An overview of the term “longsword”

One of the common disciplines studied in HEMA today is the longsword. Most HEMA practitioners will understand the term longsword to refer to a specific type of sword, and generally they’ll understand this sword to be a relatively distinct type of sword, used in two hands, but not overly long, with very large swords often being referred to as two handed swords or great swords. These are all examples of what we might call a longsword:

MS.Ludwig.XV.13. C.1404. 22r.

MS.Ludwig.XV.13. C.1404. 22r.

MS.KK5012. 1495. 2r.

MS.KK5012. 1495. 2r.

MSS Dresd.C.93/C.94. 1542. 23r.

MSS Dresd.C.93/C.94. 1542. 23r.

It is worth bearing in mind however that not all historical treatises used the exact same terminology in the exact same way, and it is always worth being aware of what terminology is used in the sources we study. So I thought it would be worth doing an overview of the use of the term longsword in fencing treatises, as well as terms used to describe the same or similar weapons.

Longsword/two handed sword in German traditions

One of the most popular traditions for studying longsword is that of the Liechtenauer tradition, or KDF.

Possibly one of the earliest sources in the Liechtenauer tradition is the MS.3227A. The word swert, or sword, appears 28 times in the 3227a, but lange~ sw°te, or long sword, appears only once.

Just as the Leychmeister disdain them and say that fencing from the winding is weak and they call it from the shortened sword because that they are done simple and stupid. And they mean that these are fenced from the long sword which is done with outstretched arms and extended sword and also aggressively with all strength of the body only by pressing themselves forward. And this is painful to watch! If one stretches just as running after a rabbit this is not the way, neither the windings nor Liechtenauers art, because there is no strength against (the opposing strength)! Whoever does it differently should prefer strength.
MS 3227a, c.1389, 40r, translation by Thomas Stoeppler

In this passage then, the term longsword does not refer to a specific type of weapon, rather it refers to a way of using a sword, the term sword being used in this manuscript to refer specifically to a sword used in two hands. You will note that the author of the 3227a did not in fact approve of the method of the longsword as he saw it, and instead preferred what he referred to as the shortened sword, or the use of the sword in winding. For this author, the term longsword has negative connotations.

Terms such as half-sword and shortened-sword are used within the German treatises, and I have yet to hear anyone argue that these terms refer to a specific type of weapon, but rather everyone seems to accept that the half-sword or shortened-sword is a specific method of using the sword. It should not therefore surprise us that the term longsword could also be used to refer to a specific method of using a sword, rather than being a specific type of weapon.

Talhoffer is one of the authors who used the term kurtzen schwert, or shortened-sword, however he only uses this term twice[1], and in all other instances, he just uses the term schwert or swert. What is noteworthy is that for Talhoffer the shortened-sword means to hold the hilt with one hand, and the blade with the other, a practice often called half-swording. This contrasts with the 3227a, in which the shortened-sword meant to use winding.

Cod.icon.394a. 1467. 21r.

Cod.icon.394a. 1467. 21r.

It is also worth noting that Talhoffer also uses the word swert to describe a single handed sword[2], so the words swert or schwert could mean either a single handed or two handed sword.

Some treatises, such as those by Paulus Kal or Falkner just use the term sword, the terms longsword, half-sword, and shortened-sword never appear.

Other treatises, such as the glosses by Ringeck or Psuedo-Peter von Danzig use both the terms sword and longsword[3] [4]. Sword appears to be the more common of the two, though the terms seem to be entirely interchangeable in these treatises. This could mean that for Ringeck and Pseudo-PvD longsword was a type of weapon, which they often just referred to just as sword for convenience, or it could mean that it was indeed a method of using a sword, but a method they approved of and took for granted would be used.

In his Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey Andre Paurenfeyndt has the following to say:

The first chapter teaches how one should use advantage in the longsword, which will be used with both hands, as the battle sword, riding sword, estoc, and many others, which I will for brevity’s sake leave out.
Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey, 1516, translation by Michael Chidester, A3r

So for Paurenfeyndt it seems that the longsword was a specific type of weapon, which was used in two hands, and could be compared to other weapons used in two hands, such as the battle sword, or sthlachtschwerdt.

To confuse the matter, Paulus Hector Mair in his Opus Amplissimum de Arte Athletica mostly uses the word schwert, which appears over a hundred times. He also uses the term langen schwert, however it only appears a few times, and only appears in a series of folia in which he describes battle-plays, or Kampfstücke[5], in which the sword is held in the half-sword position. Mair also uses the term halbem schwert, or half sword, and halber klingen, or half blade, however neither term is used during his section on Kampfstücke. The term longsword is used consistently for his Kampfstücke, and it seems unlikely that it is a coincidence that the term longsword appears so many times in so short a space, however I do not understand why the term longsword is used here but not elsewhere.

MSS Dresd.C.93/C.94. 1542. 78v.

MSS Dresd.C.93/C.94. 1542. 78v.

So in short, within the Liechtenauer tradition, depending on which manuscript you read, longsword may be a generic term, interchangeable with sword; it may refer to a specific method of using a sword, rather like the terms half-sword or shortened-sword (and it is worth noting that the term shortened-sword can refer to either the use of winding, or of half-swording); or it could be used to mean a specific weapon, which is distinct from other two handed swords. It is clear therefore that not all treatises use the term longsword to mean the same thing, if they use it all.

Longsword/two handed sword in the Italian traditions

As far as I have been able to find, the term longsword only appears in a single Italian source, the De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi of Philippo di Vadi, who describes the spada longeza, or long or extended sword. On one folio he describes the “the short guard of the extended sword”[6] and on the next folio he describes the “the long guard with the short(ened) sword”[7], or spada curta. On all other occasions, he simply uses the word spada. Spada longeza and spada curta therefore probably describe different methods of using a sword, rather than a type of sword, but to be honest I don’t know Vadi well enough to say exactly what he means here.

Vitt.Em.1324. Probably between 1482 and 1487. 16v. Vadi's "short guard of the extended sword" is seen in the lower right.

Vitt.Em.1324. Probably between 1482 and 1487. 16v. Vadi’s “short guard of the extended sword” is seen in the lower right.

The earlier Fiore dei Liberi uses both the words spada, and spada a do’ mane[8], or sword in two hands. He also details the use of spada a una man, or sword in one hand[9]. The lengths of swords shown in the sword in one hand section do vary, but many of them are comparable to the lengths shown in the sword in two hands section, so spada a una man and spada a do’ mane may not refer to different types of sword, but instead may refer to how the sword is used.

The later Italian master Achille Marozzo showed a larger sword than that used by Fiore, however he uses the same terminology as Fiore, referring to it as either a spada or spada da due mane[10].

Opera Nova. 1536. Book 3.

Opera Nova. 1536. Book 3.

Later Italian masters would refer to the spadone[11], or the spadone à due mano[12], the word spadone essentially referencing that this is a larger sword than a regular spada, similar to the English word great-sword.

Longsword/two handed sword in the English traditions

The earliest English treatises refer to either a two handed sword, or they just use the word sword. The Ledall Roll refers to the swerde[13], the Cotton MS Titus A xxv refers to the ij hand swerde[14], and the Man Yt Wol refers to the too honde swerde[15].

The first English fencing treatise to use the term longsword was George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defence, however Silver uses the terms long sword and long rapier interchangeably[16]. Similarly, Joseph Swetnam would later go on to talk about the long sword and dagger, and the accompanying picture makes it clear that this long sword is a rapier, not a two handed sword.

The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence. 1617.

The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence. 1617.

Within the English traditions then swords used in two hands were referred to as two handed swords, and the term long sword meant a rapier, not what we think of as a longsword today.

Conclusion

It is worth bearing in mind that historically terminology was often not as strictly defined as today, and that different fencing treatises did not necessarily use the same terminology, and even if they did, they did not necessarily use it in the same way. It is worth bearing in mind that using the term longsword for two handed swords outside of discussing German traditions is not necessarily accurate, and that even within the German traditions, the term longsword did not apparently mean the same thing to all masters.

 

[1] Hans Talhoffer. Cod.icon.394a 5r. 1467. 21r & 21v.

[2] Hans Talhoffer. Cod.icon.394a 5r. 1467. 120r.

[3] Sigmund Ringeck. MS.Dresd.C.487. C.1500. 10v & 13v.

[4] Anonymous. Cod.44.A.8. 1452. 9v & 11r.

[5] Paulus Hector Mair. MSS Dresd.C.93/C.94. 1542. 78r-81v.

[6] Philippo di Vadi Pisano. Vitt.Em.1324. Between 1482 and 1487. 16v.

[7] Philippo di Vadi Pisano. Vitt.Em.1324. Between 1482 and 1487. 17r

[8] Fiore dei Liberi. B1.370.A MS Morgan 0383. Probably before 1404. 12r.

[9] Fiore dei Liberi. B1.370.A MS Morgan 0383. Probably before 1404. 17v.

[10] Achille Marozzo. Opera Nova. 1536. Book 3.

[11] Camillo Agrippa. Trattato di Scientia d’Arme, con vn Dialogo di Filosofia. 1553. Cap.XV.

[12] Carlo Giuseppe Colombani. L’Arte maestra. 1711. Page 7.

[13] J.Ledall. Additional MS 39564. Between 1535-1530.

[14] Anonymous. Cotton MS Titus A xxv. C.1450-1465.

[15] Anonymous. MS Harley 3542. C.1440.

[16] George Silver. “Paradoxes of Defence.” 1599. In: Paul Wagner. Master of Defence, The Works of George Silver. Boulder: Paladin Press, 2003. Pages 273-274.

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