I had a conversation with someone a while back about Game of Thrones. They were pointing out to me the “incorrect” way they wore their swords, saying that they were being worn too high on the waist. I had another problem with how the swords were being worn around the castle, namely that they were being worn at all. It seems that the main characters in particular wear a sword all the damn time. Although this is a minor gripe with an excellent series, let me tell you that swords are (in general) uncomfortable. Historically there were of course situations where you would want to have a sword close at hand, but in your own house was probably not one of them.
“Ah,” I hear you say, “but what about assassination? Surely you would be worried about your enemies cutting you down while you were unarmed.” Well, that’s certainly a good point, but the fact of the matter is a sword is a terrible assassin’s weapon. First, it’s all but impossible to conceal. Second, you have to be able to draw it and strike without anybody noticing. So no, I don’t think people would have been terribly worried about being assassinated via sword. I’m sure it happened, mind you, I just don’t think it was that common. Even in times where a sword was considered part of a gentleman’s dress (mostly after the 16th century) most accounts tell of sword fights and not sword “drive by stabbings.” Having said that, important to remember that there was a time that everyone carried a knife.
The modern idea of honour s a funny thing. The thought in these times is that knifing an enemy is a low thing to do. Something an honourable knight wouldn’t have to worry about. Back in the sword days this may not have been the case. From some of the tales of the time that have survived we can see that if someone wronged you, revenge was inevitable and the exact means was left to your own devices. Combine that with a culture that virtually demands that any adult male carry a knife and you have a recipe for violence. Knives of the time were tools as much as weapons and always by your side. In fact the Saxons share a name with their ever present blade, the Saex, as seen here in Hanweii’s replica:
Knives as an ever present companion are a staple of European society and enough people carry knives today to be considered a still living tradition. In a way we owe it to ourselves to be proficient in knife fighting if we plan on carrying a knife. A weapon we don’t know how to use belongs to our opponent. But let’s look again at the knives in olden days. We’ve mentioned the saex. In Fiore’s time the rondel was the dagger of choice. There was also the ballock knife which later e
volved into the Scottish dirk. From the surviving manuals we can see that these all had a similar shape and were used in a similar way. The sword and knife company Cold Steel makes some good rubber training knives and a training dagger that works really well so long as you take off the large and slightly goofy looking cross guard. It’s worth noting that from my research almost every dagger in history didn’t have a cross guard at all. Some did, but by and large knives are most useful without one.
Dagger play is a tricky thing. An easy trap to fall into, that I’ve seen happen many times is teaching new students that Renaissance dagger is exactly the same as modern knife. I’m not going to waste any more time talking about this except to say “don’t, unless you know exactly what you are doing.” Make it clear to students that there is a difference and warn them off real world confrontations. One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that knives now are far sharper than they were. Thus, almost all attacks were delivered with the point. Daggers are also much bigger than a standard pocket knife. This totally changes the game. It’s just such a shame that knives are too often seen as weapons to be feared these days. In Scottish society carrying a dirk was a sign of adulthood, and I don’t think this is without merit. I prefer people carrying knives to guns, after all. I have heard far too many accounts of people for whom there is no intermediate step between “I feel threatened in this situation” and pulling a weapon. At least with a knife there is a chance for defend yourself. So, as always, stay safe and don’t get in any knife fights.