Three books you must read to understand polearms

One of the great things about the last decade is the widespread availability of authoritative books detailing how to fight with medieval and renaissance weapons, but knowledge about those weapons as physical and historical objects sometimes takes a back seat. In this blog we dig into our library at Arms and Armor to recommend three books that offer in-depth information on European polearms as physical objects and historical artifacts.  

As makers of historical arms we have assembled a very extensive library over the past forty years. We draw on these texts extensively in designing and building our historical replicas. In combination with our first hand experience with hundreds of original pieces, the knowledge contained in this library is foundational to our ongoing mission of creating high quality, historically accurate arms. Many of the most important reference texts are out of print and difficult to find, but they can be obtained via interlibrary loan if your local library does not have them.  

If you want to learn about the history, construction, and use of these iconic weapons the following three books will give you a very solid foundation to start on.  



Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe: The Evolution of European Staff Weapons Between 1200 and 1650, By John Waldman 2005, Brill Press, Boston, MA.

In addition to a general historical overview in which he describes the social and historical context of hafted weapons in European society he also provides a useful discussion of the evolution of hafted weapons from the basic spear and axe into a very wide variety of specialized weapons optimized for particular martial applications. He gives particular attention to the halberd as the most widespread pole arm from which many others evolved, locating its early evolution among the free Swiss peasantry around the first millennium AD. He then provides detailed descriptions and high quality photos of dozens of extant examples, with a particular focus on how they were crafted, the types of sockets utilized, and the methods of attaching langets. Of particular interest is his discussion of the methods of securing the head to the shaft, along with useful illustrations such as the below x-ray of a halberd showing the use of clinch nails to attach the langets to the shaft. Waldman also includes chapters on the Glaive, Bill, Partizan, Morgenstern, Ahlspeisse, Axe, Guisarme and Bardiche, Coreseke, Vouge, Military Scythe, Lochaber Axe, and Doloir, respectively. In sum, this is the single most important and accessible source for scientific and historical information on polearms for English speaking audiences.

langet x ray



le armi in asta
Mario Troso's 1988 "Le Armi in Asta: Delle Fanterie Europee (1000-1500) is another indispensable resource for the pole arm enthusiast who wants to understand the variety and complexity of this category of historical arms. Yes, it is in Italian, but even if you don't read Italian it is still useful (though it is even better if you can read it). Troso has constructed a useful typology based on the presence or absence of thrusting points, hewing edges, hooks, and wings that allows for the description and differentiation of various polearms by shape and likely intended usage. In addition to this typology he has constructed many useful tables that document the weight and length of many dozens of extant weapons, along with photographs of hundreds of historical examples from museums and private collections. As an Italian, it is perhaps unsurprising that he gives preeminent attention to the Italian Roncone, a weapon that we have previously written about and that we produce. In short, even if you cannot read Italian this book is an important resource.
Arms and Armor Italian Bill Roncone
The Arms and Armor Italian Bill


weapons of Warre book
Weapons of Warre: The Armaments of the Mary Rose, Archaeology of the Mary Rose Vol. 3. 2011. The Mary Rose Trust.  
This volume is part of a larger series documenting the archeological find and analyzing the contents of his Majesty King Henry VIII's war ship the Mary Rose. The ship was one of the largest vessels in the English navy, but it sank on campaign on July 19th, 1545 while leading the fight against the French fleet north of the Isle of Wight. As she sank in combat, she was fully loaded with all manner of weapons, including a large number of heavy war bows for which the find is famous, but also of polearms with preserved wooden hafts. These are primarily English Bills, Halberds, Pikes, and War Darts. For our purposes, this find represents a vast trove of data on the construction of these polearms from a time when they were in widespread martial use. This is particularly important because many of the surviving polearms in museums and other collections were rehafted repeatedly throughout history, which can sometimes make it difficult to understand how these weapons were originally hafted before being relegated to decorative function and possibly altered in the process. The Mary Rose polearms show us how they were hafted as they were meant to be used. This two volume set also examines armor, textiles, swords, daggers, and firearms from the wreck. Illustrations such as that below detail how hafts were shaped and fitted to polearm heads, and tables give us the diameters, types of wood (almost entirely ash), and other information necessary for accurately reproducing these weapons.
Mary Rose Hafts
We hope that this brief bibliography is helpful to anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of European Polearms. There are somethings that you can't just look up on the internet, and it pays to actually hit the books!  
Custom halberd from Arms & Armor
Custom Halberd 

divider swords

Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography.  He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.

Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.

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