This could possibly be the start of a series of posts I’ll be posting on this forum, depending on the reception of this first post. Essentially, these posts will either discuss major issues plaguing medieval fictional warfare and how to remedy them or just outline important aspects of medieval war which are often overlooked by authors. Of course, these posts will be largely useful for authors writing in a fictional medieval setting (whether it be fantasy or not) and especially if these authors are writing about warfare.
But that’s enough of that, you’ve read the title and since you’re reading this, you probably want an explanation. Yes, swords were indeed used in medieval battles, just not as the primary weapon like their portrayals in an overabundant amount of movies, novels and video games would have you believe. Swords were the sidearm of the medieval period, much like how pistols nowadays are the sidearm for modern soldiers. With the exception of greatswords, swords were always kept in reserve for the medieval warrior to be used as a last resort in the case that their primary weapon is lost. (There is also the aspect of the world’s magical system but I’ll elaborate on that later).
The reason why the sword was the premier secondary weapon for the medieval soldier is the same as the reason that the pistol is the main secondary weapon for a modern soldier. In short, they were convenient to carry and can get the job done if need be (swords are especially good at parrying strikes and defending oneself). It’s far easier to keep a sword in its scabbard strapped to your belt than it is to walk around while lugging a larger polearm. So in an urban medieval setting or anywhere else where the character wouldn’t expect fighting, it would be reasonable for them to be armed with a sword at most. However, it would be unreasonable for a medieval soldier to be armed with a sword as his main weapon in a pitched battle. Hence ‘swords are not battlefield weapons.’
In the medieval battlefield, swords simply do not get the job done as well as other medieval weapons. With the exception of greatswords, the average arming sword would struggle to pierce through even padded armour, the lightest form of armour most commonly used by medieval soldiers. Against plate or mail armour, swords would likely just bounce off with maybe a slight dent at most though it would more likely leave a scratch. Sure, if the warrior hits hard enough the blunt force may hurt the wearer within while the armour is intact but not only is that highly unlikely, but the same job can be done better with dedicating blunt weapons such as maces and warhammers (not to mention that they would actually cause damage to plate armour as well).
This post is already long enough as it is so I’ll just briefly run over the main battlefield weapons. If it’s an earlier period, short spears will be common for infantry since they are far cheaper to produce than a sword and have a longer reach. As for later periods, halberds and/or pikes are king. Halberds have enough weight in its blade so that they can cleave through armour to kill its wearer while also having a longer reach than a sword. Pikes have far longer reach with far less piercing power but that is easily remedied by formation fighting, dozens of pikes arrowed in a pike wall can easily stop any charge (just note that pikes are also less maneuverable than other weapons and are such are also far more vulnerable to flanking attacks). Lances were almost exclusively the main weapon of cavalry with the sword being brought out once all of the lances have been broken. Dedicated crack infantry may also be equipped with battle axes and/or greatswords for even greater offensive power at the cost of some defensive power.
In summary, swords were just not as good at killing folks as dedicated battlefield weapons so it should be unreasonable for swords to be the primary weapon for medieval soldiers in any sort of fiction. As for magical swords, that’s extremely dependent on the magic system. There’s three main questions regarding magic swords, them being:
- Can other weapons be enchanted with magic?
- How common are magically enchanted weapons?
- Are magical swords better at killing folks than conventional battlefield weapons?
Once the author answered those three questions to themselves, it’ll be up to them whether or not the existence of magical swords is justified in their fiction.
Of course, in the end, the author has the final say in how their work is depicted. However, that doesn’t change the fact that poor worldbuilding due to ignorance or any other unacceptable reason would ultimately leave the fiction worse off.
Also, feel free to ask questions, express opinions, and/or leave suggestions. This is a discussion forum after all.