WHAT IS A POLLAXE?

 

 

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Pollaxe (or poleaxe) is the English word for what Fiore and Vadi call an acca/azza. Together with the spear, it was one of the primary knightly weapons for fighting on foot (the sword being usually secondary) in the later 14th,15th and first part of the 16thC's.

The pollaxe starts to appear in the hands of armoured men-at-arms in contemporary art with frequency in the second half of the 14thC and beginning of the 15thC. It is likely that it grew in popularity as a knightly weapon with the adoption of more plate armour over mail and the abandonment of the shield (making two-handed weapons more viable), though clearly the pollaxe was an evolution of earlier weapon types, such as single-handed warhammers and axes, and the large two-handed axes shown in 13thC art (eg. the Maciejowski Bible) and going back to the two-handed axes which had seen use since before the Norman Conquest. The increased use of armoured men-at-arms as heavy infantry could have played a role in the growth of popularity in this weapon in the 14thC also, together with the trend for armies to become more professional in the 14thC in many parts of Europe, leading to a generally higher level of armour in a given force.

The pollaxe consisted of a wooden shaft (usually not round, to prevent it turning in the hand), usually between 4 and 6 feet long, with an iron/steel head with two projections front and back - these could be a spike, a hammer or an axe blade, of varying forms. In Fiore and Vadi the types shown have a hammer on one side and a beak, or spike, on the other. At the head-end of the weapon, following the direction of the shaft (hasta in old Italian) was normally a projecting spike, which could also take various forms, from a simple square-section spike to an edged spear-like blade. 

Often there was a spike of some sort at the foot-end (calcio in old Italian) of the weapon as well, following the line of the shaft. When hammers were present, they often had a slightly pointed hitting surface, or had grooves, ridges or small pyramid-like projections on them, to reduce the chances of sliding off opposing armour and to increase damage. Some hammer-like heads consisted of two (eg. Talhoffer 1459), three (eg. Wallace Collection) or four (eg. Royal Armouries, Leeds) thick spikes. Axe blades, when present, were often more robustly made than typical halberd blades, though not usually being as big as halberd blades could sometimes be. Occasionally, more usually in the mid to later 15thC, holes were drilled in the flat of such blades to reduce the overall mass. Projecting spikes on such weapons tended to be geared towards armour-piercing, and so were often thick in section, or square-sectioned, or with an otherwise reinforced tip.

Pollaxes, as knightly weapons, were sometimes subjected to decoration like other knightly accoutrements, such as ornate filing and drilling, decorative borders and edges, and even rich fabric being nailed to the shaft to cover them. In the late 15thC German pollaxes often echoed the 'Gothic' design of the armours they were intended to be used with; sometimes they were even made as part of a set. A curiosity worthy of note here is the design for a dismountable pollaxe with optional parts, projections and fittings in Talhoffer's manuscript of 1459.

Further developments in the pollaxe included a rondel (disc) guard to protect the hand nearest the head (see the Rondel Dagger article, as these potentially had another use, which was to increase traction for giving a powerful thrust) and long iron/steel langets (strips) riveted to, and protecting, the wooden shaft of the weapon. Often these langets reached from the head to the rondel, but in some examples (eg. one in the Wallace Collection) the langets cover and even enclose the wooden shaft for a much greater length.

Occasionally in historical art we see pollaxes which have a second rondel guard to go above the rear-most hand, and sometimes a second rondel guard down near the foot-spike (calcio) ('below' the rear-most hand), which may support the assertion that these discs were not only to protect the gauntleted hands, but also to provide a platform to push against when delivering a powerful thrust (in the latter case, a thrust with the foot-spike).

We are blessed with a fair number of historical sources dealing with pollaxe fighting, Fiore being one of them.

This page was composed by Matt Easton - Last update: 08/04/2005

Contact: schola-gladiatoria@hotmail.co.uk

 

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