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european swords and social status


helen
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Hello,

I am writing a piece for our museum about the connection between swords and social status. We have a healthy international ethnographic collection including bladed weapons so it is easy to write about the very obvious delineations in say, historical Japanese and Kuba (Congo) cultures. However, I am little short on information on the situation in Europe. Can anybody help?

During the medieval and early modern period in Europe, what were the rules about who could own and use a sword? Apart from the military and the lower nobility upward, could any free man own one? After the gradual fragmentation of the feudal system, were the new bourgeoisie of merchants, lawyers and so forth permitted to carry them? Were there any laws or statutes that you know of concerning this?

Many thanks

Helen

(Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford)

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  • 2 months later...

I'd imagine there was significant difference in the rules between who could own one, and who could carry one and where they could get away with carrying it. I've never researched this particular subject, but there are countless references out there in regards to people in the merchant and artisan classes attending various sword schools in the early to middle 16th century. I know Albrecht D?rer was an avid swordsman, for one. Going into the lower social orders, it was the norm amongst the "volunteer" (aka mercenary) armies that soldiers were required to provide their own arms and armor. Obviously they weren't formally members of a military organization prior to mustering, and by their private ownership of weapons it would follow that these items were relatively freely available for purchase. I would suspect that the increasing power of the nation-state that came about in the early modern period, and the corresponding decline of a specific knightly class would lessen the "threat" posed by one single armed individual and thus the restrictions could safely be lessened.

Edited by landsknechte
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Thanks for your reply, Landsknechte. I hadn't really thought about self-arming requirements of mercenaries - that's a good point in favour of an increasingly relaxed view about the ownership of arms and perhaps a good place to start some proper research. Cheers.

Edited by helen
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Helen:

Try here:

http://swordforum.com/

I know for certain that sword ownership in the Saxon era and medieval era was the purvue of the knightly/ higher warrior class, primarily because of a swords cost (VERY expensive). Ownership seems to have relaxed somewhat in the later Middle Ages, but I believe that in the Elizabethian era sword ownership was still the right of a gentleman and certainly a symbol of higher social status.

Soldiers of course always got them-shorter versions anyway, as arms issued. The Highland Scots, Irish tribes/clans and Welsh also seem to have used them and seem to have seen their right to carry a sword as their symbol of the social status of freeman. With the collapse of feudalism and serfdom following the great Plagues, restrictions on serfs evaporated, again making sword ownership probably tied to cost. Given that 60% of the population was at a subsistence level of existence most of the time, saving up to buy a sword which you'd never use when a handy cudgel was available wasn't very smart for the average farm laborer.

By the 1700s I doubt there were any restrictions other than cost and the ability to use one.

"The Gentlemans' Magazine" (St. John's , London) is filled with articles about swordsmanship-who, what where and how to use them etc. etc. and of course-dueling.

The quality of a sword also denotes status and did up until recently. Military issue general's swords are vastly different weapons than the troopers weapons.

Note also that the 1821 pattern British cavalry saber is designed to "whack" someone-like a Chartist, and break bones etc, but not to kill by slashing. To kill with that weapon requires a concentrated effort and a swift, hard thrust. Thus, its the late Georgian version of a riot control weapon and shows the military's concern with domestic unrest. This is a very different weapon than say a claymore, which is designed to cut you in half with a hard blow.

Cheers,

Vivat Cantabrigia!

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Cheers for the link,

Yes, given what you've said, combined with the previous member's comments, it seems that ownership WAS circumscribed by social status but as the feudal order fell apart, skill and financial cost became the biggest determining factors. As with many things, I imagine the sword also remained the preserve of the higher and and military ranks out of tradition whilst lower classes retained alternative, cheaper and more available means of self-defence such as daggers and clubs. I've been having a look at George Silver's fencing manual (which casts amusing aspersions on Italian techniques) but I shall have a look into some of the other sources you give. Thanks.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Cheers for the link,

Yes, given what you've said, combined with the previous member's comments, it seems that ownership WAS circumscribed by social status but as the feudal order fell apart, skill and financial cost became the biggest determining factors. As with many things, I imagine the sword also remained the preserve of the higher and and military ranks out of tradition whilst lower classes retained alternative, cheaper and more available means of self-defence such as daggers and clubs. I've been having a look at George Silver's fencing manual (which casts amusing aspersions on Italian techniques) but I shall have a look into some of the other sources you give. Thanks.

George Silver is just a wee bit on the curmudgeony side... :unsure:

For what it's worth, when he refers to "Italian", he's referring to rapier based schools.

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