usually over within a couple of sword moves.
Both opinions are extremes that can not be representative of medieval swordfights. So in the following, I would like to present a more realistic idea of how long a medieval swordfight could last and which factors played a role in the duration of a sword fight.
Depending on the skill level and the armor of the combatants a medieval sword fight could last from only a couple of moves to several minutes or in the case of a duel as long as the opponents had agreed upon in front. The Vikings had duels as legal procedures that could at most last until all 3 shields that each fighter was allowed to use were destroyed.
Let`s find out more!
Factors for how long a medieval sword fight could last
Before we look at how long a medieval sword fight could last I would like to first present a few factors that played a role in how long such a fight could last.
The two most important factors to consider are the level of skill that both fighters have as well as the level and quality of armor that each of the fighters has. If a fighter was completely unarmored then just one lucky hit could cause an injury that prevented him from continuing the fight.
Remember, most injuries that medieval weapons caused did not immediately result in death. But even wounds that were not immediately lethal could end the fight either because the wounded man did not want to continue fighting or because the man was no longer physically able to continue fighting.
The skill level was another extremely important factor that has to be considered when talking about the length of medieval sword fights. A fight between two equally skilled men did usually last much longer than a fight between a highly experienced and a less experienced fighter.
In some cases, a higher skill level could even outweigh the disadvantage that a less well-armored man had.
Additionally, the circumstances of a sword fight also play a major role.
In case a sword fight between two equally armored knights of similar skill level happened during a battle, more on how medieval battles worked in my article here, the inferior fighter could hope that other combatants helped him or he could at least try to escape his superior opponent.
But while fleeing the scene as an attempt to prevent getting defeated in a sword fight was a possibility during a battle, a sword fight in the shape of a duel did not offer that possibility.
Medieval duels usually had pretty clear rules about how long the fight could last, under what circumstances the fight would be ended, and if one of the opponents had to die or if a surrendering was possible.
So let`s now take Viking duels as an example of how the duration of a duel was set before the actual fight.
How long did medieval sword fights last?
As already mentioned, several factors influence how long a sword fight could last. Especially armor could extend the length of a fight since medieval armor was generally pretty effective in keeping the bearer alive although it certainly did not make the bearer invulnerable. You can find out more about the effectiveness of medieval armor in my article here.
But it is generally important to note that receiving a wound must not be equated with no longer being able to fight!
What did however limit the length of medieval sword fights, especially duels, were agreements regarding the length that were made before the fight. A good example of that is the Viking duels.
Vikings used duels as a legal procedure, for example, to settle bigger disagreements. However, these duels could only last until the last of the three shields that each of the two fighters could use was destroyed.
Now one might think that that made these duels rather short. But that misconception comes from the idea that medieval shields were just made by nailing a few wooden boards together. That however ignores the efficiency of medieval shields as a part of a man`s armor.
Due to its sophisticated construction, a medieval shield was pretty hard to destroy and offered good protection! If you want to find out more about how medieval shields were built and how that was much more complex than just nailing a few boards together then I would like to recommend you my article here!
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Thomas Laible: Das Schwert. Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Bad Aibling 2008).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).