What is a Longsword?
Swordwind teaches the use of the longsword according to the tradition of Johannes Liechtenauer. But what is a longsword? That question is harder to answer than you might think.
What’s In A Name?
When modern historical fencers say “longsword,” they tend to mean a double-edged straight-bladed sword designed to be worn and used primarily with two hands. Such weapons generally have blades of around 33-40” and can weigh anywhere from just over two and a half to slightly over four pounds. The “average” longsword has about 35-36” of blade and weighs about three to three and a half pounds.
Historically, however, nobody called these weapons “longswords.” The most common term was simply “sword;” if the speaker felt the need to specify, the usual clarification would be “two-handed sword.”
This sometimes strikes modern students as odd, but it’s important to remember the larger weapons context in which swords existed. The most important feature of a “longsword” was not its exact blade length, grip size, or weight - the most important feature of a longsword was that it was a sidearm. Historical people used the same word for longswords and one-handed swords for the same reason that modern people use the word “pistol” for both full-size service handguns and tiny sub-compact weapons that fit in the palm of the hand.
Those two pistols might be very distinct from each other, but compared to rifles and shotguns, they’re clearly the same type of weapon. Similarly, longswords are quite distinctive compared to many other kinds of swords that the world has seen. Compared to a spear or a poleaxe, though … well, all swords start looking pretty much the same. No wonder, then, that Liechtenauer simply refers to the exemplar weapon of his system - a system that also teaches the use of the spear and the dagger - as a “sword.”
The modern term “longsword” derives from Liechtenauer’s description of his unarmored fencing as the art of the “long sword.” In Middle High German, “long” connoted both physical length and being far away. Thus, the art of the long sword is the art of using a sword without a hand on the blade. This maximizes the weapon’s reach and thus allows the sword to strike “long” from the fencer. The art of using a sword with one hand on the grip and another on the handle, often referred to in modern English as “half swording,” is called in Liechtenauer’s system the art of the short sword. A sword held in such a manner necessarily has less reach than one held solely by the grip; hence, it must be used “short” to the fencer.
Physical Characteristics and Variations
As noted above, modern historical fencers tend to have a general picture in their heads of the weapon they mean when they say “longsword.” Historical fencers too would have such assumptions. Nevertheless, even describing a longsword physically can present some challenges.
For instance, in the 15th century and earlier, longswords - like all swords - tended to have simple crossguards. In the 16th and 17th centuries, longswords appeared with much more complex hilts.
Most fencers would still classify these kinds of weapons as “longswords” based on their blade and grip lengths, but they will weigh considerably more than a longsword with a simple hilt - perhaps as much as five pounds at the extreme. This makes giving weight ranges for “longswords” tricky.
The length of a longsword was also subject to variation. The size of historical swords was not defined by absolute length measurements, but by a complex set of geometric ratios (e.g., grip to blade length, crossguard to grip length, and so forth). These ratios could be varied slightly without compromising the handling characteristics of the weapon, as well as scaled up or down depending on the buyer’s preferences. Those preferences might come from physical size (longswords for large fencers tend to be longer than longswords for short fencers), training (some fencing masters preferred longer or shorter blades), or even just personal style.
Another way to answer the question, “what is a longsword?” is to look at how the weapon is supposed to be used rather than on its physical characteristics.
Liechtenauer’s system uses the sword in multiple ways and at multiple times. The blade is used to hew, stab, slice, and as a wrestling aid. The pommel and crossguard are also used as weapons in their own right. The sword is held with two hands on the grip, one hand on the
grip and one on the blade, and even with two hands on the blade. At the same time, the sword is occasionally used with only one hand, as when grappling with the other hand or when riding a horse. In battle the longsword was a sidearm, a backup for polearms or other primary weapons. Thus, when fighting in armor or on horseback, the sword is only drawn after the spear has failed. In towns and cities, however, the sword was an acceptable part of civilian dress for all classes, while polearms were not. Thus, when fighting on foot without armor, the sword is Liechtenauer’s main weapon.
This definition of a longsword excludes both larger and smaller swords. A two-handed sword that is too big to wear cannot be the backup for a spear (because the spearman would have no way to store it on his person). Likewise, a sword that is too big to wield in one hand cannot be used on a horse or when grappling with the other hand. On the other hand, a longsword needs to have a grip long enough to accommodate two hands (if only barely). It needs a blade long enough to be gripped with one hand, and to use as a wrestling aid. Thus, for instance, the various man-height Renaissance greatswords are too big to be used in all the ways Liechtenauer expects the “sword” to be used. At the other end of the spectrum, one-handed arming swords have grips (and sometimes blades) that are too short for Liechtenauer’s art.
The Versatile Longsword
If we define the “longsword” as a sword with the physical characteristics to match all the ways and times Liechtenauer uses his sword, we come back to the definition I started this article with: a double-edged straight-bladed sword with a grip long enough for two hands and a blade of abou 35-36”, weighing roughly three to three and a half pounds (excluding complex hilts). By the late Middle Ages, this type of weapon was the quintessential knightly sword, but it was popular with nobles and commoners alike. Liechtenauer himself is a perfect example of this: he himself was not an aristocrat, but he counted nobles among his students and disciples.
Despite its sidearm status, swords of this type were jacks-of-all-trades. The weapon’s versatility may have contributed to its popularity, especially among the late medieval knightly class, who could expect to face a wide variety of foes and combat scenarios: combat on foot or ahorse, against armored and unarmored opponents alike, at long range as well as when close enough to grapple. A fencer armed with a longsword was never without a defense, no matter the situation.