15th Century Portuguese Weaponry II – The Spear

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

The spear. Undoubtedly the most common weapon  featured in the Pastrana tapestries, one of the most iconic weapons of the entire Middle Ages, and a constant presence in the daily life of medieval Portugal. But what exactly characterises the  15th century Portuguese spear?

An Extremely Ancient Weapon

Lanças 1.png
A sea of poles and spearheads: the Afonsine army marches on. Detail of the tapestry The Taking of Tangier (c. 1480).

It is one of Humankind’s oldest weapons, and one of the simplest: in essence, a piercing implement attached to the top of a pole of varying size – dependent on whether the spear was meant to be used in close combat, mounted combat, or thrown.

The medieval Portuguese spear is the legacy of both Visigoth spears and Muslim azagaias. As a rule, it consists primarily of a circular or octagonal wooden pole, or haft – usually made out of ash, but also oak [1] – , about 1.5 to 2 meters long. At the top of this haft is attached a pointy tip of steel or wrought iron. At the opposite end, the haft could present an iron piece called a ferrule or cap, a reinforcing and stabilizing component, which allows the spear to be stuck firmly on the ground [2].

14th century spearheads show a great variety of typologies, from  leaf-shaped heads to simple spikes with a triangular or diamond profile:

Lança 2
Spearhead, 14th-15th (?) centuries. Iron, 31.5 x 5cm, 207g.  Lisbon, Museu Militar (MML. Nº 18/530).
Lança 1
Spearhead, 13th-14th centuries. Iron, 27.1 x 4.3cm, 224.4g. Castelo de Vide, Secção de Arqueologia da Câmara Municipal (PC 206).
Lança 3
Spearhead, 13th-14th centuries. Iron, 18.8 x 3.4cm, 116.8g. Castelo de Vide, Secção de Arqueologia da Câmara Municipal (PC 207).
Lança 4
Spearhead, 14th-15th (?) centuries. Iron, 35 x 4.3cm, 490g. Alenquer, Museu Hipólito Cabaço (no inventory number).

Conto Alabarda
Detail of a hafted weapon’s ferrule (in this case a glaive)in the Panel of the Archbishop of the Saint Vincent Panels  by Nuno Gonçalves (ca. 1470) [my own photograph].
As we can gather from these findings [3], the spearhead could be affixed to the haft in a number of different ways: simple riveting, by inserting one or two rivets through the spear’s socket (as per the first specimen); using a tang, which means the spearhead has a central protrusion meant to be inserted into the top of the haft (as per the second specimen); and fixation using long metal strips, called linguets (languets) [4], on either side of the haft, reinforcing and complementing the normal placement of rivets through the socket (as in the third specimen, although its strips are broken and missing). The ferrule or cap, be it simpler (an iron cone or spike, like the one  on the right) or more elaborate, seems to have been riveted to the bottom end of the haft.

The Pastrana Spears

The spearheads in the tapestries show little to no variation between them. By observing and measuring the depictions, we know the hafts to be about 2-2.5 meters in length, or 3 meters or more in the case of cavalry spears or spears with flags and pennants. At the top of these hafts there is a head about 25-30cm long, structurally very similar to the first example shown above but with a more pronounced oval silhouette, like the second specimen. This physiognomy, which can be said to be characteristically Iberian [5], carries on at least until the beginning of the sixteenth century, judging by its presence in the works of Cristóvão de Figueiredo (one of Portugal’s early Renaissance masters), as per the detail reproduced below – though it is difficult, if not outright impossible, to determine how prevalent any given type of spearhead must have been [6].

Cabeça de Lança Gregorio Lopes
Spearhead in the painting Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus by Cristóvão de Figueiredo (ca. 1530) [my own photograph].
The spear was not restricted to infantry, however. As  explicitly shown in tapestries, the spear – a much longer type of spear – is the defining weapon of medieval cavalry [7]. For the Portuguese cavalry, the spear could not only be placed firmly under the arm (couched) but also be thrown – a tactic inherited from Moorish and Andalusian cavalries, which would require not only specific training [8] but also the use of a special type of saddle.

Always At Hand

Luis Miguel Duarte (Portuguese medievalist at the University of Porto) tells us that, according to his research, the spear was one of the weapons par excellence of  medieval Portuguese life. Whether to defend oneself or one’s home , to solve a quarrel with a neighbour, or even to have a starring role in some the best legal set-ups in Portuguese history [9], the spear was a frequent presence in everyday civilian life, along with knives and daggers.

On the battlefield, and as I stated to in my brief introduction above, it is the quintessential weapon of the medieval Portuguese army (and practically every European army during most of the Middle Ages [10]). Although lacking the romantic appeal of the sword and the shield, or the exoticism of a mace or a poleaxe, the spear’s versatility – throwing, blocking, striking, stabbing – coupled with its extremely low cost and ease of production ensure its popularity and ubiquity – not only among the common soldiery, but also in private, municipal and royal armouries [11]. Such an omnipresent weapon required the existence of a whole industry dedicated to the production of “ferros de lança” (spearheads), a fact attested to by Sousa Viterbo’s research in his monumental study A armaria em Portugal : noticia documentada dos fabricantes de armas brancas que exerceram a sua profissão em Portugal [12]. The spear was thus not only a key factor in the military organisation of the Portuguese kingdom but, almost as important, an important economic driver as well.

The Spear In Reenactment

In spite of how comparatively easy it is to make or acquire a spear, some words of caution must be heeded when it comes adding one to one’s personal armoury. As usual, research is key: even though spears are relatively similar everywhere, we must always make sure that what we’re getting fits with what was used at a given point in history. Not only that, we must make sure that the spearhead itself is properly made – spearheads are not flat pieces of iron vaguely shaped into a point, after all. They have ridges and profiles that must be present for it to function properly as a weapon, even when they’re blunted for safety reasons. Gluing a spear to a haft must always be an ancillary, not a replacement, to proper riveting – guides for which abound on-line.

Regarding hafts, close attention must be paid to the choice of wood and how the shaft is prepared [13]. Some hafts being sold nowadays are made of two pieces of wood glued together, purportedly to prevent bending. I have had no experience with them, but I’ve been told they’re prone to splintering and coming apart if they get wet. For those of us who lack the space to store a 2.5m long weapon, composite hafts – hafts made of two or more pieces screwed together tightly – are a possibility , but should be avoided if at all possible.

Broomsticks are, of course, a capital offence.


[1] Martins, M. G. (2014). A arte da guerra em Portugal: 1245 a 1367. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, p. 222.

[2] See Agostinho, P. (2013). Vestidos para matar: o armamento de guerra na cronística portuguesa de quatrocentos. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, p. 165.

[3] All photographs were taken from, and belong to, the Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português catalogue, pp. 354-358; and were subsequently edited by me to be presented in this article. All rights belong to their original authors and owners.

[4] See Lanza (Spear). Available at: https://www.armizare.org/armizare/the-weapons-of-armizare/lanza-spear/.

[5] According to Donald J. La Rocca: “The [Pastrana] spearheads take the form of a leaf shaped, double edged and pointed oval. The few rare spearheads of this type that survive are considered Spanish and from the fifteenth century [fig. 14], attributions that are corroborated by their inclusion in the tapestries” (p. 38).

[6] “We know of several types of blade: broad, narrow, pointed and olive leaf-shaped, elongated, triangular, socketed or tanged to the haft, some with barbs, etc. There was, as we can see, variation aplenty” [my own translation] (“Conhecem-se diversos tipos de lâminas: largas, estreitas, pontiagudas e em forma de folha de oliveira, alongadas, em forma triangular, umas fixas à haste através de um espigão ou através de um alvado, algumas com farpas, etc. As variantes eram, como se vê, imensas”),  in Martins (2014), p. 222. Nevertheless, there seems to be some visual continuity between late 15th century and early 16th depictions of spears: the spears in the Tapestries, of 1475;  the spears in the Santa Clara and the Miracle of the Custody panel of the Santa Clara Triptych (in  the Machado de Castro National Museum, in Coimbra), of 1486; and the ones in the aforementioned Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus by Cristóvão de Figueiredo of 1530. It is curious that, in spite of the scarcity of 15th century Portuguese art, several of the depictions of spears we do have follow the same exact pattern.

[7] Nicholson, H. (2004). Medieval Warfare. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 102–103.

[8] King Duarte, in chapter XIII of his Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda a Sela, recommends that all those who wish to learn how to throw the spear “to first learn how to throw it on foot” [my own translation] (“cõuem que huse primeiramẽte de pee”, 1843, p.95), and then describes, in detail, the process of throwing the weapon and the skills to be acquired before transferring the technique onto the back of a horse.

[9] The colourful account of these episodes: “(…) the Crown  advised its subjects early on, whenever they heard shouting or signs of “arroido” [a brawl], and especially whenever they heard the warning cry of Aqui d’El Rei, to hurry out into the street and calm the contenders. As one might guess, anyone who is startled in the middle of the night by the noise of a fight either does not leave their bed or, if they do, they do it with a weapon in hand. What happened was that, once the situation had been defused, the alcaide [local governor] and his men would take the opportunity to seize the weapons of anyone who had appeared in the meanwhile” [my own translation] (“(…) a Coroa desde cedo recomendou aos súbditos que, sempre que escutassem gritos ou sinais de “arroido” e, por maioria de razão, sempre que ouvissem bradar Aqui d’El Rei, saíssem rapidamente para a rua para estremar os contendores. Como se adivinha, quem é sobressaltado a meio da noite por barulho de luta, ou não sai da cama, ou se sai, vai armado. Acontecia porém que, serenados os ânimos, o alcaide e os seus homens aproveitavam para fazer uma razia nas armas dos que entretanto haviam aparecido”), in Duarte, L. (2000), p. 185. This seizure entailed the permanent confiscation of the weapon and, most probably, a hefty fine – which undoubtedly stirred up more than a few night-time raids by some excessively zealous alcaides.

[10] “More so than sword, the spear was the  most commonly used weapon in medieval armies, and it is held to have been the most important hafted weapon of this period – as proven by the profusion with which the word is employed in 14th century Portuguese chronicles” [my own translation] (“Mais do que a espada, a lança era a arma mais utilizada pelos exércitos medievais, sendo considerada a mais importante arma de haste deste período, facto comprovado pela profusão com que este termo é utilizado nas crónicas quatrocentistas portuguesas”), in Araújo (2012), p. 140.

[11] A noteworthy example is the enormous quantity of spearheads present in the Letter of Discharge from the Royal Arsenal of Lisbon (Carta de Quitação do Arsenal Régio de Lisboa) in 1455, transcribed in the volume Armeiros e Armazéns nos Finais da Idade Média – particularly the summary listing in the synoptic table, section 2.1.3., p. 48.

[12] Francisco Marques de Sousa Viterbo (1845-1910) was, amongst other things, one of Portugal’s first serious hoplological researchers.

[13] See an interesting discussion regarding this topic at http://myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.32345.html


Agostinho, P. (2013). Vestidos para matar: o armamento de guerra na cronística portuguesa de quatrocentos. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra

Araújo, I. (2012). As Tapeçarias de Pastrana – Uma Iconografia da Guerra. Lisboa: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa [Master’s Thesis]. Retrieved from repositorio.ul.pt/bitstream/10451/8811/1/ulfl137065_tm.pdf

Barroca, M. J. and Monteiro, J. G. (Coords.) (2000). Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português. Palmela: Câmara Municipal de Palmela

Duarte I de Portugal (1843). O Leal Conselheiro e Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda a Sela. Lisboa: Typographia Rollandiana.

Duarte, L. (2000). “Armas de Guerra em Tempo de Paz”, in Barroca, M. J. e Monteiro, J. G. (Coords.) (2000). Pera Guerrejar – Armamento Medieval no Espaço Português. Palmela: Câmara Municipal de Palmela, pp. 173-202

Hewitt, J. (1855).  Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe: From the Iron Period of the Northern Nations to the End of  the Thirteenth Century. Oxford and London: John Henry And James Parker. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46342/46342-h/46342-h.htm

Lepage, J. D. (2014). Medieval Armies and Weapons in Western Europe: An Illustrated History. Jefferson, E.U.A.: McFarland

Martins, M. G. (2014). A arte da guerra em Portugal: 1245 a 1367. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra

Monteiro, J. G. (2001). Armeiros e Armazéns nos Finais da Idade Média. Viseu: Palimage Editores

Nicholson, H. (2004). Medieval Warfare. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Lanza (Spear). Retrieved from https://www.armizare.org/armizare/the-weapons-of-armizare/lanza-spear/

La Rocca, D. (2011). “Afonso ‘the African’ and his Army: The Pastrana Tapestries as a Visual Encyclopedia for the Study of Arms and Armour”. In Ibarra, M. A. de B. (2011). The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries, pp. 29-41

Viterbo, F. (1907). A armaria em Portugal : noticia documentada dos fabricantes de armas brancas que exerceram a sua profissão em Portugal. Lisboa: Academia Real das Sciencias de Lisboa


(ca. 1475). Siege of Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Siege_of_Asilah_(Cerco_de_Arcila)

(ca. 1475). Disembarkation in Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Disembarkation_in_Asilah_(Desembarco_en_Arcila)

(ca. 1475). The Taking of Tangier [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/The_taking_of_Tangier_(Toma_de_T%C3%A1nger)

(ca. 1475). Assault on Asilah [wool and silk]. Tapestry. Pastrana: Parish Tapestry Museum. Retrieved from http://tapestries.flandesenhispania.org/index.php/Assault_on_Asilah_(Asalto_de_Arcila)

(ca. 1486). Santa Clara Triptych [oil and tempera on wood]. Coimbra: Machado de Castro National Museum. Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9d/Tríptico_de_Santa_Clara_Sec_XV_Museu_Machado_de_Castro.jpg

Figueiredo, C. (ca. 1530). Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus [oil and tempera on wood]. Lisbon: National Museum of Ancient Art.

Gonçalves, N. (ca. 1470). Saint Vincent Panels [oil and tempera on wood]. Lisbon: National Museum of Ancient Art. Retrieved from https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Painéis_de_São_Vicente_de_Fora#/media/File:Lagos40_kopie.jpg


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