Monday, June 9, 2014

Medieval Polearms and Staffs: Reach out and grab someone.

In our travel together through this blog we have discovered many weapons used during medieval times.

The medieval battle field consisted of many actors, archers, foots soldiers, etc, but the most formable was the knight. A knight, who was rich enough to afford it, outfitted himself with armor from his head to his feet. The knight was mounted on horseback and was the medieval equivalent to a tank on the modern battlefield.

Any weapon system, either a knight, or a modern day missile, has its advantages and its disadvantages. When facing a weapon, you must minimize its advantage, and exploit its disadvantages.

As I stated a knight might be shielded from his head to his toes. The knight was also mounted on a horse which meant he could maneuver very fast around his enemies. In order to fight the knight, you had to take him off his horse and off his feet.

For you fans of American football, you know how when a large lineman is knocked on his back, it take him awhile for him to get back up. The huge shoulder pads inhibit him from being able to twist for him to get back up; the same was with the knight. When on the ground, the knight’s armor was no long an asset, but became a disadvantage to him.

The cost of warfare increased during the middle ages. As I have said on numerous times, knight’s armor was very expensive. Couple the expense of armor, with the price of a horse that was bread to carry a knight, and you can understand how it could be expensive.

To compensate for the expense to have knights in combat, peasants and commoners were recruited as foot soldiers. These peasants and commoners were legally obligated to fight for the cause of their lord. Unfortunately, not only were they forced to fight; they were not given the proper tools to be soldiers.

If you are a peasant, and you cannot match the weaponry of the knight you are facing, what can you do? Bring your farming tools.

One of the first weapons used by peasants was the billhook. This is an agricultural tool; it has a curved blade and is used to cut brushes and limbs. The ones used to cut limbs had longer handles, and became a vital weapon in grabbing a mounted knight with the hooked blade and pulling him onto the ground.

Billhook was not the only tool of its kind to find a way onto the battle. The boat-hook is a staff with a hook at the end. It was used during when the ships were docking or un-docking from port. It is also used when one ship tries to board another. It would be used to pull the vessels together or hold them. The book-hook was also used to grab the other sailors and pull them off the ships and boats into the sea.

Staffs are simply long pieces of wood. We all remember seeing “Robin Hood” and the famous fight between Little John and Robin over the stream. It was a simple weapon to obtain; you could just find the right sized tree and cut it down. Hitting a mounted knight may unbalance him and send him onto the ground.

Seeing the success these simple tools had against a knight there were then modified into weapons. Variations of the simple designs spread throughout Europe, each region or country had its own style of these weapons.

Now I am going to open up a can of worms. There were so many variations, of these simple tools turned into weapons, that it is hard to classify them. At first, a point was added to the end of the blade of the billhook. Then a point added to the staff, and afterwards an axe. The weapons began being merged and combined to the point that it almost impossible to place them into classifications.

We will get into individual types and styles, but for this discussion anything with a long staff and a head will be reference as a pole weapon. Also, from this point forward for our discussion the pole weapons will be made for military use, no more references as an agricultural tool.

Since my upcoming novel is set in Switzerland, I describe the use of a Lucerne hammer. This polearm was popular in that country in the 15th to 17th centuries. Instead of the axe blade is has a hammer similar to the war hammer, it is also equipped with the hook and a long spike at the end.

Halberds were probably the most popular type of pole weapon. This was a pike fitted with an axe head with a pointed spear on top. Usually on the back side of the axe was a hook, this allowed the user to grab the knight and pull him off his horse. The spear of the halberd was not only used against the knight, but may also be used against his horse. Injuring the horse meant you immobilized the knight making him less effective on the battle field.

Other types of pole arms were the Voulge, ahlspeiss, bardiche, glaive and the Be de Corbin and this is a small list. The major changes between the polearms had to deal with the design of the head of the weapon. They all had the similar characteristics of the pole arm, each with a head developed for a specific task in battle. Technically the jousting lance is a form of polearm, but I want to leave that discussion for a later time.

The polearm was not only used by a foot soldier against a mounted knight, combines with other men it became an impressive defensive weapon. A group of soldiers could form a line with extended pole arms; this would make an impenetrable wall, and was very effective against cavalry. Imagine the famous scene from the movie “Braveheart”. In my blogs I have presented the weapons, and armor used in combat. We will go back now and then to review these topics.

Since we know the weapons and armor, we now need to discuss the type of people who wore them. Later, I will be discussing the different types of soldiers on the medieval battlefield. This future discussion of course will include the knight, I think you may be surprised and disappointed about the information I am going to provide to you about them.

Next time: Review of Swords


  1. Thanks for this once again. The more I read the more I realize that not much has changed in warfare or the use of foot soldiers without all the right equipment.

  2. Yikes! These weapons of destruction sound...well, destructive! Interesting history though. Looking forward to the post in knights, too:)

  3. Hey William, very interesting educational story here. I am caught by the fact that what was once an asset turns and becomes a liability depending on what position or location you are. Quite a big lesson there for life.

  4. When I read your post I thought of "Game of Thrones" and the weapons that they used. They were pretty brutal. After you mentioned it I could see where a Knight's armor is not an assist when they are on the ground

  5. All weapon systems, and a knight was a weapon system, has its advantage and disadvantage. At the battle of Agincourt, the thick mud made the French horses move slowly. Many of the French knights dismounted and moved on foot. As you may know from my previous blogs, a dismounted knight is not just a slow moving target.
    Thank you everyone for leaving a comment.