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Swords, Rapiers and Horse-riders

  • D. H. Gordon

There is much confused thinking about swords, the way they were used and the influence of their users on their form. An extreme case is that of the late Harold Peake who, describing a sword-type, said: ‘These weapons, which must have been used as hatchets as well as for slashing, are called leaf-shaped swords’. He may, of course, have meant that they were used for hacking as well as for slashing—uses which, as I shall show, differ more than one would think; but it does sound as if he thought that the Late Bronze Age warrior used his prized sword for chopping firewood.

Take nomenclature and definitions first. In the apparent absence of agreed definitions, each writer has to invent his own or leave it to the reader to do so. Peake, on the same page as the sentence just quoted, makes his definitions by stating that the dagger gave birth to the dirk and the dirk to the sword. I shall adopt this clear and concise nomenclature, but divide swords into two groups—long and short.

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1 The Horse and the Sword, 1933, by H. Peake and H. J. Fleure, p. 86.

2 The definitions are objective in so far as I have handled very many of these weapons from all over the world, from Bronze Age swords and Luristan daggers to those of the present day.

3 From Levkas, The Danube in Prehistory, 1929, by V. G. Childe, p. 249, note 2.

4 Bronze Age nomenclature is singularly unfortunate in this respect as there is also the ‘halberd’, wholly unlike the weapon usually called by this name.

5 It has been suggested that the cut-and-thrust sword was a response to armour, but it is more likely that the user of this form of sword, who had to come out of the shelter of his shield to fight, found himself open to spear and rapier thrusts, and took to wearing some form of breast-plate.

6 Palace of Minos, Vol. II, pt. I, fig. 163, p. 27If. Pendlebury in ‘The Archaeology of Crete’, 1939, p. 272, very rightly does not classify this sword as a rapier.

7 Homer and the Monuments, 1950, by H. L. Lorimer, p. 262.

8 Prehistoric Migrations in Europe, 1950, by V. G. Childe, fig. 139 from Ausgrabungen von Alaça Höyük, by H. Z. Kosay, pl. 81, 26. Prof. Childe in Prehistoric Migrations, p. 179, says :— ‘A bronze weapon from the royal tomb MA1 at Alaça Höyük dateable as early as 2000 B.C.’, and in ‘The Final Bronze Age in the Near East’, Proc. Prehistoric Society, Vol. XIV, pp. 184-5:—‘Near the beginning of the 2nd Millennium there comes from the tomb MA1 at Alaça Höyük a tanged blade 80 cm. long’. This is a lower date by at least a hundred years than any yet proposed for this tomb and gives a welcome indication that the general dating of royal graves at this site and at Maikop may come down and with it that of the treasure of Asterabad.

9 A wooden hilted sword is shown in text tafel A of E. Sprockhoff’s Die Germanische Griffzungenschwerte, but it seems to be a flange-hilted sword with wooden hand-grips. See also the same author’s Die Germanische Vollgriffschwerte where it is shown in series with such swords.

10 Die Vorrötnische Schwerte, 1903, by J. Naue, pp. 31 and 45.

11 Childe, The Danube in Prehistory, fig. 146a and pl. 11, A1, A2 and A3.

12 Naue provides a number of examples—Pl. V, 5, the sword from Hammer nr. Nurnberg usually called a rapier; PI. x, 2, tongue-grip; Pl XVIII, 5, long tang; Pls. XX, 6 and XXI, 3, cast or riveted hilts, all of which have one inch width blades.

13 These may in fact be spearheads, but their length coupled with the relative shortness of their tangs make this very unlikely.

14 Miss Lorimer, p. 265, op. cit., says :—‘The discovery in the Mycenaean settlement at Ugarit of a factory engaged in the production of swords of this type’, but gives no references. I can find nothing in Schaeffer’s Ugaritica I or Stratigraphie Comparée which bears this out. He says in Ugaritica I, p. 99 :—‘Nos constatations à Ras Shamra montrent que les premiers objets mycéniens avaient été importés à Ugarit par la voie du commerce. A partir du xiv«, et pendant le XIIIe siècle, par contre, il y avait à Ugarit une veritable colonisation Mycénienne’. This hoard however dates to c. 1400 before the great destruction of c. 1365 and therefore before the establishment of the colony.

15 Fouilles Françaises de Minet-el-Beida et de Ras Shamra, Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française, T. XXVII, No. 3, 1930, in which it says :—‘Sur le tas reposaient d’abord 4 épées dont la plus longue atteint 1 mètre’. Dr Schaeffer in a private letter tells me that its correct length is 75 cm. The exact length of these swords is difficult to determine as they all appear to be unfinished and have what appear to be projections of superfluous metal left in the aperture of the mould standing off from the hilt.

16 Ugaritica II, 1949, by C. F. A. Schaeffer, p. 159, fig. 61, and dating and comment on this early appearance of mounted warriors on p. 158.

17 There is no real evidence that suggests the presence of mounted warriors in Central Europe before Hallstatt times; see Childe in The Danube in Prehistory, pp. 363, 388, 392, 402, and Migrations, p. 221. Dating, here and throughout, is based on Schaeffer’s Stratigraphie Comparée et Chronologie de l’Asie Occidental and the Chronological table in C. F. C. Hawkes’ ‘From Bronze Age to Iron Age’, Proc. Prehistoric Soc., Vol. XIV, 1948, p. 216.

18 The Aryans, 1926, by V. G. Childe, PI. 1; The Early History of Assyria, 1927, by Sidney Smith, PI. XIX a; La Civilisation des Hittites, 1948, by G. Contenau, PI. II.

19 Homer and the Monuments, p. 264.

20 V. G. Childe, Prehistoric Migrations in Europe, fig. 156.

21 Confirmation of this view is given by the fact that Prof. Childe in his paper ‘The Final Bronze Age in the Near East and in Temperate Europe’, Proc. Prehistoric Soc., Vol. XIV, 1948, uses the term ‘cut-and-thrust sword’ throughout.

22 loe. cit., Tafel IV, 3.

23 The Palace of Minos, Vol. IV, fig. 828.

24 Pendlebury in The Archaeology of Crete shows a group of rapier, short sword and spearhead, PI. XXXVI, 1. V. G. Childe, The Aryans, fig. 25, 1.

25 ‘Light on the last and Militarist Phase of Minoan Crete’, by Piet de Jong and Sinclair Hood, Illustrated London News, Jan 12, 1952.

26 Queen Elizabeth issued an edict limiting the length of swords, and guards at city gates checked the swords of travellers, with a smith in attendance to snap the blades to the permitted length.

27 Shetelig and Falk, Scandinavian Archaeology, 1937, Pl. 14, 6 and p. 130.

28 loc. cit, p. 272.

29 Homer and the Monuments, p. 228, fig. 23, b.

30 ‘Horses and Battle-axes’, by Grahame Clark, ANTIQUITY, March 1941 : ‘Horses, Chariots and Battle-axes,’ by V. G. Childe, ANTIQUITY, June 1941.

31 Prehistoric Migrations, p. 221.

32 Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. III, p. 10.

33 Lorimer, loc. cit., p. 154, fig. 10.

34 The World of Hesiod, 1936, by A. R. Burn, p. 160.

35 The lid of this sarcophagus was badly damaged by fire-bombs, but it is fully illustrated in Terracotta Sarcophagi in the British Museum, by Dr A. S. Murray, 1898.

36 Though many of the Ionian hoplites depicted have good serviceable swords, they are not shown using them even in the close-quarters mêlée shown in loc. cit., fig. 3. Spears are in every instance being used to deliver an over-arm jab, which, if actually employed, would have been quite useless against a man armed with sword and shield.

37 Sidney Smith, Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. III, p. 117.

38 Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. III, pp. 189 and 195.

39 The Early Empires of Central Asia, 1939, by W. M. McGovern, pp. 100-1.

40 The Law and the Prophets, The Corridors of Time, Vol. IX, 1936, by H. Peake and H. J. Fleure, p. 12.

41 ‘Notes sur quelques Ëpées Anciennes trouvées en Chiné’, by Olov Janse, Bull, of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, No. 2, Stockholm, 1930, pp. 95-6, PI. XII, 2 and, for ‘Han sabres with ring pommels’, PI. xv, 1, 6 and 7.

42 Herodotus, Bk. VII, Chaps. 84 and 85 : Rawlinson’s translation.

43 Xenophon, Hipparchikos, Chap, III, 3 and Peri Hippikes, Chap, XII, 12 and 13, trans. H. G. Dakyns. From Cunaxa in 401 to Coronea in 394, Xenophon saw plenty of active service, and when he wrote these books he had at his disposal the knowledge of all that constituted the cavalry tactics of his time.

44 The Iberians of Spain, 1940, by Pierson Dixon, Pls. 10 and 11.

45 Herodotus, Bk. v, Chap. 9. Rawlinson’s trans.

46 In ‘The World of Hesiod’ Burn mentions the success of the Thessalian cavalry against the Spartans at Phalerum, 510 B.C. It seems likely however that the Spartans were taken by surprise, as a second expedition sent by them routed the Thessalians with no great difficulty (Herodotus, Bk. V, 63 and 64). As against this the Syracusan cavalry routed the left wing of the Athenian hoplites at Epipolae, 414 B.C., but by this time cavalry was becoming more efficient.

* The writer of this article, while not claiming experience of sword versus sword in actual combat, had his military training in the years immediately before World War I, when sabre and bayonet fencing were part of the skill at arms expected of an officer.

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