I’ve been practising HEMA (historic European martial arts) for a couple of years now (i.e. not very long) and have tried my hand at sword and buckler, longsword (that’s me with a nylon longsword on the right) and backsword. All of these types of swordplay have manuals from about 1300 AD onwards to help us work out what people were doing with them at the time they were used. Of course, their use would have varied depending on whether they were used in judicial fights, duels or by soldiers in an army. What I hadn’t fully realised until recently was that each sword demands slightly different play partly because they all have different defences for the hands.
As you reach out to lay a blow or thrust on your opponent, your hands are the nearest target for your opponent to hit. With the sword and buckler that small metal shield is there mainly to protect this outstretched hand. With longsword, the protection comes in the form of quillons, as well as how you play with the sword in contact with your opponents for most of the time. With a backsword, which is played one-handed, there is more of a swept hilt that provides a little more protection for that hand, but not against thrusts, which is because it’s more of a slashing weapon.
Recently (like in the last two weeks) we have started to play with round shields in the Viking or Anglo-Saxon style. While there are no manuals for this period there are hints in sources and body mechanics to go on, and the capabilities of the weapons themselves (Roland Warzecha’s YouTube channel has useful tips – see embedded video below). Swords of this time do not have very prominent quillons or crossguards, and one of the main threats is therefore sliding down the sword to snipe at the hands. Only by being in constant motion and reacting to the feeling of your opponent’s blade and shield on yours can you hope to control their blade and not get hit. Every now and then something clicks for me when playing with swords and this was one moment. I have to admit it was after being hit on both thumbs that it came to me!
I would very much like to try out similar techniques with prehistoric swords, which also have very little crossguard, and the round or oval leather or wood shields of which only a few have been found. Bronze Age swords were generally much shorter than later iron swords because they were cast, not hammered. Bronze cools and hardens very quickly so there was a limit to the length of the sword that could be made (thanks to Brett Thorn of Bucks County Museum for that insight). Because of the size, did they have to be played out in longpoint, thereby making the hands more of a target? Or, like in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period would the shield be the primary weapon? Something to find out.
Going further back in time to middle Bronze Age rapiers (nothing at all like later rapiers) they are actually tangless swords. Because of this they could not make a lateral cutting motion, but had to be thrusting weapons. Perhaps this meant that hands were not such a target, but this is something to play with. This is a good description of these earlier swords and the development of swords up to Viking times. There is so much more fun to be had with swords!