British Basket-hilted Sword, circa 1600; photo credit:
British Basket-hilted Sword, circa 1600; photo credit:

A funny thing happened when I started researching the weapon for last week’s blog post, that is, the arming sword. I, like many other novices in the medieval arena, thought the usual sword carried by knights was called a broadsword.

Well, after hanging out with some knights and writing my first book, I thought that I had learned a thing or two about weapons. How did I miss something as important as that?

None of my research materials name the sword as arming or broad. My guess is that perhaps “broadsword” became part of the medieval nomenclature due to the blossoming world of video games, but in reality, it’s a misnomer when used as a general term for any sword with a wide blade.

The term ‘broadsword’ actually refers to a distinct sword of the 1600-1700s, with a basket-hilt, such as the weapon pictured in this blog post.

This is a much later time period than my book, so imagine my horror that I armed my knights with the wrong swords.

No harm, no foul. Not yet anyway.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some editing to do.

15th Century Ceremonial Sword. Credit
15th Century Ceremonial Sword. Credit

Most fighting in medieval times took place up close, face to face. A knight always needed to be ready to protect himself, his lord, his fellow knights, and the weak and defenseless. Hence, he never went anywhere without his sword.

Named the arming sword, war sword, or knightly sword, this single-handed, double-edged blade measured roughly 30 inches long with a 6 inch hilt. Made of steel or iron or a combination of both, the blade had to be flexible yet strong.

Many people think these swords were heavy and cumbersome, perhaps due to all that shiny metal. But research and reenactment has proved otherwise. The weight actually ran between 2.5 to 3.5 lbs., which means it was light and manageable. This makes perfect sense; a heavier sword would only slow the reaction time and wear out its wielder. Well-made and well-balanced swords in properly trained hands equaled an agile and deadly weapon.

These swords evolved in purpose from cut, to cut and thrust, to thrust, over the course of the Middle Ages. At each stage, armor was developed to counteract the swords, and in turn the swords changed shape to be more effective against the armor. A straight blade and blunt point was effective to cut padded or leather armor, so chain mail was invented. Sword blades then became more tapered down to a point to pierce the links (cut and thrust). Then plate armor became the best protection, and sword blades narrowed further to an even finer tip (thrust). Defense and offense go hand in hand; it has always been this way in warfare.

Swords in general were only carried by knights or those appointed to by the king; it was unlawful for regular citizens. And, since a knight’s sword always hung at his side, ready for use, he developed a strong attachment to it. Why wouldn’t he? It could mean the difference between life or death, especially his.

Terracotta Army detail, Xi'an, China
Terracotta Army detail, Xi’an, China

7,000 warriors standing ready for battle fully armed with swords, axes, lances, spears, and crossbows. But these warriors never put their weapons to use. The terra cotta army discovered in the mausoleum of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) is known the world over. The warriors are made of clay but the weapons are real.

Archeologists have always wondered how this vast amount of weapons, to the tune of tens of thousands, could have been manufactured with such quality and uniformity. For some time, it has been believed that the weapons were mass produced and assembled in a line (Fordism), meaning less skilled workers doing repetitive tasks. But new evidence proves otherwise.

40,000 bronze arrowheads found in the tomb were tested and revealed unique chemical signatures based on location, indicating different batches were made at each site. The conclusion is multiple autonomous workshops operated at the same time to produce finished products, such as quivers filled with 100 bamboo-shafted arrows adorned with feathers.

Standardization of weapons and this cellular production method (Toyotism) means repairs and replacements could take place quickly on the battlefield or far from home, which may be why the Qin army was so successful in ending centuries of war and uniting China under single rule.

Interested in learning more about how Qin Shi Huang built his terracotta army?

Sgian Dubh, a black or hidden dagger worn in the hose/sock with the Scottish National Dress
Sgian Dubh, a black or hidden dagger worn in the hose/sock with the Scottish National Dress

No good Scotsman would be caught without his sgian dubh  (/ˌskiːən ˈduː/skean-dhuScottish Gaelic pronunciation: [s̪kʲɪnˈt̪uh]) a small knife that was carried in the top of the boot or hose. In Gaelic, sgian means “knife or blade” and dubh means “black”.

History varies on this weapon. Some researchers believe the black refers to the wooden handle that was often made of bog wood, which is dark brown to black in color; others believe that it was carried as a concealed weapon, thus making the intent dark. This is interesting when it is well-known that baring a blade in someone’s house to which one was invited was seen as a threat.

The custom of revealing a concealed weapon and placing it in plain sight in the top of your boot was meant as a sign of peace to the household, that is, no secrets and no intent to harm.

In the Old West, this was like checking your guns at the door.

Modern day sgian dubhs can be very ornate with decorated hilts, pewter caps or stones, and engraved blades. But in medieval times, the people leaned toward the practical. Sgian dubhs were single-edged utility knives with three to four inch blades used for skinning animals, cutting bread, and the like, but could be used in defense as a last resort. You might think it makes sense that if it was carried in a boot or hose top, it would have a flat hilt so as to lay more securely against the leg, but since antler horn was also used, it is more likely it had a rounded grip.

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