Weapons and Armor

   One of the more important functions of late antique and early medieval nobles, kings, and emperors was as warriors or war leaders. As a result it was necessary for them to be properly outfitted for battle, and a certain standard in weapons and armor developed. The basic nature of military technology in barbarian Europe was established already in the pre-migration period among the barbarians themselves, as well as by the ancient Romans and others, and involved both offensive and defensive tools. Included in the armory of the barbarian warrior was some form of armor, a shield, thrusting weapons like spears and swords, axes, and bows and arrows. There was also a degree of specialization among the various peoples who invaded the empire.
   The weapons used by the early medieval warrior were the descendants of the pre-migration Germanic warrior and his ancient Roman counterpart. Although the tactics employed by Germans and Romans in the use of their weapons differed, the basic outlines of the armaments of the ancient Roman and barbarian soldier were essentially the same. Of course, there was some diversity in the armories of the Romans and of the various Germanic peoples. In fact, it is sometimes suggested that some of the peoples who invaded the Roman Empire were given their names from the weapons that were unique to them. The Saxons were so called because of the long knife, the saxo or seax, that they used, and the Angles were known for their barbed spear, or ango. Similarly, the Huns were known for the hunnica, a type of whip, and the Franks for their throwing axe, the frankisca.
   Along with the various "national" weapons, noble warriors carried a basic complement of implements of destruction, including a sword or a long knife, a spear, an axe, and a bow and arrows. The poorer foot soldiers carried a lesser complement of weapons, which included a spear, shield, and bow and arrows. The difference in weaponry carried by the noble, usually cavalry, warriors and the infantrymen was due in part to expense. Indeed, outfitting a typical noble warrior was quite a costly proposition. The average cost of a helmet was six solidi, and the cost for a sword and scabbard was about seven solidi, the equivalent of six or seven months' wages for the average soldier, or six or seven cows. Clearly, the fully armed and armored warrior in barbarian Europe was usually a wealthy and powerful figure.
   The sword was usually one of two kinds: a blade of some three feet, rather than the shorter Roman sword, which measured roughly two feet in length, or the shorter saxo. The long sword, or spata, was a double-edged blade suitable for thrusting and slashing and general destruction, and the saxo was a single-edged blade that was lighter, more easily wielded, and could even be thrown. In the Carolingian age, however, these two types of sword were merged into one, as the spata was transformed from a blade of parallel edges that ended in a short point to a blade that gradually tapered to a point. Carolingian swords were also engraved and decorated with gold, silver, or ivory handles, and were so highly prized for their quality that Charlemagne and other Carolingian rulers sought to restrict their export.
   The spear or lance was another popular and important weapon; it was such a valuable part of a soldier's armory that Carolingian legislation required monasteries to provide lances as an annual gift to the king. The least expensive weapon in the early medieval armory, it could be used in various ways by either the infantry or cavalry soldier. This weapon, made of ash and sometimes fitted with a metal point, could be used as either a throwing or a thrusting weapon, and contemporary illustrations depict its use in both ways. Throwing spears continued to be used by soldiers as the early Middle Ages progressed, but the lance gradually became primarily a thrusting weapon used by both cavalry and infantry. As a thrusting weapon, the lance could be thrust downward in a stabbing motion or could be thrust upward to knock an opponent off his horse. It was once argued that during the Carolingian period the lance was held under the arm of the mounted warrior who, held in place by a stirrup, could use the full power of the horse against his enemy, creating a force of mounted shock troops. Although the idea is attractive, there is little evidence, either from contemporary illustrations or from archeological discoveries, to support this theory.
   Warriors in barbarian Europe were equipped with two other important weapons. The axe was used during this period as a throwing weapon or a slashing weapon, and it was often double-edged and appeared with either a short or long handle. Bows and arrows were also used and were an essential component of the foot soldiers' armory. Carolingian legislation required that infantry troops carry an extra string and twelve arrows as part of their equipment. Throughout the early Middle Ages the bow was a necessary part of the infantry's weaponry, and arrows have been found in the graves of the Merovingian Franks and other barbarian peoples. The Lombards were noted for their use of a composite reflex bow made of wood, horn, and sinew that was glued together to form a more flexible bow, which gave the string more pull. Even though a short, simple bow was commonly used by the Merovingians and Carolingians archers, it was gradually replaced, beginning in the ninth century, by the composite bow.
   Along with a wide range of weapons, barbarian warriors of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages had an extensive complement of body armor. Indeed, Charlemagne appeared as the "iron Charles" to his opponents because of his strong will and body armor. The early medieval soldier used a mixture of body armor, helmet, and shield, with the noble warrior possessing more elaborate and expensive defensive armament. Perhaps the most important piece of protective gear was body armor, which appeared in a variety of styles, but was usually called either brunia or lorica in contemporary sources. One style, generally preferred by the poorer soldiers, was the so-called lorica squamata. This was a cloth-covered suit that was popular because it offered protection to the soldier and was relatively affordable for the common foot soldier. Better known was the lorica hamata, a suit of mail that offered better protections but was fabulously expensive and therefore affordable only to the wealthier nobles in the army. A shirt of mail was made of interlocking iron rings of the same size and provided its owner great protection in battle. There are also examples of leg armor made of iron, and the hands and arms were protected by armored gloves and armguards. After about 800, the hauberk, or halsbergen (German: neck guard) became a common piece of body armor. This was a caped hood that was worn over the head, under the helmet, and either over or under the mail shirt to provide protection for the neck.
   Along with armor to protect the body, early medieval combatants wore helmets, which were usually conical and made of several possible materials, to protect their heads and faces. The most common helmet was the spangenhelm, so called because its design involved six or more metal strips (spangen) that joined the headband to a plate of metal. The framework strips of the helmet were usually of bronze or iron, but a fully iron helmet was rare. The framework was then filled with metal or horn plates. The spangenhelm common in the early Middle Ages was most likely based on an original model used by the Huns, and the Ostrogoths designed a distinctive spangenhelm, used by the Ostrogothic kings as a diplomatic gift for other rulers.
   The final piece of equipment used for protection by all soldiers in barbarian Europe was the shield, which was also probably the least expensive of all offensive and defensive weapons possessed by cavalry and infantry soldiers. Despite its low cost, the shield was a very important piece of equipment, as Carolingian legislation reveals. Charlemagne required that shield makers live in all regions of the empire, and Louis the Pious and Louis the German required that some monasteries include shields in their annual gifts to the ruler. And makers and merchants of shields often accompanied armies when they campaigned. The shield itself was used to protect the soldier from his enemy's blows, and according to contemporary records, it could even protect a soldier from a javelin. The shield was usually made of a sturdy wood and covered with leather, which would keep the shield in one piece even after the wood split under the force of heavy blows. The shield was reinforced with iron or other metal strips and rivets, and it measured roughly three feet in diameter and offered protection from the thigh to the shoulder. Shields might be round or oval; the shield was always concave and had a grip along one side so that it could be held. Some shields had a pointed boss, which allowed the shield to be used as an offensive weapon and thrust against an attacker.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Bachrach, Bernard S. "Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism." Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 7 (1970): 47-75.
 ♦ ---. Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
 ♦ ---. Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
 ♦ Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Trans. Michael Jones. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
 ♦ Coupland, Simon. "Carolingian Arms and Armor in the Ninth Century." Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 21 (1990): 29-50.
 ♦ DeVries, Kelly. Medieval Military Technology. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1992.
 ♦ Ganshof, François Louis. Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne. Trans. Bryce Lyon and Mary Lyon. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1968.
 ♦ Martin, Paul. Arms and Armour from the 9th to the 17th Century. Trans. René North. Rutland: Tuttle, 1968.
 ♦ Verbruggen, Jan F. The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages: From the Eighth Century to 1340. 2d ed. Trans. Sumner Willard and S. C. M. Southern. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1997.
 ♦ White, Lynn, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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