The swords we classify today as rapiers are often qualified purely by their complex guards. As we have discussed in our previous blogs about the development of sword hilts, what constituted a complex hilt evolved over a couple of generations and was not clearly defined. The evolution of the hilt saw elements added such as finger rings and knuckle bows to the simple cross guard of the sword. The owners and chroniclers of these weapons, whether cross hilted, basket hilted or a rapier in most cases would have called them swords. As we have seen in some of our other blogs like Bastard vs Longsword vs Hand and a Half Swords, the intention of the user often defined what a sword was considered rather than specific physical constructions.
When the intended use of a sword is used to define and catalog each piece, it becomes difficult to mesh with some of our modern classifications based on size or shape. A medieval clerk doing an inventory of weapons would not have done it by typologically groups as we do today, but rather the name applied by its user or owner.
In “The Rapier and Smallsword” by Norman, he discusses how complex trying to identify the origin of the term rapier is. There are great amounts of misinformation that in the past have been touted as fact. The source of the word "rapier" is even difficult to find, there are solid possibilities occurring in Iberia, the German states and regions that are today France. Add to this the transformation of what contemporaries referred to when they said the word rapier and it is a challenge to even know what was meant by the word. Today we acquaint the type to a long thin sword with an elaborate hilt of interlocking bars and a fancy grip. But in this series, we shall see it has a great many forms other than its stereotype, including pieces that may challenge the above stereotype.
Francesco d'Este as St George by Dosso Dossi 1520-1530 an early depiction of a rapier.
Its popular development is almost certainly tied to the wearing of swords by civilians and used for self-defense and ostentatious display, but the early examples are often depicted as side arms for armored individuals. Civilian wearing of the sword, when not traveling, is seldom depicted in art prior to the 15th Century in Northern Europe. Italy was a little ahead of this, while in Spain and Portugal it was common as early as the 1430’s and 40’s. Claude Blair in his European and American Arms points to the Spanish term “espada ropera”, which first appears in 1468 as the origin of the word rapier. This, in turn, is very possibly the origin of the French term “épée rapiére” first listed in 1474. The Spanish origin of the term is reinforced by the definition given the word “la rapiere” by Giles Dave’s French language dictionary printed in 1532 or 33, were it defines the term as “the spannyshe sworde”.
The earliest reference, yet found, to the word rapier in the British Isles occurs on December 8th, 1505 in a payment made to Robert Selkyrk, cutler to James IV of Scotland. He is instructed to bind a “riding sword, ane rappyer, and binding of Wallas sword”.
In the 1547 post-mortem inventory of Henry VII they termed rapiers separately from Spanish which distinguished those swords made by other nationalities. Obviously even at this late date the word rapier was still open to some interpretation by the user.
The sword we most often refer to today as the swept hilt rapier, first appeared around in the first half of the 16th C. The actual development of the weapon is unknowable but must date slightly earlier than the earliest portrait references that have survived. Art, specifically portraiture, is an invaluable dating tool, but does have a short lag time in indicating new styles as the high-status subjects of the painting would adopt newer fashions quickly.
While we have many more rapiers surviving today then medieval swords it does not make an understanding of the rapier easier, in fact it may be harder in a lot of cases.
Check out today’s entry in this series with a video that begins to detail how the construction of a Rapier may have been done.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.