Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Warrior's Kit in Medieval Europe: Technological Revolution

Noticing a theme here?

It's not misplaced. Lots of folks will tell you that, during the Middle Ages, weapons were basically bashing tools and little more, with no real innovation or advancement, which is utter hogwash. There was quite a bit, and it's easy to see.

In Europe, anyway. Japan is a great contrast. You're certainly familiar with the kit of the samurai, the layered armour, the katana, the tall bow, etc. This equipment was pretty much standardized in the late 14th century, and wasn't changed. The Japanese felt they'd perfected the arts of arming and armouring the samurai, and felt little need for innovation.

In Europe, this sense of perfection was never achieved. Some have described what happened in Europe as a continuous battle of innovation between the spear-makers and the shield makers. As each side improved their goods, the other was forced to compensate through new designs and techniques.

The armour we'd all recognize as “knightly” was actually a fairly late invention in the middle ages, and probably didn't appear until the 15th century. (I suspect this is one of the reasons Gygax preferred to set his games in worlds with early Renaissance tech.) Before this, knights generally wore full suits of mail, or chain mail for those of you who learned about armour from D&D. ;) Significant plates were not added to the armour until the 14th century, and a breastplate and helm with visor didn't appear until maybe the end of that century.

As these armour plates began to appear, the sword underwent a radical transformation. The broad, hacking blade was replaced with longer, narrower blades, more focused on thrusting and finding weak chinks in armour rather than trying to chop through it. By the end of the 15th century, the shield had been pretty much discarded by the knight, and the sword was now a long, thin weapon, wielded with both hands in a style more reminiscent of a staff, for stabbing and clubbing. The slash had all but vanished from the knight's repertoire.

The key idea I'm trying to get across here is that every weapon and piece of armour had a purpose, a reason for existing, and that the forms these weapons took derived naturally from their function. The heater shield replaced the round shield of the Viking and Anglo-Saxon shieldwall because that triangular shape proved easier to use and more effective on horseback. The axe gave warriors a more powerful blow that might sneak around the shield, and the bearded axe could be used to hook the shield and pull it aside so that another warrior could step in and land a killing blow. (Both Richard the Lionhearted and Robert the Bruce were renowned axe fighters.) The ball-and-chain, flail, or morning star, while wild and unpredictable, were even better for getting around the shield and smacking the foe in the back of the head or shoulders. The Dark Age seax, a single-edge, chisel-tipped cutting tool that doubled as a weapon, morphed over time into the rondel dagger, a long spike on a handle usually wielded like an icepick for jabbing through the gaps in heavy armour.

Our games rarely take this sort of thing into account. They assign fairly arbitrary numbers to weapons, and then we wonder why anyone would bother to carry a dagger into combat, since they're next-to-useless in our games. The truth is, the seax was a great little tool to have around and quite good at gutting a lightly armed foe, while the rondel was perfect when two knights grappled into each other, rolling about in the mud and blood, bashing into each other while attempting to jab through the joints or eye slits. The premier weapon of AD&D, the longsword (a one-handed weapon which isn't the same as the "longswords" the guys in the video were fighting with because terminology is another thing historians like to argue about), was quite popular at the dawn of the Middle Ages, but as armour grew heavier, its utility waned, until knightly duels were more likely to be conducted with poleaxes than swords. Every weapon had its time and its place.

Photo credits: rinpoche, Gidzy.

RELATED: The Godless Paladin rants about the listed weights of weapons in D&D.


ligedog said...

True enough though medieval warriors were fighting in large battles not crouching through tunnels fighting shrieking creatures of darkness. Who knows how weapons might have developed then? Might be worth exploring how these could have evolved starting from some real world baseline.

Allandaros said...

This is why the modifiers to hit based on weapon and AC combination in AD&D 1e were useful - you had a mechanical incentive to simulate when to switch weapons.

Allandaros said...

Oh, and William McNeill addresses why you had so much military technological development in Europe in his book "The Pursuit of Power." Highly recommended.

Chris said...

Good stuff Trollsmyth.

On a related note, I've been prodding at FrDave's simplified weapon vs armour rules for B/X recently. They give a sense of meaningful choice to which weapons my LL players choose to use.

P1: "Aaaagh! Giant Bugs!"
P2: "Ok, time to ditch the swords and get out the lobster crackers then."

trollsmyth said...

ligedog: Very true. There was some tunnel fighting in sieges. The Ottoman siege of Vienna had some particularly vicious tunnel fighting. The preferred weapons appear to have been daggers, katzbalgers (heavy, stabbing short swords), and spears and pikes that had been cut down to 3' in length or so. But if this fighting had been common, who knows what might have developed? I imagine tridents and and other "holding" weapons might have become more popular, as well as something like the kukri.

Allandaros: Haven't read that one. I'll look it up.

Chris: Chris, have a link to Fr. Dave's stuff? I think I missed it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Now, if only the idiots on Spike TV's "Deadliest Warrior" would take note.

Check out the episode with the pirate vs. the knight. The pirate won...

That was the last episode of that program I will watch.

DMWieg said...

I would like to read these simplified weapons vs. armor rules. I'm not totally in love with the rules as written and I'm looking to make weapons tactically meaningful in my eventual AD&D game without making it needlessly complex.

Chris said...

re: tunnel-fighting. Some of the improvised weapons of the Western Front in WW1 are real eye-openers. A combination of clubs, trench knives, maces, etc. straight out of the medieval period. Maile shirts and bracers too...

FrDave's weapon vs armour thoughts.

Natalie said...

Ever since I starting learning a little more about the progression of medieval technology, I've been thinking it'd be fun to run a game with solidly crusades-era tech -- either ditch the plate completely, or maybe have something like it as lost civ/alien tech found in secret caches.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post! :-) I love how you mentioned rondels. They are one of my favorite weapons. The cool thing is, if you ever do half-swording, you'll see that the distance between the tip of your sword and your hand is just about the same length as a rondel.

Another interesting note, if you look at the fighting manuals of the time, very often you will see images of knights who drop their swords and go into dagger combat. As for the Japanese connection, I wrote a light-hearted little rant about that here:

trollsmyth said...

Eric: I actually enjoy the program, though I recognize it's quite silly. The scene where they test cut both the knight's cruciform sword and the pirate's cutlass on a passing pig carcass was eye-rolling. Yeah, ok, both swords can slash through a pig. But that really only scratches the surface of how swords, especially the knight's blade, were used.

That said, I agree that the pirate probably should have won. If the pirate's blunderbuss did go off and hit the target, it would have been game over for the knight. But their silly dramatization, where the pirate catches the morning star twice with his face and doesn't even suffer so much as a bruise, was very silly. Hadn't they just shown us that the morning star shattered skulls and splattered brains all over the landscape? But then, the pirate going "Bang!" and the knight falling over would have been a rather boring dramatization. ;p

Anonymous said...

Great read. I have been struggling on coming up with a Tech level or period for my LL campaign and recently decided on late-imperial early dark ages. Your column was very helpful for picturing this period.

trollsmyth said...

Oddysey: Not too far from that in the LL game. I'm thinking the plate is more the classic cuirass and greaves rather than the full-body suit of the knights.

We can still play with things like "scale mail" because there are pre-medieval examples of those, too. Besides, it just looks cool. ;)

trollsmyth said...

godlesspaladin: That's light-hearted, huh? ;)

I tease. Yeah, the rondel is one of those things that just stands out in any weapon collection, and it's so clearly a product of necessity, it's unusual form dictated by the sort of fighting that was common back then.

Thanks for the link!

trollsmyth said...

tegeus: Happy to help. Yeah, if you do use plate, it's going to be more the cuirass and greaves of Roman officers, rather than the gorgeously gothic plate of the "Excalibur" movie.

I'm not aware of any two-handed swords until about the 12th century. Is that because there was no call for such weapons, or due to advances in metallurgy making such long blades viable? I can't say for certain, but if you forced me to guess, I'd say it was the metallurgy.

Other than that, you can probably just run with things as they are. Maybe toss in some specialized rules about the setting's equivalent of Damascus steel, and you're set to go.

Gorgeous blog by the way. Reminds me I really need to spruce things up around here as soon as I get the chance.

Jack Badelaire said...

"I'm not aware of any two-handed swords until about the 12th century. Is that because there was no call for such weapons, or due to advances in metallurgy making such long blades viable?"Look up the Dacian Falx and the Rhomphaia. Might not be your classic "two handed sword", but those bad boys, especially the Rhomphaia, are scary, scary weapons. A unique blend of polearm and sword, almost like some examples of Japanese No-dachi blades, or really long bladed naginatas. I guess the distinction would be based on the individual examples - I've seen Rhomphaia that look VERY sword-like, and some that seem more like polarms, and the same regarding Falxes.

Either way, they are both weapons that were two-handed and served a function rather similar to that of your classic "two-handed sword".