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Cutting Edge 
Mediæval Technology

By Damon m. Lord 

Ó2002, Damon m. Lord 

One of the greatest problems in fantasy or historical novels is accurate weaponry. A knight with a sword may very well be quite appealing, but the fact remains that the first weapon of choice might not have been the sword. Here’s a rundown of some of the various weapons that would have been available to the armies in Mediæval times, a period which is often used as a source for creating fantasy worlds.

Economy is undoubtedly one of the major deciding factors for which weapon would have been chosen for use on the battlefield. Peasants would not have had much money to spend on weaponry, and therefore would have had to make do with whatever was to hand when they were called up by their Lord for service.

Everyone going into battle would have had what the Anglo-Saxons called a Scramseax (food-blade). This was essentially a short wide triangular blade, the main purpose of which was not actually for battle, but rather for food. It would mainly have been used as a last ditch, close quarters defense.

An axe would have been the cheapest large weapon for battle, as swords have a lot of metal in them, whereas axes only have the metal head with a wooden shaft. They also serve a dual purpose: apart from warfare, the average farmer, woodsman, or villager would have made much use of the axe chopping wood for carpentry or for the fire. Furthermore, the beard of the axe (the hooked, lower part of the head) was useful for hooking the enemy's weapons or catching hold of the top of a shield and pulling it out of the way. 

Similar weaponry available to the everyday peasant would have been the pitchfork, or perhaps a homemade spear (a pole with a sharp metal point on the end) or a glave (a pole with a blade attached). Spears on their own would not be of great use, because if a person were to get past the end of a spear, there would be little option but for a spear-man to resort to a hand weapon, such as an axe, knife or a short sword. However, long weapons used en masse would have been formidable, and would have made any cavalry-charge turn back. An advantage to weapons such as the spear or the glave is that they may also be used as a staff, which still gives some clout when attacking. Another option for the peasant would be a club, which could be given a little more bite by hammering nails through it. 

The best method of taking out an opponent is to try to kill him before he nears you. Javelins would have been useful, but there is nothing more terrible to an army than a rain of arrows falling down about their heads, as the French found out to their disadvantage at Agincourt. Chain mail, although advantageous in that it will deflect many sword blows, will not stop arrows, whether they are delivered from a crossbow or a longbow. This is because chain mail is essentially made up of thousands of joined small circles of metal, and the point of an arrow can pass easily through this, due to its tapered end. The advantage of archery is that it was widely practised throughout the Middle Ages; however, the bow was not viewed as an important military weapon for a long while. Archers did not make many appearances, or get much mention, until Agincourt in 1415 CE, despite the arrow striking King Harold’s eye in 1066 CE, and subsequent maiming by four Norman knights, as depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry. The disadvantage of archers is that once the infantry and cavalry have engaged in battle, the archers would have to stop firing to avoid killing soldiers on their own side. In battle, archery served as a starter and an interlude, rather than a main course. 

For those with a little more money, and no doubt those with property and people to work the land, some other options would have been available, including special training. 

Again, the axe would have been a useful weapon, especially if it were modified in some way. The Dane-axe was a large axe, approximately two metres in length. It had to be yielded with both hands, and could well have been modified by adding a rope to the end so it could be whirled about in a circle. If the hero of your story attacks with deft, much practised handling of the Dane Axe on the end of a rope, it would be difficult for the enemy to defend in close proximity, and the best option would be to run. Duke William of Normandy, in 1066 CE at the Battle of Hastings, overcame this problem by having archers rain arrows on them, and a conroi (company) of cavalry ride up hurling javelins at the axemen while the cavalry was still out of the axemen’s range. 

The flail would have been similarly deadly, with a heavy weight (often a spiked metal ball) on the end of a chain, attached to a pole. It was particularly dangerous, combining both the shaft (either the length of a spear or an axe, which could  be used offensively in itself if necessary) and the weight, which would cause a fair amount of damage if swung correctly. Although this weapon could be difficult to master, even a gentle swing of the flail while testing it could leave a fair dent in a kite shield. 

Numerous other weapons were available to the richer combatant. For a rider on horseback, the lance was useful in attack to dismount the opponent, but lances were used mainly in tourneys and competitions, rather than in battle. Shields could also be used offensively; when they were firmly strapped to the shield-arm, they could be swung as an extension of the arm. They could give at the very least a bloody lip or a bruise. 

The mace, a wooden shaft with a heavy, many-pointed metal head, would certainly have dented someone’s skull if wielded as a club, or at least broken a bone, but a little know fact is that it is far better used as a throwing implement. The best method is to have some practice throwing the mace before battle to ensure accuracy, carry several javelins and maces onto the battlefield, and lob them to disable as many opponents as possible before reverting to hand weapons. 

One other important weapon (which is an enemy to all) is disease. It is surprising how, in many fantasy tales, combatants in battle are either killed outright, or wounds seem to get better gradually. With medicinal techniques literally being back in the Dark Ages, any wound on the mediæval battlefield could potentially be fatal.  An infection could set in, and it was often worse to have a doctor at hand than not. Although the Romans were advanced in their own way, after the fall of the Roman Empire, much medical information and techniques were lost. Doctors of the time were not highly trained, with only one medical school in the world in what is now Northern Italy. They were most commonly called barber-surgeons, as their primary job was to shave people, and they relied primarily on superstitions and herbs. They prided themselves on how fouled their clothing was, and left clothing unwashed so it would show the blood. Often, comrades on the battlefield would have used the Scramseax (food-knife) to end a friend’s life, rather than let the friend suffer at the hands of a barber-surgeon! 

Finally, we come to swords. Swords, like most other weapons, are numerous in their various types throughout history, but we will look at the Norman period in England for the purposes of this study, as this kingdom and weaponry were typical examples of mediæval times. 

To begin with, swords were generally quite long, between one and a half and metres long and could be held with just one hand. Long swords were obviously a little longer and required two hands to wield. Swords that perhaps would still have been around in the early Middle Ages would have been Roman blades, known as the gladius, although these were rare, because swords were both valuable and somewhat fragile. The main difference between the Roman gladius and the later long swords is that the gladius is no more than a metre long and rather pointed. This allowed for direct stabbing attacks. The later mediæval blades were longer, with less of a point and sharper sides, to enable slashing moves that were more likely to eventually cut through the chain mail. 

Swords damaged very easily, and probably only lasted for one or two battles, because they would get broken or at least chipped. I have heard of a genuine period sharp sword being hit by a modern replica blunt sword, and the genuine sword was left with a nice chip knocked out about one centimetre deep. If it had been a sharp blade hitting the genuine blade, much more damage would have been done. A few whacks more and the blade would be ruined. 

There are six basic moves for using a sword in battle. These may be adapted and used for other hand weapons, such as the axe. (The author takes no responsibility for actually using these methods in real life – all I can say is this is for information purposes, and DO NOT try these at home). Although I am left-handed, the following is written from the perspective of a right-hander; in the Middle Ages, left-handedness tended to be beaten out of a child, so practically all combatants in the Middle Ages were right-handed. 

Begin by holding the sword firmly, centrally and vertically in front of the body. After moving, always return your sword to this position - it is the most central position and easiest to move from when moving in defense. 

1. The first move is the thrust to the head. Raise the sword and bring it crashing down on your opponent's head, as if the sword were a mallet and your enemy is a tent peg. Return the weapon to the central position.

2. The second move is to swing and thrust towards the opponent's right shoulder.

3. Swing and thrust as with 2, but attack the left shoulder.

4. Swing the weapon down anti-clockwise whilst swinging forward to attack the opponent's right thigh.

5. Swing the weapon clockwise from the central position to attack the opponent's left thigh as above in 4 - you may feel uncomfortable doing this, but it is the best way to return your hands quickly to the defensive central position after hitting. It is the natural tendency of the right hand to go anti-clockwise. If it went anti-clockwise, and went more than 180 degrees as it would have to do to strike the opponent's left leg, it would be much easier for the opponent to tap the weapon and disarm you, due to the position of your hand. You would lose your grip and drop your weapon, and you would be dead.

6. Thrust forward, stabbing at the opponent.

Use the same moves in defense to block the swing of the opponent's weapon. Ensure enough thrust is given to the defensive blow so that the offending weapon is sufficiently repelled (it should give a loud Chink!) At this point (if you have done it well enough), it will give you the chance to return to the central position, and maybe allow you to make an offensive move. 

Although the most romantic of weapons, the sword does have its disadvantages, such as fragility. It is often forgotten that sword fighting is not the only means of engaging in combat, as there are other methods of disposing of an enemy through archery, or other projectile weaponry. However, the sword’s allure will ultimately remain - a little swordplay will allow for final face-to-face speeches and revelations at the climax of your story. Getting up close and personal with your fighting is always going to be a far more interesting scene to write than removing a bad guy from afar with an arrow.


Damon M. Lord is a university student studying languages and has been writing since he was six. His areas of interest include created languages, nineteenth and twentieth century German culture and history, twentieth century East Asia, and the Norman period in British history. He is a member of an Anglo-Norman history re-enactment group. He is currently at work on his first novel, and speaks fluent Esperanto.