History for the Fantasy Writer: Weapons, Armor and Mounts

English: Bayeux Tapestry scene of Battle of Ha...
English: Bayeux Tapestry scene of Battle of Hastings showing knights and horses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ll be alternating a focus on various specific topics with collections of historical tidbits useful to the fantasy writer. This is a ‘tidbit’ post, a collection of facts that might be of use. Primary source for this is again Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, by John France, so this applies to the High Middle Ages, 1000 to 1300 CE.

Army Sizes:

  • William conquered England in 1066 with an army of 14,000 men, of which 7,000 were combat effectives and of those, 3,000 were cavalry.
  • Guiscard attacked the Byzantine Empire in 1081 with about 15,000 men.
  • The crusader armies, which were fairly exceptional in size, were 20,000 to 30,000 troops

These were some of the greatest endeavors of the age so lesser conflicts would have had much smaller armies. Historical records in this period are notorious for inflating figures so you can find larger numbers but most historians discount these. (Often the comment is made that scribes used zeroes as exclamation points :)).

Swords from the Tenth to the Thirteenth CenturiesFor the fantasy writer, these small armies are, to my view, a good thing: smaller scaled forces are easier to write about and provide greater scope for your heroes to battle. A seasoned warrior leading fifty knights still has room to determine a battle with his prowess. Said knight in a troop of 10,000 horsemen will be insignificant. Since no warleader in any age is going to go to war with less than he can bring to bear, armies were small because the resources were limited. Therefore, if you want your armies small in your fantasy world, either limit the resources or provide other limiting circumstances: maybe the cost of outfitting a knight is immense and once outfitted, he is supremely power (sort of like the power-armored soldiers of the Forever War.

Armor and Weapons:

Metal was expensive and hard to come by. Proper metal equipment of war was one of the main distinctions for a knight. The hauberk, a shirt of riveted rings, was the main form of protection throughout the period (and earlier, there are examples going back to antiquity). Note that this was worn over padding, which provided some additional protection and comfort. Note also, this isn’t the stuff you see at your local RenFaire. For one thing, each link was riveted closed. A simple loop of metal, with open ends touching, provides little protection against a sword thrust or arrow: the ring will simply open up and allow penetration. Naturally, riveting every single link in a hauberk was extremely time-consuming and thus, very expensive. The rings were formed and riveted with soft steel and then hardened after the coat was fashioned. (This might have involved heating in a carbon rich environment to form a harder steel and then quenching in water but I don’t have the details.)

Helmets varied in the period from the simple pot and nose guard you can see in the Bayeux Tapestry to masked helms. They might be a single piece of shaped metal or more often, formed from separate plates and held together by metal bands. Naturally, they were lined with leather and padding and often had provision for a plume and for a chain-mail neck guard.

Such armor was very effective against the weapons of the time. Against foot soldiers, who almost by definition were not as well armed or armored, the mounted, well-mailed knight of the period was almost immune to attack. This meant that knights could ride against commoners with little chance of serious injury. For the fantasy writer, a similar arrangement in your setting could allow you to have a lot of combat without having to worry about your characters getting killed and maimed. Or, you could focus on the need to maintain a high level of equipment and its consequent financial burden (or possibly, magical burden if magic is required to be properly equipped for war.)

Swords were common in the period and varied quite a bit in length and shape but the familiar long sword was certainly a staple. A proper sword was strong and flexible. The Vikings speak of a good sword being supple enough to bend the tip back to the hilt (perhaps an exaggeration but perhaps not: these days, some of the nicer but affordable replica swords are often made from spring steel: the same steel used in leaf springs in car suspensions). Swords were forged from softer, flexible steel often with a harder steel edge welded on to it. Though they are more rare in depictions, scholars believe many other weapons were common from clubs and maces to spears and polearms. They often had whimsical names, such as the goededag used by Flemish infantry at Courtrai in 1302. The name probably means “good day.” During the uprisings of the Hundred Years (just after our period), the Parisians used a lead-weight wooden mallet, from which the rebels took their name (Maillotins). And despite the scenes in the LOTR movies, swords were not cast. That might do for fodder troops such as orcs but that would make for a very brittle, short-lived weapon.

John France reports 14 swords for this period in the range of 76-83cm (30-33 inches) with points that varied from blunt to more pointed (apparently for piercing armor). These weapons were surprisingly light- 1.5kg (~3.5 pounds) and well-balanced. How do you balance something that sticks out from your hand? You make a light blade and put a lot of mass in the grip and pommel. Since this is a balance lever with the fulcrum the warrior’s hand and a lot of length sticking out the pointy end, the pommel on a much shorter length would have to be correspondingly heavier for good balance.

For the fantasy writer, swords are fine but lots of other weapons could work and might provide something unusual to the reader. Stressing a good sword’s balance, light weight and flexibility might distinguish your writing in the right place. Weapons were so important to the warrior or defining for armies, that you should also feel free to name them as a type. Individually named weapons were fairly rare in the period but are certainly familiar to readers so I wouldn’t hesitate to use those too.

By the way, the “blood gutter”, the fuller in the middle of some blades, was not, actually, for drawing blood away. It was simply a way to lighten the blade without materially reducing its strength. That’s not to say your characters can’t call it a blood gutter, that’s the sort of thing a warrior might like to say about his blade but you may want to have another character correct him so that your readers think you know what you are talking about 🙂

Horses:

Why did ancient Egyptians Pharaohs or Bronze Age warriors like Achilles ride around in chariots? Why didn’t they fight like a proper knight on horseback where they had a lot more stability and mobility, especially on rougher ground? Because horses weren’t always as large as they are now. In ancient times, they weren’t big enough to support a warrior. By the Roman period, you could mount a warrior but these were still small horses. At the start of the High Middle Ages, John France suggests most European warhorses were about 12 hands, with some as large as 14-15 hands. A Shetland pony is about 10 hands, for comparison, and at 12 hands most horses might still be considered a pony (today). Apparently, there are anecdotes of some warriors who liked to ride horses so small their feet trailed on the ground. Quite plausible given such small horses.

In the east, the Crusaders encountered larger horses, strong enough to be armored in iron. Naturally, they brought those breeds back with them. As the period progressed, horses became bigger and stronger, moving into a stockier build at 15-16 hands and able to carry a warrior and his gear in the middle period of about 32kg and later in full plate, ~45kg (70 to 100 pounds). Naturally, these were very expensive mounts: in Florence mid-1300s, such a horse might cost 40 florins per year in upkeep, twice the upkeep of a footman.

For the fantasy writer, I don’t really recommend tiny horses unless you also have tiny riders (hobbits and elves!) as the imagery may not be very satisfying for your readers. But you could have the war mounts come from a foreign land and cost huge sums of money. You can also take these costs and sizes as a starting point for non-equine mounts: if a warhorse cost this much, imagine how much more a griffin might cost. Not only does the griffin probably eat meat, a flyer’s metabolism is much higher (see my post on what it takes to feed a griffin for more but by my estimate, you might have to feed a griffin 20 head of cattle per year on top of the cost of handlers, acquisition, etc.) You couldn’t feed an active warhorse on hay alone, they needed more expensive oats and the like, but this is still far more than what a horse requires. Therefore, if cavalry is expensive, think how much more expensive griffin cavalry would be. Combine that with the fact that it is probably not a good idea for rider or griffin to delivery a lance blow while airborne and you might have justification for making your griffin force more of a scouting service than a shock troop.

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History for Fantasy Writers: Proprietorial Warfare in the Middle Ages

Mantova's high Middle Ages
Mantova’s high Middle Ages (Photo credit: Ostrosky Photos)

For my history & fantasy posts, my thoughts are to mix postings focused on a particular historical area (for instance, castles) with ones that are more collections of historical tidbits with some thoughts on  how to use them in fantasy novels. This post is a brief survey of the nature of rulership, culled from Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, by John France. This is a smallish book with full references, scholarly but quite readable and well-organized. The book covers military technology, tactics and leadership in Europe in the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300 CE).

The High Middle Ages is, of course, Euro-centric and moreover, a fairly narrow slice of time. But it is commonly used as a starting point for fantasy novels, D&D games and computer role-playing games. It is even used as a stand in for other historical periods such as the 1981 movie, Excalibur whose castles and armor have much more in common with the 1200s than with sixth century Britain. Of course, your fantasy novel may hearken only a little or not at all to this place and time but having some ideas of what transpired in this period might help you craft much more exotic settings.

John France begins his book with a chapter on Proprietorial Warfare and this is a great place for the fantasy author to start as well because much of what we understand about the nature of rulership and warfare in this period is defined by, as France puts it on page 1:

  1. The dominance of land as a form of wealth;
  2. The limited competence of government;
  3. The state of technology, which, broadly, favored defense over attack;
  4. The geography and climate of the West.
Notre-Dame Cathedral – designed in the Gothic ...
Notre-Dame Cathedral – designed in the Gothic architectural style. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John France has a rather readable 30 pages on this topic for those interested in the details but to summarize, it was ownership of land that distinguished the ruling elites of this time and place. Moreover, with limited means of communications, authority was regional. Throughout this period, but certainly at the beginning, Kings did not have absolute authority in their realm; they were one of the pre-eminent lords in their realm, not always the most powerful. Government was also not very sophisticated with no regular means for raising cash throughout this period and poorly codified laws. Any person with a strong point, and for much of this period, this was not a stone castle but a wooden fort or fortified house, was difficult to dislodge and consequently held authority over his immediate environs. It was not uncommon for a warrior to seize a strong point and become the ruler of an area simply by virtue of the troops he could base from that castle.

For the fantasy author, the thing to remember is that the nature of feudal obligations (military service for land) and the stature of nobles of all levels is very much determined by these factors. In the absence of a money economy and with land the main source of wealth, the gift of land is the most valuable wealth to an underling and the return of military service the main thing that underling can provide in return. It didn’t do much good to provide tons of grain; there wasn’t much of a way to move it. Nor was there a way to turn the grain into something more portable like silver, there wasn’t much silver to be had. The wealth of the land, limited as it was, was turned into armed men used to maintain and extend a lord’s power: the feudal system.

You don’t see this sort of arrangement in places with better communication and stronger governmental systems, such as the Roman Republic or Empire. If your fantasy world has rapid communications via portals, palantiri, regular flying ship service, or the like, a feudal system of distributed power may not be appropriate to your setting. Or, if you really want the feudal system and the fast communication, you may need to add additional reasons for its existence: perhaps there are nearly impregnable defenses in your world that can be fairly rapidly constructed.

One other thing to remember about this time period, though we speak of England, France, Germany, etc., the very concept of states and nations was alien in the early period: recall those Norman, French speaking lords ruling England with their vast French holdings. It was only in the later High Middle Ages, and really during the late middle ages that the concept of nationhood took root. Specifically, in 1000 CE, townsfolk might find nothing unusual in being part of the holdings of a lord speaking a different language based far away. By the end of this period, there was loose loyalty to the concept of a nation but it wasn’t until the Hundred Years War that you might really find objection to a French town being held by an English King.

Finally, in this day and age where we can see images from around the world, drive on highways with overpasses that might span miles, see skyscrapers a significant fraction of a mile tall, it is hard to appreciate just how over-awing something as simple as a wooden fort might be, let alone, a stone castle or a cathedral. But for the medieval peasant raised in a village of huts and 1 or 2 story houses, a soaring castle or cathedral was as awe-inspiring as, well, it’s hard to say for modern sensibilities but it would have to be more awesome than anything we commonly see, so perhaps as awesome as a spaceship 10 miles long. In your writing, you can make use of this since, as a writer, you are free to convey your characters reactions: don’t be afraid to have the peasant wow’d by a castle, even if, to your readers sensibilities, that castle might not be that strange. It is to the character and your reader will get that through your character’s reactions.