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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.
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.”
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.
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.
While the spear was most common, other polearms were deadlier. Equipped with axes, blades, as well as points, staff weapons could be swung with incredible force. A mace was a pole fitted with a heavy head made of stone, iron, bronze or steel.
According to DeVries, skeletons from late 15th-century Switzerland show the damage from these weapons, with skulls cracked open by the force of the blow—a deadly as well as an incapacitating attack.