Before I begin, just to clarify my position, I am a History student at a Master’s level; I have done a year of Historical European Martial Arts, mainly working on swords and shields and I study historical fighting in my free time. What I am writing about today is the nature of Ancient to Medieval European fighting that will clarify different principles and myths that surround sword and shield fighting (much of it being fabricated on television and films). What I aim to accomplish as an objective is to outline how sword fighting developed from Antiquity to the Late Medieval era and make the reader aware of the principles involved.
The principle of sword fighting or using a sword is the process of pulling and pushing: The sword is used to cut either forwards or backwards. For example, if you are cutting a steak and simply hack at it, it won’t cut through as well. To really get at it you cut the steak by going backwards and forwards in a motion with your knife. Sword fighting works on a similar principle. Many films and television series’ show long swords’ hacking through enemy armour but that is not possible. Most cutting consisted of landing a blow and then drawing the wound by either pulling out or pushing inwards and this is the basis of blocking, leverage, binding and striking.
Within Antiquity to the Late-Medieval era, the shield was the main weapon: Shields have often been stereotyped to just ward off blows however the shields of this time shows that this is was not viable. The shield is used as a main weapon while the sword is used in a supporting role to deliver the killing blow. We see this based on two prevalent aspects: size and shield handle.
Size: The large shield sizes indicate that they were used, like swords, as an extension of the arm. Therefore the shield plays a pivotal role in both re-directing strikes using biomechanical principles (e.g. turning swords away) to find vantage points. This also included using the shield’s edge to strike the opponent.
Handle: The handle becomes a key factor in how the shield operates at this time. For example, the arm strap (for formation soldiers such as hoplites) ensured the user was able to hold and control the shield more effectively. The single handle doesn’t offer this support, for example during the medieval period single handled shields were overlapped in a shield wall to compensate for the lack of arm control; it ensured the user was able to keep their shield up in formation and this is evident in Germanic, Viking and Saxon style combat. The single handled shield signals a transition to single combat and small skirmishes, which Scandinavian and German cultures were obsessed with. These gave birth to their own biomechanical principles.
For example, the Vikings and Germanics often utilised a ‘flapping door’ effect with their shields, in which the single handle enabled the shield to rotate both ways. This weakness was used to move around the enemies swing. It enabled greater flexibility and to simply use the weight and momentum of the opponents attack against them.
The exception to both formation and single fighting is the Roman style of fighting because it adapted both types of shield handling and attempted to mediate between both. This is evident from the vertical handle Roman shields had. This meant single handled shield mechanics (that are found with Viking shields) were applicable with Roman shields and it is no coincidence that the oval shield was issued to Roman auxiliaries over rectangular ones, because of its similarity to ‘Barbarian’ shields at the time. In many ways this represented the Romans combining Greek and Germanic styles of fighting together. In 212 AD Emperor Caracella declared all inhabitants of the Roman Empire citizens and this has a fundamental impact on combat style for the legions. As auxiliaries were not longer distinguishable from the legions integration meant the barbarian dominated Roman military integrated familiar weapons that the different Germanic elements were farmiliar with. By the 4th century, the short gladius stops being used in favour of the long spatha and the oval shield replaced the rectangular one. This signifies a transition from fighting up close to fighting “at arm’s length” that also meant fighting lasted for a longer period of time. This illustrates similarities in fighting between Antiquity and the Early Medieval period.
For example, both Roman and Viking fighting show the shield as an offensive weapon. The Roman’s oval shield’s narrow end meant it could be dug into the other person’s shield or be used as a ram, meaning the legionary could disarm his opponent, breach the distance and disable the combatant. In Viking style fighting, the size of the shield (from 80cm to 120cm) means the Viking would be able to ram the shield into his opponent’s arm and render him unable to use his sword.
During fighting, swords rarely ever touched: The size of shields and the techniques that developed around them meant swords rarely ever binded or crossed, if they ever did usually the weight of the sword would be used in a pulling or pushing motion to use the opponent’s weight against themselves. During antiquity, swords were usually too short and the shield had predominance over how warriors would fight. Even in Germanic cultures the sword, being notoriously tall, revolved around using the shield (which was passed down to Viking style fighting). Sword binding became recognisable with the innovation of sword hand guards (to incorporate long swords in disciplined formations). By the late Medieval and Early Renaissance period, swords became the stereotype we recognise today (the type X long sword, predominant from the 13th century onwards) and as a result the shield size decreased, which meant the user became more dependent on the sword to take over the responsibilities the shield once had.
The nature of formation fighting in antiquity and the Early Medieval period meant there was no need to bind swords. For example in these periods, sword handles were much smaller and, until the late medieval period, hand guards were be wooden. This served as an advantage in two ways. Firstly, the lack of hand-guards indicated the hand was easily protected and rarely vulnerable; putting the sword hand outwards meant the possibility of a severed hand. Secondly, the wooden hand guard meant the opponent’s sword would get caught on it (if the hand was swung for) and that made it difficult to remove. This is especially evident with the small ‘half-bowl’ Roman hand guards that were designed for the opponent’s sword to get caught, for last-ditch protection (the fact it was also predominant in longer, cavalry, swords meant there was more of a risk of cavalrymen exposing their arms).
Shield Butts were not for pummelling the opponent: To put it simply, why pummel your opponent at arm’s length with a longer shield? In most cases, the shield was large enough to cover the whole body. To go in simply to punch the opponent with the shield butt was not practical, the enemy would simply go around the strike. The reason why this stereotype is so common is because of films and series’. Shield butts served the purpose of making the enemy’s sword get caught on the shield and made it harder for them to draw their sword away and that enabled the warrior to go in for the kill.
Sword fighting was a process of feeling: Different cultures have different terminologies for this but essentially it boils down to feeling the motion and mechanics of interacting with the opponent. This becomes prevalent with Antiquity and Early Medieval sword fighting. It is literally feeling the movement and physics of combating a foe and accustoming oneself to it. For example, Vikings would emphasise this in binding shields to practice moving and turning (something emphasised by the later treatises).