Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts

Khalid Elhassan - March 6, 2020

The Middle Ages saw major technological, cultural, and social developments, which in turn led to major transformations in the nature of warfare and military tactics. Advances in metallurgy brought about changes in swords and armor. The spread of castles, with nasty design features such as the aptly named murder holes, revolutionized defensive warfare. The result was a centuries-long race between walls and the means of overcoming them until gunpowder made castles obsolete. New arrivals, such as Arab Muslims and Mongols, upended the political and military order throughout much of Eurasia. Following are forty things about those and other fascinating aspects of medieval warfare.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, England, surrounded by a water-filled moat. Wyrd Light

40. When Castles Dominated the Landscape

Until gunpowder technology made them obsolete, castles dominated settled landscapes throughout much of Eurasia. Although they are best known as defensive structures, sheltering those within from more powerful foes without, castles also served offensive purposes: they provided a base from which raids could be launched.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Castle defenders dropping objects atop defenders from machicolations. Wikimedia

No castle was completely impervious to attack. Provided they were sufficiently numerous, determined, and willing to pay the butcher’s bill, attackers might escalate castles by storming their walls, battering their gates, or breaching their fortifications. More often, if a castle was particularly formidable, enemies preferred to besiege them, cutting them off from resupply and hoping to starve out the defenders. Often, sieges were coupled with attempts to tunnel beneath and undermine a castle’s walls from below.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Murder holes. Quora

39. Murder Holes

At its core, a castle’s strength depended on location – often on high ground – high walls, strong gates, and a surrounding moat, filled with water when possible. To further maximize their defensive capacity, castle builders often incorporated ingenious innovations into their designs, to make storming them as dangerous and unpleasant as possible. One of the nastier design features was murder holes.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Murder holes at Bodiam Castle. Wikimedia

As their name indicates, murder holes were intended to, literally, murder people. Passageways through the walls – often behind the main gate – would have holes up above. Through those openings, defenders could stab attackers below with spears, riddle them with arrows or crossbow bolts, or pour unpleasant things on them, such as boiling water, heated sand, or quicklime. Contrary to common perception, hot oil was almost never poured over attackers. Oil was expensive, and besieged defenders cut off from resupply were more likely to hoard, rather than throw away, such a precious commodity.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Machicolations atop a castle wall and turret. Quora

38. Machicolations: Another Nasty Castle Design Feature

Related to castle murder holes are machicolations: openings in the corbels, or the parts jutting out from the top of walls. As with murder holes, stones, boiling water, heated sand, quicklime, and other unpleasant things could be dropped from machicolations on enemies at the base of the wall.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
A box machicolation jutting out of a Maltese castle’s walls. Wikimedia

Originating in the Middle East, machicolation designs were brought back to Europe by Crusaders. By the thirteenth century, their use was widespread in the west, especially in France. While larger castles featured traditional machicolations all around the walls and towers, a variant known as the box machicolation became widespread in smaller fortresses, especially atop the castle’s gates.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Attacking a castle. Slide Serve

37. Battering Castle Walls

Barring treachery, the quickest way to seize an enemy castle was to storm its walls by attackers using ladders and siege towers. However, that was often hazardous, and cost dearly – often prohibitively dearly – in attackers’ lives. One alternative was to try and batter down the walls, either from a distance with catapults and trebuchets, or up close with battering rams.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Basic catapult design. Flickr

Catapults were deployed since ancient times against castles and city walls. They used tension or torsion to slowly build up and store energy in a device, before rapidly releasing the stored energy via an arm that flung a rock at a targeted wall. In the later Middle Ages, catapult technology took a leap forward with the development of trebuchets – the most effective weapon against castle and city walls until the arrival of gun powder.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Counterweight trebuchets. Wikimedia

36. The Lethal Trebuchets

Traditional catapults relied on torsion or tension to store energy prior to release. By contrast, trebuchets relied on gravity: a heavy weight on one side of a pivot, with a long arm from which a stone was flung on the other side. Trebuchets were faster and easier to construct, and used relatively few expensive materials, such as the pricey elastic ropes needed for torsion catapults.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Mongols using a trebuchet against a Middle Eastern city in the thirteenth century. Wikimedia

On the downside, trebuchet ranges were shorter than those of torsion catapults. However, trebuchets made up for that with consistency. Torsion catapults were not consistent, with factors such as rope dampness or loss of elasticity causing the impact ranges to vary. Trebuchets by contrast relied on the constants of gravity and a fixed weight for energy. Once ranged in, they would hit the same spot if given the same weight projectile.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Attackers tunneling beneath a wall from the left, while defenders dig a counter tunnel in an attempt to intercept and foil the attackers. Quora

35. Tunneling Beneath Castle Walls

Besiegers often dug tunnels to defeat castles and other fortifications. Tunneling was particularly effective against walls that were not built atop solid rock. Besiegers would dig beneath the walls either to bypass them and allow attackers to emerge on the other side, or to undermine and collapse the walls.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Enemies meeting in tunnel beneath castle. Imgur

When undermining the walls, besiegers would tunnel until they got beneath the foundations of a wall section. As they excavated a space beneath the foundation, they would use temporary wooden props to keep the walls up. Once a sufficiently large space was dug beneath the walls, the besiegers would burn the props, causing them to collapse, along with the section of the wall above them. The defenders, always on the lookout for such attempts, often dug counter tunnels in an attempt to intercept and destroy the underground attackers.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Sword-waving Vikings in diorama at Arkeologisk Museum in Stavanger, Norway. Wikimedia

34. Scandinavian Spiritual Beliefs Accidentally Led to Stronger Swords

Scandinavians in the Iron Age only had access to bog iron – an impure and soft metal. That put Scandinavians at a disadvantage when fighting neighbors who were armed and armored with better iron. However, Scandinavian religious beliefs led them, unwittingly, into forging an early version of steel swords. That gave them a literal edge over their opponents.

Scandinavians believed that mixing the bones of killed animals with the iron used in forging swords would imbue the resultant weapon with the spirit – and strength – of the killed animal. That was mumbo jumbo, but the swords that emerged were pretty strong, nonetheless. It was not because of spirituality, however, but science.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Sanremo Sword, top, discovered in Norway and dating to circa 500 AD. Swordsmiths Forum

33. How Scandinavians Unwittingly Forged Early Steel Swords

The Scandinavian habit of mixing sacrificial bones with the iron that went into their swords did not imbue the swords with any spiritual powers. However, what Scandinavian smiths did not realize was that the bones, like any organic matter, contained carbon, and mixing carbon with iron produces a rudimentary form of steel.

By burning coal alongside their low-quality bog iron, Scandinavian smiths unwittingly produced bone coal – similar to how burning wood produces charcoal. When modern researchers conducted experiments by mixing bone coal with bog iron to forge swords, they discovered that the process significantly improved the sword. Carbon from the bones penetrated up to three millimeters deep into the bog iron, resulting in a significantly stronger weapon.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
The knightly sword in a tournament. Wikimedia

32. The Middle Ages’ Most Popular Sword

The European knightly sword, also known as the arming sword, was developed from the Viking sword and traces its roots back to the Roman spatha. The transition from the spatha-based Viking sword to the knightly sword went through the intermediate phase of the Norman sword of the ninth and tenth centuries. It witnessed a simplification of the pommel to a disk or hazelnut, and the growth of the Viking sword’s spatha hand guard into a full cross guard – the main visually distinguishing feature of both the knightly sword, and its successor, the longsword.

The knightly sword was double-edged, usually with a 28 to 32-inch blade, although some had blades of up to 39 inches. It featured a single-handed cruciform hilt that gave it a distinctive cross shape. It was the most popular European sword from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. Knightly swords were then edged out by the longsword, and relegated to the role of secondary weapons or sidearms – hence their other name, the “arming sword”.

Related: 12 of History’s Deadliest Swords.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Viking swords – note the rounded tip, and the absence of a cross guard. Brewminate

31. An Excellent Weapon for Cutting and Thrusting

The transition from the Viking sword to knightly swords was completed by the eleventh century. While the Viking sword had a more rounded tip, the knightly sword featured a more slender and tapered blade with a sharper tip. Its center of mass was also closer to the hilt, which improved handling.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Knightly sword. Nerds on Earth

Typically used with a shield or buckler, the knightly sword was an excellently balanced, light, and versatile weapon, useful for both thrusting and cutting. It was the main weapon of the Crusader knights, and remained the most popular sword on European battlefields until the opening stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Its popularity finally waned in the fourteenth century, because of changing battlefield conditions – especially the introduction of plate armor, against which the knightly sword was ineffective.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
A thirteenth-century knightly sword. Pinterest

30. The Medieval Arms Race Between Swords and Armor

Beginning in the late twelfth century, an arms race began to develop between swords and the increasingly tougher armor encountered on battlefields. The result was polarization in sword designs. They became either longer and heavier for concussive impact and the infliction of blunt trauma through the armor, or more squat and sharply pointed to pierce the armor with a thrust.

By the mid-fourteenth century, the knightly sword had lost the arms race. An entirely different sword, the longsword, emerged in response to the new armor, and proved more effective at dealing with it than the knightly sword. Thus the longsword supplanted the knightly sword, and the latter was relegated to a secondary weapon or sidearm.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Longsword. Association of Renaissance Martial Arts

29. How the The Longsword Swept Europe

The heyday of the European longsword lasted from the mid-fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries. Usually weighing 5 to 8 pounds, longswords are characterized, as the name indicates, by their length. They featured straight and double-edged blades measuring between 33 inches to four feet in length, plus long handles designed for a two-handed grip, of between 6 to 15 inches. The longsword’s other distinguishing feature is its cruciform hilt, which gave it a pronounced cross shape.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
German longsword. My Armory

Longswords were designed to deal with the emergence of increasingly tougher armor, particularly plate armor against which standard swords such as the knightly sword were ineffective. In proficient hands, the longsword could defeat such armor. They first emerged early in the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453), and for the following two centuries longswords were used by knights in plate armor, whether from horseback or on foot. By the late 1400s, the longsword’s use had begun to spread to unarmored foot soldiers as well – a usage first pioneered by Swiss mercenaries.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
One and two-handed longsword grips. Heidelberg University Press

28. Cutting, Thrusting, and If All Else Fails, Bludgeoning

The longsword’s long handle was designed for a two-handed grip that could deliver powerful cuts and thrusts. It was a cut and thrust weapon with a light point and cutting edges, that could deal with unarmored and armored foes. Against armored opponents, blows were ineffective at slicing or cutting. However, a longsword blow delivered with enough force could still produce a concussive impact to stun and disorient an armored opponent, and leave him temporarily vulnerable to a more lethal follow-up.

Despite its size, in the hands of a competent user, the longsword was a quick and versatile weapon that could effectively deal out lethal thrusts, slices, and cuts. By the late 1300s, codified systems of longsword combat had emerged throughout Europe. In its heyday, various fighting schools and fighting styles sprouted to instruct on the martial art of longsword fighting. Such schools were especially popular in Germany, which produced the most renowned longsword teachers and fight masters.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Longsword handling techniques. Wikimedia

27. Longsword Techniques Were an Advanced Martial Art

Longsword fighting featured a variety of moves, ranging from straightforward swordplay with stabbing, hacking, and slicing, to complex martial art maneuvers that entailed wrestling, grappling, and disarmament techniques. In the hands of wielders with armored gloves protecting their hands, the longsword could also be employed in a manner known as “half-swording“. That entailed a user keeping one hand on the hilt, and the other on the blade to deliver well-controlled and powerful jabs and thrusts.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Longsword fencing techniques. Historum

Longswords, especially those with a diamond cross-section, could penetrate plate armor with a well-applied half-sword thrust. Lethal usage was not restricted to the longsword’s blade. Techniques were taught for using the pronounced crossguard to trip a foe or knock him off balance, to jab into the opponent’s face. Swinging the sword by the blade like a hammer, the crossguard could be used to pierce the enemy’s helmet and skull. The pommel could also be used after a swing in a quick reverse jab to the opponent’s head or body, or more straightforwardly applied with brute force to pummel and smash in his helmet and head.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
A pike and short formation, with pikemen protecting those wielding firearms while they reloaded. Pinterest

26. “Pike and Shot” Led to the Longsword’s Demise

As with the knightly sword, the longsword’s battlefield utility ended after a centuries-long heyday, because of changing battlefield tactics and developments. By the mid-1500s, projectile weapons such as crossbows whose bolts could pierce armor, and the newly introduced firearms, had come to rule the battlefield. The wielders of such weapons were protected by blocks of infantry wielding pikes, in what came to be known as “pike and shot” formations.

Against that combination of missile weapons and pikes, longswords did not offer any particular advantage. By the late sixteenth century, firearms had rendered heavy armor obsolete. That in turn rendered longswords, which were developed in response to heavy armor, obsolete. Swords became smaller and went back to normal lengths, while longswords were relegated to sporting competitions and knightly duels.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Hulagu leading a charge. Assassins Creed Wiki

25. The Mongol Who Terrorized the Middle East

Hulagu (1217 – 1265) was a grandson of Genghis Khan and a younger brother of the Grand Khans Mongke and Kublai. He expanded the Mongol domain into Western Asia and the Middle East with a savagery that remains in the region’s memory to this day.

Hulagu destroyed Baghdad and extinguished the Abbasid Caliphate, wrecked medieval Persian culture, conquered Syria, and menaced Egypt and the surviving Crusader states. He also founded the Ilkhanate in Persia, a precursor of modern Iran.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
An Assassins cult mountaintop fortress. Daily Sabbah

24. Exterminating the Assassins Cult

In 1251, Hulagu was recognized by his brother Mongke as ruler of the Ilkhanate in Persia, and was ordered to extend Mongol power into the Islamic world. As a preliminary, Hulagu attacked and seized the mountain fortresses of the Assassins cult, a militant Islamic sect led by a mystic known as the “Old Man of the Mountain”. The Assassins recruited and brainwashed young men by claiming that they controlled entry to paradise. They got recruits high on hashish, set them loose in a beautiful garden full of gorgeous women, and convinced them they were in heaven. When they came down from the high and woke up, the recruits were back in regular and austere surroundings.

The Assassins convinced the young men that the only path back to heaven was to die while killing for the cult. It proved highly effective. With no shortage of horny young men high on hash and desperate to die while killing the Assassins’ enemies so they could return to paradise, the cult terrorized the Middle East for generations until Hulagu extinguished them.

Read More: Deadliest Assassin Groups in History.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Hulagu at the Siege of Baghdad. Pinterest

23. Extinguishing the Abbasid Caliphate

After dealing with the Assassins, Hulagu turned his attention to the Abbasid Caliphate. Then in its fifth century of existence, the Abbasid Caliphate no longer wielded any real political or military power, but it still wielded considerable spiritual clout. When the Caliph refused to submit, Hulagu invaded and besieged him in Baghdad. He captured the city in 1258, destroyed it along with all its treasures, such as the Grand Library of Baghdad, and massacred between 200,000 to a million inhabitants.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Mongol Siege of Baghdad. Tes Teach

To avoid a Mongol taboo against spilling royal blood, the captured Caliph was executed by being rolled into a carpet, which was then trampled by Mongols riding over it. That ended the Abbasids and the Islamic institution of the Caliphate. Hulagu then conquered Syria, bringing to an end the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Saladin.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Mamluks taking on Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut. Pinterest

22. The First Major Mongol Defeat

Hulagu next set his eyes on Egypt, but on the eve of invasion, he received word that his brother Mongke had died. As a potential successor, Hulagu returned to Mongolia. In his absence, the Mongols he left behind under a trusted subordinate were wiped out by the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. That was the first major defeat of a Mongol army, and it broke the spell of Mongol invincibility.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Hulagu, founder of the Ilkhanate Dynasty. Military Wiki

Hulagu was not selected to succeed his brother as Great Khan, so he returned west to avenge the defeat at Ain Jalut. Instead, he ended up warring with a cousin, Berke, leader of the Golden Horde and a convert to Islam, who was enraged by Hulagu’s rampage in the Muslim world. The war with Berke was Hulagu’s main focus for the remainder of his life, until his death in 1265.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
The Battle of Agincourt. Pinterest

21. France’s Worst Medieval Defeat

In 1415, during the Hundred Years War, France suffered its most disheartening defeat of the Middle Ages. At the Battle of Agincourt that year, a French army of about 36,000 men, including thousands of armored knights, was routed by a significantly smaller English army of 6000 men, comprised of 5000 longbowmen and 1000 knights. It began with England’s King Henry V marching through Normandy to Calais, when his path was blocked by a French army that outnumbered his six to one.

Henry picked a position with flanks protected by woods. That limited French options to a frontal attack along a narrow front comprised of recently plowed muddy fields. He placed longbowmen on his flanks, his dismounted knights and more.

longbowmen in the center, had his men hammer pointed stakes in front of their positions, and waited. When the French commander ordered his first wave of mounted knights to charge, they discovered that the muddy fields, the weight of their heavy armor, the rows of sharpened stakes in their path, and the rain of arrows spelled trouble.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
The Battle of Agincourt. The Map Archive

20. A Muddy Debacle

The French charge at Agincourt wallowed to a halt, and a throng of disorganized French-milled about in front of the English positions. They were attacked, and within minutes, the entire first wave was killed or captured. A second French wave attacked, but was beaten back. While this was going on, King Henry received mistaken reports that he was being attacked in the rear. Judging that he lacked the men to guard thousands of prisoners, Henry ordered the captives executed. By the time he learned the reports were erroneous and ordered a halt to the executions, about 2000 prisoners had been massacred.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
English longbowmen at Agincourt. Some Things Matter

The French sent in their third and final wave, but it was also repulsed. Henry then ordered his small contingent of knights to mount up and charge the French, who, thoroughly demoralized by now, were routed. Estimated losses were about 600 English killed versus 10,000 French dead on the field of battle, plus another 2000 executed prisoners.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Medieval illustration of the Battle of Yarmouk. Wikimedia

19. The Middle East’s Most Consequential Battle

No single battle has had a greater impact in shaping the Middle East than did the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. The train of events leading up to that engagement began in 634, when Arab tribal armies erupted from the sparsely populated Arabian Peninsula. Fired by Islamic zeal, they simultaneously attacked the era’s two superpowers, the Sassanid Persian Empire to the east, and the Byzantine Empire to the west and north. Within two years, the outnumbered Arabs had won a series of brilliant victories that shaped the Middle East forever after.

The Sassanid Empire fell outright, while the Byzantines lost their possessions in Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, and got pushed back to today’s Turkey. Of the Arab victories between 634 – 636, the most decisive was the Battle of Yarmouk in August of 636. It was fought along the Yarmouk River, southeast of the Golan Heights, near where the borders of today’s Syria, Jordan, and Israel meet.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Arab armies of the Syrian Campaign. PBS

18. The Gathering of Armies For the Middle East’s Most Decisive Showdown

In 634, the Arabs simultaneously attacked the Persians in Iraq, and the Byzantines in Syria. However, the forces attacking Syria proved too small for the task, so reinforcements were diverted from the Persian front, where things were going more smoothly. They were led by the Arabs’ greatest general, Khalid ibn al Walid, who assumed command in Syria. In July of 634, Khalid routed the Byzantines at the Battle of Ajnadayn and seized Damascus. He won another victory soon thereafter at the Battle of Fahl, and seized Palestine.

The Byzantines set out to recover their lost territories, and assembled an army of 80,000 to 150,000 men according to modern estimates, that significantly outnumbered their 25,000 to 40,000 Muslim opponents. The Byzantine marched in five grand divisions to the Yarmouk, where they met an Arab army broken into 36 infantry and 4 cavalry regiments, with an elite cavalry force held back as a mobile reserve. Khalid assembled his army along a 7.5-mile front facing west, with his left flank anchored on the Yarmouk river, and his right on heights to the north.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Battle of Yarmouk. Wikimedia

17. The Upset Victory at Yarmouk

The Arab and Byzantine armies spent months camped across from each other, while their leaders engaged in negotiations. The fighting finally began on August 15th, 636, and lasted for five days of attritional warfare. During that stretch, the Arabs remained on the defensive, and withstood repeated, but often poorly coordinated, attacks. On the sixth day, Khalid ibn al Walid drew his opponents into a large-scale pitched battle that ended with the Byzantines retreating in disarray. Retreat turned into rout when Khalid unleashed his cavalry, who charged with a fortuitous sandstorm at their back. Many panicked Byzantines fell to their death over a steep ravine.

The Byzantines lost an estimated 40,000 men, while the Arabs lost about 5,000. Nearly a Millennium of Greco-Roman influence and rule of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa came to an end, as the successors of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were replaced by the successors of Muhammad. Syria was forever lost to the Byzantines, to be followed soon thereafter by Egypt and North Africa. Thereafter, those territories formed the core of the Arab and Islamic world, while the Byzantines found themselves confined to today’s Turkey and the Balkans.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Khawla bint al Azwar. Buffy Mega

16. The Warrior Poetess

Khalid ibn al Walid’s campaigns in Syria and Palestine saw the emergence of Islam’s most famous woman of arms. Khawla bint al Azwar (flourished 600s AD) was an Arab poetess and warrior who accompanied her elder brother during the Islamic conquests of Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. She fought at her brother’s side, and at the head of her own forces in independent command in numerous battles, and became famous for her fighting skill, courage, and toughness.

Khawla was the daughter of the chief of an Arab tribe. In her youth, she was taught warrior skills such as swordsmanship and horseback riding, at the side of her brother. She also learned poetry at her sibling’s side, who became a noted poet and warrior.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Byzantine cavalry. Byzantine Military

15. Her Brother’s Keeper

When Khawla bint al Azwar’s brother converted to the then-new religion of Islam, she followed suit and adopted the new faith. She first gained note as a warrior in 634, during the Arab siege of Damascus, when her brother was wounded and taken prisoner by the city’s Byzantine defenders.

Khawla donned armor and arms, and covering her face with a shawl to hide her gender, charged the Byzantine rearguard alone. She fought until reinforcements arrived to rescue her brother from captivity. At the Battle of Ajnadayn later that year, her brother was again taken prisoner, and Khawla again rushed to his rescue, covering her face and charging in alone until reinforcements arrived.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Jordanian stamp commemorating Khawla bint al Azwar. Mythology

14. Islam’s Greatest Female Warrior

By the time the Byzantines were beaten at the Battle of Ajnadayn, Khawla was drenched in blood. The army’s commander, Khalid ibn al Walid, unaware of her identity or gender, ordered her to remove the shawl from her face. When she finally relented, he ordered her to the rear, but soon changed his mind and put her in command of a mobile column to pursue the fleeing Byzantines.

On another occasion, Khawla was herself captured during a raid on the Muslim camp, and taken prisoner along with other camp women. They were taken to an enemy general’s tent, who divided the captive women among his officers as slaves and concubines. Khawla roused the captives, and seizing tent poles, they fell upon their captors. She escaped in the ensuing confusion. To this day, she is remembered as one of the greatest female warriors in the history of Islam, and there is hardly any city in the Muslim world that does not have at least one school named after her.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
French peasants bursting into a nobleman’s manor during The Jacquerie. Liberal Dictionary

13. Medieval France’s Greatest Peasant Uprising

In 1358, French peasants in northern France rose up in a rebellion that came to be known as The Jacquerie. The name was derived from the French nobility’s habit of contemptuously referring to all peasants as Jacques or Jacques Bonhomme, after a padded over-garment worn by them called a “Jacque”. The uprising was led by a well-off peasant named Guillaume Cale, from Beauvais, about 50 miles from Paris.

France at the time was undergoing a rough patch following the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. The peasantry, upon whose toil all rested and through whose fields the armies marched and pillaged, enduring the roughest patch of all. Their French noble overlords were not doing well, either, and their prestige had sunk to a low ebb after decades of humiliating defeats. Early in the century, France’s aristocrats had turned tail and fled at the Battle of the Spurs, leaving the infantry commoners to be slaughtered. More recently, the English had routed them in the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers.

Also Read: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Illustration of the Jacquerie from a medieval manuscript by Jean Froissart. Ricardo da Costa

12. Roasting Knights on a Spit

The French aristocrats’ defeat at the Battle of Poitiers was particularly humiliating because the nobility allowed the French king’s capture. Its aftermath was particularly onerous upon the peasantry, because the English demanded a huge ransom for the king’s release. The ransom was ultimately squeezed from the peasants. Finally, the French nobility failed in their basic function and the raison d’etre that justified their high status, of protecting the populace from enemy depredations. Unchecked by the peasants’ aristocratic overlords and supposed protectors, bands of English and Gascon mercenaries roamed the countryside, pillaging and raping, at will.

Matters came to a head on May 21st, 1358, when peasants from a village near the Oise river killed a knight, then roasted him on a spit and forced his children to eat his flesh. The revolt spread quickly, as peasants razed local castles and slaughtered their inhabitants. Soon, the disparate rebel bands in the countryside began coalescing under the leadership of Guillaume Cale, who then joined forces with Parisian rebels under Etienne Marcel.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Suppression of The Jacquerie. Wikimedia

11. Savage Reprisals and Repression

The Jacquerie burned hot, but it also burned out quickly. The undisciplined and untrained peasants were soon routed once the militarily trained and better-armed nobles organized and set out to suppress the revolt. The Paris uprising collapsed after its leader was assassinated, while Guillaume Cale, with his peasant army assembled to meet that of the nobles, unwisely accepted an invitation for truce talks with the armed nobles’ leader, Charles the Bad of Navarre.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Suppression of the Jacquerie. Picryl

Cale was treacherously seized when he showed up, tortured, and beheaded. The now-leaderless peasant army was then ridden down by knights and routed. The peasants were then subjected to massive collective reprisals, and a reign of terror in which roughly 20,000 were killed.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
African slaves, or Zanj. Imgur

10. The Medieval African Slave Uprising

In 869, the Zanj (Arabic for “Blacks”) Revolt began in southern Iraq as an uprising by black slaves. The rebels were soon joined by other slaves and freemen, and the uprising morphed into a major revolt against the Abbassid Caliphate. By the time it was over, hundreds of thousands had been killed, with some casualty estimates running into the millions. The Abbassid Caliphate was fatally weakened, and went into a precipitous decline from which it never recovered.

For generations, thousands of African slaves had toiled in massive field projects to drain the salty marshes of southern Iraq. The work was backbreaking, the slaves were underfed and brutally treated, and jammed by the thousands into crowded labor camps. The inhumane conditions bred resentment, and the slave camps became powder kegs awaiting a spark.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
The Zanj Revolt. Wikimedia

9. The Medieval Mystic Who Sparked a Liberation War

The spark for the Zanj Revolt was provided in 869 by an obscure Arab or Persian mystic poet named Ali ibn Muhammad, who asserted that God had instructed him to lead an uprising for liberation. Preaching freedom and equality regardless of race or class, he began recruiting Zanj slaves.

They flocked to his side in such large numbers that he became known as Sahib al Zanj – Arabic for “Chief of the Zanj”. Ali’s egalitarian preaching appealed to other downtrodden people, who also rallied to him. Fighting began in September of 869, and the uprising was characterized as one of the bloodiest and most destructive rebellions the Middle East has ever known.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Marshland around Basra in southern Iraq, where the enslaved Zanj toiled and rebelled. Wikimedia

8. Bringing the Abbasid Caliphate to the Brink of Collapse

The Zanj became expert guerrilla warriors, ambushing government troops in the marshes. They also raided the surrounding villages and cities to seize supplies and free other slaves. At the height of the revolt, the Zanj controlled southern Iraq, including its biggest city, Basra, which they captured in 871. Their territory extended to within 50 miles of the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. The rebels formed a government, ran a navy, collected taxes, and minted their own coins.

The tide finally turned in 881, when the government amassed a huge army that drove the rebels back into the marshes. Besieged, many rebels were induced to quit during the following two years, with generous terms offered to those who voluntarily submitted. The revolt finally came to an end in 883 with the capture of the Zanj’s last major bastion, during which battle their leader, Ali ibn Muhammad, was killed.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Sichelgaita and Robert Guiscard. Wikimedia

7. The Medieval Amazon

Sichelgaita of Salerno (circa 1040 – 1090) was a Lombard warrior princess and the hereditary duchess of Apulia in southern Italy. A six-foot Amazon, she met and married Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer who turned southern Italy and Sicily into a Norman domain. Armed and armored and going into combat at Guiscard’s side, or leading men into battle on her own, Sichelgaita and her hubby roiled the Mediterranean world during the second half of the eleventh century.

She was born into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno, and from an early age, Sichelgaita exhibited a passion for swordsmanship and horseback riding. When her father, the Duke of Salerno, was murdered in a palace coup, she helped her brother regain the duchy, while she regained her place as the duchy’s most privileged woman. Brother and sister then had to deal with encroachments from Normans to their south, who had settled in Italy following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Robert Guiscard being invested by the Pope as Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily, in 1059. Amazon

6. A Warrior Princess Meets Her Warrior Prince

In 1058, Sichelgaita met the Normans’ leader, Robert Guiscard. It was love at first sight. Impressed by the six-foot Amazon who went into battle, armed and armored at his side, Guiscard divorced his wife and married Sichelgaita. For the next eighteen years, she was Guiscard’s constant companion, on and off the battlefield, helping consolidate his and her family’s hold on southern Italy. In addition to fighting at her husband’s side, Sichelgaita also led men on her own in independent commands.

In 1076, clad in shining armor and mounted astride a stallion, she rode up to the walls of Salerno, which was ruled by her brother, and demanded the city’s submission. When her brother refused, she besieged and starved him into surrender, seized the city, and sent him into exile. She and her husband then tried to take over the Byzantine Empire by marrying one of their children into the imperial household. A palace coup in Constantinople foiled those plans, however, so they decided to take over Byzantium the hard way, by conquering it.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Byzantine Emperor Alexios fleeing from the Normans at the Battle of Durazzo. Pintrest

5. “Stand and Fight Like Men!”

Sichelgaita’s greatest exploit occurred at the Battle of Durazzo on the Albanian coast, in October of 1081. She led an advance force ahead of the main body, which encountered a powerful Byzantine army that offered fierce resistance. Sichelgaita determined to press the attack and keep the Byzantines pinned in place until Guiscard arrived with reinforcements, but her men faltered, and some fled.

As described by near contemporaries: “Directly Sichelgaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away. She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words “How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!” And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Robert Guiscard. Wikimedia

4. Fighting on Despite Serious Injuries

Sichelgaita was badly wounded at the Battle of Durazzo, but held part of the battlefield until reinforcements arrived to turn the tide and win the hard-fought engagement. Despite the victory, the plans for conquering Byzantium had to be discarded because of developments back in Italy, when a conflict broke out between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1084, the power couple resumed the attempted conquest of Byzantium. They won some initial victories, including a ferocious naval battle against a combined Venetian-Byzantine, which gained them the islands of Corfu and Cefalonia. Soon thereafter, however, Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign. Sichelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Jebe. Wander Lord

3. Genghis Khan Rewarded a Man Who Had Almost Killed Him

They are the Four Dogs of Temujin. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords . . . In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme, and Subotai.” — The Secret History of the Mongols

Jebe, born Zurgudai (d. 1225), was one of Genghis Khan’s leading generals, who started his military career in the ranks of Genghis’ enemies. During a battle in 1201, Zurgudai shot Genghis in the neck with an arrow. After winning the battle, a wounded Genghis asked his captives who had shot him, and Zurgudai confessed. Impressed by his honesty and courage, Genghis took him in his service, and named him “Jebe”, meaning arrow – the name by which he is known to history.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Jebe and one-eyed Subutai. Pintrest

2. Genghis Khan Made a Shrewd Choice In Rewarding His Would-Be Killer

Jebe quickly rose through the ranks in Genghis Khan’s service. Within a few years, he had become one of the Mongols’ most capable generals. Genghis Khan entrusted him with independent commands such as the assignment to defeat Kuchlug, one of Genghis’ last remaining Steppe enemies, and the subjugation of his Kara Khitai state.

Jebe accomplished the mission in quick order, capping off the conquest by beheading Kuchlug. He then rejoined Genghis and took part in the conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire. Once Khwarezm was subdued, Genghis gave Jebe and another brilliant subordinate, Subutai, permission to lead a great cavalry raid. It was to head westward through northern Persia, then up through the Caucasus, and around the Caspian Sea, before turning east to return to Mongolia.

Murder Holes, Machicolations, and Other Medieval Warfare Facts
Battle of Kalka River. YouTube

1. The Arrow’s Masterpiece

Jebe’s masterpiece occurred during the great cavalry raid into the Caucuses and southern Russia, at the Battle of Kalka River in 1223. He and Subutai conducted a feigned retreat before a numerically superior army of Kievan Rus and Cumans. They lured their pursuers into following them for nine days, before turning on and slaughtering their foes, nearly to a man.

That raid set the stage for a Mongol return fifteen years later, this time in a full-force invasion that conquered Kievan Rus and overran Eastern Europe. Jebe, however, died in 1225, soon after his return from that raid, and did not live to harvest what he had planted or see the fruits of his work.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Allen Brown, Reginald – The Architecture of Castles: A Visual Guide (1984)

Big Think – Vikings Unwittingly Made Their Blades Stronger by Trying to Imbue Them With Spirits

British Battles – Battle of Agincourt

Cambridge University Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Volume 27, Issue 1, January, 2017 – The Last Campaign and Death of Jebe Noyan

Commena, Anna – The Alexiad

DeVries, Kelly – Military Medieval Technology (1992)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Hulegu

Encyclopedia Britannica – Jacquerie

Froissart, Jean – Chronicles

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe III (2002)

Grousset, Rene – The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (1970)

Journal of Medieval History, Volume 11, Issue 1, 1985 – The Jacquerie: Class War or Co-Opted Rebellion?

Keegan, John – The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme (2011)

Liddiard, Robert – Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism, and Landscape, 1066 to 1500 (2005)

Medieval Castles – The Brilliance of Machicolations

Medieval Chronicles – Castle Murder Holes

My Armory – Call to Arms: The German Longsword

Odyssey – Feminist Muslim Warrior Series: Khawla bint al Azwar, the Muslim Mulan

Order of Medieval Women – Sikelgaita, Heiress of Salerno

Peers, Chris – Genghis Khan and the Mongol War Machine (2015)

Science Daily – Trebuchet

Wikipedia – Knightly Sword

Wikipedia – Zanj Rebellion