Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Medieval European Fighting Knives: Blade-forms Typology
Hey everyone. I wrote this piece years ago, actually, but I have doubts whether most of our readership here has seen it. Here is a re-editing of it. Enjoy.
It is not too unknown among historians of the era and some martial artists of the arts extant at the time, that during the so-called medieval period (roughly post 1200up to 1500, generally speaking) there were basically seven varieties of combat or fighting knives/daggers. These include some overlap and variation, of course, as many dagger hilts displayed characteristics of more than one type.
These 7 types are classified by their hilts (specifically their guards or hand-stops) as follows:
Rondel Daggers: The favored hilt of the man at arms and fencing master for over one-hundred and seventy-five years (in use from the 14th to 16th centuries), characterized by a normally disk shaped guard, perpendicular to and above and below the grip. The term used is modern. Achieved general use by at least 1325.
Baselards: A popular dagger hilt of the 14th century among all classes (possibly originating in the thirteenth), this dagger had a relatively two dimensional hilt in the shape of a capitol I. The term is proper historical nomenclature. It is accepted as the forerunner of the swiss or holbein dagger.
There is no man worth a leke,
Be he sturdy, be he meke,
But he bear a basilard.
Quillon Daggers: A wide and varied category, these are of course named specifically for their guards, often resembling small scale copies of contemporary swords. Evidence shows they began use during the thirteenth century.
Ballock or Kydney Daggers: These daggers are primarily classified by two rounded protrusions functioning as the blade-side guard (and many of their hilts are somewhat phalliform in total, hence the name). The term ballock is the original nomenclature; "kidney" is a Victorian term which has stuck (akin to "hand and a half" in place of "bastard"). These existed from around 1300 to well into the sixteenth century, and is accepted as the forerunner of the Scottish dirk.
Eared Daggers: Probably extant from the late 14th century, and identified by two vertically splayed disks at the pommel, granting it its relatively modern name (possibly from the 16th century). They lack much of a guard or hand-stop at the blade-side of the handle.
Cinquedeas: This term is somewhat of a misnomer, but now universally accepted. Extant from the middle of the fifteenth century. It is characterized primarily by the blade, which also gives it an often distinct hilt. The blade is very broad at the base, often "5 fingers wide" and usually tapers straight to a point, giving it a long, broad triangular silhouette.
Peasant Knives or Hauswehren: Knives often carried by commoners or peasants. German writers have called them Hauswehre or "home defense" knives. Often resembling a large butcher knife with a guard and generally having a single edged blade. Often much like a diminutive messer familiar to martial artists of contemporary styles (this is in part where the messer gets its name). Accepted as a direct offshoot of the scramasax and ancestor of the Bowie knife. It remained in use as late as the early 17th century.
That concludes a very brief synopsis of the seven major medieval fighting knife forms as outlined by Harold L. Peterson's Daggers and Fighting Knives of the Western World.
Next, I'll outline a new attempt at a general classification for the blade forms for these weapons which, as far as I'm aware, has not been attempted before. The blades of these weapons are naturally far fewer in variation than those of swords, but there was still a wider variety that most are ignorant of. It is important to note that though some hilt types are generally associated with a more specific blade form, nearly all of these following blade forms were found on nearly all of the hilt types explained above, so it is important not to make fast any associations with them.
Though there are fewer blade forms on daggers than on swords, the blade dictates the function of the weapon and is therefore inarguably the most important piece for consideration, both by the medieval fighting man, and by modern practitioners of his Art. The distinction between blade forms is very important and should be noted even if a typology nomenclature is not used.
Worthy of note is that all of these medieval dagger types primarily focus their deadly attentions on the point. In types 1 through 2, both subtypes are dual purpose, but subtype a has a definite emphasis on the point. Subtype b provides a more balanced cut and thrust ability. In Europe the primacy of the point was seen as nowhere else, including the form and function of the medieval dagger. Not only was this the focus of the dagger for its lethality, but the technology of medieval Europe both fostered and required weapons that could kill by being thrust into small targets while dually minimizing the effectiveness of their edges in many situations. Daggers were in all ways a co-adaptation alongside their longer counterpart: the sword. Mighty and versatile weapons in their own right, they were the most ubiquitous side-arm, an essential backup weapon; never left behind even when the sword had to be.
A note on lengths: As fighting knives, many of these blades would range from nearly a foot long, to blurring the lines with a sword. Much shorter, and it blurs the lines between a weapon of self defense or a simple utility tool. Given this, it is a personal judgment call on how it could be best used, and length has little bearing on the typology and it would be needlessly presumptuous to place classification guidelines on lengths.
For a good general length on a medieval combat knife that works particularly well with the contemporary fighting arts, Master Phillipo Vadi noted in his De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, that when gripped in the hand, the point should touch one's elbow. He gave preference to the rondel dagger with a possible 2a blade type, saying it should have one edge and two corners. The picture he provides, however, looks to be possibly a rondel of blade type 1a or 3a.
The following typology is general and arranged by effective use, not aesthetics (which could very well quadruple the list). I have broken them down into four basic types, each containing two subtypes. Some rough general hand measurements are given in the classifications.
Type 1 (double edged)
1a. This type is characterized by a narrow double edged blade. Both edges are sharp, and taper to an acute point. Generally between one and two fingers wide at the shoulder; normally about one and a half. Sometimes appears with a strong midrib, which often decreases the utility of the edge near the point while reinforcing it (making it functionally somewhat similar to a type 3b).
1b. This type is as the above, but has a broader blade and often less taper for most of its length. This kind is also sometimes found with a strong midrib. Generally about two fingers wide at the shoulder, but sometimes as many as four fingers wide.
Type 1.5 (three quarter edged)
1.5. This type is characterized by a "three quarter" edged blade. One edge is sharp for all or nearly the entire length of the blade, and the false edge is sharp for roughly one quarter to one half the length of the blade from the point, the last half being a flat ricasso. Generally found on narrower blades of acute taper (1a), but can also be found on the b subtype.
Type 2 (single edged)
2a. This type has a narrow, single edged blade, tapering to an acute point. Only one edge is sharp, the other usually flat. Sometimes with a flared rib along the false edge. Generally one to nearly two fingers wide at the shoulder, normally about one and a half.
2b. This type is as above, but with a broader blade and perhaps less taper. Generally from one and a half to three fingers wide at the shoulder, normally about two fingers wide at the shoulder.
Type 3 (edgeless)
3a. This blade is very narrow, having "corners" rather than edges, often being of triangular, diamond or even hexagonal (though usually tapering to diamond or triangular) cross section (unflattened) and tapering to an acute point. The steep cross section disallows sharp edges. Generally about one finger wide at the shoulder. Similar in blade form to the later stiletto or an estoc type sword.
3b. This brilliant and underrated innovation is a compromise between the above and the utility of an edged blade. The blade (single edged in its most common form) flares out into an unflattened diamond or triangular cross section for roughly the last quarter of the blade. Some variations will flare out again nearer the hilt. Generally one to two fingers wide at the shoulder.
Copyright: Casper Bradak
Posted by B & C at 10:24 AM