Medieval Armor And Weapons




Cold Steel Arms: Axe heads, maces, morningstars

The armor worn in France throughout the medieval period was directly derived from that worn in the Migrations Period by the leaders of Germanic war bands, and its basic structure, which included a shield, helmet, and coat, changed little between ca. A. D. 100 and 1150. In the early period, the shield (Lat. scutum, OFr. escu) was normally constructed of wood covered with leather and reinforced with strips of bronze or iron centered on a hemispherical metal boss that covered the grip. Down to ca. 1000, the shield was usually ovoid or round and about three feet in diameter. A round shield of similar construction continued to be used by infantry into the 15th century, but a longer and narrower shield of Byzantine origin, shaped like an elongated almond, was introduced in the 11th century for use by heavy cavalry and predominated from ca. 1050 to 1150. The normal type of helmet (MHG helm, OFr. helme, MidFr. heaume) in the period before 1150 took the form of a more or less convex cone, most commonly constructed from four or more triangular sections of metal or some other hard material bound by iron bands. It was usually supplied with a nasal bar and until ca. 750 with hinged cheek plates as well.

The coat was almost always made of mail (OFr. maille), a mesh of interlocking iron rings of uniform size. The names most commonly given to the mail coat in the period before ca. 1300 were derived from the Old Germanic word *brunaz ‘bright’: Lat. brunia, OFr. brunie or bro(i)gne. Down to ca. 800, no protection for the neck was generally worn, but in the 9th century it became customary to wear a mail hood with attached shoulder cape over or partially under the mail coat and under the helm. This caped hood was apparently known as the halsbergen ‘neck guard’ in Frankish and by a derivative word variously spelled halberc, halbert, (h)auberc, etc. in Old French. This word (in English in the form “hauberk”) has been applied since at least the 17th century to the mail coat or brogne itself, but this was an error of the antiquarians, and historically it had designated only the caped hood as long as the latter was still in use—that is, until the 14th century. The hood proper, which was often attached directly to the brogne, was called the coiffe, and from the 12th century onward the brogne with attached coiffe was called an haubergonne.

Helmets and mail coats were expensive, and before ca. 800 they were worn only by kings, nobles, and their most distinguished companions-in-arms. In the 9th century, however, they came to be distributed to the ordinary members of royal and noble military retinues, newly named vassals, and from ca. 950 they were to be characteristic of knights, who were always expected to appear for battle in the most complete and up-to-date armor.

The period 1150–1220 saw the first major changes in the form of armor used in France since the Frankish conquest. Most of these changes were in the direction of increased protection for the body, already begun with the adoption of the long shield. In the late 12th century, the sleeves of the brogne were extended from the elbows to the wrists and finally acquired attached mittens. Mail leggings, or chausses, though occasionally worn earlier, similarly came into general use among knights ca. 1150 and were worn to ca. 1350. Also ca. 1150 began the custom of wearing a surcoat (OFr. surcote, cote a armer)—a loose, generally sleeveless cloth coat probably borrowed from the Muslims— over the coat of mail. The surcoat was universally adopted by ca. 1210 and worn thereafter until ca. 1410. Throughout this period, it was commonly emblazoned with its wearer’s heraldic “arms,” but these new ensigns were primarily displayed on the shield— which between 1150 and 1200 also lost its traditional boss, between 1150 and 1220 was made progressively shorter and wider, and between 1200 and 1250 was given an increasingly triangular shape through the leveling of its upper edge.

Although the traditional conical helm continued in use until ca. 1280, several new forms emerged in this period that were destined to supersede it. The most important were the flat-topped “great” helm, which between 1180 and 1220 evolved to enclose the whole head in a cylinder of steel pierced only by slits for seeing and holes for breathing, and the close-fitting hemispherical bascinet, which emerged ca. 1220. The great helm survived with little further structural change from 1220 to 1400, and from ca. 1300 its apex was often provided with a distinctive heraldic “crest” (cimier) of wood or boiled leather, worn primarily in the tournaments to which, by 1380, the helm was restricted. The bascinet was at first worn under the helm and over the coif of the mail hood, but from ca. 1260 the hood was increasingly replaced with a mail curtain (the camail or aventail) suspended from the outside of the bascinet, and the bascinet thus augmented gradually replaced the clumsy great helm as the principal defense for the head in real warfare. In consequence, the bascinet became steadily larger and more pointed, and acquired in the last decade of the 13th century a movable “visor” (vissere) to protect the face.

The eight decades between ca. 1250 and ca. 1330 witnessed a major change in the history of European armor, stimulated in large part by the development of weapons capable of piercing mail: the gradual introduction of pieces of plate (at first of whalebone, horn, and boiled leather, as well as of the iron and steel that ultimately prevailed) to cover an ever larger part of the mail. By 1330, every part of the body of a knight was normally protected by one or several plates, including a poncholike “coat of plates” concealed by the surcoat. By 1410, the various pieces of plate, including a breastplate and backplate instead of the earlier coat of plates, were all connected by straps and rivets in an articulated suit, or “harness,” of polished steel. After ca. 1425, this “white” armor was usually worn without a surcoat or any other covering.

The adoption of elements of plate to protect the body steadily reduced the importance of the shield, which between 1250 and 1350 diminished steadily in size until it was only about 16 inches in height. Even this diminished shield was finally abandoned between 1380 and 1400. A new form of shield called the targe, of similar size and structure but roughly rectangular in outline, concave rather than convex, often deeply fluted and cusped, and provided with a notch, or bouche, for the lance, was introduced in the same two decades, but it was used primarily in tournaments, and knights of the 15th century seem to have done without any shield in battle.

The only offensive weapons commonly borne by the Frankish warriors who seized power in Gaul in the 5th century were the lance, or framea, of sharpened ash; the barbed javelin, or ango; and the throwing ax, or frankisca. The lance or spear, whose more expansive form, equipped with an iron head, was destined to displace the sharpened form and survived with little basic change until the end of the Middle Ages and beyond—for many centuries the only weapon generally available to ignoble as well as noble warriors.

Kings and the leaders of war bands also carried swords, usually of the long, straight, double-edged type called in Latin spatha, first developed by the Celts of Gaul ca. 400 B. C. and later borrowed by Germans and Romans. As the Old French use of espee for “sword” suggests, the spatha (whose blade was ca. 30 inches long) was ancestral to most of the later forms of sword developed in western Europe, of which some thirty-three types and subtypes have been recognized by scholars, four of them antedating A. D. 600. Around 600, the Frankish king and nobles temporarily abandoned both spatha and frankisca in favor of a machete-like single-edged sword called a saxo, whose 18inch blade permitted it to be used for stabbing and even throwing as well as slashing; but under Viking influence the spatha, which the Scandinavians had continued to use and develop, was reintroduced into Frankish lands and quickly became the principal weapon not only of the rulers and nobles but of the rank-and-file members of the new heavy-cavalry units ancestral to the knights of the 10th and later centuries.

Lesser weapons were also employed by knights after 1050. Special forms of ax, hammer (bec), mace, club, and flail were introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries to supplement the sword, but it was only after 1300 that these were both fully developed and commonly used. Most knights and squires also carried a stiff dagger on their sword belt after ca. 1350. All of the knightly weapons were used by the nonknightly combatants who could acquire them, but among the base-born infantrymen a number of weapons scorned by the knightly class were also employed. The simple bow, despised by most Germanic tribes outside of Scandinavia, was little used in France outside of Normandy before the 14th century, when six mounted archers were included in the “lance,” or standard tactical unit of the royal army. The crossbow, or arbaleste, was reintroduced into France ca. 950 and was commonly used thereafter to ca. 1550, primarily by special infantry units placed from ca. 1200 to 1534 under the overall authority of a grand master of the crossbowmen (arbalest[r]iers). After ca. 1350, the bow and crossbow were supplemented on occasion by a primitive handgun. In addition to these projectile weapons, the infantryman of the 14th and 15th centuries had at his disposal new forms of polearm, which were in essence lances with special forms of head.



Playing a major role in medieval warfare, artillery evolved parallel to the art of fortification. Although Roger Bacon introduced gunpowder to the West ca. 1260 and the English used cannon at Crécy in 1346, it took a further century of experimentation before cannon supplanted trébuchet (i. e., tension) artillery. Improvement of explosives, projectiles, and guns was impeded by the difficulties in obtaining adequate amounts of matériel and equipment. But by 1400 cannon had come into regular use, and the final campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War made their superiority unmistakable. Either protecting sappers or breaching walls themselves, they became an indispensable tool in sieges. In response, defense tactics and military architecture changed rapidly after 1450. Governments were compelled to modernize fortifications, and every town was driven to acquire artillery for its own defense.

Following French use of artillery at Formigny (1450) and Castillon (1453), where cannon were shown to be useful on the field as well as in siege warfare, the Valois monarchy led the way in the perfection of technology, in the development of an institutional infrastructure, and in the exploitation of the full potential of the new arms. Gaspard Bureau, maître de l’artillerie for Charles VII, formed a permanent force of cannoniers that grew steadily thereafter. Limited range, inadequate rates of fire, and immobility limited reliance on artillery for the remainder of the 15th century, and cannon remained auxiliary to cavalry and infantry in the army of Louis XI. Only the triumphs of Charles VIII, who made dramatic use of artillery in Brittany and in the Italian campaign of 1494, removed all doubt that only armies with adequate artillery could hope to prevail in modern warfare.


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