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The Dumbest Things We Believe About Medieval Warfare Thanks To Movies

November 5, 2020 9.8k votes 1.9k voters 372.6k views12 items

List RulesVote up the cliches from medieval movies that don't match real-life history.

Hollywood has taken us to medieval battlefields for as long as it's been making movies. But while medieval warfare movies are definitely exciting, most of them are far from realistic.

When you're talking about battles that took place hundreds of years ago, the average person has no real way of relating to them without extensive research. History consultants are sometimes hired to help accurately portray the Middle Ages in film, but filmmakers never allow the experts to get in the way of a good story. That's how you end up with a medieval commander ordering their archers to attack by shouting "Fire!" - even though fire is nowhere near the battlefield!

Thanks to movies, most of us have no idea how medieval battles really worked. Today, we're going to revisit some of the misconceptions of medievalism in popular culture, and explore what ancient warfare was really like. Here are some of the dumbest things we believe about medieval warfare thanks to movies. 

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  • 1

    Sword Fighting Was Like A Lethal Form Of Break Dancing

    Photo: The Princess Bride / 20th Century Fox

    When two characters fight one-on-one with swords (which would be unlikely to happen on a battlefield anyway), it often resembles an elaborately choreographed dance routine. A typical movie sword fighter might use backflips, somersaults, spin moves, and other kinds of fancy footwork. And if they can toss off a few clever quips, even better. 

    That type of sword fighting is really a form of 19th-century aristocratic dueling. Medieval sword fighting was a lot more brutal. Hundreds of sword fighting training manuals from the Middle Ages have survived to the present. These manuals advise fighters to win at all costs, including many techniques that might be considered unchivalrous. They typically encourage medieval sword fighters to act quickly and aggressively, and to attack an opponent's weak spots in order to immobilize them and finish them off. 

    In a real battle, doing a spin move would have been particularly dangerous, because it leaves your back exposed to the enemy (unless they're also doing a spin move at the same time). 

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  • 2

    You Can Just Stab Through Armor

    Photo: Game of Thrones / HBO

    If movies and TV shows are all you have to go on, armor in the Middle Ages was next to useless. Onscreen, a skilled medieval warrior can slice through their opponents with a sword, even if those opponents are wearing full plate armor. Watching enough scenes might make you wonder why everyone spent so much time and money building armor if it provides as much protection as cardboard. 

    To be fair to Hollywood, medieval art does occasionally depict swordsmen stabbing each other through the armor. But this often occurs in training manuals designed to demonstrate sword fighting technique, not literal events. 

    First, let's be clear about which kind of armor we're talking about. Chain mail from the early medieval period was susceptible to puncturing from sharp weapons, but plate armor, which covers most or all of the body in steel, was specifically designed to offer more protection than chain mail. Swords and longswords could not punch through steel plate armor

    But plate armor didn't make the wearer invulnerable, either. In the later medieval period, knights began carrying long knives called rondel daggers, which they used to stab enemies in the gaps of their armor. And plate armor only protects from piercing damage, not blunt-force trauma. A heavy weapon like a mace, club, or warhammer could still easily smash and incapacitate an armored opponent. 

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  • 3

    Being Struck By An Arrow Wasn't A Big Deal

    Photo: Braveheart / Paramount Pictures

    The best way to show the audience that a movie character is Built Ford Tough is to show them getting hit by an arrow and shrugging it off. In Braveheart for example, William Wallace takes an arrow literally to the heart. But it only slows him down for a moment. He breaks off the arrow shaft and keeps fighting. Other movie characters might just pull out the arrow entirely. 

    Even as late as the 19th century, military surgeons considered arrow wounds to be among the most fatal. Arrows are specifically designed to get stuck in the body and be incredibly painful and difficult to remove. Triangular arrowheads often had barbs that tore the flesh on the way out.

    Arrows are difficult for medical professionals to remove, and doing it yourself would have been incredibly painful. Assuming the arrow didn't break any of your bones or damage your organs, you would then be at risk of infection. Either way, an arrow wound is going to ruin your day.

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  • 4

    Everyone Used Swords (Aside From Maybe One Special Axe Guy)

    Photo: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword / Warner Bros.

    Sword fights are inherently cinematic. Onscreen, medieval warfare often boils down to thousands of individual sword fights. Not only does every combatant wield either a sword or a longsword, when the fighting starts, everyone pairs up with an enemy and clangs their swords together until one of them gets the advantage. Win enough one-on-one fights and you win the battle. 

    The truth is, swords are wildly over-represented in movies and TV shows. In the early Middle Ages (the seventh to ninth centuries), swords were expensive to make and usually only available to the wealthiest fighters. Eventually, sword-making techniques advanced and they became more common, but they were still only one of many weapons available.

    Medieval weapons were made for specific purposes. Swords are great for up-close fighting, but spears, pikes, and halberds offer much more reach. Swords can pierce and slash, which is useful against an unarmored or chain-mailed opponent, but ineffective against plate armor. In that case, you'd want a mace, morning star, war hammer, or another bludgeoning weapon. Medieval armies typically used all of the above weapons and more. 

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