Weapons, Swords in the Middle Ages, and Oakeshott

I recently read an article about the dominance of the sword in the middle ages, or more precisely, that of the Oakeshott XIIIa type sword (this link describes the sword, it is not the article that annoyed me). The XIIIa is a ~37-40 inches long,  with a wide blade, a more rounded (spatulate) tip, and a 6-10 inch grip, and weighed 3–4 pounds (when plain). The offending article annoyed me for the following reasons:

  • It claimed that this sword was the dominant weapon of its time.
  • It claimed that this type of sword is under-represented in fantasy.
  • It ignored the fact that Oakeshott created his system to combat this kind of generalization.

First off, for those of you who have not heard of Oakeshott, he is a key figure in changing the way modern historians, hobbyists, and writers see swords (useful link, if you wish to get into it). Before Oakeshott, medieval swords were often seen as massively heavy, brutish weapons and Knights were seen as clumsy, if invulnerable warriors. TH Whyte’s Arthurian series has a bit of this. Oakeshott’s contribution was to catalog and categorize, and then to point out that from a data driven perspective that the sword changed greatly over the Dark Ages and the Medieval period, mirroring the constant changes in armour as well as local battlefield conditions. His conclusions were  that the idea that Western swords were clumsy weapons was not at all based in reality and that there was no such thing as a single dominant sword type. Just look at an abbreviated picture of the sword types he categorized.

Oakeshott Types.

Oakeshott Types.

Let us take a closer look at the XIIIa

an Oakeshott XIIIa from tinkerswords.com

an Oakeshott XIIIa from tinkerswords.com

Does this sword shape and size look underrepresented in fantasy fiction? NOPE. Moving on then.

Not only were there many types of sword, but knights used all kinds of weapons (and also crazy armour, too, but we won’t get into that). In fact some had squires to carry around extra lances and extra weapons for them. I am briefly going to go over some of the more common of these weapon types and why they saw use.

The Spear (and lance): The spear is by far the most under-represented weapon in modern fantasy. Don’t even get me started on this. Every Knight worth his salt would have at least a lance or some sort of spear to use from horseback, often with spares in case they broke on the charge. The Spear was likely the one weapon every knight would have at least one of on the battlefield, if only in lance form. It was also the most common footman’s weapon. Spears offered great penetrating power with the tremendous force concentrated on the smallest area. They also offered great reach which was imperative for both charging (hence the lance) and receiving a charge. I would place my bet on spears being the greatest casualty causing battlefield weapon of the middle ages (somewhat behind trampling and suffocation in actual casualties caused though), and possibly the the greatest casualty cause knightly weapon as well. Spears survived the middle ages and even outlived swords on the battlefield as the bayonet. The downside of a spear is that once an opponent is past a certain point, it becomes difficult to wield against them.

Spears and lances.

Spears and lances.

I’m going to stay away from polearms for now, although my favourite weapons are probably the swiss halberd and the bardiche.

The Flail: The Flail is a hard weapon to write about. We know it was difficult to use well, but it was not uncommon and had a brutal reputation. Jack White’s Uther is the only character I can think of in Fantasy that uses one of these. Too bad: they almost belong in a grimdark anti-hero’s grasp… We do know that flails were used to strike around shield edges and could work up quite a bit of force whirling around. Hard to describe them in a novel though…

A flail of the mace and chain/ball and chain variety.

A flail of the mace and chain/ball and chain variety.

The Warhammer: As plate armour became more common, knights needed better tools to break it open. The warhammer provided a handy set of tools to do just that. Bash the plates out of shape and finish with the spike if need be. Much like a sword, the warhammer could be used when a spear was no longer at optimal range,  bashing the brains out of footmen right through their helms and crushing other knights. The warhammer is another under-represented weapon, but maybe that is because in early editions of D&D it did crap damage 😉

I just like this one.

I just like this one.

The Mace: While the spear does not get its due as a knightly weapon, the mace is outright bloody ignored. I rarely see them in movies, despite the fact that they were so well loved that they appear throughout the period in a stunning number of forms. Flanged maces were created to puncture and crush armour, and ball maces were just nasty. Both existed as shorter footmans weapons that could be used very close up and longer horseman’s versions. Maces were often completely made of metal, and these were far more durable than swords. An added bonus of the mace as a knightly weapon is that it rarely got stuck in a wound. Ceremonial maces are still common in our Parliaments.

Flanged Mace

Flanged Mace

Ball mace, spiked.

Ball mace, spiked.

Axes: Axes were a more common weapon than many realize, able to work up tremendous cutting power. Axes were favoured for their ability to hack apart shields better than any weapon. They came in a very wide variety as well.

Even in this ridiculously brief and overly generalized discussion of medieval weaponry I think we can put the idea that any sword type dominated the middle ages to rest. Oakeshott created his categories so that people could discuss the incredibly wide variety of bladed weaponry that fell into and out of use throughout the middle ages. He did not create it for people to narrow it down into sword X is better than sword Y in internet fanboy arguments.  If there were a dominant family of swords this variety would not have existed, nor would maces, axes, spears, lances, and other weapons been nearly as common. Fantasy writers owe mr Oakeshott a debt of gratitude for showing us that the medieval sword, and indeed all medieval weapons and armour were more than just the clumsy implements those damned fencers told us they were 😉

Finally, let us not forget that Knights wielded a huge variety of weapons, and many of them had the money to afford a tool for every occasion.

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