Some of you might not know that in addition to writing my ‘day job’ is as a sword-maker. I’ve attained a world-wide reputation for this, and its paid the bills for over twenty-five years. That reputation is based on the quality of my products, how much they mirror the look and feel of actual medieval swords and how they perform.
The first thing you need to understand is that most of what you can glean from popular media is wrong. Mediveal swords were not the crude product of a crude society- they were the end result of over two thousand years of development and refinement. They were, in their way, as sophisticated as an automatic rifle, and they were very effective. Medieval swords were not heavy or poorly balanced; they were balanced precisely as they needed to be to work most effectively for the task they were designed to accomplish. Don’t get me wrong- wherever people made swords the quality of those blades ranged from abysmal to excellent, but the bulk of them fell between those two extremes, somewhere around ‘Pretty damn good.’
Maybe you want to know about swords because they will feature in a story you are writing. Maybe you want to know just because it’s interesting. But here’s the thing- you can study swords for years, decades, the rest of your life. But if all you do is study swords you will never understand swords. Why? Because swords exist in context to the time and place they were used. If you want to understand them you need to understand that context.
That means is you need to be asking the right questions, and ‘How is this sword designed’ is not the right question. The right question is ‘Why is this sword designed the way it is?’ The answer to that is going to be hugely more complicated than you might expect, and the reason is context. To understand the context of the sword you need to understand the world that created it. The first layer that comes up is, ‘What was it for? This leads into who was it used against? What sort of training did they have? What sort of armor did they wear? What metallurgical technology was available to the makers, what manufacturing technology, and how did those factors influence the design? Those questions are just scratching the surface.
Because the Guild structure and the requirements and the restrictions they imposed in the time and place the sword was made influenced the finished product. The quality, price and availability of the raw materials. The societal and political forces driving demand had an effect. Advances in technology will cause changes in the sword’s design. Hell, fashion will have an effect. In the real world everything affects practically everything else.
Here’s an example. Around the 14th Century there were fundamental changes to the design of European swords. For centuries swords had been broad and flat, well suited to cutting. Now they started making them pointier and stiffer, with more dagger-like points. Why? Because a thrust with a dagger-like blade penetrated chainmail more easily. The broad, flat cutting blades had worked against mail well enough for centuries; why change now? Because armor makers were using more plates of metal to supplement or replace the mail. Why were they suddenly doing that? The technology to make plates of armor had existed for centuries. The answer is that chainmail was getting more expensive and harder to come by. Why? Because the Plague had killed huge numbers of people, including most of the people that knew how to make good chainmail. You can’t cut iron plates with the edge of the sword, so the sword needed a dagger-like point to attack the chainmail between the plates with thrusts. OK then, swords got pointier because people were using more plate armor, right?
Not entirely. The climate was also changing- it was getting colder. This period was part of the ‘Little Ice Age’ that affected the world. This meant people were wearing more and thicker clothing that was more resistant to cuts, so a thrusting sword might also have been more effective against civilian clothing as well. Why would this matter? Because people were increasingly carrying swords with civilian clothing. Why were they doing that? Because advances in refining steel had made swords much, much less expensive than they were in previous centuries. Suddenly the burgeoning Middle Class could afford them, and since they had always been an expression of wealth and power carrying a sword became an indication of status- a way of showing off.
Seems pretty complicated, doesn’t it? Oh, but the rabbit-hole goes much deeper than that, my friends. Disease affected armor, armor effected swords, and the ways that people fight with them. More economical steel and the sword’s status as a symbol of wealth and power affected how people felt about them. The Middle Classes wearing swords gave rise to schools of swordsmanship, which became rivals and gave rise to an entire subculture. That subculture led, indirectly at least, two the development of swords specifically for civilians, which led to the development of rapiers and the dueling cultures of the 16th and 17th C.
There are a lot of sweeping generalizations in the post above; Europe, after all, was rife with subcultures where things happened slower, faster or not at all. Still, it gives you at least an idea of how complicated these things are; and while specific factors were different in different parts of the world you can rest assured they were every bit as complicated. Of course we haven’t even addressed how these swords were used, which is a whole ‘nuther can of worms. Hell, it’s a can of cans of worms.
For the writer this means world-building. If you want your world to be immersive and feel ‘real’ you have to understand these inter-relationships and how they affect your world and the people that live in it. You also have to develop the ability to show this understanding in your world, your characters and their interactions, without explaining it in the story by ‘info-dumping.’ The reader doesn’t need all of the details- but if you, the author, know them it will inform your writing and the reader will feel the depth of your understanding. That feeling is what will make your world compelling and lend it an aura of reality, no matter how fantastic the elements of the story are.
This will do for today, but there is more to come…