In Europe, the Middle Ages lasted from the fifth through the end of the 15th century, and much of that time was shaped by conflict. Germanic tribes clashed with the soldiers of the Roman Empire, eventually leading to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, leaving only Byzantium in the east. The Crusades were fought to reclaim the Holy Land from what the Byzantines and other Europeans saw as Muslim invaders, and the Hundred Years War was waged between France and England, to name just a few of the conflicts that rocked the west. To the east, China suffered upheavals of its own as the Tang Dynasty, which had ruled for nearly 300 years, gave way to the fractious Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.
During these many conflicts, new ways of waging war were developed across fronts ranging from China to England and beyond. Many of these new weapons not only help to turn the tide of battle, but changed the way that warfare was fought, in many cases forever. Here are eight of the most significant new weapons developed during the medieval period, and how they changed the face of battle for centuries to come.
1. Iron-tipped Arrows
The history of battle in the Middle Ages is the history of missile weapons gradually replacing swords, spears, and other melee weapons as the preferred means of waging battle. By the early fifth century, composite bows were already important weapons among groups from the Huns to the armies of China and beyond. When Germanic “barbarians” attacking the Roman Empire began using iron-tipped arrows, however, these bows became considerably more deadly, marking the beginning of a slow shift toward increasingly effective missile weapons.
2. Greek Fire
The saga of medieval combat is also the story of more and deadlier types of siege weapons. Siege weapons were not used merely for bringing down (or firing over) enemy fortifications. They were also capable of slaying dozens of soldiers in one fell swoop. One of the most devastating—and mysterious—of these is the incendiary substance known as Greek Fire, which was first developed by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire late in the seventh century. This substance could be fired from flamethrower-like weapons mounted on ships, and would continue to burn on the surface of the water, thereby making it particularly effective in naval engagements. So impressive was this Greek Fire that the name continued to be applied to incendiary weapons used by other forces, including those developed by Chinese and Mongol armies.
Crossbows had actually been around for a long, long time. The earliest crossbows date back to ancient China in the sixth century BCE, and the first crossbows in Europe were probably the gastraphetes of ancient Greece. However, crossbows became an important part of European armament during the Middle Ages, as by the 12th century they had replaced hand bows in many armies across the continent. These crossbows were drawn by placing the foot on a stirrup at the front of the bow, or through the use of a windlass, and were important to warfare as they let largely untrained, conscripted soldiers deploy deadly missile force, while bows required a more highly trained warrior class. By the end of the Middle Ages, firearms began supplanting crossbows, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.
Cavalry had been an important component of warfare for as long as humans had managed to ride horses, but many medieval European armies were especially reliant on heavy cavalry for much of their hitting power. To ensure that the cavalry charge was as devastating as possible, many mounted warriors throughout the Middle Ages employed lances. While the name derives from early words for throwing spears and has an etymological relationship to “launch”, by the Middle Ages lances had become one-use weapons that often broke upon impact with the enemy and were then replaced with swords, war hammers, or other hand weapons.
Like crossbows, the earliest trebuchets appeared in ancient China around the fourth century BCE. These early traction trebuchets were sometimes called mangonels and were operated by hand rather than by the counterweights of later, larger trebuchets. Mangonels were adopted by the Byzantines in the sixth century CE, and later replaced by the larger counterpoise trebuchets in the 12th century. Counterpoise trebuchets were an improvement in siege weapon technology over the earlier catapults, able to hurl huge projectiles or even piles of rocks at enemy strongholds and forces. They would remain the crème de la crème of siege weaponry until they were eventually supplanted by gunpowder weapons.
Typically as long as the user was tall, longbows—sometimes formed from a single piece of wood like yew, other times made from compound materials—had been in use for thousands of years, but they found perhaps their greatest wartime prominence in England during the Hundred Years War. Beginning at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 CE (pictured above), the English longbows were used to devastating effect. Due to their length, the bows generated an impressive pull which led to superior penetrating power, and a trained archer could potentially fire more than a dozen arrows per minute, compared to crossbows, which were capable of firing only a couple of bolts in the same amount of time. English longbows dominated much of the Hundred Years War until the 1450s, when the French began using cannons to break archery formations.
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As with many of the weapons on this list, the earliest gunpowder weapons got their start in China. During the Song Dynasty, which ruled China from 960 to 1279 CE, early gunpowder weapons began development, including adding explosive tips to spears and firing off arrows in large salvos. By the end of the Song Dynasty, Chinese soldiers were using crude hand grenades and early rocket weapons, as well as some of the first cannons. By the 14th century, cannons had made their way to Europe, and became instrumental in the Hundred Years War. In addition to superior siege weapons, cannons were capable of devastating ranks of archers and breaking the backs of even heavy cavalry charges. Their widespread use would signal the beginning of the turn to gunpowder weaponry that still dominates much of warfare today, and in the Battle of Castillon at the end of the Hundred Years War, the French army effectively annihilated the English longbow archers with massed cannons and handguns.
Speaking of handguns, the Middle Ages saw the first gunpowder weapons spread from China and across much of the world. By the 15th century, as many as 14% of men in Europe owned some kind of firearm, though many of them were unusable. At first, these gunpowder weapons were mainly large cannons and other siege weapons, as handheld firearms were expensive to produce and maintain, and slow and complicated to reload. As advances in firearm technology continued, however, and new devices such as matchlocks were introduced, firearms became both more common and easier to use. While adoption was slow, and firearms never became the de facto weapons during the Middle Ages, their introduction set the stage for the change in warfare that was to come, leading to the modern military of today.
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Over the centuries that followed, firearms would become the standard armament of soldiers on the ground, while mechanized weapons such as tanks and, eventually, planes and helicopters, would largely replace medieval siege engines. Yet the legacy of these early weapons of war still exists today. During World War I, Allied forces fired grenades from large crossbows called sauterelles (French for “grasshoppers”) while modern sniper rifles and helicopters still bear the name “longbow”.
Featured photo: WIkimedia Commons