Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Middle Ages Get a Bad Rap

July 7th, 2009 · 3 Comments

So you think Medieval knights were condemned to lug around unwieldy swords, while their Renaissance counterparts bounced around with mere wisps of metal weaponry? Dr. Timothy Dawson believes you’ve been grossly misinformed—a fact he expounds upon at length in one of Microkhan’s all-time favorite publications, the Journal of Western Martial Art:

These results show that full size single-handed swords normally occur in the range of c.650g / 1lb 7oz to c.1400g / 3lb 1.5oz, with a few heavier examples, presumably made for men of greater strength. Weapons at the lower end of that range are extremely fine and light, and yet, as the present author’s own experiments have shown, they are nevertheless remarkably effective. Swords at the top of the range are still light enough that an average man can use them with dexterity and precision. Hand-and-a-half swords had to be capable of being used effectively with one hand, so it is no surprise to find that they fall largely within the same range as single-handed swords, albeit clustered at the top end – ~800g / 1lb 12oz to ~1400g / 3lb 1.5oz. The greater strength and control that can be exercised with two hands can lead to a more than doubling in weight – ~1500g / 3lb 3oz to (in this sample) just ~2600g / 5lb 8oz.

From these examples it can be seen that the idea that medieval and Renaissance swords were heavy, clumsy objects is far from true. Single-handed swords could be very light, and even the heaviest two-hander was amenable to dexterous use. And the evidence is clear that even quite early in the period there were sophisticated techniques available to best employ such finely made tools…but that is another story!

Dr. Dawson’s findings leave us somewhat aghast at the way in which Dungeons & Dragons lied to us.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Adam Rogers

    Judging by that chart there’s some risk there of sample bias. He’s measuring only the swords available. For all we know there were many more heavy, two-handed swords in the earlier periods that didn’t survive….

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Adam Rogers: Yes, but wouldn’t heavy broadswords be more likely to survive through the centuries?

    That said, agreed, the Journal of Western Martial Arts probably doesn’t make the same demands upon its authors as, say, the NEJM. And Dr. Lawson’s use of exclamation points gives one pause…

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