Monday, March 18, 2013

Swords - More Parts and Pieces of a Masterpiece by Scott Higginbotham

By Scott Higginbotham

A sword is much more than sharp piece of steel where its wielder uses brute force to pummel an opponent and, it should be noted that most medieval swords and their modern replicas typically weigh around four pounds, however, an hour or so in the practice yard makes it seem otherwise.

A tree-sized man going by the name of Hrothgar or Wulfnoth would be more adept at using a weapon better suited for blunt force - a flanged mace or warhammer comes to mind, however, this may elicit further study, as I am certain that weapons of this variety are masterpieces in their own right.

The last post centered on the pommel of the sword, but there are other parts that warrant discussion.  The pommel helped create balance, secured the tang, and was also an offensive part of a sword.

The Crossguard
Cross Pattee' guard - Scott Higginbotham
The crossguard was the transition piece between the blade and the sword grip.  The typical medieval sword fell under the "cruciform" style, owing to its cross shape when the tip is pointing down.  Religious symbolism and certain types of imagery were important to Crusaders and knights during the Middle Ages and many agree that this design's purpose was to remind a soldier of his faith.  However, it seems that many a knight missed this subtle message.

Various styles - Scott Higginbotham
Similar to the pommel, crossguards had a myriad of designs.  The most common design was a flat piece of steel extending 3 to 4 inches perpendicular to the blade; the blade actually passed through a notch in the guard and was held secure against the handle.  Those of great wealth could have jewels, crosses, filigrees, or various inscriptions adorning this part of the sword.  In addition to the flat crossguard style, designs could vary - lions' heads, fishtails, flared ends reminiscent of a cross pattee', or unique designs that reflected the wealth and status of the user.

 Defense was paramount when a green and untried English knight faced a veteran on some unnamed 13th century meadow.  When thrusts and parries failed the crossguard served to stop an attacker from removing one's hand, arm, or perhaps worse, depending on the angle of the strike.  A downward swing could be stopped by a quick twist of the grip where the guard absorbs the force of the blow.

Fishtail guard - Scott Higginbotham
Additionally, the crossguard was an offensive part of the sword.  A young lordling would be particularly "offending" to the fair and beautiful Lady Hedwise if he scrawled "Lady Headwize" on the guard in some grand and gross lapse in spelling - it should be mentioned that most knights were unlettered (honor, love, favor, and humble apologies to the fair and beautiful Lady Hedwise).

However, and hustling away from this sidebar, in a melee or close-quarter fighting the crossguard could be jabbed at an angle into an opponent's exposed face or other un-armored parts of the body.  Moreover, the end could be thrust downward onto the head or a mail-clad shoulder causing short-term pain and perhaps an opportunity.  
Curved guard - Scott Higginbotham

Those most skilled at swordplay would find that the guard could be used to disarm an opponent.  With swords locked at the crossguards in some smoke-filled great hall, a deft twisting of the wrist could change the fortunes of your favorite protagonist based on just a slight concavity to the guard. This curve could act as a type of lever to wrangle an opponent defenseless by pivoting the attacker's wrist toward his body and combining that with a thrust to the sword hand from a mailed fist.

Imagine how the game could change for one's character and the possibilities that could arise if Sir Knight, weary and winded, had a burst of sudden clarity and used this part of the sword to end an otherwise even fight - to breathlessly utter, "Yield!"   

This article merely scratches the deep surface of sword construction.  For your viewing pleasure watch the video below and peruse the site dedicated to Ewart Oakeshott and his method of sword typology.

To those that read, write, and otherwise love those epic days of yesteryear it is my hope that this snippet has given you added color for the characters you read about and those you create from your dreams.  Historical fiction allows us to live vicariously, perform the greatest of feats, and press onward, heedless of our limits, through the lives of our heroines and heroes.         


Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For A Thousand Generations, where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.


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