15th Century Portuguese Weaponry IV – The Javelin

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

Few weapons are as characteristic of 15th century Portugal as the javelin – a seemingly archaic yet undoubtedly effective weapon which was saw action time and time again against the kingdom’s enemies. This brief article is meant to give a brief overview about a weapon which remains highly unknown, even to ourselves.

Old Reliable

Purpose-made throwing sticks (javelins in all but name) were already used by our ancestors during the Palaeolithic [1]. Along with spears, axes, clubs and rocks, javelins are therefore one of the oldest Human weapons, one which saw continued use throughout History. In Classical Europe, everyone from Greek peltasts to Roman legionnaires to Gallic and Iberian and Numidian cavalrymen made javelins an indispensable part of warfare in Antiquity.

Though its presence in the battlefield decreased somewhat in the Early Middle Ages, it was still retained in some form or other by several cultures. The Germanic peoples (Franks, Goths, Anglo-Saxons), for example, derived their own particular type of javelin, the angon, from the Roman pilum, both with long and slender shanks [2]. In the Al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia), the javelin was indispensable to the light cavalry tactics introduced by the Berbers into the Peninsula [3]. Javelins were still being used in France as late as the 13th century, employed by light troops known as bidauts [4].

Irish bagpiper and warrior armed with both a sword and javelin, from the Códice de Trajes, folio 69r (ca. 1547).

However, as time went on, and as armour improved, the javelin slowly disappeared from European battlefields. By the early 15thth century, javelins seem to have become something of a relic in most of Europe: though retained in naval warfare, elsewhere they were only employed in the field by peoples at the ‘edges of the known world’ – in Ireland, in Northern Africa, and especially in Iberia.

Dardos, Azcumas, Azagaias? Problems of Throwable Spear Nomenclature and Construction

In Portugal, as indeed in the other Iberian kingdoms, the javelin led a long, healthy life until the very end of the Middle Ages. The javelin (dardo, in Portuguese ) was the throwable cousing of a family of hafted weapons which included the azcuma or ascuma ( a light spear; possibly a derivation of the Basque askon or azkuna, meaning ‘javelin’ [5]) and the Muslim azagaia (also a light spear; a derivation of the Arabic az-zagaia [6]). Though azcumas and azagaias appear as throwable weapons in 15th century sources [7], it is impossible for us to know for certain whether they were regarded as projectile weapons, simple hafted weapons, or both. Light spears are sometimes described as having been thrown [8], but the javelin, with its lighter shaft and smaller head, was purpose-built with throwing in mind.

Javelin head (mid 13th century) (https://www.faganarms.com/products/elegant-crusader-s-javelin-head-mid-13th-century)
Detail from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, folio 100v (ca. 1390-1400).

At their most basic, the javelins of the Middle Ages were essentially smaller versions of spears: they consisted of a light (probably ash wood) haft to which a steel or iron head was riveted. Though effective, this basic design was often complemented by additions to improve its range, flightworthiness, and penetrative potential. There is some indication that javelin shafts could taper slightly towards the bottom, meaning more mass nearer the head and thus a shifted centre of gravity, to help ensure a better degree of penetration on impact. Javelins were often fitted with broad arrow-like swallowtail heads featuring bladed wings, designed to cut and sink into an opponent’s protections and flesh. Additionally, they could be also be fletched, like arrows. The fletchs could be made out of several materials, including wood or parchment, but according to visual sources they were most frequently made out of feathers. It is possible that the key difference between the dardo and azcumas, azagaias and throwable spears were these additions, since azagaias and azcumas were (as far as the sources tell us) never fletched or fitted with arrow-like heads. There is little to no evidence to suggest that javelins in Portugal (or elsewhere in medieval Europe, apart from Ireland) were used with any sort of throwing aid such as an amentum (a leather thong or strap fitted to the shaft) or spear-thrower (a hooked stick used on the butt of the javelin to propel it forward).

It is difficult to determine the exact length of medieval javelins, since none have reached us intact. From a survey of artistic depictions, it would appear that javelins ranged from slightly shorter to slightly taller than a full individual’s height.

Several javelin fletchs amongst the troops disembarking in Asilah in 1471. Detail of the Disembarkation of Asilah  (ca. 1475).

Javelins in Portugal

Javelins have been a requirement for the lowest rung of Portuguese acontiados (see here) since the 14th century. King D. Fernando required his acontiados of ‘viinte anos acima aviam de teer funda e lança e dous dardos’ [9]. Some sixty years later, Prince. D. Duarte (later King D. Duarte) wrote down a regiment of war, still in use during the reign of his son, Afonso V, in which acontiados whose wealth was assessed under sixteen silver marks ‘seram constrangidos, que tenham lança, e dardo’ [10]. This longstanding tradition of prescribring javelins to the lowest acontiados explains why, according to Froissart, John of Gaunt told a Portuguese captain that one of the Iberian arts he most loved the most was ‘celle de jeter la darde’ [11] – and why they can still be seen aplenty decades later in the Pastrana Tapestries.

Nonetheless, tradition does not justify a weapon’s use in the battlefield, and the efficacy of the javelin in warfare is still somewhat debatable. Javelins were employed in Iberia throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, long after plate armour – which would negate the javelin’s efficacy – had been introduced and become widespread. More than their lethality, perhaps javelins were employed for the disorienting effect a close-range barrage of wooden shafts could have – akin to how arrows were employed against heavily armoured knights. We see this effect in action during the battle of Aljubarrota (1385), as described by the chronicler Fernão Lopes: to safeguard the Portuguese baggage train from French knights, men-at-arms and crossbowmen ‘defemdiam-sse com setas e dardos, de guissa que os de cauallo nom lhe podiam empeçer, amtes reçebiam delles dano, moremdo alguuns do tirar das beestas e remesar das lamças’ [12]. Yet, javelins seem to have proved effective agaist lightly armoured opponents, which would explain their longevity in Ireland, where plate armour was rare throughout the entire Middle Ages, and their use against the Moroccan forces in Northern Africa.

The Javelin in Reenactment

Javelins are peculiarly absent from most contemporary reenactment. As stated above, by the 15th century they had disappeared from most European battlefields, so they are not paid the slightest bit of attention by most reenactors beyond the Pyrenees other than as a novelty item. Additionally, they are not very practical or safe in mock battles – a thrown javelin, even one with a rubber head, is bound to cause some damage. They aren’t cheap or easy to source or make, either, especially the fletched versions.

However, for Iberian – and especially Portuguese – reenactors, accurate portrayals of javelins are a practical requirement. Particular attention must be paid to the proportions – neither heads nor fletchs must be so big as to make the reconstruction ungainly. Some sellers, such as Arms & Armor, sell pre-assembled javelins of the plain type (small spearlike heads, no fletching); attention must be given to how the heads fit against the top of the haft. Many of these javelins gape between the haft and the socket due to mass-production, and will break in no time because of that. A snug fit is a safe fit.

As with spears, broomsticks are, and remain, a capital offence.

[1] See for example the three 400,000-year-old javelins found in Schöningen, near Hannover .https://archive.archaeology.org/9705/newsbriefs/spears.html

[2]  Blair, C.; Tarassuk, L. (Eds.) (1982). The Complete Encyclopedia of Arms and Weapons. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 19–20. By the 7th century however, according to Guy Halsall, the angon had ceased to be used in war (Halsall, G. (2003). Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900. London: Routledge. p. 164).

[3] For a very summarised and broadly accurate version of the introduction and development of light cavalry tactics in the Peninsula, see for example Blumberg, A. (2013). “The Jinetes: Mounted warriors of medieval Spain”. In Medieval Warfare, vol. 3 (1). Zutphen: Karwansaray Publishers, pp. 18-21.

[4] Nicolle, D. (1999). Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050 – 1350: Western Europe and the Crusader States. London: Greenhill Books, p. 297.

[5] Riquer, M. (1969), «El armamento en el “Roman de Troie” y en la “Historia troyana”». In Boletín de la Real Academia Española, 49 (188). Madrid: Real Academia Española p. 470. Though Martí de Riquer claims a Navarran/Aragonese origin or specificity for the azcuma, Álvaro Soler del Campo is correct in pointing out that the term’s diffusion does not allow for such an easy conclusion. Solver del Campo also points out the azcuma’s strong association with hunting and light infantry. See Soler del Campo, A. (1993). La Evolucion del Armamento Medieval en el Reino Castellano-Leones y al-Andalus (siglos XII-XIV). Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones del E.M.E., pp. 39-40.

[6] See Agostinho, P. (2012). Vestidos para matar: o armamento de guerra na cronística portuguesa de quatrocentos. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, p. 176.

[7] Agostinho, P. (2012). Vestidos para matar: o armamento de guerra na cronística portuguesa de quatrocentos. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, pp. 177-179.

[8] A particularly good example of how spears were thrown, picked up and thrown back between foes is episode set during preparations for the siege of Benavente in 1387. Two Portuguese and the Castilian parties faced one another before the Portuguese camp, ‘e dos portuguesses nom foy nenhuum ferido nem morto saluo Maaborny, que saymdo fora por tomar das lamças pera remesar e colhemdo-sse demtro, foy-lhe remesada huuma lamça per Martym Gomçalluez d’Atayde, que amdava em Castella (…), e amtresolhou a lamça per huumas solhas que trazia, e ouue huuma ferida de que a poucos dias moreo’ (‘and of the Portuguese none was injured nor killed but Maarbony, whom, as he stepped out to pick up the spears to throw them and heading back in, had a spear thrown at him by Martym Gomçalluez d’Atayde, who had banded with Castile (…) and the spear struck between the plates of the coat of plates he was wearing, and he received a wound which killed him after a few days’) [my translation]. In Lopes, F. (1977). Crónica del Rei dom João I da boa memória. Parte Segunda. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, chapter CVIII, p. 225.

[9] ‘Twenty years or older are obliged to own a sling and a spear and two javelins’ [my translation]. In Lopes, F. (1975). Crónica de Dom Fernando. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, chapter LXXXVII, p. 305.

[10] ‘(…) Shall be obliged to have a sling and spear and two javelins’ [my translation]. In Freitas, D., Heitor, I., Maia, A., Marques, J. and Ventura, L. Ordenações Afonsinas [Online]. Coimbra: Universidade de Coimbra. Retrieved from http://www.ci.uc.pt/ihti/proj/afonsinas/ [facsimiled edition of Almeida, M. and Martins, J. (1792). Ordenaçoens do Senhor Rey D. Affonso V. Ordenações Afonsinas. Coimbra: Real Imprensa da Universidade], title LXXI, p. 475.

[11] ‘(…) That of throwing the dart’ [my translation]. In Froissart, J. (1835). Les Chroniques de Sire Jean Froissart, II. Paris: A. Desrez, Libraire-Éditeur, p. 473. Unfortunately this old edition was the only one readily available to me at present.

[12] ‘And they defended themselves with arrows and javelins, so much so that the riders could not harm them; on the contrary, they received from them much harm, with some dying from the releasing of crossbows and the throwing of spears’ [my translation]. In Lopes, F. (1977), op. cit., chapter XLV, p. 15.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Agostinho, P. (2012). Vestidos para matar: o armamento de guerra na cronística portuguesa de quatrocentos. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra

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

Blair, C.; Tarassuk, L. (Eds.) (1982). The Complete Encyclopedia of Arms and Weapons. New York: Simon & Schuster

Blumberg, A. (2013). “The Jinetes: Mounted warriors of medieval Spain”. In Medieval Warfare, vol. 3 (1). Zutphen: Karwansaray Publishers, pp. 18-21.

Brunn de Hoffmeyer, A. (1972). Arms & Armour in Spain: A Short Survey, Volume 1. Madrid: Editorial CSIC – CSIC Press

Freitas, D., Heitor, I., Maia, A., Marques, J. and Ventura, L. Ordenações Afonsinas [Online]. Coimbra: Universidade de Coimbra. Retrieved from http://www.ci.uc.pt/ihti/proj/afonsinas/ 

Froissart, J. (1835). Les Chroniques de Sire Jean Froissart, II. Paris: A. Desrez, Libraire-Éditeur

Halsall, G. (2003). Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900. London: Routledge

Lopes, F. (1977). Crónica del Rei dom João I da boa memória. Parte Segunda. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda

Lopes, F. (1975). Crónica de Dom Fernando. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda

Monteiro, J. G. (1998). A Guerra em Portugal nos finais da Idade Média. Lisboa: Editorial Notícias

Riquer, M. (1969), «El armamento en el “Roman de Troie” y en la “Historia troyana”». In Boletín de la Real Academia Española, 49 (188). Madrid: Real Academia Española, pp. 463-494

Soler del Campo, A. (1993). La Evolucion del Armamento Medieval en el Reino Castellano-Leones y al-Andalus (siglos XII-XIV). Madrid: Servicio de Publicaciones del E.M.E.

VISUAL SOURCES

Anonymous (ca. 1530-1540). Códice de trajes. Madrid:  Biblioteca Nacional de España, Res/285

Anonymous (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)

Anonymous (ca. 1390-1400). Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina. Vienna: Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis Series nova 2644

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