When most people think of a soldier from the Middle Ages, they tend to picture a knight in shining armor, wielding a longsword. But in reality, most of the men who fought in medieval wars were either mercenaries or common folk. And very few of these men could afford anything but the most basic of equipment. It was far more common to find a medieval soldier wielding a spear or mace, rather than a sword that could cost nearly a year’s wages.
In fact, until the late Medieval Period, swords were incredibly rare on the battlefield. Most of the time, they were limited to the nobility and their retainers. And because of swords rarity, the most common medieval weapons aren’t what most people expect.
Listed below are the five most common medieval weapons.
The crossbow was a decisive weapon on medieval battlefields and was the favored ranged weapon in nearly every European army except for the English, who favored the longbow. While it was an effective weapon, it has an unearned reputation of almost legendary deadliness, since Pope Innocent II is said to have banned its use against Christians. However, the pope actually banned the use of all missile weapons against Christians in the Second Lateran Council, as archers were included in the decision.
While crossbows were used in ancient Greek and Roman siege warfare, the knowledge of their construction seems to have been lost in Europe during the Dark Ages. It’s not until the 10th century that they start to appear again in the historical record. And not long afterward, they begin to replace the bows in most medieval armies.
Crossbows were used extensively in all aspects of warfare, from naval engagements to sieges, and even during peasant rebellions, as the weapons helped the lightly armed peasants even the odds against heavily armored knights.
Genoese crossbow mercenaries were among the most famous soldiers to use the crossbow, and they were feared across Europe. Their discipline and deadliness saw them fight extensively during the First Crusade and in several major battles, such as the Siege of Parma and the Battle of Crecy.
Bows are one of mankind’s most ancient weapons and have been used in warfare since the dawn of history. Nearly every army from the Classical Period up to modern history have used bows in their armies (the last confirmed kill by an English longbow in battle was against the Germans in 1940).
While many archers in the west used a self bow (a bow made from a single piece of wood), most of the bows in the ancient world and in eastern armies were composite bows (a bow constructed of sinew, horn, and wood, laminated together).
Probably the most famous archers in the world were the English and Welsh longbowmen. In several notable battles during the Hundred Years’ War, English longbowmen cut down the flower of French nobility. The bows were also used to devastating effect during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Few armies had an answer to a longbow’s withering fire. English longbowmen continued to be fielded by armies well into the gunpowder era, but because it took years to train a longbowman, while it only took weeks to train a musketman, longbowman slowly began to fall out favor.
3. Battle Axe
Another ancient weapon, axes have been used by mankind since the stone age. But what many people don’t realize is that they were also a favored weapon during the Medieval Period. Many famous kings and knights used battle axes in battle, including Richard the Lionheart and Robert the Bruce. And some of the knights on the Bayeux tapestry are shown wielding battle axes.
The battle axe was relatively easy to produce, worked well against armor, and could produce devastating wounds in unarmored foes. Because of this, they were a common sight on battlefields up until the late medieval period. But even as battle axes fell out of favor, variants of the weapon like poleaxes and halberds took their place.
Vikings are perhaps the best-known battle axe-wielders of the medieval world (though many still preferred to use spears), and they carried battle axe into battle with great success across Europe and even into the Middle East and Asia Minor.
The mace is virtually never seen in any medieval video games, movies, or TV shows, but it was one of the most common weapons of the Middle Ages. It was also said to be the favorite weapon of the clergy in battle, as they were prohibited from spilling blood, but there seems to be little evidence to back this up.
Cheap and easy to produce, maces were also effective against highly armored opponents. While early versions of the mace couldn’t penetrate armor, it could still deliver enough force to injure the armor wearer. Later versions of the mace incorporated flanges, which allowed the mace to penetrate armor.
Spears were by a wide margin, the most common medieval weapon. Spearmen formed the backbone of every medieval army, and spears were both easy to produce and very effective. Spears came in two types – throwing spears and thrusting spears. Thrusting spears survived in armies well beyond the Middle Ages, eventually evolving into pikes. However, throwing spears gradually disappeared by the high Middle Ages, their only notable uses being by Catalan Almogavars (who fought as mercenaries in the Middle East, Italy, and Greece) and Irish kerns.
The main advantage of the spear was its reach. It was much longer than any other weapon on the battlefield, and spears could be used to hold off enemy infantry, or the spear-butt could be planted against the ground to stop a cavalry charge.
Easily the most famous pikemen of the high middle ages were the Swiss Mercenaries. While they originally used spears, they eventually evolved into a highly mobile infantry unit combining spears, pikes, and halberds. In the hands of the Swiss mercenaries, pikes could decimate any enemy infantry unit and stop even the most determined charge of knights.