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The Ten Most Important Weapons of the Middle Ages

Walking through a museum’s medieval collection will reveal many kinds weapons from that era. There seems to be all types of instruments that could be used to kill or defeat an enemy. What were the most important of these weapons – which of them had a significant impact on the Middle Ages? Here is our list of ten medieval weapons you should know about.

1. Swords

No weapon is more associated with the Middle Ages than the sword. It was used throughout the medieval world, and as Sue Brunning explains, was more than just a weapon:

Every culture that has made and used swords has viewed them as extraordinary objects. They feature predominantly in the history, cosmology and mythology of communities across the globe, from Africa to northern Europe, from East Asia to the Indian sub-continent. Their appeal is not solely attributable to humanity’s timeliness fascination with death. This is clear from the spectrum of meanings attached to swords across time and space, encompassing power, wisdom, joy, protection – and fear.

For most of the Middle Ages, the sword was widely used among elite and common soldiers, with some variation between the size of its blade, and how its hilt and pommel were fashioned. Around the thirteenth century we see a change in the sword, where it blades begin to get more narrow and sharper at its point. It was because armour was becoming tougher, and the slashing style of the sword was no longer effective. It now had to be used more as a thrusting weapon, but even with these changes the sword would gradually decline as a part of vital military equipment.

The sword places first on our list of the most important weapons in the Middle Ages, not just because it was so widely used in this period, but because so many medieval cultures viewed it as a symbol of military strength and power.

2. Firearms

The weapon that would transform the medieval world into the early modern one was the gun – handguns and arquebuses wielded by individuals, and the larger artillery pieces like cannons that could strike at fortifications. The invention of gunpowder in China in the early ninth-century would trigger a series of new weapons – gradually these developments and innovations would spread from eastern Asia and fundamentally change how war was waged.

The Xanadu Gun – photo by Qiushufang / Wikimedia Commons

The rise of gunpowder weapons has often been talked about as a military revolution, although from our perspective it was a slow moving one, taking generations. Introduced into Europe in the early fourteenth century, even by the end of the fifteenth century these weapons could prove to be slow and difficult to wield effectively. But military commanders understood that this technology would be the dominant weapon on the battlefield, and every kingdom, state or principality was spending money and resources to build up their supplies. The states that were able to do so most effectively would emerge in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the key powers in Europe and Asia.

See also: 10 Moments in the Invention of Guns and Gunpowder

3. Bows

An Old English riddle:

Agob’s my name, if you work it out;
I’m a fair creature fashioned for battle.
When I bend, and shoot a deadly shaft
from my stomach, I desire only to send
that poison as far away as possible.
When my lord, who devised this torment for me,
releases my limbs, I become longer
and, bent upon my slaughter, spit out
that deadly poison I swallowed before.
No man’s parted easily from the object
I describe; if he’s struck by what flies
from my stomach, he pays for its poison
with his strength – speedy atonement for life.
I’ll serve no master when unstrung, only when
I’m cunningly notched. Now guess my name.

Combine a flexible stave of wood with strong string and you have one of the most well known weapons of the Middle Ages. There could be a lot of varieties of bows, and their effectiveness could range significantly on where and how they were used. Archers were usually found at battles or siege throughout the medieval world, but they could become a dominant force in the right circumstances. The Mongols were able to conquer much of Asia and Europe through the use of horse archers, who combined a stronger type of bow with the greater mobility of their cavalry. The English would also rely on their longbowmen to win several important battles during the Hundred Years’ War. As Jim Bradbury writes, “There was no military situation in which the bow could not prove useful.”

4. Spears / Lances

Kelly DeVries and Kay Smith note that “since the earliest times the spear, together with the sword, was the most important and widely used offensive weapon for both the infantry and cavalry.” Essentially a long stick that ended with a blade, the spear could be held and thrusted at opponents, or thrown at them. When delivered from horseback, the weapon could be far more effective – this is how the idea of “mounted shock combat” developed, in which knights would couch the spear under their arms, and use the speed of their horses to deliver a powerful blow.

The spear of the knight evolved into the lance – the weapon we commonly associate with jousting and tournaments, another lasting symbol of the Middle Ages.

Using lances in a tournament – from a fencing manual written in 1459 by Hans Talhoffer

5. Trebuchets

Emerging in the twelfth century, the trebuchet was the first important development in siege machines since ancient times. It marked a great improvement over weapons like the catapult, becoming a more formidable way to attack castles and other fortifications.

Jim Bradbury explains how it worked:

A container for heavy materials was placed on one end of a whippy pole, a sling to hold the stone or other missile at the other end. The pole was on a pivot. The loaded end was winched down and released. The weight made the loaded end rise rapidly and eject its contents, the sling whipping over at the last minute to give added impetus.

While today the trebuchet is more seen as an engineering challenge for college students or a fun way throw pumpkins, in the Middle Ages it represented a new technology that forced military commanders to adapt their defences, a process that would be further enhanced by gunpowder weapons.

6. Crossbows

While this weapon existed since ancient times, it was strangely not mentioned very much in early medieval Europe. Then, in the twelfth century, the crossbow made a comeback, serving as a way for regular soldiers to fight back against the better armoured and equipped knights. Helen Nicholson describes the crossbow:

It was not a quick weapon to use, because spanning the bow (drawing back the string, locking it back with the ‘trigger’ and placing the arrow or bolt in position, ready to fire) took much longer than for the simple bow. But it could be used effectively by a comparative novice and was much more powerful than the simple bow. In a siege situation, or where a large group of crossbow archers were operating on a battlefield, it could be devastating, for it could pierce chainmail.

While the crossbow did get criticized as a dishonourable weapon, its use only grew in the Later Middle Ages, and by the fifteenth century cities were hosting large-scale shooting tournaments. The crossbow would remain a much used weapon, even during the coming age of guns.

7. Greek Fire

The secret weapon of the Byzantine Empire, it was responsible for several important military victories. It is such a secret weapon that even today we are not sure exactly what it was – the theories include that it was based on saltpetre or quicklime – but its effects were devastating. It was a liquid substance, that could be fired out through something like a modern-day flamethrower. Most importantly, it could not be extinguished by water, which meant that naval ships would be particularly vulnerable to its effects.

Image from the Skylitzes manuscript in Madrid, showing Greek fire in use against the fleet of the rebel Thomas the Slav

Naphtha was a similar type of weapon – at least in its effects – and was based on petroleum. This was used in the medieval Middle Eastern world. Like Greek Fire, those who wielded it had significant advantages when facing opponents that just relied on the force of their steel and iron.

8. Polearms

They were called halberds, pikes, glaives, and several other names – these were all variations on a type of weapon in which one carried a long staff that was equipped with a type of blade that could be used for cutting and thrusting. They became more prevalent in Europe around the year 1300, as it could be shown that armies that used these weapons could defeat cavalry in battle. The key was in creating formations and coordinating them on the battlefield – as a large group they could impenetrable to attack and deadly on the offensive.

9. Axes

This weapon is more associated with the Early Middle Ages, although it was still used in later centuries. While peoples like the Franks wielded smaller axes as throwing weapon, it was the larger version, used in Scandinavia, that we know so well. Jim Bradbury explains:

The battle-axe was popular with the Vikings and often called a Norse or Danish axe. Vikings sometimes named their axes, such as ‘Witch’ or ‘Fiend’, suggesting their personal nature. The Vikings used bearded axes named from the shape of the drooping lower edge, and broad axes. The latter emerged in c.1000, sometimes with a steel edge welded to the blade. The blade was narrowest at the socket, broadening to a curved edge about a foot long.

three viking axes
Three axes were found together in 2013 in a boat in Lough Corrib, and date to the 11th or early 12th century. Photo from National Museum of Ireland

10. Daggers

Essentially a smaller version of the sword, one should not disregard it as an important weapon of war. Ranging in size from 30 to 50 centimetres (11 to 20 inches), it was a common instrument, both on the battlefield and in day-to-day use. Easy to carry – and hide – daggers could be used with a minimum of training. An attacker could wield this weapon to cut, stab or throw, often in tight situations. By the thirteenth century many versions of the dagger emerged in medieval Europe – anelace, baselard and stiletto to name a few – that differed in how the blade was fashioned or how you gripped it. Meanwhile, the misericorde got its name for being associated with the end of battles, when the victorious soldiers had to decide what to do with there defeated opponents – either offer them “mercy” and take them as prisoners, or give them a “mercy” killing.

See also: Top 10 Strange Weapons of the Middle Ages

Further Reading:

Jim Bradbury, The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare (Routledge, 2004)

Jim Bradbury, The Medieval Archer (The Boydell Press, 1985)

Sue Brunning, The Sword in Early Medieval Northern Europe (The Boydell Press, 2019)

Kelly DeVries and Kay Smith, Medieval Military Technology, 2nd edition (University of Toronto Press, 2012)

Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage, Medieval Armies and Weapons in Western Europe (McFarland and Co., 2005)

Sean McLachlan, Medieval Handgonnes: The first black powder infantry weapons (Osprey, 2010)

Helen Nicholson, Medieval Warfare (Palgrave, 2004)

Top Image: Morgan M.638 Maciejowski Bible fol. 29

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