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Arms and Armor in the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance




The greatest change with which fighters had to cope in terms of their weaponry was the gradual movement towards plate armor in the fourteenth century. This is especially the case regarding changes in the sword.

Although the battlefield may generally have revolved around the lances of the men-at-arms, and the missiles and polearms of the infantry, the sword was the primary weapon of the knight for individual combat. The lance would help his formation to break a unit or to gain glory in the tournament, but when the lance was broken or the fighting moved to truly close-quarters work, it was the sword that would save the knight's life, and the sword that functioned a status-establishing weapon. Although the men who used them were not pedantic about the terms they used to name their swords (just as in our period, we are usually not picky about calling our vehicle a Ford or a Honda: we call it a car), there are definitely distinctions that can be made.

Sword When looking at a sword like this, one can determine a great deal about how it was intended to be used. Swords like this one are designed for both cutting and piercing: the blade tapers strongly to a narrow point that can be used to hunt out the weak parts in an opponent's armor. The edges can still be used against more lightly-armored opponents: no matter how effective a sword is against forms of armor such as brigandine and mail, no sword, no matter how sharp, can cut directly through plate armor.

Compare this to the following sword, where the edges run more-or-less straight. This blade is designed to cut, but has little utility in thrusting against an armored target. 

The swords above are called long swords. It was the standard knightly sword of the era, and differs from the earlier war swords essentially only in that the blade is slightly longer (and the handle is designed to allow two hands to be used. For most of the medieval period, fighters would use a sword and a shield together. However, by the 1300s, fighters had been forced by improvements in archery to adopt sufficiently heavy mail that the shield really began to be irrelevant. By the time that transitional armor and full plate armor came into use, shield were relatively rare on the battlefield. The standard knightly sword, therefore, retained enough lightness that it could be swung easily in one hand from horseback, but allowed the warrior to use the blade in two hands while on foot, which made the blade move very quickly and very powerfully with relatively little effort. It differs from the great sword insofar as the latter generally was not designed for thrusting, and was longer and heavier: a longsword averaged 2.5-3.5 pounds, with a blade length between 40-48 inches, the greatsword weighed on average a little under a pound more (3-4 pounds average), with a blade length between 44-53 inches. The larger greatswords are capable of going against heavy armors, and are devastating against lighter ones.

Medieval swords were capable of inflicting horrific injuries, well able to remove a limb or kill with a single solid blow. In order to cut effectively, they needed to be light and relatively thin. Both of the two swords above are a little less than a fifth of an inch (~4.6 mm) thick. A thin blade moves less material aside as it cuts, allowing for a deeper wound to be made more easily than it would if it were thicker; however, this means that the edge can be easily damaged, and when notched a sword will not only not cut, it can also be crack or shatter with a solid blow. Blades had to be designed with these considerations in mind. There was a difference, however, for those blades that were intended primarily to cut and those blades that were designed to cut and thrust. Purely cutting blades were very flexible, whereas blades intended for thrusting had to be more rigid (you can see why by looking at sport fencing weapons: for safety purposes, they are extremely flexible, and bend when pushed into their target). The depression in the blade above is called a fuller. It allows the blade to retain strength while being just a little bit lighter and easier to wield. It also tends to make the weapon stronger than it would be if it were completely flat. Sometimes one finds swords made in a diamond shape on the blade, rather than being flattened or fullered. In this case, the swords in question are almost universally designed for strong thrusts against heavy armor, and any experienced knight or professional soldier would have been able to note these details at a glance, and by doing so, have a good idea of what to expect from his opponent.

The falchion is a specialized sword form intended solely for chopping, and is used in one hand only.Conyers falchion This is the "Conyers falchion," and is an excellent example of the type. As you can see, it has a very wide blade, with the point of impact in front of where the hand would be, just like an axe blade. In spite of being wide, the blades are no heavier than other swords: the blades get much thinner as one moves from the handle to the tip, and so they are quick with great penetrating power. They can cut directly through mail, damage plate armor, or tear up a shield in a matter of moments, and while they were never the most popular variety of sword, they gained popularity during the fourteenth century because of their inherent usefulness against heavy armor. They do not seem to have widely popular in the fifteenth century, but the falchion regained popularity as a "must-study" weapon in the Renaissance.

The sabre Sabre is often not considered to be a medieval weapon at all, but rather an Early Modern one. This is because the weapon, while widely used in Central and Southeastern Europe from the seventh century onwards, was generally not used further west than the eastern Electorates of the Holy Roman Empire until around the seventeenth century, when it was adopted for light cavalry. The sabre is primarily intended to be used on horseback, and in the fourteenth-sixteenth century it remained a common weapon for both light and heavy Hungarian cavalry and was gradually adopted by the Poles (for both of whom it can now be considered a "cultural weapon"), and had been in use among the Turks for a long time as well. This is important, because although the Ottomans eventually destroyed Byzantium, it must be remembered that various Turkish groups were alternately Byzantium's greatest enemies and most common allies and mercenaries. The weapon shown is of a form known and used in both Poland and Hungary in the sixteenth century, but also known from a Serbian wall painting of the fifteenth century. It is rather short at approximately 34 inches of total length, and may have been a training weapon for a child. One thing that should be noted is that the raised section along the back of the sabre was often made razor-sharp, and there are a number of techniques designed for reversing the weapon and making fine dragging cuts with that edge, either against an opponent's horse, or to cut out the inside of one's opponent's wrists.

A Turk holding a messer The center "Turk" in this image, the one being stabbed in the back, is holding a weapon called a "messer." There is some debate about whether the messer comes from the sabre with modifications to fit Western European warfare, or whether, as the name in German suggests, the weapon is descended from the long knife. Either way, it is a form that is equivalent to the sabre in usage, and was very common in the Holy Roman Empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. The Poles and Bohemians (and to a lesser extent, the Moscovites) also used very similar weapons, especially for infantry.

Axe and mace The axe and the mace existed in a wide variety of forms, although weapons like these are would have been common on any fifteenth-century battlefield. The axe was originally the weapon of commoners who could not afford a sword, but by the later Middle Ages, the axe had gained favor across the entire social spectrum because of its tremendous cutting power. It and the mace, both weapons known and used from early antiquity, became more and more popular among professional soldiers and men-at-arms in direct relation to the increase of heavy armor on the battlefield. Both weapons were generally lighter than they are commonly considered to be: a well-balanced axe or mace would generally weigh no more than 2.5 to 3 pounds at maximum (no heavier on average than a sword, and sometimes much lighter), and almost all of that weight was focused directly at the point of impact. Although a little slower in the hand than a sword (and with the axe requiring practice to align the edge correctly), each of them can quickly deliver incredibly strong blows. Both can also be used for techniques that can be performed with no others. With a mace one can break armor, smash shields, and shatter swords without having to worry about preserving a fragile edge. Place a short length of chain on the handle, and the flail that results is so powerful that it can be used in one hand, yet knock an armored man off his feet with a solid blow. Axes can be used to hook and trap weapons and limbs, can block with the width of the steel head horizontally above the edge, and, especially if backed with a spike or hammer, can be used to smash plate armor. Both weapons could be thrown accurately.

Spear A fifteenth-century spearhead, and the butt-spike that held the hind end of the spear and allowed it to be secured in the ground.Spear Besides the sword, the spear, or some version of it, was the weapon of the medieval battlefield. Easily used by the untrained, it allowed units of footmen to be equipped easily, as spears were vastly cheaper than swords. As the business end of an armored and highly-trained horse and rider riding in formation with others, it provided sufficient force to break any formation that was not in perfect order. Add an axe or scythe blade, or extend the point of the spear with a cutting edge, and put on a hook or a couple of spikes, and the spear is transformed into a weapon that is out-and-out dangerous to any opponent, no matter how well armored. There was a vast variety of designs depending on region and the purpose for which they were used. Relatively few of those who used spears on the battlefield were particularly skilled with them: they were often the weapon of levies rather than professional soldiers and men-at-arms. However, even without modification, spears are very versatile weapons with a long reach, and an expert with the spear can be every bit as dangerous as a master swordsman.

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