Weapons, body type and fighting style (Middle Ages)

Oct 2011
201
Croatia
#1
I have been doing research on how body type affects weapons and combat. From what I had found out:
  • Different body types may have developed partly as adaptation to different weapons. Short, stocky build (endomorph) is ideal for strength-based weapons, such as clubs (indeed, Neanderthals seem to have used predominantly clubs). Modern Western ideal of pronounced musculature, wide shoulders and somewhat narrow hips (mesomorph) seems to be a representation of an archer ideal. Thin, linear build (ectomorph) is ideal for javelin throwing.
  • When it comes to fighting, endomorph is a bull-rusher. Fast, strong, but tires relatively quickly. Endomorphic person relies more on wrestling/grappling moves and binding opponent's weapon. Ectomorphic build would be more conductive to a protracted duel, and relies on speed, mobility and quick closing actions.
  • Heavy people do well with a sword and a shield, as shield can be used to push the opponent, or rush in and get a quick kill. If that fails, person can fall back on the defensive, expend a minimum of energy and simply wait for the opponent to attack. A person with thin, lanky build is better suited for a spear, as it can be used for quick, precise attacks, control distance and allow person to dart in and out.
  • When it comes to swords specifically, heavily built person is better suited for a sword-and-shield approach, while thinner guy might want to use a longsword in order to increase reach advantage.
  • It appears that slight build is not that much of a disadvantage when using mace or a warhammer (unlike what some think, even GRRM apparently).
  • It is definitely not disadvantage with a sword - while strength is a good quality to have, great physical strength does not give much advantage. Speed and endurance is more important. And of course, skill.
  • The Book of the Courtier states that "men thus huge of body are also unfit for every exercise of agility", and that fighting would favour "strength, and lighteness, and supleness". So likely average height, and mesomorphic, possibly ectomorphic, build.
  • According to Johannes Lichtenauer, a knight should rather be agile than strong, nimble than muscular, and have good muscular coordination skills rather than brute force. This again points to slight to medium (ectomorph to mesomorph) body type.
  • Due to requirements of marching, wiry guy with endurance is closer somatotype to historical warriors. Likewise, armour tires person out, so endurance is more important than raw strength.
  • Illustrations in manuals show knights to be fit, but lean. So again, modern idea of huge brute wielding a warhammer is a misconception.
  • Medieval knights had similar fitness levels to professional footballers and tennis players. Keep in mind, we're talking European football here, not American everything-ball-with-ramming. This again points to endurance being prized, which would lead to overall lighter build. Modern-day professional jouster had body fat percentage of 8%.
  • In unarmored sword fighting, height and reach are more important than strength (obviously).
 

Menshevik

Ad Honorem
Dec 2012
9,240
here
#2
I think you're referring to what is aesthetically pleasing rather than what works on the battlefield. Science/physics, for the most part, doesn't care about one's v-taper, it cares about strength, speed, power, endurance, intelligence etc. Those things don't need to necessarily coincide with looking good or bad or buff or fat or scrawny. Look at oly lifters, power lifters, UFC fighters, boxers, etc, quite a few of the top guys in these fields have "dad bods."
 
Oct 2011
201
Croatia
#3
I think you're referring to what is aesthetically pleasing rather than what works on the battlefield. Science/physics, for the most part, doesn't care about one's v-taper, it cares about strength, speed, power, endurance, intelligence etc. Those things don't need to necessarily coincide with looking good or bad or buff or fat or scrawny. Look at oly lifters, power lifters, UFC fighters, boxers, etc, quite a few of the top guys in these fields have "dad bods."
Yes and no. Science and physics very much care about one's physiology, because strength, speed, power and endurance are a consequence of skeletal strucutre, muscular structure and training (to give an example, greater tendon-bone distance translates to greater maximum force but lower endurance and lower reaction speed due to lever effect). You build on what you have, and there is only so much that training can do, which means that certain physiology will be naturally advantageous in a certain set of circumstances.

One of reasons I got interested in this is how a lot of people assume that ideal fighting physique is that of Stoick the Vast. I had been sporadically reading A Song of Ice and Fire, and Robert Baratheon is described as a massive man wielding a warhammer. But warhammers aren't exactly large, and while strength and size bring advantages, they also bring disadvantages as well (harder to change direction of movement, for example). So I wanted to see what are advantages and disadvantages of different body types, and how those interact with weapons that would have been used during Middle Ages.

That being said, skill with a weapon can easily override physical advantage or disadvantage.
 
Jan 2015
2,902
MD, USA
#4
How many warriors were able to choose their weaponry based on their physique, though? Typically their weapons were dictated by their society and social status. Sure, knights all had their favorite backup weapons, but they started the battle with a lance, and always had a sword. All that varied was choice of axe, mace, hammer, etc. They fought in the same formations and with the same tactics as all the other knights.

Militia requirements laid out what a man had to equip himself with, according to his wealth. Some were told to be archers, some were spearmen, or crossbowmen, or halberdiers, etc., largely depending on the time and place. A large powerful slightly overweight town merchant was supposed to have the same armor as his fast wiry little neighbor.

I suspect *professional* soldiers had a lot more choice, they could choose a career as either a bowman/crossbowman or pikeman/polearm guy. But that would be more dependent on their own skill and preference, or simply what opportunity was available when they decided to go for a soldier.

And if the army is marching, the whole army is marching! No one would think to separate out only the men who were most fit for hiking down the road. Stragglers had best keep up! (Not a horrible problem if the pace is set by the ox-carts in the baggage train.)

The middle ages wasn't a D&D world where every warrior could choose from every possible weapon to create his own personal perfect style or look. It was organized, and heavily based on generations of custom and tradition as well as law.

Matthew
 
Oct 2011
201
Croatia
#5
How many warriors were able to choose their weaponry based on their physique, though? Typically their weapons were dictated by their society and social status. Sure, knights all had their favorite backup weapons, but they started the battle with a lance, and always had a sword. All that varied was choice of axe, mace, hammer, etc. They fought in the same formations and with the same tactics as all the other knights.

Militia requirements laid out what a man had to equip himself with, according to his wealth. Some were told to be archers, some were spearmen, or crossbowmen, or halberdiers, etc., largely depending on the time and place. A large powerful slightly overweight town merchant was supposed to have the same armor as his fast wiry little neighbor.

I suspect *professional* soldiers had a lot more choice, they could choose a career as either a bowman/crossbowman or pikeman/polearm guy. But that would be more dependent on their own skill and preference, or simply what opportunity was available when they decided to go for a soldier.

And if the army is marching, the whole army is marching! No one would think to separate out only the men who were most fit for hiking down the road. Stragglers had best keep up! (Not a horrible problem if the pace is set by the ox-carts in the baggage train.)

The middle ages wasn't a D&D world where every warrior could choose from every possible weapon to create his own personal perfect style or look. It was organized, and heavily based on generations of custom and tradition as well as law.

Matthew
Very few would be able to choose weapons based on their physique, but they would still need to adapt fighting style to suit their physique when possible, as well as being aware of advantages and disadvantages they face when using particular weapon. And within any given category of weapons there is still variation, so unless there is pressure towards standardization for tactical or logistical reasons (e.g. pike block), there is wiggle room. I imagine that light/irregular troops in particular could have wide freedom of choice, seeing how they would not fight in formation.

RE: professional soldiers, skill would be impacted by body build. There is indeed wiggle room, but you do not become a bowman if you can barely draw a bow. Likewise, smaller soldiers might have been better for irregular warfare units, as they and their horses would need less food, and - if shorter as well as lighter - camouflage would have been easier.

Also, I am not sure when it started being applied, but I recall reading on more than one place how heavy cavalry (cuirassiers) in Napoleonic era consisted of "large men on large horses". I am not sure, but I think similar description was applied to 17th century cuirassiers. "Large horses" part is kinda obvious, but it seems that men being large was also important for some reason - be it for shock purpose or visuals.

Also, as I have noted before, 16th century Courtier suggests that large body size is not ideal for a soldier:
Then coming to the bodily frame, I say it is enough if this be neither extremely short nor tall, for both of these conditions excite a certain contemptuous surprise, and men of either sort are gazed upon in much the same way that we gaze on monsters. Yet if we must offend in one of the two extremes, it is preferable to fall a little short of the just measure of height than to exceed it, for besides often being dull of intellect, men thus huge of body are also unfit for every exercise of agility, which thing I should much wish in the Courtier. And so I would have him well built and shapely of limb, and would have him show strength and lightness and suppleness, and know all bodily exercises that befit a man of war: whereof I think the first should be to handle every sort of weapon well on foot and on horse, to understand the advantages of each, and especially to be familiar with those weapons that are ordinarily used among gentlemen​
The Book of the Courtier
Page:The Book of the Courtier.djvu/81 - Wikisource, the free online library
http://www.millerpolitics.com/castiglione.htm
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,934
Dispargum
#6
Also, I am not sure when it started being applied, but I recall reading on more than one place how heavy cavalry (cuirassiers) in Napoleonic era consisted of "large men on large horses". I am not sure, but I think similar description was applied to 17th century cuirassiers. "Large horses" part is kinda obvious, but it seems that men being large was also important for some reason - be it for shock purpose or visuals.
If you're considering the post-Medieval period then I can add the following: In the mid- to late 17th century various European armies began forming grenadier units. These were recruited from the biggest men in the parent organization. For instance, each line battalion would have a grenadier company. Later, the grenadier companies would be grouped together into grenadier battalions and even brigades. The original mission of grenadiers was to hurl grenades at the enemy. The grenades were heavy and almost had to be shot-putted into the enemy ranks - hence the need for big men. The grenades proved ineffective and were soon dropped, but they noticed the big grenadiers had different personalities than the average soldier. Big men have more self-confidence and are more prone to attack a problem directly, overcoming obstacles through sheer head-down slogging.

About the same time they formed grenadier companies they also started forming light infantry companies composed of the smallest men in the battalion. Smaller men also have different personalities. They tend to be pesky - if at first you don't succeed, try again using different tactics. Light infantry make great skirmishers - men who will run away fairly quickly, but who will rally and get themselves back into the fight. Light infantry are great for circling around an enemy flank or for drawing an enemy into an ambush.

So I agree there is a link between physique and personality and fighting style.
 
Likes: Picard
Oct 2011
201
Croatia
#7
If you're considering the post-Medieval period then I can add the following: In the mid- to late 17th century various European armies began forming grenadier units. These were recruited from the biggest men in the parent organization. For instance, each line battalion would have a grenadier company. Later, the grenadier companies would be grouped together into grenadier battalions and even brigades. The original mission of grenadiers was to hurl grenades at the enemy. The grenades were heavy and almost had to be shot-putted into the enemy ranks - hence the need for big men. The grenades proved ineffective and were soon dropped, but they noticed the big grenadiers had different personalities than the average soldier. Big men have more self-confidence and are more prone to attack a problem directly, overcoming obstacles through sheer head-down slogging.

About the same time they formed grenadier companies they also started forming light infantry companies composed of the smallest men in the battalion. Smaller men also have different personalities. They tend to be pesky - if at first you don't succeed, try again using different tactics. Light infantry make great skirmishers - men who will run away fairly quickly, but who will rally and get themselves back into the fight. Light infantry are great for circling around an enemy flank or for drawing an enemy into an ambush.

So I agree there is a link between physique and personality and fighting style.
I remember some ancient and/or medieval armies did something similar, selecting large men for shock troops. Not sure which ones though - Romans/Byzantines? As I mentioned, I believe there is a mention to that effect in one of Byzantine military manuals, but I do not recall which one.
 
Oct 2011
201
Croatia
#8
As I mentioned, I believe there is a mention to that effect in one of Byzantine military manuals, but I do not recall which one.
Found it, mentioned in Byzantine Art of War by Michael Decker (pg.120):
"These were wielded is primary weapons on the line; the manuals show that tactically armies were a mix of 'best weapon' men, who used the tool most suited to their training, experience and physique."
 
Jul 2016
9,327
USA
#9
One of reasons I got interested in this is how a lot of people assume that ideal fighting physique is that of Stoick the Vast. I had been sporadically reading A Song of Ice and Fire, and Robert Baratheon is described as a massive man wielding a warhammer. But warhammers aren't exactly large, and while strength and size bring advantages, they also bring disadvantages as well (harder to change direction of movement, for example). So I wanted to see what are advantages and disadvantages of different body types, and how those interact with weapons that would have been used during Middle Ages.
There is no ideal fighting physique. You're either in shape or you're out of shape. You're either strong or you're not. You're either good at cardio or not. All that ectomorph, meso, etc., that is old school stuff that has been discredited anyway.

The Great Body Type Myth: Why Somatotypes Don’t Matter

Somatotype and constitutional psychology

That pseudo science was as realistic as phrenology, humors, and other sham concepts.
 
Jul 2016
9,327
USA
#10
RE: professional soldiers, skill would be impacted by body build. There is indeed wiggle room, but you do not become a bowman if you can barely draw a bow. Likewise, smaller soldiers might have been better for irregular warfare units, as they and their horses would need less food, and - if shorter as well as lighter - camouflage would have been easier.
Bowmen didn't become bowmen because somebody looked at their build upon military recruitment and handed them a bow. Commoners in kingdoms like England were required by law to practice all through their childhood to their adulthood. Besides that practice at drawing the bow, most were manual laborers and were thus strong from that too.

Also, I am not sure when it started being applied, but I recall reading on more than one place how heavy cavalry (cuirassiers) in Napoleonic era consisted of "large men on large horses". I am not sure, but I think similar description was applied to 17th century cuirassiers. "Large horses" part is kinda obvious, but it seems that men being large was also important for some reason - be it for shock purpose or visuals.
All through the ages, elite units have had standards for recruitment. Modern day, formal selection processes measure mental, physical, intelligence, integrity, etc. Back in the day, they said "Hey, that guy is big. Big men make great warriors. Let's recruit him."

For instance, check out this quote: "You pick out the big men! I'll make them brave!" - Pyrrhus of Epirus

Its the same reason individuals wore crests on their helmets, to make them look bigger and more imposing. But there was rarely special weapons designed for big people. The ones you're describing weren't. And those 17th century cuirassiers, what were they carrying? Pistols and plain one handed swords, no different than anyone else.
 

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