Some observations of a medieval club sword fighting

The other day I watched a medieval reenactment group in the park.  I’ve seen people like these quite a number of times.  They are like a club of people that get together, dress up in medieval clothes, and some will fight with swords.  I always thought that, if I were really interested in medieval times, it would be a neat club to get into.  I believe there are a number of these clubs in the city.

Anyways, while watching them fight I noticed some interesting things about fencing. I don’t know if its worth noting but I’m just in the mood to write about it I guess and its sort of interesting.

I should point out that I used to fence when I was younger.  Fencing is one of my favourite sports but its been a long time since I’ve done it.  When I was doing it there were few people doing it and few were serious about it (they were mostly kids trying to imitate the movies).  As a result, I never really kept up on it.

As I watched them fight I noticed some things based on my fencing experience.  Of course, I know that many of these people are not that serious about the fighting and do it more for fun than anything else.  So far I have not seen anyone that seemed ‘knowladgeable’, or good, at sword fighting.

I notice 4 main things almost immediately that greatly affected their fighting and, as I could see, greatly hindered them.  These are:

  1. The fear of hitting other people.  When people fight with swords there is a tendency to be reluctant hitting the other person.  This makes people apprehensive about ‘going all the way’ and they tend to make ‘moves’ that guarantee the other person will not get hurt (like not quite finishing a movement).  It takes experience to get over this fear.  I seem to recall my fencing instructor telling me to hit him with the foil and not to get worried over it, that if I don’t learn to hit the opponent I will never be able to fight.  From my experience, this seems stronger than the fear of getting hit.  This is one of the first things I notice with these medieval clubs.  People just don’t want to hurt each other.
  2. The fear of getting hit.  Many people are frightened of getting hit.  It can be so strong that it can hamper a person’s ability to fight.  As above, it often takes experience to get over this fear.  It seems I recall my fencing instructor making me stand and hitting me with the foil (which is a thrust action), while I just stood there, so that I would get used to it.
  3. Having no target.  It became clear that they had no ‘defined target’, or at least I saw no evidence of it.  In order to fight properly you need a defined target, be it the chest, upper body, or whatever.  Many people were just taking ‘random strikes’ at the opponent hitting them anywhere they could.  With no target there’s no point fighting.
  4. Having no climax.  This means that when you hit the ‘defined target’ the bout is over.  When I was fencing I recall that whoever noticed it would yell “hit!”, and the bout is now over.  This was like a climax.  We would then start another bout.  With no climax the fights became nothing more than hitting, then blocking with the shield, then hitting, then blocking with the shield, and so on.  There’s no climax and nothing to end it.  That’s what many of these fights looked like.  At times, it seemed almost pointless.

Another interesting point is that when they fought they always hit with the side of the blade, as if it were a saber.  In actuality, this would have been done little to the knights with their armor or chain mail.  It may have dented it but it would be hard to kill someone that way.  With armor and chain mail, it made it necessary for the battle to encompass a thrusting action with the sword in order to pierce the point of the sword into the chain mail or plate armor.  As a result, the battles of knights (with swords) would be a sword fight entailing thrusting action.  This became so prevalent a fighting form that in Western Europe, even after the armored knight disappeared, the fighting was still done with thrusting action for centuries afterwords.  This led to the very long and pointed rapier.  This would turn into the foil used in fencing.  With the foil everything is done with thrust actions.  You do not hit with the side of the blade (unless it is saber fencing, which is a whole other thing).  In fencing we would slightly bend the end of the blade downward so that every time we hit the opponent the sword would bend in a specific direction.  This would make it so it wouldn’t hurt him as much and we’d always know which direction it would bend, making it easier for us to control.

It seems that, to be accurate, medieval swords would have to be modified to be like a foil if they are going to fight with it.  But this would require the blade to be small, like a foil, so that it could bend easily for safety reasons.  This, though, is not what the blades were like in medieval times, which tended to be wide, and so it would look sort of ‘funny’ or ‘whimpy’.  As a result, there would probably be an apprehension of doing that.  The big medieval swords that they generally used in these clubs, which could even be two handed, creates a tendency to treat it like a saber and use the side of the blade as if was what made the ‘kill’.  Perhaps, though, that this is the safest way for them to do it?

I always thought it would be neat to be in a club that tried to actually imitate the actual combat as close as possible.  People in this group would have to be serious about it.  For me, I thought it would be neat to be in a club that did fencing as it was actually done in the 1600-1700’s.  This would not be the same as fencing as it is done now.  The current sport of fencing is really descended from duels of the aristocracy, namely from France.  This is why it is so ‘formal’ and ‘proper’.  The fencing done in actual combat in the 1600-1700’s would be totally different.  I tended to view it as more ‘haphazard’ and ‘sloppy’ compared to the formal duel with its precise moves.  This is because real battle is haphazard and sloppy and not formal like a duel.  They also used things in conjunction with their swords, such as their cloaks, daggers, and even another sword.  They also used their hands to grab the other persons sword.  They also could use a mixture of fencing and hand-to-hand combat.  This would make this potentially dangerous, making it a serious affair.  Unfortunately, very little exists as to the technique they actually used (at least as far as I know).  But I always thought it would be neat to try to ‘rediscover’ how they did it.

Jacques Callot 15

(Fencers by Jacque Callot, seventeenth century)

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1 Response to Some observations of a medieval club sword fighting

  1. thrashmad says:

    There actually are some groups who try to recreate earlier sorts of fencing based on written (and sometimes illustrated) works on how to fence. It’s called HEMA, Historical European Martial Arts, and it also includes using other weapons then swords as well as unarmed fighting. I haven’t
    myself practiced it, but I know of people who have and read a bit about it. If I ever move to a place where there is a HEMA-group I will probably try it out The sources used go back to about 1300 and onwards including som military sabre manuals from the 19th century, although medieval and renaissance stuff seems to me to be the most popular. As you mention, there is fencing where swords are combined with daggers, cloaks, hand-to-hand figthing and also shields. And when fencing against opponents in plate armour, cuts are not used.

    Safety is of course important, sharp swords are of course not used. Some use plastic swords which are less dangerous then steel, but they don’t behave quite the same as steel ones. A problem is that people either have to use more protection (which can detrimental to agility) or be more careful not to hurt the person they are fighting, which make it less like a real fight. Some use both methods.

    Some of the sources can be found here:
    Wikipedia has a decent overview of the history:

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