Knights duel with pollaxes at the Tournament of the Phoenix 2015. Photo by Javy Camacho.
Whether judicial trial by combat, a chivalric duel, or a deed of arms, the pollaxe was the primary weapon of choice between armoured men. By the fifteen century, the sword and dagger were considered secondary weapons, only capable of causing harm to an opponent by exploiting the small gaps in his plate armour. The pollaxe was essentially an axe, hammer, and spear affixed atop a sturdy shaft about the height of its wielder.
Prologue to "The Play of the Axe"
Near the beginning of the fifteenth century, an anonymous Milanese fencing master in service to Philip II "the Bold", Duke of Burgundy, wrote the earliest surviving treatise on fighting with the pollaxe. The following is an excerpt of its prologue as translated from Middle French by Dr. Sydney Anglo:
[O]ne must arm the body with good corporeal and material armour, and provide oneself with suitable weapons, like the axe, light lance, dagger, great sword and small sword, to defend oneself and resist one's corporeal and mortal enemies. And for this, let every man, noble of body and courage, naturally desire to exercise and make himself dexterous in virtuous and honourable occupation, and principally in the noble feat of arms, that is to say in Axe-play, from which proceed and depend several weapons above-named. Moreover, the said Axe-play is honorable and profitable for the preservation of a body noble or non noble.
And first, you who as one of the two champions are called on the field of battle, whether to the death or otherwise, whether you may be appellant or defendant, above all you must feel in your conscience that you have good and just quarrel.
On leaving your pavilion, you must be well armed and furnished with your axe and other relevant weapons. Recommending yourself to God, you must make the sign of the cross and march upright, with a good and valorous countenance, gazing at the other end of the field to seek out your adversary. And gazing upon him you must take in a measured manner a proud courage in youself to fight valiantly as is becoming.
Le Jeu de la Hache (MS Français 1996)
According to German ordinances, a man may challenge another to a duel before a tribunal, which shall grant each man six weeks and four days hence to train in peace. Thereafter, the judge shall summon the two combatants to the ring for the verdict. Han Talhoffer wrote in his personal manuscript dated 1459:
Thus when you come within the barriers and will begin, then let any foe say and do what he will; and cower not within yourself; and have the earnest in mind; and whatever he says unto you, do not react to it; and fight earnestly for yourself thusly; and let him have no rest and become no threat; and follow the art, thus fear not his strikes; and would he draw you into meetings of the blades, then counterstrike merrily.
Hans Talhoffer, MS Thott.290.º