Carrying a Sword
- requested by louiebonbon
How was a sword carried? Who was allowed to carry one? Since the subject is quite complex and cannot be fully debated, a narrowed down context of the questions to a specific time and place would partially answer the questions.
For example, what is true for 13th century Scandinavia will be very much different from 16th century Italy, Germany, Russia and so on. Seemingly simple concepts like “civilian”, “peasant” and what constitutes a “town” will not be consistent over time and place and changes a lot during the medieval era.
So, carrying a sword depends hugely on time and place. In some regions certain social classes were not allowed to carry a sword - peasants where mere property (notably in Eastern Europe) - while in other areas they could, there where nobles were in mere number or not at all (for instance in pre-14th century Norway or Iceland)
Speaking about the medieval military system, this was based on each subject buying weapons and equipment in accordance to his wealth. Exactly what one should own would, of course, vary with place and time as well. In addition to this, a king could give land to vassals in exchange for a certain military or monetary contribution. This provided a core of professional, well equipped feudal troops.
- Was anyone allowed to own a sword or a similar weapon during the medieval times?
Like stated before, this depended on some factors, like the jurisdiction, the time period, and the class of people. As a general rule, sword-carrying was more tightly regulated the later you go in the Middle Ages. The issue is partly complicated by the fact that most medieval law was customary and unwritten, making it harder to reconstruct today. As a general rule, church law forbade clergy of all kinds to carry edged weapons from very early on in the Middle Ages.
Philippe de Beaumanoir (French jurist and royal official), who wrote a very detailed legal treatise about the Beauvais region in northern France in the late 13th century, said that any baron with the rights to high justice in his domain could make laws about carrying weapons. He pointed out that this situation could make things difficult when small jurisdictions had complicated borders and enclaves.
On the other hand, the 13th-century poem "De l’oustillement au villain," about the tools of a well-equipped French peasant might have around the house, mentions a shield and a rusty sword among the furnishings. In England, the city of London had laws about sword-carrying from the late thirteenth century onwards. There are also mentions of sword-carrying in the Sumptuary laws (from Latin "Sumptuariae leges" - laws that attempt to regulate habits of consumption) that were enacted in various parts of Europe after the Black Death.
But in general, swords were used in military situations by both knights and infantry. They were used to a lesser degree by archers. In addition, in some areas of Europe people carried swords at times as a mark of rank, and ceremonial swords were used also.
- Carrying a sword - Sword scabbards and suspension
Common accessories to the sword include the scabbard, as well as the sword belt.
The scabbard, also known as the sheath, is a protective cover often provided for the sword blade. Over the millennia, scabbards have been made of many materials, including leather, wood, and metals such as brass or steel. The metal fitting where the blade enters the leather or metal scabbard is called the throat, which is often part of a larger scabbard mount, or locket, that bears a carrying ring or stud to facilitate wearing the sword.
The blade’s point in leather scabbards is usually protected by a metal tip, or chape, which on both leather and metal scabbards is often given further protection from wear by an extension called a drag, or shoe.
The sword belt is a belt with an attachment for the sword’s scabbard, used to carry it when not in use. It is usually fixed to the scabbard of the sword, providing a fast means of drawing the sword in battle. Examples of sword belts include the Balteus (Latin word, possibly itself from Etruscan, which means "belt") used by the Roman legionary.
- Only knights were allowed to carry swords
Wrong, or not entirely true. As with the wearing of armour, not everyone who carried a sword was a knight. But the idea that the sword is an exclusively “knightly” weapon is not entirely wrong. The custom, or even the right, to wear a sword varied according to time, place, and changing regulations.
Throughout medieval Europe, swords were the chief weapon of knights and mounted men-at-arms. In times of peace, however, generally speaking only noblemen were allowed to carry a sword in public. Since in most regions swords were regarded as “weapons of war” (as opposed to the dagger, for example), peasants and burghers, not belonging to the “warrior class” of medieval society, were forbidden from carrying swords. An exception to this rule was granted to travellers (citizens, merchants, even pilgrims) due to the inherent dangers of travel by land and sea.
Within the walls of most medieval cities, however, the carrying of swords was generally forbidden for everyone - sometimes even nobility - at least during times of peace. Standardized measures for the trade, usually attached prominently to medieval churches or city halls, often also included examples of the permissible length of daggers or swords that could be carried inside city walls without fear of penalty.
It is undoubtedly due to such regulations that the sword was transformed into an exclusive symbol of both the warrior class and knightly status. Yet, due to social changes and newly evolved fighting techniques during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it became gradually acceptable for civilians and noblemen alike to carry the lighter and thinner successor of the sword, the rapier, as an everyday weapon for self-defence in public. Indeed, until the early nineteenth century, rapiers and smallswords became an indispensable dress accessory for the European gentleman.
- How popular were swords as weapons during medieval times?
As with any question about the “Middle Ages” it is hard to generalise unless the questioner specifies what period they are referring to by that broad term. Historians use “the Middle Ages” to refer to the millennium between 500 and 1500 AD, so what may be true in 500 AD is unlikely to be true in 1500 AD.
In the early Middle Ages (circa 500-1000 AD) swords tended to be highly expensive and were usually used by the elite and their retainers. The skill required to make a long blade that was flexible enough to wield in battle without shattering but hard enough to hold a razor edge was high and only the richer warlords or warriors could afford such a weapon. Most early Medieval warriors made do with spears, with a long knife or axe as a side-arm. This is why so many swords and sword smiths in early Medieval epics and poems are considered magical and why swords were prized as gifts to warriors in return for service.
In the later Medieval period (circa 1000-1500 AD) more advanced metallurgical and smithing technology made steel production and sword making progressively cheaper. High quality blades remained expensive, but by the 14th Century not only could poorer men afford a cheap sword, but some laws required them to own one. In Medieval England the Statute of Winchester (1285 AD) mandated that even men of the poorest class, worth less than £5 a year, were required by law to own at least a sword, a knife and a bow or crossbow.
By the mid-14th Century a poorer man could buy a cheap, mass-produced sword for as little as sixpence, though a better quality blade would set him back 1-2 shillings. In the same period a cow cost 12 pence and a horse from six shillings to £2, while a carpenter earned 3 pence a day and a mason 5 1/2 pence.
So by the later Middle Ages swords were affordable, with price depending on quality, and most men would have been expected to carry one if travelling or to have one around the house. To avoid bloodshed many cities and towns passed laws forbidding men to wear swords in the streets and it was customary to take off your sword when entering a house or to leave them and other weapons in the gatehouse when entering a castle or manor house.
Swords were always the main weapon of choice throughout the period because of their versatility in combat. Unlike shorter weapons, like daggers or the early Medieval “seax”, a sword had reach and so could be used in a highly aggressive way and could also be used as easily on horseback as on foot. But unlike longer weapons, like spears and polearms, it could also be used defensively.
If an opponent got “inside your guard” with a pole-arm or spear, the only defence was to give ground and get him back in striking distance. But a sword could be used closer to the body and enable a fighter to regain the offensive much more easily. Swords could also be used to parry, riposte, feint and guard much more effectively and with more versatility than most other weapons.
- Even knights were sometimes forbidden to carry swords in city
From: ‘Folios clxxi - clxxxi: Aug 1416 - ‘, Calendar of letter-books of the city of London: I: 1400-1422 (1909), pp. 157-66.
"Another writ to the same to the effect that whereas the King of the Romans was now approaching the City with a noble retinue, and it was King Henry’s wish that his lords and other of his lieges from divers parts of the realm should come and reside in London during the Emperor’s stay, the Sheriffs should make public proclamation restricting the carrying of swords or other weapons in the City to knights and esquires under penalty of forfeiture. Witness the King at Westminster, 6 May, 4 Henry V. [A.D. 1416.]"
"Proclamacio ne quis portat arma infra civitatem - Proclamation against any one carrying a sword or other arms unless he be an esquire or valet of a Knight, bearing a single sword only after his master; also against any one going as a "mummer" or playing any game with a mask or other strange guise, whereby his identity may be concealed."
"Br’e pro pace ne quis h’eai glad’ portat post se - Writ to the Mayor and Sheriffs to make proclamation against the holding of conventicles, and the carrying of swords except by Knights, who were to content themselves with one sword only. Witness the King at Westminster, 18 Oct., 9 Richard II. [A.D. 1385]."
- No swords and bucklers in London
There is information extracted from the Cod.HS.3227a or Hanko Döbringer, Fechtbuch (martial arts manual) from 1389 that can explain why swords were often banned. The London coroner’s rolls for the years 1300-1375 shows that there were 87 homicides involving a knife or dagger recorded in the rolls versus 8 involving a sword. Only one of the sword incidents was a sword versus sword fight.
The others were largely straight homicides where one guy drew his sword and killed another who was essentially unarmed. Interestingly one of the incidents involved a sword versus staff encounter in which the staff fighter killed the swordsman.
From: ‘Folios 110b - 135b’, Calendar of letter-books of the city of London: A: 1275-1298 (1899), pp. 207-30.
"Writ of King Edward I. to the Mayor and Sheriffs of London enjoining them to punish all bakers, brewers, and other misdoers walking the City by night with swords and bucklers and assaulting those they met; and further commanding that all corn sent to mills to be ground within the City should be delivered by weight to the miller, who was to return the same weight in flour. Dated Westminster, 28 Nov., 10 Edward I. [A.D. 1281]."
From: ‘Folios 110b - 135b’, Calendar of letter-books of the city of London: A: 1275-1298 (1899), pp. 207-30.
"Henry de Wynchester, Michael de "Womburne," Oliver the Goldsmith (le Orfevere), Walter de Molesham, Richard Bonaventure, Robert Pynnote, William de Clay, Nigel Lupus, John Fuatard, "barbur," Thomasin le Barber, Alan de Schoresdich, John Aufre, Edward de Canterbury, goldsmith, Thomas le Fykes, Alan de Suffolk, taverner, Reginald, son of Emma le Barbere, Roger the Cook, "pasteler," Reginald le Taverner, James le Reve, "pessoner," Walter de Resslepe, John Squiret, Peter le Tableter, John, son of Roger le Barber, William Stonhard, Ranulph le Taverner de Wolcherchawe, Laurence "Ballok," John le Fevere, Adam de Wynchester, John le Treiere, John Burnel, and Alan de Ewelle—arrested for divers trespasses, homicides, robberies, and assaults, and for being nightwalkers after curfew in the City with swords and bucklers, and for setting up games near the City, contrary to the King’s peace and the ordinance and statutes of the City of London— say that they are guilty of none of these things, and as to this, each puts himself upon the verdict of four jurors of each Ward of the City aforesaid. Accordingly let there be an inquest thereon."
- Calendar of letter-books of the city of London
- Calendar of the plea and memoranda rolls of the city of London
- Cod.HS.3227a (or Hanko Döbringer)
- MyArmoury | Wikipedia | Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo source: Olaus Magnus - History of the Nordic Peoples (from 1555) - Book 7, Ch. 6. On the Command of the Mobilized People