Medieval weapons were used for various reasons, including warfare, self-defense, hunting, and sport. Different types of weapons were used for different types of fighting. And then there were the medieval siege weapons for overcoming castle defenses.
Let's explore them all.
A siege engine designed to break open stone walls or splinter wooden doors or gates. The first battering rams were nothing more than a heavy log carried by several people and propelled with force against a door. Later, battering rams encased the log in a fire-resistant, arrow-proof canopy on wheels. The log was suspended on chains or ropes to improve the force of the swing. A capped ram would have the log covered in iron or steel at the end that strikes the wall or door. The canopy on most rams would be curved or slanted like a roof with side screens to protect the workers of the ram from arrow or spear volleys from above.
Defenders inside castles tried to counter battering rams by dropping obstacles in front of the ram, such as bags of sawdust, to keep the ram from getting to the door. Alternatively, they would drop heavy boulders on the ram from the battlements or pour hot oils on the ram and set it on fire. However, the fire method could backfire by catching the door on fire if the ram managed to break through.
Siege Tower / Belfry
A siege engine constructed to protect attackers and ladders while approaching the walls of a castle. Often shaped like a tower, they were as high as the castle walls or more and had wheels. They were usually made of wood and thus flammable and susceptible to attacks with Greek fire, so they were often covered in animal skin or iron to reduce the fire risk.
Siege Towers were used to overcome a castle's defenses by getting troops over the castle walls. They would contain pikemen and swordsmen, and when rolled next to a castle wall, a gangplank would be dropped, creating a walking platform onto the castle battlements. They also enabled archers to stand on top of the tower and launch arrows at the soldiers on the battlements.
At the Siege of Kenilworth Castle in 1266, 200 archers and 11 catapults operated from a single siege tower, though it did little to hasten the castle to surrender as the siege lasted almost a year.
Ballistic siege weapons used to launch projectiles a great distance without the use of gunpowder. They use the sudden release of stored energy to propel their projectile. Catapults were used to damage castle walls or gates by launching large rounded stones at them, but they also could toss garbage or carcasses over the walls to spread disease and try to get the people inside the castle to surrender. Below are the most common types of catapults used in the Middle Ages.
Ballista / Scorpio
A ballista was a catapult weapon that launched large bolts, darts, and stones at a distant target. It used two levers with twisted springs instead of a tension prod to build torque and firing energy.
These weapons were popular in Roman times, but with the decline of the Roman Empire, resources to build and maintain them became scarce, and the onager and springald gradually replaced the Ballista. Despite its decline, it was still a useful weapon in siege warfare until the arrival of the canon.
Several Ballistas are recorded being held under the English Crown: four balistas at Duluithelan Castle in 1280, one balistam de tur at Rothelano Castle, and one magnam ballistam at Bere Blada Castle in 1286.
A mangonel was a type of trebuchet, but unlike the counterweight trebuchet, the mangonel was operated by men pulling cords attached to a level and sling to generate the force to launch projectiles.
It required more men to operate than a counterweight trebuchet but was faster to reload than the onager it replaced in early Medieval Europe. The counterweight trebuchet replaced the mangonel in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The mangonel was used as an anti-personnel weapon alongside archers. Mangonels were still used as late as the siege of Acre in 1291. The Mamluk Sultanate fielded 70-90 trebuchets, mostly mangonels with about 15 counterweight trebuchets. The Templar of Tyre described the faster-firing mangonels as more dangerous to the defenders than the counterweight trebuchets.
A torsion-powered siege engine with a bowl, bucket, or sling at the end of its throwing arm. The onager had a large wooden frame placed horizontally to the ground with a vertical frame of solid timber fixed to its front. A vertical arm that passed through a rope bundle fastened to the frame had a cup affixed to the end to contain the projectile.
To fire the weapon, the arm was forced down against the twisted ropes by a windlass and suddenly released. As the arm swung, the projectile would be hurled forward. The arm would be caught by a padded beam fixed to the vertical frame, ready to be pulled down for the next shot. An onager took eight men to wind down the arm. The recoil of the arm was so significant that an onager could not be placed on castle walls as the stones would become dislodged.
Springald / Espringal
A medieval torsion artillery device for throwing bolts from the late 12th century. It is constructed on the same principles as a ballista, but with inward swinging arms in a skein of twisted sinew or hair and threw only bolts. It was housed in a box-like wooden structure and could throw bolts about 180 meters.
The earliest mention of a springald appears in France in 1249 and is first attested to as part of the arsenal at Reims in 1258. Springalds were often used to defend castle gates from the top of towers. By 1382, the springald was being phased out in favor of crossbows and firearms.
The most potent catapult siege weapon in the Middle Ages was the trebuchet. It uses an extended arm as much as 50 feet long to launch large projectiles farther than other catapults. The counterweight trebuchet uses a counterweight to swing the arm using gravity. Energy is stored by slowly raising a heavy box filled with stones and sand attached to the short end of the beam. A sling attached to the other end of the arm holds the projectile. When the heavy box is released, gravity drops the box, forcing the arm to swing and launch the missile. Once the missile is fired, the arm continues to rotate, slow on its own accord, and come to rest, unlike other catapult designs where the frame absorbs most of the launching energy.
The projectile could be anything, debris or rotting carcasses, but typically, a large stone worked until round and smooth, giving it the best range and predictability for hitting a castle wall. Sometimes, the projectile would be covered in Greek fire just before launch, turning it into a fireball and inflicting more damage on anything flammable it may have hit when it reached the castle.
The most famous account of a trebuchet was in 1304 at the Siege of Stirling Castle, when Edward I (Longshanks) attacked the castle during the Wars of Scottish Independence. It was called the War Wolf, or Loup-de-Guerre, and was the largest trebuchet ever built. It took 30 wagons to transport it when disassembled. It then took carpenters three months to assemble the trebuchet once in range of Stirling Castle. The Scots inside the castle tried to surrender to Edward, but he refused their surrender until after the trebuchet was built and fired at the castle. The War Wolf fired a single stone through two of the castle's walls “like an arrow flying through cloth.” Afterwards, Edward accepted the surrender of Stirling Castle.
An axe specifically designed for warfare. They weighed between 1 and 7 pounds and were 1 to 5 feet long. Axes were cheaper than swords and more plentiful in the Middle Ages, particularly during the Viking Age. They were designed to cut through arms and legs rather than wood, so the battle axe blade was lighter and thinner than a standard axe, making it quicker to bring to bear in combat.
They are featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts Norman knights against Anglo-Saxon foot soldiers during the Battle of Hastings. Robert the Bruce used a battle axe to defeat Henry de Bohn in single combat at the start of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Bludgeon / Club / Cudgel
A short stick or staff, usually made of wood, wielded as a weapon to create blunt force trauma on an enemy. The club was the most straightforward and cheapest weapon, dating from prehistoric times. Most clubs were small enough to be wielded with one hand. A cudgel was a stout stick used by peasants in the Middle Ages. It was used as a walking stick but also a weapon in wartime.
A melee weapon consisting of a wooden staff with a striking head affixed to the staff by a length of chain or rope. The chain enabled the weapon to strike around a defender's shield. However, it came with a lack of precision when attacking and was challenging to use in close combat.
A peasant flail was a two-handed weapon with a long shaft, sometimes improvised from farming equipment by peasants conscripted into the army or caught up in a local uprising. Such modified flails were used in the German Peasants' War in the 16th century.
A military flail was shorter, with one or more chains attached to the end with metal balls of spikes. Military flails are popular in fictional works such as films or role-playing games but were rare weapons in combat and never saw widespread use. One reason was that if the flial were swung at an enemy and missed, the momentum of the swing and chain would continue, causing extra time before the weapon could be ready for another swing, making the user more susceptible to a counterattack.
Mace / Pernach
A blunt club or rod for delivering blows in hand-to-hand combat, made of metal or wood reinforced with metal, and has a head of stone, bone, or metal. Maces used by foot soldiers were two to three feet long. The mace of a cavalryman was longer to enable use from horseback.
The head of the mace is often shaped with flanges or knobs to help break through plate armor. The use of flanges on a mace became popular in the 12th century. The pernach was a type of mace used throughout Europe. Its name comes from the Slavic word pero, meaning feather. The flanges on a pernach mace resembled a fletched arrow and could penetrate chain mail and plate armor.
Ceremonial maces, still used today, are richly decorated and usually contain a coat of arms or other symbols. They are displayed as a symbol of jurisdiction and authority.
A club-like weapon consisting of a shaft with a ball adorned with spikes at one end, resembling a mace. These were hand-to-hand combat weapons used to inflict blunt force and punctures to injure or kill the enemy.
The morning star was used at the beginning of the 14th century. The spikes distinguish it from a mace, which has flanges. Morning stars had shafts made of wood and were longer than a mace, often used as a two-handed weapon.
Morning stars are often confused with the flail, a wooden shaft with a chain length at the end and a ball of spikes attached to the chain. On a morning star, the ball of spikes is attached to the end of the shaft.
Bow and Arrow / Shortbow
The bow and arrow is a ranged weapon system used to kill from a distance. A bow consisted of a semi-rigid but elastic piece of wood in an arc shape with a bowstring joining the ends of the bow. An arrow consisted of a long-shafted projectile with a pointed tip at one end and fletching towards the back of the other end with a narrow notch on the very end where the bowstring on the bow would connect with the arrow.
The person shooting the bow and arrow was called a bowman or archer. The person who made arrows was called a fletcher, and the person who made the metal arrowheads was called an arrowsmith. To shoot, an archer holds the bow at its center with one hand and pulls back the arrow and the bowstring with the other, building elastic energy. Once the bowstring is released, the arrow propels forward.
The shortbow had a range of about 100 yards and could kill and could kill or injure an unarmored man at close range, but it was less useful against armor. At the Battle of Hastings, both sides used the shortbow, but the Norman archers had more success as they fired their arrows into the air onto the enemy from a high arch, which bypassed shields. It is said that King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings by an arrow through the eye.
A group of about 170 double-edged medieval swords that date from the 9th to 11th centuries, and the blades bear the inscription +VLFBERH+T or +VLFBERHT+. Ulfberht is a Frankish name, possibly indicating where the swords originated, likely in the Rhineland region, the core region of the Frankish realm.
These particular swords were transitional between the Viking and the high medieval knightly swords. They also mark the beginning of blade inscriptions. The reverse side of the sword sometimes had a braid pattern engraved on the blade.
Ulfberht swords averaged around 2.7 pounds in weight and were about 36 inches in length. They were a one-handed sword with a pommel hilt.
Horseman's Pick / War Hammer
A War Hammer consists of a handle and a head. The length of the handle varied between 2-3 feet and 5-6 feet, with the longer handled hammers being used by standing soldiers and short ones used on horseback.
War Hammers were a popular weapon in the late medieval period, as swords and axes could no longer pierce armour. The hammers could transmit their impact through helmets and cause concussions. The spike end could be used for grappling armour, reins, or an enemy's shield.
A long thrusting spear used by a mounted knight or cavalry soldier. It was not suitable for throwing or repeated thrusts like the pike. Lances were equipped with a vamplate, or small circular plate, that prevented the hand from sliding up the lance upon impact and protected the hand. Knights would also carry a sword, mace, or axe and the lance for hand-to-hand combat.
Nothing was more terrifying in a pitched battle than a wall of knights on horseback charging in formation at full speed with lances in an underarm-couch position, which would decimate any infantry line of defense.
A jousting lance was a variation used in jousting contests, not warfare. The jousting lance had a blunted end and was usually hollow so that it would break on impact. The goal of the joust was to hit your opponent and, at worst, unhorse them, but not to hurt them, though accidents happened.
Quarterstaff / Short Staff / Long Staff
A polearm weapon that was popular in England in the late Middle Ages, sometimes referred to as a national English weapon, The quarterstaff, or short staff, was a shaft of hardwood, usually 6 to 9 feet long, sometimes with a metal tip or spike at one or both ends. A long staff was between 11 and 12 feet in length. The term quarterstaff possibly comes from how the staff was held, with the right hand grasping it one-quarter of the distance from the end.
Blows with a quarterstaff were often delivered downwards, but sometimes blows to the legs were done. Thrusts were also performed with the release of the forward hand and a step with the forward leg, much like a fencing lunge.
Organ Gun / Ribauldequin
A late medieval volley gun with multiple iron barrels aligned parallel to each other on a platform. When fired, all barrels would fire simultaneously, causing a much higher rate of damage to the enemy. They were lighter and more mobile than other artillery then and were primarily used against enemy personnel rather than attacking a castle. Organ guns were used between the 14th and 17th centuries.
The first known organ gun used in battle was in 1339 when Edward III's army used them in France during the Hundred Years' War. These had twelve barrels, thus firing twelve iron balls at a time. Ribauldequins were also used during the Wars of the Roses when Burgundian soldiers under Yorkist control used them at the Second Battle of St Albans.
Caltrop / Crow's Foot
A caltrop is an area denial weapon. The Romans called them “tribulus,” derived from the Greek word “tribolos”, meaning three spikes. A caltrop has two or more sharp nails or spikes up to three inches long, arranged so one spike always points upwards from a stable base.
Caltrops were used by spreading them on the ground to slow advancing troops, especially horses, as they would be stepped on and cause damage to the soft tissue under the foot.
Caltrops can also be used in various symbolic ways and as a charge in heraldry. The Finnish noble family has three caltrops argent in their coat of arms. The caltrop is also the shoulder insignia for the U.S. Marine Corps’ 3rd Division.
The term “Greek fire” has been used since the Crusades, but before that, it was referred to as sea fire, Roman fire, war fire, or liquid fire. Greek fire was an incendiary liquid added to arrows or siege weapon projectiles. It was set on fire and launched to inflict more significant damage on castles, especially if the missile hit something flammable.
How to make Greek fire was a closely guarded secret. So much so that the formula is now lost to time; it is said that this liquid substance was a combination of pine resin, quicklime, and other substances and was resistant to water. In fact, pouring water on the Greek fire made the fire spread even more. It could only be extinguished by a few substances like sand or strong vinegar.