The Writer’s Guide to Medieval Self-Defense Weapons

This week we continue our exploration of common medieval weapons other than the sword with a focus on day-to-day use and self-defense. For those who could afford them, swords were the most popular choice for a self-defense weapon because they are portable, effective, and can be used in close quarters. However, some cities had laws against the wearing of swords above a certain length during times of peace and some people could not afford them. Of course, in pinch, just about anything can be used as a weapon.

Daggers and Knives

Knives, usually defined as short single edged slicing blades, were commonly carried by all social classes in medieval Europe. They were a handy everyday tool for eating, preparing food and trimming quill pens.

Daggers, being double-edged stabbing weapons, were more closely tied to knights and the nobility because the cruciform shape of the weapon matched the shape and style of most arming swords of the period. The earliest depiction of the cross-hilted dagger is from 1120 AD in the “Guido relief” inside the Grossmünster of Zürich. [1] However, as the Middle Ages progressed other versions of the dagger were developed by the lower classes such as the bollock dagger, the ancestor of the Scottish dirk.

Writer’s Tip: It was common for people to carry their eating utensils with them, meaning if you were having a dinner party you were invited a group of armed people into your house. This could be a great start to a medieval whodunit.

Guido Relief. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia. Photo source.
Bollock Dagger

Axes and Hatchets

As I mentioned in my previous article, small axes and hatchets were household tools used for cutting wood. Although many men-at-arms carried them into battle, they were also common self and home defense weapons because they were so handy.


A basic and easily made weapon also known as a short staff or quarterstaff. Usually fashioned of hardwood and between six to nine feet (1.8 to 2.7 m) in length, the staff was popular across the social spectrum. Swordsmen such as George Silver in the 16th century and Joseph Swetman in the 17th century praised the staff as being among the best, if not the best, of all hand weapons. [2]

Farm Implements

Many tools for farming could be used for self-defense in a pinch. Most were long-handled and were modified over time into polearms. For example, the threshing flail has a long handle with a short heavy wood head with an articulated attachment such as a strap, rope or chain. Originally used to thresh grain, it was brutally effective against people. Another example is the bill hook. Consisting of a curved wide hook sharpened on the inside edge on a haft, it was originally used to trim tree limbs but was good at unhorsing riders. Other examples include pitchforks, scythes, and sickles.

Medieval farming tools.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Two harvesters using threshing flails.
Courtesy of Shutterstock.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2020 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.


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