Weapons in the Dark Ages: Military Technology of The Legend of Broken

This month’s history blog was written by a guest blogger, Tiffany, who has previously donated wonderful character art to 17th Street that can be viewed on the Alienist character analysis pages. In addition to art, Tiffany also has a keen interest in military history and therefore decided to focus this month’s history blog on the military technology included in Caleb Carr’s latest novel, The Legend of Broken. For more information about Tiffany or to contact her, please visit her art portfolio.

In this blog post we will discuss the weaponry and use of military technology presented in The Legend of Broken. The novel takes place near the Harz Mountains in Germany at a time after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the rise of Charlemagne in the later part of the eighth century. We will use the term “dark ages” to refer to the time period between A.D. 400 through 800, which has been also called the Early Middle Ages and the Migration Period.1 In this post we shall address what weapons were available during this time period and how they were used in battle.

The majority of weapons used in the Early Middle Ages and onward include the short- and longbow, the sword in its many variations including daggers and long knives, spears, lances, and halberds, as well as heavier siege artillery such as the siege tower and catapult with its variants, the ballista and trebuchet. Armor came in various fashions and styles, but almost always included the helmet, greaves for leg armor, and scale, chain mail or whole plate armor to cover the torso – made of any number of materials available at the time including iron.


HelmThe accoutrements of a Dark Ages warrior usually consisted of a helmet, body armor including the arms and legs, and possibly a shield to deflect bladed weapons and small artillery. A type of plate armor known as greaves — also called sarbein in The Legend of Broken (632) — were worn on the legs to protect the shins from blunt force. Chain mail was in much use covering the torso from shoulders to hips. Because chainmail could be penetrated by a well placed arrow, scale mail was much more effective in weapon deflection, but neither were more safe and damage resistant than plate armor, a whole piece of metal armor worn over the torso. The spangenhelm is very similar to the helmet mentioned in the novel, and is referred to by native etymology in the endnotes (667). One particular helmet found worn by a Frankish warrior of the sixth century provides insight to what Germanic warriors of this time and region would have utilized.

Swords and Bladed Weapons

SpadalongobardaIn the novel, The Legend of Broken, a few types of swords mentioned are “raiding”, “marauder”, and “short-” swords, or what is also known as an arming sword. Although there are several types of swords, as catalogued by Oakeshott’s typology2, we will focus only on those mentioned in the novel. During the Migration Period in the Germanic region, the sword most often in use was a type of Roman sword known as the spatha, a long, straight sword, which is possibly a descendant of the Roman gladius. The majority of swords at this time were made of bronze or iron available in the region, created by methods known as pattern-welding or damascening — a process of inlaying various metals into one another.

Historians have speculated that swords and other bladed war implements were named for the peoples who used them. The Saxons favored the seax, or sax, a type of dagger with wooden or horn hilt used by the Germanic people. Spear implements such as the Frakki or frakka  or “Francisca” were used by the Franks during the Merovingian period. The Longobardi were supposedly named — by the Romans — after their long-handled axe, or the long halberd.

Employment of the economic and easily crafted spear was used by cavalry and infantry. The spear consisted usually of only two parts, a leaf-shaped blade wedged into a long wooden staff. Another member of the long-hafted bladed weapon family was the halberd, typically a long handled implement with a metal axe head which was used to cleave and chop.


There are a few types of bows, but those most commonly found in this particular era and region, according to archaeological record, are short- and longbows, and composite bows. The longbow gets its name from its length which is usually similar in height of the person wielding it (between five and six feet). It is typically constructed from a single piece of wood, usually of the yew tree, but other wood materials have been found just as hardy. The composite bow’s design and construction consists of various materials laminated together such as wood, and animal horn and sinew. Both long- and composite bows were used by infantry soldiers and highly trained horse-mounted archers. Longbowmen required years of training to develop the strength to use a longbow effectively.

In later centuries, the crossbow would eventually replace the longbow completely mainly because of its ease of use and its efficacy of penetrating chain mail due to the mechanical advantage inherent in the mechanism of loading the weapon. | Continue reading →

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