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Usually, swords are depicted as being kept in scabbard on the back or by the hip - like this or this. It got me curious when I saw videos of swords carried on a shoulder and held by the blade - with grip pointing to the sky. Two examples:

knight carrying sword

  • Turkish TV drama series The Magnificent Century, set in 16th-century Ottoman Empire - screenshot from Season 2, Episode 23

Turk carrying sword

Is this depiction historically accurate for any time period? If so, what were the reasons to hold a sword like that? Do we know which way of carrying a sword was more common?

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    It doesn't fit the question, but I wanted to elaborate why I think there might be more than "it looks cool" to this. I believe music video authors just hired reenactor and gave him plenty of space. Knowing reenactors, I assume he truly believed that knight in full armor would carry a sword this way. The Magnificent Century tries to make an impression of being historically accurate. Given that this way of carrying a sword is never relevant to the plot, I find it likely that some historical consultant pushed for it. Jun 27 at 16:26
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    Carrying it like that would always tie-up one of your hands, whereas a scabbard will leave your hands free (and protect the blade from the weather/wear and tear).
    – Steve Bird
    Jun 27 at 16:50
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    I suspect the answer is "When the producer thinks it looks cool" Are there any historical examples? One can't draw the sword from that position without shifting the grip twice - which would certainly signal an escalation of hostilities. I can imagine it might make sense as a way to carry a peacebonded sword, but tbh, I suspect it probably has more to do with the factor of cool or else not wanting to reveal just how clumsy the actor is at moving with a sword.
    – MCW
    Jun 27 at 17:49
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    @MCW I was not able to find a historical example - that's why I ask if this is accurate, or modern fiction. I can think of few reasons why would you do it (balance, sending a message that you have a sword but don't want to use it), and many why would you not (time needed to actually use the weapon, injuries, blade wearing, and honestly, it looks kind of silly). But I wonder if there's anything beyond speculation. Jun 28 at 10:46
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    @MirekDługosz The motif does not seem entirely novel. In the crest of the coat of arms of Matthew Weld Hartstonge (1772 -1835): "Naked man couped at the waist, wearing headband holding in the dexter hand a sword by the blade, pointing down, in the sinister hand a battle-ax".
    – njuffa
    Jun 28 at 11:10

4 Answers 4

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This is anecdotal, but enough people seemed to like my comment and OP had further questions, so I'm posting it anyway.

I did some re-enactment in my time. My weapon of choice was a longsword. (Well, a bow actually, but I digress..) Carrying that sword at the hip was inconvenient due to its length (a bit over four foot, pommel to tip). And once drawn, the scabbard (now decidedly unbalanced toward the back) tended to get in the way.

Carrying it on my back was also inconvenient (e.g. if you wanted to sit somewhere), and there was no way you could draw it from there, or even unsling it, with any kind of speed.

So most of the time I carried the sword, sheathed, either with my off-hand at my side (grip forward for quick access), or -- especially when things got crowded -- pretty much exactly as pictured here: held by the tip, with the grip up over my shoulder. Actually, you don't so much hold the sword, you just counterbalance it a bit. The center of mass is on or even over your shoulder, so there is not much holding required -- in the picture below, my hand is casually resting on top of the scabbard.

If you hold the by the grip, all the weight is in your hand, and the tip just leans against your shoulder -- if that much. Someone bumps into you, that tip might go any which way. And when I turned the sword grip-down to take that picture, it almost slipped from my hand and out of the scabbard, further proving my point. ;-)

Grip up Tip up

For "combat", I would draw the blade and just put the scabbard away, so it would not hinder my movement while "fighting". When sitting down, I would just lean it against the wall beside me.

Carrying it by the tip also sends a clear message: "Just coming through. Yes, I am carrying a sword, but I have no intention to draw it on you just now. As you were." It also lets the people see what a really nice sword you have there. ;-)

All the above, by the way, carried over 1:1 to LARP. A hip scabbard is nice for overland travel or on horseback, but indoors I much preferred just holding the scabbard in my hand. And people are a lot less touchy when they see a couple of feet between your hand and the sword hilt.

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    @MirekDługosz Thanks for making me get my sword back out of the attic. I have not handled it in far too many years, and it felt very good. Like meeting an old friend again.
    – DevSolar
    Jun 28 at 12:10
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    This is a superb answer, and a model for what makes H:SE unique. Thank you.
    – MCW
    Jun 28 at 12:44
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    +1 I'd like to second this answer, as a fellow HEMA and LARP enthusiast. This is how you can easily and comfortably carry a longsword, without it getting into the way, and without having to carry most of its weight in your hand.
    – fgysin
    Jun 28 at 15:11
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    If it bothers you, I suspect someone somewhere on the internet has talked about this before...
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 28 at 16:09
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    @supercat I am aware of that construct, which adds a couple more problems to the back scabbard (like not protecting the blade properly from the elements) while "solving" one that mostly does not exist -- the longsword is not a weapon you are likely to need in a hurry, but rather a weapon of war employed with some deliberation. And you still cannot sit down comfortably with that thing on your back.
    – DevSolar
    Jun 28 at 23:44
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I made a jokey comment in the question comments, but this is in fact something that was done.

There were apparently two techniques in medieval German swordfighting that involved grabbing the blade. The first is called half-swording, and involves grabbing the sword halfway up the blade with the off hand to get more point control and leverage on a thrust. The idea is that this is more likely to pierce heavy armor plating.

Below is an illustration of this from an early 15th century manuscript.

enter image description here

The second was called the mordhau (or murder stroke1), and involved using the blade as a handle and striking with the pommel or guard, effectively using the sword as an impromptu bludgeoning weapon (role-playing GM's take note).

Below is another picture from a 15th century German martial arts book that demonstrates both techniques in use. enter image description here

There's a pretty good youtube video from a historical martial arts fan displaying the use of both techniques. That might be helpful for visualizing the physics of how/why this worked.

For the examples given in the question, the first shot looks very much like an armored fighter looking to deliver a murder stroke. The second one looks more like an armed guard facing a crowd while holding his sheathed sword in a position where it would be pretty easy to use as a club in a similar manner. In this case nobody in the crowd looks armored, but this might be a subtle message that while not interested in spilling lots of blood, the wielder isn't above bashing in a few skulls should the need arise2.

So score one point for the historical research of videographers for Polish Pop Princesses.


1 - Definitely the name of my next RPG superhero character.

2- If you are inclined to be generous to the actor and director

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    Neither of those is done with the sword sheathed, and they are both done in combat, against an opponent who is at medium range. These techniques are not about carrying the sword. (we've discussed both techniques in my sword class, but never used them.)
    – MCW
    Jun 27 at 21:34
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    @T.E.D. : It makes sense as a way to balance the weight, letting your shoulder do most of the carrying instead of your arm. I've definitely carried shovels over my shoulder like that, so the heavy metal blade of the shovel is behind me and I can just rest my hand on the end of the wooden handle.
    – Giter
    Jun 27 at 23:24
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    @Giter - That's a good point. In fact, I remember there was a question here once about the physics of carrying the little hobo bag-on-a-stick that might be relevant here.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 27 at 23:33
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    @Giter - Lol. I honestly didn't even remember that I'd written one of those answers.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 27 at 23:53
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    @DamionKeeling: A sword handle is weighted to make it easier to fight with. That lump of metal at the end makes that end of the sword pretty heavy. Feels good when squaring up for a fight, yes -- when walking through the streets, you will prefer having that weight on your shoulder, not in your hand. If you're in the business of walking around with a sword, you'll usually be wearing gloves. Or have a scabbard. Or both. ;-)
    – DevSolar
    Jun 28 at 12:22
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As a veteran who has put some miles on his boots. I would say that this is a way to carry any heavy weapon with less stress on the body. Putting heavy weapons on your shoulder is easier than hand carry or slung on your shoulder with a sling, with the rifle pulling the weight down with a lower center of gravity. Same if you attached the weight to your hip. You can still slide your weapon down and arm yourself quickly. In fact, just as quickly as you can with it slung by a strap. So I would say this modern explanation easily crosses over to antiquity, with your sword question.

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  • The problem with modern solutions is that they're modern solutions. They don't take into account historic cultural norms or traditions because we're largely ignorant of those. For most of the middle ages and certainly the ancient period swords were carried in scabbards and worn on the hip or on a sling/baldric hung over the shoulder. There was simply no need to carry them when not in use. When longer swords appear in the middle ages they are mostly worn by men on horse. Jul 2 at 23:05
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Whenever the sword is too large to carry on the hip, and usually when you are marching towards the battlefield.

Swords, despite their prominent role in fiction, and in real life as a status symbol, were almost always just a sidearm on the battlefield. The primary melee weapons on the battlefield have been the polearms, used in close formations.

Swords which were not too big to be able to be carried in a scabbard on the hip, on the battlefield were a secondary weapon in case your main one got damaged (or you were an archer and found yourself in close combat). However, in peacetime, people carried swords with them for self-defense, because they were easy to carry without getting in the way. You wouldn't go grocery shopping with a pike three times as long you are tall, you carried a sword on your hip, just like today the preferred firearm to carry around in time is a pistol, not a machinegun.

However, there were a few cases of swords being used on the battlefield in a more prominent role. But unless you were engaged in combat, it was not a weapon you had to draw at a moment's notice, it was part of your equipment which you carried on the baggage train or on your shoulder, like you would carry a pike. Most of a military campaign was spent marching and not even near any battlefield.

Historically, scabbards were very rarely if ever worn on the back.

Here is a pretty useful and well-researched video about carrying swords which are too big to fit in a hip scabbard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQBfNoi28Z4

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  • It is correct that swords were typically side arms and as such carried in a scabbard on the hip, with a pole arm being the main battle weapon. An exception were the three-foot long, two-handed swords used by Landsknechts. However, while contemporary illustrations of Landsknechts often show them carrying them their swords on the shoulder, they did not grab them by the blade (which this question is about). Rather, the non-sharpened end of the blade (ricasso) rested on the shoulder. Example
    – njuffa
    Jun 30 at 19:59
  • @njuffa: Three foot ain't two-handed by a long shot. Even a spatha is often longer than that.
    – DevSolar
    Jun 30 at 21:14
  • @DevSolar: Sorry for the confusion, brain fart. I meant a five-foot sword. If I recall correctly from the sources I read, the typical length of Landsknecht's two-handed swords was 150 to 165 centimeters.
    – njuffa
    Jun 30 at 22:59
  • You've forgotten the gladius of the Roman legions which was the primary weapon of Roman infantry for centuries. It would seem that many of the Celtic nobility also used the sword as their primary weapon given accounts of them rushing into battle with sword in hand. Jul 1 at 6:52
  • There is some evidence for scabbards being worn on the back amongst warriors of the Arras culture in Eastern Yorkshire. This was a Celtic culture where a couple of swords were found behind the body in the grave and had a belt loop half way down the scabbard instead of at the top. There are also rough chalk figurines showing warriors with a sword down the middle of the back. These were not long swords though - Kirkburn sword has a 59cm blade. Jul 1 at 6:59

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