by Norman Descendants August 15, 2017


The pattern-welding technique soon disappeared upon the arrival of the Middle Ages. Germanic swords forged via pattern-welding were of exceptionally high quality and of nearly pure steel at the edges, and were of better quality than most medieval swords. However, advances in forging allowed more swords to be available, so as the Middle Ages progressed, more and more commoners could afford swords. Sword hilts were fitted in the same manner as that of the Viking Age: the crossguard, handle, and pommel were slid up the tang, and then the tang hammered against the bottom of the pommel, peening it.
Swords developed into the arming sword style, characterized by disc-shaped pommels, wider cross-guards, and slightly longer blades, however, some arming swords nevertheless had broad blades designed for slashing and cutting. Pommels also could be rectangular and hat-like, and many styles and shapes would develop. The swords that had pointed tips were better suited to piercing mail and padded armour. The Germanic and Viking-style hilts ceased to be produced by the coming of the Middle Ages, but it is probably that they continued to be wielded for some time. Since a few Viking style swords are found in Chinese museums, it suggests they were traded through the Rus, Tartars or Mongols, and then ended up in China sometime during the Middle Ages.

Daggers were essentially miniature swords in shape and construction, initially referred to as coustel or cultellus, having blades 8-12 inches long or so, and seem to have negative connotations, as the term coustillers would refer to marauding bands of bandits. This type of early dagger would eventually evolve into the baselard. The langseax during this time potentially had a very long handle, possibly for two-handed use. These kinds of knives did not have a pommel but peened to the bottom of a bone or wooden handle. Knives do not seem to have been wielded by knights as a sidearm, so probably were a sidearm for the commoners.

Spearheads were socketed on the ends of poles about two metres long, then riveted into them, and potentially had wings or lugs at the base of the spearhead. Spears made to kill large animals, such as bear, stag or boar, were very large, broad, and leaf-shaped, designed for maximum blood-letting, cutting, and penetration.

The lance was a common weapon used on horseback, around three metres long, and made a strong appearance in the Middle Ages due to the arrival of the knight, which made the huscarl and Viking rather obsolete as the Middle Ages progressed. The Song of Roland mentions knights having lances made of ash or apple-beam. The power of the lance is also depicted in the Song of Roland: “He splits the shield, and cleaves the close-woven hauberk, clean through his breast drives lance and pennon both” and, “Into the torso lance-point and pennon plough, from breast to back the shaft runs through and out.” Modern tests of couched lances also show similar results. However, there are historic accounts of lances failing to pierce mail. Usamah ibn Munquidh mentions in his memoirs that his lance failed to pierce a Frankish knight's hauberk, as well as mentioning another case of which a lance failed to pierce a mail shirt. Thus, the quality of armour and attacker's lance would be important factors. However, even when a lance peirced a man, it did not always kill. the horseman who struck Philip the knight, for verily the Franks have all been astounded on account of that blow which pierced two layers of links [back and front] in the knight's coat of mail and did not kill him. Usamah ibn Munquidh mentions in his memoirs, Memoirs of Usamah, that he drove a lance through a knight named Philip, skewering him, but did not kill him. Philip went to the Muslim camp to show-off his hardiness, and Usamah tells us, “. . .Franks have all been astounded on account of that blow which pierced two layers of links in the knight's coat of mail and did not kill him.” An account that will be slightly paraphrased, mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in History of Scotland, published in 1841, mentions that, at the Battle of Gasclune in 1392, “ . . . Sir David Lindsay, having run his lance through the body of one of the Highlanders, bore him down and pinned him to the earth . . . in his dying agonies, the Highlander writhed himself upwards on the spear and exerted his last strength in fetching a sweeping blow at the armed knight with his two-handed sword. The stroke, made with all the last energies of a dying man, cut through Lindsay’s stirrup and steel boot. . .” The blow did not cut any flesh, but inflicted enough pain for the knight to retire the battle. Therefore, it can be noted that defeating a man's armour does not necessarily mean he is killed or incapacitated. After the lance was driven home, it was often discarded or let go of, for the knight to then unsheathe his sword to fight in a melee or gallop away to regroup with his comrades, perhaps for the reason it did not guarantee a kill! Like spearheads, lance heads were socketed and then riveted at the end of a long pole about three metres in length, and could have wings or lugs at the base of the socket.

The crossbow would develop in the Middle Ages, and became a common ranged weapon, especially in the Iberian peninsula and Italy, and used by Crusaders starting in the 12th century. Crossbows consisted of a stick or tiller, with a stave of wood, horn, or composite assembly, set at a right angle at the front of the stock, and having a long trigger to shoot the weapon. The string was pulled back down the stock over a mechanism called the nut, which was a revolving grooved disc with a section carved out to form two hooks at either side of the groove to hold the string in place, and the nut was then released by use of a trigger. Crossbows were potentially powerful, and Anna Comnena mentions in the 12th century that “not only can a crossbow bolt penetrate a buckler, but a man and his armour, right though.” However, other sources depict bolts and arrows failing to penetrate armour. The 10th-century historian Richer in his Historia mentioned King Lewis and his army attacking Senlis in 947, and were repulsed by vigorous activity of the city's crossbowmen. Staves for the crossbow could be made of wood or horn, or layers of horn. Composite staved for crossbows seem to have been learned from the Saracens during the Crusader era. In England, there is mention of “Peter the Saracen”, who was working for King John in 1205, suggesting the origin of the composite-staved crossbow. The Genoese exported mercenary crossbowmen, first with crossbows having composite staves and then two centuries later steel ones. Famously, Pope Innocent II, in the Lateran Council, cited his anathema against “the deadly art, hated by God, of crossbowmen and archers” but did not condemn its use against Saracens. By the looks of it, this edict was mostly ignored.

Bows, sometimes called self-bows or hand bows, did not seem very popular in Europe during this time, but the Welsh did use war bows of elm, a possible precursor to the longbow of later centuries. Gerald de Barri, writing sometime in 1188, records the power of a Welsh bow during the Siege of Abergavenny Castle in 1182, mentioning to have witnesses shot arrows piercing an oaken door to a depth of “nearly a hand”. On another occasion, famously such an arrow was said to pierce a rider's chausses, pinning him to his horse. Arrowheads could be broad, barbed, or pointed, sometimes case-hardened, which would be useful against opponents wearing mail. These Welsh-made precursors of the English longbows were probably made of elm or yew. Such war bows seem to have been confined to Wales, as they do not make an appearance anywhere else. Composite bows were used in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Greece. Anna Comnena mentions once that the Byzantines had to shoot arrows into Frankish horses as their bows were not strong enough to pierce their mail armour, suggesting that even stronger war bows did not easily break mail armour. Bow staves were cut from the radius of a tree, then carved into shape, with the sapwood facing the back. Other woods used for bows were maple, ash, hazel, and oak, but elm was the better choice, and yew the best choice.

Slings sometimes appear, such as for hunting small game, but slings ceased to be used in warfare it seems. The fustibal was essentially a staff-sling, used to hurl things over castle walls, such as flaming pots or stones, but not much information can be found on them and their effectiveness. Slings were made of braided leather, with the middle consisting of a pouch, which was loaded with a stone or clay bullet. Whirled around and around, one-half of the sling was let go, thus hurling the bullet. Slings at the end of a staff hypothetically were used simply to hurl, without much need for technique.

Axes did not seem to have been used extensively by knights, however, Roger de Hovedan notes that King Stephen of England, during the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, “was equal to a thunderbolt, slaying some with his immense battleaxe and striking down many others” until it broke from too many hits, and then the king unsheathed his sword. This suggests that some Norman knights and warriors may have used the axe as a primary weapon until it broke. Richard the Lionhearted was also said to have wielded a battleaxe with both hands, generally known as a long axe. Battleaxes of the Middle Ages developed a hammer, spike or fluke at the opposite side of the blade, and sometimes a spike at the top of the shaft, a feature not seen in Ancient Times, increasing the uses of the battleaxe against armoured opponents. Battleaxes with extended handles would evolve into the halberd, used in Europe, the Middle East, and India. European battleaxes would develop into many shapes and sizes, such as the berdiche, glaive, Dane axe, voulge, and Lochaber axe. Maces were also used as concussive weapons, but not much details can be studied from them in how they were fought with. They were used to smash people senseless, what else is there to say? Like axe heads, mace heads were socketed at the end of a handle, the end narrow than the rest of the handle, and then wedged at the top to spread the wood apart, holding the head in place. Contrary to popular depiction, flails do not seem to have been a medieval weapon, but appear in the Renaissance era.

The Vikings do not seem to have made extensive use of siege weapons, but the Middle Ages utilized catapults, ballistae, mangonels, battering rams, siege ladders, siege towers, and trebuchets. During the First Crusade, Crusaders often built siege engines, such as siege towers and catapults, to besiege cities. The Muslim armies do not seem to have utilized siege engines very much during the First Crusade, which allowed the Crusaders to utilize the constructs and overcome walls and towers. Saladin did make use of siege engines when he came to power. The Crusaders built two siege towers to besiege Jerusalem, one being put on fire and destroyed by the defenders, but the other reached the walls, and so the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. Since medieval European soldiers were modelled off the Roman legions, many soldiers were also craftsmen or tradesmen, which suggests this was why they could build siege engines, both from cut timbers, as well as using wood from deconstructed boats and buildings. The Byzantines also utilized siege engines during this time.

Author: Jonathan Pouliot-Konopka

Norman Descendants
Norman Descendants

Normans were the people who gave their name to Normandy, a region in northern France. They were descended from Viking conquerors lead by Rollo of the territory and the native Merovingian culture formed from Germanic Franks and Romanised Gauls. Their identity emerged initially in the first half of the 10th century, and gradually evolved over succeeding centuries.