One of the most enduring legends about greatswords in general (but mostly about Landsknecht Doppelsöldner’s Schlachschwert) is that of this kind of swords used to break the pikes hafts or just to disarray the enemy line. It is a long lasting belief which has been putting strong and thick roots for decades if not centuries, presenting itself inside many books and documents in an iterated way, publishing after publishing. It would be hard to trace and list all the web pages, videos and books which mention it, so I will leave this aside, letting you discover them by yourself if you like the thrill of it.
Given this huge amount of literature which sponsors the credence, when in history it all started, exactly? What are the sources we have that led authors and historians to believe it true and make it one of the most – if not THE most – romantic and loved topos linked to greatswords until today? In this article for Mamma mia, spadone! I will try to trace this path and summarize a short list of considerations that we should acknowledge before taking this pikes story for truth.
The sources, written and iconographic
I will start telling you that paradoxically, even if this story is always bound to Germanic mercenaries, all of the written sources we have so far about broken pikes and greatswords are Italian! Specifically we have just five excerpts reporting it and only four of them do it explicitly.
The oldest reference to it is the battle of Fornovo in 1495 (Paolo Giovio, 1551), followed by the battle of Soriano in 1497 (Girolamo Frachetta, 1613), both fought in Italy during the first period of the Italian wars. The battle of Marignano in 1515 (Paolo Giovio, 1551) is the third one. The shortest time span between facts and report is 36 years, while the wider is 116!
Consider that during 16th and 17th century later authors tended to quote older sources in their books and we have some good evidence of it: sometimes they did it quite like parrots, other times changing it a bit. Print was already a thing and books traveled across Italy and Europe in general. We could even consider these sources like a perpetuated misunderstanding built upon scarce history knowledge back then, folk myth and oral stories, generation after generation. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there is no survived extra documentation that provide a middle “bridge” that could have been used by the authors to sustain their not-eye-witnessed stories.
All of these reports come from a period in which many sources confine greatswords usage to flag defense and other skirmish-like situations. Already in 1570, inside his treatise, the fencing master Giacomo di Grassi described the different contexts of use of spadone and while what he lists finds confirmation in other contemporary and older sources, he does not mention anything about pike cutting and related topics.
For what concerns the iconographic sources, even counting on many prints and paintings of battle scenes (unfortunately listing them here would be too long) from different periods between 15th and 17th century, none of them shows evidence of soldiers in formation during the indubitable specific act of cutting hafts. Sure, we have melee depictions and pikes formations crashing one on the other with some two handed sword on the line, but isn’t it too little to believe what is happening there exactly, with no doubt?
But what do these report say exactly? Let’s delve into it.
The battle of Fornovo (1495)
This is a very interesting source: it mention the famous forlorn hope, also known as enfants perdus. Given the nature of what usually is said about the tactic of pike cutting, we can probably presume that this is exactly the main known source which started it all. Some hundreds men left their formation to cut the enemy pikes.
«Three hundred extraordinary young men, who are called prodigal of life and “lost” for their praise gained with big peril, got out from the one and the other flank of the ordenance, and with the long swords which they held with two hands, began cutting those very long pikes. So that almost all of them frightened by the daring of those, turned their back before waiting for the fury of the battalion.»
Unfortunately, Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) makes no mention of this episode even though he described the battle inside his Storia d’Italia that he began writing in 1537 (now available in different later editions). Even more important: Alessandro Benedetti (1450-1512), who was doctor under Venice and eye-witness of the battle, left no trace of this in his Diaria de Bello Carolino (1496), written in Latin.
Even more, like Neil Melville has written in his book The Two-handed Sword history, design and use (Barnsley 2018): «All our other evidence, slim though it is for the fifteenth century, suggests that the two-handed sword was not used in such numbers as 300 simultaneously, and that the warriors of the ‘forlorn hope’ were furnished with far more halberds than two-handed swords. But it makes a good story.»
The battle of Soriano (1497)
This second source comes from Girolamo Frachetta, who wrote Il seminario de’ governi di stato et di gverra (1613), a treatise that collects maxims and morals of war and politic matter, from different authors who dealt with it. In this case the excerpt found inside the book is not a chronicle report, but a mere supposition, just a “what if” sentence.
«they could have hold them, and beaten them too, one can believe. And more easily, if they had a bunch of spadoni in the first line, with whom they would have cut the enemy pikes tips, without being able to be hit by them.»
Frachetta took the facts of Soriano – he certainly knew the battle from older reports to be found in other Italian books of which we could even know the title, probably – and supposed what could have happened between the two factions with a different tactical decision. Vitellozzo Vitelli deployed longer pikes than those of Pope Alessandro VI’s troops and defeated them, but what if he had spadoni? Needless to say – again – that when Frachetta wrote his treatise, the times during which two handed swords on battlefield were not limited to standards defense were already gone by far. And we know it by many sources. It is possible that the last decades of 16th century had already fallen under misleading beliefs of what had been in the past, and these credences went on from that period onwards.
The battle of Marignano (1515)
The third source mentions the deeds of two Swiss soldiers during the second day of the battle of Marignano, shortly before their death by the hand of the French lines they were assaulting. What can be told about Fornovo is almost entirely applied to Marignano as well, even more being Giovio the reporter, once more, and both reports inside the same book.
«And here again Zambrone, and Antio Encher, men of great courage, and of terrible stature, handling two big two handed swords with singular mastery; and being in the middle of the German battle; after having cut many pikes, and cut to pieces many enemies, finally being all the battle turned against them, they died miserably»
It is important to underline how it is difficult to state what kind of action is described here: were the two confederates already fighting in the tight melee and thus cutting pikes in the confusion of bodies and weapons? Were they approaching the enemy by cutting hafts and then getting to the sword fight? In my opinion, none of the options is easy to discard. In any case, we can see how this situation is very different from that of Fornovo, just considering numbers: three hundreds men opposed to just two «of terrible stature» here.
The siege of Calais (1558)
A fourth and latest battle which mention it is the siege of Calais in 1558, reported in 1581 by Giordano Ziletti. In this case the source is much more reliable as the time passed is “only” 23 years. The excerpt describe an assault of the besiegers who attempt the conquest of an enemy position defended by walls and moat.
«About 22 hour the bridge was set, and it was given space to the Germans, but much earlier many had passed through the moat, and so the attempt to get in lasted a lot, and feats could be seen of some valued much more than Paladins. But once arrived the Germans crying its R. (note. this passage is not clear) one among others behaved as Roland, and with a two handed spadone performed a cutting of those pikes that I mentioned were standing out, and with a bunch of people camping in that square, they push each other forward.»
In this case, the German soldier with two handed sword is just one among many and we do not have clue about how many swords of this kind were present during that specific assault. Surely this is not the case of a field battle with two confronting formations. Rather it is a kind of skirmish fight that match the context provided by other sources (like trench fights, encampment night assaults, sieges on walls, sea battles…). I do not feel it to be a false report: here the pikes cutting is clearly written even though the description of this particular German soldier, a “Roland” – so a hero, someone special and brave – seems more like to depict deeds out of ordinary rather than a military common mass practice.
An historical source against this theory
There is a source that could even discard this theory actively. Once again it is an Italian book, Disciplina militare by Aurelio Cicuta (1566).
«[note: halberds] are perfect for insignia guarding too, ordered in the places they belong to: because, as was said above, with the cut they chop enemy’s pikes, and with the beak [note: quite literally the “forking”] they stick them into the ground; which thing won’t be done by the big partisan nor by the two handed sword: which weapons are worth nothing, because they have no space for swinging in that tightness of the battle, nor they are suited to stick the pikes [note: implicit into the ground], nor with the cut they can do lot of damage to them for the inability to wave their arms while beating, due to the tightness of their fellows and of the enemies, even though they have been praised by many, and used with no little excess.»
Cicuta tells us many interesting things:
- he praises halberds more than two handed swords because they could chop pikes;
- halberds could stick pikes to the ground with their beak, while big swords couldn’t;
- two handed swords could not damage pikes properly due to the lack of space for swinging in tight battle;
- he claims that in the past many people praised two handed swords so much to even use them with excess even if of apparent scarce utility.
Now we should consider that Cicuta is probably expressing his point of view on tactical matter, biased by his time warfare, but it is still interesting to notice how he is pointing out these things referring always to the flags defense, which do not stand before the pike line but behind it, reachable only by an enemy breaking the line itself. In that case the fight is hand to hand and tight, like it is seen in many older prints and paintings. I cannot help but thinking that the «excess» he is referring to is exactly that. So the point of view of a man of the middle of the 16th century looking back to the previous decades is such that, implicitly, he confirms the same use for flag defense back then, but with an older approach that he do not approve. This would be partially confirmed by the report of a soldier and eye-witness of the second part of the Italian wars, Giulio Cesare Brancaccio (1515-1586), who describes in details the use of two handed swords ranks in Swiss formation to prevent the enemy impetus through their own back lines. Needless to say: Brancaccio do not talk about pike cutting and pushing.
For what concern fencing literature from 15th to 17th century, no master specifically talks about anything that resemble a codified way to face a pikes line with spadone or other two handed swords; and we should not be surprised, given that the art of fencing for duels and one vs one confrontation has little to do with what is needed and happens during a big battle with hundreds of men. During my personal studies on fencing treatises and manuscripts, the unique sources vaguely related to it which I came across are Diogo Gomes de Figueyredo’s Memorial da prattica do montante (1651) regra XIV simple and composta, Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri’s Lo spadone chapter XVII (1653) and Achille Marozzo’s teachings about two handed sword in his Opera Nova (1536). All of them talking about the confrontation of just two men, so a sword against a single hafted or thrown weapon of the kind with a short haft (we are talking of stuff like halberds, partisans and such, not necessary a pike). There is no evident mention of a battlefield application or anything that could suggest they are talking about something useful to that context.
What is strange, however, is the fact that we have account of even more incredible tactics, like this, which consists in leaving spadone armed infantry carried by taxi-knights straight into the enemy line hand-gunners. Or this: little hand cannons with a two handed sword hidden inside the wood handle, ready to be used after the gun has fired during a brave assault. So, isn’t it strange not to have anything about pikes pushing and cutting tactics?
Modern practical tests
We can count many speculations on this topic, but to my knowledge there is no documented serious practical test (video, or text) conducted with people, weapons and armors, that try to reconstruct a similar context in order to valuate the most probable actions and reactions that would take place among fighters.During my personal experience in training old techniques from Iberian montante treatises I observed how easily a 2,6 kg blunt two handed sword can break 2 m long pine wood hafts already after some minutes of repeated beating exercises. However, pine is really a soft wood in no way comparable to a 3 m pike, for hardness and length. Plus, any person who has trained montante a bit can testify how difficult is to face a hafted weapon, beat it and cut a non-collaborative adversary without being hit by his thrust first.
In conclusion we can say that, if it ever was something actually done on tactical purpose, its life was very short and did not survive enough to see the middle of 16th century. It could have been a practice during the early stage of the Italian wars but was abandoned soon.This article do not want to state that there has never been any battle situation in which two handed swords allowed to break or push away pikes. It would be a statement from a strict point of view, equal to those who believe it blindly. Let’s just say that there is absolutely no evidence of an intentional tactically structured system to push or break enemy pikes with the deployment of specialized troops armed with greatswords. Did it happen? Possible, in exceptional situations. Was it intentional and methodical? Improbable, and if it did, only for a bunch of decades between the end of 15th and the beginning of 16th century.
As always, I will be happy to deny my conclusions before new sources I do not have knowledge of.
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Main sources consulted for this article
- Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova, 1536 [Link];
- Alessandro Benedetti, Diaria de Bello Carolino, Venice 1496 [Link];
- Aurelio Cicuta, Disciplina militare, Venice 1566 [Link];
- Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri, Lo Spadone, Padova 1653;
- Francesco Guicciardini, Storia d’Italia – Volume II, 1561 [Link];
- Giacomo di Grassi, Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’arme, 1570 [Link];
- Giordano Ziletti, Delle lettere di principi, Venice 1581 [Link];
- Girolamo Frachetta, Il seminario de’ governi di stato et di gverra, Venice 1613 [Link];
- Giulio Cesare Brancaccio, Della nuova disciplina & vera arte militare, Venice 1585 [Link];
- Paolo Giovio, Delle istorie del suo tempo, Florence 1551 [Link];
Note: my research is always improving and given that I’m still archiving sources for more than 300 two handers reports it would be difficult to list all the books and documents (without talking about iconographic!) that not only prove evidence of what probably was but of what probably was not as well.