Medieval arms control

Fred Funcken, an artist most famous in nerd circles for illustrating a series of books on military uniforms through the ages (which his wife Liliane authored), passed away earlier this year.  I had always assumed he just focused on Napoleonic or Enlightenment era uniforms, but he also did books on medieval arms and armor, which falls within my areas of interest, so I decided to track him down through interlibrary loan (his books seem to be mostly out of print).   I was recently paging through one of Funcken’s books (The Age of Chivalry pt. 1) and noticed a comment in the caption near the plate on maces that there were repeated efforts by knights to have maces banned. (Maybe around p. 76? I should keep better notes)

I’d never heard that before and no source was cited.

I have of course heard about crossbows being banned by church decree.  Actually it was a ban on ‘the murderous art of crossbowmen and archers‘ being used against other Christians in the 1139 Second Lateran Council, which also bans tournaments and denies church burial to those killed in tournaments.  I seem to recall some historians arguing that the original Latin text of this decree implies that it is the use of poisoned arrows and bolts that is actually being banned, but I’m not sure if that has reached a consensus.  (For one thing, I’m not sure how powerful crossbows were in the 12th century — could they actually pierce armor better than bows at that time or were they just easier to learn to use?  My hunch is that the toll that archery took on horses rather than knights was the real issue.)

I also recall hearing that guisarmes (or some similar pole-arm) were banned or at least railed against by knights, but I don’t remember the source.  It would certainly make sense that a can opener on a stick, which could also dismount a man from his horse, would bother knights.

However a ban on maces seems very improbable, given that maces are such simple and ancient weapons.  I’d love to know his source for this tidbit.

The only other famous example of a medieval weapons ban I can think of would be the supposed disappearance of guns in early Edo era Japan.  Actually there was an effort to remove weapons generally from the populace by calling on everyone to donate their swords, muskets, etc. to help build a temple in 1588 or thereabouts.   I understand that strict control of weapons lead to the development of Asian unarmed martial arts and some of the unusual weapons that were actually farming implements (tonfa, nunchaku, and others).  But this is not a specific weapon ban, it is arms control.

There is also a long European tradition of limiting the carrying of weapons or wearing of armor into civilized places like towns throughout most of history.  This is something most fantasy role-playing games ignore.

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Published in: on August 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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  1. I think the whole thing of banned weapons is over blow and taken out of context. Basically the church had its hands full with a bunch of near barbarians riding around and fighting each other. They were consistently trying to stop them from trampling crops and killing peasants. I doubt that knights ever tried to ban maces since they were more then likely the ones using it. (they were too short for footman) Even though “maces” had been around since antiquity they certainly (like swords) progressively became better and better. Flanged maces are steps ahead of ball maces. Yes guns, crossbows, longbows, pikes, and halberds were around at the end of the supremacy of the knights (if that ever truly existed) but each cause the growth in size of armies. That is what I think did them in. Knights dominated when armies were small. If there 20,000 people on the battle field 500-1000 knights on both sides seem less important than 10,000 archers or pike man.

    • I think I read once that about 1% of Europe’s population belonged to the nobility; in feudal Japan it was more like 6-10%, which possibly explains why the samurai were able to briefly disarm the peasants of their guns but the knights could not.

      But yes, the clerical decrees probably just expressed the Church’s frustration (that all these resources are wasted on war when they could be building cathedrals and buying red shoes) rather than being something that any armies paid attention to. I believe the “peace of God” (days and holidays when one could not wage war) were given some lip service but also ignored when convenient.

      I wonder if Funcken was thinking of footman’s mace-like-weapons like a godentag or something? I’m sure knights were none too happy about the occasional ass-whupping they got from stinking peasants and merchants armed with spiked clubs!

  2. Interesting article, it looks like the medieval Church was more advanced than modern day America (joke)! If you’re interested in history, please visit and follow my recently created blog at http://publishistory.wordpress.com/ (I’ll follow you back!) It contains history articles on a variety of subjects written by myself and friends from university! 🙂

    • Well the Church sent those unruly barbarian Normans etc. on crusades when the decrees didn’t work… I’ll check out your blog, thanks!


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