What Makes a Blade?
We’re still alive, here at Caer Dave. The last assault was repulsed with a barrage of cupcakes. It was close for a bit, there, but one of the battle pucks managed to turn on the television, and the Horde is nothing if not easily distracted by the sweet and the shiny. Unfortunately, the ongoing vegetal threat has brought us all a great deal of discomfort. Wee Dave’s cough has been mistaken for the cry of the hunting hellhound. Wee-er Dave’s sinuses are an ever-giving wellspring of life-giving fluid (well, it’s fluid, and stuff can grow on it *shudder*). And me? Dave is fighting off a full-blown sinus infection through frequent application of saline wash, pseudoephedrine, and that wunderdrug: Afrin. With some success, I’m pleased to relate.
Now, to the topic! What makes a sword? Not who: that’s a blacksmith. A swordsmith, specifically, but that’s for another discussion. Mirriam-Webster has two … semi-useful definitions, only one of which is technical: a weapon with a long blade for cutting or thrusting. Which is sort of accurate. A sword, at base, is length of sharpened metal with a grip on one end, used as a weapon. Early swords were functionally large knives made of cast copper, and later bronze, often leaf-shaped blades with a notable point.
Later swords became longer (with some curious diversions like the Egyptian sickle-sword, the khopesh, or the Iberian falcata) as forging technology improved and allowed iron to be worked in place of bronze. Forged iron, and later and more importantly steel, have a significant advantage over bronze: iron is far more commonly found than copper or the other elements used to turn it into bronze. It also has a higher tensile strength which allows for longer and thinner blades. On the downside, steel takes an edge no better than bronze, and it corrodes much more readily. Mostly, though, iron requires higher heat to smelt than bronze does to melt, and that and the relative ubiquity of iron ore doomed bronze as a common weapon metal.
Curiously, swords were rarely a primary weapon in muscle-powered militaries. The hoplites used spears, as did Chinese armies. The sword – and this is a key piece of understanding – was a sidearm, and a symbol. As I’m delving into HEMA, I’m finding that many of the fencing treatises are primarily for civilian use, and upper-class civilians, at that. The class of people who could afford a sword.
As I’ve mentioned before, HEMA, or historical fencing typically follows one of two traditions. The Italian school and the German school. Ultimately, there’s just enough difference to keep things interesting, though it seems mostly to be a matter of emphasis. Interestingly, Japanese kenjutsu bears significant resemblance to Western swordsmanship, from a purely biomechanical perspective. There are, after all, only so many ways to effectively use a sword.
Now, HEMA is a pretty broad umbrella. The primary historical treatises for specifically medieval swordsmanship are for one or two handed swords (ignoring for now any and all gaming terminology, please). They instructed for one purpose: self-defense. From there, things begin to get knotty. Fiore has sections treating on unarmed wrestling, dagger, spear, sword in one hand, sword in two hands, sword in armor, spear, and polearm (I’m nearly certain I’ve forgotten something).
From there, in the late medieval period and into the Renaissance period, there are treatises of instruction in the rapier, and then schools teaching rapier, saber, and then small sword and stick fighting. Like I said: HEMA is a BIG tent, and since most of the work is being done by enthusiasts, there’s a distinct tendency to take what you love and run with it.
For the discerning writer, then, how do we deal with the multiferrous multifarious bladed weapons? Common sense, honestly. Which can be extraordinarily difficult for genre writers, but I trust we can manage. Let your technology level dictate your weaponry. Setting something in late Bronze Age and your characters aren’t likely to be walking around in plate armor carrying long swords (let alone longswords). For one, bronze thick enough to act as armor is *heavy*. And bronze is expensive. Even at the height of the technology, terrestrial deposits of copper are few and far between, often boosting those owning them to the heights of power and wealth.
This is at once invigorating, and discouraging. Every line I write gives me more questions to ask. Honestly, I often feel like chucking realism, and diving into pure fantasy and obeying the Rule of Cool when it comes to writing about swords and writing sword. But that way lies anime and Victorian misconceptions. Next week, I’m planning to lay out useful terms to know when discussing swords and what makes an effective one. This is proving a much more in depth discussion than I’d expected, and I’d appreciate it if you would help keep me honest and on track. And not boring. The last thing I want to do is bore you. That would be … dull …