CanCon 2015 day 2: The basics of the sword, the katana, and the Viking axe

A quick disclaimer, since I haven’t provided one recently. These posts are transcriptions of my notes from the panels in question. There will be errors. If you can provide clarification of correction of any of the information provided, please do not hesitate to do so. I will make any corrections post hasty.

Update: Feb 4, 2016. Ariella was gracious enough to give me some additional notes 🙂 These have been added with brackets.

Panellists: Geoff Gander, Kris Ramsey, Reanne Roy, and Ariella Elema


GG: What bugs you most about how most movies and television shows represent sword fighting?

KR: Flynning. Named after Errol Flynn. It’s all the swahbuckling stuff that would never work in real life. When it’s done well, you can’t tell an actor is Flynning. If not, it’s terrible. The last Three Musketeers movie is an example. You try to stay out of blade range when you’re fighting with a sword.

RR: I hate it when actors fight with a katana and cut through the opponent’s body. It would get stuck. The first two inches of the blade is the dangerous part.

KR: Swords are only for when you’ve run out of all other means of attack.

RR: And samurai using two katana? One is heavy enough. Musashi carried two, but is was a shorter blade and a katana, not two katana.

AE: A ‘case’ of rapiers. It can be done. It’s a flashy trick for duels, but it requires mastery of use in both dominant and non-dominant hands.


KR: Longer weapons tend to flex and it makes them less deadly. A shorter weapon is deadlier. When using two blades, it’s usually one long and one short. The longer blade deflects, and the shorter blade is used to kill.

GG: How has swordplay changed, historically?

AE: With armour, the shield became redundant. [More precisely, the development of complete suits of plate armour in late fourteenth-century Europe made shields less necessary. Having two hands on a sword gives you the leverage to cut faster with a longer blade.] The second hand was used on the sword for more power. The Germans placed the emphasis on speed. [IIRC, this comment was specifically about the differences in style between Italian and German masters in the fifteenth century. Fiore dei Liberi, an Italian master, seems to have been fond of moving into close range. His treatise, The Flower of Battle, has a lot of instructions for grappling, disarms, and pommel smashes in the face. The German masters, especially the later ones, tend to put more emphasis on the things you can do a little farther out at cutting range. This may be a reflection of the fact that Fiore was teaching people who were likely to face heavily armoured opponents, while the later Germans had a tradition of holding unarmoured tournaments.] When fighting in a tournament, knights fought at sword range.

KR: There was an older, battlefield style that included bo, naginata, and grappling.

Q: When did they stop having tournaments?

GG: It depends on the culture.

AE: I wrote my PhD dissertation on it. Trial by Battle in France and England. Tournaments ran from about 1050 – 1250. The last big tournament was in France in 1455. [1455 was the year of the last judicially-sanctioned trial by battle in the territory of what is now France. Subsequent duels were not organized by courts of law. The last trial by battle in England that came to blows was in 1456, but there were some outlying attempts to revive the practice in the 1650s and the early nineteenth century. Fencing tournaments of one sort or another have existed pretty much continuously since the Middle Ages.] There were outliers as late as the 1650’s. By and large, fire arms took over. Usually, they missed each other.

KR: There were cavalry charges with swords as late as WWII.

AE: By that time, though cavalry was a combination of horses and vehicles.

KR: A very good book on the subject is Swords and Swordsmen by Mike Loades.

GG: Who are the lead smiths now?

AE: Charles Jevins (?). [Charles Jevons is a terrific maker of aluminum practice swords. His site is here:] He uses aluminium these days. Weight and balance of a steel sword can be duplicated, but there’s greater safety because of a thicker edge. You can get steel swords as well. It will run you anywhere between $300 and $2500.

Q: What was the historical cost of a sword?

KR: It’s hard to say. Again, it would depend on the culture. Initially, Japanese swords were made from crap steel. Then, they learned how to make it durable. It took months to craft and took two smiths to make. They’d quench them in clay.

AE: In the thirteenth century, the cost was about 12 pence. That’s about two weeks of wages for the average peasant. [Here’s a place where the Historical European Martial Arts community has collected some data on medieval European sword prices:]

KR: The Vikings were very poor. That’s why they raided. They had to go out to get what they needed to survive.

Q: In 1966, I bought a Japanese katana for $400.

KR: Now they’re made in a Chinese factory.

Q: Can anyone carry a sword, or do you need a permit?

AE: In Canada, it’s technically legal, but you could cause a disturbance by walking around with one and get into trouble that way. I have white lady privilege, though. I can walk through the financial district of Toronto carrying my sword. Only the panhandlers notice. [I admit to having done this quite close to the financial district. It was probably dumb. I don’t recommend trying it yourself: results may vary. Sword canes almost certainly fall under the category of concealed knives, but I don’t know of any legal cases that have set definitive precedents on the matter. I’m a medieval legal historian, not a lawyer, so don’t take anything I say for legal advice. 🙂 ]

Q: How about cane swords?

AE: It’s a grey area. It could be considered a concealed weapon.

Q: What do you think of the sword work in Sparticus?

AE: The fight director might be Philippine influenced. The theory is that the Medieval Arabs taught everyone sword fighting. [My personal hypothesis is that medieval Arab sword arts influenced both Chinese and European fencing theory. There are quite a few medieval martial arts treatises in Arabic that have not yet been edited or translated into any European language. The oldest one dates from the mid ninth century CE.]

KR: There are only so many ways you can move with a sword.

Demo ensued.




We didn’t really get into the Viking axe, sorry to say.

Next week, we’ll delve into the history of science fiction from an academic perspective.

Hope everyone has a fabulous weekend!