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Sword of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, dated 1496.

On display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum

That honeycomb fuller tho.

No bling like HRE bling.

Max loved his shiny weapons.

BTW, I occasionally see comments referring to some German rule or sumptuary law which restricted ownership of swords to certain classes, thus explaining why Messers (knives) were so popular and available in all sizes up to longsword.

I’ve never seen this rule or law (with its “reason why Messers were carried”) anywhere except on the internet; if real, any link to its source would be appreciated.

There were numerous bans and prohibitions on the lower classes carrying “weapons of war”
in peacetime, which included swords, maces, battleaxes, halberds etc. but certainly wouldn’t ignore a two-handed weapon like this one, whether it was called “knife”, “sword” or “spoon”.


At the same time, going by period art there was no problem about peasants carrying knives and daggers the size of short-swords with hilts clearly meant for defence in combat, like the piper and dancer in this Breugel painting…


…though I’m betting there were rules governing “this big and no bigger”. (There were definitely rules like that in Elizabethan England which restricted the length of rapiers; I remember reading somewhere that over-length ones were broken down to size, which sounds a bit extreme…)

On the other hand, there were laws which in troubled times – lots of those in the Middle Ages – required citizens to carry military weapons, if only to show their right to citizenship and readiness to spring to the region’s / city’s defence. At least one Swiss canton – Appenzel Innerrhoden, I think – still requires that citizens turning out to vote wear a sword…

It’s entirely possible that a Free City in the peaceful heart of the Empire might have a no-military-weapons prohibition in exactly the same year that a walled town on the restless border might have an ordinance requiring military-weapons-at-all-times. YMMV. Theirs did.

If that knives-were-for-peasants law existed in Germany it didn’t trouble Emperor Maximilian, but then the high acting low were
less likely to get in trouble than the low getting above themselves.

Here’s his equally shiny Grossmesser.


…with its “by-knives” and eating pick (a fork predecessor).


It’s true enough that some Messers were far more simply (cheaply) constructed than swords – a flat strip of metal sharpened on one edge with a handle made by sandwiching the metal strip between wood or horn scales and held by rivets:


…but any claim that a single-edged weapon qualified as a “knife” is nonsense, since there are any number of single-edged swords, including the Swiss Sabre with its elaborate hand-and-a-half-sword hilt.


On messers and sumptuary laws, I’ve looked
into this quite a bit, and not found it anywhere except online. It’s a nice
story, which seems to be the problem – people quite enjoy stories along the
lines of ‘Ah, see, they exploited a loophole and thumbed their nose at
authority’ and tend to spread them. The popularity and spread of the messer is
probably a combination of fashion (especially after Max gets a fancy one),
economics (it might not take less skill to make a messer, but could take less
time if you go for something basic, which brings the price down), and
practicality (easier to keep one edge in shape than two, and potentially easier
to maintain and repair the grip).  The closest I’ve seen to the entire
sumptuary notion is more to do with production rather than ownership, and there
may have been some back and forth amongst the guilds about who could produce
something hilted as a sword. That aspect I’ve yet to look into further though.

As for rules governing “this big and no bigger”, we have those both ways. There
was some lovely research popped up the other month, with weapons regulations
for Lucerne giving restrictions on carrying langes messer longer than one ell
within town limits. Offending weapons to be snapped off at the appropriate
length and the offender fined.  On the other hand, the same research found
mention of regulations in Basel in 1480 of the opposite; ‘weapons smaller than
X may not be brought within the city’. Obviously the feeling there was that if
you were trying to bringing in something easily concealed then you were
evidently a person of ill-repute up to no good.

And particularly once messers spread to people engaging in hunting (whether the
huntsman or upper classes etc), it’s fairly easy to see how a nice unencumbering,
easy to carry blade of a useful size, with a good edge could stick around in
relatively unchanged form. Substitute the clamshell below for a plainer nagel,
and maybe give the point a bit of a clipped back (though plenty of period
messers had tips just like this one anyway), and suddenly this 19th century
hunting sword isn’t looking so very out of place as a 15th/16th century langes

Thanks for the feedback on real history (sumptuary laws) vs internet (good story) which is pretty much what I expected.

You’ll sometimes see Maximilian’s blade described as “the Emperor’s Hunting Messer”, so I wonder if the spear point was becoming more associated with field sports than with fighting; certainly dedicated boar-hunting swords were always intended for stabbing rather than cutting. Just a thought…

Interesting about the “this big” business – the Swiss implementation is new to me, but fits in with something I did know about.

(1) There were Elizabethan regulations governing the length of rapiers; this one (found on the Elizabethan Sumptuary Statutes website) is from 1562.

Emphases are mine:

And whereas a usage is crept in, contrary
to former orders, of
wearing of long swords and rapiers, sharpened in such sort as may
appear to the usage of them can not tend to defence, which ought
to be the very meaning of weapons in times of peace, but to
murder and evident death,
when the same shall be occupied:

Majesty’s pleasure is that no man shall, after ten days next
following this proclamation, wear any sword, rapier, or any
weapon in their stead passing the length of one yard and half a
quarter of blade at the uttermost
, neither any dagger above the
length of twelve inches in blade, neither any buckler with a
sharp point or with any point above two inches in length, upon
pain of forfeiting the sword or dagger passing the said length,
and the buckler made otherwise than is prescribed
, to whomsoever
will seize upon it, and the imprisonment of his body that shall
be found to wear any of them, and to make fine at her
Majesty’s will and pleasure. 

And if any cutler or other
artificer shall, after the day of the publication hereof, sell,
or have within his shop or house to be sold, or shall make or
cause to be made any rapier, sword, dagger, or buckler contrary
to this order
, to forfeit the same, his body to be imprisoned,
and to make fine at the Queen’s Highness’s pleasure, and
to remain in prison till the said fine be fully satisfied; and
being taken with the fault
the second time, never to be permitted
after to use that occupation…

“One yard and half-a-quarter” is 40.5 inches.

This graphic is about wasters (wooden practice swords) but also shows the different notions about rapiers: there were some schools for which “too long” was considered “ideal”.


Ideal for that school’s fighting techniques didn’t mean ideal for wearing in a crowded street where inconveniencing someone might lead to a challenge, an impromptu duel and yet more laws being broken.

Shakespeare’s street fights often involve hot-tempered and armed young men looking for trouble wherever they can find it. “Romeo and Juliet” (1593)

and “…thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes…” isn’t too far removed from “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Well, then who the Hell else are you talking – You talking to me?

IIRC there was another (later?) Elizabethan regulation, ordering that

over-long weapons be seized, broken down to size or otherwise forcibly brought
into line with the law (and made useless in the process) then presumably returned to mortified
owners who were fined and thrown in the slammer as per 1562.

Here’s a link to a similar Spanish regulation. It also gives explanations as to why over-long weapons were A Bad Thing; unlike the blunt English “clearly meant for killing, not self-defence” reason, these are more…complicated.

Long rapiers…

  • Are offensive, immodest, excessive, and contemptible.
  • Will damage your own reputation by decreasing the perception of your valour for 5 generations.
  • Cause friends to be too ashamed to speak on your behalf, enemies to disparage you, and neutral parties to favour your adversary.
  • In losing, having chosen a longer weapon will cause your guilt to be
    worsened and the sentence and punishment is increased (judicially
  • Cause you to be viewed as effeminate for not confronting your adversary on equal terms.
  • Are regarded by the people who are praiseworthy as detestable, and they condemn it.

So there. (And duly added to my worldbuilding file, because they’re so unusual.)

(2) That small and easily concealed weapons had “bad reputation” baggage and larger ones were more “honest”.

The very small, very easily concealed sgian-dubh probably came by its name (”black knife”) not from having a black bog oak or ebony grip – common but not obligatory – but from the same source as “blackmail”, “black market”, “black ops” etc. – covert, deniable and possibly even illegal.

“Everybody knows” that the sgian-dubh is worn at the top of kilt hose. This, though
worn in the same position,

is actually the opposite of a knife hidden down a boot. The sgian-dubh is there on open, honest display

after being taken from some less obvious hiding-place.

Writer Note: (YMMV since this has no historical evidence.)

In the place where fiction writer and history fan bang heads, I think that back when a sgian-dubh was a weapon more than a bit of masculine jewellery, there may have been a general understanding that the one transferred from armpit, sleeve or wherever might have had a mate which remained concealed. That one wasn’t mentioned, never mind demanded, since insisting a man gave up ALL his weapons might have been (a) insulting – implying he couldn’t be trusted; or (b) threatening – there was some reason for making sure he was completely unarmed.

(I’ve already established something like this. In the “Book of Years” and “Clan Wars” series of my own fantasy fiction, there’s a weapon called the tsepan (“self-blade”). It’s a personal misericorde marked with the owner’s personal crest, also known as the “Black Knife”, though that’s not derived from the sgian-dubh.

If weapons need handed over, the tsepan – always worn openly at the front of the weapon-belt – is neither surrendered nor requested (at least within that culture). Honour, reputation, tradition and an equivalent to that Spanish multi-generation shame ensure it would never be used on anyone but its owner.

When in “Demon Lord” someone IS murdered with a tsepan, there’s immediate doubt that the apparent murderer did it – except he already has a lethal reputation and a dodgy attitude to honour, so maybe, just maybe…)