Maces have a certain reputation for being brutal medieval weapons. Especially their rough appearance makes them a weapon that seems much more brutal than for example a sword. But how did medieval warriors use maces in battle? And how often were maces used on medieval battlefields?
Both questions will be answered in the following.
Contrary to a sword the use of maces did not depend on finding the gaps and weak points in the opponents’ plate armor. Instead, a percussion weapon like the mace was used to hit the opponent’s armor as often and as hard as possible. The hit of a mace could break the bones underneath the armor or bend the plates so that they could no longer glide over each other. While that didn`t hurt the hit knight directly it limited his mobility and turned his armor from an advantage into a handicap.
Let`s find out more!
How were maces used in medieval combat?
When it comes to the use of maces then it is important to emphasize that a mace had varying levels of effectiveness depending on the type of armor that the opponent wore. Here you can find out more about the efficiency of the mace as a weapon. Generally, a mace was best used for fighting against men wearing plate armor. Against a man wearing chainmail, a mace was less useful and inferior to a sword.
That had multiple reasons which also influence the way maces were used in medieval battles.
Maces were percussion weapons. That meant that contrary to a sword a mace was not used to stab into the gaps or weak points of Plate armor but to hurt an enemy by wounding him through his armor.
Let me explain.
Plate armor was basically impenetrable by swords as long as the swordsman didn`t try to stab into the weakly armored parts of the body like the armpits. But even when he tried to do that his success rate was rather small because stabbing into a small, moving target was already pretty difficult and was made even more difficult since the opposing man would try the exact same thing.
So even when Longswords were developed to overcome plate armor and knights started to use a technique called half-swording the chances of success of killing a man in full plate armor with a sword were rather slim.
Or in other words: Trying to use a Longsword to stab into a small, moving target like your opponent’s armpit was not overly successful but the only way to defeat a man wearing full plate armor. Well, at least the only way when you used a sword.
A mace on the other hand did not have to be used against the weak points of the enemy`s plate armor. Instead, a mace was used to hit as hard and as often as possible against the plate armor of the opponent. By hitting the almost indestructible mace as often and as hard as possible against the plate armor of his opponent a knight could injure his enemy without having to overcome the plate armor.
As mentioned, overcoming medieval armor in general and Plate armor in specific was pretty difficult since armor was highly effective in protecting its bearer. You can find out more about the effectiveness of different types of medieval armor in my article here.
There was one more reason why a mace did not have to be used against the weak points of the opponents’ plate armor but could also be used for effective hits against the parts of the body that had the highest level of armor. And that reason had to do with the construction of full suits of plate armor.
To maintain the high level of mobility a knight needed during combat, suits of plate armor were built in a way that the armor did not hinder the body movements of the bearer. To archive that the individual plates had to be able to glide over each other so that joints like the elbow or the knee could move naturally.
That allowed the knight a high level of mobility and excellent protection against hits and blows with a sword. If a knight would have received a hit with a sword against his knee (that was covered in full plate armor with plates that could glide over each other) then that would have not hurt him. Instead, the opponent’s sword would have probably taken more damage than the hit knight in his suit of plate armor.
At least the sword would have lost some of its sharpness, more on how sharp medieval swords were here. In an even worse scenario, the sword could also break.
However, a mace could bend the individual plates of the hit plate armor. And if that happened at a joint then that had big consequences for the hit knight. Not only could a hard hit with a mace break the bones underneath the armor, but the hit could also bend the metal plates so that they were no longer able to glide over each other.
And the ability to glide over each other was absolutely crucial for allowing the knight a high level of mobility when wearing armor. Just imagine the knee of a knight. In order for the knight to be able to bend his knee when wearing plate armor the individual plates that protected the knee had to be perfectly customized to each other.
When only one plate was bent, for example, because somebody had hit it with a heavy percussion weapon like the mace, the plates could no longer glide over each other. And as a result, the knight was no longer able to bend and extend his knee. That was not a good situation to be in, especially not when you still had an opponent hitting you with a mace in other parts of your body.
So there we have it.
Contrary to a sword the use of a mace was not dependent on finding the gaps and weak points in the opponent’s plate armor. Instead, a percussion weapon like a mace could be used to hit even the best-armored bodyparts. Even there the hit of a mace could break the bones underneath the armor or bend the individual plates so that they could no longer glide over each other. While that did not hurt the hit knight directly it still limited his mobility and turned his plate armor from an advantage into a handicap.
These heavy and repeated hits that made the mace so effective against plate armor were only possible because of its robustness. And that robustness was also one of the reasons why maces were quite commonly used especially during the Late Middle Ages.
Let`s find out more.
How often were maces used in the Middle Ages?
As mentioned, Maces were best used against Plate armor. You can find out more about the developments of medieval armor and when (and how) Plate armor entered the medieval battlefields in my article here.
While maces were used during the entire Middle Ages they became particularly common during the Late Middle Ages and the spread of full suits of plate armor.
Other reasons for the commonness of maces aside from their effectiveness against plate armor were their comparatively cheap price and their robustness which made the mace an ideal second weapon for both knights and footsoldiers.
Another reason was its ability to easily be carried on the belt without any additional devices. Here you can find out more about how medieval knights carried their maces.
Do you want to find out more about knights and why they were so effective? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Sabine Buttinger, Jan Keup: Die Ritter (Darmstadt 2013).