Although there were many weapons of all shapes and sizes throughout the period in history known as the Middle Ages, the sword has consistently been the most used, the most beloved, and the most feared. “Uniformly and persistently personal, the sword became no longer and abstraction, but a personage, endowed with human as well as superhuman qualities. He [the sword] was a sentient being who spoke and sang and joyed, and grieved. Identified with his wearer he was an object of affections, and was pompously named as a well-beloved son and heir. To surrender the sword was submission; to break the sword was degradation. To kiss the sword was and in places still is, the highest form of oath and homage.” The sword was the weapon of brigands and gentlemen alike, and in this paper, I will be asking and answering the following question, “Why and how did the sword change through antiquity?”
The evolution of the modern sword can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, but the “age of the sword”, the period when the sword was transcendent, was the post-Roman world. Technological advancements in armor and military tactics required that the design of the sword change as well. To understand the medieval sword, we must first understand its, predecessors, the Gallic sword, and the Roman gladius, or short sword.
The Gallic sword, while wielded by people who had caused trouble for the Roman Empire consistently over the course of the first half of the first millennia CE, was generally regarded as being wholly inferior to its imperial counterparts. The Roman author, Polybius, recounting the battle at Pisæ, where an alliance of Gallic tribes was defeated by C. Atilius (BCE 225), illustrates the superiority of the Roman weapons. He describes the Machairae of the Gauls as ‘merely cutting blades… altogether pointless, and fit only to slash from a distance downwards. These weapons, by their construction, soon wax blunt and are bent and bowed, so that a second blow cannot be made until they are straightened by the foot’. While this account appears far earlier than third century conflicts in Gaul during the decline of the Roman Empire, it serves to illustrate the general lack of quality associated with both Gallic weapons and armor. Indeed, in another account, the Gauls are attributed with possessing shields which are shaped poorly to cover their large frames and which became essentially useless against Roman and Carthaginian missile attacks. Another problem associated with the Gallic sword was the fact that it required considerable space in which it could be wielded effectively, mainly due to its length and mass. The Gauls’ standard arms and armor would remain similarly ineffectual until after the decline of the Roman Empire and the introduction of Gothic and later Viking weaponry.
The gladius evolved from the earlier Greek and Hispanic swords, but its use in the Roman military dictated a shorter, more maneuverable design. Unlike the Greek military, which was organized into a phalanx of tightly packed ranks, for whom the spear was the most important weapon, the Roman army developed the military organization known as the legion. Unlike the phalanx, the legion was versatile and could outmaneuver the enemy much more effectively than other armies of the time. The success of the legion lies in its loose yet orderly formation of troops. On rough terrain, where one group of soldiers is moving faster then another group, a loose formation meant that vulnerable pockets would not form in the ranks. Additionally, the design of the shield played an important role in the success of the Roman military. The standard infantry shield, or scutum, was large and square, with a distinctive bow outwards. This shield was designed for use primarily when the opposing force contained a high number of archers or slingers. When the opposing forces launched their arrows, the ranks of the legion would rest their shields flat on the shields of the ranks in front, creating a nearly solid box, which was almost impossible to penetrate. The use of a spear in this setting would only hinder the use of the shield, so the gladius became the primary weapon of Rome. That is not to say, however, that the spear was not used at all. The Roman pilum were designed to be thrown over a substantial distance, and by the time the Roman army took advantage of their shields’ defensive properties, the pilum would have already been launched. The gladius was short, which meant that it could be wielded with relative ease while in formation, and it could be used to stab out from behind the scutum without exposing the better part of the body to incoming missile attacks.
By the second half of the second century, much of the Roman military was composed of auxiliaries constituted predominantly of soldiers from the Gothic and German tribes which had begun to settle in the frontier territories of Rome, contributing to the Germanization of the military. Thus, as professional military units were being replaced by foreign auxiliaries, their influence on the Roman arsenal affected the transition from the gladius to the spatha as the standard sword of the legions. The spatha was generally nine to eleven inches longer then the gladius and resembled, at least in shape, the swords carried by the Gothic auxiliaries. It retained, however, the sharp angle at the tip, and the small hand guard of the gladius.
The Gothic tribes which migrated into the declining Roman Empire brought with them a sword which resembled the late Roman spatha, but was longer, heavier, and sported a distinctive disc-shaped pommel. The hand guard had increased in size as well, offering increased protection from slashing attacks, which were the preferred form of attack for the Goths primary enemy, the Huns. This sword was particularly effective against the standard infantry armor of the day, and it functioned adequately against chain mail armor, which the Goths brought with them into Europe. The later Viking sword, which while slightly more refined and sporting a substantially different hilt, show remarkable resemblance to the Gothic sword in blade design and usage. The use of large wooden shields covered with hides required a heavier, longer blade, which could break the shield apart, rather then attempt the impossible by thrusting through it. It is pertinent to note that both of these swords, and to a lesser extent, the Roman spatha, act as clear and common predecessors to the crusader broadsword used during the High Middle Ages.
The Viking sword, introduced to Europe at the end of the eighth century CE, begins to resemble later swords, which, because of their use primarily as raiding weapons, were used to hack at the opponent rather then slice or thrust. These swords begin to sport the distinctive cross-shaped hand guards of the Crusades Era swords, as well as its tapered blade, which for the first time, contained a fuller. A fuller was also referred to as a blood gutter, and ran nearly the entire length of the sword on the flat of the blade. While substantially more effective against armor then its earlier counterpart, the Viking blade was very expensive to produce and was generally reserved for those persons or families wealthy enough to afford one. Additionally, Viking forging techniques were not nearly advanced enough to produce high-quality steel, which is a characteristic of later blades. Nearly all of the swords produced up to this point were relatively small, single-handed swords. It would not be until later, with the increased use of the ‘heavy horse’, that large two-handed blades would become common in the design of swords.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, a new class of swords began to appear, for use by, and indeed to combat, the heavy cavalry which was beginning to be used more often as a standard military unit. This sword was the broadsword, or crusader sword, a name earned through its extensive use by European armies during the crusades in the holy lands. The broad sword resembled the earlier Gothic and Viking swords, but differed in minute, yet important ways. The medieval broadsword was substantially heavier than the earlier swords. The pommel had shrunk considerably, to allow for greater weight and power near the tip of the blade. The fuller generally did not continue past the midpoint of the blade and was even absent on some blades. The cross shaped hand guard took on its standard appearance, with a usually straight back (compared with the slight arc evident in the Viking swords). These swords were incredibly expensive to produce, and indeed, many knights, who were often nobles, could not afford them. The cost to produce the swords was offset and even overshadowed by the fact that they were excellent weapons to use in most contemporary forms of combat. They were long enough to be used with ease by a mounted knight, yet short enough for use by infantry, or by a knight without the use of his horse. They were very effective at penetrating heavily-armored units. There are accounts of broadsword strikes which would cleave limbs from the body, even through heavy armor. To combat these new, more effective weapons, a new form of heavy armor, called plate armor, was developed. This armor would later influence the development of large, heavy two-handed swords, such as the Scottish claymore.
These swords were well designed for European style warfare and when the Crusades began at the beckoning of Pope Urban II in 1095 CE, they truly showed their worth in the Holy Lands. The Muslim armies in the Middle East had a predominantly cavalry-based military, which were often lightly armored to produce more speed rather then defensive power. Against these lightly armored units, the broadsword was ideally suited. What armor was used by the Muslims was generally light, containing leather and small metal scales or studs. This armor had the ability to deflect the Muslim scimitar, but offered little in the way of protection against the powerful strokes of the broadsword. Similarly, the shields used by Muslim military units were generally small and round. They were designed primarily for use with the scimitars and other slashing weapons favored by other Muslim armies.
The standard armor of the period, used by the majority of the knights through the first half of the middle ages, was chain mail, which could generally deflect most light arms and the standard arrows carried by European archers. It was adequate against the Muslim scimitar, which had the tendency to glance off the metal, save for its hacking strokes which would break through the chain links.
After more then two hundred years of war in the Holy Lands, many of the Kingdoms of Europe were bankrupt and internal struggles began to erupt between them. Lack of internal vigilance and excessive taxation began to create strife, especially in England, which had led the majority of the crusades into the Holy Lands. By the late 1300’s, a new type of plate armor had become dominant, due to the need for faster knights, which was brought on by combat with mounted Muslim warriors. This new type of armor was designed with rows of metal plates attached to leather and cloth. This armor served as an effective defense against both arrows and swords, in addition to allowing its wearer a greater range of movement.
This armor was far less effective against a sword originating in the highlands of Scotland, the claymore. It was considerably longer and heavier then the common European swords. Many of them reached more then forty-eight inches in length. Unlike other European swords, claymores were double-handed swords, meaning that they required two hands to wield effectively. Most claymores were forged with a section of the blade nearest the hilt without an edge. Wrapped in leather, it was designed to allow the bearer to rest it on his shoulder, as the swords were far too large to be carried by other means. In battle, these swords were devastating, even against heavy plate armor. However, they were extremely difficult to use, particularly because they were very heavy and required substantial room to wield effectively. Because of these drawbacks, the Scottish claymore never became a major influence on the development of the sword.
By the middle of the 1400’s, the first gunpowder muskets were becoming a major part of European warfare. While early cannons had been used since the end of the 1200’s, hand-held firearms had not been invented until much later, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. While requiring a substantial learning curve to be able to use efficiently, matchlock guns were incredibly useful against massed infantry or cavalry charges, tactics which would not fall out of use until the end of the 19th century. Conventional armor offered little protection from the gunpowder propelled balls and within fifty year, most forms of traditional weaponry and armor had fallen out of use, paving the way for the rapier, a sword which had a vastly different purpose then its medieval brethren.
By the end of the middle ages, gunpowder-based weapons were common and while offering substantial benefits in range and lethality, possessed major drawbacks which may have been the only reason why the sword continued to be used far after the end of medieval-style combat. Early muskets were wildly inaccurate and require at least a minute to reload. During a battle, the space of a minute or two was an eternity and most conflicts ended in close order combat, in which muskets were of little use. It was at this point that the sword returned to the forefront of European warfare, this time in the form of the rapier. With a lack of substantial armor, large heavy swords were no longer needed. The rapier was long and light, providing a quickness on the field of battle which was in stark contrast to the slow and ponderous nature of the musket. The rapier was not only an efficient weapon, but a decoration, and many sported ornate, highly decorated hilts and pommels. Forging advancements at the end of the Middle Ages provided steel which was incredibly strong, yet flexible. This allowed rapiers to be increasingly thin, yet retain their strength. Designed to stab through lightly armored infantry, the rapier was nearly edgeless and was designed such that the entire force of the thrust would be directed towards the point, increasing penetrating power. There is a saying that states, “Cuts wound, stabs kill”, and the rapier was designed to take advantage of this fact.
The sword remained a significant part of warfare well into the nineteenth century, but never again reclaimed its place as the favored weapon of soldiers in Europe. Faster and more efficient developments in firearms led to the inevitable decline of the swords as a weapon of war. From the end of the Roman Empire to the development of gunpowder, the swords provided the most efficient and lethal weapon on the battlefield, until it was rendered obsolete by the ever-ongoing march of technology.
 Burton, The Book of the Sword, XV
 Lib. Ii. Caps. 28, 30, 33
 The medieval Scottish claymore should not be confused with the later sixteenth to seventeenth century basket-hilt claymore, which had a substantially different design.