Breakable swords and tournament scores

I am working on something more substantial for PBS readers at the moment, but I just read something that required some thought, and thought ran to writing and here we are. I’ll take advantage of the aside function in the blog for this one to indicate its ‘superficial’ nature.

This requires some brief introduction. One can’t always trust that the Bodleian will live up to its reputation and deliver on obscure material but, acting against type, it delivered this time. At the end of Sydney Anglo’s L’escrime, La danse et l’art de la guerre there is a list of his past publications. This is a feature of some types of French academic publishing which I have grown to appreciate. Some of Anglo’s earliest work was based on the records of the London College of Heralds, all part of his doctoral work on the Westminster Tournament Roll.1

Routledge has recently digitized some of their journal back-list so I was able to find and read “Archives of the English Tournament: Score Cheques and Lists,” Journal of the Society of Archivists, 2 no.4 (1960): 153-62. During the Tudor period the English tourney culture developed this peculiar score-keeping system and while it took some effort to interpret, Anglo managed to sort out the system and explain the records in some detail. They record passes at the tilt with the lance (strikes and breaks to the body, head, and coronal), combat with swords on horseback, and combat with swords at the barriers. What was odd about the scoring for barriers was that the codes recorded blows to the head, body, disarms “of his gauntlett” and “breaks” of the sword.2

At first, I thought this use of “break” was just a borrowing from the vocabulary of the tilt and that it did not really mean that the sword broke in a destructive way. Apparently, I was wrong and the sword combats of the Tudor period, while also allowing grappling (disarming) and “hitt […] on the face of the helme with the pomell”, said sword was designed to break when making contact with the figurative ‘blade.’3

This prompted two somewhat related questions: firstly, why use breakable swords in the first place? Second, what happened when a sword broke when blocked by the opponent? The second question is probably answered easily enough from the score cheques. If a sword broke, under circumstances other than against the head or body, it counted as a default, and was recorded as such along with dropping the sword or other related penalties like letting go of the barrier with the free hand, falling, or otherwise messing up.4

The answer to the first question has to do with the evolving function of the tournament. Tournaments had moved far away from the medieval mock warfare and personal enrichment of the High-Middle-Ages. These combats were now more properly spectator sports and that audience needed to know who was winning and who was getting the worst of it. You couldn’t un-horse an opponent anymore, and have your squires grab their mount so you had to show your prowess some other way. A well struck lance would break, giving the audience an unambiguous indication of power. The same appears to have been the intention of the breakable swords. A blow struck hard enough, and at the right point of percussion on the ‘blade’ would break in a satisfying display and the crowd would go ‘oooh!’

That, at least, is the easy answer. There is more to this process of spectator involvement and I’m sure there were many grumpy swordsmen who either broke swords by swinging them too hard (to no effect) or could not figure out how that giant killing strike on Sir Stone-Skull, didn’t break the sword into a million little bits.

And, on an unrelated note, I have seen at least four C 17 Globemasters today. These massive things have appeared over the South West of Oxford on their way to RAF Brize Norton. They make a very peculiar (and unwholesome) sound when they turn that makes one uncertain about the fate of the universe. They are far too large and ominous for the laws of aerodynamics to account for their ability to ‘fly.’


1 This is Ango’s L’escrime, La danse et l’art de la guerre: Le livre et la représentation du mouvement (Paris: BNF, 2011), the item of interest in the 25 October entry. I also learned that Anglo did his PhD at the University of London where he was supervised by Frances Yates. I have often said that Anglo is to the study of martial knowledge what Yates is to the study of learned magic and here I find that the one actually taught the other. How poetically apt.

2 Anglo, “Archives”, 157.

3 Ibid., 155-7.

4 Ibid., 157.

3 thoughts on “Breakable swords and tournament scores

  1. Is there any evidence that tournament lances were easier to break than the ones used in battles? When we discussed it on my blog, my commenters seemed to think not. At that time I also hadn’t thought about fractures caused by non-penetrating hits, so your Richard III post has changed things.

    • As regards the fragility of tournament lances, all I can say is that Anglo thought this was the case, based on the ubiquity of lance breaks in the later Elizabethan tournament scores. I suspect this is discussed in Alan Young, Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments (1987) and one could check Braden Frieder, Chivalry & the Perfect Prince: Tournaments, Art, and Armor at the Spanish Habsburg Court (2008). Young is not at hand and I have only scanned Frieder. I don’t know if many of the other standard works on the tournament deal with the question directly. Certainly, I don’t know of any physical evidence of ‘frangable’ lances for tourney, but, considering that the production of dedicated ‘tourney grad’ kit and weapons starts very early, and are featured prominently in the tournament book of King Rene (see A. François, ed. Le Livre des Tournois du Roi René 1986), I would be surprised if there was not some control over the strength of lances as a safety issue. That’s speculation, but it’s consistent with the spirit of the tournament in the later medieval form.

      And on the Richard III / blunt-force trauma thing, I need to spend a little time with some of the archaeological reports I have collected over the years to see if there is any pattern worth recording. If there is anything to the theory one may expect to find, amongst skulls that show both sharp and blunt-force trauma, some examples where all the blunt force fractures under-lay the sharp-force. That would support a claim that armour was intervening for the first blow, but absent for the others. It also bugs me when you read something about the Battle of Towton, for example, and they say ‘look at all these cranial sharp-force injuries. That means no-one had helmets.’ Maybe they had helmets, but took them off. Maybe the helmets were pulled off. Maybe un-helmeted combatants, naturally prone to fatal head injuries, are over represented amongst the casualties. Mass graves are not samples of the entire army, they are samples of the part of the army that got killed.

  2. Pingback: Fragmentary and Fragile: Lances and History | Pen, Book, Sword.

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