I’ve posted before on the difference between sword fighting and swordplay. One is for the battlefield and the other is for more social situations. I find it amazing that there are historical fencers wthese not understand or fully appreciate the different contexts in which these wonderful weapons were used and how their use changed over time. This post is a quick and very general overview of the different situations in which swords were used.
This is the most obvious use of the sword as a weapon. It is also the one that is least understood by fencers. Contrary to popular belief in some quarters, rapiers were never used on the battlefield at any period in history1. This does not mean that the rapier is an inferior weapon or that the soldiers of the day were unskilled sword fighters (because otherwise, they’d all use rapiers). It simply means that the rapier is the wrong tool for this context. Heavier weapons and weapons which could deal more effective with armour were always preferred.
Generally, battlefield weapons were preferred, especially in the Germanic countries, long after they disappeared from warfare because this was serious business. A judicial duel was rarely to first blood or any other nicety. It was almost always combat to the death.
Duel of Honour
Duelling for points of honour were also to the death until the concept of first blood was introduced around the 19th century. Even here, as late as 1547, duels were being fought with sword and buckler rather than the new-fangled (and Italian) thrust-centric rapiers. Rapiers were used when the fight was immediate rather than in formal, prepared duels. Also, contrary to even the words of the masters, the thrust is much less deadly – and certainly less immediately deadly – that the cut. It was only after the introduction of the small sword in the eighteenth century that this nature of the duel began to change.
Gang Violence and Thuggery
Those crazy Italians were not the only people to carry swords in the streets for personal protection but they became known for it. It is for fighting in the courts, taverns and streets that the rapier was truly developed. The weapon’s main feature is its length, which grew steadily over time to ridiculous proportions. This length gave the wielder the ability to hold opponents at a safe distance. It’s also good for attacking someone without putting yourself in danger of any form of retaliatory response.
Swords have always been used for sport with sets of rules to codify and control behaviour. The most complete set of rules we have is the Belgian Guild rules which were known to have been used from at least the 1540s in northern France and Belgium. There are plenty of medieval notes about bouts in the market place. Sport is as valid a context for swordplay as war.
The final context is related to sport. The sword has always been the symbol of the nobility. Long after the weapon disappeared from the battlefield, the nobility and those who wanted to emulate them trained regularly and frequently with swords. They bouted between each other in the same way that CEOs (arguably the nobles of today) play golf. The further away from the medieval battlefield we stand, the more likely we are to find non-lethal sport combat between members of the aristocracy using increasingly light and thrust-centric weapons.
1 They were used at the start of the English Civil War (1642-1651) but were quickly dropped in favour of more useful weapons.