Zweihänder*, and the myths regarding Pike heads and Horse's legs.
(*aka Bidenhänder, Schlachtschwerter, Slath Swords, 2-Handed swords)
Copyright © 2005, 2011, D. Matthew Kelty


Back in 2005, I was knee-deep into researching this topic, when a thread on MyArmoury.com presented itself, and I struck...

Below is a redux of my post, with some minor edits and facts folded in that I had later added to the thread.

Both of these topics (two handed swords cutting pike heads and the cutting off of Horse's legs) come up quite often, and I've been putting a lot of effort into establishing the truth(s) of the matters, and so a lot of this is quite fresh in my mind, and quite thoroughly scoured...

Caveat the first, I am 100% willing to be completely wrong about the following, but will need some pretty substantial references to back it up, as most of the above opinions stem from Hollywood and the Historical Re-enactment community and word of mouth. I've spent a great deal of time crawling through the available manuscripts of the period over the last few years, all manner of books written referencing various Period Sources (Charles Oman, Hans Delbrück, and the like), as well as countless hours of sifting through period artwork.

My Achilles heel? I have extensive information regarding Renaissance Warfare in general, how the troops were armed and deployed, etc. However, most of that is contained in period English manuscripts. They primarily cover the English and Dutch practices, as well as there are several that describe the Spanish, French and Italian practices, some from the point of few as an observer on the field, some as translations of other documents written by their respective foreign authors. As most of these documents are written in the last quarter of the 16th century, there is almost no written evidence at my disposal (read as "...in English") contemporary with the era or culture of the Zwiehänder or Bidenhänder, and the English never seemed to have really required a two-handed sword in their ranks, at least to any notable extent.

So, there's my flaw, feel free to plug holes into my fields of reference, I love learning more...

So, with that all said, here is what I've learned....


Sources of the Pike cutting Myths

I may have found where some of the "Heroic Zwiehänder" imagery stems from. I was re-reading Hans Delbrück's "History of the Art of Warfare", and in Volume IV, 'The Dawn of Modern Warfare', it goes into the Swiss and German Pike Square tactics of the early 16th century.

One of the references Delbrück uses over and over is a book published in 1522 that was an old Soldier's account of the Italian wars, and an overview of the tactics used. Delbrück believes that it was Georg von Frundsberg himself writing anonymously. The title is Trewer Rath und Bedencken eines Alten wol versutchen und Erfahrenen Kriegsmans (Trans. : "True Advice and Reflections of an Old Well-tested and Experienced Warrior")

In this book, the Author describes Frundsberg in one engagement at the battle of La Motta (1513) standing at the front of his Pikes, along with a few other two handed swordsmen where he (Frundsberg) "...stood in the first rank, swung his sword and fought like a woodsman who was felling an Oak in the forest..."

Clearly I need to get a copy... But with this kind of powerful imagery, it's easy to see how one could run with it, and depict *ALL* of the Landsknecht as these brave two-handed swordsmen mowing down Pike Squares against all odds... 

...but "fighting like a woodsman felling an oak in the forest", does not a pike cutter, make. Nor does it mean that the first row of men were all wielding zwiehänders.

Nope, I believe we are suffering from a myth drawn on heroic imagery that is filled with fallacies of physics, field ratios, and functions and forms of the weapons themselves.


Purpose/Era of 2 Handed Swords

The rise and decline of the two handed sword coincides with the rise and fall of the Polearms as an "Offensive" Unit (roughly 1450-1530). Polearms (most especially Pikes) continue to get used for another 150 years, but their role shifts from that of the Juggernaut effect of the Early swiss Pike Phalanxes into more defensive roles, notably protecting the Shot, and their role was more like the Anvil in being the proverbial "immovable object" from the latter half of the 16th century on.
This earlier "Pole-Offensive" era sees very little warfare in England, most all of the conflicts in Europe are in the Italian wars between the Emperor, France, and the Italies. Also the Welsh Longbow is still the preferred English method of disposing of large massed formations. It's no small surprise to me that the majority of the two handed swords we find are either Italian or German. By the time England gets into the fray with Spain in the Low Countries and Ireland (1560's), the Caliver and Harquebus have replaced the Bow (and bypassed entirely the two handed sword) as the best way to dispatch a wall of Pikes.

The Battle of Pavia (1525) really was the zenith for the Zwiehänder, and by the 1560's they were fairly well gone, except for as Parade pieces, and there is a similar ebb in two handed swords overall (the Zwiehänder usually being associated with a specific *design* of these class of weapons, specifically having the flukes above the ricasso, and/or more developed quillons and port rings).


Application/Technique of the Zwiehänder specifically, and 2 handed swords generally

As far as *how* the Zwiehänder is used, it seems to be very much handled like a polearm as opposed to a traditional sword. The fluke or forward quillons above the Ricasso give you a safe place to grip it, point up or down. The best application appears to be use the flukes and quillons as your defence to safely engage with the pikes, then press and slide.

To utilize them during press of pike, they could be deployed between pike ranks. When the time to strike has come, they slide down the ranks, and engage with the tips of a few pikes. Since this tool is an incredibly powerful lever, one Zwiehänder can successfully bind up 5-6 pikes at once. From here, you can either press the pikes to the side or the ground and hope your compadres pile in the opening, but that would leave the Zwiehänder rather exposed to getting nailed by other pikemen. If, however, you bind up those blades and start charging up the length of the pike, you're going to find yourself holding onto the end of a four foot long sword blade, punching into all of the soft, chewy centers of pikemen 16 feet away from the effective end of their weapons...

As far as the training descriptions, most of the extant fight manuals are written in the late 16th century, which puts the majority of them mostly 50 years or more *after* the height of the two handed sword in use in battle. Lichtenauer and the early German fight books were certainly published long before, but they *undershoot* the era of the Zwiehänder by a fair margin. With this in mind, I feel the best Fight Book to focus on in regards to being contemporary with the era of the two handed sword would be Achille Marozzo's Opera Nova (posted at William Wilson's site.) This work is primarily textual, not to mention written in 16th Century Tuscan, a distinctly unique Italian dialect, and is usually overlooked, except for the nifty buckler shapes.

[Homily]
BTW, Since I mentioned William Wilson, I would like to take a pause here for a moment and thank the 4 men that I think we owe much gratitude towards in the renaissance (literally, the rebirth) of Western Martial Arts and Swordplay. 

Patri Pugliese, R.I.P., the Godfather of research and Manuscript mining.

William E. Wilson, the man who I feel was the first to take Patri's efforts and provide it to the masses on the web, as well as within the SCA.

...and last, but not least, to Conn MacLir and Don Smith, who were *LONG* before the age of the Interwebz, digesting these works, and putting it to practical application with their involvement as fightmasters and teachers at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire(s) in Northern and Southern California. For more than 25 years, they have been learning, applying, and teaching these works, and there are hundreds (if not thousands) of folks out there that have benefitted from those lessons. Thank you all.
[/Homily]

Now, I've not met a complete English translation of Marozzo yet (Mr. Tobler, got some time on your hands?) The two handed sword plates all show commonalities with my described (yet undocumented) manner of using these weapons against pikes.

To wit:

1) Almost all of the guards are firmly on the middle position, with fairly horizontal blade positions.

2) 4 Cutting postures, and 15 Defensive postures. Sense a slight bias in it's intended application?...

3) Of the 15 Wards, 6 are point down, 3 are point up, and 6 are point level. Again, sensing a theme...

The 2 handed sword appears to be primarily a defensive weapon, and it's application is most often used horizontally, or point down. In essence, it's a pointy prybar, not a cleaver for baseball bat type swings. Will it cut when swung? Of course, it's a sword, but it is better utilized by maximizing it's strenghths, length, leverage, and two hands farther apart (i.e. half-sword or polearm techniques)



Myth of the "Wall of Zweihänders" vs. Actual deployment

As far as *where* the Zwiehänder specifically, (and the two handed sword in General), is deployed, many Landsknecht re-enactors describe the Doppelsoldier armed with Zwiehänders as "shock troops". This does not appear do be the case.
Most often they are deployed with Halberdiers to guard the Ensign, or flag-bearer. They are usually placed in the center of the formation, so are a last-ditch defence for the Captain and Flag. They *can* get used in the manner described above (charging down the pike ranks), but since their numbers are so small (1/2-1% of the Soldiers), it's not their normal task, to be sure.

As I have little contemporary written evidence, I can only judge by a few snippets of text, and then the contemporary pictorial evidence:

Giacomo DiGrassi, His True Art Of Defence, Translated By I.G., 1594

"The two hand Sword, as it is used now a daies being fower handfulls in the handle, or more, having also the great crosse, was found out, to the end it should be handled one to one at an equall match, as other weapons, of which I have in treated. But because one may with it (as a galleon, among many gallies) resist many Swordes, or other weapons: Therefore in the warres, it is used to be placed neere unto the Ensigne or Auncient, for the defence thereof, because, being of it selfe hable to contend with manie, it may the better safeguard the same."
 

Certain Discourses Concerning Formes And Effects Of Weapons , Sir John Smythe, 1590.

(In reference to how the Imperial forces are drawn up)
"When the great Princes of Germanie...are disposed to make warre...being bound (as they are) by their tenure Militarie to the Empire, some to find horsemen, and others to finde footmen at their own charges...form their regiments of footmen into great bands of 500 to an Ensigne... ...their milicia consisting of Harquebuziers, Piquers, and some Halbarders, with a few slath* swords for the gard of their Ensignes..."

* - 'Slath' sword is a Anglicized German euphemism for a two handed sword. In the Landeszeughaus Catalog from Graz "Das Wiener Bϋrgerliche Zeughaus: Gotik Und Renaissance" published in 1960, they have a Zwiehänder, Catalogue #98, labeled as "Schlachtschwerter der Bϋrgerwehr" Their Catalogue has four ceremonial Zwiehänders manufactured between 1580 and 1590, and all are described in the Catalog as: 'Zwiehänder, sogenannte "Schlachtschwerter"' or: 'Zwiehänder, so-called "battle swords"' So, now you've all got a new word to bandy about...


Now, to the Artwork. I have to confess that going after the "1%-er" here is proving troublesome. Add to that that the majority of the Artists I'm going to mention are known everywhere for talents *NOT* in line with the works I'm citing, not found anywhere in the Internet, and most of my references will cost a pretty penny to see for yourself, until I get my scanner up and running...

Most of it stems from the Maximillian era, and again, reaches it's peak with the Battle of Pavia, but there are some very telling works out there.

Hans Holbein the Younger: Primarily known for his Court Portraiture (Henry VIII's portraits being the most familiar to us English-descended folk), there are two drawings he made simply titled "Infantry Battle" that demonstrate a couple two handed swords in the fray. They are depicted in a strong downward chop in the middle of a Pike/Halberd fight. No online references found, they are in the Leeds Collection in London, and are published in the Osprey book for the "Battle of Pavia" (~$14.00)

Bernard Van Orley: Ahhh, the Pavia Tapestry. One of the best works contemporary with that event, and so little is published about it... The Osprey book has a few pictures from it, but they are all black and white photos, and miniscule. The Original is on display at an obscure Museum in Italy. The best images I have are from a book published by Banco Toscano, and is titled "Giovanni Delle Bande Nere". It's in Italian, and is a Coffee Table book with various essays about Giovanni De Medici. ~$35.00 plus shipping, kind of hard to find. While not a complete record of the Pavia Tapestry, it has a few excellent plates of various sections. Of particular note is one section, where a Doppelsoldier is pictured about to dispatch of a Pikeman (or Halberdier) who is weilding a pole that has been cracked. This might be where the myth of the "Pike Breaker" comes in. This sword is quite decidedly a true Zwiehänder in it's design. There are a couple other Zwiehänders pictured in the Tapestry, but they are usually in the center of a Pike square, so are not really seen so well "in action".

Giorgio Vasari: Mostly known for his book about Michelangelo, and his Architechtural design, he was also a fairly well regarded Fresco painter. Again, in the "Giovanni Delle Bande Nere" book, there is a picture of a particularly interesting Fresco he did in the "Sala de Giovanni Delle Bande Nere" in the Palazzo Vecchio. It's title was in Italian, but translated out as something like "The fight between Giovanni and the Orsini at the Bridge to Sant'Angelo".

In it are several two handed swordsmen fighting a knot of pikemen. They are in what *ALMOST* appears to be what Morozzo calls the "Guardia de Coda Lunga et Alta", or "the High, Long Tail". Marozzo's guard has the Right hand at the quillons, left hand on the pommel, blade set horizontally straight out, sternum high, towards the right side of the body. This is almost identical to the painting, however the painting shows all of the swordsmen with their left hand at the quillons, their right on the pommel, and a slight downward angle from the sternum to about the navel. They engage the pikemen with this guard, and are seen to be charging down the shaft, using the edge as a shield, and running point first towards the pikemen. Imagine the two handed sword as the tusks of a boar. Yeah, it's gonna leave a mark.

At any rate, there are other paintings, most of which are seen in the Osprey book (although poorly reproduced and *tiny*), most of them painted by Anonymous artists, and simply described as "the battle of Pavia", or 'the taking of Tunis", etc.

In all, almost every example of a Zwiehänder has it portrayed near Halberdiers and the Ensign. Most distributions of Halberdiers/Billemen in a Company are at about 20%, and the ratios that are apparent in *every * single illustration I've seen:

1. For every flag visible, you only ever see one or two Zwiehänders.

2. For every Zwiehänder visible, you see about 20-30 Halberds/Bills.

So, there's the ratio of a pike square or company, folks:
1 Flag : 1-2 2-handed swords : 10-20 misc heavy polearms : 200+ Pikes and Shot

Di Grassi said it, Sir John Smythe said it, Holbein the Younger, Van Orley, Vasari and others illustrated it. I think I've made my point.


But what about the horses?

As to the chopping off the horses legs, that appears to be a Braveheart-ism. I've already firmly entreched them in the middle of the Pike square, but to really underline the fundamental truths of Horses and Warfare:

1. Horses are quick
2. Horses are smart
3. Horses are big
4. Horses are mean (when trained to be mean)
5. Horses are expensive, and useful

Kill the man, not the horse, and a Halberd, Glaive or Billhook is a hell of a lot better way to get a Rider's complete and undivided attention....

So, either I've done my homework, or I am going to get schooled, but at least my fingers got their excercise...

Again, I would *LOVE* to get some of the contemporary Deutch/Switzer resources under my belt, so I welcome any and all pertinent data, and if there is anyone out there reasonably close to Graz, I have a favor to ask of you....

Original thread can be read here.