Medieval warfare from The King’s Mirror, a thirteenth century Norwegian text

Kings mirrorThis Norwegian work, written in the mid-13th century, is in the style of a son asking his father various questions, ranging from the reasons for the shorter days in Scandinavian lands to the power and authority of kings.  Halfway through chapter 36, where the discussion is about the behaviour of a man while serving his king, the father begins to speak of military matters.  He first deals with methods of training, then moves onto naval warfare, the use of armor while on horseback and siege warfare.  Please also see Brent Hanner’s article The King’s Mirror as a Medieval Military Manual for a more detailed background to this source.

 Chapter XXXVII

(Father)…Now if your comrades are planning to go from the king’s apartments to some drinking bout or other merry-making, and you, too, have the king’s permission to seek diversion, you should prefer the forms of amusement which I shall point out to you.  If you are sojourning where horses may be ridden and you have your own horse, train yourself in the art of sitting on horseback in the firmest and most handsome manner.  Train yourself to press the foot firmly into the stirrup; keep your leg stiff and the heel a little lower than the toes, except when you have to guard against thrusts from the front; and practice sitting firmly with the thighs pressed close.  Cover your breast and limbs carefully with a curved shield.  Train your left hand to grasp firmly the bridle and the grip of the shield, and your right hand to direct the spear-thrust so that all your bodily strength will support it.  Train your good steer to veer about when in full gallop; keep him clean and in good condition; keep him shod firmly and well, and provide him with a strong and handsome harness.

But if you are in a borough or some such place where horses cannot be used for recreation, you should take up this form of amusement: go to your chambers and put on heavy armor; next look up some fellow henchmen (he may be a native or an alien) who likes to drill with you and whom you know to be well trained to fight behind a shield or a buckler. Always bring heavy armor to this exercise, either chain-mail or a thick gambison(1) and carry a heavy sword and a weighty shield or buckler in your hand.  In this game you should strive to learn suitable thrusts and counterstrokes as are good, necessary, and convenient.  Learn precisely how to cover yourself with the shield, so that you may be able to guard well when you have to deal with a foeman.  If you feel that it is important to be well trained in these activities, go through the exercise twice a day, if it is convenient; but let no day pass, except holidays, without practicing this drill at least once; for it is counted proper for all kingsmen to master this art and, moreover, it must be mastered if it is to be of service.  If the drill tires you and makes you thirsty, drink a little now and then, enough to quench your thirst; but while the game is on, be careful not to drink till you are drunk or even merry.

If you should like to try a variety of drills and pastimes, there are certain sports that one can take up out of doors, if that is thought to be more diverting.  For one thing, you may have a pole prepared, somewhat heavier than a spear shaft, and put up a mark some distance away for a target; with these you can determine how far and how accurately you can throw a spear and do it effectively.  It is also counted rare sport and pastime to take one’s bow and go with other men and practice archery.  Another pleasant and useful diversion is to practice throwing with a sling both for distance and for accuracy, and with a staff sling as well as with a hand sling, and to practice throwing stone missiles.  Formerly the custom was for all who wished to become an expert in such arts and thoroughly proficient in war and chivalry to train both hands alike to the use of weapons.  Strive after the same skill, if you find yourself gifted for it, inasmuch as those who are trained in that way are the most perfect in these activities and the most dangerous to their enemies.

You should abhor and avoid manslaying in every form except as a lawful punishment or in common warfare.  But in ordinary warfare on the lawful command of your chief, you need to shun manslaying no more than any other deed which you know to be right and good.  Show courage and bravery in battle; fight with proper and effective blows, such as you have already learned, as if in the best of humor, though filled with noble wrath.  Never fight with feigned strokes, needless thrusts, or uncertain shots like a frightened man.  Heed these things well that you may be able to match your opponent’s skill in fighting.   Be resolute in combat but not hot-headed and least of all boastful.  Always remember that there may be those who can give good testimony in your behalf; but never praise your own deeds, lest after a time it should come to pass that you are pursued for the slaughter of men whose death is rated a great loss and the revenge is directed toward you by your own words.

If you are fighting on foot in a land battle and are placed at the point of wedge-shaped column (2), it is very important to watch the closed shield line in the first onset, lest it become disarranged or broken.  Take heed never to bind the front of your shield under that of another (3).  You must also be specially careful, when in the battle line, never to throw your spear, unless you have two, for in battle array on land one spear is more effective than two swords.  But if the fight is on shipboard, select two spears which are not to be thrown, one with a shaft long enough to reach easily from ship to ship and one with a shorter staff, which you will find particularly serviceable when you try to board the enemy’s ship.  Various kinds of darts should be kept on ships, both heavy javelins and lighter ones.  Try to strike your opponent’s shield with a heavy javelin, and if the shield glides aside, attack him with a light javelin, unless you are able to reach him with a long-shafted spear.  Fight on sea as on land with an even temper and with proper strokes only; and never waste your weapons by hurling them to no purpose.

Weapons of many sorts may be used to advantage on shipboard, which one has no occasion to use on land, except in a fortress or castle.  Longhandled scythes (4) and long-shafted broadaxes (5), war-beams and staff slings, darts (6), and missiles of every sort are serviceable on ships.  Crossbows and longbows are useful as well as all other forms of shooting weapons, but coal and sulphur (7) are, however, the most effective munitions of all that I have named.  Caltrops (8) cast in lead and good halberds (9) are also effective weapons on shipboard.  A tower joined to the mast will be serviceable along with these and many other defenses, as is also a beam cloven into four parts and set with prongs of hard steel (10), which is drawn up against the mast.  A prow-board (11) with an ironclad snout is also useful in naval battles.  But it is well for men to be carefully trained in handling these before they have to use them; for one knows neither the time nor the hour when he shall have to make use of any particular kind of weapons.  But take good heed to collect as many types of weapons as possible, while you still have no need of them, for it is always a distinction to have good weapons, and, furthermore, they are a good possession in times of necessity when one has to use them.  For a ship’s defense the following arrangement is necessary: it should be fortified strongly with beams and logs built into a high rampart, through which there should be four openings, each so large and wide that one or two men in full armor can leap through them; but outside and along the rampart on both sides of the ship there should be laid a level walk of planks to stand upon (12).  This breastwork must be firmly and carefully braced so that it cannot be shaken though one leaps violently upon it.  Wide shields and chain mail of every sort are good defensive weapons on shipboard; the chief protection, however, is the gambison made of soft linen thoroughly blackened, good helmets, and low caps of steel.  There are many other weapons that can be used in naval fights, but it seems needless to discuss more than those which I have now enumerated.

Chapter XXXVIII: Weapons for Offense and Defense

Son:  Since we now have before us a discussion which teaches chiefly how a man must prepare himself to meet his enemies in attack and defense, it seems to me that it would be well to say something about how one has to fight on land, on horse or on foot, and in attacking and defending castles.  Therefore, if you fell disposed to say anything about such matters, I shall be glad to listen.

Father: The man who is to fight on horseback needs to make sure, as we have already stated, that he is thoroughly trained in all the arts of mounted warfare.  For his horse he will need to provide this equipment: he must keep him carefully and firmly shod; he must also make sure that the saddle is strong, made with high bows, and provided with strong girths and other saddle-gear, including a durable surcingle across the middle and a breast strap in front (13).  The horse should be protected in such a way both in front of the saddle and behind it that he will not be exposed to weapons, spear thrust or stroke, or any other form of attack.  He should also should have a good shabrack (14) made like a gambison of soft and thoroughly blackened linen cloth, for this is good protection against all kinds of weapons.  It may be decorated as one likes, and over the shabrack there should be a good harness of mail.  With this equipment every part of the horse should be covered, head, lions, breast, belly, and the entire beast, so that no man, even if on foot, shall be able to reach him with deadly weapons.  The horse should have a strong bridle, one that can be gripped firmly and used to rein him in or throw him when necessary.  Over the bridle and about the entire head of the horse and around the neck back to the saddle, there should be a harness made like a gambison of firm linen cloth, so that no man shall be able to take away the bridle or the horse by stealth.

The rider himself should be equipped in this wise: he should wear good soft breeches made of soft and thoroughly blackened linen cloth, which should reach up to the belt; outside of these, good mail hose which should come up high enough to be girded on with a double strap; over these he must have good trousers made of linen cloth of the sort that I have already described; finally, over these he should have good kneepieces made of thick iron and rivets and hard as steel.  Above and next to the body he should wear a soft gambison, which need not come lower than to the middle of the thigh.  Over this he must have strong breastplate made of good iron covering the body from the nipples to the trousers belt; outside this, a well-made hauberk and over the hauberk a firm gambison made in the manner which I have already described but without sleeves.  He must have a dirk and two swords, one girded on and another hanging from the pommel of the saddle.  On his head he must have a dependable helmet made of good steel and provided with a visor.  He must also have a strong, thick shield fastened to a durable shoulder belt and, in addition, a good sharp spear with a firm shaft and pointed with fine steel.  Now it seems needless to speak further about the equipment of men who fight on horseback; there are, however, other weapons which a mounted warrior may use, if he wishes; among these are the horn bow and the weaker crossbow, which a man can easily draw even when on horseback, and certain other weapons, too, if he should want them.


Chapter XXXIX: Military Engines

Son: Inasmuch as you may seem to think that you have described most of the weapons which are convenient to have in naval warfare or in fighting on horseback, I will now ask you to say something about those which you think are most effective in besieging or defending a castle.

Father: All weapons that we have just discussed as useful on ships or on horseback can also be used in attacking or defending castles; but there are many other kinds.  If one is to attack a castle with the weapons which I have enumerated, he will also have a need trebuchets; a few powerful ones with which to throw large rocks against stone walls to determine whether they are able to resist such violent blows, and weaker trebuchets for throwing missiles over the walls to demolish the houses within the castle.  But if one is unable to break down or shatter a stone wall with trebuchets, he will have to try another engine, namely the ironheaded ram, for very few stone walls can withstand its attack.  If this engine fails to batter down or shake the wall, it may be advisable to set the cat (15) to work.  A tower raised on wheels is useful in besieging castles, if it is constructed so that it rises above the wall which is to be stormed, even though the difference in height be only seven ells; but the higher it is, the more effective it will be in attacking another tower.  Scaling ladders on wheels which may be moved backward and forwarded are also useful for this purpose, if they are boarded up underneath and have good ropes on both sides.  And we may say briefly about this craft, that in besieging castles use will be found for all sorts of military engines.  But whomever wishes to join in this must be sure that he knows precisely even to the very hour when he shall have need for each device.

Those who have to defend a castle may also make use of these weapons which I have now enumerated and many more: trebuchets both large and small, hand slings and staff slings.  They will find crossbows and other bows, too, very effective, as well as every other type of shooting weapons, such as spears and javelins both light and heavy.  But to resist the trebuchets, the cat, and the engine called the ram, it is well to strengthen the entire stone wall on the inside with large oaken timbers, though if earth and clay are plentiful, these materials had better be used.  Those who have to defend castles are also in the habit of making curtains of large oak boughs, three or even five deep, to cover the entire wall; and the curtain should be thoroughly plastered with good sticky clay.  To defeat the attacks of the ram, men have sometimes filled large bags with hay or straw and lowered them with light iron chains in front of the ram where it sought to pierce the wall.  It sometimes happens that the shots fall so rapidly upon a fortress that the defenders are unable to remain on the battlements; it is then advisable to hang out brattices made of light planks and built high enough to reach two ells above the openings in the parapet and three ells below them.  They should be wide enough to enable the men to fight with any sort of weapons between the parapet and the brattice wall, and they should be hung from slender beams in such a way that they may be readily drawn in and hung out again later, as one may wish.

The hedgehog will be found an effective device in defending a castle.  It is made of large, heavy beams armed along the ridge with a brush of pointed oak nails; it is hung outside the parapet to be dropped on anyone who comes too near the wall.  Turnpikes made of large heavy logs armed with sharp teeth of hard oak may be raised on end near the battlements and kept ready to be dropped upon those who approach the castle.  Another good device is the briar, which is made of good iron and curved thorns as hard as steel with a barb on every thorn; and the chain, from which it hangs, as high up as a man can reach must be made of spiked links, so that it can neither be held nor hewn; higher up any kind of rope that seems suitable may be used, only, it must be firm and strong.  This briar is thrown down among the enemy in the hope of catching one or more of them and then it is pulled up again.  A running wheel is also a good weapon for those who defend castles: it is made of two millstones with an axle of tough oak joining them.  Planks sloping downward are laid through the openings in the wall; the wheel is rolled out upon these and then down upon the enemy.

A shot wagon is also a good device.  This is made like any other wagon with two or four wheels as one likes and is intended to carry a load of stones, hot or cold, as one may prefer.  It must also be provided with two firm and strong chains, one on each side, which can be depended on to check the wagon even where it has a long track to run upon.  It is meant to run on planks set with a downward slope, but one must be careful to keep the wheels from skidding off the planks.  When the chain checks the speed, the wagon shoots its load out upon the men below.  The more uneven the stones are, some large and some small, the more effective the load will be.  Canny men, who are set to defend a wall and wish to throw rocks down upon the attacking line or upon the penthouse, make these rocks of clay with pebbles, slingstones, and other hard stones placed inside.  The clay is burned hard enough on the outside to endure the flight while the load is being thrown; but as soon as the rocks fall they break into fragments and consequently cannot be hurled back again.  To break down stone walls, however, large, hard rocks are required.  Similarly, when one hurls missiles from a stone fortress against an opposing wooden tower or upon the axletrees which support siege engines, towers, scaling ladders, cats, or any other engine on wheels, the larger and harder the rocks that are used, the more effective they will be.

Boiling water, molten glass, and molten lead are also useful in defending walls.  But if a cat or any other covered engine which cannot be damaged by hot water is being pushed toward a castle, it is a good plan, if the engine is lower than the walls, to provide beams carefully shod with iron underneath and in addition armed with large, sharp, red-hot plowshares. These are to be thrown down upon the wooden engine in which the plowshares are likely to stick fast, while the beams may be hoisted up again.  This attack should be followed up with pitch, sulphur, or boiling tar.

Mines dug in the neighborhood of a castle are also an excellent protection; the deeper and narrower they are, the better it is; and where men are showing mounted engines toward the walls, it were well if there were many mines.  All mines should have a number of small openings, which must be covered so as not to be visible on the surface.  They should be filled with fuel of the most inflammable sort, peat or anything else that burns readily.  When a castle is attacked at night either from wooden towers or scaling ladders or any other engine on wheels, the defenders should steal out and fire the mines.

Now if it should happen that the enemy’s stones come over the battlements with such violence that the men cannot remain in the open to defend the wall, it is a good plan to set up strong posts cut from thick oak and to lay large and tough cross beams upon these, then to roof the whole over with firm oak timbers, and finally cover the roofing with a layer of earth not less than three or four ells in depth, upon which the rocks may be allowed to drop.  In like manner the attack of a wooden tower that is moving toward a castle may be foiled by setting up strong, firm posts rising considerably higher than the attacking tower.  But a more effective contrivance than all the engines that I have now described is a stooping shield-giant which breathes forth flame and fire (16).  And now we shall close our account of the engines that are useful in defending castle walls with the reminder that every sort of weapon with which one can shoot, hurl, hew, or thrust, and every kind that can be used in attack or defense may be brought into service.

End Notes:

1 – gambison was a form of defensive armor made of quilted and padded cloth

2 – a common form of battle array in Scandinavia

3 – as the shield was carried on the left arm, the front edge would be the right edge

4 – these scythes were apparently used to catch and hold the hostile ships and perhaps also to cut the ropes on the ships

5 – the broadaxe had the blade extended backward similar to that of a halberd

6 – skeptifletta, a dart of some sort with a cord attached

7 – used to set fire to the enemy ships

8 – usually used against cavalry, they may have been thrown on the enemy’s deck

9 – atgeirr, the translation into halberd is not entirely accurate according to Larson

10 – the beam was apparently fastened to the mast and used to crush the sides of an enemy ship in much the same way as the ram was used against a castle wall

11 – a device fastened to the prow which was used to run down and sink an enemy ship

12 – a rampart built of logs and planks and raised on the gunwhales

13 – the surcingle was a girth drawn over the saddle, the breast strap served to keep the saddle from slipping backwards

14 – kovertur, probably the outer covering for a horse

15 – grafsvin, a shelter on wheels under which attackers might work in comparable safety

16 – the shield giant was probably a mythical device, but it may have been based on Greek fire

Originally From: The King’s Mirror (Speculum Regale – Konungs Skuggsja), trans. Lawrence M. Larson (New York, 1917)

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