Swords with a wavy blade appear in many cultures. From the Kris of the Malay, to the flamboyant zweihanders of the Landsknecht mercenaries, serrated swords are an object of fascination for many people. But what were they for? In the context of the European versions of these swords, there are many pop theories floating around the internet. For example, that these blades gave wounds that would not heal, or that the serrations on the blade prevented dulling when impacting armor. In this blog we explore some of these ideas, take a look at some original swords, and give some thoughts after having made many of them over the years.
For starters, what should we call these swords? Often colloquially called Flamberge or Serpentine blades, these are more properly called Flammard or Flambard, meaning flamed, referring to the edges that undulate like fire. Flamberge means flamboyant, and is often also used to refer to these blades, though this term has a confused history, due in part to flamberge being the name of the sword of the fictional knight Renaud de Montaubon from the 12th century story of the Four Sons of Aymon. The term appears to have been picked up by sword scholars and enthusiasts to refer to rapiers and smallswords with a curvy blade during the 20th century.
What were these ostentatious blades for? We have some hints. In Europe these types of blades were a small minority of the swords being made and used in the medieval and Renaissance periods, but they appear on a wide variety of weapons from two handed war swords, to rapiers, smallswords, and daggers. Their use on such a wide variety of weapons, made to be used under widely varying circumstances, from charging lines of 16th century pikemen to 18th century duels between gentlemen, suggests that there might be some similar goal for all of them. On the other hand, the fact that flammard blades made up only a tiny minority of each of these types of weapon is also suggestive of the fact that such a blade probably did not give much, if any, advantage over the most common straight-edged examples.
One of the more plausible theories as to the use of undulating blade styles is that the unevenness of the blade alters the tactile feedback, or Fuhlen, that occurs when a flammard blade is crossed with another sword in the bind. At Arms and Armor we have done some experiments and some aspects of the bind do feel different, especially if one is attempting a glissade or another sliding action, but it certainly does not give someone using such a sword an unequivocal advantage. At best, using a flammard sword might operate as a kind of trick the could surprise an opponent in the heat of the moment, giving the flame-blade wielding protagonist a fraction of a second to wind and press the attack. Of course, this example relies on the opponent not having fenced against a flamed blade before.
One of the myths of the undulating edge profile was it made it easier to cut through the wooden shafts of pike heads. Swords being able to do this has been a fallacy propagated a lot over the last 50 years, but is totally unfounded. Physics is a hard mistress. Some have said you could cut an opponent by pressing instead of hewing. But this does not provide any significant advantage over regular blades and possibly is less efficient. Perhaps a flammard blade would give some more traction in pushing hafted weapons aside, since cutting through pike heads seems unlikely in most situations and the undulations would allow more purchase to control a group of poles being driven before you.
Early 16th century very fashionable Landsknecht
I would suggest that the one function that transcends all of these uses for the flammard style is aesthetic. Since these weapons do not seem to give any clear cut practical advantage, but they show up again and again historically, it is likely that they were made to be flamboyant. As you can see, gentlemen from the 16th-18th centuries definitely cared about fashion. Certainly, based on all of the decoration and beauty of composition that is evident in historic swords, many people who used, carried, and made swords were deeply concerned with how they looked. Flammard blades are visually striking. Making an undulating blade of a high quality is also much more time consuming than making a standard blade, making it more expensive. Commissioning and wearing a flamboyant sword would therefore have been a mark of distinction, wealth, and taste. This, I think, is why they show up in so many different contexts. Landsknechts, rapier-wielding dandies, and smallsword dueling fops were among the most famously fashion-conscious men in European history. We know that their ideas about fashion extended to the hilt styles they thought desirable, it seems that was also true of blade styles.
The Dashing Sir Richard Clough 1570ish
(the authors' ancestor)
An 18th century gentleman with smallsword