Longsword

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The Longsword is a type of European sword used during the late medieval and Renaissance periods, approximately 1350 to 1550 (with early and late use reaching into the 13th and 17th centuries, respectively). Longswords have lengthy cruciform hilts with grips over some 15 cm (6 in) in length (providing room for two hands), straight double-edged blades often over 90 cm (35 in) in length, and weigh typically between 1.2 and 1.4 kg (2½ to 3 lb), with light specimens just below 1 kg (2 lb), and heavy specimens just above 2 kg (4½ lb).[1]

The longsword is commonly held in combat with both hands, though some may be used single-handed. Longswords are used for striking, cutting, and thrusting. The specific offensive purpose of an individual longsword is derived from its physical shape. All parts of the sword are used for offensive purposes, including the pommel and crossguard.

Contemporary terminology includes the Dutch grootzwaard, German Langschwert, Italian spadone or spada longa (lunga) and Portuguese montante. The French épée bâtarde references the bastard sword, a type of longsword. The terms “hand-and-a-half sword”, “greatsword”, and “bastard sword” are used colloquially to refer to longswords in general.

The evolution of the sword before and after the development of the longsword was not entirely linear. Swords of an older type may have coexisted with newer variants for quite some time, making it difficult to trace a single path of sword evolution. Instead, the course of sword development is layered with some swords evolving from a previous type of sword, acting as its able contemporary, and eventually being abandoned while the original design continued in use for some time afterward. Similarly, variants of a particular type of sword may have come about not to replace it, but to simply coexist with it until a new evolution brought a close to both older types of weapons. Such situations present both the path of sword development as a whole and the encompassed rise and fall of the longsword as chronologically nebulous and confused by broad definitions, both modern and contemporary.

The relatively comprehensive Oakeshott typology was created by historian and illustrator Ewart Oakeshott as a way to define and catalogue swords based on physical form, though a rough sense of chronology is apparent. This typology does not set forth a prototypical definition for the longsword, however. Instead, it separates the broad field of weaponry into many exclusive types based on their predominant physical characteristics including blade shape and hilt configuration. The typology also focuses on the smaller, and in some cases contemporary[2], single-handed swords like the arming sword.

The longsword, with its longer grip and blade, appears to have become popular during the 14th century and remained in common use, as shown through period art and tale, from 1250 to 1550.[3] The longsword was a powerful and versatile weapon, but was not considered the only weapon needed for learning the arts of war. Sigmund Ringeck, an influential Fechtbuch (combat manual) author, writes that young knights should learn to “wrestle well, (and) skilfully wield spear, sword, and dagger in a manly way.”[4] It is apparent that even to a master swordsman, other weapons and techniques are of great importance for battle. For close personal infantry combat, however, the longsword was prized for its versatility and killing capability.[5]

It is in the Types XIIa and XIIIa that the first early variants of the longsword arise as simply longer versions of the single-handed sword. There are rare archeological findings of swords of this type from as early as the late 12th century.[6] Boasting both increased grip length and increased blade lengths, these weapons would have been powerful hewing swords, perhaps developed to further combat the prevalence of chain mail[7] and plate armour. These weapons also firmly fit the modern colloquial term “hand-and-a-half sword”, as Oakeshott notes, because they do not provide a full two-hand grip as do some early extant specimens and the 16th century Bidenhänder.

The bastard sword, or contemporary espée bastarde, is a type of sword dating from roughly the early 15th century. It received its name for fitting into neither the one-handed sword family, nor the two handed sword family, thus being labelled a “bastard”.[citation needed] These weapons featured longer grips similar to those found on the longswords. The extra space was not enough to allow both hands entirely, however, but was enough to provide for the use of a couple of fingers or a part of the palm, providing some extra leverage.[8] The grips of bastard swords often feature a “waisted” appearance, as in the Oakeshott Type XVIa.[9] The bastard sword, more so than the great sword, plays into the “hand-and-a-half sword” classification, as some great swords provided considerably more than an extra “half” hand for gripping. Similarly, the shorter length of the weapon at roughly 45 to 55 inches (115-140cm) put the sword halfway between the shorter single-handed sword and the larger (and occasionally fully two-handed) great sword.[10]

Like all other types of swords, the bastard sword existed in a number of configurations, generally tending towards a strongly tapered and thicker blade as time went on. This manifestation, along with a relatively small blade length in relation to hilt length, gave the sword a very precise and reactive nature that served well for cutting or thrusting, much like a side-sword.[9] The form of the bastard sword began very much like that of the greatsword, based in the beginning of the 15th century off transition swords evolving from the spatha. Like the transition swords, the first bastard swords featured a plain or cruciform cross-guard (cross) and a round or wheel pommel.[8] Later development of the weapon, however, saw the inclusion of curved quillions, ring guards, and compound hilts similar to those on baskethilts (swords like the schiavona that nearly enclosed the entire hand in a protective guard).[10] These served to provide increased protection for the wielder’s hands and may have also positively affected the balance of the weapon.

Such swords with compound hilts include the German Reitschwert, a form of cavalry sword, and the “Degen” or “Knight’s Sword”. It is possible, however, that these swords are in fact a single-handed manifestation of the estoc.[9]

While nearly every longsword is in some way different from another, most contain a few essential parts. The blade of the sword forms the cutting portion of the weapon and is usually double-edged. Blades came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Broad and thin blades are more effective for cutting-oriented longswords while thick tapering blades are found on varieties more effective at thrusting. However, all longswords were effective at cutting, slicing and thrusting and variations in form made only minor alterations in use. The hilt comprises the portion of the sword that is not the blade – essentially everything else. Like the blade, hilts evolved and changed over time in response to fashion and as the swords were designed for different specific purposes.

The blade of the medieval longsword is straight and predominantly double edged. The construction of the blade is relatively thin, with strength provided by careful blade geometry. Over time, as is evidenced in the Oakeshott typology and other similar systems, the blades of longswords become slightly longer, thicker in cross-section, less wide, and considerably more pointed. This design change is largely attributed to the use of plate armour as an effective defense, more or less nullifying the ability of a sword cut to break through the armour system. Instead of cutting, long swords were then used more to thrust against opponents in plate armour, requiring a more acute point and a more rigid blade. However, the cutting capability of the longsword was never entirely removed, as in some later rapiers, but was supplanted in importance by thrusting capability.

Blades differ considerably in cross-section, as well as in length and width. The two most basic forms of blade cross-section are the lenticular and diamond. Lenticular blades are shaped like thin doubly convex lenses, providing adequate thickness for strength in the center of the weapon while maintaining a thin enough edge geometry to allow a proper cutting edge to be ground. The diamond shaped blade slopes directly up from the edges, without the curved elements of the lenticular blade. The central ridge produced by this angular geometry is known as a riser, the thickest portion of the blade that provides ample rigidity. These basic designs are supplemented by additional forging techniques that incorporated slightly different variations of these cross-sections.