The medieval age was a bloody time in history. Spanning from the late 5th century all the way up to the 16th, the period saw countless wars, invasions and conquests across Europe and other Western countries. During this time, the progress of warfare and weaponry evolved at a rapid pace and militaries were always looking for new and effective ways to kill the enemy. The period produced some truly unique, one of a kind weapons and some of the designs were outstandingly creative.
10. Triple Dagger
Daggers and other short-range knives played an important part in medieval combat. Often relied upon as a sidearm if a combatant lost their primary weapon, daggers were still a formidable weapon for defence and attack. Many daggers of this period had sharp points instead of blades because thrusting attacks proved to be much more effective against an armoured foe as they could slip between the gaps and plates in armour or punch through mail. However, there was some variety to the different types of daggers used during the medieval period and the spring loaded triple dagger is by far one of the most unusual. At first sight, the triple dagger appears to be a normal dagger. However, when the wielder pressed a concealed button two other daggers split out from the main central blade to form a V shape. This gave the wielder an element of surprise and the triple dagger could be used to more effectively parry or catch an opponent’s weapon. The unusual, intricate design of the triple dagger (and the significant expense that such a weapon would cost) meant that it was highly unlikely that it was ever used in battle. Instead, the Triple Dagger was used by fencers or other participants in exhibition combat.
Not all combatants in medieval conflicts wore armour and knew how to use a weapon. In fact, the vast majority of infantry soldiers were made up of peasants who had been called to fight by their local lords. Most peasants lacked any formal weapons training and they usually had to resort to using hunting weapons like axes or spears when they were conscripted into battle. However, many peasants also used blunt weapons as they were easy to wield and could deliver significant trauma to unlucky enemy recipients. The morningstar was a creatively-named weapon which was basically a heavy club that resembled a mace without a chain. The morningstar had a long wooden shaft which was attached to an iron-balled head with spikes. However, there were some variants of the weapon which didn’t have spikes and instead used a heavy sword pommel to deliver a crushing blow. Although it was an easy way for peasants to arm themselves (many simply needed to give some wood to the local blacksmith so he could hammer in some nails and spikes into the end), morningstars were also used by professional soldiers. These variants had much better craftsmanship and were used by infantry and cavalry alike. Shorter shafted versions of the weapon were wielded by horseman to knock enemies from their mounts while longer, two-handed forms provided an effective ranged attack for ground troops.
8. Man catcher
Throughout history, militaries from around the world have always displayed a rather adept ability of being able to find new and creative ways of attacking the enemy. Pole weapons were an effective way to attack at a considerable range and they came in the form of axes, blades and picks. However, one of the more ingenious designs of a pole weapon was the man catcher. The man catcher was a long shafted weapon with a two-headed prong on the end which looked a lot like a collar. The man catcher was designed to hook over the neck of the enemy and pull them from their horse and detain them in a non-lethal way. Although the inside of the man catcher was lined with dull spikes, it was assumed that the enemy would be wearing some form of armour over their neck and would therefore not suffer a fatal wound when they got ensnared. As such, the man catcher was used for capturing nobles and other important enemies for ransom. Interestingly, a form of the man catcher is still used to this day. Although it is only wielded in extreme circumstances, Japanese riot police are trained in the use of the sasumata; a speared fork which is used in a similar way to the man catcher. Widespread riots are rare in Japan so it is seldom seen, but a line of policeman with raised sasumatas (which are padded and not pointed as to prevent injury to civilians) can provide a non-violent method of effectively holding back large crowds.
Siege weapons were an important part of medieval warfare as castles and other fortified structures were a common sight during the period. Noble or wealthy families and landowners began constructing these buildings some point during the 9th or 10th century to defend themselves against pillaging forces such as the Vikings and Mayars. In the event of war, these buildings provided a considerable defensive advantage if they were properly garrisoned with enough men and had adequate supplies. Although castles were easy to avoid and it was very unlikely that an army had to attack a castle to advance through an enemy territory, they had tactical importance and posed a threat if they were ignored (knowingly leaving an enemy’s stronghold in an area of strategical importance meant that they could send out raids, interfere with communication between forces and disrupt further advancement). This meant that not all fights took place on the battlefield and attacking a fortified enemy stronghold required a completely different tact. Attacking these buildings was no easy feat as they were heavily fortified and designed to keep the enemy at a distance. However, simply ‘waiting out’ an enemy castle could take months or even years if the building was well-supplied. Although siege weapons were often immobile and took time and resources to build, they were an option if a speedy, effective resolution was needed. One of the most powerful siege weapons was the trebuchet. This was a huge catapult which was capable of launching heavy objects (some could throw projectiles which weighed around 150kg) huge distances. A raised counter weight was used to provide energy to a sling which attached to a long beam on an axle. When the release was triggered, the counterweight would quickly move or drop and propel the sling in a forward arc. Trebuchets were hugely powerful and they could assault even the most heavily-fortified structures from afar. Some armies used trebuchets to catapult dead bodies or manure into enemy strongholds in an attempt to spread disease among the defenders. The design of the trebuchet was refined throughout the medieval period and later iterations of the weapon had an improved cycle rate and were capable of throwing even heavier projectiles.
6. Flame-bladed sword
The sword was the weapon of choice for most trained medieval fighters as it offered an effective balance of range and power. Used for slashing, thrusting and striking, the sword was a balanced weapon which could be used against even chain or plated armour and was even more deadly when wielded with a shield. The weapon came in a variety of different types, shapes and sizes, but perhaps the most interesting design from the medieval period was the flame-bladed sword. Rather than having a smooth finish, the blades of these swords had a rippled, wave-like effect which resembled a flame. Although they were made mostly for decorative purposes, the unique design of the flame-bladed sword did prove to be very useful in combat. When it was struck against another sword in a parry, the energy of the contact reverberated through the attacker’s blade and caused friction. This meant that it was very difficult to perform a series of quick strikes against a flame-bladed sword as each hit provided resistance which could disrupt technique and the speed of subsequent attacks. Also, when the sword was used in a thrusting motion it was capable of creating much wider and jagged wounds.
The misericorde, or mercygiver, was a long, narrow bladed knife which was designed to deliver a swift death to knights who had been wounded on the battlefield. Medieval skirmishes and battles were never ‘clean’ affairs and combatants would not always die a quick death from their wounds. Many attacks and blows were far from fatal, especially if a soldier was wearing armour plating, so an efficient method of delivering a ‘mercy killing’ was needed. The mercygiver was thin enough to slip between the gaps in a knight’s armour and it was long enough to pierce vital organs and ensure a quick death. The mercygiver was typically pushed into weak points in the armour such as under the armpit to pierce the heart or through the holes in a helm to stab at the brain. Although these do not sound like particularly pleasant ways to die, it was less agonising and painful than slowly bleeding to death on the battlefield. The mercygiver also proved to be a formidable weapon if two knights were engaged in a grapple.
4. War hammer
A popular blunt weapon of choice during the medieval period was the war hammer. Chainmail and plated armour meant that it was difficult to strike at an enemy with a bladed weapon without it ricocheting off the surface or only giving a glancing blow. The war hammer delivered a powerful, crushing blow which could not be deflected off armour. The handle of the hammer came in either a long or short form for two different types of combat. A short war hammer (which was around the same length as an axe or mace) was effective in close combat and from horseback while a long war hammer was used as a pole weapon to deliver range and more momentum from strikes. Although later versions of the weapon had a spiked end on the head, a piercing attack was not always needed as a forceful blunt swing could break an enemy’s limb or cause a concussion. A well-timed swing could also cripple an enemy’s horse and bring a mounted opponent to the floor. Nevertheless, the spike was useful against thinner parts of the armour which could be penetrated and it could also be used to hook an enemy’s shield or their horse’s reins and bring them in for a closer fight or down to the floor.
3. Fire ship
Before cannons became an essential weapon on sailing vessels sometime during the 16th century, fire ships (sometimes referred to as ‘hellbringers’ or ‘hellburners’) were the most destructive weapon in naval warfare. Although warships did exist (which were fortified ships with towers for archers), the primary use of ships during this period was to transport troops. However, that’s not to say that naval skirmishes didn’t happen. Naval warfare in medieval times largely amounted to combatants lobbing missiles at the enemy ship and looking for an opportunity to marine alongside the vessel so they could board and fight on deck. However, the fire ship was a very powerful ‘ace in the sleeve’. Fire ships were usually vessels which were approaching retirement and so could be sacrificed for destructive purposes. Filled with combustible materials and then set alight, fire ships drove straight at the enemy fleet on a suicide course. Usually a skeleton crew was on board and they departed at the last moment, but some fire ships could be put on course if the wind was right (or if they were attacking stationary ships which weren’t moving). Fire was a terrifying sight for any shipman and it could reduce a wooden ship to ashes and splinters in very little time. Fire ships became a more necessary and strategically viable asset of naval warfare following the medieval period and during the 16th and 17th century it wasn’t unusual to see at least one in every fleet (during the battle of Solebay in 1672, more than 40 fire ships were deployed by both the English and Dutch fleets).
It’s hard to imagine how throwing weapons could serve a useful purpose in a hectic, bloody medieval battle. Although they offered some range, they covered much less distance than projectile weapons like bows and they could only really be used once. However, they did prove to be a very useful tool in the right hands. The introduction of plate armour during the latter part of the medieval period changed how many weapons were designed and used, but prior to this most soldiers and infantry were forced to rely on chainmail, leather jerkins and shields. Although this type of armour offered at least some level of protection (chainmail was particularly effective at deflecting attacks from bladed weapons), it offered little comfort when attacked by blunt, heavy weapons. The francisca was a heavy throwing axe wielded by the Francs and the Germanic tribes between the 6th and 9th centuries. Axe heads varied in design but most were arch-shaped with one side providing a very sharp cutting edge. The francisca could travel a considerable distance (around 12m) and it is thought they were usually thrown on signal to break down enemy lines before engaging in hand to hand combat. Even if the bladed edge did not hit the enemy, the blunt force from the axe head would have been enough to inflict considerable injury and even splinter a shield. Also, the shape of the francisca meant that the weapon would often bounce around unpredictably if it hit the ground and this could easily cause damage to the legs or lower body of enemy troops.
Few sights on a medieval battlefield were as terrifying as a charging heavily armoured knight sitting atop a huge horse. Mounted soldiers were superior units in battle and even light cavalry possessed a speed, mobility and psychological advantage over ground infantry. Trained men with raised long-range weapons like pikes and pole axes could easily be overwhelmed by the shocking sight of charging mounts so many medieval armies utilized an effective but very simplistic defensive weapon to combat this. The caltrop was basically two small iron strips which had been hammered together to form spiked points that stuck up from the ground. Easy to deploy on the ground and small enough to go unnoticed, the caltrop was devastatingly effective at providing severe puncture wounds to any animal or man who was unlucky to step on it (infections were common and very dangerous in medieval times, so this alone could be enough to eventually kill a man). Well-placed caltrops could cut down charging lines of cavalry without risking even the front-line defensive troops.