The Middle Ages are generally believed to have lasted from the 5th to the 15th century, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was a long and dark time of medieval war, conquest, plague, destruction which eventually led to the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The 'Middle Ages' is a blanket term for three divisions of Western history, beginning with Antiquity, and then the Medieval period, and finally the Modern period.
A great many inventions were discovered during the Middle Ages - things that would change the world forever. Windmills, watermills, spectacles, mechanical clocks, the three-field crop rotation system, enhanced building techniques, the chimney, the heavy plough, and many, many more inventions were all created during this time.
And crucially, there were many enhancements to weapon inventions as well. In a time with so much death, invasion, and destruction, it only makes sense that warlords would need to come up with new ways to defeat their enemies. That ingenuity resulted in some important inventions and discoveries. These are the thirteen most important weapon inventions from the Middle Ages.
13 Flail (Circa 1419)
Flails, as weapons, derive from an agricultural tool most commonly used for threshing - the loosening of grain or crops from hard soil - during the ancient and middle ages. The flail didn’t become a weapon until around the 1400s. The main characteristics of a flail involve a striking head that is attached to a handle, rope, or chain.
As a two-handed weapon, flails gained some popularity by peasants consigned into military service, or during uprisings. Unlike swords or spears, many farmers owned flails, so they were readily available. Some famous examples of flail usage came from 1420 to 1497, when the Hussite Christians fielded a large contingent of peasant foot soldiers with flails, and during the German Peasants’ War in the early 16th century.
The main virtue of a flail was its ability to batter armor and destroy shields. Because they lacked precision and were difficult to use in close, ranked formations, they went out of style within about 100 years. Flails later evolved into one-handed weapons, often with spiked iron balls attached to chains.
12 Greek Fire (Circa 672)
Greek fire was an incendiary weapon used in naval battles by the Byzantine Empire. It was an effective weapon because it could continue to burn while still floating on water. The weapon was crucial for many key Byzantine victories, with the best example being the salvation of Constantinople from Arab sieges.
Greek fire weapons were used by Arabs, Chinese, and the Mongols, but the Greek’s formula proved the strongest. The formula was a guarded state secret, and its exact composition has since been lost. Some proposals include pine resin, sulfur, or quicklime pressurized through nozzles to project the fiery liquid onto the enemy.
Although a projectile of sorts, the weapon did not make the Byzantine navy invincible. It contributed to many victories, and became a hallmark of weapons to come in later centuries, but it also had a limited range and could only be safely used in favorable wind conditions.
11 Fire-Lance (Circa 10th Century)
The fire-lance was one of the world’s first gunpowder weapons, used in China. The earliest versions were spear-like weapons that combined a bamboo tube containing projectiles and gunpowder. When fired, a charge ejected the projectiles, sometimes darts, a few feet away. Being a weapon that combined a spear with a gunpowder shot, it gave hand-to-hand combatants an edge in close-quarters combat.
Fire-lances were first seen in the 10th century, but it wasn’t until about 1260 that they were developed and used regularly by Song dynasty infantrymen and cavalry. Their main contribution to the advancement of projectile weaponry was because they were some of the first weapons to be able to hurl a killing-shot a fair distance. Fire-lances would give rise to cannons, rockets, and ultimately the first true guns.
10 Steel Crossbow (Circa 1370)
The steel crossbow, or arbalest, was a late variation - and the first hand-held version - of the crossbow. It had a greater force than a typical crossbow, and originated as an advanced, cheaper, more-wieldy version of a ballista.
The strongest arbalests could have up to 5,000 pounds of force and be accurate up to 300 meters, making them dangerous killing machines. A skilled arbalestier could unleash two bolts per minute.
The first crossbows were invented in ancient China, before 5th Century BC. Steel crossbows, however, were a European innovation, and typically came with different cocking aids to upgrade draw power. Crossbows were used as hunting weapons, and in warfare - which is evident from the Battle of Hastings in 1066 - until about 1500. Their larger cousins, steel crossbows, first saw the battlefield in 1370.
The main enhancement of crossbows over regular hand bows, was that their kinetic energy created a much stronger impact, able to penetrate most knights’ armor, and they could be used effectively after a week of training, as opposite to a single-shot longbow that took years of training to use effectively. During the Middle Ages in Europe, the commander of the crossbowmen corps was one of the highest ranks in any army at the time.
9 Ribauldequin (Circa 1339)
The ribauldequin (or rabauld, ribault, organ gun) was a late medieval volley gun. It was a horrendous weapon to behold, and proved to be a step towards mortar and other volley weapon advancements. It consisted of a number of iron barrels set parallel on a platform, and when fired, it created a shower of iron pellets. They were used mostly as anti-personnel weapons.
The first known ribauldequin was used by Edward III of England in 1339, in France during the Hundred Years’ War. Edward’s ribauldequins had 12 barrels that fired volleys of 12 balls. The weapons were also used in the Wars of the Roses, to great success. One famous version of the ribauldequin was designed and drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, and was predecessor to many other firearm weapons.
8 Mangonel (Circa 1224)
During the Middle Ages, many types of catapults were built with varying success. One of the earlier types of catapults built was called the mangonel, derived from a Greek word meaning “engine of war.” They were used to launch projectiles at a castle’s walls. The engine threw stones and shot at a higher velocity than a trebuchet (which were introduced later), though on a lower trajectory and with less accuracy.
Mangonels were beam-sling weapons that were built to destroy walls, not to hurl projectiles over them, and they were often used in field battles as anti-personnel weapons. Armies would launch rocks, burning objects, and even the decomposed carcasses of animals and people to intimidate and spread disease among enemy forces.
The pulling power of several men (sometimes up to 20) were used to launch the shots. This man-powered method would later be replaced by a trebuchet’s falling counterweight. With the power of the men, however, trained workers could adjust the strength of the sling, as well as the trajectory and velocity of the sling.
7 Arched Saddle (Circa 11th Century)
There is evidence that suggests saddles have been used as early as 4,000 BC, or since the domestication of horses. Throughout the years, saddle technology advanced, until the 11th century with the ingenious introduction of the arched saddle.
During these years in the Middle Ages, knights needed stronger and more supportive saddles. The result was a saddle with a higher pommel and cantle to prevent a rider from being thrown from his horse in battle.
The arched saddle enabled knights to wield spears and lances underarm, rather than overarm, which prevented their charges from turning into pole-vaults, or dismounting them. This allowed riders to charge on a full gallop, and gave birth to shock cavalry - one of the most effective and feared cavalry units during the Middle Ages. So, while not a weapon itself, the arched saddle certainly gave way to a new form of battle strategem.
6 English Longbow (Circa 1250)
The English (or Welsh) longbow was a powerful, 6-foot long bow used for hunting and as a weapon during the Middle Ages, primarily from 1250 to 1450. It became one of the paramount weapons used in a number of victories during the Hundred Years’ War, particularly at the Battles of Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415).
Although longbows have been found in England dating as far back as 2665 BC, the dominant period of the longbow was much later (around 1250 AD). With disciplined archers in a unit, longbows had high rates of fire and penetration power, and contributed to the demise of the knight class.
The longbow was prominent during Normandy’s win at the Battle of Hastings (1066), and at the Anglo-Norman Battle of the Standard in 1138. It replaced the shortbow, which was a weaker, smaller version that had bowmen drawing to the chest, rather than the ear. Although longbows were much faster and accurate than black-powder weapon, they took years of strength and skill practicing to be used effectively, and were eventually replaced by guns, which took much less time to learn.
5 Pike (Circa 13th Century)
A pike, in its purest form, is a very long thrusting spear used by infantrymen. Unlike other spear-like weapons, it's not meant to be thrown, and they often exceed 18 feet in length. They were used by foot soldiers in Europe from the early Middle Ages to about 1700. Pike square formations became one of the most feared military units in Landsknecht (German) and Swiss mercenaries and armies.
A similar weapon was used as far back as Alexander the Great, in the Macedonian phalanx. After his fall, the pike fell out of use for the next 1,000 years, until a Scottish revival in the Middle Ages. The pike is unwieldy in nature, being used with two hands, and is used in either a defensive or aggressive manner in close quarters, in conjunction with other melee and missile weapons.
A skilled pike unit could present enemy infantry with four or five layers of spearheads attacking them at all times. They were also very effective at unhorsing a knight or cavalryman. Horses would rarely charge a full head of pikemen, and would typically flee or cause chaos. As such, they became one of the primary weapons for infantrymen during the Middle Ages, just about everywhere.
4 Longsword (Circa 1260)
There's no more iconic or longer-lasting image of the Middle Ages, perhaps, than that of the longsword.
It is characterized as growing out of the spatha (shorter bladed) sword tradition of ancient times, and then the arming sword (also shorter bladed, with about 200 more years of service than the longsword). The longsword is not known so much for its longer blade, but for its longer hilt, allowing for two-handed use.
The longsword is somewhat of a blanket term, as the oversized German Zweihander, the Swiss “bastard sword,” the Scottish claymore, are all versions of longswords. They were often used by plate-armor wearing infantry and cavalrymen, throughout the second half of the Middle Ages.
The straight, double-edged sword allowed for slashing attacks, and later thrusting attacks once plate armor was introduced. The cross-guard was another defining feature. Because of the high price of steel and iron at the time, most people could not afford a longsword, and the weapon was often a knights’ prized possession, and a status-symbol of his rank.
3 Counterweight Trebuchet (Circa 12th Century)
The counterweight trebuchet was one of the strongest and most devastating siege catapults to arrive in the Middle Ages. It evolved from the traction trebuchet, which employed pulling men rather than a counterweight mechanism. The counterweight trebuchet arrived in Christian and Muslim lands around the Mediterranean in the 12th century.
Trebuchets launched projectiles weighing up to 350 lbs into or at enemy fortifications. The main characteristics of a trebuchet were: a) powered by gravity by means of a counterweight; b) force rotates the throwing arm, longer than the counterweight arm to multiply speed of the projectile; c) an affixed sling attached to the throwing arm acts as another fulcrum to further multiply speed.
These catapults were one of the defining, revolutionary siege engines of the Middle Ages. They caused castle and keep-owners to rethink how they fortified their walls, such was the strength and potential of a trebuchet. Even with the advent of gunpowder, counterweight trebuchets played a huge part in siege warfare throughout the 15th century.
2 Cannon (Circa 1324)
Another blanket term, cannons account for any piece of artillery powered by gunpowder to propel projectiles. They were first invented in China, with the advent of gunpowder, and would come to replace siege engines and reign in a new era of combat that is still used today. The cannon, like small arms, are descendants of the fire lance.
The earliest illustration of a cannon is dated 1326, while the first recorded use in Europe was at the Siege of Cordoba, by the Moors, in 1280. Cannons would become the forerunners of siege technology, and change the way that wars were fought throughout the Middle Ages. They were deployed during the Hundred Years’ War, in the Battle of Crécy.
The Florentine Giovanni Villani recounted their destructiveness, indicating that “the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls,” at the end of a battle. During the 55-day bombardment of Constantinople, by the Ottomans in 1453, 68 cannons “hurl[ing] the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby.”
Gunpowder made the former Greek fire obsolete, and with the final fall of Constantinople in 1453 (protected by the strongest walls in Europe), it was the end of an era.
1 Gunpowder (Circa 9th Century)
The single greatest development in Middle Ages warfare, and probably all of warfare in history, is undoubtedly gunpowder. For over 1,000 years, the growth of weapons and ballistics in the world has hinged on gunpowders discovery. It was invented in China, when taoists were attempting to create a potion of immortality. They ended up created pretty much the opposite.
The Chinese would go on to use gunpowder-based firearms, explosives, and cannons against the Mongols, and the Mongols would spread Chinese gunpowder across from Asia. One of its first European sightings was between the Mongols and European forces at the Battle of Mohi (1241).
As one might imagine, the sight of such weaponry in a largely sword-and-shield-and-armor atmosphere would probably seem like the weapons of God, or something along those lines. Unlike catapults and brick-and-mortar siege weapons, which died with the changing of times, the invention of gunpowder has led to just about every military advancement, and it shows no sign of slowing down (until we have reliable lasers, maybe).