Medieval Swords Weren’t Heavy At All

“You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!” —Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

In A Nutshell

They don’t call it heavy metal for nothing. Those human slicing sticks of the Middle Ages were weighty, awkward weapons, right? Wrong. The average medieval sword weighed only 1–1.5 kilograms (2.5–3.5 lbs).

The Whole Bushel

Movies and just plain bad scholarship have done their best to reinforce the myth of the heavy, club-like medieval sword that took great strength to wield. But next time you’re at the gym (and no one’s looking), pick up one of those pink rubber-coated dumbbells on the end of the rack. That’s how much the typical medieval European sword weighed—about 1–1.5 kilograms (2.5–3.5 lbs). Which makes the European longsword not much heavier than the Japanese katana, which is still renowned today for its light weight.

Even the larger “hand and a half” and two-handed swords (think Braveheart) didn’t weigh much more than 2.25 kilograms (5 lbs).

Time and again, though, movies portray these well-crafted implements as crude, illogically heavy weapons. From the lumbering sword fights in First Knight to Antonio Banderas’ character in 13th Warrior complaining a Viking sword is too heavy, filmmakers seem convinced medieval craftsmen weren’t capable of making something awesome without really overdoing it.

Given that sword makers had been practicing their craft for over 2,500 years by the time the Middle Ages rolled around, we should be surprised if they hadn’t developed reliable methods for making lightweight, sturdy weapons. A heavy sword would’ve been disastrous for the medieval man-at-arms who did almost all of his fighting in the summer. If a man was going to survive the couple hours or so which made up the medieval battle, he needed a sword which wasn’t exhausting to swing.

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Being so light, it should be obvious that a sword would be rather ineffective if wielded like a crude club. If a swordsman were to be effective against an armored opponent, he needed to deliver a carefully placed slash or thrust. The edge-to-edge style fighting and parrying seen in almost every movie would have dulled a sword’s cutting edge or, worse, broken the sword. Also, the continual improvements in armor-making would have rendered hacking blows nearly useless. As a result, fencing manuals from the Middle Ages depict a very different style of fighting than what is popularly imagined. It’s probably best summed up as, “stab ’em, don’t hack ’em.

Show Me The Proof

Association for Renaissance Martial Arts: What Did Historical Swords Weigh?
Association for Renaissance Martial Arts: A Brief Introduction to Armoured Longsword Combat
Daily Life in the Middle Ages, Paul B. Newman
The Hundred Years War: A Wider Focus, Part 1, edited by L. J. Andrew Villalon, Donald J. Kagay

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