Incessant private warfare and numerous invasions which marked the period of the Middle Ages required well organized military forces for both defensive and offensive purposes. Military campaigns which usually lasted for several months from spring to autumn had to participate all free men.
However, equipment for the army which based on heavy chivalry was very expensive. Thus military service eventually became limited on the members of nobility who could afford the costs of armament, military equipment and absence from their estates for a longer period.
Nobility during the period of the Middle Ages became regarded as “those who fight” or “those who make war”, while the leading role of chivalry in medieval warfare clearly indicates the term “Age of chivalry” which is often used as synonym for medieval warfare.
Medieval Swords and Daggers
Medieval weapons consisted of an array of hand-held objects but the sword was by far the most popular weapon during the Medieval Times. Sword was a symbol of knighthood and was used for both defensive and offensive purposes in close combats. Medieval knights had always sword ready by their side and often gave them special names.
Two types of swords were used during the Medieval Times: single-handed short sword with a pointed end and heavy two-handed sword with a rounded end. The form and designs of swords changed through time and greatly varied from country to country but its basic components remained constant throughout the centuries.
Sword consisted of a blade with one or two cutting edges and a sharp or rounded point set in a hilt. Hilt consisted of a grip (the handle of the sword made of wood or metal), a guard to protect the hand and a pommel which was a counterweight at the top of the handle.
The medieval sword has its origin in the Roman spatha, a sword with a long point measuring about three feet (80-90 cm) which greatly influenced the Germanic ancient swords during the Migration Period (roughly 300-700 AD). Design of the medieval swords was also greatly influenced by the Viking sword which had more acute taper and point, and deep fullers running almost in whole length of the blade.
The Viking swords were popular throughout Europe between the 8th and 10th centuries when it was replaced by a single-handed cruciform sword which was use from 11th century to the middle of the 14th century when longsword came in use. Longsword was characterized by a long blade and large cruciform hilts with grip about 6 inches (15 cm) in length. It was commonly held by both hands.
The medieval knights usually also had a dagger, double-edged blade used for stabbing which was generally used only as secondary defense weapon in a close combat. Medieval warfare was in first place characterized by sophisticated sword fighting and daggers were not popular as weapons.
Medieval Bows and Arrows
All medieval armies used bows and arrows, a weapon consisting of:
- the bow made of a strip of wood which was bent and held in tension by a strip
- arrows with a sharp metallic point (arrowhead) which was powered by the elasticity of the string of the bow
The bow and arrows was considered a lower class weapon in the Medieval Times even after the introduction of the English longbow which proved to be very powerful weapon during the Hundred Years’ War, especially in the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt.
English longbow, probably of Welsh origin was usually 6 feet and 6 inches (2 meters) long and had an effective range to about 656 feet (200 meters).
Trained archers shot from 6 to 10 arrows per minute but longbow required a lot strength to pull and years of training. For that reason many medieval armies used the crossbow consisting of a bow mounted on the stock, a groove that guided missile called the bolt and a trigger.
Crossbow was the leading missile weapon in the Medieval Times although longbow achieved greater range, better accuracy and faster shooting rate than the crossbow which shot only one bolt per minute. However, crossbow achieved greater power and could had been used effectively only after about a week of training.
The efficacy and damage that could have been achieved with the medieval bows and arrows (although regarded as secondary and inferior weapon by the knights) clearly indicate the canons of the Second Lateran Council (held 1139) which prohibited the use of bows and crossbows against Christians.
The first knights wore chain mail, a protective clothing consisting of small metal rings. The mail was flexible and it was worn as closely-fitted tunic with mail hood to cover the head. Head was usually additionally protected by a separate helmet worn over the mail hood because serious injures such as skull fractures and brain damage could had been inflicted simply by force.
The mail was predominant type of armor until the beginning of the 13th century when the introduction of more sophisticated weapons required better protection. The mail prevented penetration and cutting through the skin but it did not provide protection against fractures and bruising which could had been fatal.
For that reason knights started adding their mails small plates or disks of steel to protect the most vulnerable areas such as knees and underarms.
Chain mail was slowly replaced by plate armor in the 14th century. Plate armor consisted of closely-fitted smaller metal parts which were linked together by rivets or leather straps. It was worn on the chest and sometimes on the entire body.
Plate armor was less flexible in compare to chain mail but it was not as rigid as it appears because it was designed and composed in such manner that it enabled movement. Full plate armor featured:
- helmet to protect the head
- gorget, a steel collar to protect the throat
- pauldron to cover the shoulder area and sometimes also parts of back and chest
- couter to protect the elbow
- vambraces for protection of forearm
- gauntlet, a type of glove to cover part of the forearm
- cuirass to cover the front (breastplate) generally worn in connection with a corresponding protective piece for the back
- fauld worn below the breastplate to protect the waist and hips
- tassets to protect the upper legs
- culet to protect the buttocks
- a mail skirt
- cuisses to protect the thigh
- poleyn to protect the knees
- greave to cover the legs
- sabaton to cover the feet
Full plate armor weighted about 45 pounds (20 kg) and provided ultimate protection on the battlefield. For that reason breast and back plates continued to be used until the early 20th century.
However, blunt weapons such as maces and war hammers could inflict severe injures through concussive force, while the other way to kill or injure a medieval knight in a full plate armor was to strike through the gaps between the armor pieces.
A wide range of weapons were used in medieval warfare and personal combats both for defensive and offensive purposes. Sword was by far the most popular weapon but medieval knights also used a flail, consisting of a spiked head attached to a handle with a hinge or chain. Flail as well as morning star and mace were intended for close combats and to inflict as much damage as possible.
Development of metal armor against which swords were of little use resulted in the emergence of new weapons such as war hammers. The design of war hammer, consisting of a handle and a head greatly resembled the hammer but it was created to penetrate the metal armor.
Pole weapons such as spears, halberds, poleaxes and pikes with a long shaft (usually of wood) were used in close combats and were very effective as defensive weapons in case of calvary attack.
Construction of massive defensive walls and ditches surrounding the medieval castles, fortresses and cities resulted in the development of special siege weaponry and engines: catapult, ballista and the trebuchet which were used to throw projectiles at high speed. However, the mentioned siege engines became obsolete after the introduction of gunpowder and were replaced by cannons in the 14th century.
Besides special siege weaponry and engines medieval armies also used different siege tactics such as mining (digging the tunnels) under the walls or setting fires against the walls to weaken its foundations or to destroy the walls. Siege tower known as belfry was used to approach the walls and to be able to breach the walls with minimal casualties.
Popular method in siege warfare was also cutting off the food supply to the besieged castle or a city to starve out its defenders and force them to surrender. Frequently used methods were also negotiating, bribery and catapulting diseased animals or human corpses over the walls to spread diseases within the fortress, castle or city.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Medieval Weapons, Armor, and Warfare" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/medieval-weapons/, January 12, 2022