Bastons – The medieval wooden swords of the Byzantines and Francians.

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By George E. Georgas, fencing coach and instructor of Pammachon and Historical Swordsmanship

 The soldiers of the Eastern Roman Empire were trained in swordsmanship with wooden weapons. This piece of information comes from the Tactics of Leon the Wise. Three centuries after Leon, though, both the Greeks and the Francians that had conquered the Empire’s territories were also trained with wooden swords, called ‘bastons’ by the Greeks and by the Francians. This piece of information comes from a popular Greek saying that survives to this day. “I found them bastons.” said when someone wants to explain that they foudn something very difficult. This phrase is connected to a real incident that happened in medieval Corinthus during the Francocracy. It was 100 years after the razing of Corinthus by the Francs, who were celebrating the razing of the fortress of Acrocorinthus after the brave resistance of the Greek Leon Sgouros. The high point of the celebrations were the jousts.

Two were the best knights that year, Guy, Duke of Athens and a Norman, Bussar, a famed rider and warrior. The same day, though, the Bailiff of the Principality of Achaea, Nicholas III of Saint Omer, challenged the Count Palatine of Cephalonia John, who was a gasmule. John was half Greek and half Francian, since his mother was Anna Angelina, daughter of the Despot of Epirus, John Angel, and his father was Richard Orsini. John was afraid of his opponent’s strength and so declined the challenge, claiming his horse was unfit.

The Norman knight Bussar, though, defending the Bailiff of the Principality of Achaea, Nicholas, rode John’s horse and performed many maneuvers, earning the crowd’s adoration, after which he announced for all to hear “Here is the horse that they told us was unfit.” John was publicly shamed.

He sent his squire to steal Bussar’s swords from his tent and replace them with two wooden training swords, which he placed inside the scabbards of the real ones. Immediately after that, John challenged Bussar to a duel, which Bussar gladly accepted. When the duel began, Bussar drew his sword but to his surprise he found himself holding a ‘baston’. He threw it away and drew his other sword but he realised that was a baston as well. John then wounded Bussar piercing his chest and killing him.

From that duel comes the saying we mentioned earlier, but we also learn that the knights and soldiers were trained with wooden swords they called bastons. What else do we learn from this medieval story, other than the guile of Greeks? The knight Bussar failed to notice that the swords he was carrying were wooden. So the wooden swords were approximately the same weight as real swords, and their grips must have been constructed similarly. This of course contradicts the information from the Tactics of Leon the Wise, where the emperor advises his generals to train their main daily with wooden swords, and if they don’t have those, then to use reeds or tree branches. They are also completely different from the sword-staff of the Acrites, that were wooden swords, but were constructed to be lethal, since they were very sharp and pointed. It is logical, though. Not only have three centuries passed, but also in the case of Leon we have the mass training of soldiers, while during Bussar’s day we have the training of nobles, who have the resources to craft high quality training weapons.

Bibliography

-Τακτικά Λέοντα του Σοφού
-Το Χρονικό του Μορέως
– «Βυζαντινων Βίος καί Πολιτισμός», Φαίδων Κουκουλές
– Σύνοψη Ιστορικών του Ιωάννη Σκυλίτζη
– Ραβδοσπαθιά, το σπαθί των φτωχών, Ευτύχιος Τζιρτζιλάκης

 

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