Weapons Of The Middle Ages
Every culture’s arsenal is based on the technology and raw materials available at the time. Prehistoric peoples, often called the Stone Age cultures, made wide use of stone, shaping axes and grinding tools, and creating spears and arrows in order to promote their survival. As technological skills evolved, so did the type of implements used for survival.
During the Bronze and Iron Ages, we see the development of metal tools and weapons, which persisted through the Middle Ages, which were dramatically altered over time. Finally, the appearance of gunpowder in Europe in the early 14th century brought about the obsolescence of many weapons – and made the castle useless as well.
While the castle was, arguably, the most formidable weapon of medieval warfare, when we generally think of weapons we think of something much smaller, movable, and able to wreak havoc and death on an opponent. During the early Middle Ages, double-edged swords, axes and metal-headed spears dominated. Short bows and arrows were also used. Interestingly, the Saxons considered the value of a sword to be the equivalent of 120 oxen or 15 male slaves, and any man possessing a sword had great status. Simple to construct and easy to wield, these weapons remained popular, in various forms, throughout the Middle Ages. And by the 9th century, the Vikings adopted another formidable weapon – the battle-axe, with its trumpet-shaped blade and wreaked all sorts of havoc with these heavy axes.
As the first millennium approached, new and more devastating weapons appeared. First and foremost was the crossbow, a vicious device still used in modern times. Known in Norman Europe, the crossbow probably developed alongside one of the earliest forms of siege engine, the ballista. So destructive was the crossbow that the Church banned its use in 1139. But, the decree did not deter advocates of this mighty weapon. Indeed, the most prized members of a castle’s garrison were those who wielded the lofty crossbow.
During the 12th century, the three most prevalent weapons were the sword, the battle-axe and the spear (or lance); however, the crossbow rapidly gained popularity. Combined with the increased prevalence of horse warfare (which eased movement and gave an advantage to its warring riders who carried spears) and the introduction of massive siege engines, these hand-held weapons allowed invaders like the Normans to overawe less technologically-advanced peoples.
The peasants, on the other hand, generally fought back with the only weapons in their possession: the tools that they used to till their fields and tend their homes – hayforks, flails, sickles, axes, clubs with spikes, and boar-spears. Interestingly, these same tools eventually became an integral part of the weapons inventory of most armies.
Siege engines were critical participants during any major onslaught on a castle. Catapulting stone missiles or huge arrows, these massive machines pounded the thick masonry walls. Yet, on their own, siege engines often were inadequate to bring down a fortress. So, other tactics were employed at the same time as the siege engines were pummeling the walls, including undermining, whereby sappers dug mines, or tunnels, underneath towers. The mines created instability and caused the structures to topple. Types of siege engine include the ballista, the mangonel, and the trebuchet.
From inside a castle’s walls, soldiers had a somewhat restricted selection of weapons to use to defend their lord and his fortress. In addition to arrows, the garrison frequently threw down stone missiles, crushing invaders. They also relied upon “Greek fire”, a volatile combination of petroleum and oil and other natural products, which generated a highly flammable substance that burned on water and was excruciatingly hot. Apparently, Greek fire was used to make incendiary arrows, but could also be blown through tubes.
The 13th century saw the modification of swords, which could then rend a knight’s protective armor. Short stabbing daggers were also used, as were a variety of axes (some of which were equipped with spikes), clubs, maces, spears, crossbows, and the sling. The most significant development of weapons technology during this century was the longbow, mastered by the Welsh decades earlier.
During the early 14th century, the course of weapons technology was forever changed with the introduction of gunpowder, which made possible the development of cannons and guns. Initially, cannons were designed as long metal cylinders and fired “gun-arrows”, but they quickly evolved into versatile killing-machines which could launch balls weighing 200 pounds. Over the next 100 years, these metal monsters became more mobile and more accurate. And, resembling miniature cannons, small handguns also made their appearance at this time.
Though the cannon and handguns rapidly gained popularity, the simpler weapons remained in the monarch’s arsenal during the late Middle Ages. Blunt and sharp-headed lances were used in “jousts of peace” (tournaments) and “jousts of war.” And, swords, axes, maces, and hammers with spikes never disappeared from the medieval weapons inventory.
Clearly, the introduction of gunpowder had a fateful and permanent impact on the development of weapons during history. The Middle Ages served as an era of transformation as primitive technologies gave way to more creative ways to obliterate an enemy.