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Medieval Weapons That Maimed and Killed

January 22, 2019 in History

By Andrew Knighton

Swords and lances weren’t the only weapons of choice during bloody battles of the Middle Ages.

When picturing medieval European warfare, we usually focus on the knights—glamorous aristocratic warriors fighting with sword and lance. But while these weapons were important, medieval warriors thrashed their opponents with an array of brutal instruments.

A weapon’s popularity depended on multiple factors, including its effectiveness, status and cost. But, in the midst of fighting, it was a weapon’s impact on the opponent that ultimately proved its value.

Kelly DeVries, a medieval warfare expert at Loyola University, says medieval weapons seldom broke through metal armor. “But blunt force trauma, the smashing of the bones, that’s going to incapacitate somebody.” A weapon didn’t have to kill to be important, it just had to take an opponent out.

Watch a preview of the new series Knight Fight, premiering Wednesday, January 23 at 10/9c.

Swords and Lances

According to DeVries, “The single most important weapon in the Middle Ages was the sword.”

A fast-moving weapon that could stab as well as slice, the sword delivered the most damage for least effort. It allowed the development of a sophisticated form of martial art, granting fame to expert swordsmen and inspiring fighting manuals such as Fiore dei Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum (1410). As military historian Mike Loades says, the sword “gives hope that skill can triumph over brute force.”

There were other reasons for the sword’s popularity. The limits of metalworking meant that swords were initially expensive, conferring status on their owners. Because the sword was a weapon suitable for wearing, that status could be displayed both on—and off the battlefield.

Thirteenth-century French knight

The other high-status weapon was the lance, used in attacks by mounted men-at-arms. The force of a galloping horseman, concentrated through the point of a lance, gave it incredible power. But it was a one-shot weapon, often shattering on impact and was no use up close. It was individually deadly but not a war-winner.

READ MORE: 9 Blades That Forged History

Spears, Axes, Mace

Though swords became widespread, polearm weapons were, at one point, more prevalent for ordinary infantry.

Cheap and easy to manufacture, spears equipped the increasingly large armies of medieval rulers. Used in large defensive blocks, they provided an antidote to cavalry charges, as shown by the successes of the Scots against the English at Bannockburn (1314).

While the spear was most common, other polearms were deadlier. Equipped with axes, blades, …read more


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