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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Fact-checking fight-books: comparing historic injury patterns to strikes in modern European sword arts

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Are practitioners of modern Western (European or Renaissance) martial arts actually replicating combat as it was practiced hundreds of years ago, or are they just practicing surface appearances?  How would you go about checking the veracity of their various schools?

In a fascinating paper: Armed and Educated: Determining the Identity of the Medieval Combatant, Johann Keller Wheelock Matzke attempts to answer this question by examining the results of bioarcheology studies done at five of the most famous digs in Europe.  Each of these sites had  large numbers of human remains bearing lethal trauma  —  wounds which damaged the bone .  These studies include recording the placement, frequency and nature of the skeletal injuries.

Matzke compiles these results into charts, then then compares them these with strike locations as found in the modern European sword arts.  From this comparison he discusses whether the “injury patterns” of modern  European sword arts match those of historical combat, and also provides some insights into the spread and practice of the military martial arts in ancient times, and why the fighting-manuals of masters played an important part.



Matzke begins by providing some definitions of what his study is looking at.  To be precise, he focuses on the professional warrior;  one who receives remuneration in some form for his skills.  This remuneration then allows the warrior to devote themselves to studying the arts of war and combat.   As professional warriors, they are most likely to compile and codify their combat techniques, so as to improve their own skills and to be able to pass these skills on to others.

Their level of training and knowledge of working combat techniques would provide them with a much higher likelihood of surviving combat than non-professional fighters.  As successful warriors, they would be much more likely to receive reward and advancement as remuneration;  in other words, at least in certain time periods and cultures, successful warriors become nobility, and the nobility would be warriors.  This remuneration would both allow them to continue their study of the combat arts, and at the same time provide them with the ability to record these techniques into combat manuals, often known in the modern European martial arts as “fight-books” or fechtbücher.

Thus Matzke shows that education and the ability to pass on knowledge to future generations was an important factor for the nobility, thus most of the fight-books would have descended from successful fighting techniques of old.

What makes the use of these fight-books problematic in recreating these fighting arts today is that many of them either obviously are — or could be — simple short-form notes for students who have already been taught the basics, rather than being expansive and descriptive training techniques.  The question becomes whether these manuals were meant for wide distribution and use by those who had little or no background in the art being taught, or whether instead these were relatively secret techniques, where students were given notes which only someone who had already be taught the secret basics would understand.

It should be mentioned that was common form of instruction manual in Asia.  Quite often “secret” information was mentioned in scrolls only in code or poetic phrases which the student would understand… or a note would simply say “Instruction in this should be provided by the teacher”.

Thus the simple existence of these historically verified manuals does not guarantee the accuracy of the re-created European combat arts.

One way to independently verify these arts is to look at the type and location of “damage” these arts are capable to inflicting on a human body, and compare the results to historical record.  If a correlation is found, then it’s very likely the modern arts are indeed effectively recreating the ancient combat forms.


The Five Digs

The five sample populations utilized in this study for the observation of trauma were the remains of 1185 individuals from the 1361 battle of Wisby in Gotland Sweden, and 29 individuals from Period 6 (mid twelfth century to the late fifteenth century) in the cemetery of St. Andrews church in Fishergate, York. The next sample population was 24 individuals from the 1461 battle of Towton UK, 60 individuals from the 1520 battle of Good Friday in Uppsala Sweden, and finally 71 individuals from the Church of St. Mary in Oslo Norway.

Unfortunately the source research which Matzke uses for the following sites is locked behind paywalls.  I’ve used links to reviews and summations to provide you with some background on the sites and the approximate dating of the remains.


For each dig Matzke compiled a list of all skeletal trauma and created a location and frequency chart.  You’ll find these below, along with come comments from the paper:



Fishergate strike location and frequency chart

Figure 9 Fishergate all strikes, from Armed and Educated

“The evidence from this site is strongly suggestive that the most common target area was the upper portion of the body. Although the upper body was a prime target it is quite interesting to note that the limbs were also targeted to a fair degree. In contrast with the evidence from Period 4, Period 6 demonstrates a much stronger correlation with the expected martial techniques of the era; the head was the primary target followed by the upper quarter with the forearms and lower quarter demonstrating only minor injuries.”


St. Mary’s

St Mary outside strike and frequency chart

Figure 13, St. Marys outside dig, from Armed and Educated

“The sample is divided between those remains from the cemetery and those from within the church. The first sample comes from the cemetery, 39 of the 83 male crania have a total of 68 injuries…  …When the similarly sized sample from within the church is examined 32 of the 92 male crania show signs of sharp force trauma.

St. Marys chart of all strikes

Figure 14, St. Marys indoor dig, from Armed and Educated

This unique collection of skeletal remains from the royal Church of St. Mary in Oslo reveals evidence of extensive perimortem and antemortem skeletal trauma resulting from sharp-edged weapons.

Much of the evidence of sharp force trauma is observed on the crania with a surprising dearth of injuries on postcranial elements. Interestingly, while the majority of injuries were observed on middle-aged and older men, a number of women and sub-adults in the sample also unusually display evidence of trauma. The consistency of the trauma distribution pattern is strongly suggestive of, although not in itself definitive of, a use of standardized fighting techniques.

In examining the samples, the evidence from the cemetery suggests that 90% of the trauma was inflicted from above with 5% having been delivered from below, and the sample from the church is similar with 80% having been delivered from above”






Figure 10 Towton chart of all stirkes

Figure 10, Towton dig, from Armed and Educated

The analysis of the skeletal population from the mass grave from the 1461 Battle of Towton was conducted by Shannon Novak (2007: 90-102.). In the report it suggested that due to the nature of the trauma patterns there was a significant likelihood that many of the individuals concerned had been attacked from behind and were therefore likely part of the documented rout of the Lancastrian force… …Among this sample there is evidence for blunt, sharp and projectile trauma and within this selection there were a minimum of 24 individuals displaying evidence of sharp force trauma alone.



Uppsala chart of all strikes

Figure 12, Uppsala dig, from Armed and Educated

“The Kalmar union between Denmark, Norway and Sweden that had begun at the end of the late 14th century broke down in a series of violent campaigns in the early 16th century. Years of violent encounters came to a head on the morning of 6 April in 1520, Good Friday. Swedish troops attacked Danish troops stationed in the town of Uppsala. This was not a battle fought on equal terms, the Swedes consisted primarily of peasant forces and the Danish forces were composed of mercenaries from Germany, France and Scotland. Early on in the battle the Swedes were successful; however, as the day progressed their luck changed. By the end of the day the Danes had defeated the Swedish forces. The Danish losses were around 2000, and the Swedish losses are unknown, but are believed to be even greater”



Wisby, chart of all strikes

Figure 11, Wisby dig, from Armed and Educated

“The injury pattern in this sample is unique in that it demonstrates a high prevalence for evidence of sharp edge trauma on the bones of the lower leg (Fig.11). This is an unusual enough pattern of injury that it is worth a brief discussion. Sustaining injuries to the legs (especially to the knee joint and below) would seem characteristic of mounted warriors in combat with footsoldiers. After all, to the individual on foot engaging an opponent on horseback, the legs of the mounted individual are the closest and easiest target. However, considering that the vast majority of those buried in the mass graves at Wisby are thought to be Gotlanders (who fought on foot), the mounted warrior theory appears unlikely.

A far more probable hypothesis would propose that there is some artefact of the era’s combat technique that would explain this injury pattern.”



In order to determine whether modern European martial arts were truly replicating historical combat skills, Matzke contact 135 groups practicing these arts and requested they conduct free-sparring (unscripted) combat with longsword, sword and shield, sword and buckler, and pole weapons, recording the location of each strike made during combat on a supplied, standardized form

He notes that “An examination of the skeletal record for historical combat injury reveals a preponderance of injury weighted heavily toward cranial and lower leg injury”, yet while the initial results of this survey showed a high correlation between torso and limb strikes between the modern and historic arts, but almost no correlation between the historic and modern groups when it came to cranial hits.

After reviewing his methodology, he realized he had not corrected for the variations in protective head gear for the various groups.  Where these  groups used light — or no — head protection, the participants avoided head strikes out of safety concerns.

Matzke then engaged a specific group, all of whom wore the same level of protection, including head gear.  He then had them record the same information as before, using the same groups of weapons.  The results were quite revealing, particularly when compared to the location breakdown of historic strikes:



Chart of experimental resuls

Thus a strong correlation can be seen between the historic and modern records.  While this strongly suggests modern European martial arts practices are actually duplicating how medieval warriors fought, it is not conclusive.  Matzke himself recommends further study needs to be made:


Modern European martial arts analysis of strike location and frequency

Following are the strike location charts for each combination of weapons used, for easier comparison to the historic strike location charts.


Sword and buckler

Sword and buckler strike location chart

Sword and buckler strike locations

“Aside from the issue of the knee being a highly targeted location on mounted warriors in combat with foot soldiers, the issue of the use of the shield in combat must be broached. In its most simplistic use, the shield is a static “target denier”, i.e. the shield is used primarily to deny an opponent access to various locations on the body.  The characteristically small, hand-held buckler is primarily used in this form of highly mobile and active defence. Due to its small size it must be actively employed to engage the attacks of an opponent, and unlike the triangular strapped shield cannot simply be used as a static defence. Users of the buckler found their cranium and torso targeted to a significantly higher degree than did the users of the strapped triangular shield.”


Sword and shield

Sword and shield strike locations

Sword and shield strike locations

“Conversely, while the users of the strapped triangular shield found their head and torso to be largely safe from attack, the same could not be said for their lower limbs. These users noted that they received attacks to the left upper leg and to both lower legs. This prevalence for leg injury is likely due to the position and use of the strapped triangular shield. As this shield type is strapped to the lower left arm and controlled by the hand, those areas are not unsurprisingly difficult for an opponent to engage, where as the lower leg, especially the leading left leg, is within range for an opponent. This is equally true of the left knee and upper leg as they are vulnerable to a rising cut that slips beneath the shield’s lower point. The argument might then be made that the lack of lower leg injuries in this population is highly suggestive of the use of the sword and buckler in combative situations.”



Polearm, modern strike locations and frequency

Polearm strike locations

“Generally speaking, most polearms do not deliver the kind of sharp force trauma that is observable with either single or two-handed blades. While cutting or slicing strikes may be possible with some forms of polearms, such as the halberd, the two most common forms of polearm depicted in 15th century Combat Manuals is what is best described as a polehammer and to a lesser degree a poleaxe… …As such one would not expect to see sharp force trauma from the use of a polehammer; rather the expectation would be for penetrating trauma associated with the points or the crushing trauma of blunt force. Similarly, while the axe head of the poleaxe may have been capable of producing sharp force trauma, it would also exhibit evidence of blunt force trauma closely associated with any cut-marks.”



Modern longsword strike location and frequency chart

Longsword strike locations

“Another major difference between the sample populations relates to the increase in the use of the “longsword”. In order to wield this weapon effectively one must dispense with the use of the shield, and, in doing so, the sword’s purpose transforms to a degree. Previously, the defence against an opponent’s blade was to be found in a combined use of the blade and shield, with the shield occasionally taking a static role and at other times taking an active defensive/offensive role alongside the blade. With the use of a longsword the offensive and defensive roles are combined into one tool. None of the various European longsword traditions advocate what might be described as a passive defence…

…Users of the longsword found that the front of the cranium, their “face”, was heavily targeted along with their upper limbs to a significantly high degree. Interestingly, these strikes were weighted appreciably toward the right-hand side. Moreover, the users of the longsword found their lower limbs to be largely immune from attack. This prevalence for head and upper limb injury in this population confirms the method of the longsword technique as found in the historical manuals and the skeletal record.”




One Comment

  1. Fascinating. Of course some will say that the fighters in those picture do not belong to a “historical sword-fighting group,” being as the Armored Combat League does not limit techniques in its competitions to those found in historical books, and does not allow stabbing or thrusting. Here is a video of that particular team in the photo in action:

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