Rapier Swords - the Dueling Masters in the Renaissance Age
Errol Flynn did more for the rapier sword in the 20th century than any man in history as he swashbuckled his way through many a movie scene in swordsmanship that never left any doubt of his eventual victory over his enemy. However, history reveals that few would have chosen this straight blade, one or two edged, single handed sword over the more practical swords and daggers available during the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of its popularity. Although these rapier swords could provide both cutting and thrusting movement needed for combat, as Errol Flynn so aptly demonstrated, it was a good offense and defense weapon in select situations only.
The rapier, which is sometimes referred to as a dueling sword, was not a soldier’s weapon but suited more aptly to one who lived a more civilized life such as a noble or a civilian who could use it for sport or if necessary, in self-defense. The rapier sword is good for a thrusting motion but not as effective as a cutting sword due to its shape and size. This made for an excellent dueling weapon for young nobles for tournaments and parades, and a lighter accessory for daily wearing for those in more peaceful situations than a war.
Throughout history, the amount of decoration accorded an item would reflect the wealth and stability of the culture at that time. This can be seen in architecture, furniture, and clothing as well as armor and weapons. This type of sword emerged as Europe stabilized and began to emerge from the stormy Middle Ages, becoming popular with those who really did not need a sword for many occasions. Special occasions would have included hunting, parades and tournaments. For these events, highly decorated arms and armor would be used that would not have been practical in a battle situation but were for visual recognition and appeal.
However, the word ‘rapier’ is a German word that means ‘foreign’. The French, English, Italian and other countries only called them ‘swords’ in their appropriate languages. The rapier sword had no set design with its blade length and width, whether it had an edge or edges, and hilts varied from simple to ornate. The rapier simply reflected the culture that was using it for their purposes so during the same time period, a variety of types of swords fell into this category.
The Classical civilizations of antiquity became the focus of the Renaissance through the focus of a group of philosophers and artists in Florence, Italy around the mid-14th century. Their humanism philosophy which applauded the accomplishments of man differed greatly from the scholasticism school of thought that was the centerpiece of the Medieval Age with its emphasis on the hereafter being the goal in life. Although the Medieval Age was considered barbaric in comparison to the great Roman and Greek cultures that had preceded it, by the end of the 11th century, it had evolved into a distinct civilization of its own with its beliefs firmly rooted in Christian ethics and beliefs. When Renaissance (which literally means ‘born anew’) thinking began to appreciate the Greek philosophers and Roman architecture, a new civilization was born. Europe flourished and so did its art, its literature and its wealth.
This is easily reflected in the rapier sword as the progression of this age developed through the 14th to the 17th century. Earlier versions were simpler in design than the later versions as these swords became more ornate and less useful until they were no longer in fashion. Even today, perhaps inspired by Errol Flynn, the Three Muskateers and Zorro in films, rapier swords enjoy a visual popularity and remain the weapons of choice for fencing. Renowned for their beauty and style, they remind us of another time, one civilized and romantic in the modern man’s mind when men settled differences at dawn with skill and craftsmanship rather than the single shot of a pistol. The Renaissance Era produced art and beauty and even practical applications of such that still enrich our lives today. The beautifully crafted rapier expresses this even in the area of weaponry.
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