When it comes to the sharpness of medieval swords then there is one rumor that is pretty widely spread. And that is the claim that medieval swords weren`t sharp at all.
In the following, I would like to present how sharp medieval swords actually were and where the myth that medieval swords were not sharp came from.
Medieval swords were sharp. There is only one exception. During the Late Middle Ages a type of Longsword at which only the first 4 fingers (11,4 inches/29 cm) were extremely sharp and the rest was moderately sharp was developed for half-swording. Half-swording meant that the right hand would be at the hilt while the left hand was placed at the middle of the blade to better guide the tip of the sword into the gaps of the enemy’s plate armor.
Let`s find out more!
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How sharp were medieval swords?
The rumor that medieval swords were actually not sharp can be traced back to an educational book on the art of sword fighting that was written in the Late Middle Ages by a sword master named Philippo di Vadi. If you are interested then you can check out a translated version of his book here* on Amazon.
However, Philippo di Vadi describes only one specific technique for which he recommends that only a part of the sword blade should be sharpened. But since Philippo di Vadi lived during the Late Middle Ages in the 15th century his book can not be seen as valid for the entirety of the Middle Ages.
Especially the swords that were used during the Early and High Middle Ages as well as most sword types that were used during the Late Middle Ages were sharpened from the tip of the blade all the way down to the quillons.
Please check out my article here for more information on the time-consuming process of sharpening a sword.
And that makes perfect sense. Contrary to the swords that were used during the Late Middle Ages the one-handed swords of the Early and High Middle Ages were mostly used to inflict cuts and blows. And even though swords were never the most common nor the most decisive weapon on a medieval battlefield, more on that here, a sword was still a highly effective weapon not only against unarmored but also against armored men.
Here you can find out more about how effective swords were against the different types of medieval armor.
But even when Plate armor that was much more effective in protecting its bearer against cuts and blows, more on the weaknesses and strengths of the different types of medieval armor here, was developed in the mid 14th century, most swords were still sharpened from tip to quillions.
The reason for that can be found in the composition of medieval armies.
Yes, knights and men-at-arms would often wear complete suits of plate armor during the Late Middle Ages. But the bulk of a medieval army was made up of less well-armored men. And while cuts from a sharp sword (contrary to stabs with the tip of the Longsword) didn`t do anything against a man in full plate armor, cuts remained highly effective against the less armored men that made up the bulk of medieval armies.
And that is the point where we can close the connection to the already mentioned fencing manual written by Philippo di Vadi and the myth that medieval swords were not sharp.
The origins of the rumor that medieval swords were not sharp
The spread of plate armor that covered and protected a man from head to foot against sword cuts and blows made it necessary to adopt the sword fighting techniques. Thanks to several factors that will be explained here the individual plates that made up a full suit of plate armor could hardly be breached.
There were however certain parts of the body like the armpits that could not be covered with plates. These parts as well as the gaps in the plate armor were usually protected with chainmail and as such much easier to penetrate.
Since knights had simultaneously with the spread of Plate armor reduced their use of shields, more on the reasons for that here, they could now use two-handed weapons like the famous Longsword.
These Longswords were much more rigid and as such ideal for piercing the gaps and weakly protected parts of Plate armor (like the armpits). But in order to be able to properly aim the tip of the Longsword a technique called half-swording was used.
Half-swording means that the swordfighter keeps his right hand at the handle of his Longsword to provide the force necessary to pierce weak points (like the armpits) of his opponents’ plate armor. His left hand would grip the middle of his sword blade to better guide the tip of the Longsword into its target.
That would have probably looked something like that…
Now one might think that gripping a sharp sword blade would result in a cut-open hand. But that was not the case. As long as the blade was not „dragged“ over his palm the fighter would not hurt himself while half-handing even if he wasn`t wearing a glove.
Nevertheless, Philippo di Vadi recommended in his fencing manual that only the first 11,5 inches (29 cm) of a Longsword should be extremely sharp and the rest of the blade should only be moderately sharp so that the fighter could easier use the technique of half-swording.
But it is important to remember that Philippo di Vadi was only recommending that for a special type of Longsword, not for every Longsword. However, his recommendation that a specific type of Late Medieval Longsword should only be sharpened at the first 11,5 inches of a Longsword has kind of developed a dynamic of its own and led to the myth that all medieval swords were not sharp.
I hope I could dissolve that myth with this article. Should you also be interested in the time-consuming process of how a medieval sword was sharpened in the first place 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).