Combat Cliches: Medieval Edition

Awhile back Jeff posted a piece on firearms mistakes that every writer makes.  Many of them were abused cliches and many of them were maddening pet peeves of mine.  I have some other pet peeves about combat and weapons that predate the repeating firearm.  In some cases they predate gunpowder altogether.

Armor Does Not Make You Slow.  Somehow, somewhere, somebody started the idea that a fully armored knight was about as nimble as lead statue.  A lead statue high on quaaludes.  The cliche is an unhorsed knight was ‘as helpless as a turtle on its back’.  It’s not even close to true.  It is true that in the late middle ages, when tourneys were big money, specialized jousting armor was made.  These suits were designed for only one thing, riding a horse in a straight line with a lance.  They were never designed for any kind of real war (most had helmets that you couldn’t see out of)  Every other kind of armor was designed to keep a warrior alive on a feild of battle and survival meant protection, mobility and vision.  Even the full plate was fully articulated and knights were expected to perform all sorts of acrobatics in them; leaping into a saddle, climbing up siege ladders with only their arms (think monkey-bars), and doing somersaults. 

Swords Don’t Weigh Fifteen Pounds.  Your average sword was under four feet long and under three pounds.  A professional warriors sword would typically be more like three feet and about a pound and a half to two pounds.  The mechanics and physics of what a sword does is based on velocity.  Swords are light and balanced so the six to ten inches near the tip go as fast as possible with the least amount of effort from the end you’re holding.  Even the big two-handers like a Scot’s claymore or landsknecht’s pike breaker are much lighter than you might think.

On the Wearing of a Sword.  Roman legionaries wear their sword on their right hip.  Countless movies get this wrong for some reason.  It looks weird because we’re used to the cross draw and looks like it would be slow and awkward to draw.  It’s not and the Romans knew a thing or two about war.  One movie that got it right is a comedy– Monty Python and the Life of Brian.  Watch the scene where The Centurion is scolding Brian on his poor Latin.  He draws his sword in an eye blink and has it at Brian’s throat in one fluid move.

To the best of my knowledge (not exhaustive by any stretch) the only fighters who regularly carried their sword in a sheath at their back were the Ninja.  But their swords were also quite short.  I admit it looks pretty cool to have a big badass sword slung over your shoulder like William Wallace in Braveheart.  But you can’t actually draw it out of there.  Watch Braveheart again and keep an eye on Mel Gibson at the Battle of Stirling (never mind that the battle actually took place on a bridge).  He’s running at the English screaming like a maniac and he reaches over to draw his sword.  He gets it out as far as he can and it sort of stops.  Then there’s a cut.  Cut back to Gibson and the sword is out.  He sort of mimes drawing it but he’s just swinging it over his shoulder.

Sword Miscellany  Rapiers are not just thrusting weapons.  They were longer and heavier than movies would lead you to believe.  Civilian weapons to be sure but with a battlefield legacy.  They did however evolve shorter, thinner, lighter blades with more and more emphasis on the point until we get the small-sword of the 1700’s.

The swords of Japan are justly famed for their unique construction and incredible sharpness.  But western swords are not weak hunks of iron beat out by cavemen.  The Franks, the Vikings, and The Spanish were all famous for high end swords.  The Vikings made swords similar to Damascus blades that were sharp, supple, and incredibly valuable.

Man Does Not Kill by Sword Alone  The reverence that many cultures attached to the sword has made it the rock star of the slicy dicey world.  It looks cool and actors like to swing ’em around.  But axes and spears were cheaper to make and very effective.  In fact the sword was often a backup to the spear.  With Troy and 300 the spear might be regaining some cool points however.

Europe has Martial Arts  Damn samurai again!  The structured nature of Oriental arts seems to have clouded the formal training of Europe.  You aren’t just suddenly good with a sword and shield.  You train.  There are many surviving arms manuals and not just the later schools of fence.  Sword and buckler, two handed sword, pole ax, all had multiple schools with codified instruction.  These were often written down in manuals and the Western martial arts still have a somewhat obscure but dedicated following.

Most of this comes down to research and realism.  If you’re writing a story about a Roman soldier serving in Trajan’s columns, you better have it realistic and accurate.  The more you veer away from history and into fantasy the more slack you’ll get.  Conan just wouldn’t work with a rapier, dancing around in a formal Spanish fencing style.  But keep in mind that it can be the realism in a story that really sells the fantastical elements as believable.