A Poleaxe from the Higgins Armory Museum
An article by Alexi Goranov
The axe, spear, and hammer were the earliest weapons of humankind. These earliest implements of war were made of stone or wood. The spear was designed to pierce, the axe to cut and chop, and the hammer to crush. As human civilization advanced and its ability to work with metals improved, so did the weapons. Throughout the ages the spear, axe, and hammer underwent many changes in style and shape, changes dictated by need, fashion, and metallurgical innovations. Sometimes several characteristics of specialized weapons were combined to diversify and increase their potential. For example, a hammer head would be added to the back of an axe, making the weapon a hybrid between an axe and a hammer, or a spike would be added on the top of a hammer, making it a hybrid between a spear and hammer. Such weapons with multiple capabilities seem to have been in use at least as early as the Viking Age, as there there are multiple period literary references to hewing spears that were able to cut as well as thrust. While this may have been achieved by simply broadening and lengthening the spear blade, the trend toward adding extra features to create a specialized weapon is clear. During the 13th and 14th centuries such hybrid weapons seemed to become more popular and during the 15th and 16th centuries they were in widespread use.
Some scholars, such as John Waldman, argue that the peak in the development of the medieval axe was reached when the axe, hammer, and spear were combined into a single weapon called a poleaxe in medieval England, or fussstreiaxt in Germany. The naming of these weapons is quite confusing due to the many combinations of characteristics they exhibit and the plethora of existing names and references from period sources. The poleaxe is an example of a hafted weapon, and it is usually 5 feet in length with the axe/hammer head mounted on a long wooden haft. The form, shape, and size of the axe/hammer head varied within geographic locations and time periods. The head usually had a top spike, an axe or hammer head on one side, and a fluke (spike) or a hammer head on the other. For more details on methods of construction and basic shapes, please see our Poleaxe Spotlight Article.
Several period manuals (Codex Wallerstein, Hans Talhoffer's fechtbuch, etc.) teaching armed fighting within the context of judicial duels survive. Most of those depict the use of the poleaxe, among other weapons. The use of poleaxes, however, was not limited to judicial duels or tournament games, as poleaxes were also used on the battlefield, as revealed by period art. This is further supported by recent archeological finds and forensic investigations of skeletal remains associated with medieval battles.
Measurements and Specifications:
Put simply, this is a terrifying yet elegant weapon. Since this is a museum piece, I had to limit my handling to only few guard changes and slow speed motions, but it was very quickly apparent that this is a well balanced weapon. For lack of a better analogy, it begged to strike something. I handled it in parallel with an original bill and halberd, and the poleaxe was by far the most manageable, fast, and responsive of the three. Of course, it was also the shortest. What was most surprising to me was the heft of the weapon. It had a great balance between head-heaviness and agility.
I have a newly found appreciation for this type of weapon, and I can understand why poleaxes were so popular during their time of manufacture. I can only hope that medieval arms enthusiasts will develop increased appreciation for poleaxes and arms manufacturers will give us more reproductions of these weapons.
About the Author
Alexi is a postdoc in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe: The Evolution of European Staff Weapons between 1200 and 1650 (History of Warfare 31) (History of Warfare), by John Waldman
I want to extend my gratitude to the curator of the The Higgins Armory Museum, Jeffrey Forgeng, for allowing me to examine HAM# 2005.1. Special thanks goes to Cristina Bauer of the Higgins Armory Museum for all her help, comments, provision of information, and for making this study possible.
Photographs taken by Alexi Goranov and reproduced by permission of The Higgins Armory Museum.