What Were Battle Axes In The Medieval Era?

What Were Battle Axes In The Medieval Era?

The Middle Ages, spanning roughly from the 5th to the 15th century, was a period of prolific and intense warfare. Warriors utilized a wide array of weapons, among which the historical medieval battle axe holds a special place. Its heavy blade, often paired with a sturdy handle, made it an imposing instrument of warfare, while its utility value transformed it into an emblem of the medieval era. This article delves into the intriguing history of Middle Ages battle axes, exploring their development, usage, types, and enduring legacy.

What Is the Medieval Axe Called?

The medieval axe, a vital weapon in the arsenal, is broadly termed a “battle axe.” However, various design differences and functionalities have led to multiple specific types of battle axes, each bearing unique names reflecting their purpose or origin.

For instance, the “Dane Axe” was used widely by Viking warriors, renowned for its long handle and large blade. The “Broadaxe” featured a broad blade designed to hack through thick armor, while the “Bearded Axe” had a sharp, curved edge extending downwards from the blade, making it useful in both combat and daily life. 

At the same time, the “Francisca” was a throwing axe employed by the Franks, designed for spinning when thrown, creating unpredictability in battle. The “Poleaxe,” with its longer shaft, was created primarily for combating mounted knights.

It’s essential to note that the terminology could vary regionally or depending on the specific historic sources referenced. Nevertheless, these terminologies help distinguish the various battle axes utilized during the medieval era, each uniquely shaping warfare dynamics.

How Was the Medieval Axe Used?

The medieval axe, a key component in Middle Ages warfare, was a tool of both versatility and devastating power. Its uses ranged from the mundane to the fiercely combative, each influenced by the specific type of axe and the situation at hand.

In the sphere of warfare, the battle axe was a formidable weapon. It was a force to reckon with in close combat, where its weight and balance could deliver crushing blows capable of penetrating armor or shattering shields. The broadaxe, with its wide blade, was designed specifically to hack through the thick armor of enemy combatants. On the other hand, the long-handled Dane axe was particularly effective against shields and chainmail.

Some axes also had a defensive role. The shaft of an axe could be used to parry blows, and the head could potentially trap an opponent’s weapon. The bearded axe’s curved edge could even hook an opponent’s shield or weapon, creating an opening for a counterattack.

The Francisca, a specialized throwing axe, brought a different dynamic to the battlefield. Thrown in a spinning motion, this axe introduced an unpredictable element in battle, capable of disrupting enemy formations from a distance.

But the use of the medieval axe was not limited to warfare. Axes were tools of daily life used for tasks such as chopping wood or construction. This dual role underlines their importance in the medieval era, serving essential functions in both peace and conflict.

The medieval axe was used as a lethal weapon in battle, a defensive tool, a tool of daily life, and a symbol of power and status. Each type of axe had a unique role and usage, reflecting the innovative adaptability of medieval society.

Most Common Medieval Weapons

The medieval era, known for its constant warfare, brought forth an array of weapons designed to accommodate various battle strategies, each influenced by the evolving technology, resources, and fighting techniques of the time. Here are some of the most common weapons employed during this period.

  1. Swords: Perhaps the most iconic medieval weapon, the sword was the weapon of choice for knights. The design varied from the broad, straight-edged Viking sword to the more elegant, pointed longsword ideal for both cutting and thrusting.
  2. Axes: The battle axe was another common medieval weapon. Its raw power made it effective in close combat, while some variants, like the Francisca, could be thrown at enemies.
  3. Spears and Pikes: Spears, often employed by foot soldiers, were versatile for thrusting and throwing. Their long reach allowed the soldiers to engage enemies from a safer distance. Pikes were longer versions designed primarily to counter cavalry charges.
  4. Maces and War Hammers: These blunt weapons were incredibly effective against armored foes. The force from a mace or war hammer could cause serious injury, even if it failed to penetrate the armor.
  5. Bows and Crossbows: These ranged weapons were crucial in medieval warfare. The English longbow was particularly famed for its power and range, while crossbows, although slower to reload, could penetrate armor more effectively.
  6. Polearms: Polearms like halberds and poleaxes combined the features of axes and spears, providing the advantages of both cutting and thrusting capabilities. Their length made them particularly useful against mounted knights.
  7. Siege Engines: These large devices, including trebuchets, catapults, and battering rams, were designed to break through fortifications and besiege castles.

Each of these weapons had strengths and weaknesses, and their use varied depending on the battle’s circumstances. Together, they form a testament to the ingenuity and adaptability of medieval warriors in their pursuit of victory.

The Emergence of the Battle Axe as a Medieval Weapon

The battle axe’s roots trace back much further than the medieval period, with archaeological finds linking its use to the Stone Age. However, in the Middle Ages, the battle axe evolved into a more specialized and potent weapon of war.

Adapted from their use in daily life, axes were initially simple tools made from stone, bone, or, later, metal. As civilizations advanced, the tactical potential of axes became evident. A heavier, sharpened blade affixed to a longer handle could deliver blows that had both range and destructive power. Consequently, the battle axe found its place in the medieval weapons roster, earning respect for its raw power and utility.

Anatomy of a Battle Axe Medieval Weapons

The anatomy of a battle axe is primarily divided into two parts: the handle (haft) and the head. The haft was usually made from strong, flexible wood like ash or oak, while the head was typically forged from iron or steel.

The head of a battle axe consisted of a few elements. The blade (or bit) was on one side; the part intended to strike the opponent. On the opposite side, many battle axes featured a hammer, spike, or a secondary blade. The eye was the part of the head that was attached to the haft.

The designs of battle axes varied widely, depending on their intended use, the region where they were made, and the available materials. This resulted in a fascinating array of medieval axe types.

The Diverse Types of Medieval Battle Axes

  1. The Dane Axe: This type, also known as the Viking or the Danish axe, was one of the earliest used. Recognizable by its long handle and large blade, the Dane axe was used by infantry and was especially effective against shields and chainmail.
  2. The Broadaxe: Broadaxes were characterized by an extensive blade, often with one sharp, straight edge and one that was more rounded. These axes were primarily used to hack through thick armor.
  3. The Bearded Axe: Bearded axes, named for the “beard” – a sharp, curved edge that extended down from the blade, were both tools and weapons. The beard could hook an enemy’s shield or weapon, creating an opening for a counterattack.
  4. The Francisca: This throwing axe, used by the Franks, had a curved head and a relatively short handle. The Francisca was thrown in a spinning motion, creating a level of unpredictability in battle.
  5. The Poleaxe: With a significantly longer shaft, the poleaxe was effective against mounted knights. Its versatility lay in its design, often featuring a hammer or spike on one side of the head and an axe blade on the other.

Were Battle Axes Better Than Swords?

The debate over whether battle axes were better than swords in the medieval era is complex. The answer largely depends on various factors, such as the specific context of the fight, the skills and preferences of the individual warrior, and the evolution of armor technology.

Battle axes, due to their weight and the force they could generate, had a high potential for causing severe damage. They were particularly effective in dealing with opponents wearing chainmail or light armor. The battle axe also had a longer reach than most swords, allowing the wielder to keep a safer distance from the opponent. Furthermore, battle axes often doubled as practical daily tools, such as chopping wood.

On the other hand, swords were generally lighter and better balanced than battle axes, making them faster and more agile in combat. They were suitable for both cutting and thrusting, offering a wider range of attack strategies. The sword was often associated with knights and nobility, symbolizing status and honor, and was a more common sidearm due to its versatility.

Ultimately, neither weapon can be deemed universally ‘better’ than the other. The battle axe and the sword had their advantages and were used effectively by medieval warriors based on the specific demands of the battlefield and their combat style. The ideal weapon choice was often a matter of the right tool for the right job.

Did Knights Use Battle Axes?

Medieval knights used battle axes, though perhaps not as common as swords. The battle axe was a practical weapon recognized for its power and utility on the battlefield. The choice of weaponry was typically influenced by factors such as the nature of the conflict, the knight’s preference, and the evolution of military tactics and armor.

Battle axes were particularly effective against opponents in chainmail or lighter armor, where the heavy, powerful blows could cause significant damage. Some axes, like the poleaxe, were developed with an extended shaft to counter-mounted knights. These weapons often featured a hammer or spike on one side of the head and an axe blade on the other, enhancing their versatility in combat.

Still, the sword was more often the weapon of choice for knights. Swords were seen as a symbol of nobility and were usually more balanced and agile than battle axes, offering a broader range of attack strategies.

Even so, knights underwent extensive training in various weapons, and the battle axe would have been part of their arsenal. The adaptability of knights to different weapons and tactics was part of what made them formidable warriors. Thus, while not as commonly depicted as the sword, the battle axe certainly had its place in the hands of medieval knights.

The Role of Battle Axes in Medieval Warfare

Battle axes were devastating in close combat, able to penetrate armor and cause grievous injuries. Because of their weight and balance, they could be wielded to deliver powerful downward strikes, making them lethal on the battlefield.

Yet, their function was not restricted to offense. Battle axes also served defensive purposes. Warriors could parry incoming blows with the shaft, trap an opponent’s weapon using the axe head, or unseat mounted opponents with a well-timed swing.

Their adaptability extended beyond warfare too. Battle axes doubled as tools in daily life for tasks like chopping wood or construction, reinforcing their importance in medieval society.

Cultural Significance of Battle Axes in Medieval Societies

Battle axes were not just tools of war in medieval societies; they held significant cultural importance. Symbolizing power, authority, and martial prowess, battle axes were closely tied to the identities of the communities that wielded them.

The Vikings, for example, regarded the battle axe as an emblem of their warrior culture. The Dane Axe was seen as a weapon of honor, often buried with its owner, reflecting the strong association between the warrior and his weapon. Similarly, the Franks were known for their use of the Francisca, a throwing axe, which became synonymous with their aggressive combat style.

The battle axe was a key symbol of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon warrior traditions in the British Isles. These cultures often featured axes in their art and mythology, demonstrating their integral societal role.

Battle axes were also deeply rooted in the religious beliefs of medieval societies. Many deities, like the Norse god Thor, were often depicted wielding an axe, underscoring the weapon’s religious association.

In summary, the battle axe was not just a practical weapon but a significant cultural and symbolic entity, reflecting the values, beliefs, and identities of medieval societies.

The Legacy of the Medieval Battle Axe

The battle axe’s legacy extends beyond the battlefield, deeply ingrained in culture, lore, and symbolism. Vikings, for instance, believed that a warrior’s status in the afterlife was determined by the weapon he carried into battle and the battle axe was regarded as a symbol of status and power.

As military technology advanced, more effective weaponry gradually replaced the battle axe. Nevertheless, it remains an iconic symbol of the medieval era, influencing popular culture through books, films, and video games. Whether seen in museums, historical reenactments, or fantasy fiction, the image of the battle axe invokes the grit, resilience, and courage inherent in medieval warfare.

Learning from the Past: Battle Axes and Their Influence on Modern Weaponry

The design principles and tactical uses of medieval battle axes continue to influence modern weaponry and military strategy. Though the battlefield looks drastically different today, the fundamental concepts of force, reach, and adaptability that guided the design and use of battle axes remain relevant.

Modern axes used in military contexts, such as those used by special forces units, borrow design elements from their medieval predecessors. These tools retain the dual-purpose nature of the battle axe, acting as both a tool and a weapon, much like the medieval bearded axe.

Tactical considerations used in medieval times, like using weapons with longer reach to keep enemies at a safe distance or choosing a heavy weapon to deliver a more forceful blow, are still applicable in modern warfare. They play a role in designing and using weapons like rifles and bayonets.

Battle axes’ psychological impact has also influenced modern warfare. The intimidation factor, which played a significant role in medieval combat, remains a considered element in the psychological warfare of modern times.

In essence, the medieval battle axe, though ancient, continues to influence modern warfare, underlining the timeless nature of military strategy and design principles.

Bottom Line 

In summary, the historical medieval battle axe was a versatile Middle Ages weapon respected for its brutal effectiveness and adaptability. Each type of battle-axe, with its unique design and purpose, offers a glimpse into the medieval warrior’s tactics, ingenuity, and lifestyle. The image of a warrior wielding a formidable battle-axe remains emblematic of the middle ages, a testament to a bygone era of valiant knights, fierce Vikings, and enduring warfare.