10 October 2014

More about Poleaxes

I am happy to see that my old post about my favourite medieval weapon, the poleaxe, has been generating some discussion lately. It is a weapon sadly neglected in RPGs, which is odd given its ubiquity on the high medieval battlefield.

T. Woolley wrote a lengthy post on the poleaxe with some cool ideas for modular magic weapons down towards the bottom. T. Woolley is also noteworthy as someone with some experience with medieval weapons; something of a rarity in RPG circles!

And JB wrote this great post, to which the rest of this post addressed. I was going to post this as a comment, but it got rather long. He provides some interesting historical perspective on poleaxes in RPGs, and the absence of the polearm from Gygax's radar - I didn't realize that they were omitted from AD&D 1e (I only have the DMG)! I figured since Gygax was obsessed with polearms, they would be front and centre, so I was interested to learn he was completely ignorant of them!

My response to JB:

Glad to see the poleaxe getting some love!

While interesting for historical reasons, I would take basically everything Gygax said or wrote about weapons and armour and throw it in the trash. It's unfortunate (for a medieval weapons buff such as myself) that he's been so influential in defining the discourse on these matters since the game's beginnings, as he really didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about.

I also wouldn't put much stock in stuff written before WWII, especially Victorian and Edwardian stuff (i.e. the sources Gygax used). Useful for descriptions of artifacts, mostly. Their interpretation is largely bunk. It is from them that we get such execrable ideas as "banded mail", whatever the hell that was supposed to be.

He's not *entirely* to blame for his ignorance, as AFAIK there were very few historical fighting manuals available in English in the seventies. I think Fiore's work was first translated in the eighties, for instance. George Silver's work would have been available to him, as it is in English (well, the kind of English Shakespeare wrote, so not the clearest to a modern audience, but totally intelligible). There were also some important historical works out, perhaps most notably European Armour, by Claude Blaire. So there's really not any good reason why he relied so heavily on that old stuff.

I would also point out that the defining feature of the poleaxe is not the axe head or the hammer head or the beak, but the langets and the fashion of attaching the implements to the head. Whereas a halberd is superficially similar, a halberd head is forged out of a single piece, with a cone that fits over the shaft to attach it.

A poleaxe, on the other hand, has each piece forged separately, and held down by langets - metal plates - that also serve to strengthen the end. This makes the poleaxe much tougher and heavier duty, and better suited to attacking armour. The tip generally lacks an edge, and is typically square in cross-section, which again, makes it much tougher than a spearhead or halberd tip.

Bec de corbin, lucern hammer, etc. are all really just poleaxes - poleaxe is definitely not reserved only for weapons with an axe head. In fact, the reference for the Bec de Corbin and Lucern Hammer wiki pages is the MyArmoury page on poleaxes!

Fiore, in his 15th century manual, uses the term "adza" azza or aça (I typoed before and wrote adza, and neglected to mention the alternate spelling), or axe to describe what we would call the poleaxe, and it is depicted with a hammer and a beak - no axe head. So the use of "axe" to refer to poleaxes without axe heads is not a neologism, but dates back to at least the late 14th century (in Italian, anyway).


  1. "fist bump"

    The terms used to describe pollaxes in the German manuals are Streitaxt, Mordaxt, or simply Axt, and the term used in La Jue De La Hache, the French manuscript, calls them hache, which is French for axe. Like Fiore, all refer specifically to weapons with the hammer and spike head configuration. Which is interesting because other non-manual sources depict pollaxes with blades and hammer.

    1. I love that I can count on you to show up and give the German and French perspectives!

  2. @ Charles:

    I'm not sure where "banded mail" came from; the only books I was reviewing were those specifically cited by Gygax in his pole arm bibliography, and I was really only paying attention to the weapon sections. I guess I'm a bit unclear why I shouldn't put much stock in pre-WWII texts.

    All the pieces I was looking at had (or appeared to have) langets, but most of them had axe heads as well. The medievalwarfare.info page referenced in the bec de corbin Wikipedia entry definitely distinguishes the bec de corbin-lucerne hammer type setup as a modified warhammer distinct from the “pollaxe.” It’s that damn MyArmoury.com article (“Spotlight: The Medieval Poleaxe”) that really makes the claim that “poleaxe” is the medieval name used for a long-handled warhammer. And yet the illustrations and photographs in that article all show distinct axe heads with the exception of:

    - An Italian “martello d’arme” (that translates as “war hammer”)
    - A lucerne hammer
    - Something from the Royal Armouries of Leeds that looks like a bec de corbin, and
    - A “German poleaxe” from the now closed Higgins Armory that appears to be a clearly misidentified warhammer (judging by length, weight, and appearance).

    The other more than a dozen poleaxes displayed in the article clearly have axe heads…you can see my confusion.

    “Adza” isn’t the word for axe in Italian (that’s “ascia” according to my translator). I’d guess it’s the word for “adze.” An adze is an ancient tool that looks like the back of a pick-axe (the blade is set horizontally instead of vertical like a true axe) and would more closely resemble a hafted warhammer like the bec de corbin.

    But as I wrote in my blog, I’m not really a historian, so I’ll defer to your judgment. For purposes of what I plan on DOING with the poleaxe (game-wise), it’s really immaterial…I just wanted to write a blog post on the subject (and the weapon’s conspicuous absence from AD&D).

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Hey there, hope I didn't come off too critical, I enjoyed your piece! I always like getting a window into Gygax's world as he was creating the game.

      I just brought up banded mail because it was a classic case of Victorian scholars of the medieval inventing something out of whole cloth because of poor scholarship, overactive imagination, and especially an overzealous drive to categorize. Banded mail is simply a misinterpretation of medieval illustrations of chain mail.

      As for why I mentioned books before WWII, I only used WWII as a convenient demarcation point. Blair's *European Armour* came out in the fifties, I think, and Oakeshott's highly influential *The Archaeology of Weapons* came out in 1960. These are works that I find defined a marked increase in the quality of scholarship and interpretation. That's a personal opinion, but earlier scholars (esp. Victorian scholars) had some pretty weird and flat-out insupportable ideas.

      I typoed on the Italian word Fiore used for axe - it should have been "azza", although he also uses aça interchangeably. It's always been translated as axe or poleaxe, and in the illustrations in his book is invariably illustrated as a hammer head, a topspike, and a beak on the back. You can check it out on Wiktenauer here under the Axe in Armor section: http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Fiore_de%27i_Liberi

      It's definitely confusing that both the period term is "axe" or "poleaxe" and the modern term is "poleaxe" when the weapon does not necessarily have an axe head! I don't know what percentage of them historically had axe heads, but the axe head is not at all a defining feature.

      I agree that it's hardly material mechanically in the game, at least in the combat system (unless perhaps you're using descriptive damage, as I do). Out of combat, it seems like it may occasionally come up whether you have an edge on your weapon or not.

  3. @ Charles:

    No, no...I don't think you're being too critical. I'm a layman here (or at best, an armchair historian), and I'd prefer to have my ignorance educated. I've read that the term "poleaxe" (verb descriptive) is a 19th century term related to the weapon used for slaughtering cattle, and that said tool is a big hammer, so it makes a certain amount of sense.

    It may just be my inherent...um..."idioma-ism?"...that makes me wary of using non-English sources for the etymologic history of an English word. If the Germans want to call a hammer an axe, okay. I dislike the idea.
    ; )

  4. English spelling did not become codified until the 19th century. While I like to argue over whether it's better to use "pollaxe" over "poleaxe", it's really one of the dumber things to argue about regarding historical weapons.
    As for whether or not it is appropriate to call a hafted weapon that roughly as long as the weilder is tall, maybe a bit taller, a pollaxe simply because there are no English langauge sources from the time period in which they were a battlefield and sportive weapon is kind of silly. Medieval Europe was not as isolated that English men-at-arms would not know medieval French, especially the terminology of the tools of their trade.
    Fact of the matter is that there is a severe lack of English language texts on the use of weapons until the 17th century, at which point it's translated Italian works and one disgruntled English gentleman.

    The only reason I call the weapon a "pollaxe" is because "battle axe" and "axe" already a huge amount of cultural meaning now, especially in the context of TTFRPGs. This is why I call swords with blades around 36" a "broadsword" instead of a "shortsword" as George Silver does, or simply a "sword." Same reason I use "bastard sword," which makes me cringe inwardly, because "long sword" has the cultural baggage of the simple "sword," but then again I don't call those "arming swords" since the source material I started with calls them all "swords" or "messers."

    It's like how in the Army you don't call an M16 a "gun" it's either a "rifle" or a "musket," or a "weapon" when specifically referring to a person's weapon. Guns are artillery pieces or on naval vessels.

    What I think is interesting is that Italian, French, and German sources all use a word to describe these specific weapons that translates directly to "axe" in English, "azza," "hache," and "axt" respectively. Something interesting had to gone on linguistically.

    1. @ T.Wool:

      It might take a linguist (or cultural expert) to fully explain it.

      The U.S. Army refers to an M16 as a "musket?" Now that's one I hadn't heard!

    2. Only colloquially. Because an m16 is much longer than an m4. Granted to me I find it hilarious because my mother owns a musket and makes an m16 look short, and because I used to carry a saw and be a machinegunner.