Report on HNS 2013: Swordplay and Historical Fiction by Lisa Yarde

Posted by on Jul 6, 2013 in Historical Tidbits | 4 comments

SwordYa’ll know I’m a history buff who loves to experience places and elements of the past, right? So, what’s the best thing you can do for a girl like me? Apparently, if you just put a sword in my hand, I’ll be on top of the world! As I so delicately supported the weight of this steel sword here, the weapon of choice for several of my male characters and one female character, one thing struck me. The metal is not as heavy as I imagined it might be. Makes perfect sense because if you’re trying to survive a battle, can you be really effective with a weapon you can’t even lift up, much less wield?  At this particular moment where the lovely J.F. Ridgley helped me by taking this shot, all I could think was, “Thank you, Jesus! I can now die a happy woman because I have held this sword in my hands.” J.F. actually wanted me to pose with this beauty; I was more concerned about cutting my hair, dress or those purple manicured toes you can’t see in my sandals. Oh yeah, and of course, the lives of other attendees too. Next time, it’ll be jeans and sneakers for that kind of demonstration. It couldn’t get much sweeter than this moment, folks. Well, it could (millions of daily sales on Amazon would just about do it), but very little topped the swordplay session during the recent Historical Novel Society conference in St. Petersburg.

Swordplay and Its Influences on Culture presented by David Blixt (Her Majesty's Will)

Swordplay and Its Influences on Culture presented by David Blixt (Her Majesty’s Will)

So, who do I have to thank for this amazing opportunity? The very wonderful and personable David Blixt is an author, actor and as soon became obvious, David clearly loves historic weapons and historical fiction. He also enjoys teaching authors how their characters would properly use such weapons. More on that later! David started off with an introduction to our enthusiastic audience on the history of swords and the mechanics of wielding a weapon.  First, he talked about the parts of sword. There’s the boss or pommel, the non-pointy, other end of the sword, which can apparently be used to bash someone’s head in (never had anyone do that in my books before, but will remember that for use in future titles). Also handy for keeping a  sword in one’s hand.

20130622_110349The grip or handle that always seems to be covered in leather strips is followed by the crossguard, or as my Norman / French characters might have referred to it, the quillon. It’s the horizontal piece of metal. Interestingly, at least to me, the crossguard does not appear in earlier weapons, as I found out in researching warfare between the Norman English and Welsh. The pommel, grip and crossguard make up the sword’s hilt. The blade has different parts to it; the tang is the blade shaft that fits into the hilt and the forte is the section closest to the hilt. The fuller or the groove down the center is mistakenly called a blood groove, but I can’t remember why – sorry. The foible, which for a geek like me suggested the weakest part of the blade even before I was told just that, and the tip of the blade follow. The tip’s what Arya Stark would call the pointy end or most of us would say is the “business” end of the weapon.

20130622_110339David talked about the evolution of swords firsts used as hacking weapons. Leave it to the Romans to figure out that while their Germanic enemies were essentially wearing themselves out by fighting against armored soldiers behind shields in formation, the best weapon to use would be something that could be easily pointed and thrust into someone’s exposed parts. The gladius was born! The Romans always fought right-handed so that the left could be defended by the shield. The broadsword and longsword developed later and could be used with both hands. Then come rapiers for slashing and stabbing. Another interesting tidbit is that English rapiers were limited to 33 inches so people wouldn’t walk around the court of Queen Elizabeth I cutting each other to pieces.

David also mentioned a neat tie between dance and fighting; Shakespeare’s dancing masters were also trained in the swords and dances of the time reflected weapons training. The particular bow adopted where one leg was extended also happened to allow the hands to quickly grab a sword as soon a person straightened. It may be that from this action where we can find the origins of  the phrase, “Break a leg” or rather make a leg. In his wrap-up, David also mentioned fight books detailing moves by the 15th century master Hans Talhoffer and Fiore dei Liberi are available if authors really want to study the moves and positions.

20130622_111312 (1)But what’s better for an author than training with the weapons our characters use? There were broadswords, longswords, rapiers, daggers and axes on hand at David’s session. Even better, everyone of us who wielded something managed to survive and not kill our fellow attendees, which is always a plus – blood is so hard to get out of thick carpets! David showed us how to put weapons to effective use. For our characters, of course!

David also provided a link to Starfire Swords Ltd., which makes a variety of swords and daggers. I have now found the best looking Middle Eastern scimitar I have ever seen and of course, must buy it. For decorative purposes, of course. In addition to thanking David for an excellent workshop, I also need to pick his brain about a match-up for a future book: need to know when comparing the medieval swords used by Christian knights and the scimitars of the Middle East, the sort of advantages one type of weapon might have held over another.

Lisa Yarde, July 6, 2013 The third book in Yarde’s Sultana series will be out in this month. Look for the announcement in our Weekly Promotions post.


  1. Fun post, Lisa. Thanks! I don’t blame you for ogling that scimitar. And speaking of blood grooves…

    During the American Revolution, the bayonet that fitted on the end of the Brown Bess musket was three-sided and had a groove that modern reenactors call the “blood groove.” Combatants had learned that if a soldier jammed a smooth, non-grooved bayonet into moist innards, the body would hold onto the metal, making the bayonet very difficult to yank out. The “blood groove,” combined with a quarter twist of the bayonet, disrupted that suction and allowed the soldier to withdraw the bayonet with less effort. The triangular-shaped bayonet created a wound that was more difficult to stitch and heal, so by the early 20th century, that type of bayonet had been banned.

    • I find it interesting that an effective killing tool was ‘banned’ from use. Isn’t inflicting maximum damage to your enemy the point (no pun intended)? Also, I don’t think the concept of a triangular blade was invented during the American Revolution. Rapiers from the 16th and 17th centuries had triangular cross-sections. True rapier blades ranged from early flatter triangular blades to thicker, narrow hexagonal ones. Who banned these and what army actually stopped using them? Even mustard gas wasn’t really banned until the Geneva Convention of 1949.

      • Humans being the predators that they are, they moved on from triangular bayonets to serrated bayonets. This prompted even more outcry about the injury.

        What strategists eventually learned was that while the bayonet looked imposing in a charge, no matter the type of bayonet, it just wasn’t as effective a fighting tool as a knife.

        o It was one more piece of equipment to keep up with.

        o Despite design changes, soldiers still had trouble pulling the bayonet out of an enemy’s body.

        o And despite design changes, the bayonet sometimes fell off the end of the firearm.

        o Soldiers sometimes used the bayonet as a hand weapon without ever locking it on the end of their firearms.

        Somewhere in the first half of the 20th centuries, the relative ineffectiveness of the bayonet plus the pressure from humanitarian groups prompted weapons designers to outfitting the ends of firearms with something that would hold the kind of knife that soldiers were issued. But when it comes down to close-quarters fighting, soldiers still go for the knife in hand.

  2. Wonderful information, Lisa! Wish I had been there, but I’m so clumsy all attendees should be grateful I stayed home LOL.

    I always thought fencing looked graceful so I wasn’t surprised at the link between swordsmanship and dancing.

    Thanks for the link to Starfire Swords. I’m off to investigate the site!