5 Realities of Medieval Warfare Hollywood Refuses to Learn
Certain things in the recent era can feel akin to the Middle Ages … or at least what we think of the Middle Ages. The truth is a lot of what pop-culture presents of the period doesn't match the actual history. This week at Cracked, we're doing a Middle Ages deep-dive – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Movies about the Middle Ages are almost as old as the Middle Ages themselves – or at least as old as Hollywood, anyway. But while mistakes and misconceptions about the medieval era were understandable back in the days before color was invented, modern productions really don't have an excuse. Seriously, we've got the internet, guys; go email an archeologist or something.
Until then, here's a cheat sheet featuring some fun facts about medieval warfare that movies, television, and video games don't seem to have ever heard of ...
Knights Were Actually Rich, Brutish Dicks
The word "knight" conjures visions of King Arthur and his gallant Round Tablers, running around righting wrongs, helping old ladies out of trees, and speechifying for hours about honor and righteousness. Hell, the entire plot of The Green Knight revolves around the morality of upholding a promise – even one made to a forest demon who is absolutely going to murder you.
Historically, though, knights weren't quite so noble – they were actually wealthy, thuggish jackasses who went around raping and killing and pillaging. Kind of like hyperviolent trust-fund bros, except they faced even fewer repercussions. They were such a scourge that churches used to pray to be delivered from knights.
You see, when the first knights showed up in the early 1000s, the only requirements were having a horse and some armor. Sounds simple, but that kind of kitting-out could cost up to a half-million dollars today. So, rather than being chosen by God or assorted lake ladies, becoming a knight was more of a buy-in. Get cozy with an aristocrat, and then get all the best swag along with, of course, the ability to be terrible with impunity.
Knights were, at their core, henchmen for the nobility. If a baron or a duke or a Burgermeister Meisterburger wanted somebody extorted, dead, or just kicked in the teeth real good, all they had to do was dial up the nearest knight. Convincing them to be royal hitmen wasn't much of a problem, either, because, holy crap, did knights love to murder and maim.
Remains from the Middle Ages show victims killed with such xxxtreme violence that even Takashi Miike would be taken aback. One poor bastard from 1461's Battle of Towton survived eight separate head traumas during the fight, only to be killed by the ninth – one that split open the back of his skull ... after he'd removed his helmet, given up, and started running away. Then his corpse was rolled over, and his face was cleaved in two. As one archeologist put it, knights were mutilating dudes so bad, it was "almost as if they were trying to remove their opponents' identities."
Chivalry – that inflexible honor code – was invented well after the fact, specifically to try and keep those wacky knights from rampantly murdering civilians and defiling the dead bodies of their enemies. All those stories romanticizing knights – y'know, the ones we're still turning into movies today – started around then, too. Turns out they were written with the express purpose of literally just hoping some of that goodness rubbed off on knights IRL. If the terrified populace started pretending these rich, pugilistic douchebags were heroes, the argument went, then maybe they might start believing it, too.
And it worked! Eventually. Kind of. The 20th century certainly fell for it, at any rate.
Seriously, You're Not Stabbing Through Armor
Far from the ease with which movie warriors can cleave through an enemy, medieval armor was actually pretty much impervious to medieval weaponry. That shouldn't be that surprising, though: the entire point of armor is to protect the wearer from the kinds of things they'd encounter out in the world – i.e., the predominant weapons of the day.
If someone's coming at you with a sword, you wear sword-proof clothing. Duh. It's not like soldiers gave up plate armor randomly or because the fashion changed; they did it because cannons started exploding the hell out of them, metal codpieces and all.
Before gunpowder ruined everything, armored knights and men-at-arms were basically walking Colossuses. Like, the Marvel kind. Because whether it was a full suit of plate armor or even the skimpier chainmail of foot soldiers, swords, and axes, much like your boyfriend after he's been drinking, just couldn't penetrate. Hacking and slashing and pounding isn't going to do shit against metal, no matter how big your sword is. A knight in full plate armor could even survive getting trampled by a horse.
The armor was also fairly maneuverable. Sure, it was heavy and sometimes restricted breathing and vision a little, but it was also designed to mitigate that as much as possible. Depending on who was bankrolling a given knight, a suit of armor could even be tailored to individuals like tuxedos. Really, the armor wasn't markedly different than it is now.
Meanwhile, most Hollywood versions of medieval-era armor seem to take their inspiration from this fight:
Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings movies had swords and axes and sharpened sticks going through helmets and armor all the time. So did Braveheart in the earlier clip. 2019's The King has Timothée Chalamet punching metal barehanded over and over again without breaking his knuckles, while also stabbing through chainmail. In fact, a museum curator watching movie fight scenes was basically screaming, "You can't stab someone through armor!" for a full 20 minutes.
Not to say it was impossible to kill someone wearing armor. In fact, most of ye olde military strategizing was devoted to figuring out ways to get around armor. Which, conveniently, brings us to …
Swords Weren't the End-All Be-All of Medieval Weaponry
From He-Man to Conan to Wonder Woman and her God Killer blade, swords are everyone's go-to Ultimate Weapon. This all, obviously, stems from the original super blade, King Arthur's Excalibur. The problem, though, is that swords weren't quite as singular the weapon in the Middle Ages as you might think. Let's start with the fact that, like everything else about knights, swords were expensive. While your run-of-the-mill man-at-arms might get one in a war, swords were, for long stretches of time, a symbol of nobility. They were status symbols, like owning a jaguar, or a Jaguar, or the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Out during your full-scale assaults, the predominant weapons for foot-soldiers were actually polearms. If you're not familiar, a polearm is basically the catchall name for a variety of spears with axes and stabby bits on the end like halberds, Dane axes, glaives, etc. Maces and lances – a polearm's low-rent cousin – were also popular.
Even when knights did start swinging swords, it wasn't like the movies. "Skill and technique, rather than size and strength" decided the outcomes. Sword fighting was, essentially, a Medieval martial art. "Fight masters" from the 14th to 17th centuries wrote and illustrated entire manuals. Swords were meant for stabbing, not slashing, and also for smashing guys in the helmet with the hilt. Defensive tactics were frowned upon, and grappling was a big part – everything was a lot closer and a lot more brutal. Think less fencing and more boxing with giant knives.
That's because the primary purpose of these weapons was to incapacitate rather than kill. A brawler would use his sword or his halberd to knock a dude down, then rush in and use a smaller blade to stab him through gaps in his armor. Meaning that daggers were, proportionally, the most deadly weapon.
Of course, in the heat of battle, sometimes what you should do was replaced by what you could do, and crap like the following story happened instead:
After his horse got stuck in the mud at the Battle of Bosworth Field, King Richard III was forcibly dismounted, had his helmet ripped off, and was then stabbed in the face and the back of his head simultaneously, by a sword and a halberd, all while having part of his skull sawed off by some mystery weapon, too. Then the king was stripped of his armor and clothing and sodomized by a dagger. And then he died.
So you had options for killing a guy, is what we're saying.
Getting Shot by an Arrow Would Absolutely Mess You Up
Pulling an arrow from your body is the second most badass thing a medieval warrior can do. (The first is the archer hitting that person in the exact same spot after they pull it out.) It happens in Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, the BBC version of Robin Hood. That's how you know the hero is tough as nails. That's also how you know you're watching fiction. Because getting shot by an arrow – especially a ye olden one – would 100% wreck you.
Bows and arrows were, by far, the most expansively used weapons throughout the Middle Ages – archers outnumbered men-at-arms in the English army by a full 10-to-one. All able-bodied men in the country were trained as archers, and being good at it made you something of a celebrity. That really says something since even average archers were expected to shoot at least 10 aimed arrows a minute.
Bow and arrow production was similarly huge: King Henry V banned poplar wood from being used for anything except the crafting of bows, and, at one point, six feathers from every goose in the country went toward arrow-making. And these weren't the target-practice arrows you usually see on film. Arrowheads in the Middle Ages were big and barbed and barbaric. Like so:
If you got shot, tissue around the rough-edged arrowhead wouldn't heal, causing infections and abscesses. And forget about pulling it out: aside from tearing your flesh, that was also a good way to separate the arrowhead from the shaft, leaving it inside of you and all but guaranteeing amputation. Hell, even after guns were invented, well into the 1700s, arrows had a greater fatality rate than just about any other weapon.
How? Well, that sky-darkening "rain of arrows" wasn't random, for one thing. Archers aimed at specific targets, sending hundreds of arrows towards them. So even if you raised your shield or dodged, successfully avoiding an arrow through your eyeball, another arrow would still nail your foot to the ground. Then six more would follow.
Also, an iron arrowhead, fired from a longbow, had some serious power behind it. A report from the 12th century states that an arrow went "right through" the thigh of a Welsh man-at-arms (despite armor on both sides of his leg), then through his leather tunic and saddle, and then so deep into his horse that it killed the damn thing.
And that's just the regular arrows. There were also narrowed arrowheads called bodkin points that were purposely designed for piercing chainmail and other armor. Crossbow bolts were so strong that they were also used to puncture all those indestructible metal suits mentioned earlier. They required less skill and practice, too, allowing anyone to kill indiscriminately with almost no effort whatsoever. Yay, humanity!
Castle Sieges Were Popular (But Also a Great Way to Die)
Forget that Hollywood favorite of two armies charging one another across an empty field. The real bread-and-butter of medieval warfare was the castle siege. But probably not the way you're thinking.
With castles and armies costing about the same amount in money, resources, and serfs' stupid, pointless lives, most nobles had a choice to make – and the castle was the clear winner. William the Conqueror was the one to kick things off in 1066, building castles all over England as he subjugated the locals. Because, if you're pissing off literally everyone around you, why not build a giant goddamn fortress?
The defensive benefits were manifold. As any little pig can tell you, stone makes for damn sturdy walls, and the higher those walls reached, the less effective catapults and trebuchets were against them. Archers, meanwhile, had the literal upper hand in turrets and on ramparts. Soldiers could drop rocks or dump boiling oil on anyone trying to climb up a ladder. And in between the iron portcullises on either side of the main gate were things called "murder holes," which were, well, holes where people inside the castle could murder would-be invaders in all kinds of graphic and painful ways.
So, clearly, straight-up assaulting a giant stone fortress designed specifically to be unassaultable wasn't a great option. Starving the castle's inhabitants out didn't work, either: the soldiers inside were almost always better equipped for a long-haul camp-out than the dudes squatting in the mud outside. You could try burning the defenders' crops – but more often than not, the castlers beat you to the punch, harvesting and razing their own fields so enemies couldn't use them.
Tunneling was popular for a time, either to actually get inside or just to destabilize the architecture. Some armies even had entire engineering corps expressly for excavating their way under castles. But then moats were invented.
Digging a big ol' trench around your walls, one roughly tunnel-deep, made it easier to A) see tunnelers when they finally broke through and B) drown them all by flooding the moat. (Alligators were optional.) If tunnelers went deeper, they were forced to work their way through bedrock, which was slower, harder, and louder. Castle defenders would be able to listen to their digging and then either flood them or stab them or, presumably, throw man-eating gophers in there and see what happened.
Negotiating was actually a much more successful way to get past a castle's gates – by which we mean bribery and/or a variety of creative threats. Each castle had a castellan, the king's man in charge; if attacking forces could sweet-talk him, promising safety for his soldiers or several wheelbarrows full of gold, he might cede them the battle.
Alternately, spies and traitors could start a mutiny within a castle – something that could also be accomplished by throwing severed heads over the walls. King Henry III even got the Archbishop of Canterbury to excommunicate a castle's entire garrison, hoping that the threat of no more Jesus-crackers might do the trick.
If none of that worked, only then was it time for a siege – something that was just a nightmare for everyone. Catapults on both sides flung rocks and fire while archers rained down arrows everywhere. Battles went on forever – until the walls finally started to break, or one side died too much to continue.
Ladders, by the way, the go-to tactic of many a movie, were the easiest way to die screaming and were, therefore, frowned upon.
Siege towers were a thing, but mostly only for the wealthiest of armies. They were custom-built, measured out for individual battles and castles, so it's not like you could just call the warehouse and get one delivered.
Of course, breaching the outer walls of a castle only meant everyone inside ran behind the next set of walls, which were usually a lot more fortified, and the process started all over again. Which, as anyone who played Assassin's Creed: Valhalla can attest, gets old fast. Ramming down barricade after barricade while everyone dies around you really isn't a great way to keep up morale.
Honestly, it's almost like war was always a terrible concept.
Eirik Gumeny (@egumeny) is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and assorted B-movie monsters. He also got bored and added werewolves and assassins to The Great Gatsby, too.
Top image: Paramount Pictures