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Medieval Weapons

Feudal armies in Europe from the 11th to the 14th century produced a core group of premium fighting men the mounted knights. Over time, they became more heavily armored and reliant upon the shattering force of horse, lance and wide-bladed sword. In their wake, massed ranks of foot-soldiers engaged the enemy with long polearms (essentially weapons mounted on the end of a long pole), hoping to dismount and finish off any enemy knight. The fighting was brutal and bloody, conducted in a crush of jabbing, thrusting weapons.


1066 - The Battlefield

The Battle of Hastings (1066) saw William of Normandy (c.1028—1087) unleash the devastating power of his heavily armoured knights for the first time on British soil. During many hours of hard fighting, King Harold II (c. 1022—1066) and his fellow Anglo-Saxon defenders were constantly harried by repeated Norman cavalry charges. This type of mounted and mobile warfare was unknown to the Anglo-Saxons, who were predominantly foot soldiers, and it was only their fortunate selection of superior and defensible terrain prior to the battle that stopped them from being immediately overwhelmed.

RIGHT: In this detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold Ii’s Anglo-Saxon troops, led by an armoured standard bearer and a warrior with an axe, confront a Norman cavalryman armed with a lance.


The Norman War Sword

A double-edged, razor-sharp broadsword with an average length of around 75cm (29.5in), was the main battle weapon of the Norman knight of the medieval period. It was ideal for swinging at speed and downward slashing. It would be used one-handed and in conjunction with a large, kite-shaped shield.

ABOVE: This sword is a “transitional” piece between the Viking and medieval period. It has a distinctive “brazil nut” pommel that was common in the early medieval period and the cross guard has increased considerably in width, while the blade is also more finely tapered.


The Norman Lance

Although it is called a lance, Norman knights used what could more accurately be described as a long, wooden spear with a simple, spiked end. It would be held firmly under the arm in order that the maximum force of both man and horse could be transmitted into the charge. Once the enemy had been engaged, the lance could also be transformed into an effective close-combat thrusting weapon, or simply thrown.


The “Knightly” or “Arming” Sword

During a period when there was a practical need for a substantial and sturdy fighting weapon on the battlefield, the medieval “knightly” or “arming” sword was carried. Most battles in Europe took the form of two heavily armed and armored scrums locked in a frenetic life-or-death struggle to push the enemy back, coupled with the added difficulty of trying to kill or maim as many enemies as possible in a very limited amount of space. It was quite common for soldiers to be literally crushed to death by their own side as the battle moved along.


Sword Manufacture

Before the 9th century good sources of quality iron ore were not always available and many swords were often forge-welded from a selection of smaller iron pieces, thus reducing the inherent strength of the blade. Conversely, swordsmiths also forged high-quality swords using a process known as pattern welding, using rods of superior iron. The process required that the rods be tightly twisted together, so creating a much stronger and more durable blade with great qualities of tempering. The interlocking of these rods under great heat, and their sudden cooling and hammering, created distinctive forging patterns on the blade’s surface. This diversity of swirling patterns was highly prized by an owner.

RIGHT: A 13th-century French soldier. He carries a double- edged broadsword with brazil nut pommel and down-sloping cross guard.

By the 9th century in Europe, the blast furnace became widespread and the need for pattern welding diminished. During the centuries that followed, the technique was slowly lost, and by 1300 there are few examples of its use. The technique survived, however, in Scandinavia, where good quality iron ores and charcoal were widely available.

ABOVE: William the Conqueror, accompanied by knights and soldiers, from a page of illustrated Latin text from the 14th century.


The typical style of the “knightly” or “arming” sword was firmly established by the 12th and 13th centuries. In general terms, it comprised a long, broad-bladed cutting and thrusting sword with double fullers (beveled grooves); a plain crossbar hilt; and a wheel, brazil nut, ovoid or mushroom- shaped pommel. This sword design had remained virtually unchanged since the Viking invasions (AD793—c. 1066), and over the next three centuries there was to be little innovation. Most blades and hilts were plain, although some surviving blades are found with inlaid decoration, mostly in the form of large, punched lettering or symbols, normally of a religious or mystical nature. Pommels of this period can also be found with inset heraldic devices, denoting particular royal or noble families. Rare specimens have pommels of agate, inlaid gold or rock crystal.

RIGHT: The knights Galahad and Gawain are pictured taking part in a tournament, from La Queste el Saint Graal, c.1316. The knights wield wide-bladed, slashing swords typical of this period.

Swords would have been pattern forged or “braided” in the manner of earlier Viking swords, making them excellent fighting weapons very strong and not prone to breakage. Swords were normally combined with either a large shield or buckler (small shield), although there are many contemporary images and written descriptions that describe the use of the knightly sword without a shield. This was thought to enable the free hand to grab or grapple with opponents. A knight would have worn this large sword whether in armor or not. He would have been considered “undressed” without his sword.


Medieval Ceremonial Swords

Swords produced specifically for use at royal coronations and similar ceremonies began to appear from the 11th century onwards. They were not designed for battle and were kept safely in churches, palaces and state arsenals. Decoration was profuse and the scale was deliberately large and impressive. One of the swords of Charlemagne (or Charles the Great), King of the Franks (r AD742—814), is preserved in the Schatzkammer (Treasury) in Vienna. The blade is single-edged, slightly curved and overlaid with copper decoration, including dragon motifs. Hilt and scabbard are covered in silver gilt. The grip is wrapped in fishskin, set at an angle and very reminiscent of Near Eastern swords of the period. The second sword sometimes attributed to Charlemagne is found in the Louvre, Paris. The ornamentation on the hilt suggests it was carried by him, but it was also known to have been used as a ceremonial sword when Philip the Bold was crowned in 1270.

RIGHT: A line drawing of one of two swords attributed to Charlemagne or Charles the Great (r AD742—814). The sword is kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris.


ABOVE: A knight’s sword, c.1250—1300, with a narrow blade, light enough to use on foot. This sword has a spear-point blade and impressive cutting and thrusting capabilities.


ABOVE: A longsword with a highly tapered blade which could be used to penetrate armor.


The Medieval Sword in Battle

A contemporary Florentine description of the Battle of Kosovo, between the Serbs and the Ottoman Empire in 1389, highlights the “knightly” aspect of the use of the sword and its perceived retributory power.

Fortunate, most fortunate are those hands of the twelve loyal lords who, having opened their way with the sword and having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, heroically reached the tent of Amurat himself . . Fortunate above all is that one who so forcefully killed such a strong vojvoda by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly. And blessed are all those who gave their lives and blood through the glorious manner of martyrdom...
Response from the Florentine Senate (1389)


The Medieval Longsword

A natural progression from the two-handed “arming” or “knightly” swords of the early to mid-medieval period was the first longswords, with the main difference being an increase in blade length. The double-edged blade was 80—95cm (31—37 in) long and weighed in at approximately 1—2kg (2.2—4.4 lb). This was very much a sword of the late medieval period and was used from around 1350 to 1550. The length of the grip was also extended to allow a more powerful and directed use of two hands, but the traditional cruciform hilt was still retained.

RIGHT: A 14th-century French battle scene. The chaotic nature of a medieval battle is very evident.

The longsword was a new departure in sword design and this innovation was soon witnessed in its battlefield application. It had the usual cutting functions expected of a broadsword but the blade profile had become thinner and was now designed (through stiffening of the blade tip) to thrust and penetrate plate armor. The longsword would come to prominence during the Renaissance, when the battlefield became a testing ground for new forms of penetrative edged weapons. The terms “hand-and-a-half sword, greatsword and bastard sword are different classifications of swords of this period.

ABOVE A two-handed longsword of the later medieval period, with waisted grip (tapering towards the pommel) for comfortable handling.



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