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German Longsword – What it is and how to learn it

When you’re thinking about German longsword you’re probably thinking of epic battles, knights in shining armor and duels to the death!

But did you know that longswords were not the main weapon of war? That Johannes Liechtenauer is credited as the originator of German longsword fencing? Or that there are thousands of people today that train the lost art of German longsword?!

If you’re looking for information on German longsword you’ve come to the right place!

A longsword fencer ready to strike, holding a sharp modern replica longsword.
A longsword fencer ready to strike, holding a sharp modern replica.

In this article I’m going to first explain how longswords where used historically, what German longsword is exactly and how you can learn to fight with a longsword in this day and age.

How were swords used historically?

The first thing to recognize is that swords have been mostly used as sidearms in war. In the middle ages your main weapon in a battle was either a ranged weapon like a (cross)bow or a pole arm like a lance, pike or spear.

Woodcut of the Battle of Dornach, detailing the use of pole arms like lances, pikes and spears.
It also shows mounted use of crossbow.
Everyone in the woodcut that you can see wears a sword as a sidearm.
Contemporary woodcut of the Battle of Dornach, 1499. You can see various pole arms and everyone carrying a sword as a side arm.

Why is that you ask? Well think about it, your main priority is not to die in battle. So you want to be as far away from your enemies weapons as you possibly can.

Contrary to what movies show us, rushing into lines of enemies with a short weapon like a sword is pretty suicidal.

Overview of how pole arm heads developed over time.
Pole arm development over time

Pole arms came in many varieties and changed considerably over time. The basic idea remained the same though: Long sturdy pole with a deadly end attached to it.

How were swords used in war?

There are scenarios where your main weapon becomes unusable. The main disadvantage of weapons with a long reach is that they become pretty useless once your opponents gets close enough.

You can’t stab someone with a 4 meter (13 foot) pike if they’re standing right next to you. The same is true if you have a ranged weapon like a bow and your enemies get up really close and personal with you.

Drawing of an armored duel. The left duelist has a hold of his opponents spear and
Not much you can do with a spear if your opponent has grabbed it tightly and closes the distance.

Not only that, your spear could break or your lance could slip out of your grip and get lost. So there are multiple scenarios where it becomes impractical or straight out impossible to use your main weapon.

This is where your sidearm comes into play!

Swords have one big advantage, they’re pretty easy to carry around all day long! When they’re inside a scabbard on your waist they don’t get in the way when fighting with your main weapon or going on about your life.

Painting of two men holding something while wearing swords and daggers on their waists. One is painted in full armor including helmet and the other without a helmet.
Notice how both men carry swords on them while doing something else. Ca 1435.

That means that swords are in a fixed, easily accessible place. Always just one grip away whenever you need them. This was true with or without armor.

So what made swords great was their ease of carrying and their accessibility.

Photography of a surviving historical one handed sword from ca 1400.
Historical one handed sword of what is nowadays called an arming sword. You can see how that easily fits to your side on a belt. Ca 1400.

Oh and by the way, often you had a third weapon on you as a secondary sidearm in the form of a dagger. So if your main weapon became unusable and you lost your primary sidearm, you still had a secondary sidearm available.

Swords in civilian use

The same reason swords were so useful in war, made them useful in civilian life: Carrying them around in everyday life was not only possible but practical.

Photography of a surviving historical longsword with scabbard from ca 1450 - 75.

The sword itself is probably from northern Italy, but this could have also been a German longsword.
Historical longsword with scabbard for two handed use. Longer than the arming sword it’s still short enough to wear. Ca 1450 – 75.

Again, contrary to what movies might portray people in the middle ages where not fighting for their life every day.

But there certainly could be situation where they needed to defend themselves. Be that in a tavern brawl, a duel or an ambush on the road.

Drawing of the St Bartholomew's Day massacre. You can see people slaughtering each other with various weapons like pole arms, swords or rifles.
Most people drawn wear swords as their sidearms, some having them drawn.
You might also want a sword if you’re a Protestant facing a Catholic mob as with the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572.

Where do you want your weapon to be when you get into a fight? Right beside you where you can access it easily!

Where don’t you want your weapon to be in that moment? Stored away somewhere else with your other belongings!

So carrying a sword with you, being ready for unexpected trouble made perfect sense.

It’s important to note that the distinction between military and civilian that we think of as today does not apply well to the middle ages, since the lines between both worlds were much more blurred than they are today.

Drawing from 1540 of a Judicial Duel that happened in Augsburg in 1409.
The duelists face each other with sword and shield, armored with steel helmets and gloves.

There is a big area separated for the duelists called the barriers.

Outside of the barriers is a huge crowd of people on foot and horse watching the spectacle.
A 1540 depiction of a judicial duel in Augsburg that happened in 1409

There were even judicial duels, also called trial by combat, that were fought to settle accusations of crimes that could not be settled any other way. If there were witnesses or confessions, that information was used to figure out a verdict.

The exceptions to the rule

As always there are exceptions to the rule, were swords actually where the main weapon in war.

The two most notable are cavalry sabres and the large two handed swords, sometimes called Bidenhänder, Montante or Spadone.

A 1541 drawing by Virgil Solis of a Landsknecht with a large two handed sword. You can see that he wears a second shorter sword as a sidearm.
Print of Hussar light cavalry on foot and horse with sabres.
Hussar light cavalry in 1813

Since this is an article about German longsword I’m not going into more detail here.

Just note that later on, swords in the form of sabres where used as a main weapon for cavalry and that there were swords so large, that they were the main weapon and couldn’t be carried around on your waist anymore.

Further reading on historical context

There have been whole books filled with how swords were used historically and I can’t cover it all in this article.

So let me recommend just two books specifically.

In case you want to read more in depth about the sword and its historical context check out my Books for HEMA instructors guide, which has a section about historical context with more recommendations.

Historical European Martial Arts in its Context

This book by Richard Marsden nicely illustrates how various weapons like the longsword where used in Duels, Self-Defense and War. Richard has a masters degree in military studies and this book is written by someone practicing some of these weapons himself.

Book cover of Historical European Martial Arts in its Context: Single-Combat, Duels, Tournaments, Self-Defense, War, Masters and their Treatises
Historical European Martial Arts in its Context

For example it offers a whole chapter on fencing in the Holy Roman Empire, of which German longsword is a part. Besides that it contains just soo much context on when and why men fought.

My favorite chapters is the one about the history of the judicial duel, since there are just too many modern myth surrounding how and why they were carried out.

The main downside of this book is that is is self published and layouted pretty amateurishly, but for me it’s the content that counts.

The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany

This book by Ann Tlusty, who is a history professor at Bucknell University, is all about how and why swords where omnipresent in early modern Germany.

Book cover of The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms (Early Modern History: Society and Culture)
The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany

It talks extensively about

  • Who needed to have which weapons. Yeah you read that right, townsmen where not only expected but required to own weapons!
  • How deeply ingrained the concept of honor was into this society and how that lead to countless duels.
  • How the sword and being armed was part of the masculine identity.

Super fascinating and well researched stuff! The main downside is the price tag since this is an academic publication, but it’s really worth it.

What is German longsword?

We know how people fought with swords from the middle ages onward, since we have surviving books filled with instructions!

These so called manuscripts or fencing books (German: Fechtbücher) contain detailed instructions from fencing masters of their time, telling the reader how to use various weapons.

So what is German longsword specifically?

Most of the surviving manuscripts in the Germanic language containing longsword tell us that their art of fencing is based on the teachings of a certain Johannes Liechtenauer. Some manuscripts even mention that their author has personally learned from Liechtenauer.

We’re not talking one or two books, but dozens of manuscripts!

Who is Johannes Liechtenauer?

So when someone talks about German longsword nowadays, what he usually means is the art of fencing with the longsword in the tradition of Johannes Liechtenauer.

Drawing of Johannes Liechtenauer as seen in the Coded Peter von Danzig.
Liechtenauer is credited as the originator of German Longsword.
Johannes Liechtenauer as seen in the Codex Danzig

Johannes Liechtenauer was a German fencing master from the 14th or 15th century. We don’t know much about him as a person, but he was obviously hugely influential for longsword fencing in the region that is nowadays Germany and Poland.

Liechtenauers teachings contain techniques such as the five master cuts Zornhau, Krumphau, Twerhau, Schielhau and Scheitelhau. You might have also come across techniques such as Ansetzen, Absetzen, Mutieren, Duplieren or Winden.

To get a better idea of what that could have looked like that a look at this video of the Zornhau.

You can see me perform and explain Liechtenauers Zornhau in this video

One interesting aspect is that these manuscripts often mention that Liechtenauer did not invent this art of fencing. Instead they claim that through his travels he himself has learned and mastered it before passing it on to his students.

Of course if there is something called German longsword there are also other masters from other countries. For example there is also the Italian longsword of Fiore Dei Liberi or the Spanish school of fencing of Destreza.

Oh and there are manuscripts from Germany outside of the Liechtenauer tradition as well, like the Die Blume des Kampfes.

Yes fencing with a longsword is exactly as much fun as it looks like! The best thing is that there are many place where you can learn to use a longsword yourself.

So I’ll give you an overview over how to get started next.

How to learn German longsword today?

Luckily for you, thousands of martial artists worldwide have reconstructed how to fence German longsword for the last 30+ years. So there is a high chance that you can start to train right now!

When we speak about modern manuscript based sword fighting the term that is usually used is Historical European Martial Arts, or HEMA in short. Sometimes it’s also called Western Martial Arts or historical fencing.

Finding a German longsword instructor

I for example am a German longsword instructor teaching Liechtenauer in Ulm, Germany. So if you lived in Ulm you could simply join my club and learn from me and our other instructors.

Luckily, there are many clubs all around the world that would be happy to welcome you!

I wrote a whole guide on how to find HEMA clubs near you. That should get you pointed in the right direction.

What if there is no German longsword club near you?

Even though HEMA is growing fast it’s possible that there is no HEMA club near you. Well fear not, you wouldn’t be the first to start your own HEMA club because you want to fence with swords that badly.

I will write a separate in depth guide on how to start your own HEMA club soon, but for now the short version is this:

To start with HEMA all you need is a training partner, equipment in the form of swords and possibly fencing masks and a HEMA fencing manuscript.

Check out my HEMA Beginner Sources guide for what to study if you want to learn German longsword by yourself.

Do you have further questions? Let me know via post@hemaguide.com