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Arms and Armor in the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance



Regional differences

Before going into a more in-depth look at the weapons, it is important to take a quick general look at the demands placed on those who used weaponry: by looking at the context in which the weapons were used themselves, we can learn more about those who used them. The medieval world was by no means homogenous, and strategies that made sense in one region would be a recipe for disaster in another. Although it is impossible to describe these differences here in great detail, some differentiations must be made, in order to understand why different weapons were used by warriors in different regions. Generally speaking one can distinguish four regions in which the conditions of warfare were so different from each other that it determined different types of arms and armor.

It is impossible to talk about late medieval warfare without mentioning the Hundred Years War. The English managed to develop an extremely effective way of fighting on the battlefield by harnessing the longbow. The longbow had existed in the British Isles and Northern Europe for many centuries, and the English monarchs discovered that they could put these archers, with their extremely powerful bows, with their very high rate of fire, to good use under circumstances in which the archers were protected by earthworks or palisades. The English dismounted their men-at-arms in order to help the archers, the "teeth" of their army, to be able to stand their ground and continue to shoot. The English, under Edward III, found that when they were able to guarantee their archers a clear field of fire, those archers could inflict tremendous damage. Where they could not fire, such as at Bannockburn where the ground was marshy and the men-at-arms were in the way, the close formations of long spears used by the Scots could defeat the mounted knights. In France, this principle was used in conjunction with sieges: the English would besiege an area and dare the French to give battle under extremely unfavorable circumstances. The well-known slaughter the English inflicted at Agincourt was unusual in the course of European warfare as a whole, and happened particularly because the French had truly developed their knights and cavalry for breaking formations. Although the English inflicted tremendous damage with the longbow, this did not mean that the knight was somehow "outmoded." English knights, fighting dismounted, were indispensable to the survival of those archers. It is generally forgotten how close the French came to overwhelming the palisades, and that Henry V himself, in the midst of the fighting, literally came within an inch of having his helm split open by an opponent with a battle axe. Even so, this pattern of putting missile troops in the field protected by temporary fortifications, palisades, and pikes would form the basic pattern in which early handguns were used until the very end of the sixteenth century.

The Iberian peninsula and the Reconquista was a much different region. Fighting in this region was also a constant series of sieges, and missile troops, in the form of mounted crossbowmen, were used as well. However, the climate, and the style of warfare was much different: light cavalry, and large amounts of buckler-and-sword-equipped fighters were required for fighting that typically happened in harsh terrain. Pitched battles happened, but in a land whose climate and terrain generally made mules more popular than horses, cavalry's main role consisted in defense against raids and quick manuvers by one's enemies. Heavy cavalry was used, but in conjunction with light cavalry rather than infantry, and spear/pike formation fighting wasn't practical. In most of the rest of Europe, fighters in heavy armor had discarded the shield as unnecessary, but with lighter armors used on the Iberian Peninsula, it was used longer, and only fell began to fall out of favor during the sixteenth century.

Warfare in the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian city-states was another matter altogether. Both regions, with unmatched industry and a level of metallurgy absolutely unmatched by the rest of Western Europe, could field large numbers of very-heavily equipped men-at-arms, and in fact, they had to do so. In these regions crossbowmen were ubiquitous. Although the crossbow could not be fired as quickly as the longbow, it had several features that made it a far superior weapon for city-based warfare and sieges: its trigger meant that sniping was easier, and one could learn to use the weapon effectively in a matter of months, as opposed to the years of training required to use the longbow effectively. It was here in Italy that plate armor was developed as a response to the increasing threat of crossbow bolts and polearm blades, and continued to influence armor designs in the rest of Europe, whether by the export of armor, or of armorers. Warfare was much more urban, and commoners entered into warfare more often. Guilds and associations in the cities fielded forces of both footmen and cavalry, and occasionally groups of unusual troops, such as the Swiss with halberd (and later pikes), and Bohemians fighting with handguns, polearms and crossbows from the cover of very mobile wagons, could easily upset the normal balance of power.

East-Central and Eastern European warfare could be entirely different than in the West. In some regions warfare tended to be carried out on basically traditional lines, but with peculiarities: the Teutonic Order and Poland fought each other using up-to-date equipment, with plate armor used by the upper strata, but also with more of an emphasis on light cavalry. In this respect the Hungarians set a pattern in the fourteenth century by combining traditional heavy cavalry with mounted archers armed with composite bows, who were used to harass heavy cavalry and punish infantry formations with arrow fire, but who, because of their high mobility, did not require defensive formations. Like the English longbow, however, shooting with a recurved bow from horseback required long years of training, and therefore was depended on groups of people who engaged in such training as part of their daily life. The Hungarians, and, after the Hungarian mauling under the Ottoman cannons at Mohács, the Poles enjoyed distinct advantages by training horse archers and light cavalry to work very closely with both heavy cavalry and heavy infantry. These formations had a flexibility unmatched further in the west. They needed this flexibility, because they had to fight against two very different types of enemies on the battlefield. Towards the west, Imperial and Italian opponents fielded relatively small units of heavily-equippped, highly trained footmen, and to the East, it was necessary to fight against opponents who either used fluid steppe-style tactics, or who fielded vast numbers of lightly-equipped but extremely disciplined infantry. Turkic mercenaries had long been used by Byzantium, and as Byzantine forces either defected to the Ottomans or were defeated by them, Central and South-eastern Europeans both influenced the Turkic invaders, and at the same time made more use of weapons such as the sabre. Therefore one would see equipment normally thought of as "steppe" or "middle-eastern" used by those people's opponents, and in close cooperation with knights, and also with crossbowmen and handgunners.

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