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Swords And Their Historical Context

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Something that is not often accounted for in casual discussions of historical weapons is the context in which they existed. It is important to remember that weapons may change even though the fundamental technology that governs them has not. The reasons for this may be that tactics have evolved, or that other technologies have arisen or improved, forcing a change of weapon use. What must always be remember is that weapons are always combined arms, where changes in one type of armament influence the use and construction of others. An excellent example is how the Frankish/Migration Period sword (often called the "Viking sword") evolved into the early Medieval arming sword, due to changing tactics:

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In my writing on medieval combat that was part of the research leading up to Total Eclipse I proposed calling all swords with single hand "thumb forward" grips arming swords, a term used by scholars for a 10th century knight's sword.  These swords vary in size based on how close the military units who wield them fight, but could be found of nearly any length capable of being held by one from 250 BCE to 1500 CE.  Many of the attempts to differentiate sword length and function a la Oakshot were categorization where the writers of the time saw little difference between the weapons (and did not even use the Roman term spatha.  

 

In most of Europe after the withdrawal of the legions the sword was actually a side arm of knights and not employed on foot, and burial prizes of Anglo Saxons show that the sword was an officer's weapon.  This is because a fighting sword was expensive.  In DnD the sword is 10gp and an meal 5 sp, making a sword worth 20 days food.  In my own game a sword was a crucial weapon because of its probability, but its costs is 1000 times that of a day of food.

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In my writing on medieval combat that was part of the research leading up to Total Eclipse I proposed calling all swords with single hand "thumb forward" grips arming swords, a term used by scholars for a 10th century knight's sword.  These swords vary in size based on how close the military units who wield them fight, but could be found of nearly any length capable of being held by one from 250 BCE to 1500 CE.  Many of the attempts to differentiate sword length and function a la Oakshot were categorization where the writers of the time saw little difference between the weapons (and did not even use the Roman term spatha.  

 

In most of Europe after the withdrawal of the legions the sword was actually a side arm of knights and not employed on foot, and burial prizes of Anglo Saxons show that the sword was an officer's weapon.  This is because a fighting sword was expensive.  In DnD the sword is 10gp and an meal 5 sp, making a sword worth 20 days food.  In my own game a sword was a crucial weapon because of its probability, but its costs is 1000 times that of a day of food.

 

Lolwut. If a meal at the local "inn" (Chipotle) costs $9, then a "sword" (AR-15) starts at 67 times the price of a meal. Even a real modern replica sword (as opposed to Sword-Like Object) will run you a quarter to a third of that, so 20 meals or more. And they were way, way worse at making shit in general back then, so 20 days of food sounds at least an order of magnitude off, to me.

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It's more along the lines of being able to get a sword for a similar amount to the whole animal from what I've seen. For example, at some point I can't remember off the top of my head during Carolingian times, the price of a sword was listed at 3 solidi and a lance + shield at 2, while an ox was 2 and a mare 3. Torso armor was a real killer though, a brunia was 12 solidi, and you were required to have one if you had twelve mansi(?) (plural of mansus, not 100% sure at this hour). If I remember right even in the early modern period when metal stuff was seriously more common I seem to recall the nails being something like half the cost of a lot of furniture.

 

I'm also worried that armor seems to have been required, and I've run into mention of the King of Denmark requiring his vassals show up in armor actually designed to stand up to gunfire rather than older styles during the 30 years' war.

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I'm skimming through a couple different online sites for the Domesday book and both are being singularly unhelpful. If there is one thing that I'd wager is that horses were every bit as rare and valuable as swords.

 

Edit: Cobs = Horse, often times a light draft horse.

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This website purports to have a list of Anglo Saxon prices for common items.

 

http://www.regia.org/research/misc/costs.htm

 

Three examples of horses range from 193 to 308 pennies.

 

A sword ranges from 81 pennies to 308 pennies (latter "with scabbard")

 

A spear is 33 pennies.

 

A male slave is 197 pennies, a female slave 131 pennies.

 

A "Dunghill dog" is worth 4 pennies.

 

 

 

 

One Kenneth Hodges of the University of Berkeley has a list of medieval prices (granted 700-900 years after our time period) but it is still interesting.

 

http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html

 

A "cheap peasant's sword" is 6 pennys in 1340. So I guess we have the Iver Johnson of the medieval world.

 

A draft horse could be 10-20 shillings. A warhorse anywhere form 50 shillings to 80 pounds.

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Per the Regia site, here are some fines that most of the posters here should keep in mind.

 

Raping female slave: 65 shilling fine.

Holding a woman's breast: 5 shilling fine.

Seducing a free woman: 60 shilling fine.

Throw a woman down but not lie with her: 60 shilling fine.

Not baptising a child within 30 days of birth: 30 shilling fine.

Removing a nun from a nunnery without permission: 120 shilling fine.

 

Let this be a warning to ye!

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It's more along the lines of being able to get a sword for a similar amount to the whole animal from what I've seen. For example, at some point I can't remember off the top of my head during Carolingian times, the price of a sword was listed at 3 solidi and a lance + shield at 2, while an ox was 2 and a mare 3. Torso armor was a real killer though, a brunia was 12 solidi, and you were required to have one if you had twelve mansi(?) (plural of mansus, not 100% sure at this hour). If I remember right even in the early modern period when metal stuff was seriously more common I seem to recall the nails being something like half the cost of a lot of furniture.

 

I'm also worried that armor seems to have been required, and I've run into mention of the King of Denmark requiring his vassals show up in armor actually designed to stand up to gunfire rather than older styles during the 30 years' war.

This isn't too surprising when you look at how much went into making a piece of iron before blast furnaces became common.

 

Europe was actually in this weird position of being really poor in terms of metal production (relative to places like India and West Africa), before powering ahead of the world sometime around the 13th century (the dip during the 14th century being a bit of an exception). Compare this to Japan, where metal production was always limited by poor ore quality and a consequent lack of impetus towards improved mining or smelting methods.

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In my writing on medieval combat that was part of the research leading up to Total Eclipse I proposed calling all swords with single hand "thumb forward" grips arming swords, a term used by scholars for a 10th century knight's sword.  These swords vary in size based on how close the military units who wield them fight, but could be found of nearly any length capable of being held by one from 250 BCE to 1500 CE.  Many of the attempts to differentiate sword length and function a la Oakshot were categorization where the writers of the time saw little difference between the weapons (and did not even use the Roman term spatha.  

 

In most of Europe after the withdrawal of the legions the sword was actually a side arm of knights and not employed on foot, and burial prizes of Anglo Saxons show that the sword was an officer's weapon.  This is because a fighting sword was expensive.  In DnD the sword is 10gp and an meal 5 sp, making a sword worth 20 days food.  In my own game a sword was a crucial weapon because of its probability, but its costs is 1000 times that of a day of food.

 

I seem to remember (but may be wrong on this) that swords actually aren't that much more effective than, say, a short spear. Especially against an armoured opponent.

How much of the popularity of swords was simply as status symbols, rather than as cost-rational tools of war?

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I seem to remember (but may be wrong on this) that swords actually aren't that much more effective than, say, a short spear. Especially against an armoured opponent.

How much of the popularity of swords was simply as status symbols, rather than as cost-rational tools of war?

 

Depends how you use them. Spears aren't nearly as versatile, especially in the later period. You could not duel a man in full plate with a spear like you could a proper longsword.

As for shorter swords from earlier periods - clearly they were useful. Why would the eminently pragmatic Romans use gladii and spathae in such numbers, otherwise? Again, I think as a pointy bit you can stick people with, yeah, the sword probably isn't so different from an iklwa or whatever, but iklwas don't flex and probably aren't as versatile.

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A longsword isn't exactly the ideal thing to tackle a man in full plate with either.

 

Short swords are eminently useful (an iklwa is effectively a gladius descended from a spear rather than a knife), but longswords are a bit...fiddly for use in the line. On horses, however (that other great status symbol), a long blade is pretty perfect for the 99% of horse combat that doesn't consist of charging home against a block of infantry. So I'm not denying that the sword is useful.

 

My argument is simply that, if a good spear costs x, then a good sword costs 10x. Is a sword really 10 times more efficient than a spear? Or is it more a case of equipping your forces with the best possible gear on the assumption that trained men are worth far more than their equipment?

 

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A longsword isn't exactly the ideal thing to tackle a man in full plate with either.

 

Short swords are eminently useful (an iklwa is effectively a gladius descended from a spear rather than a knife), but longswords are a bit...fiddly for use in the line. On horses, however (that other great status symbol), a long blade is pretty perfect for the 99% of horse combat that doesn't consist of charging home against a block of infantry. So I'm not denying that the sword is useful.

 

My argument is simply that, if a good spear costs x, then a good sword costs 10x. Is a sword really 10 times more efficient than a spear? Or is it more a case of equipping your forces with the best possible gear on the assumption that trained men are worth far more than their equipment?

 

standard.jpg

 

Uh, what? Longswords are designed to tackle guys in full-plate:

 

You use it like a big can opener, basically.

 

It sounds like a good spear costs X and a good sword costs 2X or 3X, and you're likely to have had one passed down to you, anyway (whereas spearheads are eminently lose-able).

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Longswords can work, but a mace or hammer is better.

Per cost, you must remember that the steel quality and workmanship needs to be better the longer your blade is. So it really is more like 10x.

Do we have more knowledgeable folk to weigh in?

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Just use the analogy of modern weapons. You can buy 10 Mosin Nagants for one AR-15. And I would say those 10 guys would be better than the one using the AR.

But obviously that's not how battles work. And we see guys pay for weapons that are orders of magnitude more than the percentage of improvement that weapon gives you.

As for the swords, you have religious and social significance to factor in as well. Plus not every opponent faced by those fully armored knights will be similarly armored.

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Longswords can work, but a mace or hammer is better.

Per cost, you must remember that the steel quality and workmanship needs to be better the longer your blade is. So it really is more like 10x.

Do we have more knowledgeable folk to weigh in?

 

Depends what you're trying to do. If you're in melee, I agree - you want something properly bashy. If you're in a duel however, you want one of my patented Steel Anti-Armor Crowbar/Can-Openers ™.

Again, you're discounting a couple of things: 1. for a spear to more closely approach the usefulness of a sword, it needs to be more like a sword. In other words, it needs to incorporate more steel and better steel. 2. Swords were often not made from scratch, but re-hilted with more modern fittings, saving money. Once you get to the Late Medieval period, you had rather a lot of swords running around that one could buy for not much money. An outdated blade with a modern hilt is still more useful than a short spear.

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Also important is the tactical setting of the weapons. Pikes (spears) being relevant well into the gunpowder era.

You get the weapon that you need to win battles.

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Also important is the tactical setting of the weapons. Pikes (spears) being relevant well into the gunpowder era.

You get the weapon that you need to win battles.

 

Right, but we're not talking about pikes (which were useful, eventually in their musket-and-bayonet form, all the way up to the 20th Century), we're talking about iklwa-type things.

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I think it depends on the case. If you're spending a guy's life on training, armor and everything else it takes to become top end heavy cavalry (and this price goes up during the period), then the price of a sword is a fraction of a considerably larger sum, and it makes sense to get the best you can.

 

Also, the rest of that price list mentioned:

 

Equipment (price in solidi)
-helmet (6)
-brunia (torso armor) (12)
-sword (3)
-scabbard (4)
-leggings (6)
-lance + shield (2)
-horse (12)

Reference
Ox (2)
Mare (3)

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This is all taken from the book I am writing on infantry weapons, but the ancient tool kit developed four weapon styles: bludgeoning, cleaving, slashing, and piercing.  Bludgeoning is the oldest human weapon style and likely predates the stone age.  

 

B A bludgeon attack is deadly when directed against the head or neck, and is capable of disarming or rendering silent an enemy through painful strikes to the extremity.  Bludgeons are generally heavy and require strength to employ.  The earliest B weapons are made from tools used to separate grain from chaff.

 

C Cleaving weapons are bludgeons that have a reduced edge, for example axes and glaives.  Cleaving weapons are best used as jointers - targeting the joints of an enemy they cause dislocations, those dislocation can be fatal if carried through with a will.  The earliest C weapons are made from devices used to fell trees and clear plant matter.

 

S Slashing weapons were developed by sharpening cleaving weapons.  The S class of weapon solves a problem created by B and C class weapons in that its damaging attacks create a cumulative or whole body injury that today we call shock.  When a B or C class attack fails to carry through, the force is usually expended against resilient muscle and body structure.  A human can literally be beaten black and blue and have little long term issue as long as the attacks do not rupture a small number of protect internal organs, or cause a concussion.  Slashing weapons open the human tissue and even in small cuts lead to blood pressure loss and effort of the body to control the loss of blood volume.    A cut, followed by another, followed by a third is cumulative in its effect.  Knives used to dress leather are the first major slashing devices, based on the ability of some stone when snapped to form a sharp edge.

 

(P) Piercing weapons were developed hunting weapons like the spear, and are the deadliest weapons, but often the hardest to employ and manufacture.  Where a slashing weapon relies on blood loss from arterial destruction, piercing weapons rely on organ destruction and are the only weapon designed to pierce deep into the human body.  

 

(D) not an offensive category but a defensive category, some weapons have defensive design elements, such as the glaive whose length is a defensive feature.

 

The sword gained a following in Greek times because of versatility.  A properly designed sword was capable of being used in all four fighting modes listed above, plus has defensive value. In addition swords, along with knives, were natural side arms.  This means a weapon that can be carried around while camp duties are carried out. 

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Nononononononono. That's a mistake. It assumes that all weapons are used the same way (I hit them with my sword). That would be like categorizing modern infantry weapons as "shooty things, splodey things, and lazery things".

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It is based on the testing of ancient weapons.  A spear has a primary attack means in formation - the stab, which is a piercing style attack.  It has a secondary, less effective means of attack - the slash.  In close formation that form of attack becomes more difficult.  It has a very poor bludgeon form of attack.  Autopsies of individuals killed by spear type weapons show piercing attacks to be king - and indeed when we look at mass graves from eras where long pikes are the main weapon we find a limited number of other wounds - implying that the weapon had a main style of attack.

 

Many more creative ways of using the spear come from samurai use - as an individual as opposed to a mass weapon.  "Slashing with the tip" has the spear holder place the palm over the butt of the weapon and then second hand extended, seeking to drive the front of the weapon in figure eights to menace the face.  The problem is this move forces the spear holder to leave the safety of a formation and does not result in an optimum use of the weapon.

 

To come closer to your example.  A rifle produces significant numbers of piercing type wounds - it is a (p) class weapon.  You can reject the use of a rifle as a (p) style weapon and attempt to make (s) type wounds but the effectiveness of the weapon is lowered.  B style wounds are also possible, but perhaps training soldiers to concentrate on generating these type of wounds (by using the butt of the weapon, or perhaps waiting for the bad guy to stand under a thing that can be shot loose) is suboptimal.

 

A roman sword had a thrusting attack and a slashing attack bu design when used with a shield in closed formation.  When fighting open formation romans had a attack consisting of punching the enemy.  So this weapon could be said to have two main forms of attack, and a secondary.

 

A glaive in the middle ages has a cleaving attack with a weak bashing attack and slashing attack.  

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It is based on the testing of ancient weapons.  A spear has a primary attack means in formation - the stab, which is a piercing style attack.  It has a secondary, less effective means of attack - the slash.  In close formation that form of attack becomes more difficult.  It has a very poor bludgeon form of attack.  Autopsies of individuals killed by spear type weapons show piercing attacks to be king - and indeed when we look at mass graves from eras where long pikes are the main weapon we find a limited number of other wounds - implying that the weapon had a main style of attack.

 

Many more creative ways of using the spear come from samurai use - as an individual as opposed to a mass weapon.  "Slashing with the tip" has the spear holder place the palm over the butt of the weapon and then second hand extended, seeking to drive the front of the weapon in figure eights to menace the face.  The problem is this move forces the spear holder to leave the safety of a formation and does not result in an optimum use of the weapon.

 

To come closer to your example.  A rifle produces significant numbers of piercing type wounds - it is a (p) class weapon.  You can reject the use of a rifle as a (p) style weapon and attempt to make (s) type wounds but the effectiveness of the weapon is lowered.  B style wounds are also possible, but perhaps training soldiers to concentrate on generating these type of wounds (by using the butt of the weapon, or perhaps waiting for the bad guy to stand under a thing that can be shot loose) is suboptimal.

 

A roman sword had a thrusting attack and a slashing attack bu design when used with a shield in closed formation.  When fighting open formation romans had a attack consisting of punching the enemy.  So this weapon could be said to have two main forms of attack, and a secondary.

 

A glaive in the middle ages has a cleaving attack with a weak bashing attack and slashing attack.  

 

Doesn't this operate under the assumption that each weapon has "attacks" you can make with it, remaining totally irrespective of how each weapon was actually used?

 

Again, by analogy, you could just distill modern arms this way, but you'd miss the differences in how precision rifles, DMRs, infantry rifles, automatic rifles, and machine guns are used, distilling it down to "oh, the MG just does 1d6 damage at 875 rounds per minute with a 200 round belt."

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