Sunday, March 25, 2007

Left or Right Hand?

From a discussion off NORSEFOLK:

" ... The lefty (being the minority) is accustomed to fighting opposite-handed
people. The righty, however, is usually used to fighting mainly (if not
only) other right-handed fighters. Therefore, the left-handed fighter is going to have an advantage. ... "

Going back to the artifacts, what is found is never complete (usually hilts rotted off) or in good enough preservation (blades corroded) to be able to gather much raw information.

Although swords in the VA are the symetrical broad sword type, there should in fact be a slight wear difference between the inside and outside cutting edges. In normal use the blade would be drawn, used, then returned to the scabbard in roughly the same position. A double edge does give you a second cutting surface that you could rotate into position if the primary edge was dulled in use. (Also an edge available for a backhand stroke without rotating the wrist.) Truth is that you do have a tendancy to use the same edge all the time.

On a sword with long life and much use (refer back to the sword as family heirloom idea) there should in fact be a slight difference in profile on the master edge from all the sharpening. (That would be the side that points to the centre of your body when you held the sword naturally, palm towards your stomach.) This would be a different side of the blade for right versus left master hand. Again a weapon with an extremely long life may have the hilt worn into patterns by consistant grip in the same hand.

As an example of this, but far more pronounced - ask any long time blacksmith if you can look closely at their primary forging hammer. The head will actually be worn away in a manner that is dictated by oth 'handedness' and their individual working style (largely determined by body type and things like anvil position).

The sad truth is that there is little work done on skeletons themselves in terms of looking at wear patterns caused by work. Right or left handedness will clearly mark the bones. (This lack of research is pretty frustrating to those of use interested in tool use.) So what we have here is no way to gather clear information from either artifact or body remains.

Consider some related cultural traditions:

If I remember correctly, the Roman army considered the position of 'file closer' one of honour. Read that as 'experience'. You put your best and most experienced fighter on the right end of file. This because he would have his exposed sword arm open against a flanking move by the enemy (rather than shield side as on the left end). This custom is maintained up to the modern era by the way,. At least on the parade ground the sargent is placed to the right front of a group. If you had a left hander - that is certainly where you placed him. (This certainly was my own Pensic experience, for what that is worth.)
Into the middle ages properly, left handers are subject to discrimination - based on their quite real combat advantage as Michael states above. You were thought 'sinister' (remember all that healdry!).
Again this continued up to the modern day - I certainly am old enough to remember kids being punished when they tried to write with their left hands.

A fast last note - on Norse swords having no right or left hand grips.

When I am making swords for myself, I almost always fit them with a 'semi orthopedic' grip. I pick a piece of antler that feels good in my (right) hand, then work it down until it is truely comfortable. I have relatively small hands, with the bumps and knobbs of a life as blacksmith. Others have commented that they find the grip quite UNcomfortable. Of course these grips have very clear right and left sides to them.
Now, in the sagas and legondary stories, you often find the plot device of the magic or family sword which is stolen. When the villan attempts to use the sword against its original hero owner you read a line like 'the sword twisted like a live thing'. This is exactly the effect of attempting to use such a custom fitted sword if your hand is the wrong size. I see this as art dressing up a very real situation.

Now I would expect MOST swords to have universal grips. Both because it makes it easier to utilize both cutting edges and also because most sword users are not sword makers. Just a piece of historical trivia to throw into the pot.

1 comment:

STAG said...

Lot of speculation there. Love it. Makes for good arguements over a small keg.

When I am teaching sword work, the sword I use is totally symmetrical, just like the ones in the museums. It wears evenly both sides. I also teach thumb leading strikes, backhand, and forehand strikes. This may not be strictly medieval, although it works a treat! Therefore I try to differentiate between speculative use and documented use. Its not easy!

Countless hours of studying medieval sword handling textbooks has not revealed any thumb leading strikes at all. Speculation as to "why" range from "they didn't use the back edge intentionally" to "they kept some things back for themselves instead of publishing all of their skills". (drag up that keg...grin!)

Swords in the Palace Museum show considerable wear on both edges of the swords, pretty much evenly. Jean la Valette's sword even has a guard which is most suitable for right hand use, and it seems to be worn down evenly on both the leading and trailing edges. Speculation suggest that either he used backhand blows as much as forehand blows, or maybe the sharpener was just making sure the metal sword was symmetrical.
note...I almost never found a sword chipped on the edges, the had all been cleaned up on the stone after the battle. Similarly the armour had all been repaired, often with very nice forge welds that you could not even see from the outside! Armours which had been heavily damaged were often repaired to "good as new" by local blacksmiths.

Thanks for the posts Darryl...I'll see if I can find some definitive info on right and left handedness when next I hit the museum circuit.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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