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Arms and Armor in the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance


The "Evolution" of weapons

Regional Differences - the context in which the weapons were used

Types of Armor

Types of Weapons

Weapons as part of the daily life of the warrior

The "Evolution" of weapons

Medieval society, in spite of its stereotypes, was not inherently more violent than modern society. Although there was no state in the modern sense, and therefore no set of laws that inherently took away the power of the average man or woman to exercise violence, the violence of the day was considered differently, and without the inherent sense of criminality that accompanies it today. Our understanding of the weapons of the medieval world is skewed by the vast disarming of "the civilian" that is taken for granted today, yet is a vastly different situation compared to what existed in many parts of "the West" as little as seventy years ago. Arms and Armor were taken for granted as a part of medieval daily life. Although there were professional soldiers and ever-suspect groups of mercenaries, the upper strata of medieval societies were almost universally recognized as those whose duty it was to be highly skilled with weapons. The nobility were characterized not only by their birth, but by the fact that they fought, whether it was on the battlefield or in the tournament. Given this, one can no more understand the medieval world without having an understanding of weapons and armor than one can understand European intellectual development without ever having been exposed to Aristotle.

Medieval weapons and armor are, for better or for worse, generally considered in light of the knight and the nobility. The nobility, fighting as heavy cavalry, had exerted a tremendous influence on the battlefield. In spite of the pressures brought to bear on the knight by the increased use of the longbow, crossbow, handgun, and pike, heavy cavalry continued to play an absolutely essential role on the battlefield. The 14-16th century saw great changes in weapons and armor, not because they "evolved" per se, but because they changed to maintain their effectiveness under different conditions: as John Clements puts in his book Medieval Swordsmanship "After all, swords did not get sharper, stronger, or especially more effective after the Middle Ages. They did not evolve as guns did to become more accurate, of longer range, and with faster rates of fire with each successive generation." Instead, as threats to the knight increased in capability, and as the knight himself (and the masculine pronoun is appropriate here) became more and more specialized at breaking formations, and also better at doing so, the cycle of adaptation resulted in a wide variety of new forms of weapons and armor.

To look back and get a perspective on this, let us take a (very) quick look first at the Holy Roman Empire as it existed in the early Middle Ages. Military force was provided by the King or Emperor and his military retinue. This traveling court consisted of the best-equipped and best-trained mobile force in the Empire. When numbers were needed, one man in seven was recruited to serve as infantry. This system worked well for some time, based on the success of the traditional methods of warfare and training, which relied on skilled footmen fighting from a "shield wall" in which group infantry could effectively hold ground while the cavalry, whether drafted from the nobility or semi-dynastic servants (Ministeriales and various milites).

All of this changed dramatically under the influence of the Vikings, Saracens, and Magyars (Hungarians). The Saracens and Vikings both moved rapidly with boats along rivers, and armies that consisted largely of footmen simply could not be mobilized and react quickly enough to defend territory. By the time that they arrived on the scene, the damage was essentially done, particularly in the case of Vikings, who were essentially raiders. The Magyars moved with small steppe-type horses with amazing speed, conducting raids, sometimes independently and sometimes as mercenaries. When armies of footmen actually did manage to bring the Magyars to battle, they were steadily wiped out, because the lightly armored footmen were unable to bring their hand weapons to bear while the Magyar horsemen pelted them with a river of arrows.

The answer to this, besides an increasingly sophisticated system of fortification, was essentially to develop the horsemen into military organizations that were both mobile enough to manuver strategically and also armored sufficiently to both resist archery and make up for the fact that, a cavalryman being drastically more expensive to equip and maintain than even a comparably armored infantryman, there were generally far fewer of them. The "western knight" was born. The knight was, however, far from the lone-wolf hero of the romances, which can be likened in a way to a sort of medieval version of the modern action movie, whose hero inevitably survives actions and situations that would doom the finest fighters. "Schwarzenegger in chainmail" would have been quickly and brutally killed on the medieval battlefield.

There was a truth, however, to the potential of the heavy cavalry. Templar rules prohibiting flight unless facing odds of more than 3 to 1, and the staggering successes of the Normans in Ireland, Sicily, and against the Byzantines, show that the mobility and shock value of the knight provided a tremendous advantage for close-quarters fighting. With these advantages he was able to defend groups of infantry and baggage trains while on the march, and could provide great offensive power applied exactly where it was needed to turn a battle. In a region where composite bow technology was generally unknown, heavily armored men-at-arms could shrug off missile fire that could and did devastate more lightly-equipped footmen.

By the fourteenth century, improvements in the range and power of the crossbow Crossbow had made it an indispensable tool of war, and arguably the weapon of the cities and the seas. Time and time again in the Crusades, the crossbow, and not force of the knight in melee, proved the decisive factor. However, although mounted crossbowmen were used extensively in Spain, crossbowmen could not manuver quickly while shooting, and this meant that they were vulnerable while reloading. Missile fire could be devastating from a protected position (as used, for example, by the Ottomans at Nicopolis and the English at Agincourt), but the archer simply could not hold open ground against a well-performed cavalry charge.

The long spear, and eventually the pike, was used successfully to hold ground, and on numerous occasion troops using polearms beat back cavalry charges. The Swiss became renowned for their skill with the pike and halberd, and at Courtrai and Stirling heavy cavalry was decimated by charging blocks of spearmen. However, this was generally the exception to the rule: usually polearm-equipped footmen could indeed hold ground if they were well-trained, but they usually could not take ground, because moving quickly made it difficult to maintain the close order that these formations depended on for survival. A disordered formation was certain to be cracked open by a well-timed charge.

Perhaps paradoxically, the cavalry charge became more and more decisive as factors on the battlefield arose that challenged it. The additional weight of heavier armor that would resist crossbow bolts (and, in northwest Europe, longbow arrows) provided additional power for breaking formations. It was an ongoing spiral of offense and defense as relatively light mail gave way to heavy mail, and then mail with pieces of plate Heavy mail, and finally to the knight in full suits of plate armor. Just as archers and polearm-equipped infantry had to adjust to the increasingly heavy armor of the knight with new weapons and tactics, the knight had to cooperate closely with his own formation not only to protect or defeat infantry, but also, and perhaps especially, the opposing knights. It is this set of challenges during the period of the fourteenth- sixteenth centuries that spurred huge changes and developments in weaponry and defensive gear.

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