It sounds like a rhetorical question, like ‘How long is a piece of string?’ or ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’. Whilst many sources might give simple and seeming obvious answers with nice comforting numerical figures, like ‘between x and y inches’ – but the question of how long is a longsword blade is a far more complicated than it might appear. ‘How long is a longsword blade?’ is a definitional question: to answer it, we have to interrogate how to think about medieval objects, and medieval history more generally. At stake is our whole method of making sense of the past: by imposing categories and meanings on surviving archaeological objects that would be totally alien to the ways our distant ancestors thought. So – how long is a longsword?
The Quick and Dirty Answer
To start with, we’ll give you the quick and dirty answer. The term ‘longsword’ has come to mean, at its broadest, a set of historical bladed weapons that were designed to be used with both hands. A reasonably broad survey of historical European longswords from the Late Middle Ages (when longswords were most popular, and when we have most surviving examples) tends to come out with the outer bounds being between 42 inches and 59 inches (110 – 150cm) including the hilt – with most examples falling around the length of four feet (48 inches; 122cm). These bounds give us a rough map of the distribution of Medieval longswords: most had blades that were around three feet in length, with a smaller number of extremely large oversize swords stretching the average upward.
So, case closed, right? Not so fast.
If you had said to your average Medieval weapon merchant (translation notwithstanding), ‘Hello, good sir or madam – could I see your selection of longswords?’, you’d be met with confusion. You see – the very clear idea of a ‘longsword’ (ie. as a two-handed long blade) is a pretty modern idea, and like many of our modern historical categorizations, it only dates back to the Victorian era. Many of our modern historical conceptions bear the fingerprints of the predecessors of the modern historian: the Victorian antiquarian. The Enlightenment saw the first glimmers of modern historical investigation as we understand it: Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire was an early landmark in systematic modern history – and gentlemen across Europe began amassing significant collections of Classical, Medieval and post-Medieval artefacts, either from merchants and traders, or through their own expeditions and digs.
These collectors, known as antiquarians, were far from trained archaeologists: they had only dim awareness of the importance of modern archaeological staples, like the vital context of archaeological finds and their provenance. They would source weaponry and armour from estate sales of extinct noble families, or on tours to far-flung corners of Europe – such objects often being stripped from their historical context, damaged or inexpertly restored, and sometimes entirely faked for the burgeoning antiques market. Archaeology really only emerged as a distinct discipline decades later, with its proper professionalization by the early 20th century.
The Antiquarian’s Longsword
One of the key things the early antiquarians did was they began to categorize and catalogue the artefacts they found – which was immensely valuable, and their records often fill in important gaps. However, they only did so retrospectively, using the modern language of the day, often having only haphazard access to whichever historical texts they could purchase or borrow, and without the benefit of modern understanding of historical linguistics. Thus, large two-handed swords were simply classified as ‘long swords’, using ‘long’ merely in the descriptive sense, perhaps influence by the older world Langschwerter, ‘longswords’ in German. The English word ‘longsword’ is even more modern than that, appearing sporadically at the end of the 19th century, and only entering common parlance as a description of Late Medieval fencing swords in the 1990s and 2000s with the reconstruction of Medieval fighting techniques and the flourishing of the field of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA).
So – if the idea of a ‘longsword’ is a category created by antiquarians, archaeologists and revivalists many centuries later, what did Medieval people call ‘longswords’? The Medieval period is one in of supreme fragmentation, uneven development and the predominance of the local over the international: as with most things, the answer is: they called ‘longswords’ many different things in different times and places. To understand exactly how long is a longsword, we’re going to have to get into the weeds with some deeper questions: what exactly is a longsword for, and how did people conceive of them?
An Era of Shortswords
Modern movies and TV depictions depict two-handed longswords as almost universal in every time and place. The reasons for this are very ‘Hollywood’. Having a hero fighting with two-handed weaponry looks extremely cool, underlines their heroism and lack of protection, and as well means there is less equipment in the way of seeing their faces on screen. In reality, however, even the bravest knight would rarely forgo the protection of a comfortingly large shield before the advent of fully-enclosing plate armor in the mid-15th century. Whilst some Iron Age weaponry has been interpreted as being wielded with two hands, in those societies combat was only ever fought on a small scale between dozens or hundreds combatants rather than thousands, and was probably highly ritualized. Two-handed sword simply did not exist across Europe before the Crusader period.
Even the Vikings, whose mercenaries were known to use the fearsome two-handed Dane-axe never developed a two-handed sword, despite what some recent video games might imply (looking at you, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla). In an age where only the very wealthiest nobles had access to chainmail brunia (knee-length short-sleeved chainmail tunics), and most would have only the protection of thick woollen or linen clothing, the additional protection offered by a solidly-build wooden shield was simply too important to discard in favour of a larger weapon.
The First Longswords
The earliest longswords are basically scaled-up versions of the Crusader swords of the early 1200s. Knights were facing more and more heavily armoured foes, and were becoming more heavily armoured themselves with the development of fully-enclosing great helms, long-sleeve hauberks and the beginnings of reinforced transitional armours. In this context, the traditional one-handed slashing arming swords, which had remained largely unchanged since the end of the Roman Empire, were no longer enough. The earliest solution to this problem was simply scaling up a wide-bladed slashing sword so that it could be used with both hands, delivering more powerful blows that could compromise chainmail and boiled leather armor.
These ‘hand-and-a-half’ swords appear around 1200 CE, classified as an Oakeshott Type XIIIa, which were almost always wielded with a shield. Contemporary illuminated manuscripts depict knights with a long leather strap attached to their shields , called a ‘guige’, which looped around the shoulder of the wielder allowed the shield to be quickly slung over one shoulder to allow the lightning-fast switch to a two-handed sword grip, and back again. Such weapons were referred to as ‘grete swords’ in Middle English (literally, ‘great/large swords’), and as espèes de Guerre in Old French (‘war swords’). As for how long is a longsword blade, these weapons had blades around 34-39” in length.
The Age of the Longsword
The Late Medieval era was characterized by a medieval arms race between armor-makers and weaponsmiths. Each development in armor was consequently circumvented by new weaponry designs, and vice-versa. As simple clothing reinforced with stitched-in steel plates developed into freestanding plate armor, cutting swords became increasingly obsolete. Thus, from about 1350 onward, new types of longsword developed in order to damage plate-armored nobles. Simply increasing the size of a sword, such as the Type XIIIa was no longer an option: weaponsmiths changed the design of these weapons fundamentally. They were no longer large chopping swords, with thin blades and parallel edges designed for the hardest possible swing. Now, they had stiff blades that were diamond-shaped in cross-section, resembling long awls or needles, so that the maximum puncturing power could be put into the thrust. With such a weapon, vulnerable joints in plates or unarmored gaps in the armpits and groin could be exploited. Since knights were now significantly better protected, it made more sense to wield fully two-handed weaponry, with shields falling out of favour for most armored troops. The age of the longsword had dawned.
In this period, the apogee of the two-handed sword, we see the emergence of terms such as ‘montante’ (Spanish, from the verb meaning ‘to mount’), spada longa and spada due mani (Italian, ‘long sword’ and Bolognese, ‘two handed sword’), and claidheamh mòr (Scots Gaelic, ‘great sword’, transliterated into English as ‘claymore’). These terms generally refer to the weapon’s great size – but it remains intimately connected to its purpose as a weapon with a specific purpose: that of compromising armored opponents. The outlier in this group, which stretches the average length of the longsword upward significantly, is the mid-16th century German Zweihander, an enormous set of two-handed swords that were designed to be used within mixed infantry units of swordsmen and pikemen: the Doppelsoldner (literally, ‘double-soldier’, so named because he was paid double) would wield this enormous sword more like a polearm, opening gaps in the enemy’s pike formations, breaking spear shafts and stepping forward to cause havoc with their exceptional reach.
One of the best source that we have for how longswords were used comes from the 16th-century Fechtbucher (‘fighting books’), manuals that were written by master swordsmen to disseminate fighting techniques amongst the upwardly-mobile burghers and noblemen of Renaissance Europe. The rediscovery of these books has both spurred the historical preservation (and recreation) of Medieval combat styles – but it has also baked in many misconceptions about the longsword. The question of how long is a longsword blade is muddied by these books: their artists frequently depict the longswords as at least as tall as the combatants, which is simply unsupported by the surviving historical swords (outside of a handful of oversize ‘executioner’s swords’, which were almost certainly wholly civil ceremonial objects with no battlefield use). Even the term ‘longsword’ derives in part from a misinterpretation of these texts: the German ‘lange Schwert’ does not refers to the weapon, but rather a stance in which both hands remain on the hilt of the weapon – contracting with ‘kurzes Schwert’(‘short sword’), where the wielder grips the blade partway down its length with their off-hand, using the longsword in the manner of a short spear.
In all, then, ‘how long is a longsword blade’ is a thorny one. We’ve given you some figured that relate to different places and times – but such broad comparisons are largely meaningless when dealing with the complexities of how fragmented and local the Medieval past really was. Even our concept of ‘the’ longsword starts to look like a post-hoc rationalization, rooted in outdated notions of Medieval history created before the discipline of archeaology was properly established. Ultimately, the only satisfactory answer to ‘how long is a longsword blade’ is: as long as it needed to be, in a given time and place.