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This week we conclude our tour through medieval history with a glance at the weird and wonderful world of weaponry. This is not a comprehensive guide—I’m sure some of you will be annoyed I’ve left out your favourites—but rather a look at some of the lesser known yet effective weapons.
The development of weapons in the Middle-Ages resulted from the advancement in armour, which you can read about here. The trusty sword was no match for the walking tanks that were knights, unable to pierce, smash or crack the plated armour they covered themselves with. In fact, a shortsword, thrust at arm’s length with both hands, could puncture plated armour by a mere inch—and the blade would be stuck there too. So weaponsmiths the world over went back to the workshop to devise weapons to defeat the armoured warrior. Let’s take a look at some of them.
This weapon has cropped up before when we looked at archery.
The falchion was a singled edged blade, around 24 to 30 inches long and weighing around 5 to 8 pounds, which is a little lighter than a large bag of sugar.
The falchion was designed to combine the technique of a sword with the weight of an axe, and proved very effective against chain mail, able to cleave right through it. When faced against plated armour however, it ran into sticky ground. Like the shortsword, the blade would lodge into the armour, and a wielder unable to yank it free would present his armoured foe with a glorious opportunity to kill them.
Also referred to as the basket-hilted sword, this was a blade that had a broad base before narrowing into a wicked, sting-like point.
Basket hilt broadsword
The purpose of the basket hilt crossguard was to give some protection to the hand. A skilled wielder was required, and a skilled bladesmith too—the finest steel had to be used, otherwise it would shatter in combat.
The broadsword inspired the development of a blade known as the estoc, also known as the English tuck. This lengthy blade had a signature cruciform hilt requiring two hands. It was edgeless with a sharp point designed to pierce armour. It was however, a little impractical in the bloody heat of battle.
The estoc holds similarities to the rapier and sabre, both weapons more at home in the realm of fencing than on the battlefield.
One of the ways to defeat plated armour was by crushing it, and that was something a mace could do. It developed out of the crude, yet effective, wooden club, and was at one time favoured by priests who preferred weapons that did not draw blood (but crushed skulls instead. Yeah, real holy, guys.)
The mace came in a variety of styles. Some were spherical or oval, covered in spikes or ribs. They tended to be made from steel, weighing between 4 and 6 pounds, which is about the weight of a table lamp—lighter than you think.
A blow to an unarmoured foe would be lethal, and against plate would certainly cause concussion, bruising, or even hemorrhaging. It was designed for close, aggressive combat, used in accompaniment with a shield. It could even deflect blows from swords.
On its own, however, it wouldn’t be enough to kill an armoured enemy. Knocking them to the ground was the aim so they could be finished off quickly with a dagger through the visor, eye slit, or weak spot, such as behind the knees, armpit, under the breast plate or if you’re a cruel bastard, the groin.
Similar to the mace, the flail was also a weapon inspired by its cruder predecessors. It was an ancient agricultural tool, consisting of a wooden club hinged to a long staff by rope or chain. Some sadistic prick decided to replace the club with a spiked ball, and voilà, you have yourself a killing machine.
In the medieval military world it became known as the ball and chain, and many variations were developed, the most common being the above: single-handed with a handle of about 3 feet in length and a reach of around 2 to 4 feet. The chain at the end was to wrap around the wrist. It had the lovely nickname ‘The Holy Water Sprinkler’ (bloody priests at it again). Some variations even had two or even three spiked balls at the end.
This was a dangerous weapon, not just for a foe, but for the wielder too. The swinging arm had to remain extended at all times, and that ball had to keep on swinging—the higher the speed the easier it was to control, paradoxically.
Coming up against it must have been terrifying, with one eye on the spiked ball flashing left and right, and the other eye on the wielder. It did however make for a rubbish defensive weapon, unable to deflect blows, and if the swinging stopped for a moment, your foe had a chance to attack. It was bloody exhausting to use too.
No, not the game. This weapon was also inspired by cruder versions, the wooden mallet in this case. The warhammer had two different features: a flat head—the hammer side if you will—which with some variations had serrations to bite into armour, and; the other side which consisted of a long narrow spike, known as ‘The Crow’s Beak’, designed to puncture plate.
It was light enough to carry one handed, most effective in quick combinations—a blow to stun with the hammer, followed by a ruthless puncture.
As with all weapons designed to pierce armour, it had its downside. The wielder had one chance to land the killing blow. If the point became lodged your foe had a nice opportunity to strike back. Killing is never straightforward, is it?
Spears, in short, were useless against plated armour. The points lacked the sharpness to pierce and couldn’t generate enough power to penetrate. The long wooden shafts could also be sliced by blades.
The Germans took these problems into account and developed an interesting weapon called the ahlspiess, which translates to the ‘eel spear.’ It was around five feet long, weighing around 8 and 10 pounds. It consisted of a sharp point at the end of a slender blade, with a cross guard and wooden haft.
With this weapon the wielder could aim for weak spots in armour, or pierce right through it. The downside was that it was pretty heavy, with all the weight at the business end, and it was two handed, so defensive options were limited.
We come to probably my favourite of all these oddities: the billhook.
As with a lot of these weapons, the billhook began its life as an agricultural tool, one that’s still used today.
It consisted of a long, single-edged blade with a curved end, branching off into a spike. At the back of the blade is another, smaller spike, known as a fluke. It was around 6 to 8 feet long and weighed around 10 pounds.
Being an agricultural tool it was quite easy to make. This weapon provided flexibility in the attack, able to thrust, slash and deflect. Perhaps the most effective feature was its ability to hook onto armour.
It was capable of deadly combinations with the top spike able to pierce plate if used with enough force. The fluke at the back was also used for stabbing. The billhook was also very effective against cavalry, able to sweep riders from their saddles.
The downside was it required two hands, so parrying was important to make up for the lack of shield. If a blow was blocked, it had to be swept away. It was also pretty useless against thrusting blows.
When you think of a shield you think of its ability to block projectiles and blows, but in fact it was quite an effective offensive weapon.
Shields have been around for over 4,000 years, still used today by the police. Over the course of this period they’ve had to contend with lots of different weapons—arrows, javelins, throwing axes, heavier Dane axes, maces, swords … the list could go on. Two qualities were necessary from a shield: strength and lightness.
To achieve this magic combination a variety of materials were used. One of the earliest was linden wood. This material is extraordinarily light and flexible. Linden sheilds were held together with a glue made from cheese. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t last long in battle, shattering when struck by arrows, or any blow for that matter.
Shield made from linden wood
To achieve extra strength, linden shields were wrapped in the untreated hide of a cow—it had to be from a cow, much tougher than sheep, for example. This did however add a fair bit of weight, but could absorb blows from projectiles, but against heavier attacks shattered.
Shield covered in rawhide
The shape of a shield was important to its strength. Lenticular—like the lens of an eye—provided the flexibility a shield needed to stop from shattering.
Lenticular shield in construction
Other shapes include much smaller, circular shields, known as the buckler. It was used almost as an extension of the wrist, useful for deflecting blows rather than blocking them head on. It could also be used as a steel fist.
12 inch buckler
The kite shield was introduced by the Vikings with clever purposes in mind. During the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxons stood firm with their shield wall, something we’ll come to shortly, so a tactic adopted by the Vikings was to have cavalry charge at the wall, hurl projectiles, then beat a retreat. The kite shield provided protection to the flank of both mount and rider as they charged and fled.
We return to the shield wall, perhaps the most effective use of shields in history. It was capable of being taught to individuals with no military experience in a short space of time, and proved difficult to break down. It was the primary military tactic in Anglo Saxon Britain.
A line of warriors stood abreast with shields interlocked, one overlapping the other. If someone tried to pull a shield forwards it wouldn’t move. Likewise if they charged it stood strong. It did however require incredible teamwork. If a single gap in the wall appeared, the floodgates opened.
There were different tactics for the shield wall. A straightforward line could be adopted, though this was vulnerable to flanking manoeuvres and cavalry charges. To counter this, the line could be moved into rows, forming a dense formation. If a horse charged into the fray, they’d lost their momentum, become trapped and quickly killed.
A tactic to defeat the shield wall was known as the ‘Boar’s Snout’. This involved a narrow charge into one section of the wall, pushed forwards by the men rushing behind. The idea was to burst open the wall like a blister.
Well, I hope this has been of some use. An endless sea of thanks for reading, as always. Please subscribe if you enjoyed it. There’s plenty more where this came from.