Spear or Lance?

I’ve just written a scene in my current work in progress in which the hero defends the heroine against an attack by outlaws. In my novel all the soldiers on the hero’s side are using spears, but, even as I was writing it, I was wondering about the differences between spears and lances, if any. I know it won’t matter in the least to my readers. It’s a romance and they’ll be happy that the hero finally has the chance to show his lady what he’s made of. I was interested, though, so I pulled a few books off the shelves to see what they had to say.

You’ll know what a lance is from all those films and documentaries that show knights jousting in the lists. The lance is the long pole with a point that they carry underarm as they thunder towards one another on huge horses. The underarm hold is known as couching. In a joust the object is to hit the opponent, break the lance or push the opponent off his horse and points are awarded for each of these. Killing the opponent was not a goal, although that often happened. If you’ve watched Wolf Hall or read Bring up the Bodies, you’ll know that there was a half hour or so when it looked as if Henry VIII had been killed in a joust.

In a battle, or any kind of fight, killing the opponent, or maiming him, was most definitely the point. Not only did the lance in these circumstances have a point, but it had a sharp metal tip as well. The idea of this wasn’t to penetrate an opponent’s armour, but to get into the places where the armour was jointed or where the body was only protected by mail, such as the neck, the armpit and the groin.

You may wonder why they were using spears and not swords. Both were used in a fight, as you can see in the illustration at the top of the post. It depended on the circumstances and the person. The lance was the weapon of the mounted soldier. It was made of ash and was about fourteen feet long. Since it was quite thin, it was easy to break and wasn’t much use in a mêlée. The spear was the weapon of a foot soldier and they were about five feet long, although they look much longer in some of the medieval illustrations.

Surprisingly, the lance was the mounted soldier’s primary weapon. Once it broke, which must surely have been very early in the battle, he moved on to other weapons, such as the sword, the mace or the flail.

In the final quarter of the fourteenth century the lance rest was developed. It was a ledge on the soldier’s breast plate that allowed his body, rather than his arm, to take the shock of the impact. I imagine that the force of the impact could break an arm, although none of the sources says this. It could definitely take the lance out of his hand or throw him from his horse. It could also bring them both to a complete stop, which wasn’t good if the success of your charge depended on you getting past your enemy. It was all about timing and overlooking the natural inclination of both horse and rider to shy away from the target. Both had to be well-trained. In Knight, Robert Jones says that using a lance “… tested courage, skill and physical strength in equal measure.” I certainly wouldn’t want to face a fully armoured knight charging towards me with just fourteen feet of tree in one hand and the reins of my horse in the other.

In a battle or fight, the horse was often the initial target rather than the rider. An injured horse might fall on its rider and remove them from the fight. You had to be good to kill a horse with a single thrust of a lance which, of course, my hero manages to do, although I might have to rewrite that bit, since he’s on foot at that point.

I’ve learned that I’ve got a bit of rewriting to do if I want the details to be correct. Fortunately, my hero can still be suitably heroic and I’ll have a better idea of what’s going through his mind during the fight. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not his lady will be impressed.

Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages by Michael Prestwich
European Arms and Armour by Tobias Capwell
Knight by Robert Jones

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

9 responses to “Spear or Lance?

  1. Oh, it’s a very hard work for your writing! E’ un durissimo lavoro per la tua scrittura! Buona domenica! Thanks a lot, April! I learn many English words from your posts!

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Fighting with a lance seems so impractical, I’ll take a spear over one any day!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Getting all the details just right is one of the joys of writing! I’m sure your hero’s lady will be head over heels 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating and beautifully researched detail as usual, April. Sorry I haven’t visited much in recent months, but taking the opportunity to wish you a very Happy Christmas and a fabulous New year. I hope all is well.

    Liked by 1 person

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