Join Date: Dec 2004
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.