Sunday, May 1, 2011

Medieval weapons: so many to choose from

What weapon would Braeden use to fight a Livanyan nomad? In the ancient world, a potential weapon could be any item close by, or a person’s hands & feet. The Japanese martial art of Kabudo teaches the use of weapons, which originally developed after real weapons were banned for the average person to own. Everyday farming tools were modified for self-defense use; as an example, think of a modern trowel and compare it to a sai.

For the purpose of this short blog, I’ll be concentrating on the common European weapons used by the knights of the 1100 to 1300 BCE. When one thinks of knights, the first tool that comes to mind is the sword. Swords were to the knights what handguns are to modern law enforcement officers today. Two historians categorized swords into basic types. The first, Jan Petersen dealt with Viking swords in a book entitled De Norske Vikingsverd. The second historian, Ewert Oakeshott, wrote about the evolution of swords and other medieval weapons in his book, The Archeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry. Oakeshott authored multiple books on the middle ages, many still in print today.

One of the most famous Viking swords, categorized as Oakeshott X, was prized among Norsemen and Europeans. The Ulfberht sword was crafted from the highest quality steel, up to three times that of ‘fake’ brands, and half over that of any modern ones. Ulfberht was stamped on the hilt, in raised letters. The sword became difficult to obtain when the Russians blocked the Volga trade routes, increasing the value of the weapons even higher.

Swords carried ranged in size, they could be from 30 inches to 72 inches in length. Blades could be single-edged or doubled, with a straight, curved, or tapered tip, a plain hilt or engraved, a bejeweled hilt, one inlaid with gold or silver, and a blood groove. Daggers were similarly made, with varying lengths, blade types, handles, and decorations.

A shield was another important piece of equipment in the knight’s arsenal. Initially, a small round buckler was carried. Bucklers were generally made from wood. That evolved to the Norman Kite shield, which can be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry. The Kite shields were made from layers of wood glued together. Kite shields were worn over the shoulders to protect the back in battle. Kite style shields eventually changed to the heater shield that most of us are used to seeing now. Heater shields could be made from a variety of mediums.

Unlike popular movies or books, knights used various weapons when fighting on horseback. The first, and most obvious weapon, was the horse itself. Warhorses were trained to bite and kick. The famous Lipizzan stallions performing their Airs above the Ground are demonstrating moves once used against enemy soldiers.

Axes were used by knights and men-at-arms both. An axe had multiple uses: swung by a rider, an axe would cause crushing injuries (the speed of the horse adding the extra “oomph” to the axe’s force), it helped its owner cut through barriers, cut wood for a fire, or as a last resort, severed a gangrenous limb to save a life. War hammers were used in much the same way as axes.

A short bow with a quiver of arrows would be carried by knights. Unless the bow was in use, the string would be removed and stored. Men relied on the archery skills to bring down birds or small game while traveling. Unfortunately, it was the English longbow that proved the downfall of the French knights at the battles of Crecy (1346), Poiters (1356), and Agincourt(1415) during the Hundred Years War. The French finally figured out how to handle the archers in later battles.

Crossbows were brought back from the Holy Lands in the 1300’s. A bolt fired from a crossbow could penetrate leather armor, thus metal plated armor was required for better protection.

A flail consisted of a piece of steel, knobbed or spiked, attached with a chain to a wooden handle. It is swung at a target with force. One sees reproductions today of flails with multiple balls, but I’m not sure if those actually existed in the medieval world.

The mace is a spiked metal ball attached to a club. It was meant to pierce armor. It differs from a morning star in that a morning star would have a spike pointing up from the top, whereas the mace didn’t.

Lances were used against foot soldiers, archers, and opposing cavalry. The problem with using lances was the limitations: once it was thrown, it was gone. The biggest problem with lances, or spears, was their use against the mounted warriors. Knights riding in a line against an enemy would start in a line. Unless they spread out, the horsemen were vulnerable to whatever was waiting for them as they approached. That included lines of spikes, spears, or a rather nasty device called a caltrop. This was a four pointed piece of metal meant to lame the horse that stepped on it. To see how damaging a line of spears to a charging line of knights can be, watch the first big battle scene in Braveheart.

In Thaelia’s World, when Gaelynn first is brought over she carries a sword, a dagger, and a bow with arrows. She uses her bow primarily for hunting and her sword for defense. Braeden uses his sword, a dagger, a war hammer, and bow. Ranulf is proficient in most weapons, although he prefers his sword, axe, and dagger. Edward sticks to his sword, dagger, and war hammer. Peter is a tried and true sword & dagger man. Aumery & Kevin, characters met near the end of the tale who have stronger presence in further adventures both prefer a sword, mace, and dagger.

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