Many authors write about sword fights and duels, but often either fail to mention the swords being used, or get the weapons wrong. Often they’ll give a weapon to someone who really shouldn’t be using that sort of weapon, or have it used in the wrong way.
This also applies to role-players who take their bard character dungeon crawling with a highly unsuitable weapon. They might cut a dashing figure, but dashing would really come to the fore as they realised that they didn’t have the right weapon.
This article is going to cover the rapier, and the backup weapon the main gauche.
The rapier is a duelling weapon, not a battlefield or even dungeon-crawling weapon. I’ll come to the details as to why this is the case later.
As alien as it is to our minds now, duelling was incredibly popular and quickly became a craze with hundreds and then thousands of men being killed each year in the second half of the 16th century. In fact, in Exeter they were still killing each other during the 19th Century, with a highly respected surgeon, the man who saved Exeter from the Cholera Epidemic, being killed at Exeter racecourse in a pistol duel.
The use of weapons to settle matters of honour stemmed from the previous practice of judicial combat. Basically, if people wanted to, they could use weapons to settle a dispute. Some of the weapons were truly bizarre and horrific, as were the methods of fighting, but that’s something I want to save for another post.The ability to duel was also assisted by economics. During the medieval period, swords were a knightly weapon. In the 16th century, society was being altered by a new class of people who were not only wealthy, they also weren’t nobility. They were what we would now refer to as nouveau riche, the newly enriched middle class.
Just as people like to emulate the fashions of the rich and famous now, the middle-class of then wanted to emulate the aristocracy and follow the latest fashions.
The sword was a ‘must have’ for any gentleman wishing to have any social standing despite the fact that they were expensive and required hours of practice.
Honour also became a key factor in Renaissance society, but the ideal of honour became so perverted that looking at someone in the wrong way could result in bloodshed and death. Sir Walter Raleigh said that “to give the lie deserves no less than stabbing.”
So popular were the ideas of honour and the use of the sword to display status that, unlike in previous times, swords started to be worn as part of everyday dress.The fact that they were worn with everyday clothing meant that the actual design of the sword rapidly started to change. There was no need to have a sword capable of dealing with an armoured opponent. Now swords needed to be developed that could be used against unarmoured opponents who were – as a result – more nimble, and who lacked the training of a knight or professional soldier. By this I mean that most would have lacked the physical attributes that someone born into the warrior class would have had. Indeed, there were many men who wore swords and who were clearly not able to use them should the need arise. I suppose a modern day comparison would be to compare an air softer against a regular soldier. Similar training, however the soldier will be fitter, better trained, can perform drills with his eyes closed etc.
Two key aspects arose from the factors above. The first was that thrusting was to be preferred over cutting. There was no longer a need to use percussive strikes in order to wear an opponent down. When fighting an armoured opponent, the sword was often used to bludgeon the opponent. Whether or not the sword pierced the armour didn’t matter. What did matter was that the percussive force of the blow was passed into the opponent’s body. Over time this would result in broken ribs, severe bruising and, in the case of head shots, concussion, disorientation, even a fractured skull. Once the opponent was worn down, then the point could be used against vulnerable places. Stabbing through the visor was allegedly very effective.Thrusting was also more effective in causing wounds that kill. Slashes, whilst horrible to see, and even more horrible to suffer, are less likely to kill than a piercing wound. The main reason for this is that unless the slash is to an area that has an artery, such as the bicep or inside of the thigh, and of sufficient depth to cut the artery, the wounds tend not to reach anything vital. A slash to the chest, for example, will not reach the lungs nor the heart. As a result, if the slash ‘merely’ causes blood loss, it can still result in the opponent stabbing you and killing you, and surviving to fight another day. If you don’t believe this, feel free to google ‘knife slash wounds’ as an example. Horrific, painful, survivable. You don’t want to wound someone only to have them kill you.
The thrust however, can get into the body, piercing the lungs, spleen, bladder, heart etc, which in a duel would be a fight stopper, even if the wounds didn’t actually kill the opponent. It takes only a penetration of over a couple of inches to reach vital organs. The effort required for a thrust is also far less than that of a slash, leaves the swordsman less open, and allows the full bodyweight of the swordsman to be placed behind the weapon.
The second was that distance, and the control of distance, was now important. People wanted to kill their opponents without having to get too close, which is perfectly understandable. These aspects meant that blades started to get longer, had more of a point and also started to lose their cutting edge. Which meant that grabbing the blade became a realistic proposition. Far better to suffer a slight wound to the hand than have up to 39″ or 100 cm of cold steel rammed through your body cavity.However, by the middle of the 16th century, some decided that having a sword wasn’t enough, and started to use the main gauche, the ‘left hand’, which was a short parrying dagger. These daggers were used to parry the opponent’s sword in such a way as to give time to attack, tying the opponent’s up for a vital split second. The main reason for this was that because of the reach advantage, the swords were mostly very blade-heavy. This meant that they couldn’t be brought back quickly in order to defence against a counter-thrust. They were perfect for attacking, not so for defending. The obvious choice was to use a shield, most likely a buckler, but they weren’t really practical to carry around all day, and they would most likely have diminished the stylish look somewhat. The perfect alternative was to use something that most people already carried with them, the dagger.
Some of these daggers were saw-toothed, which lead to the idea that they were used to break the opponent’s sword with a twist of the wrist. Whilst this might not be entirely accurate, such a design would allow the user to trap/bind the opponent’s sword for a fraction longer. Time was of the essence and any advantage would be exploited.
The use of the dagger was somewhat controversial, as some viewed their use somewhat unsporting. Considering they were doing their utmost to kill each other, I can’t understand how anyone could think anything that allowed a winner was ‘unsporting’. The majority disagreed however and the dagger became an indispensable tool, and one which gave a great advantage over someone not using it.One example of the this was the Duel des Mignons. Mignons is French for favourites, in this case the usual sycophants and hangers-on that surrounded Henry III. They were known for being effeminate, having long hair, and living decadent lifestyles.
At the time of the duel, the French Court was divided, one side supporting Henry III, the other supporting the Duc De Guise, his bitter rival.
Whatever the reasons for the duel, it was a perfect way of deciding which faction was ‘teh bets’. Fighting for the King’s faction was Jaques de Quelus and for the Duc, Charles de Balzac.
Both of them brought companions along to the fight, two each, with the result that instead of two ‘gentlemen’ having at it, there was a three-on-three melee. It was so bloody that both sides lost a second, one who died on the day, and one who died the following day. Quelus’ other second was also badly injured, suffering a grievous head injury. Which does beg the question as to whether he received a thrust such as above and managed to survive.
Unfortunately for Quelus, the chap in the left of the foreground, he neglected to bring a dagger. During the course of the fight he suffered nineteen (19) wounds and died in agony thirty-three days later. Before he died, he complained that the use of the dagger had been unfair. Balzacs apparently replied with “So much the worse for him; he ought not to have been such a fool as to have left his dagger at home.” D’Entragues was also severely wounded, but because he survived, I guess he could be called the winner.
So, if you decide to arm your character with a rapier, maybe even a rapier and main gauche, you need to be very clear on what you’re giving them, and how they are going to use them. If they’re up against someone wearing armour, the chances are the rapier isn’t going to be of much use, and they’re going to have to get in close, fight dirty and plunge the dagger into any target they can. Seriously, the only fair fight is one that the character walks, or crawls, or is even carried away from. But survives.
The sort of character that should be armed with such a weapon would be a courtier, a gentleman in an historical drama, maybe a disgraced officer. They should not be barbarians, knights, adventurers that like to dungeon delve, warriors, or anyone that’s going to face armoured opponents and who needs a weapon that won’t let them down. That sort of weapon is the war sword, or the broadsword, maybe even the two-handed sword. Those, I shall leave for another article.