The Curved Double-Edged Broadsword: A Failed Medieval Experiment, or Medieval Artistic Fiction?

NOTE: My gracious thanks to those who have given their input on this article and who pointed out the flaws in the first draft. The content of this article has since been modified in accordance with these critiques.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Middle Ages saw the invention and use of weapons which many people today would find bizarre – the halberd, the billhook, the goddendag, the ahlspiess, and others – in order to tackle specific combat scenarios. Today I’d like to introduce you to one of the weirdest weapons of the medieval period – the curved double-edged broadsword. Technically it should actually be called an “arming sword” rather than a “broadsword”, since the term “broadsword” refers to any sword which has a wide blade, and “broad” is a rather vague relative term. However, most of the general public associates the term “broadsword” with the image of an arming sword to the point where the two terms are practically interchangeable. While curved single-edged swords can be found in numerous cultures through numerous time periods, curved double-edged swords are extremely rare.

We need to be careful here, because medieval manuscripts are full of fanciful weapons like fierce-looking cleavers, falchions (including massive double-handed falchions!) and vicious-looking pole-arms of all sorts. One wonders if these weapons truly existed, or if they are nothing more than the product of a medieval artist’s imagination. The same must be considered of the curved double-edged arming sword – did it really exist?

I’ve looked at hundreds of images of medieval manuscripts which show depictions of armor and weapons, and curved double-edged arming swords appear very rarely. Images which MIGHT depict them can be found in French and Austrian manuscripts, but they can be definitely seen within one manuscript from western Flanders. As far as I can tell, they’re not seen anywhere else (if there’s one which has escaped my notice, please let me know in the comment section below). Medieval manuscripts are often difficult to accurately date. The Austrian manuscripts which show this weapon in action are broadly dated from 1300-1350, while the French examples are dated from roughly 1300 to 1340. However, the Flemish manuscripts which depict this weapon are dated the most narrowly, from 1325-1335.

I have found images of curved double-edged arming swords within three different French manuscripts dating to the early 1300s. The first one we’ll look at is entitled “The History of Saint Philip”, which was made sometime between 1301 and 1333, and is currently housed within the Municipal Library of Angers.

Angers BM Ad.F(003)00006 Histoire de saint Louis à Philippe le Hardi. Folio 01v. France (1301-1333). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

The problem with this image is that while this MIGHT depict a pair of curved double-edged arming swords, there’s very little evidence showing them as being double-edged. They might actually be single-edged saber-like falchions. In fact, it is almost certain that these are single-edged sabers due to the context of the image. According to a website operated by the French minister of culture, the image depicted here represents an event which took place in late July of 1270 during the so-called “Eighth Crusade” when the French landed in Tunisia. The crusaders besieged the Mamluk army in Tunisia by digging defensive tranches around their camp. However, the Arabs launched an attack upon the earthworks and killed the men who were in the process of digging the trenches with shovels and pick-axes ( That is the scene that you see depicted here. It’s unclear who the king on the right is supposed to be – possibly the ruler of Tunis, Sultan Muhammad I al-Mustansir of the Hafsid Dynasty, but it’s not explicitly stated.

Now you may think “Well that’s it, isn’t it? These are obviously Arabic single-edged scimitars, not double-edged European swords”. Yes, I’m inclined to agree, if it wasn’t for one niggling issue. All of the people here are depicted in European style, with European clothes and armor, which is exactly what you’d expect from someone who probably didn’t see the events first-hand. Events are portrayed according to what the artist was familiar with. This is nothing unusual in medieval European art, as figures from different cultures and especially figures from the past are portrayed with contemporary clothes, armor, and weapons. Furthermore, other artworks which were made in France and other parts of Europe during the early 1300s show the use of double-bladed curved arming swords, as we shall see later. So the possibility that the swords which are depicted in this image are also curved double-edged swords cannot be completely discounted, even if the likelihood that they are is extremely slim.

Next is an image from “The Life of Saint Louis”, made in France between 1330-1340, and is housed within the Bibliotheque National in Paris, France. This illustration depicts the Battle of Mansurah, fought in the year 1250 as part of the “Seventh Crusade” between the forces of King Louis IX of France and the Ayyubid Saracens led by Shajar al-Durr. The figures on the left side of the image are the French (obviously) and the figures on the right are supposed to be the Arabs.

BNF Français 5716 Vie de St Louis. Folio 199. France (1330-1340). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

This image shows a pair of curved swords which appear to have either a fuller or a ridgeline running up the middle of the blade, and therefore likely was double-edged. However, it’s more likely that the line represents the division between the edge of the blade and the flat of the blade, so these images are probably NOT curved double-edged European arming swords.

Finally, another image comes from a French text entitled “The Life of Eustace and other Saints”, which dates from 1300-1325 and is currently housed within the British Library.

BL Egerton 745 Life of Eustace and Other Saints, folio 5v. France (1300-1325). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

The real Saint Eustace (or Eustathios as his original Greek name would have been) was a Christian martyr who was executed in the year 118 AD on the orders of Emperor Hadrian. Prior to his death, he had served as a commander in the Roman Army. I wasn’t able to find out much information regarding this image. the British Library’s website simply describes it as “Battle”, and that’s it. However, careful examination of the image reveals a few things. First, it’s obvious that the figures on the left are supposed to be European knights, but the figures on the right are supposed to be Arabs or some other Middle-Eastern people, as is evident by their cloth head coverings and their distinct Saracen or Moorish heart-shaped shields (referred to as “ardaga” shields). I wasn’t able to find any sources specifically stating that Saint Eustace fought in Asia – all it says that that he fought against Rome’s “enemies” during the reign of Emperor Trajan, which could be anybody. Trajan is most famous for his wars against the Dacians of modern-day Romania, but he also led a campaign into the Middle East against the Parthians on the eastern frontier in 113 AD. This image likely represents Saint Eustace fighting the Parthians, who are here portrayed in typical medieval Saracen style.

As you can see in the above image, there are two examples of this curved double-edged arming sword visible. One is lying on the ground, but the other is being wielded by a figure on the far right, and in an interesting way – with the concave side facing towards the enemy, and it’s also clear that the figure is brandishing it using both hands, like a Dacian falx. Perhaps the man who painted this image conflated Emperor Trajan’s wars against the Dacians and Parthians together into a single conflict. Personally, I think the most interesting weapon depicted in this image is the curious double-flail, consisting of two chains fitted with three metal balls along their length.

So much for the images from French manuscripts. The three images which were shown definitely show curved edged weapons. of these, the first one can almost assuredly be discounted due to both the image’s contest as well as the lack of detail within the image itself. However, the other two images are much more compelling, and they share similar traits to those seen in the Austrian and Flemish manuscripts which will be discussed later.

With regards to the images from both Austria and Flanders, these images are found within one manuscript each, respectively, and were likely made by a single artist. This should raise a red flag. The images which you saw previously in the French manuscripts came from three different manuscripts which were certainly made by three different artists during three different times, and yet the same weapons were being illustrated. This makes it very likely that these artists were referencing something which actually existed. However, the images of curved double-edged arming swords are found within just one Austrian manuscript and just one Flemish manuscript. Some art historians might claim that the presence of these unusual weapons is down to a single artist’s imagination rather than this person portraying actual weapons which were used during that time.

We will look at the Austrian manuscript first. The images that you see below come from “WLB HB XIII 6 Weltchronik & Marienleben”, or “The World Chronicle & The Life of Mary”, which is dated from 1300-1350. This manuscript is housed within the Württembergische Landesbibliothek (Wurttemberg State Library).

WLB HB XIII 6 Weltchronik & Marienleben, Folio 122r. Lower Austria (1300-1350). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

WLB HB XIII 6 Weltchronik & Marienleben, Folio 141v. Lower Austria (1300-1350). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

WLB HB XIII 6 Weltchronik & Marienleben, Folio 157r. Lower Austria (1300-1350). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

As you can see from the above three images from the Austrian manuscript, curved swords were relatively common. In the first picture, four out of thirteen sword were curved. In the second picture, four out of ten swords were curved. In the third image, two out of nine swords were curved. On average, 31%, nearly one-third of the weapons illustrated, were curved swords. That’s a remarkably high percentage, especially since there’s a common perception that curved bladed weapons like falchions were used in rather small numbers compared to straight-bladed swords. However, if you look at illustrations from medieval manuscripts depicting weapons and especially depicting battles, the percentage is much higher, although not as high as what’s shown here.

I tried to find some information about this document, and about the images within it, but I was unsuccessful. These images are tantalizing, but they raise some questions. The curvature of these swords is more pronounced within the Austrian manuscript than is seen within the Flemish manuscript described later in this article, and they bear a strong resemblance to a Middle Eastern scimitar. In fact, that’s probably what they are. Note in all three images that the soldiers on the right side of the image are the only ones carrying these curves swords while the soldiers on the right are carrying straight swords – just like the French manuscript we looked at earlier showing the French knights fighting the Saracens in Tunisia. That’s the first red flag. The second red flag concerns their helmets. Note that in the first image, the figures on the right are wearing Phrygian-style helmets, possibly to denote their eastern-ness since the Phrygians originated in what’s now Turkey. So, this might be a representation of crusader knights fighting against Turks. A third red flag, although more technical, concerns the lack of detailing on the weapons themselves, but I suppose that’s to be expected in smaller images. Only two of these curved weapons are shown possessing either a fuller or a ridge running up the middle of the blade (both in the first image) – all of the other examples which are depicted are flat-bladed. Then again, most of the swords which are shown in this manuscript are shown without fullers or central ridges, so the lack of fullers or ridges upon these weapons is probably artistic rather than authentic.

So far, we have seen numerous images of curved swords which either may or may not be representations of curved double-edged European-style arming swords. However, given the evidence to hand, I’m inclined to think that these images are just European artists’ renditions of Middle Eastern single-edged sabers. Yet there are some small details here and there which prevent me from saying that this is definitely the case – in particular, the usage of these weapons back-handed, striking with the concave curvature instead of the convex curvature, which is something that you would definitely not expect from a sword that had only a single edge. This detail is seen in BL Egerton 745 Life of Eustace and Other Saints, folio 5v, WLB HB XIII 6 Weltchronik & Marienleben, folio 122r, and in WLB HB XIII 6 Weltchronik & Marienleben, Folio 141v. This, taken in context together with the Flemish manuscript which I’ll discuss soon and the fact that all of these images date more-or-less to the same time period, makes me think that these images hint at a novel weapon which was employed within those regions for a short period of time.

Next let’s look at the images from the Flemish manuscript, and this is manuscript is crucial to our study because of all of these images which we have seen so far, these are the most illuminating (yes, the pun was intended). This is “KA 20 Spieghel Historiael”, which largely concerns the life of Alexander the Great (depicted as a medieval king exhibiting a coat of arms showing a gold eagle on a black background) and was made in western Flanders sometime between 1325-1335. The manuscript is currently housed within the National Library of the Netherlands. The illustrations within this manuscript exhibit a much greater level of detail compared to the Austrian manuscript shown earlier, and this enables us to truly appreciate the weapon’s appearance.

KA 20 Spieghel Historiael. Folio 34r. Western Flanders (1325-1335). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

According to the website of Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the National Library of the Netherlands, this image depicts a battle fought between the army of Alexander the Great (left) and King Porus of India (right) ( Two curved swords are shown in the first image. As you can see, these curved weapons are definitely wide-bladed double-edged arming swords, with what appear to be brass crossguards and pommels. Both crossguards are curved, with one terminating in a forked shape on both ends. Both clearly show recessed fullers that extend two-thirds up the blade’s length. Within the first image, the figure on the left is shown brandishing the sword as you would commonly expect, with the convex curvature coming downwards, like a cavalryman’s saber. Meanwhile, interestingly, the figure on the right is shown wielding the sword with the concave curvature towards the enemy, like a scythe or an ancient Dacian falx. Furthermore, note that in contrast to the images that we have seen earlier in which only the figures on the right-hand side of the image (which are likely Moors, Arabs, or Turks) are the ones carrying curved weapons, the figures on both sides of the first image are carrying curved swords, albeit in small numbers – only one on each side.

KA 20 Spieghel Historiael. Folio 34r. Western Flanders (1325-1335). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

This image shows Alexander the Great (left) running through King Porus with his sword – straight through his chain-mail armor, I may add! By the way, this never happened historically. King Porus wasn’t killed in single-combat with Alexander. In fact, he survived the battle, and Alexander was so impressed by the man’s bravery that he let him go and continued to rule over his lands as Alexander’s subordinate. In this image, King Porus is shown holding a curved arming sword, certainly to denote his eastern ethnicity. Like the previous image, it has a brass crossguard and pommel, a wide blade, and a fuller running up the middle for approximately two-thirds or three-quarters of the blade’s length.

KA 20 Spieghel Historiael. Folio 158r. Western Flanders (1325-1335). Image from Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the National Library of the Netherlands.

The above scene depicts King Clovis of the Franks (left) fighting a battle against the Visigoths (right). Only one of the figures is carrying a curved sword, and it’s a Visigoth – the mounted warrior riding next to the Visigoth king. In medieval art, that automatically makes him “the enemy” since he’s carrying a weapon associated with infidels in contrast to the pious Christian Clovis. Note once again that he’s carrying this weapon concave edge forward, but there’s a noticeable difference here. Clearly, the blade’s edge is off-set from the sword’s alignment. It’s possible that this may be a single-edged weapon, like a billhook’s blade that’s been mounted onto a sword’s handle – that would be interesting to see!

KA 20 Spieghel Historiael. Folio 34r. Western Flanders (1325-1335). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

This image depicts a battle between Charlemagne (left), seen on foot in the center of the melee striking upwards with his sword, and Agolant (right). Charlemagne is identifiable by a coat-of-arms in which the left half is the imperial eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, with a black eagle on a gold background, and the right half is the heraldry of the French king with multiple golden fleurs-de-lys on a blue background. As you can see, there are two examples of a curved double-edged sword being used, and both of them are being wielded by troops on Agolant’s side, which automatically makes them the bad guys. Once again, one is being brandished with the convex edge facing towards the enemy, while the other has the concave edge facing towards the enemy.

KA 20 Spieghel Historiael. Folio 213v. Western Flanders (1325-1335). Image from “Manuscript Miniatures”.

This final image shows Charlemagne (left – the “good guy” is almost always shown on the left side) fighting against the Saracens (right – the “bad guy” is almost always placed on the right side of the image). Two of the Saracen troops are shown carrying curved weapons, an both of them are shown carrying them with the concave edge forwards. Doesn’t seem to have done them any good, though, since their army is quite literally getting hacked to pieces.

In some scenes in both the Austrian and Flemish manuscripts, the soldier wielding this weapon is attacking with the convex edge like a traditional saber, while in other scenes the soldier is actually attacking with the concave edge, like an ancient Dacian falx. Slashing weapons are good against soldiers wearing soft protection such as padded jackets or leather, but it’s useless against metal. A concave falx-like weapon has improved capability against armored targets, as the Romans fighting against the Dacians will attest! Such weapons are wielded more like a long-bladed axe rather than a sword. Using a weapon like this in such a fashion will have improved ability against chain-mail armor and possibly even brigandines. But how effective would it be against plate armor?

When the Romans faced the Dacians in battle, the Dacian falx proved very effective, especially against Roman helmets. In fact, the tops of Roman helmets were reinforced with a pair of thick metal crossguards to prevent the helmets from being split in half. This is noteworthy, because numerous images seen above show medieval helmets being cleft in two with blood and brains streaming out. Images such as these appear commonly in medieval manuscripts (such as in the Maciejewski Bible), although one wonders how likely this would have happened. One experiment which was carried out by British fight instructor and military historian Mike Loades in the first episode of Weapons that Made Britain showed that this is very difficult – a sword is more likely to glance off a helmet’s surface rather than to cut straight through it (Weapons that Made Britain, episode 1 – “Sword”. BBC, 2004). Besides, why even bother wearing a helmet if a sword’s just going to go right through it as if it was made out of cardboard?

Prior to the early 14th Century, soldiers were armed in chain-mail, but the early to mid 1200s saw the introduction of what was known as a “coat of plates” (Rogers, Clifford J., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology: Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Page 69; Weapons that Made Britain, episode 5 – “Armor”. BBC, 2004). These consisted of a series of overlapping rigid metal plated which were riveted onto a leather or fabric exterior. This form of armor was often worn over a chain-mail hauberk in order to provide increased protection, and by the 1290s, this form of armor was relatively common (Williams, Alan. The Knight and the Blast Furnace: A History of the Metallurgy of Armour in the Middle Ages & the Early Modern Period. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Page 54). For more information about this, please watch this wonderful video by Medieval armor historian Ian LaSpina, which you can see here:

The first half of the 14th Century saw many improvements to medieval armor, providing increased protection to soldiers in combat. By around 1340, the earlier “coat of plates” had been modified so that the breastplate consisted of fewer larger plates rather than a large number of small overlapping plates (Rogers, Clifford J., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology: Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Page 70).

It’s probably not a coincidence that the curved double-edged arming sword disappears from the visual sources at the same time as these developments in armor design. The curved double-edged arming sword seems to have been a short-lived and possibly experimental design which was quickly rendered obsolete with the developments of improved plate armor. The curved blade could be effectively used for cutting or slashing attacks or for chopping attacks, depending on whether you were striking with the convex or concave edge. The curve nature of the blade may have also been useful in making stabbing strikes either underneath armor or being able to more easily penetrate in between the gaps of armor. However, as armor became better and stronger, this weapon was no longer sufficient, and it faded out of use.

The main question is “Is there any hard physical evidence that these swords existed, even if in small numbers for a short period of time?” The short answer is “No”. So far, we have not discovered even a single example of a curved double-edged arming sword which dates to the early 14th Century, and that’s worrisome if an argument is to be made that these things existed at all. These depictions very well might be an artistic representation of eastern curved swords, but the artist hadn’t actually seen one with their own eyes, so they simply took a more familiar European sword and decided to draw it curved and figured “That’s good enough”. If that’s the real answer, then the argument over what these weapons were, how they were used in battle, and why they faded out of use is pointless, because they never existed. Those who have expressed opinions on this matter are extremely skeptical that these weapons really existed due to a lack of archaeological evidence for them and due to medieval artistic conventions portraying people armed with curved swords as “the enemy”. Indeed, I am also leaning strongly towards the claim that these weapons are just modified artistic representations of weapons which existed in the Islamic world.

Below is my illustration of a curved double-edged arming sword based closely on what is seen in the Flemish manuscript “KA 20 Spieghel Historiael” dated 1325-1335, including a wide blade, a fuller running up two-thirds of the blade’s length, a brass curved crossguard, and a brass pommel. I’m not sure if a weapon like this actually existed, but if anybody out there wants to make a physical functional version of this weapon and test it out, I’d be very interested in seeing what the results would be.

I hope that you found this article interesting, and I also hope that this helps develop an interest in Medieval military history.

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3 replies

  1. I would like to point out that single-edged blades also sometimes had the fuller, so even if you find illustrations of curved blades that clearly are shown with fuller, that still cannot be taken as an indicating that they were double-edged.

    • True. Some Japanese and Middle Eastern single-edged swords had fullered blades. However, this still wouldn’t explain why some depictions show the attacker striking with what would have been the concave non-edged side of the sword, unless both sides were sharpened. That was the argument that I was trying to make. I’m not sure if these weapons actually existed or if they are purely works of fiction, but it would be very interesting so see such a weapon in action. I’ve contacted a few blacksmiths who specialize in making replica medieval weapons about the possibility of making one of these and testing it out. Hopefully, we’ll see what develops from that.

      • Some historical sabers did have double-edged blade along the tip, for example the 1854 Wilkison saber:

        As you can see, it has both the fulleren along the base and middle portion of the blade, and double-edge along the tip. So it could have been used to strike with the concave side of the blade, you’d just have to do it with the tip.

        I cannot recall any medieval examples of similar design right now, but it does show potential solution.

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