Z is for Zweihänder

Zweihänder swords, photo from blackfencer.com.

What shall we choose for the Renaissance “Z”? Zacco, the King of Cyprus (James II) who controlled the sugar industry until the Venetians took it? Bartelomeo Zorzi, a Venetian alum merchant, who negotiated with the pope over the mines discovered at Tolfa? (Alum was a key ingredient in textile dying.) Both of those are economic stories, about controlling resources, which was an underlying motivation for many of the skirmishes of the age.

But there were wars for control of territory, belief systems, and ruling classes. So how about ending a month of Renaissance history by looking forward to the next wave. The Reformation and the rise of the Hapsburg dynasty. We go to Germany.

The Landsknechte warriors, etched by Daniel Hofer 1530. Photo from wikipedia

Rise of the Landsknechte

By now, I should know that 1494 appears every time I look up a Renaissance date. The Zweihänder sword played a role in the rise of specialized forces who supported the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in the Italian Wars (1494-1559). They were used by of samurai, NAVY seals, Swiss guard–the elite soldiers in other words–for the Germans. They were the Landsknechte.

While they may not look so fiercesome, with all the poofy-looking pants in their armor, these mercenaries helped the Ghibellines fight off the Guelphs. These armies were paid and thus prone to leaving if not paid–we all recall all the German mercenaries that the English used against the Minutemen in the American Revolution. But many armies at the time were paid or fought for the spoils at war’s end, so battle prowess equated with wealth.

These guys got wealthy because they were the pinnacle of the armies of the day. They fought off the Italians, the French, the Ottomans–remember O? the Turks went up through Hungary but were stopped by Germany. They sacked Rome in 1527. Rome! Pope had to run away! Why? Because they weren’t being paid while negotiations were going on between the Protestant and Catholic representatives.

16th century sword fights, from historyofyesterday.com.

Take this Sword up to Eleven! (Or Seven Feet)

Renaissance fighting in the streets–remember H for Honor Code?– was done with those little short swords. But once armies got involved, the weapons got longer. There was fighting on horseback and archers, but much of the infantry were working with pikes and swords.

The Zweihänder sword was pretty much the longest sword in use. It could be up to seven foot long, weighing up to 9 pounds. That doesn’t sound that heavy, but after about five minutes of waving it around, it would feel massive. The medieval swords, such as the Joyeuse of Charlemagne, weighed more like 4-5 pounds, and that would still feel heavy after only a bit. These long swords were long enough to reach out and poke a horse before it got too close. Or a person.

If you got very good at it, you were named the Meister des langen Schwerts by the Brotherhood of St. Mark. This was the St. Mark who helped the Germans, not the St. Mark who the Venice stole the bones of. Well, it was the same St. Mark, just that both territories declared him their patron.

Size comparison between sword and Zweihänder and wiry little Scottish fellow.

Pros and Cons of a Two-Handed Weapon

This fellow’s video at Scholagladiatoria shows the pluses and minuses of a regular short sword vs. the Zweihänder. Short sword was quicker at the tip, but if you actually hit with the big one, you were in trouble. Remember Richard at the Battle of Bosword having his helmet bashed in? These kinds of swords would do that. Long and heavy enough to slice through armor.

These weren’t great for dueling. These were for creating pike squares to fend off cavalry to cross trenches that may have been themselves spiked with poles, since the swords could cut through them.

If you got good at the Zweihänder, you might receive double pay. So you might also be called a Doppelsoldner, a soldier getting double, wielding a Dopplehänder, a sword that required two hands.

The use of the sword started to drop off in the 1550s. The Swiss outlawed them, and when the armies got quite large, these weapons were so long that they were less effective in very close quarters. Then, you’d need a smaller weapon in true hand-to-hand combat, and how could you do that, if you needed both hands on your big sword?

Plus, there was this new other weapon? Very slow to load, hard to aim, but could actually pierce armor. It was called the arquebus.

17th century arquebus. Photo from wikipedia.

Gunpowder was the real game changer.

Thanks for hanging with me during my Snackable Renaissance! I’ll have some round-up thoughts in a short summary post this weekend.

3 Replies to “Z is for Zweihänder”

  1. Congratulations on completing the A to Z challenge.
    I can imaging a 7 foot sword would indeed be very tiring to wield.
    The pants remind me of the Swiss guards at the Vatican – apparently not to be messed with despite the not very fearsome looking costume.

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