It is not easy to have contact with medieval things in our normal life since it is a period over a thousand years ago. We can have contacts with medieval Europe by secondary sources like movies, novels and plays. In romantic fantasies we have about middle age formed by those sources, heroes appear as knights in usual. Knights in the stories protect and save princesses or ladies from dangers. Middle Ages seem like an era with romantic stories starred by royal families, nobility, and knights. However, Middle Ages were not really peaceful era.
Medieval weapons are kind of symbols of the middle age which describe well the society at that time. Weapons were used daily in Middle Ages because it was not really peaceful at that time. (1)Since its social structure based on feudalism, everyone had to owe to protect someone so they all had to fight for someone. Every man should be able to fight and acknowledge at least one type of weapon. This unique social structure and other essential factors caused frequent small and big wars between countries. The lords who own the land were always on wars against other lords to gain control over other territories. (2)It seemed the most popular activity was to take other’s land and power. The amount of war and fighting over land and power was quite staggering. Many castles were built during this time to protect the landowners and their seats of power. People were prepared for war at all times, as skirmishes or full out wars and battles were not infrequent.
However there were also some other reasons. In the middle Ages, they put a great importance on personal honors. Those who cannot protect themselves were only peasants and fools. To defend their personal honors, knights and royalty trained with weaponry. (3)They had a custom called ‘Duels’ which were official repaying to person who humiliated one in front of public. In addition, they should be able to join in army if they were summoned by king. If they couldn’t, it was a very shameful thing, and they were considered as peasants.
Thus, in needs of variety of weapons, different types of numerous weapons were developed at that time. According to the feudal system, variety of weapons was used in variety of classes. Knights and foot soldiers had different type of weapons. Knights could afford for expensive armors and weapons which require long training time, but normal foot soldiers could not afford it. The variety of weapons at this era would include polearms, battle axes, maces, billhook, caltrop, flail, halberd, longbow, bow, crossbow, pike, spear, and warhammer. Those weapons were used primarily by foot soldiers as knights needed weapons that could be used while on horseback. Their weapons consisted of the lance, shields and swords such as the broadsword, falchion, and great swords.
In this paper, I would introduce medieval weapons based on information appeared in movies we watched and other secondary sources such as websites and books about middle age. In the movies about middle age, it is easy to observe various types of movies they use and how they used it in what situations. I will explain what weapons they used depend on their classes and roles in the battle.
- Close range Weapons
In the wars, battles, and duels, warriors should be able to attack their opponents in front of them. The need to attack opponents in the close distance resulted evolution in close range weapons.
As we hear the word, Middle Ages, most people are likely to come up with images of knight with huge swords fighting for their lord or ladies. Among various kinds of weapons of middle age, swords were most widely used weapons by not only the knights but people from all classes. Swords were very general weapon to have and use in the Middle Ages. A sword consists of a blade which is a long piece of metal with sharp points and edges used for attacking and a hilt to hold. Swords had many variations as various kinds of people used it. It varies from very long and fancy ones to short and simple ones according to their specific purposes and users.
Since swords were able to be in various categories, there are lots of ways to classify swords. One way of classifying swords depend on how many hands they use to hold and swing the sword. If a sword is held by only one hand, it is called single-handed. Obviously, if it requires two hands to use, it is called double-handed or two-handed. Single-handed swords include rapiers, spathas, and double-handed swords include claymores and so forth. In the movie ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘El Cid’, which knights appear, we can see uses of swords. Including main characters ‘El Cid’ and ‘Ivanhoe’, other knights and warriors used swords as their weapon.
(5)The word claymore came from Scottish ‘claidheamh mor’ which means “great sword”. As we can infer from the origin of the word, claymores were big swords with large blades. Broadswords like claymores commonly used during roughly from 1350 to 1550 according to preference of long swords among European armies that period. However, uses of claymores declined about 16th century. The most famous users of these claymores are highlanders of Scotland and the Germanic Landsknechts. There are two types of claymores, one type is a two-handed sword with a cross hilt (a piece of metal placed between the blade and the hilt to protect user’s hand.) and other type is a basket-hilted broadsword used since 16th century. This latter type of claymores had a straight and single-edged blade
A cutlass is a kind of sword with short and broad blade with a slight curve on the tip of cutting edge. It has a hilt that looks like a cup or basket. Cutlasses are mostly known as weapons of sailors. It was an effective weapon for sailors because it was powerful enough to chop out strong ropes, canvases, and woods. In addition, cutlasses were more effective weapons in close range battles than the full sized swords. The best advantage of cutlasses was in its simplicity of using. It did not require much training in using unlike other swords like rapiers. Cutlasses were not only used in the ocean, but they were also used in the land. Cavalry soldiers used cutlasses because curved blades of them made slashing enemies much easier. In the Ottoman Empire, Turkish warriors protecting the boundaries used cutlasses.
A rapier is a sword with a relatively slim and pointy blade mostly for stabbing attacks and mainly used during 16th and 17th century. In general, rapiers are consisted of long pointy blades and sophisticated hilts. These complex hilts are made to protect hands from getting wounded. Different from other swords, rapiers had complicated structure of blades. (7)Blade of rapiers was divided into one, two, or even nine parts. Usually, rapiers had two parts of the forte and the debole. The forte is a strongest part of rapier placing closest to the hilt and the debole was the weakest part of rapier including the point and the second part of the blade. Rapiers are more effective when attacking opponents because they are lighter than the other weapons. Since rapiers are for thrusting not cutting, its blades should not be as wide as other swords.
(8)Mace is not a weapon used to cut something. It is categorized as a type of blunt weapons which are for hitting opponents. Mace is a very simple club weapon with a heavy and solid head to make critical damages. Mace is differentiated from hammer in way that it has symmetric head so it can give an equal effective attack to the enemy. The head of mace was slightly bigger than its stick and it was designed with flanges or knobs to allow great penetration to the armor. Its length varied from 70 centimeters to 90 centimeters but the maces of cavalry men could be longer to blow up the enemies up on the horseback.
2.2.1 (9)Flanged Mace; Flail, Morningstar
To strengthen the power of maces, there were some variations put on maces. One way was to design the mace with flanges. Flanges are projecting edges on an object to strengthen the object. One shortcoming of a mace is that mace cannot penetrate things. However, with flanges on the head of maces, it enables maces to give strong impacts and penetrate the armor at the same time. There are two types of flanged maces; one is a ball at the top of head and this is called a Morningstar and the one with head connected by chains is called a flail. In the movie El Cid, when El Cid is on duel to prove his innocence, the opponent of El Cid uses flanged mace as his weapon.
When we think about weapons, it is very easy to define that weapons are only for offense. However, as offense is crucial in the fighting, defense is also important. Good warriors should be able to defense and offense at the same time. That is the reason why armors were also important weapons in the middle age. In the movies, knights and other warriors wear armors which look like clothes. (10)This type of armors is made with numerous small metal rings linked together. It is called mail or chain mail. Mails were very effective at defending the wearer. In the middle age, mails were considered as an armor which is impossible to penetrate. Extremely well made weapons like swords and poles were able to cut the links between the rings, but usually the only thing that can harm a person in mail was blunt weapons like mace. Blunt weapons were able to harm the person without cutting through the armor but by the impact it can give at the hitting point. It was invented in the 1st millennium BC and used broadly until 14th century when plate armor was considered better.
Plate armors were used in the ancient times but it disappeared with collapse of Roman Empire. It was used again and replaced chainmail armors from the late 13th century. Full plate armors were very expensive to afford. It was made with plates or disks of steel were added slowly to chain mail armor to protect the vulnerable areas of the body. These were initially added on to the chain mail armor at the knees and armpits. Eventually plate armors progressed into a full body covering armor suit which covered and protected the knight from head to toe.
The movie ‘Ivanhoe’ takes place in period where chainmail was widely used so most armors in the movie are chainmail. Movie ‘El Cid’, time period about 11th century also wears chainmail for their protection. However, in the movie ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’, armors developed into plate armors. So the main characters including Francesco wears plate armors instead of chainmail.
(11)Shields are protective devices that defend attacks of opponents. It is easy to think that shields are not weapons but only for defending but it was also used as an actual weapon in battles. Shield was an inevitable component of armors of knights. (12)The decoration on shield, or shield symbols enabled recognition of the knights. There were largely four types of shield; kite shields, heater shields, the buckler, wall shields, and target shields. Knights in the movie ‘Ivanhoe’ have shields with all different designs which show where they are from.
2.5 Close range weapons in the middle age.
Duels were engaged fight between two individuals usually occurred in order to protect one’s honor. Duels were somehow like trial by fighting because it was sometimes considered as one way to prove (14)guilt or innocence. (15)In early duels, thrusting versus cutting was considered as an ideal type of combat. It is unknown that how these rules were made. Weapons like sabre was a representative cutting weapon used in the duels and the representative thrusting weapon was rapiers. Features of duel appeared in movies ‘El cid’, and ‘Ivanhoe’ but they did not use rapiers, which were most common weapon for duels. Weapons for duel in ‘El Cid’ were axe and flail and weapons for duel in ‘Ivanhoe’ were lances.
Among three types of soldiers in the middle age, knights, foot soldiers, and archers, knights played critical roles in the battles. They were the main strength of one army. Knight was like a tank in nowadays with full armor, shield, and powerful weapons. Soldiers and archers could not stand one knight. Because knights were that strong, they required long years of training. Normally, to be a knight, a man should have train themselves from age of eight. They needed to have strengths, know how to ride horses, and how to handle variety of weapons. They used long and broad swords and lances for their weapons. Knights wore armors and used shields for their protection.
III. Ranged Weapons
It was important to be able to attack opponents in front of me, but battles also required warriors to be able to attack opponents in the distance. It was not able to attack enemies in the distance with weapons like swords, maces, or axes. Ranged weapons enable attacks that close range weapons cannot make. Ranged weapons played its role in the battles as a backup of ranged weapons.
3.1 (17)Bows and Arrows
Among ranged weapons, bows and arrows were most commonly used weapon because of its simplicity to use. If swords were weapons for knights, bows and arrows were weapons for commoners. Bows and arrows were used in various situations such as (18)hunting, sport, or as weapons in the war. Bows and arrows consist of limbs and strings. Limbs are body part of bows. Length and flexibility of limbs decided the power of a bow. Bows cannot be a weapon without strings. Strings connect the tip of limbs and hold the arrow. Strings should be tight enough to draw back arrows and shoot them at appropriate power. With the development of other ranged weapons like gunpowder in the late middle age, bows and arrows were no longer used in the battles. In the movie ‘Ivanhoe’ Robin Hood and his troops use bows and arrows to siege castle.
3.1.1 (19)Robin Hood with his bows and arrows
Robin Hood, a hero of commoners in the medieval England is famous for using bows and arrows as his weapon. His weapon symbolizes his characteristic as a hero of commoner. He did not use swords like any other heroes at that time. He did not act like a superior noble hero who saved only princesses or ladies and stood above commoners but he also was a commoner too. He fought against nobility and was a friend of commoners. (20)In the movie Ivanhoe, Robin Hood appears as a supporter of Saxons and Ivanhoe, and attacks his enemies with bows and arrows. (21)It is said that he spent time to make his own bows and arrows.
Crossbows are type of weapon which is much evolved from bows and arrows in aspects of power. Crossbows work in mechanism similar to a siege weapon called ballista. Crossbows played a crucial role in the battles. The mechanism of crossbows is like automatic bows and arrows. (22)Bow is placed on a stick and there is a slot on a stick to place arrows. Then, arrow is pulled to the tip of the stick and when trigger is let out, arrows fly with more kinetic energy than average arrows. (23)The power of crossbows was powerful enough to kill the knights protected in full armors. Thus, soldiers with crossbows were positioned in the center with other soldiers with ranged weapons. Crossbows did not require several years of training to shoot well like bows and arrows.
3.3 Pole Weapons
If bows and arrows are to hit the enemy in far distance and not used as a melee weapon, pole weapons are kind of mixture between two types of weapons. Pole weapons are made out of long stick and the attacking part at the tip, so it could attack the enemies in a certain radius around the soldier. The power of pole weapons is that it has a strong angular energy when it is swayed and it is able to damage larger amounts of people than swords and other weapons can.
Lance is an evolved version of a long spear generally used by chivalry soldiers. It was a long spear with tip on the end of it which size was up to four meters or longer. It was a powerful pole weapon of this time but it was ineffective in ways of killing people because it was too long and only available to attack one person at a time. Tip of lances were usually blunt shaping like a cone, to give stronger impacts when thrusting opponents. We can see these weapons in the movie ‘Ivanhoe’ at the scene Ivanhoe fights against several knights.
Pike was a comparatively long weapon; its size varied from 3 to 6 meters. It would consist of long wooden stick and spearhead made of iron or steel at the top of it. It was used by soldiers to attack cavalry assaults.
Halberd is an axe on a stick. It was differentiated from axes because it provided ranged attacks and much powerful damages. Its long length enabled halberd to have larger power and damage severely both armored and unarmored opponents. Often there is a spike on top of the pole and on the other side of the axe blade to give a more precise armor-piercing weapon, as well as to give the user something to kill an opponent with on the backswing. Halberd appears in battles in the movies.
IV. Siege Weapons
In the middle age, wars occurred very commonly. There were major battles like the famous Crusades and also minor conflicts between the lords and kings. In the battle between the lords, its main purpose was to get control over the territory. The ones who had to protect their territory had castles to defend themselves from enemies. Since castles were not easy to fall down in front of attacks of normal weapons, the attackers needed special weapons to get over castles. They sieged the castle and put even stronger attacks by what are called siege weapons.
4.1 (26)Siege Tower
Castles were to strong and huge for soldiers to climb and since defenders in the castle occupies higher point in the battle, it was more advantageous for defenders. Attackers tried to climb the walls to get in castles but soldiers inside made it difficult by pouring boiling water or throwing boulders. A siege tower was a specialized siege weapon to protect themselves from defenders’ disturbance. It was a rectangular shaper tower with a height of a wall they should climb and four wheels to move it effectively. Siege towers had a danger of getting into fire since they were made out of wood; they covered the tower with iron or animal skins. When the tower is near the wall of castle, soldiers in the tower would rush into the castle and attack people inside the castle. It was used from age of Roman Empire and became more elaborate design in the middle age. However, the siege towers became useless after large cannons were developed. Siege towers can be seen in the movie ‘El Cid’.
(27)The trebuchet was introduced to England by Louis of France in the 13th century. Trebuchet consists of a long arm pivoting on an axle at the summit of a high frame. The shorter end of the long arm carried enormous boulders and earths as a counterweight. The longer end, called the “verge”, was lowered down to ground level against the pull of the counterweight. This end carried the projectile, or missile, in either a spoon or sling which, when released, hurled its projectile in a high trajectory to a range which could be adjusted by a sliding counterweight on the longer arm. There is a similar type of weapon named catapult.
V. Medieval Weapons in the Movies.
5.1 El Cid
(28)In the movie ‘El Cid’, which is a movie about one war hero of medieval Spain, the hero El Cid mostly appears fighting in the battles or duels. In the ‘El Cid’, we can observe essential features of middle age battles and duels. In the movie, El Cid is in duel in order to prove his innocence. In the duel, El Cid and his competitor choose weapons to use. The competitor chooses a flail and El Cid chooses an axe.
(29)El Cid uses a sword like any other warriors in the middle age. His sword is a legendary sword and it is still considered as a highly valuable treasure. The name of this treasure is ‘Tizona’. Tizona is a sword made in Cordoba, Spain at the year of 1002. It is quite a long sword with the length of 103 centimeters and the weight of 1.1 kilograms. Tizona is known to be obtained during war with the Moors. (30)El Cid had gone through numerous battles with this sword and he did not even let the sword out of his hand when he was dying.
At the middle part of the movie El Cid, when El Cid and his army siege the castle of Valencia, we can see few features of medieval warfare. To take over castle, they use siege towers with wheels and ranged attack devices like trebuchet. In addition, it is able to assume arrangement of knights, foot soldiers, and archers in real battles.
Ivanhoe was a noble knight of middle age England. He fought against knights under evil King John. Just like any other knights of that time, he wears armors to protect him and has a weapon to attack enemies. In this scene, fighting with other knights, we can observe that all knights have shields in different designs. Just like shown in the movie, design of shields showed the positions of the knights. The knights and Ivanhoe fights with a long ranged weapon named lances. Lances are ranged weapons commonly used by knights to attack opponents in distances while riding on horseback.
In the movie, there is a scene which Robin Hood and his follower siege castle with bows and arrows. In the middle age, archers brought certain amount of arrows with them so it is impossible shoot numerous amounts of arrows continuously like in the movie. In addition bows and arrows were not powerful enough to siege castle effectively and give critical damage to strong and firm castle walls. This scene is not really a fact but can be seen as an exaggeration of medieval battle to make the movie more interesting.
5.3 (32)Brother Sun, Sister Moon
This movie is about Saint Francesco and his life. Although main topic of this movie is neither knights nor wars, it is able to observe medieval weapons. When Francesco goes to war, he wears his armors. The type of armor he wears is typical plate armors which shaped for his body. Since background of this movie is 13th period, they come out with plate armors not chain mails.
According to social structure of middle ages, it was very natural for them to have variety of weapons. Another name for middle ages was the Dark Age for frequent both minor and major wars. With these frequent battles, weapons of middle ages were separated in diverse kinds. Weapons can largely be categorized into close range, ranged, and siege weapons. Since a strict hierarchy existed in that era, different weapons were used in different classes and its uses were very various.
Close range weapons were used in battles and duels. In middle ages, knight itself was a powerful weapon. They usually used close range weapons such as swords. Swords are like representative weapon for noble knights. Long swords like claymores and rapiers were used by knights. Broadswords like claymores were used in the battle, and rapiers, sword for thrusting attacks were mainly used in duels between individuals. Close range weapons also include maces, which were club weapons to give impact damage to those who wear armors. Protective devices, armors and shields can also be called as weapons. They protected the wearers from attacks of other weapons.
Ranged weapons complemented a shortcoming of close range weapons. They enabled attacks in distances. The most common ranged weapon was bows and arrows. Bows and arrows did not require long training time, and they were easy to make. Later in the middle ages, bows and arrows evolved into much powerful form, crossbows. Other mainly used ranged weapons are pole weapons. Pole weapons are divided into more specific kinds, lances, pikes, and halberds. Lances were used by chivalry knights to attack enemies while riding on horse. Pikes were long stick and they were used by foot soldiers to attack knights on horses. Halberds were like long axes and its long swing gave more powerful shots.
Wars were not battles of individuals, but it was a war between two groups. Defenders had the best enormous shield for them, they were castles. Castles allowed the defenders to have ultimate defend upon attackers. Attackers made devices to conquer strong castles. To overcome handicap of being in lower places, they invented siege towers. Siege towers had soldiers inside the tower, so when they got closer to castle, soldiers would go inside and attack. They also had weapons have mechanism of crossbows, trebuchet and catapults. Those two are kind of similar so I only introduced trebuchet.
Following websites are visited between May to June 2009
1. Article: Why weapons were used in the Middle Ages.
2. Article: Christine Breen, ‘Medieval Weapons Used in the Middle Ages’,
3. Duels in the Middle Ages
4. History and structure of swords
6. Structures of Cutlass
7. Structures and variations of rapiers
9. Article: Madhavi Ghare, ‘Medieval Weaponry: Swords and Armor’,
11. Definition of shields
12. Meanings of decorations on shields
13. Wikipedia: Duels
14. Duels as trials; charters relating to judicial duels
15. European dueling swords
16. Medieval Knights
17. Structure and brief summary of history of bows and arrows
18. Mechanism of crossbows
19. Bows and arrows as hunting weapons
20. Power of crossbows
21. Robin Hood and his weapons
22. Mechanism of Crossbows
23. Article: Gordon Frye, From Lance to Pistol, article in myarmoury.com
26. Siege Tower
27. Trebuchet, article in Britain Castle Learning Center
28. Movie: El Cid, 1962, English, Directed by Anthony Mann, Produced by Samuel Bronston
29. Brief explanations about Tizona
30. An article about Tizona and El Cid shows that how much love did El Cid had to his sword ‘Tizona’
31. Movie: Ivanhoe, 1952, English, Distributed by MGM, Directed by Richard Thorpe, Produced by Pandro S. Berman
32. Movie: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, 1972, English, Distributed by EIA, Directed by Franco Zeffirelli