Who Used Maces in the Middle Ages? Explained!

Maces are weapons that fascinate us. But they fascinate us in a different way than for example a sword as a pretty filigree weapon does. That might be tied to the more brutal and rough design of the mace or maybe it`s because of their effectiveness against plate armor. Whatever it is, one thing is certain: Maces are fascinating.

But who used maces in the Middle Ages?

It seems like maces were mostly used by the clergy (like Bishop Odo on the Bayeux Tapestry) in the Early Middle Ages. But ever since the 11th and 12th century maces became more and more common and were extensively carried by knights as a secondary weapon to their lances. So for most of the Middle Ages maces were used by heavily armored combatants (like knights) against other heavily armored combatants.

After all, while the sword is usually the first weapon that comes to mind when we imagine a medieval knight, the lance was actually the much more important (and effective) weapon of the knights. And the mace had a lot of advantages, not only in indestructibility but also in effectiveness against plate armor when compared to a sword.

Here you can find out more about the effectiveness of maces and the effectiveness of medieval swords.

Generally speaking, a sword is most effective against unarmored or lightly armored combatants but loses much of its effectiveness when the opponent is heavily armored or wears plate armor. In that case, the mace is more effective.

The fact that the mace was a percussion weapon meant that, unlike the sword, a mace could crush through the armor and did not rely on being used against weak points of the enemies armor.

That, in combination with the robustness of the mace (swords broke quite regularly but maces were basically indestructible), made the mace an ideal secondary weapon that the knight could use against heavily armored combatants after he had lost his lance. The fact that maces are less effective against lightly armored or un-armored combatants is also the reason why the use of maces only become common in the 11th and 12th century (The High Middle Ages). Unlike in the High Middle Ages, most combatants in the Early Middle Ages only used a shield and a helmet (but no chainmail) for protection. In these circumstances it made much more sense to use a sword as a secondary weapon. Well, at least if you could afford a sword.

So maces were mostly used by heavily armored combatants (like knights) against other heavily armored combatants.

But maces were occasionally also used on Early Medieval battlefields.

Although armies in the Early Middle Ages mostly consisted of lightly armored men or combatants who didn`t wear any dedicated body armor, maces were still used by the clergy.

There were two reasons why the clergy preferred to use maces over swords in the Middle Ages. One was the fact that maces had been a sign of power and authority ever since the Ancient Egyptians (even today the authority of the King of England is represented by placing a ceremonial mace in parliament). The other reason was that the clergy was prohibited from spilling Christian blood.

Now one can debate on whether or not the use of a mace instead of a sword was really less bloody. But the fact that the clergy was not allowed to spill blood is also represented in medieval medicine.

Have you ever heard the claim that the church prohibited doctors from dissecting corpses in the Middle Ages? Well, the reason for that was not the anti-scientific stance of the medieval church but the fact the medieval doctors were part of the lower clergy. And the clergy was prohibited from being in contact with blood!

There were however clever ways to bypass that law. These ways had to do with the separation between medieval doctors (who diagnosed the injury or the disease) and medieval surgeons (who actually treated the injury or the disease). But that (as well as the surprisingly highly sophisticated medieval treatment of wounds) is a story for another time.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Donald J. La Rocca: How to read European armor (New York 2017).*

Alan Williams: The knight and the blast furnace (2003).*

Philippe Contamine: War in the Middle Ages (1998).*

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links that are identifiable by the *. If you use these links to buy something we may earn a small commission without additional cost for you. Thanks.