Medieval Weaponry

While weapon archetypes used during the feudal period were the same as that used throughout most of recorded history there were changes and developments in the different weapons and armor.  Â The spear and all its variants were the most widely used weapon of medieval armies.   The spear was the primary weapon used by the barbarian armies’ that conquered the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century.   As the lance, the spear continued to be used the most even after cavalry became the decisive military arm in Europe.

            The axe was reintroduced into European warfare by the Danes and Vikings in the ninth century.   The axe remained popular as an infantry weapon in Europe until the introduction of the poleaxe and halberd in the fourteenth century.   Axes after some modification continued to be used by cavalry until the end of the Middle Ages.

            Daggers and swords are different versions of the same weapon a dagger is either a small sword or vice-versa.   Daggers were used as secondary weapons by both infantry and cavalry throughout the medieval period.   Swords were used by infantry only rarely mainly because they were expensive and most non-nobles could not afford them.   Swords changed over time transforming from relatively heavy slashing weapons in the early Middle Ages to a lighter thrusting weapon as armor evolved.

            The last hand weapon to be developed and used was the mace, which did not become popular until sometime around the eleventh century.   The mace remained popular until the end of the Middle Ages especially as a cavalry weapon.

            The bow and its crossbow variant were weapons that were used by all nations in the Middle Ages although their forms varied.   The English became famous during the Hundred Years War for their skill with the longbow.   The bow was used all over Europe but it was never truly adopted for use as a cavalry weapon in Europe.  The crossbow was adopted early in the Middle Ages and continually improved.   It was noted for its power and ability to pierce armor.   The nobility hated the crossbow and the church even went so far as to outlaw its use against Christians.

            The armor used during the Middle Ages underwent great change developing from simple mail to the plate white armor of the sixteenth century.   Early medieval armor consisted for the most part of a shield, helmet and mail shirt or hauberk but gradually changed in an effort to provide increased protection to the wearer.

            Shields were used from early times and most often consisted of wood covered with leather and perhaps a metal rim and boss in the center of the shield.   Shields could be large or small depending on the user.   Smaller shields known as bucklers were normally held only by the arm but larger shields often were additionally supported by a neck strap.   Knights also used shields, but these became smaller over time and were sometimes constructed entirely of metal until they were finally discarded entirely with the introduction of plate armor.

            Helmets changed in construction over time starting out as simple pot helms with a nasal and developing into the kettle hat with a wide brim for infantry while cavalry helmets developed into the great helm which completely encased the head with only a small slit or hole for breathing and vision.   The knights helmet was further refined with the addition of a hinged visor in the late Middle Ages.

            Armor was increasingly added to with the introduction of heavy cavalry the simple mail hauberk evolved into a complete suit of mail to include leggings and mittens topped by a great helm.   In the late fourteenth century, plate armor appeared and as medieval armorers gained experience and skill, plate armor increased from a simple breastplate to articulated suits that covered the entire body.   The final form of plate armor known as “white armor” was effective against hand weapons and most bows but was quickly rendered obsolete with the large-scale introduction of gunpowder weapons in the sixteenth century.

            In the early Middle Ages, medieval artillery was essentially the same as that used in the classical period, consisting of a variety of torsion weapons that threw stones or bolts being mainly used as siege engines.   One new weapon introduced in the Middle Ages was the trebuchet; a counterweight weapon that could throw large stones 300-400 yards.   Trebuchets were probably introduced from the Middle East as traction weapons but the Europeans improved upon the design by adding a counterweight making it a more reliable and accurate weapon.  

            Beginning in the early fourteenth century cannons began to appear in Europe.   Early cannons were dangerous and unreliable but their effectiveness was recognized early.   After much experimentation and improvements in gunpowder manufacturing methods and metallurgy developments, effective and safe cannons began to appear in the fifteenth century.   They were rapidly introduced throughout Europe and rendered most fortifications in Europe obsolete, as tall thin walls could not withstand canon bombardment.

1 thought on “Medieval Weaponry”

  1. Very well and informative article. I once saw a demonstration with a replica trebuchet and I can see how that would be an intimidating siege weapon. I find it interesting that as soon as people began to master the art of making plate armor they became of little use.

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