Monday, November 10, 2014

Spears, Spears and More Spears (Not Britney)

Let’s talk about spears, baby,
Let’s talk about mixed infantry
Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things
Spears can be!
Song from Ye Old Salt and Pepper Mill

Describing typical Medieval infantry is something of a fool’s errand.  The Middle Ages of Europe
Insert your own joke here, too.
encompass many centuries (5th through the 15th) and a very large geographical range.  Essentially, all of Europe, some of North Africa, swaths of Near Asia, the Middle East . . . well, you get the idea.

It was long and it was big.

Insert your own joke here.

Essentially, a lot of folk were running around all going Medieval on each other.  Contrary to popular opinion, there was a great deal of learning and invention going on at the time, and no small amount of it was geared toward warfare.  Problems of how to kill or not be killed, which were then overcome by solutions of how to not be killed or how to kill better created constant change on the battlefields and the make-up of armies.

It was a veritable butcher’s shop of innovation.

Most men carried spears of an "average" length.
But we can certainly talk about some larger groups of infantry that typified the period.  My favorite, one of the most common, and what most writers think of when they start writing about a battle group, is mixed or heavy infantry.  These are dudes who expected (though they probably didn’t desire) to fight in close-quarters with hand-to-hand weapons, primarily the spear, with an alternate, back-up weapon of a sword or axe.

What’s that?  A sword is a support weapon?  But Mel Gibson carries that big sword in Braveheart, right?

Nope.  Or rather, William Wallace carried a sword, but he didn’t run, pell-mell into the fray at the Battle of Stirling Bridge or anywhere else.  Please note the bridge portion of the battle, as it was key to Wallace’s victory (I’ll keep noting it, because it’s a major oversight of the movie).  Wallace and Morray used the long, narrow bridge over the River Forth to their advantage.  Instead of attacking across a flat field, or holding schiltrons in a surprise hedgehog wedge, the Scots just waited while the English slowly crossed over the bridge.  When Wallace and Morray figured there was enough of the enemy that they could take and strike a massive, decisive blow, they attacked, mostly with spearmen.  The Scots took the bridgehead, cut off the English vanguard from support, and began the work of crushing the enemy.  The heavy cavalry had no room for maneuver, and the Scottish spearmen took full advantage of this.  The English commander, the Earl of Surrey*, was left with a contingent of archers on the wrong side of the bridge and no way to break through to his rapidly dwindling forces.  Just like in the movie, Wallace and Morray proved that, under the right conditions, infantry could defeat cavalry, but they provided this in a wholly different way from what was portrayed.

Stirling Bridge was decided by clever tactics, rather than an innovative “new” weapon.
Some men's swords are bigger than others.

Spears, and their longer cousins pikes and polearms, especially in the earlier centuries (through the 11th century) dominated infantry tactics.  These warriors would also carry a large shield so that they could either take up either a temporary defensive position, and hold ground, or move quickly on the offensive, as we saw at Stirling.  The value of a shield partnered with a spear has long, long, long been underestimated.  This might be due to the fact that a spear is far from a sexy weapon, and no one considers a shield as weapon at all, but an extension of armor and wholly defensive (which it’s not).  Whereas swords have a whole host of myth, legend, and tales centered around them.  King Arthur carried Excalibur, Charlemagne carried Joyeuse, and Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi is one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan.

I readily admit more own love of the sword over most other weapons (except the bow), probably due to the combined influences of Hollywood and fantasy genre.  But the presence of a large solid, thick piece of wood, metal and leather between your favorite skin and the enemy’s sharp, pointy objects tends to have a comforting influence. For most warriors the cost-benefit partner for a large shield is the spear.  The spear is inexpensive, simple, has greater reach and is easier to use than a sword or axe. With one hand holding the shield and the other jab-stabbing into the mass of bad guys along with a few dozen or a few hundred of your best friends, all jammed together a minimally trained warrior (which compromised the majority of Medieval armies) can generally stand up to the enemy until a decision on the field can be reached.

What's in your wallet?
A few of the better-equipped, richer men in the front ranks would have had the alternate weapons mentioned (swords or axes) and more importantly, they would be trained with them.  It’s one thing to go hacking about the countryside with a wooden stick and pretend it’s a sword.  It’s quite another to go hacking about in a battle with a long, heavy piece of metal against other dudes who also carry long, heavy pieces of metal and are quite curious as to the color and quantity of your blood.  Some specialized forces would have a two-handed version of the sword or axe, and some may have come to the battle without a spear altogether.  Battles could even be decided by how one side employed these odd-men-out troops, but they didn’t make up the bulk of the fighting force.  Spears and shields generally did.

Until the arrival of gunpowder on the scene, battle tactics would largely be based on how to deploy or overcome infantry with spears, pikes and polearms of various specialty.  These were the mainstay of most Medieval armies, and were the solid fighting force during the majority of battles.

* While not germane to the discussion, it’s important to note that the psychological defeat for the English at the Battle of Striling Bridge was more stunning than the actual Scottish victory.  Surrey still held the River Forth and had a strong defensive position.  It’s been argued that he could have remained in position and denied the Scots entrance.  But seeing the bulk of his army defeated, he chose to withdraw, which allowed the Scots to advance into Northern England, and William Wallace to become a Scottish national hero.

1 comment:

  1. Very good post and really on point. I think there is a prejudice against the spear because, by and large, it is a multi-purpose tool associated with "primitives" unlike the sword whose existence smacks of all the things we love about "advanced" civilizations like trade, industry, learning, and aristocracy. The Mid-Evil ages often proved that the sword, and its attendant aristocrat, was often not a match for well trained infantrymen whatever weapon they had, especially if they were defending their homes, like the Swiss at Sempach or the long-lived Dithmarsch "republic."