Tag Archives: medieval facts

Writing: On Historical Fighting with a Pole Arm… (Part 2–Staff Tactics)

I had to scratch my head over the holiday to figure out the best way to write about fighting with/against someone wielding a pole arm, and I finally went with blocking it out. And then it went long so ha, more posts about me babbling about this. So there’s three parts, two blocks to each part and then an example paragraph. Hopefully it’ll make sense why I did it that way.

Part One: Plain staffs/balanced pole arm
Block 1: Fighting with
Otherwise known as fighting tactics, I know, but here we go. As previously discussed in the previous post, a plain staff, or even one with metal caps, is a primarily defensive weapon. So when you are swinging it around, you are trying to a) not tangle yourself up in it and b) tangle your opponent up in it instead so you can disarm them, smack them around, and then run away.

So about not tangling yourself in your own staff. Staff work relies a lot on aligning the weapon with your body. As an example, if you are striking at someone’s right shoulder with your left, the staff should be across your body to keep them from stabbing you in the meantime, your left hand and therefore the left part of the staff extended up and forward, and the right end of the staff and your corresponding limb, in this case your right leg, back and down. With a balanced weapon, it’s important to keep it in between your body and your opponent for defense because typically it’s the only thing you got–I’ve never seen one wielded with even a buckler shield. Separating from your body is also the fastest way for a disarm (see Part 2 below).

While occasionally you may see a pole arm with both ends capped with bladed heads, they aren’t common like at all and come with a new rush of difficulties. There’s no natural “resting” point because neither tip is blunt, so the only way to set it down is to lay the whole thing down, which means it takes more effort to pick up and move into a fight. You also lose some of your reach–you can’t swing these sorts of weapons into your own space like you do a blunt end because there’s a chance you’ll hurt yourself more than you’ll hurt your opponent. As a rule, I advice against trying to pull a medieval Darth Maul unless magic is involved as a result, and even then, it’s just more hassle than it is use. (This does not apply to two-bladed swords…but that’s a later post.)

Block 2: Fighting against
This time, the scenario is fighting against someone with a balanced staff or pole arm. There are two tactics to this fight that are simplest and don’t turn into a game of chess. They aren’t the only way, but they are the way to be quick and brutal about this and move on to the next. One is the rusher and the other is the leverage.

The rusher works best if you yourself are shorter than the person wielding the staff. The key to this one is that you are wielding a weapon that is proportionate to your own size and not a reach weapon, such as a sword, daggers, axe, etc. Shields help, but aren’t required. The rusher tactic uses the reach of the pole arm against their opponent, getting in close as fast and as often as possible so they have little room to maneuver. It also means that as fast as the pole arm wielder is, there’s chances to get a blow in because you are in their way of moving to the defense in time.

As you probably expect, the leverage is the exact opposite of the rusher. This works better if you are the same height or taller than the person wielding the staff, but bonus that it can work if you are wielding almost any type of weapon. Basically, by using the leverage of binding the staff with your own weapon, because of your height (or angle if you are having to do some extra manipulating), you’ll be able to “pop” the staff free and out of your opponent’s grip. I’ve even done a fancy pop that slide the opponent’s staff down mine so I could catch it and there was no chance of recovery. By applying either upward, downward, or diagonal pressure, you compromise your opponent’s grip. But you have to be fast and you have to be sneaky about it, or else they’ll realize what you are doing and get the heck out of the way.

Both of these tactics can also work if you aren’t the best case scenario, btw, but I’m just writing about what works best when because it takes less monkeying around.

Examples
The best example I have of the rusher is my scripted fight with one of my friends from medfair. (Or fights, plural.) She is much shorter than me, though of course I’m pushing the tall thing to freakish levels, so there is a marked difference in our statures from the get-go. She is very much a rusher in general–her primary fight tactic is to get in close, fast, and hard, since her opponent isn’t going to expect it. Most of our fights she was supposed to win, but it was easy to block those fights because her natural fighting style was an answer to my own.

She would get in close and tight, switching from one side to the other very quickly and not really going for over the head strikes much because they left her in a position of vulnerability more than they did me. She did however aim closer to the core and ground, because there was a lot more harm that she could do there. My defense was limited to trying to force distance between us by binding weapons over her head and then pushing her back with my own attacks, or trying to get her weapon tangled with mine to disarm here–harder to do because again, the weapon is proportionate to her size and not something I can get a grip on easily.

The other side of the coin was when I applied leverage to some of my staff fights. I’m almost always taller, so this is really my go-to strategy (when I’m not taking advantage of a ridiculous level of reach). I tend to aim high, going for the head or even above the head because I know they are going to have to bring their weapon or extend it up and further away from them. This gives you the opportunity to get either your body or your weapon in between your opponent’s weapon and body so you can pull it away from them. (Like that pop I mentioned above.)

If you want something visual to reference for your fighting scenes, I recommend either looking up martial artists (because a staff is a staff is a staff) or flag work with a color or winter guard if you want something with flourishes.


Writing: On Historical Fighting with a Pole Arm… (Part 1-Basics)

So, I’ve decided to do more posts like my equestrianism post because apparently you all liked it, it’s easier on me, and I have this wealth of knowledge that you won’t find outside of SCA groups and a couple of other small things you can find in your community, with some being more open to writer interviews than others. (Basically, your mileage may vary.)

A quick note on these types of posts: I am speaking from my personal experience, the words of others in my own medieval group, and my own readings. Again, your mileage may vary. (Maybe this will keep the Cranky [Old] Guys off this post griping about what’s wrong if I repeat it.) But if you are writing a character who fights only with a flag pole as a flash of brilliance, and then find yourself needing to actually write out the fight with no idea what to do, this is meant to give you something to think about.

(I’ll probably do a more advanced post on pole arms in the future going over the different heads/blade styles and their uses, because the French alone have like fifteen of them, and they all serve different functions better than others. This is just your basics.)

So by definition, what is a pole arm? Basically, a really long stick, not necessarily thick because you have to be able to wrap your hand around it. Optional are pieces of metal at one or either end of the stick, and the metal can or can not be sharp depending on preferences. How long a pole arm was depended a lot on function, such as if you are wielding it from the ground or on horse back or on ground against someone on horseback, but general rule of thumb is your average one was about as tall as you are, plus or minus a hand or two counting the metal bits, if you are on the ground, and the length of your horse plus half again to double your horse’s length if you were mounted or facing off against mounted fighters.

Why were the mounted ones so long? Because horses were expensive. If you could kill the rider or at least get him down to the ground and the horse could run off to survive, that was a lot of money on four hooves for the winning side to be able to collect later. Very rarely did tactics involve killing the horses, and usually only as a last resort. Your aim was for the rider. (Unless your character is particularly blood thirsty and sadistic, but you know, bloody ground is wet, slippery ground which sucks to fight on, and horses bleed a lot, so do with that what you will.)

What were the benefits to using a pole arm instead of a sword? The big one was reach, which means that rather than only being able to attack the person directly next to/in front of you, you could actually stop him from getting close enough to you to potentially injure you. This is not only a massive benefit to a taller person (who already has a lot of reach, so more reach makes things even better), but especially for a shorter person who normally wouldn’t have as much of a shot at defending themselves–though there are ways, more on this at a later post, I will talk about tactics at some point.

They are also a highly defensible weapon. I can’t tell you how many of my fights got to the disarm bit, but because I was using a staff, it was like, “Whelp. Hmmm. How?” You have more length available to block the strike, plus usually you are using one end to block the strike, giving you the other end to pivot and whack at your opponent with while their own weapon is engaged elsewhere. (Please note: if you take the route of a pole arm with metal bits, this is more difficult because of the weight, more on that later.) With more length, it can also be tricky for someone using a sword to even get close enough to get the proper leverage to disarm you. On horseback, it’s a bit easier because you are trying not to hit yourself or your horse, but your pole arm is more of a throw away weapon for you in that position anyway because…tactics.

The cons for a pole arm are both expected and not expected. First off, breakage. While at your local medfair, you have probably seen your fair share of shattered lances. Well, I promise you that in real battle, your pole arms aren’t that fragile. Those lances are usually made with woods inclined to splinter under force, and some companies even make marks in the lance so they will break on impact. Most of the wood for a real weapon would be treated and and of specific types of wood so it can take a sword blade to it a few times. (Mine has, even in stage choreography.) However, they will break eventually, unlike metal. Speak of metal, depending on the head, your staff could not only be top heavy (and it would be), but heavy period. Thus why the whole thing isn’t made of metal–you wouldn’t be able to use it effectively. With the balance thrown off by the head, your ability to manipulate the length of your weapon is slower than it would be with a staff or a normal sword. (But note without the metal bits, it’s harder to do more than give your opponent some bruises and broken bones, especially if they are in armor.)

The more unexpected problems includes the awkwardness. Not only do you have the weight to worry about and it slowing down your strikes, the footwork for a pole arm is slightly different from a sword, so depending on which way your natural instinct goes, you may have to be constantly thinking about it or risk losing your foot. Unlike a sword that has a built in grip, a pole arm usually doesn’t so you have to drill into your body where your hands go or risk getting your fingers broken or cut off. And if its a hot or rainy day? Be prepared for slipping around. Because it is so long, they can be hard to carry for long distances (unless you strap them to your back, then it takes a hot minute to get off and by then, you’re dead). They also can get too bound up if you are fighting in narrow quarters, since the reach does also require appropriate amount of space to move in.

Speaking of being bound up, many like to think a staff/glaive/pole arm as a woman’s weapon in addition to a mounted knight’s. While I know this is true in Japanese history, and feel free to research and run with it, I don’t think it was as common in European women, at least among nobility. Not to say they couldn’t, my natural fighting instinct leans towards pole arms. So why is that my opinion? Because unlike the traditional Japanese kimono, which binds the fabric to the form tightly but can be loosened and long sleeves tied back, European women’s attire involved long skirts that usually floated away from the body. Let me tell you, I have gotten my skirt tangled up in my staff more times than I can count, unless I put aggressive riding slits into it and wear trousers underneath. It can be kilted up, but the fabric is still there and the higher the class level of the woman involved, the more layers and other bits of fabric there are. While your average lower classes would use whatever they had on hand from farm tools, including pitch forks and others that could be considered pole arms, your merchants and nobility had other options that were better suited to their attire, but that’s another post.

Hopefully these bare basics and thoughts on fighting with a pole arm help someone. I’ll do another post next weekish on tactics of fighting with and against someone wielding a pole arm, as well as some basic blocking. Let me know if you want me to continue these types of posts too. 🙂


Writing: On Historical Horsemanship…

Odd little mini-rant time. (It came up somewhere else, and honestly I don’t see this compiled anywhere? Writers need resources!) So you have things set in a pre-autonomous vehicle time period, or at least the only one that exists is the train and it don’t go everywhere. Your hero has two options: his own two feet, or buy a horse. What does this mean for your timeline and what sort of details do you need to know?

First things first: please do not go by Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. They don’t know how horses actually work, I swear, and it’s not worth the fight to try and make their mechanics apply to your story. (Seriously had to have a convo with a DM about why a harness isn’t helpful in a riding situation. It wasn’t his fault, the entry was just written very poorly and I was like, “My inner equestrian is offended.”) They also tend to box horses into neat categories, which allow me to laugh uproariously over that. If only it were that simple.

So what do you need to know? Okay, so let’s go into some pretty broad categories and we’ll go from there. You have a general, all purpose horse. A riding horse, something bred specifically for good paces and pretty looks. Your war horses, these are trained for combat situations and usually are some ugly buggers, so be prepared. And then your cart horses, which again come in two sorts depending on how heavy your load is. Yes, there are ponies, no, unless your character is under the age of 13 or so (or has never ridden before, period), they won’t be riding them. Being mounted on an actual horse was a really big thing for the nobility, the younger the better.

(There are multiple official terms I could be floating around here, but I’ll be honest. Most are French thanks to the Norman invasion of England. If you are writing before that invasion or in almost any other country, those terms would just sound weird.)

Your general all-purpose horse is just that. It can be trained to pull a cart or buggy, it can be trained to carry a person on saddle or serve as a pack horse.  Usually a combination of all three. This is what most merchants and lower owned, if they owned one at all. This horse would come up to about the chin of a grown-man, so around 15 hands or 5 feet tall. Unlike our current breed books, medieval horse breeders literally did not give a fig about colors, so they came in everything.

Now for your stupid expensive horses. A rich merchant might have nice riding horses, the nobility definitely would, but the war horses are going to be limited to those who serve in your military, whether that’s nobility or a combination of classes. Riding horses are leggy with good proportions, high spirits, and can turn on a dime. They can be the same height as a general horse, but they can also be taller, up to 18 hands, because of their legs. Warhorses, on the other hand, were stout, with lots of muscle and tended to look short in the waist and kinda awkward to watch outside of specific maneuvers. They were also remarkably calm animals, unless you threatened their rider and then all hell broke loose. Please note, these horses usually topped out at 16 hands. They weren’t tall, just strong.

So what should your horse be wearing? Believe it or not, you’re going to want to check out Western gear, it’s the closest analog we’ve got. A simple bit with headstall (no chin strap) is in line with what they wore as basics (unless you want to get fancy), and a Western saddle without a horn or quite as wide stirrup leg is more in line with what a medieval saddle tree would look like. Note, a jousting saddle would actually have an even higher front and back. They had breast collars, which I think is a very important tool because horses have slick backs. You wouldn’t see much of the fancy barding or cloth coverings outside of a joust, they just did nothing but make the horse hot.

So who is riding these horses and how fast? Having a horse at all was an expensive enterprise, but most families owned at least one because you had to get the produce to market somehow, and horses were faster than oxen (and oxen or mules weren’t always available). Please note, women would ride astride just like men. That’s why you’ll see skirts with riding slits–gaps in the fabric in the front and the back. This would let the fabric part enough to let the women sit comfortably in the saddle. The only type of side saddle that existed was basically a chair on a horse who would be led, as seen here in the Russell Crow version of Robin Hood, being used by an elderly Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Side Saddle

As for speed, well, you have options. The fastest two are the ones you’ll use in a chase scene, because they are literally only good for short bursts. A canter or lope will run you 12-15 miles per hour, and a full-out run will get you anywhere from 20 to 30 miles an hour, it just depends on the horse. But remember, short bursts. I’m talking half a minute at a run, you’d get about two minutes max at a lope, and that’s being probably overly generous. Your best bet is to alternate the slower of the two gates, trotting and walking. A trot runs about 8-12 miles per hour, and a walk is around 4 miles per hour. Some horses have what are called ambling gaits, but they slot in with canter and trot pretty seamlessly in terms of speed, they are mostly about comfort of the rider. Assume you are going to travel about 30 to 40 miles a day.

(As a note, that’s about how often you need a small roadside inn or tavern on a road. Despite what most DnD campaigns tell you, people didn’t camp out on the road very much. Even if it’s a farm that opens its barn up to travelers, there is a place to sleep for a bit of coin somewhere without camping.)

…Hopefully my horse nerd-knowledge is helpful, I just like having it all in one blog post instead of digging through seven different Wiki articles and tumblr.