Medieval (about 476AD-1600’s)
Throughout history, societal circumstances have motivated the development of many significant technologies related to warfare. Within the medieval period (400s – 1600s AD), some of the most impactful technological innovations were the advancements in armor worn on the battlefield. While the invention of chainmail predates the medieval era, it’s important to consider its impact on warfare leading into this period. Chainmail (figure 1) can be simply described as a shirt made of interlocking metal rings designed to protect the wearer from cuts and slashes. As improvements were made upon chainmail forging methods, the diameter of the interlocking rings became smaller, and the armor more effective. The reason for this being that the smaller the diameter of the rings, the more fine-tipped a weapon mus
t be to pry them apart. The key result of this advancement was that it forced enemy militaries to adapt their weapon styles over time from specialized slicing weapons, to weapons designed more optimally for piercing. In the medieval era, body armor technology took another leap forward with the development of fully-plated armor (figure 2). The tactical versatility and durability of this new armor forced a large variety of adaptations on weapon styles, combat styles, and battle formations, making it one of the most significant advancements of the medieval period.
It stands to reason that as armor evolved throughout the Middle Ages, combative strategies would be adapted accordingly. With the emergence of fully plated armor, many of the light
ght swords designed to pierce through enemy gambeson/chainmail became less effective. Take note of the arming sword in figure 3. Notice the tip is relatively rounded compared to the sword in figure 4. What we can gather from this observation is that the sword in figure 3 was designed more for slicing, while the sword in figure 4 was designed for thrusting. Additionally, both are relatively lightweight swords, which could have been
used with a shield if the wielder so desired. Against an opponent wearing chainmail the sword in figure 4 would have been the better choice. The finer pointed tip makes it much easier to force in between the interlocked rings of the mail and pry them apart. However, if the opponent were a mounted, fully armored knight our analysis would become a bit more complex as there are several scenarios to consider.
Combative Strategy Against a Knight on Horseback
Mounted on a horse with a sword or lance was the most common, and also most the advantageous position in which one could find a knight on the medieval battlefield. Renowned for their skill in mounted combat, knights in the medieval era were a force to be reckoned with.Renowned for their skill in mounted combat, knights in the medieval era were a force to be reckoned with. As if a grown man covered in 3 mm thick steel-plated armor wasn’t troublesome enough, try putting him on a horse also covered in plated armor (figure 5). The armored horse would provide the knight with height, weight, and speed advantages, allowing them to drive their weapons into their opponents with more force, while also dispersing enemy formations. For this reason, battlefield tools and tactics such as jousting, pike phalanxes and gunpowder weapons were utilized with the goal of removing a knight from his horse.
The pike phalanx (also known as the “pike square”) was generally comprised of several ranks of armored foot soldiers, each wielding pikes (figure 6) as long as 18 feet (Reinhardt, 2009). Figure 7 shows some higher-end pikeman armor probably worn by an officer, but the general style is the topic of main importance here, as well as the implications. While a majority of soldiers wore plated armor, a minority of them actually wore fully plated armor. This was a privilege typically reserved for knights. Notice that the pikeman armor below leaves exposed the arms, the face and most of the legs.
Pike formations were pretty effective in halting the advances of mounted knights and were also used in support of one’s own allied cavalry. The objective of these pikemen would be to either kill the enemy knights, or knock them off their horses, allowing other foot soldiers to finish them off. Until the late medieval period, handheld firearms were not very widely utilized because they took a while to reload and were not very accurate. Field cannons, however, were used with a fair degree of success because they did not require much accuracy due to the largeness of the projectiles they fired. For this reason, they were often used as siege engines for attacking castles (Lorge, 2011). It wasn’t until the early 16th century that handheld firearm technology had advanced enough to become meaningful on the battlefield. With this advancement, pike formations evolved into “pike and shot” formations, where the pikemen would protect the unarmored “musketeers” behind them. These musketeers, carrying early unevolved versions of the musket, would unleash volleys of heavy gunfire at armored soldiers in hopes piercing the armor, knocking them off their horse, or killing them outright, while relying on the protection of the pikemen in order to safely reload.
Combative Strategy Against a Knight on Foot
With the exception of firearms, which were used very sparingly for a majority of the middle ages, there were not very many weapons on the medieval battlefield capable of completely piercing through a knight’s thick steel armor. Plated armor made from even the poorest quality steel was usually sturdy enough to serve its purpose.Plated armor made from even the poorest quality steel was usually sturdy enough to serve its purpose. The few soldiers who actually managed this (usually with something like a lance or a pole axe) learned very quickly that this was not a desirable outcome. Because the armor and weapons were often both made of the same material, and also due to the density of the material, if a soldier did manage to pierce through the armor, the weapon would often get stuck, while still failing to pierce deep enough to deal significant damage. Additionally, a gambeson and chainmail were usually worn underneath for protection against unusually deep cuts. For these reasons attempting to pierce the armor directly with handheld weapons proved to be a less than ideal strategy.
Although fully plated armor provided many advantages, the men wearing them were not invincible, especially if on foot. If a knight found himself dismounted from his horse, enemy soldiers would often target the gaps in the armor located at the joints (armpits, crotch, neck, etc.), which were intentionally left exposed to enable movement. A common method used to exploit these weaknesses was to force the knights into close combat styles of fighting (such as grappling) where short-bladed weapons such as daggers and short swords could be used effectively. If the knight could be brought to the ground, both the weight and restrictiveness of his armor would put him at a disadvantage, and an unarmored opponent could finish them off relatively easily. You can think of this scenario as a wrestling match where the loser would get stabbed.
Soldiers equipped with arming swords or long swords such as those in figures 3 and 4 respectively, might have utilized ”half-swording” techniques against armored knights. This is another great combat adaptation example, as these techniques were developed especially for combat against armored opponents. In general practice, one hand grips the sword just below cross guard, while the other is placed roughly halfway down the blade. This grip grants more control over the tip of the blade while thrusting, and would facilitate the targeting of the exposed regions of the armor. If the situation called for it, soldiers would sometimes hold their sword by the blade with both hands and bludgeon their opponent with the pommel. The cross guard could also be used as a means of tripping the opponent. These techniques were effective with just about any hand held weapon, but were most often employed with swords (Talhoffer, 2014).
If one didn’t feel inclined to wrestle these well-trained warriors, there were several other methods of taking them down on foot. While it was impossibly difficult to pierce through the plated armor, a much more viable alternative was to cave it in (causing concussions, contusions, internal bleeding, etc.) by hitting it with a heavier weapon such as the mace in figure 9. Additionally, long heavy weapons such as halberds (figure 8) and pole axes were relatively effective at bludgeoning the opponent while keeping them at a distance.
Out of the weapon types listed, the dagger, such as that shown in figure 10, was arguably the most lethal against armored soldiers. The shorter blade length allowed for the most precision while thrusting, and thus was ideal for targeting the eyeholes in the helmet, as well as the neck. Another thing to note is that if a knight were found vulnerable anywhere on the battlefield (on his back or restrained in some manner) , a dagger was frequently used to deal an efficient finishing blow. Plated armor wasn’t nearly as heavy or encumbering as it is often rumored. It never required a crane, or any extreme measure for a knight to mount his horse (Breiding, 2004). However, the armor was still very restrictive, making it difficult to get up from a prone position. For this reason (unless they were very lucky) , knocking over a knight in battle was effectively the same as killing him. There were even occurrences where groups of several people would ambush the knight, grabbing him and holding him down until the last man stabbed him.There were even occurrences where groups of several people would ambush the knight, grabbing him and holding him down until the last man stabbed him. As cruel and/or gruesome as some of these scenarios may sound, one should realize that these extreme measures really highlight the impact that these armored knights had on the battlefield. Having to send 4-5 men just to take out one is quite the inconvenience.
Another noteworthy weapon, which became more common due to the integration of plated armor, was the greatsword (figure 11). A huge advantage of having plated armor was that shields were less of a necessity, so soldiers were able to use large two-handed weapons with less concern about defense.
In the late middle ages and early renaissance, greatswords were wielded as a counter to pike squares. This role was carried out dominantly by Swiss and German mercenary forces (Reisläufer and Lantknecht respectively) , usually on opposing sides of any given conflict since these two mercenary groups were bitter rivals (Reinhardt, 2009). Within the ranks of these mercenaries, the largest, heaviest of men (receiving double payment) would run to the front of the formation with these massive two-handed swords, with which they would attempt to smash, splinter, and/or knock back the pikes of the enemy formation. The signature sword of choice for the “Doppelsöldner” (which translates to “double-pay men”) was the Zweihänder (figure 14). It would not have been uncommon for these “double-pay men” to have been intercepted by enemy “double-pay men” before reaching the rows of enemy pikes. The result of this was an absolute mess!
“A brutal battle royal between the two double pay units. Not the clean puncture wound of a pike, but a ghastly harvest of body parts, blood and brains”(Reinhardt, 2009). “A brutal battle royal between the two double pay units. Not the clean puncture wound of a pike, but a ghastly harvest of body parts, blood and brains” (Reinhardt, 2009). This is depicted in Figure 12. While the risk was certainly great, if a skilled unit of Doppelsöldner were able to create an opening in the enemy ranks, they could certainly affect the outcome of a battle.
The technological advancements from chainmail to plate armor in the medieval era induced significant adaptations of battle tactics and weapon utilization in the interest of societal preservation. These adaptations carried into the renaissance period, where the sufficient advancement of firearms slowly but surely obsoleted steel-plated full-body armor on the battlefield. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that plated armor was a significant influence in motivating the advancement of firearm technology. The progression of this technology eventually incentivized the research and development of the lightweight, high tensile strength polymers used in many variations of body armor worn today.
- Multiple Choice: How would one classify the sword in figure 3?
a) Long Sword
b) Short Sword
c) Arming Sword
d) War Sword
- Multiple Choice: Which of the following was an effective weapon/tactic used to defeat a knight?
a) The Pike Square
c) Knocking him off of his horse
d) All of the above
- Short Response: What types of modern body armor are used today and how do they differ from the chainmail and plate armor utilized in the medieval period?
Breiding, Dirk H. (2004). Arms and Armor—Common Misconceptions and Frequently Asked Questions. Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aams/hd_aams.htm
Lorge, P. (2011). Development and Spread of Firearms in Medieval and Early Modern Eurasia. History Compass, 9(10), 818–826. doi: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2011.00802.x
Reinhardt, H. (2009). The book of swords. Riverdale, NY: Baen Pub. Enterprises.
Talhoffer, H., & Rector, M. (2014). Medieval combat: a fifteenth-century illustrated manual of swordfighting and close-quarter combat. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Frontline Books, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd.