Guilherme Radaeli is a lawyer, writer and blogger born in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Part-time techie and overall mad lad.
3 Unique Weapons of the Middle Ages
Nowadays, there is so much available medieval warfare media that many of us feel we've seen it all—from movies to comic books and videogames (be it fantastical or historical). And much of this media, in regards to weaponry and warfare, often depicts the usual suspects: the noble sword, the brutal ax, the handy spear, shields of all kinds, bows both short and long, etc.
All of this ends up providing a relatively tame and, frankly, kind of uniform view of combat prior to the age of gunpowder and firearms. This depiction fails to present the full scope of the diversity and creativity of medieval Europeans' ways of combat.
This article aims to dismiss this uniform view and offer you a few of the more interesting examples of weaponry used throughout Europe, from the so-called "Dark Ages" up to the late medieval period. Here's a quick preview of the 3 unique weapons we'll be covering:
- War Scythe
- Dueling Shield
The "goedendag," also called "godendac," "godendard," or "godendart" is a prime example of a kind of weapon that was rather widely used at one point in history but didn't get much attention since it was viewed as a weapon of the peasant classes.
While nobody is entirely sure of its proper origins, the Flemish widely used this weapon during the Franco-Flemish war in the 14th century. The term comes from an account by a contemporary french poet and chronicler.
Guillaume served in the French army in Flanders and would've had first-hand experience of the weapon's use against the French forces. He named the weapon in his phrase, "Tiex bostons qu'ils portent en querre ont nom godendac" ("... a weapon called godendac").
Supposedly, this name was a reference to the Dutch expression "goedendag," which simply means "good day."
Some post-war accounts say that the weapon was named such because, supposedly during the massacre of the French garrison stationed in Bruges and their supporters. This was carried out by Flemish militia in the year 1302; the Flemish would walk the streets and greet anyone they met with "goedendag," killing anyone that answered in French or had a French accent. After the massacre, the Flemish would successfully take the city.
However, this definition is considered spurious as the Flemish themselves simply referred to the weapon as "spiked staff."
The goedendag's simplicity meant it was both easy and cheap to craft (pretty much any blacksmith could make one) and also easy to use. Not only that, it was incredibly versatile and was used to great effect against the French troops.
While better armed and armored and possessing knights, the French army suffered greatly in the hands of the Flemish armed with this weapon. Its heavy iron head, which often also featured other spikes, allowed for heavy blows that crushed bone and pierced armor, and the main spike allowed it to be used in strong thrusting strikes, easily piercing chainmail, leather, and even some plate armor.
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Not many examples still exist, having had the fate of many a peasant's weapons of being converted into tools after the war (good iron was a precious commodity). Still, the simplicity of the build and its dark legacy allowed the memory of the goedendag to pass through the ages.
The Goedendag and Its Uses
2. War Scythe
War scythes are a prime example of the kind of weapon a peasant may carry into war, especially in an uprising or another context in which he (or she) is not provided with proper weaponry. Throughout history, turning tools into weapons was common whenever peasants had to fight for their lives.
While nobody is entirely sure of an origin point for war scythes, it is speculated that they have been around for as long as regular scythes have been in use. Turning a regular scythe into a war scythe isn't all that complicated for a skilled craftsman, as all that is needed is to turn the blade upwards and strengthen its joint where it attaches to the wooden staff, and there you go, a war scythe.
Accounts of scythes or scythe-bladed weapons in warfare date back to antiquity. The Greek historian Xenophon famously described the use of scythes in the wheels of Persian chariots, and Polish and Lithuanian revolutionaries made great use of the weapon during revolts in the 18th and 19th centuries.
War scythes have been associated with the Polish people, specifically, due to their widespread use by Polish peasants during the Swedish invasion of Poland in the 17th century, famously referred to as "The Deluge."
War scythes were used both in slashing and stabbing strikes. The wicked curved scythe blade could easily slash through soft tissue and cause tremendously painful, bleeding wounds. The point was also very sharp and could easily stab into cloth, leather, and maybe even chainmail.
The war scythe was also specially used against cavalry, as the long, sharp blade could easily cause severe wounds to horses and would be able to reach horsemen atop their steeds. While its size made it rather unwieldy, when used in groups, the war scythe was a cheap and efficient weapon against anyone not wearing heavy armor, and its length would help defend against anything it could not outright kill.
Polish War Scythe Exercises
3. Dueling Shields
Dueling shields are probably one of the more obscure and weird weapons that may or not have been employed on the medieval battlefield. Unfortunately, there really isn't all that much documentation on these magnificent implements of war.
Adding weapons to shields is far from a novel concept: shields have been fitted with spikes and other offensive accessories for as long as they have been in use. However, the idea of using the shield itself as a weapon, without the wielder using any other weapon, is a rare thing indeed.
The idea is attributed mostly to a famous German fencing master, Hans Talhoffer.
While there isn't much in the way of historical accounts involving shields being used as weapons like in the depiction above, "shield bashing" has been in use ever since the concept of a shield existed. After all, if you're carrying something in your hand that is hard enough to block a blow from a weapon and has some decent weight to it, it will likely do decent damage if you hit your opponent with it. Such techniques have been described for literal ages in many different accounts from all across history.
However, the idea of the shield itself being the principal weapon of a warrior is a concept that never truly established itself but was beautifully depicted in Hans Talhoffer's manuals.
Hans Talhoffer was a Swabian fencing master and mercenary born around the year 1410 that became famous for being employed by German noblemen in judicial duels.
For some context, judicial duels or trials by combat were a legally recognized method of solving conflicts between two parties during the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when its use stopped and was eventually outlawed. In said duels, usually between noblemen, the litigants could either partake in the duel themselves or choose to be represented by a person, a champion of sorts.
While Hans Talhoffer depicted the use of shields as weapons in the 1440s, it is highly unlikely that his "dueling shields" were ever used on an actual battlefield.
While shields have been used as weapons since time immemorial, the dueling shields depicted here were likely only used in formal duels or trials by combat.
Talhoffer would go on to have a successful career as a mercenary and later as a martial tutor for noblemen throughout Germany. His manuals and the many similar works that followed them are now one of the most valuable sources of information on medieval combat since several exemplars have survived. Nowadays, many books on the matter have been created, based mostly on Talhoffer's work.
For example, in Eric Lowe's The Use of Medieval Weaponry, Lowe makes use of Talhoffer's manuals to give detailed theoretical explanations of the uses of "longshields."
Sources and Further Reading
Keen, Maurice Hugh. (1999). Medieval Warfare: A History. Oxford UP.
Lowe, Eric. (2020). The Use of Medieval Weaponry. AEON Books.
Nicholson, Helen. (2004). Medieval Warfare: Theory and Practice of War in Europe, 300–1500. Palgrave Macmillan.
Talhoffer, Hans. (2014). Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Manual of Sword-fighting and Close-Quater Combat. Frontline Books.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Guilherme Radaeli