The battlefields of medieval Europe, apart from being an obviously dangerous place, were also places where myriad weapons were used, designed for specific tasks in the complex battles that took place. Weapons were not just things that you could use to hit the enemy; they had strengths and weaknesses against different units, and medieval warfare demanded a considered approach to understanding the weapons that were being used. The best commanders knew which units had what weapons and who they should fight against.
Here are 7 weapons that were found on medieval battlefields…
1. The Spear: The Most Common Weapon in Medieval Warfare
There were many reasons the spear was a common sight in medieval warfare. They were simple and cheap to construct, and they were extremely effective. Perhaps the oldest design of all weapons, the spear has its roots firmly in the paleolithic era, even before homo sapiens took their first steps in the long grasses of East Africa.
From sharpened sticks, spears physically evolved to be used in two primary ways. In the icy wilderness of Europe, neanderthals (and possibly their evolutionary ancestors, homo heidelbergensis) made use of both these methods. They often used stone-tipped spears with thick shafts in a confrontational manner, attacking their prey head-on. This was, of course, very dangerous. But neanderthals were tough and could withstand the rigors of such a brutal enterprise. Neanderthals also used long spears with thinner shafts that were capable of being thrown. The latter were better suited to the later contemporaries of neanderthals – homo sapiens, who were/are designed to hunt over longer distances.
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Many eras later, spears were still being used in both manners – thrusting and throwing – and were at home on the battlefield where their use changed from hunting game to fighting wars. Throwing spears eventually gave way to bows and arrows, but their thrusting properties were vital in finding holes in shield walls where they could be used effectively to break up enemy formations. Spears required little training and could be used by the most basic of troops. Paired with shields, spears were undoubtedly one of the most deadly weapons to ever have been used in medieval warfare.
Spears were also useful against cavalry, because horses (unsurprisingly) refuse to run into a hedge of spikes. The need to defend against cavalry also led to the evolution of spears into longer polearms such as pikes and other weapons with more elaborate heads such as bills and halberds.
2. The Knightly Sword: An Icon of Chivalry
The knightly sword or arming sword exists as a standard weapon in the imagination when thinking about medieval warfare. Not only is it the weapon most associated with knights, but it also exists as a symbol of Christianity: it was a weapon of the Crusaders, and the cross-guard is reminiscent of the Holy Cross. This detail was not lost on the Crusaders who wielded the sword. Typically wielded with a shield or buckler, the knightly sword was a direct descendant of the Viking swords of the 9th century. It is frequently depicted in contemporary art from the 11th to 14th centuries.
The double-edged and straight, pointed blade made the sword a good weapon for use in any combat situation. However, its effectiveness was generally not as good as other weapons specifically designed for certain combat situations. As such, the knightly sword was chosen for everyday use and was popular for dueling in one-on-one combat.
The symbolic nature of the weapon was also profoundly important in the medieval period, and blades were often inscribed with strings of letters that represented a religious formula. The knightly sword also evolved into the longsword – a version of the weapon with an extended hilt so that it could be wielded with both hands.
3. The Longbow: A Weapon of Myth & Legend
The English longbow is a weapon that has achieved a mythological status in the history of warfare, mainly through the exploits of those who used them at the Battle of Agincourt, where their extreme effectiveness annihilated the flower of French chivalry and won a great victory for the English against almost insurmountable odds. It also reflected the ability of the commoner to beat the most well-trained and powerful noble. As such, it was a weapon revered by the lower classes.
4. The Crossbow: Deadly, Even in the Hands of the Untrained
A crossbow is, in its simplest form, a bow turned 90 degrees, with a stock-and-trigger system added. Its ease of use made it a popular weapon among those with little skill in archery. It was also famously used by Genoese mercenaries, who were a common feature on the battlefields of Europe.
It’s difficult to determine where the crossbow originated. The earliest examples come from ancient China, but crossbows were a feature in Greece as early as the 5th century BCE. The Romans, too, used the crossbow and enlarged the concept into artillery pieces known as ballistae. By the Middle Ages, crossbows were used across Europe in medieval warfare and largely replaced hand bows. A notable exception is the English, who invested heavily in the longbow as their ranged weapon of choice.
The main difference between the crossbow and the hand bow is that the crossbow was much slower to load but a lot easier to aim and, thus, more accurate. Small crossbows became perfect weapons for personal use off the battlefield.
5. The War Hammer: Crush & Bludgeon!
Also called a “martel” after the Frankish ruler, Charles Martel, who wielded it in his decisive triumph over the Umayyads at the Battle of Tours in 732 as they tried to conquer France, the war hammer was a powerful weapon capable of crushing any foe, even rendering unconscious or killing soldiers wearing full plate.
The war hammer is a natural evolution of the club, or indeed, the hammer. It was designed to deliver the most powerful blow possible, focused on a single point. Like any hammer, the war hammer consists of a shaft and a head. The heads of European war hammers evolved, with one side being used to bludgeon and the reverse side used to pierce. The latter became extremely useful against armored opponents, where the damage caused to armor could cause significant injury to the wearer. Plate armor that had been pierced would present sharp bits of metal inward that cut into the body.
Some war hammers were given an extra long handle that would turn the weapon into a polearm, increasing the momentum and the force with which the weapon could strike.
6. The Lance: A Medieval Superweapon of Shock & Awe
The lance evolved from the spear and was designed to be used on horseback. In medieval warfare, they were used en masse with the cavalry charge to punch holes in the enemy lines (as well as the individual enemies themselves). The immense force of a lance in couched position driven on by a warhorse was an almost unstoppable force. Not even the weapon itself could withstand its own power. Splintering or shattering upon impact, the lance was a one-shot disposable weapon. When it had been destroyed, what remained would be ditched, and the horseman, with the rest of his troop, would either draw their swords and get stuck into the enemies around them, or they would return to their own lines to fetch another lance and prepare for another charge.
7. Axes: A Simple Weapon Designed to Hack
Throughout Europe, axes were used in all shapes and sizes in medieval warfare. In essence, they all served a function similar to their civilian counterparts: they were designed to chop. From the small, one-handed axe to the giant bardiche, axes were a deadly force in medieval warfare.
Like spears, axes have their roots far into pre-history when hand axes. Knapped out of stone, they were used by our ancestors long before modern humans arrived on the scene. The addition of a handle made the tool look similar to the axe we know today. Eventually, the paleolithic gave way to the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and the Age of Steel. By then, human imagination (and blacksmiths) had created a vast array of battle axes designed to be used in different battlefield situations and with different effects.
Some axes, such as the bearded axe, served secondary functions. The blade was slightly hooked at the base, allowing the bearer to use it to pull weapons and shields out of the control of their wielder. Outside of combat, the design allowed the wielder to hold the axe behind the blade, making it useful for various other functions, such as shaving wood.
Medieval warfare produced a huge quantity of weapon designs, all with specific purposes in mind. Some designs were abject failures, while others were so successful that they are still in use today. What is sure is that the weapons that were designed for and used on the medieval battlefield made warfare in the middle ages an extremely complex endeavor, filled with an assortment of options that demanded the careful consideration of those in command.