Why was Fighting With the Left Hand So Dishonorable?

Hi guys:

I got a question from a reader this morning, and my answer was long (because anything historical automatically becomes complicated).  If you’ve read the Once and Future Hearts series, you might also be interested in the answer, so here it is.

I have a question: why was switching sword/knife hands during battle considered to be dishonorable? I’ve seen this mentioned once or twice in your books and always wondered why this was so. Usually in life, being ambidextrous is thought to be a “good” thing. It seems the code of “honorable” fighting might feel comfortable and predictable, but reinforces Lancelot’s philosophy of taking advantage of any edge you can gain.

My answer:

Left-handed fighting being dishonorable was actually medieval.  But I extrapolated backwards to make the point about Lancelot’s way of fighting.  Here’s why.

The Celts were incredibly bound up in honor and tradition, etc.  They met the Romans on the field of battle, north of Rome, and agreed that instead of a full scale battle, their champion could fight the Roman champion and whoever won, that was who won the “battle” and would take all the spoils.   Then everyone would get to go home and kiss their wives.

The Romans agreed, their champion won the fight, but instead of just claiming the lands and going home, they loosed the Legions upon the Celts and slaughtered them.  It was one of the cornerstones of British enmity toward Rome.

Fighting with the left hand was difficult, because the left arm held the shield, and therefore the knife would be hidden behind it.  It was also a dangerous way to fight, because it exposed the unshielded right side of the fighter.  So fighters were discouraged from fighting that way.

This discouragement extended into medieval times, when fighting with the left hand simply became “not the done thing” and dishonorable, because it was a guerilla tactic.  It was “unfair” and shouldn’t be included in the rules of engagement because it didn’t give the opposition a fighting chance (literally).  This was also the time when two knights fighting a duel would stop to help each other up if they went down.

Fighting with the left hand also had religious overtones – it was the devil’s hand.

True story.  My aunt is left handed, and when she was in school (WWII period), they made her write with her right hand, because the left hand was the devil’s.  She can now write with both hands.  Interestingly, the handwriting from her right hand is completely different from what she produces with the left.

So considering the use of the left hand as “bad” has a very long history.   I just stretched it backwards in history a bit.  And who knows?  I might even be right about the Celts not liking it, too – there’s so little known about them.


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