Swords in fantasy — an historical reality check

Swords are common as clay in fantasy, but how much does fantasy reflect the reality of the Medieval societies on which most settings are based?

Swords in fantasy — an historical reality check
Photo by Jonathan Kemper / Unsplash

Some time ago, I had a lively discussion with a fencer and sword enthusiast who believed swords were common in the Middle Ages and used with equal frequency by the elite and commoners. He argued the cost of a sword was attainable for an average peasant if they saved up a couple of months’ wages. His intent was two-fold, one to ‘demystify’ the sword and second to offer his services as a European martial arts consultant to fantasy novelists. Set aside the obvious problems of equating modern fencing (a sport) with historical martial arts (a method of killing people), and I took umbrage over this claim of ubiquity and accessibility.

Swords in the Middle Ages were an elite status item that represented the authority of the social class who wielded them. They weren’t commodity items your typical serf could buy for 15 gp in the local Lionshield Coster outlet. Yet, because of their status and mystique to our modern minds, they are over-represented in fantasy novels, movies, and D&D — the latter of which I derived my 15 gp price tag. Yet, it’s hard to find an example in the Middle Ages where the venerated longsword played a pivotal, decisive role in battle, and even harder to find examples where peasants could afford them, much less permitted to use them.

There’s an assumption, I think, since warfare was endemic in the Middle Ages, so too must have been swords. Certainly, extant art from the period showed swords in abundance. Countless swords survive in European museums, albeit from later periods, which I’ll discuss later. Yet, the art of the Middle Ages depicts swords and those who wielded them, not because they were ubiquitous but because they represented the elite in society. Secular medieval art was commissioned by and for the aristocracy. Artists depicted the warrior class— knights and their kings — and even when the plebs were shown in battle, they were usually painted (or woven) much smaller than their knightly superiors — and tellingly, they carried pikes and bows, not swords.

The notion that peasants were permitted to own swords is ridiculous. I noted the sword was a privilege of the martial elite. The right to bear arms, beyond this segment of society, is very rare. From my studies of history, those rights were seldom granted — even in societies where warfare was endemic, as it was in the Middle Ages. Medieval lords and kings constantly feared uprising and rebellion, so giving the masses the right to bear arms, wasn’t in their interest.

Then there are economic realities. In the Middle Ages, a sword was expensive and difficult to make. Swords weren’t knocked out in a day by your typical village blacksmith. They were made under strict control by specialist swordsmiths working in armouries under the patronage of the aristocracy. Swords weren’t mass-produced until the Renaissance, and even then, manufacture took place in specialist production centres in Spain, Austria and Italy, again under strict state control.

Another aspect of sword culture often overlooked is the skill required to use one. The recreation of Historical European martial arts (HEMA) demonstrates they were every bit as disciplined, skilled and time-consuming to master as their Japanese counterparts, whose arts survive in the watered-down modern sport of Kendo. When they weren’t killing each other, knights spent their days hunting, enjoying tournaments and practising martial arts. Peasants, meanwhile, spent their days labouring in fields. When they knocked off work at sunset, peasants didn’t pick up their swords and walked along to the village green for their daily lesson in swordplay.

On that note, there were few standing armies in the Middle Ages. The feudal system was based on the notion that those granted land would supply men for warfare when called by their overlord. 90% of the population worked the land — that doesn’t leave much room for large, professional standing armies in your population pool. Sure, there were periods where mercenary companies flourished in conflicts like the Hundred Years War, but these were exceptions rather than the rule — and they were smaller than you would assume. Armies were raised as needed and were expensive to keep in the field, thanks to the period’s inefficient logistics and communication systems. King Richard notoriously bled England dry to maintain his campaigns in France. King Edward I bankrupted England’s Jewish merchants and moneylenders for his wars of conquest in Wales and Scotland, and when they could give no more, he banished them from the realm.

When peasants were recruited to fight in battles, they weren’t issued swords. If they hadn’t trained as archers – and Anglo-Norman kings didn’t mandate widespread archery practice until after the Welsh Conquest in the 1290s — they were issued spears or pikes. Spears are cheap, easy to make, easy to use, and very effective against cavalry.

In everyday life and war, commoners used the most effective, deadly and ancient weapon – the knife. Knives were cheap, unregulated, easy to use, easy to carry and utterly ubiquitous as an everyday tool.

Battle of Crecy
Battle of Crecy

Knives were highly effective in war — more so than a longsword. In the Battle of Crécy (see Froissart), more Frenchmen were slaughtered by Welsh and Cornish knifemen than by archers and knights combined. This practice annoyed their Norman overlords, for whom Chivalric war was about capturing their fellow noblemen for ransom. An agile, lightly armoured knifeman is far more effective in close-quarter battle than a heavily armoured man wielding a much heavier and longer piece of steel. The Romans knew this (read Livy, or Connolly), which is why the gladius was much shorter (60 cm) than the Iron Age Celtic and Germanic swords that eventually evolved into the longsword of the medieval knight. The gladius was used to great effect in the close quarters of maniple- and phalanx-based formations of the era. Again, read Livy, the descriptions are quite horrifying.

Concluding thoughts

Swords have endured as symbols of authority, wielded by officers right into modernity, but it’s easy to overstate their importance and ubiquity as effective or decisive weapons during the Middle Ages.

Ironically, swords became more commonplace during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but they were increasingly gentrified as status symbols, fashion accessories and duelling weapons for the aspiring middle classes. This is precisely because of their decline as military weapons, which had been happening for centuries along with the feudal system, which idolised it as a symbol of power and authority.

A sword’s appeal is founded on the weight of history and the romanticism of storytellers from Walter Scott to George Lucas. The sword, to modern minds, is “not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilised age”.

An elegant weapon for a more civilised age
An elegant weapon for a more civilised age

But let’s not forget that romanticism is not history; remember this when you make your next fantasy world. If you are using medieval tropes, use them wisely. Swords were elite weapons, symbols, and possessions of an elite class. They might have been useful in a dual, but they weren’t as effective or common in the heat of a pitched battle as more mundane weapons.