Ethnographic Arms & Armour

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Emanuel 10th December 2006 09:35 PM

European Executioner Sword

First of all, I do not care about how executions were carried out or about their outcomes. I am interested in the shape of a particular Mediaeval executioner sword that might have been used in continental Europe in the 14th-15th centuries.

This is prompted by the reading some years ago of a book entitled "The French Executioner." The protagonist of the novel used a straight double-edged sword with an almost fully square tip. While he employed such a sword in his job, it could also be used as a regular offensive weapon.
Ann Bolein is said to have been executed by a renowned French executioner using a special sword. Did such things exist, and if so could anyone point out some examples?

Thanks and regards,

Chris Evans 10th December 2006 11:17 PM


Chris Evans 10th December 2006 11:18 PM

Hi Manolo,

Such swords certainly did exist. In Alfred Huton's `The Sword Through The Centuries`, there is a whole chapter devoted to it.

Hope this helps


Jim McDougall 11th December 2006 01:04 AM

Since this macabre topic seems to keep being pursued, I will try to address this in hopes of staying on topic, and focusing on the weapons. It seems most of the 'executioners swords' I have seen in various resources are German. Typically these 'swords of justice' are actually used as bearing swords, and are carried processionally in front of a judge to indicate his power over life and death. This tradition seems to have derived from 7th century Byzantine Empire where unsheathed sword carried point upward by arms bearer behind the ruler.
While these typically were actually bearing swords, it appears they were used in degree for thier suggested purpose. In England use of such weapon was uncommon, in fact Anne Boleyn in 1536, was the only instance in England of the use of such a sword in execution, and it was by her request.
An example of a sword similar is shown in "Swords, Daggers and Cutlasses" by G.Weland on p.26. The sword is German made, as are three examples shown in "Torture & Punishment" (Royal Armouries, p.19).

These swords characteristically had the squared point and according to Tarussuk & Blair (p.51) the balance of the sword was set forward, clearly for effective cut, but was entirely unwieldy for combat. Although examples seem to be made virtually all in Germany with dates ranging from 1530's through 1700 (one of this late date appears in "European Arms & Armour", Blair, #82), their use extended into Moravia and likely other Continental countries.

One thing that seems curious is that on some examples there are three pierced holes at the squared blade tip in triangular configuration (Wagner, "Cut and Thrust Weapons", plate 34), possibly the Holy Trinity?

I hope this is of some help.

Best regards,

Emanuel 11th December 2006 01:36 AM

Jim and Chris, thanks to both of you for the sources. I will look them up as soon as possible.

I also wish to compare these examples to the less curved variety of Nepalese kora and Naga Dao, both of which have more or less square tips. Would this feature be to emphasize the sword's purpose as a non-combat tool, or could it have simply resulted from commodity as the tip is useless for the intended job?

Thanks again,

Chris Evans 11th December 2006 01:58 AM

Hi Jim,

As always, a very well written and highly informative post.

Just to complete the picture, this is what the good Captain Hutton had to say:

... Its object was decapitation and nothing else, and it was fashioned in such a manner as to make its work sudden and complete. It was a heavy sword with a blade some 33 inches in length and 2.5 in breadth, having both its edges very sharp, but with no point, while its hilt consisted of a simple cross guard, a handle long enough to be grasped with both hands, but not so long as that of the fighting two-hander, and a pommel sufficiently heavy to make it balance well for its work. Such was the headsman's sword. And now what of him who wielded it? Of the mode of life, both public and private, of such men we learn much from the memoirs of the Sansons, who for seven generations were the hereditary executioners of France.....

My own view on this somewhat gruesome subject is that such swords were not weapons, rather tools and essentially no different from those used by slaughtermen, save for the victim. By all this I mean that the traditional Chivalric values that we normally associate with edged weaponry were totally absent. Whilst I understand the morbid fascination that such swords can evoke, I do not think that they form part of our combative heritage, rather that they belong to another class of implements altogether.


Jim McDougall 11th December 2006 03:43 AM

Hi Chris,
And thank you very much :) I agree completely in your perspective on these! Very well said.
These 'tools' could not interest me less, no matter how esoteric.
Thank you for sharing the Hutton excerpt also.
All the best,

Philip 11th December 2006 05:46 AM

More comments on headsman's swords
Thanks, Jim, for the useful info on the topic.

Yes, it's true that the vast majority of specimens seen in collections and on the marketplace appear to be German or Moravian. However, I have encountered two or three Polish examples, of the same general form, as well. One element of the design of these devices, not mentioned in previous posts, is the CROSS SECTION of the blades. Invariably, it is lenticular and not lozenge-shaped as is the case with many blades intended for combat. A few have a short fuller at the forte, undoubtedly to move the point of balance out towards the tip.

Recently, I noticed in a dealer's online catalog (he's in TX, I recall) a HUNGARIAN example of a headsman's sword. Same blade type as the Germanic style described previously, but with a one hand grip patterned after an early hussar saber. Without seeing it in person, I can't rule out the possibility of it being a composite, since I have seen no similar example elsewhere.

A friend in Israel recently sent me a rather fuzzy photo of what is purportedly a French beheading sword, which he saw in a museum in Paris. It does have a lozenge-shaped section with a clearly defined central ridge, and an unusual blade profile which is wasp waisted at the forte, widens somewhat from there on out, and then comes to a point. Neither of us have encountered another one like it in any other collection, although the sword was de rigueur for capital sentences (for the aristocracy) in France until the Revolution and there ought to be more such blades in existence.

Ann Boleyn did indeed request to die by the sword; being of noble birth, she felt entitled to it and a headsman was brought over from France to do the job. The French had quite a reputation for proficiency in this grim task.

In both France and the Germanic countries, the headsman's sword was employed with a horizontal cutting stroke.

Emanuel 11th December 2006 01:53 PM

Interesting information!

So these blades would have made useless weapons, then. That puts to rest one point brought up by the book. Actually the novel revolved around the adventures of the executioner employed at Boleyn's request...the story gets really weird, but the man repeatedly uses the sword in combat. That is now indicated as being impossible or at least foolish.

It's the shape of these things more than anything, that intrigues me. I'm curious to see how the real thing compares to my imagination.

All the best,

Jim McDougall 11th December 2006 03:32 PM

Hi Philip,
Its great to hear from you, and I'm glad you came in on this unusual topic. Thank you for the kind words:)
I very much appreciate you adding further depth to the data at hand, and especially for your notes on the actual structure and use of these weapons. I had not noticed the lenticular cross section that you well pointed out, and that feature certainly does seem characteristic on most examples.
I think that there has been some confusion in the resources I had checked and that in many cases 'bearing swords' are confused with actual 'heading' swords by writers on weapons. In some sources they seem to suggest these weapons were seldom used for thier suggested purpose. As you have noted, there certainly was an established use of them in these Continental countries.

Although the subject matter is somewhat morbid, I'm actually glad you brought this topic to discussion, as I always am when something can be learned from it. I think here we all have.
I think that when considering material included in any work of fiction, one must beware the degree of license employed by the writer. Naturally most elements of historical data are embellished as required to lend well to the imagery of the story. I recall one instance years ago when questions were posted concerning a huge Scottish broadsword described in a 'historical' legend which had a ten pound sliding weight to 'add force to the cut'!
Naturally at the outset this seemed impossible. After considerable research this of course was found incorrect, and though several instances of sliding weights were mentioned, they occurred only in other literature, not in actual weapon descriptions.
Thank you for the very interesting query :) Nicely done.

All the best,

VANDOO 11th December 2006 06:28 PM


Philip 11th December 2006 07:46 PM

Euro. headsmans swords -- balance
Manolo and Jim,
I've handled a number of examples of the "Germanic" style of headsmans swords over the years, and although their intended use dictates that they be weighted in favor of the tip, they are by no means clubby or cumbersome. The swords tend to have a respectable distal taper, being quite stout at the forte and thin at the tip. Of course, they would not be as responsive as a combat sword, but having caused a fair amount of consternation at gun shows by wielding these (with owner's OK of course :D ) I wouldn't call them "useless" in a fight, either.

Keep in mind, as I have said, that continental headsmen cut with a horizontal stroke. I think that their swords were admirably designed for the function, and the fact that the blade format remained unchanged for centuries says something.

To do the grim job with a sword demands speed and accuracy; the weight of the weapon is secondary. Otherwise, an ax and block could be used, but that would be too "low-rent" for aristocratic convicts, wouldn't it? :eek: Remember the stories of some of the Sanson family, who could cut so fast and sure that the head remained upright in place even after the follow-through of the swing was completed?

Philip 11th December 2006 08:03 PM

judicial decapitation in China
For an explanation of the rationale behind punishment in pre-revolutionary Chinese judicial theory, and a description of the capital sentences, I would recommend Derk Bodde/Clarence Morris, LAW IN IMPERIAL CHINA, EXEMPLIFIED BY 190 CH'ING DYNASTY CASES, WITH HISTORICIAL, SOCIAL, AND JURIDICAL COMMENTARIES, (Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1971). For anyone with the slightest interest in law in traditional, non-Western societies, this is highly recommended. It's written in a style that even laymen can follow.

Regarding the implement used for decapitation, it was generally a saber or falchion (curved, single edged), not a sword as was the case in Europe. The cut was generally on a vertical plane (the Vietnamese seemed to have used both vertical and horizontal cuts, as seen in iconographic depictions).

Contrary to the case in the Germanic countries, there was apparently no one standard blade designed strictly for beheading in China. Historical illustrations (including those done before the age of photography) show the use of various styles of blades, from the commonly used sabers of the military (liuyedao), to the two handed falchions (dadao) also used by militias and civilians for fighting. Any one of those will work just fine for the purpose.

It seems that many Oriental nations didn't have a specialized beheading implement in common use -- the Japanese used their katanas, the Thais their darbs, and so forth. A recent filmclip sent to me by an Israeli friend featured an interview on Israel TV with the Lord High Executioner of the Saudi kingdom -- his favorite swords had standard shamshir blades, one of which was mounted in a hilt with a D knuckeguard.

Philip 11th December 2006 08:09 PM

"heading" or "bearing"
Jim, you brought up an interesting point that may touch upon etymology...

I think that there is no doubt what the Euro. swords that we've been discussing were used for. So many of the German examples are engraved with motifs including the gallows, wheel, and simple verses dealing with justice and mercy. I've seen others with Latin inscriptions of a quasi-religious nature, these may be Bohemian or perhaps Polish.

I think that the "bearing" sword that you mention is another breed of cat -- a larger two hander (often of impressive size though not constructed in a particularly wieldable manner), and with a pointed tip. Museums in Europe are full of these things, I saw a gigantic example in the Museum of Scotland that was big enough to whack the head off a hippopotamous if (1) it had been sharp (2) if its blade and tang were sturdily constructed, and (3) if Paul Bunyan could be hired to swing it! (OK, I better shuddup now, I don't want the folks at PETA or the Animal Liberation Front after my hide for that last remark :eek: )

Montino Bourbon 12th December 2006 05:34 PM

I'm somewhat mystified...
By the fact that this is treated as a 'macabre topic'. Hey, that's what swords are for! Execution, combat, it's all the same... hitting a human (mostly) with a sharp piece of metal in the hope of causing injury or speedy demise.

Naturally, we 'civilized' gentlemen (And ladies, should there be any present; I'm an equal-opportunity sort of guy) would prefer to not hurt others; and even though I'm a Vietnam-era veteran I've (Thank God) never had the need to kill or even injure anybody with any weapon. I'm all too well aware that a good sword is, in its final analysis, a good killing tool, and I actually was amused by the video of the Saudi executioner talking calmly about having breakfast before going out to 'do the job', just another day's work!

It's true; historical weapons had an enormous amount of care and art lavished on them, probably because they were responsible for preserving their owner's life. And I have to admit that I have been fascinated by ethnographic and historical weapons for years. I'm also well aware of the nature of weapons. I also happen to be a pacifist.

This is a discussion that is rife with very interesting material. I wish that we could have participants from a few centuries before ours.

katana 12th December 2006 07:15 PM

A very interesting thread....with excellent input from 'the usual suspects'....thankyou for this absorbing discussion ...unfortunately I have nothing to add.. about the use of swords.... the axe was , I believe, more commonly used in Britain. It's heavier weight and its balance nearer the head usually ensured that only one blow was required.

Henk 12th December 2006 08:11 PM


This summer I visited here in Holland the most well known prison that we have here. Just as a tourist for an afternoon and not for a stay for a few months :D This prison called Veenhuizen was a community where prisoners lived with and worked for the villagers of Veenhuizen. I visited the museum which had an exposition about punishment for criminals from the middleages till the present. Exposed where among many artefacts two execution swords dated around 15-1600. Used here in the Netherlands.
Just a broad flat double edged sword, just like a mediaeval knight sword. The tip was square, nothing special.

Emanuel 12th December 2006 09:37 PM

Hi all,

Thanks for the great responses to this therad! So basically, a European headman's sword is purposely-made quite differently from a fighting sword. Weight increased towards the tip, long handle for two-handed grip, and lenticular blade profile. Why would the blade be specifically lenticular as opposed to lozenge-shaped? Would this simply be a continuation from fighting swords that happened to be lens-shaped before being used for executions, or was it a specific element desired for beheading?

I guess beheading by a sword would have been appealing to the nobility as it would still be considered "death by sword" as opposed to execution as a common criminal....perhaps it maintained some modicum of honour.

Another thought...the executioner's proficiency with the "tool of his trade" would have made him a most formidable opponent of the field no?

What I find remarkable is that this form of execution is retained in so many countries today. I take it that the sword as a symbol of authority is still very strong. Do any western countries besides the US still have capital punishment? This brings to mind a point about popular view of execution, but I better refrain from getting into it here.

Henk, did you get the chance to handle the sword at the prison? You see, it's the shape of it that is still a curiosity to me...the fact that it has that darn square tip that I've never seen on a blade...this is why I mentioned the dao, kora and also the spatula-tip's so interesting-looking in spite of its use.
Since the blades have no tip, why do they still get narrower further up? Is it just a weight-saving device or simply a leftover from the time when the blade actually needed the narrowing point for thrusting?

I will look for the accounts of the Sanson family and that of Sutton...


Philip 12th December 2006 10:59 PM

contour/section of headsman's sword ; class considerations
To answer your questions about the shape of these blades (BTW, the Dutch examples described by Henk seem to resemble the Germanic type very closely in their essentials).

I think the lenticular section was intended to minimize resistance as the blade cut through the neck. The pointed central ridge on a conventional lozenge-sectioned blade would create more resistance. Such a ridge would be desireable on a fighting sword, since it would thicken and thus reinforce the center of the blade. Blades do get whacked on the flat side during combat, so more strength in this area is necessary. Au contraire, a beheading sword is swung in one direction, and there isn't the element of stress from an opponent's weapon striking it laterally.

I've also seen a lenticular cross section applied to some single-edged blades from China and northern Burma. These are the falchions or straight dhas which widen towards the obtusely-clipped tips. On several of these, the spine thins out markedly from midpoint on, so that at the extremity, the cross section is like a lens, albeit with only one side really sharp. I think that this was deliberate feature put in to reduce resistance on the cut.

Practically all of the "Germanic" headsman's swords I have seen don't have a contour taper -- they remain wide all the way to the end. Some are slightly wasp waisted, narrowing slightly ahead of the forte and then widening a bit further out. That may be due to the effects of repeated sharpening.

In those European countries in which the sword was used for judicial decapitation, it was a generally reserved for the upper classes because the sword was associated with the nobility (indeed, the headsman's sword retains the cruciform guard of the medieval knight's sword, even though it would function just as well without any guard at all). Commoners were often executed by ax, or more often, by hanging or by even more ghastly methods such as breaking on the wheel (most of Western Europe) and impaling (parts of Eastern Europe, mainly Hungary, Poland, Ukraine).

It's interesting to note that the guillotine became the standard capital sentence in France after the Revolution not only because it was quick, efficient, and reduced the margin of error that even the most skilled swordsmen were subject to, BUT ALSO because it represented a "levelling" of society -- all citizens, if condemned to die, were entitled to this "more humane" (in the eyes of its proponents) method, REGARDLESS OF SOCIAL CLASS. No more would bluebloods enjoy the "privilege" of dying by the sword while commoners had their necks wrung or bones broken like mongrel dogs.

Emanuel 13th December 2006 01:55 AM

Thanks for the clarifications Philip!

This thread has put this type of sword in context for me. I am not planning on buying any such thing any time soon - staying away from European/Mediaeval until I have the money and knowledge/wisdom to get good pieces.

There're a few prison I can visit here in Toronto/Canada, but I doubt any implements of execution exist anymore...cap.pun. was abolished a good while ago.

The level of skill the headman needed to cut the neck cleanly in a horizontal swipe is amazing...I imagine it quite hard not to nick the shoulders or the jaw
Actually - and I apologize for sticking to this distasteful matter - I recall a picture/print of African Ngombe executions with their executioner blades...the "victim?" was seated and a roap mechanism pulled the head upward to expose the neck. Gruesome but makes the point.

Right, enough of that from me, many thanks.

Philip 13th December 2006 06:14 AM

practice makes perfect
I recall reading that in olden times, the executioner's trade was learned via an apprenticeship system. In many instances (particularly in France and even to this day in Saudi Arabia) the post was/is hereditary. Many generations of the Sanson family served the Bourbon kings, and on down through various restorations and republics, well into the 20th century.

Being accurate and clean with a headsman's sword involves similar discipline and concentration required for effective cutting with combat swords as well. A friend and colleague is a taiji instructor who teaches sword and regularly practices cutting with jian. He tells me that the perpendicular cuts on the rolled-up mats are more demanding than oblique cuts. (if you tried cuts from various angles with a sharp machete while trimming tree limbs in your garden, you'll see what he means).

The reason that swords and sabers can cut so effectively even though they are much lighter than axes is that their blades have much longer edges. It's the combination of percussive force AND the "slicing" motion imparted by the action of his arm that enables a swordsman to make a deep and devastating cut. A short chopping motion with a sword can be useful for that quick "nip" to disable an opponent's sword-arm or hit some vulnerable area, but is otherwise of limited effectiveness. Axes do well for chopping because of the weight of the head combined with the leverage of the handle. If you read Polish, a good book that explains saber design and the biomechanics of cutting is Wojciech Zablocki's CIECA PRAWDZIWA SZABLA (a true cut with a saber), Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Sport i Turystyka 1988.

Henk 13th December 2006 05:44 PM


Handling a sword in a museum here in Holland is unthinkable, so the answer is no.

Philip made a good point that the dutch sword I saw is similar to the germanic sword. And that doesn't surprise me at all. probably it wil be similar to any european execution sword. it wouldn't be a surprise if the dutch swords where from german or french origin or the other way

Such a dutch or germanic execution sword is flat and doesn't tapper towards the end. A sharp pointed tip wasn't necesarry either. The only purpose for the sword was a blow with the edge to seperate the head from the body. So the only functional part of such a sword was a sharp edge. We all know the drawings of the european executions where the victim kneelded with his head on a chopping-block. No need for a tappering combat sword with a ridge and a sharp tip.

Philip 13th December 2006 09:04 PM

chopping block
A block is used only with the ax. In all cultures that I know of that used a sword or saber for decapitation, no block was necessary. As I have noted, a horizontal cut was used generally in Europe, the Near East, Siam, and sometimes in Vietnam, and the victim was kneeling with torso upright. When the vertical cut was used, the victim was made to kneel or stand in a bent-over position; a cord was attached below the ears and an assistant pulled to keep the neck stationary and extended (in pre-revolutionary China, the mandatory queue was used in lieu of the rope).

Henk 14th December 2006 07:23 PM


You are right. A chopping blok for a sword would damage the edge. I looked to some pictures of the beheading of some famous dutch persons and found drawings of men kneeling with the torso upright but a little bend forward. I don't see a rope pulled by an assistant. But the artist could have left the assistant and the rope. Or our dutch nobles went with pride.

Philip 14th December 2006 10:47 PM

separating sheep from goats
Sorry, the verbiage in my post FAILED to keep the beasties apart (and to provide enough detail), and I see that you got confused. Let's try again.

HORIZONTAL CUT : primarily used in Europe, also in Siam, Arabia, and sometimes Vietnam. Victim is kneeling with torso (and head) upright, or nearly so. The position is easy for the victim to maintain with some degree of steadiness (though he/she is probably scared witless), and because of the arc of the cut, you can't have an assistant standing there if you don't want to deal with excessive employee turnover. The headsman swings the sword/saber horizontally, and the job is done. The Arab executioner often gives the victim a little poke in the side with the tip of the shamshir to get him to stiffen up straight, and then cuts immediately.

VERTICAL CUT: typically used in China, often in Vietnam and other oriental countries. Victim stands, bent over with torso/neck horizontal, or else kneels with head extending forward. It is more awkward for the victim (but nobody seemed to care about that!), and here is where the assistant and the looped cord around the ears comes into play. The idea is to keep neck extended and steady to receive a downward blow (in ax-using Euro. countries, the block served the same purpose).

Additional info:

The Japanese seemed to favor 45 degrees downward on a kneeling prisoner, based on some WW II photos that I saw of American and Australian POWs about to be executed by officers with katanas.

By the way, most of the info I have provided above comes from period engravings and photos, ranging from 16th cent. Germany to Qing illustrations to 19th cent. photos taken by western visitors to various Oriental countries.

S.Al-Anizi 15th December 2006 09:48 AM

Just a note to Philip, in Arabia, executioners perform vertical, not horizontal cut. The victim would be sitting on his knees, the headsman would jab him in the back with the tip of his saif, then off goes his head.

Philip 15th December 2006 07:30 PM

Thanks for the clarification. I thought it was horizontal, as explained once on an American TV documentary, and also per an artist's sketch that accompanied a newspaper article. Well, I guess those folks got it wrong, and I appreciate your correction.

fernando 16th December 2006 12:37 PM

In the most dramatic execution event of modern era in Portugal ( XVIII century ), some ten individuals belonging to three different noble houses, supposedly opposing the King, were publicly sacrificed at the scaffold, all in the same session, each of them in a different indescribable manner. The only one who was sentenced with a "simple" process, was the Marchioness of Tavora, the first one to be executed, as to save her from the scene of the others being meticulously tortured to death.
All sources mention that she was sitting on a bench. Some even say she was tyed to it by her waist, hands cuffed, head standing up. The beheading stroke was horizontal, given by the back. One only stroke, according to witnesses. There is some undefinition about the instrument. Some say with a cutlass, but the instructions were to use a great sword or a bullfighting sword (?), previously stored for the purpose.

fenlander 16th December 2006 02:52 PM

wow i never realised !
Being a lay man i was never quite sure what you meant by a horizontal be-heading. This is because i had always presumed that the victim would bow their head. I take it that you mean by this, that the victim was standing with the neck vertically when the sentence was carried out ? I had to think about what was meant by a "horizontal be-heading" for quite a while. In the TV series "Henry the VIII" I thought that Anne Bolien had her head down when it was time.
Can't believe you experts got me thinking for so long about what a horizontal executioners stroke was ! :rolleyes:
i've never worked out if there is a spell checker on this forum. Does it exist ?

fernando 16th December 2006 06:57 PM

1 Attachment(s)
I bet this picture is more accurate than my english.

Philip 17th December 2006 05:43 AM

a picture worth a thousand words...
Thanks for the info and the illustration, which is appropriate regarding Fenlander's question.

The incident which you describe is the same one shown in color in a huge illustrated tome, "Historia de Portugal", probably dating from the 1930s, in the library of a friend of mine. Marvellous book, covering Roman Lusitania until the 1910 Revolution, lavishly illustrated with engravings, photos, and color lithos throughout. The picture as I remember it showed the execution of the nobles other than the unfortunate Marchioness -- one large scaffold with the victims tied to horizontally-mounted wagon-wheels, and made to suffer a variety of unpleasant fates.

It wasn't made clear in that book, but do you happen to know when was the last auto-da-fe in Portuguese history? I recall reading that the Inquisition was not formally abolished until the second decade of the 19th century, but didn't the trials and executions cease quite some time before that? Correct me if I mis-remembered the time of the abolition.

fernando 17th December 2006 02:15 PM

Hi Philip
The illustration with the Marchioness of Tavora being decapitated was just to support the idea of horizontal beheading, as it comes with a romanticized version written by the famous Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco.
No doubt that the version with all the nobles ( and some servants ) being executed at the scaffold was more publicized ... some were laid on the wheels, others against St. Andrews crosses ( Aspas ) ... some with their bone canes mace crushed before being killed, some after being killed, depending from the sentence instructions ... others were burnt alife. Also the wheels were connected to ropes disguised under the scaffold, so that they would be strangled ( garroted ) with the wheel turning. The Marchioness was the first to be conducted there, and taken for a round on the scaffold, to both be seen by the public and to be made familiar to all these processes, described to her by the hangmen, before she was executed.
This event took place in 1759, and was a Secular ( civilian ) process, not an Inquisition ( religious ) exercize.
Eventually the processes used in torture by Seculars and Religiouses were distinct, each having their own "specialities".
You are right, Autos de Fé in Portugal started on 1536 and ended on 1821; however the last one with life sentence took place in 1761, when they burnt alife a Jesuit priest, named Malagrida, whom had actually been envolved with the Tavoras, in the famous conspiracy process a few years before, against the King Dom José.

Philip 18th December 2006 01:02 AM

muito obrigado, amigo!
Hi, Fernando
Thanks for the wealth of info.

I looked at the woodcut illus. that posted, studying it another time, and note that the headsman is not using a sword (as we have been mostly discussing here), but rather a broad saber, or a falchion. I have read about sabers being used for the purpose in countries like Hungary and Poland, but of course that may be due to the significant Oriental influence (Tatar and Turk) on those nations' arms and military traditions.

Was the curved blade common in Portugal for decapitation? I am thinking that its use might be influenced by the extended Lusitanian presence in the East: east coast of Africa near the Arabian peninsula, India, south China, etc. Would this be a reasonable conclusion or am I relying too much on this "eastern influence" thing?

I think I need to learn more in general about Portuguese swords. Maybe in the future you can start some other threads about the martial (fighting) swords of Portugal from the middle ages through the age of the discoveries. Posting some pics would help. There's so much in print about Spanish arms, but your country is virtually ignored in arms literature!

fernando 20th December 2006 08:43 PM

Eu é que agradeço
Hi Philip,
As i told you, that was a fantasized illustration, not necessarily good to exemplify the execution instrument used ... just a figure of horizontal stroke.
In fact and considering the inumerous narrations on the Tavoras case, there is no precision on this subject.
In O CASO DOS TAVORAS by Guilherme de Oliveira Santos in 1958, supported by a bibliography of some two hundred works, the instructions of Marquis de Pombal,
the all mighty prime minister, were ( quoting ) "to use a montante ( two handed sword ) or, better, a bullfighting sword, already kept at the Apppeal Judge Oliveira Machado's house".
Cutelos ( cutlasses ) and Machados ( axes ) are quoted in other works, basically all with a romantic touch.
On the other hand i fail to find a relation between a two handed sword and a bullfighting sword, even considering the period in question, and ignoring that XVIII century bullfighting swords were usable for side strokes and all that, also considering a possible Spanish influence intrument.
I am trying hard to find some info about this in the Net, in both Portuguese and Spanish language.
As for the execution being achieved with one only stroke, we could basicaly beleive so, as ( also ) witnessed by Saint Julien, French diplomatic representative, also quoted in the same book.
Amazingly this part of the execution sword is probably the only one with uncertainty, as the "treatment" given to the other individuals seems to be narrated by all with coinciding details.
Besides a tendence from the period to romancize the event, it seems as there wasn't so many witnesses, as all streets going to the scene were blocked by the King's Dragoons, with orders to search everyone's body and stop all those looking suspicious. The sentenced families were very powerfull, actually so much or even more than the King.
If ever i find some trusty version of the weapon actually used, i will come back here to tell about it.
I know there isn't much material written on Portuguese weaponry, but that is a discussion that "would give lots of cloth for sleeves", as we say here. However i would not be the indicated person to feed that discussion, due to my unsuficient scholar level ... i speak and write english "by ear", to start with. My library is next to unexistant, my school grade is next to none. I just happen to fancy buying old publications, as also old weapons ( i am a very recent collector ). Reason why i have a couple books on the Tavoras process, and some dozen books on Inquisition, a theme i got passionate with, since the day somebody sold me an original tome written by one of the most proheminent Jews in the Portuguese XVIII century, Antonio José da Silva, garroted and burnt by the Inquisition .
But in as much as i can be usefull, i will try to help.
Kind regards.

Philip 21st December 2006 12:16 AM

bull swords
Amazing. A bullfighting sword? The only ones I am familiar with are the stiff, narrow, stabbing-only ones used in the Spanish "corrida". How can you cut with something like that?

We have Portuguese-style bullfights here in California (the Irmandades do Divino Espirito Santo, founded by Azores immigrants, stage them as part of religious festas), and of course the bulls are not killed but are led out alive after the forcados have their little bit of bruising fun. One man told me that bulls have been left alive in Portugal for well over 300 years. If this is correct, I am surprised that there were such things as bullfighting swords in Portugal.

fernando 23rd December 2006 09:55 PM

Hi Philip,
I have done some little researching.
Two things:
Firstly, bullfighting swords, in the beginning, were not those "stiff, narrow, stabbing-only ones used in the Spanish corridas" ( I actually have one of those ).
Secondly, killing the bull in the arena in Portugal only stopped in the XX century.
To start with, long time ago, Iberian nobility went capture the bulls in the country, to bring them in to be fought in enclosures.
There are narrations of a certain Portuguese guy, Gonçalves Viegas, having exhibited in bullfighting in the XII century.
King Dom Duarte (1433 ) is said to have participated himself in "corridas" . Although with popular adhesion since the beginning, these fights had a strong military cynegetic component, actually achieving a higher expression by the XVI century. In Portugal it was King Dom Sebastião whom gave bullfighting a recreation status , developing public events inside enclosures ( arenas ). In 1578 in Xabregas, the said Dom Sebastião, Dom Jaime de bragança, Dom Cristovão de Tavora ( the sadly famous family ) and Dom Luiz de Menezes all participated in a " corrida". By the time of Spanish occupation of Portugal ( The Filipe Kings, as from 1580 ), an Iberian fashion developed in the two countries; no more knights with heavy swords that destroyed the bull, but elegant cavaliers , with lighter swords. In 1575 Pope Gregorio XIII had derrogated Pope Pio V prohibition of such barbarian scenes, which were causing several accidents. The Portuguese side, allways whilling not to copy their Spanish occupiers, decided to submit to the Pope's bull, starting to cut or covering the bulls horns, this becoming their own version. With the coming of the Bourbons dinasty in Spain, bullfighting became a play for plebeians , the nobles becoming the spectators. It started to be afoot, as populars couldn't aford the horses. However in Portugal kings and nobles continued intervening in bullfighting as principal actors. Only in 1745, by Dom João V realm, horns were nude again, "a la Spaniard", people would call it. Arrivin King Dom Jose to the throne ( 1750 ), nobles and aristrocats kept fighting, but already using some aid plebeian men afoot, in an unorganized manner. Thats when the first "forcados" appeared. Then later, Queen Dona Maria II ( 1836 ) completely banned all types of bullfighting, for being an uncivilized behaviour, however with reduced success. It was only in 1928 that, with decree 15355 of the 14th. April, bullfighting that envolved the killing of the bull was criminalized and put to an end. But amazingly (?) four years ago the Portuguese Government decreed an exceptional situation for a little place called Barrancos, near the Spanish border, allowing for the bull killing during their annual festival corrida. Matter of fact, a few villages in the same area keep sacrificing the animal, tricking the eyes of the law.
So after all, there is a certain sense when Marquis de Pombal instructed the execution of Marchioness of Tavora to be decapitated withy either a two handed sword or a bullfighting sword.
And that's all.

ariel 23rd December 2006 10:49 PM

Originally Posted by S.Al-Anizi
Just a note to Philip, in Arabia, executioners perform vertical, not horizontal cut. The victim would be sitting on his knees, the headsman would jab him in the back with the tip of his saif, then off goes his head.

Then, why does the professional Saudi Arabian executioner describes horizontal cuts?

fenlander 24th December 2006 09:42 AM

vertical cuts
Phillip is correct i think. As I also heard that the executioner in Saudi Arabia uses vertical cuts not horizontal. The prisoner is asked to kneel and bow their heads. Then the stroke is vertical not horizontal. One source backs that claim up, and I think Amnesty international would b reliable in these matters.

S.Al-Anizi 24th December 2006 09:53 AM

Originally Posted by ariel
Then, why does the professional Saudi Arabian executioner describes horizontal cuts?

I really do not know what the executioner means by using horizontal cuts, and for what, but Ive talked to people who have witnessed executions in Riyadh, and from many photos you can find on the internet, clearly, vertical, not horizontal cuts, are used.

Philip 25th December 2006 01:26 AM

Thanks, Fernando!
I appreciate again your vast historical knowledge, here in the States we cannot get many books on Portugurse history so we are at a disadvantage. The info you provide indicates that the fellow at the I.D.E.S. who told me about the non-killing of bulls in Portugal may have had some dates and facts wrong. outra vez, obrigado!

I don't want to discuss the tourada/corrida further on this thread because taurine sport is off topic in this context, but if you have pics of the old Portuguese bullfighting sword, could you START A NEW THREAD to share this little-known info with us all? Maybe you can post a pic of your Spanish style "estoc" side by side for comparison purposes.

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