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An agricultural billhook

An agricultural billhook

A billhook is a sort of agricultural/forestry tool which was used for pruning vines, fruit trees, and shrubs.  It consisted of a heavy blade which twisted into a cruel sharpened steel hook (like a parrot’s bill), all of which was, in turn, attached to a wooden handle—or sometimes to a long staff for pruning hard to reach branches.  At some point in the late middle ages, it was noted that this alarming tool could be used to prune a wider range of targets than just unruly fruit trees: suddenly the billhook evolved into a sinister polearm (admittedly, the Chinese had some similar cavalry hooks, but we are talking about the European/English bill in this article).

A bill as a weapon

A bill as a weapon

The bill was a powerful weapon with the range of a spear and the brute chopping power of an axe. It could be used like a pike to stop a cavalry charge (or hack/stab swordsmen before they reached the wielder) it also had a hook to snatch horsemen from their mounts or take enemy combatants’ legs out from beneath them.

Early Tudor soldiers by Angus McBride; Two Billmen and an archer

Early Tudor soldiers by Angus McBride; Two Billmen and an archer

The bill came to prominence in the 14th and 15th centuries as the Middle Ages waned. Soldiers using bills were called billmen and usually wore chainmail or plate armor.  Often they also wore sallets, the helmets of the day, which could be open faced or have visors. Generally billmen also were attired with colorful tabards over their armor (often with all sorts of heraldic emblems) and bright tights or leggings.  High status soldiers would have big dyed feathered plumes on their helmets.  These were some impressive & flamboyant foot soldiers!

Billmen reenactors

Billmen reenactors

In continental Europe the early 16th centuries saw armies moving towards the pike and the arquebus (a sort of nightmarish early musket), however the English preferred to rely on the rapid fire of their hallowed longbow.  And for infantry, they still favored bills over pikes—a choice which turned out to be a good one.  In the Battle of Flodden, which occurred in 1513, an army of approximately 26,000 English billmen chopped apart a larger army of Scottish pikemen.  The Scottish king, James IV was hacked apart right along with his soldiers and was the last monarch of the British Isles to die in glorious combat (so far).

Battle of Flodden--The Death of James IV (Stephen G. Walsh, watercolor)

Battle of Flodden–The Death of James IV (Stephen G. Walsh, watercolor)

The Mighty Apple II Personal Computer

The Mighty Apple II Personal Computer

Sometime in the early 1980’s my family got its first computer–the amazing Apple II.  Although making bespoke cards for grandma on the daisywheel printer and struggling unsuccessfully with the grammar of DOS was exciting, nothing about the high-tech wonder was as thrilling as the promise of epic medieval adventure!  Somehow, I obtained a pirate copy of Ultima II and soon I was off to save the minimally rendered realm!

The Graphic Violence of Ultima II!

The Graphic Violence of Ultima II!

Unfortunately, as a computer pirate, I lacked a map or any instructions, and my piteous little pixelated knight died naked and unarmed many a time before I finally figured out how to enter a town and haggle with a virtual arms dealer.  Then, with my meager stock of gold, I was able to purchase a bargain level mace…but I had no idea what that was.

“What’s mace?” I asked my mother.

“It is a spice used for fancy cookies” she responded.  However, after giving away my precious 3 GP for such a thing, I was entirely unsatisfied with the answer.

Time to fight some dragons...

Time to fight some dragons…

“No, it’s supposed to be a weapon. I want to know about mace the weapon!” I desperately begged.

“Hmm, I guess it’s also a sort of spray that women use to fend off muggers.”

The graphics of Ultima II relied heavily on the power of imagination: combat was rendered as a momentary glowing halo, but the finer details of carnage (and weaponry) were not pictured.  As I imagined my fearless warrior spraying pepper spray in the eyes of marauding orcs, the joy of the game was greatly diminished.   I nearly gave up on role-playing games altogether before I remembered the huge and fraying Webster’s unabridged dictionary (the ultimate vessel of human knowledge in those dim pre-internet days when we lived far from any library or bookstore).

A young me fighting the goblin hordes (simulation)

A young me fighting the goblin hordes (simulation)

Webster’s saved my faith in computerized role-playing games:  it turns out a mace is a war club, typically with spikes or flanges (as well as also being a “rod of office”…and a spice…and a spray).  In fact the primitive brutality of the concept has appealed to humankind for a long, long time.  Some of the most ancient weapons from the palace-cities of Mesopotamia are maces, and, as our mastery of materials improved, so too did our spiked clubs.

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 2

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 2

Although it has been a long time since I saved the world from the wicked sorceress Minax (or even played any computer game at all), my love of all things gothic remains unabated.  Here therefore is a gallery of fancy gothic maces which should satisfy any eldritch death knight or priggish paladin.

A Very Fine 15th Century (Late Gothic) Mace in the Museum of Lucerne, Switzerland

A Very Fine 15th Century (Late Gothic) Mace in the Museum of Lucerne, Switzerland (with three Landsknecht pike heads)

The two maces are part of the original stock of the Imperial Vienna Armory

The two maces are part of the original stock of the Imperial Vienna Armory

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 1

CAS-Iberia Gothic Flanged Mace 1

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Heavy Flanged Mace

Heavy Flanged Mace

Very Fine Gothic Mace c. 1510, German or North Italian

Very Fine Gothic Mace c. 1510, German or North Italian

German "Gothic" Mace, circa 1480

German “Gothic” Mace, circa 1480

A&A High Gothic Mace.

A&A High Gothic Mace

Replica Mace from Wulflund.com

Replica Mace from Wulflund.com

Ceremonial Mace

Ceremonial Mace

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I must say they look quite formidable!  My ten year old self would have been delighted to know how scary and pretty the mace could be.  But the years have mellowed me greatly.  Now I might be tempted to try baking some of those fancy spice cookies and offering them to the orcs first….

Lemon Mace Sugar Cookies

What sort of monster could refuse lemon mace sugar cookies?

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