I talked about armor here, but there’s also a lot of misconceptions about swords. Especially if you play RPGs or watch the History Channel.
3 Myths About Swords You Probably Believe
1. Swords of the Middle Ages Were Very Heavy
Many of us have played an RPG (role-playing game) in our time, whether in video game form or table top. This means we’ve seen the stats on weapons and had to make sure our warrior or paladin was strong enough to wield them. While strength was important, the weights in these games and quoted on the History Channel may have been in there more for game balance than fact.
Truth: According to the Wallace Collection Museum in London that has dozens of actual swords from the Middle Ages, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any that weighed more than four pounds. Most weighed less than three. Even the large “hand-and-a-half” swords rarely weighed more than 4.5 pounds. Large parade swords only weighed up to eight or nine pounds, but their blunt edges should be a clear sign they weren’t meant for combat.
All of these swords would be easily handled by a man who’d been training with them since the age of seven.
Some of this misconception may come from producing replica swords which are not made the same way they were in the middle ages or with the same materials. Still, it wouldn’t have taken more than a trip to a museum to prove this out.
2. Swords of the Middle Ages Were Clumsy
In a fencing booklet from 1746, the author talked about how heavy and unwieldy earlier swords were and stated they were designed for brute force. I can’t exclusively blame the Victorians for this one, though in the 1870s, a historian described earlier weapons as ponderous and requiring both hands.
Truth: The weapons of the Middle Ages were light, strong, and well-designed. They were agile weapons designed to kill, and they did a fine job of it. They were not clumsy or heavy. They were not “clubs with edges”. Of course they weren’t. Men had been fighting with swords for thousands of years. Improvements were made along the way. Materials got better, and so did forging techniques. Guns would eventually change warfare, but not for a long time, and when it comes to survival, humans are remarkably inventive.
3. Swords of the Middle Ages Were Prone to Breaking
Again, not sure where this came from, unless a scholar was holding a 500 year-old sword that had grown brittle with time. Swords did not regularly break in battle. Seriously. If they did, that army would’ve lost, and you can guarantee the victor wouldn’t have adopted their shoddy techniques.
When you step back and look at this logically, of course it makes sense that knights and soldiers of the Middle Ages had finely-crafted blades that were light, sturdy and agile. War tends to bring about inventiveness as nothing drives innovation like survival. And the funding from kings and emperors didn’t hurt, either.
While video games may show us a visually appealing truth, and RPGs struggle with game balance, the truth about knights, swords and armor doesn’t change. Armor was practical and effective. So were swords. Important things for me as a writer to know, though I wonder if it will be disappointing or unbelievable to see the mundane truth in my work. Something for me to consider.
Any other myths about the European middle ages out there we all take for granted?