St. Martin's History of the Sword, 16TH-17TH C

As we continue our tour through the depictions of St. Martin (part 1 and 2) and his swords, the 16th century artists create a more diverse group of blades for him. The charity of the young soldier may begin to wain some as a story for the beginning of the renaissance period but we do see many examples of his act depicted through the 16th century and beyond.

The first we will look at is this Florentine image showing an early form of finger guard. The cross hilted sword with a narrow blade is relatively standard for the period but we see the development of the first component of the complex hilt being added.

Florentine depiction from turn of the 16th century by Ghirlandaio workshop

The depiction of an early finger guard is also mirrored in this detail from a fresco by Protasio Crivelli. Here we see a bit of an odd shape as it is rooted mid guard arm as opposed to curling out from the block as the style will formalize. But in the early years of the addition of the finger guard both forms are seen.

Protasio Crivelli,c.1503 Milanese

These two example share some features of our Serenissma Sword and if we removed the knuckle bow it would fit well in this period.

Serenissima Rapier by Arms & Armor Inc. custom version with knuckle bow removed.

A&A Customized Serenissima Rapier

The long sword does not fade in this period but continues to be depicted in detail with such examples as this fine double fullered blade mounted with a ribbed guard and pear shaped pommel. This would have been a common form of the personal arm of the soldier of this period.

 St. Martin 1502 Budapest, Hungarian National Gallery

Sharing the Mantel, c.1502 Budapest, Hungarian National Gallery

 Arms & Armor Longsword with triple fullered blade

Similar custom Sword by Arms & Armor 

The next image from the turn of the 16th century shows another example of early finger guards on a broad bladed sword. Here we see both sides having the guard to create a symmetrical hilt. This detail is from an image from the south of France and maybe influenced by the weapons of the Iberian Peninsula which exhibit this detail in its earliest form.

Master of Bonnatt c.1510, Musee Bonnat, Bayonne, France

We see the ebb and flow of styles in this period. Here we have another longsword from the region of Germany. The guard has an S shape and the pommel is elongated and possibly an ovoid shape. The blade seems to depict a ricasso as well before its diamond cross sectioned lower blade.


St. Martin shares his Mantel 1520

The use of a knife by the Saint returns in this detail from 1528-29 on a cabinet door from Italy. This was first seen in our study in the earliest images of St. Martin using a seax in 972 nearly 600 years earlier. Here we see a sturdy belt knife it would seem though we are unable to see too much detail. This would almost certainly be a knife as worn by the soldiers of this period.

St. Martin using a knife 1529, San Rocco, Vience

Detail oil on panel of St. Martin using a knife.


One can image the conversation in the artists life where they are drinking and discussing the project of a depiction of St. Martin. The observation that a real "soldier" would just use his knife, not some large sword as artistic convention dictates. It almost certainly sounded familiar to all those "pub experts" discussing medieval combat in our own day :-)

Large belt knife in early renaissance style custom work by Arms & Armor Inc.
Arms & Armor Custom Knife in early Renaissance Style.

We also see at this time other forms of swords being shown and while some are probably inspired by the classical world and others are of the day. We can see how the art of the period may have influenced and been influenced by the weapons of the soldiers they saw around them. One example here is where we see a curved complex hilted sword from 1610.

 Image of St Martin cleaving his cloak with curved sword

Next we see an image from El Greco at the end of the 16th century, here we have a swept hilt rapier depicted cleaving the cloak for the beggar. We are able to see a straight guard and both details of the inner and outer guard. 

El Greco 1597 St. Martin portrait

El Greco detail 1597 depicting a Rapier

2 ring Rapier by Arms & Armor Inc.

Two Ring Rapier by Arms & Armor Inc.

We see another rapier, rendered by Van Dyck from 1620, in the next image. He seems to be choking up on the sword a bit as he slices the clock and is an interesting detail to add to discussions of how a sword has gripped. The rapier hilt seems to be mounted on a broad tapering blade and may well be the style of sword carried by soldiers of this period. It would probably be of similar form to our Town Guard Sword though mounted on a longer blade for mounted use.

Van Dyck 1620 depicting rapier or side sword with complex hilt

Van Dyck's depiction 1620 showing a rapier or side sword 

Just a decade or two later we see an image that appears to show a scarf sword, an early form seen in the transition from rapier to smallsword. St. Martin is obviously on the cutting edge of fashion here. 

Jacob van Oost the Elder showing a pillow or sash sword

Jacob van Oost the Elder showing a scarf sword 1630-1657.

Scarf Sword custom made by Arms & Armor Inc.

A custom scarf sword by Arms & Armor Inc.

We hope you have enjoyed this themed walk through the history of the sword. It is a useful tool when gathering information on the developments of the sword across time. Though it is just a tool. It needs to be combined and refined by other scholarship. The use of artifacts, art and research should all be part of any thorough discussion of how swords evolved. Major figures in popular culture can be used to do this and would make interesting studies. St. George, St. Michael, David of Goliath fame or Arthur would all be interesting and informative subjects to follow through time.

Read the first part of this series here St. Martin's History of the Sword or second part here.

divider swords

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.

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