A blog about the British Renaissance and modern Renaissance Faires.
Edward Toton (aka, The Blue Knight) and Brian Ames (aka, The Green Knight), performers and educators at the Virginia Renaissance Faire and members of the Order of the Marshal, contributed the information for this blog. Connie Teunis, me!, edited.
Johannes Lichtenauer: “Young Knight, learn to love God and revere women so that your honor grows. Practice knighthood and learn the Art that dignifies you, and brings you honor in wars.”
Confucius: “Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.”
Swords and sword fighting have long been an essential part of a soldier’s gear and training. Even in modern times, soldiers carry ceremonial swords for special occasions. During Medieval times and the Renaissance, sword fighting was the primary form of hand-to-hand combat. And while modern movies often portray sword fighting as consisting primarily of wild slashing, sword fighting techniques were actually well established and learned as part of a Noble’s training.
The first known guidelines for sword fighting were written down in the early to mid-1300s by Johannes Liechtenaur. The techniques are believed to have been established much sooner; Liechtenaur is credited with being the first to put these techniques to paper.
Numerous manuscripts written during the Medieval times have been rediscovered and more are being rediscovered and translated every year. Translating these manuscripts, though, is a difficult task because they were written in the Medieval language at a time when spelling was not standardized and the English language itself was quite different from later centuries. In addition, the manuscripts tend to be cryptic because Nobles and their weapons’ masters meant these manuscripts for their students. They did not want everyone, such as potential enemies, learning their techniques.
These manuscripts typically emphasized moves, countermoves and how to look for weaknesses in one’s opponent. Just like modern boxing, if one’s opponent was weak on the left side, the trained swordsman would try to force the fight to the right, thus leaving the left side open to attack.
The long sword was the preferred weapon for teaching sword-fighting. At 3 feet in length for the blade and 1 foot in length for the hilt, the long sword was longer than most single-handed arming swords but not as large as the Great Sword. And although it could be used with one hand for short periods of time, it was meant to be used as a two-handed weapon.
Longswords also have straight cross guards. Cross guards were important because they could catch an opponent’s blade. Thus, the long sword served as both a weapon and a shield.
The cross guard also made the sword easier to transport. Sometimes the long sword was carried in a scabbard horizontally on the left hip. The right hand would withdraw the sword. When carried this way, the length of one’s arm became a limiting factor because one’s arm had to be long enough to draw the sword from the scabbard. More often, the scabbard was hung from a horse’s pommel, thus negating the issue of the length of one’s arm.
During Medieval times, the long sword was the weapon of choice for combat and was typically meant to be used against a Noble’s army of commoners. By the Renaissance, however, use of the long sword was waning in favor of the lighter-weight rapier. The long sword was relegated to sport fighting and duels.
In sport fighting, Nobles typically did not use armor. In fact, they often fought in the nude. Their knowledge of and skill in sword fighting was their “armor.” During duels, Nobles could use armor, but this became less common during the Renaissance.
Dueling and Rules of Honor
Richard Brinsley Sheridan: “Remember that when you meet your antagonist, to do everything in a mild agreeable manner. Let your courage be keen, but, at the same time, as polished as your sword.”
Issuing a challenge to a duel involved considerable strategy because the person accepting the challenge of a duel would determine the choice of weapons, armor, if any, date and time of the duel. The person accepting the challenge could thus plan to their strengths. It was common for antagonists to goad each other until one or the other finally issued the challenge.
Once a challenge was accepted, the duel was usually planned for a couple months in the future. The combatants would then use this time to practice and increase their skills.
The protagonists were allowed to enter the duel with up to three weapons. Should the one accepting the challenge be a particularly good marksman at throwing, he may require at the beginning of the duel that the first weapon used must be one that the combatants throw at each other. After that, assuming the combatants were both still hale and able to fight, combat would continue with swords until one combatant was killed or until first blood was drawn.
Not all duels ended in injury or death. In one case, the duelers began by staring at each other, looking for a good opening. They continued to stare at each other for several hours, even breaking for lunch. After lunch, they went back to staring at each other. At sundown, the duel was called to an end, honor was declared satisfied and everyone went home!
At a Renaissance Faire, a visitor may see a variety of weapons used in sword fighting. With some faires, sword fighting is highly scripted and each step and arm movement is planned in advance. At the Virginia Renaissance Faire, one can see cast members in skits involving choreographed sword fighting.
At the Virginia Renaissance Faire, one can also see members of the Order of the Marshal fight for points. The combatants wear safety gear, swords are blunted and movements are NOT scripted. This is all-out sword fighting! The techniques used, though, are straight out of the manuscripts that have come down through the centuries. Points are awarded for certain maneuvers and for “first touch.”
The blunted swords in these battles are made of steel and designed to replicate the weight of a long sword. Steel swords are used because they are actually safer than wood swords due to steel’s flexibility. Plastic swords are flexible, but the weight is wrong, which results in inaccurate movements. Aluminum swords are not used because they have no flexibility. If an aluminum sword were to hit fingers, the fingers and possibly the hand could be broken. But even with blunted steel swords, gauntlets and armor, members of The Order of the Marshal often end up bruised or worse!
This all-out sword fighting at Renaissance Faires began about 10 years ago, and the Virginia Renaissance Faire was one of the first faires to offer this type of sword fighting demonstration. When you come to the Virginia Renaissance Faire, I hope you will attend the Order of the Marshal as they give a brief history of sword fighting, explain specific moves, demonstrate how to hold the sword, and then do battle!
To learn more about the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please go to: www.VaRF.org. The Virginia Renaissance Faire runs for five weekends from Mother’s Day weekend through early June. We hope to see you there!