The sword is probably the weapon that is most commonly associated with the Middle Ages. But contrary to that believe swords were never as common or as decisive as most people think.
In the following I will present why swords were not as common on medieval battlefields then one might think, which type of weapon was much more common, and what advantages that more common weapon type had over swords.
Although swords were highly effective weapons and important status symbols they were never the most used or decisive weapons on a medieval battlefield. The most common weapon during the Early and parts of the High Middle Ages was the spear and even when swords became more common during the High and Late Middle Ages their role still didn`t match that of polearms.
But let`s take a closer look at how common swords were in the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages. After that, I would also like to present why polearms like spears were the more common and more important weapons on medieval battlefields.
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How common were swords on medieval battlefields?
The origins of the medieval sword can be found in the 5th century in the shape of the Spatha, a sword that was originally used by Roman cavalry but was adopted by the Roman infantry during the end of the Western Roman empire. And although medieval swords would slightly change their designs over time they would still exist for almost 1000 years until the rapier would replace them during the Renaissance.
However, even though the medieval sword existed for such a long time it was never the most important or the most common weapon on a medieval battlefield!
What was the most common weapon on medieval battlefields?
Instead, the most common weapon on the Early and high medieval battlefields were spears and axes (used by foot soldiers) and lances (used by mounted warriors). That had several reasons like, for example, the fact that a sword was extremely expensive.
You can find out more about the price of medieval armor and weapons in my article here. But more on the reasons for why swords were so rare during the Early Middle Ages later.
Even throughout the High and Late Middle Ages, during a time when swords had become a lot cheaper and were no longer exclusively owned by wealthy men (like during the Early Middle Ages) but also by regular footsoldiers the role of the sword was still minor compared to polearms like spears or halberds.
Now make no mistake, the fact that swords were not so commonly used in medieval battles didn`t have anything to do with a lack of effectiveness – swords were indeed highly effective weapons, more on that here. But several reasons made the medieval sword, especially during the Early Middle Ages, more of a status symbol than a battle-deciding weapon.
Why were swords not common during the Early & High Middle Ages?
The first and most obvious reason is that swords were pretty rare during the Early Middle Ages. And that had to do with the composition of early medieval armies. Generally, the bulk of an early medieval army wasn`t made up of professional soldiers but of men, wealthy farmers or craftsmen, who were levied. You can find out more about the different levies and the wealth requirements for being eligible for getting levied in my article here.
These levied men also had to bring their own armor and weapons. And although all the levied men were rather wealthy only a few of them were wealthy enough to own a sword since swords were extremely expensive. You can find out more about how expensive swords were during the Early Middle Ages and their equivalent value in my article here.
As a result of that, only very wealthy men could afford to own a sword which did definitely set them apart from the bulk of the men who fought with a spear and oftentimes even without significant body armor aside from a shield. Now one might think that a shield was a pretty simple piece of armor that only offered limited protection.
But that was actually not the case! The sophisticated construction of a medieval shield that is presented in this article made the medieval shield a pretty effective piece of armor.
So we can state that the fact that only rich men could afford a sword during the Early Middle Ages automatically made the sword a status symbol. During the Early Middle Ages, the sword was a status symbol for the wealthy, during the High Middle Ages a sword that was worn on the belt marked the bearer as a knight, and during the Late Middle Ages the sword was worn by citizens of free cities like Rothenburg ob der Tauber as a symbol of their status.
Once more I would like to emphasize that despite mostly being a status symbol and not being the decisive weapon in medieval battles, here you can find out more about how medieval battles worked, the sword was still a highly effective weapon when wielded by a skilled swordsman!
But for now, I would like to turn toward the weapons that were much more important than swords when it comes to medieval warfare.
You can find more information on the effectiveness of medieval swords against different types of medieval armor (for example Plate armor) in my article here.
Why were spears more common than swords on medieval battlefields?
Contemporary depictions of medieval battles like the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts the events of the Norman conquest of England during the Early Middle Ages do present the majority of both footsoldiers and mounted warriors with spears and axes, or lances while swords are only rarely depicted.
That is on the one hand closely connected to the composition of early medieval armies and the fact that most early medieval soldiers were levied and could simply not afford a sword. But it also has to do with the fact that the longer reach of a spear offered an advantage over a one-handed sword!
Only the development of better and better armor that culminated in the plate armor of the 15th century made it possible for fully armored men to use two-handed weapons like the Longsword as a way to overcome the higher range of the spears while simultaneously no longer using shields. You can find out more about why and when knights stopped using shields in my article here.
But even with the introduction of full plate armor and two-handed weapons like the longsword the most common weapons on Late Medieval battlefields still remained polearms like pikes or halberds.
The longsword however marked the peak of swordsmanship in medieval Europe and swordmasters would not only teach but also write educational books on how to master the art of sword fighting. Do you want to check out one of these books? You can find a translated version of a manual written by the late medieval swordmaster Philippo di Vadi here* on Amazon.
But the Late medieval swordmasters also organized themselves into guilds to prevent imposters and con-artists from tainting their craft. Some of these guilds would exist until the Thirty Years`War.
But that war is a story for another time. I hope you enjoy our trip into the Middle Ages. And if you haven’t had enough of the Middle Ages yet then I would like to recommend you my article here with more information on what happened after a medieval battle was over.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Thomas Laible: Das Schwert. Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Bad Aibling 2008).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).