Historical Reenactment

imageKnights 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


English Judicial Duel

One of the few English sources is the 15th-century treatise commonly known as "How a man schall be armyd" found in the Hastings MS. Written about 1450, it describes step-by-step how a knight would be dressed in armour before fighting in a judicial duel. The text detailing the arming procedure is transcribed and translated in the article What Lies Beneath. He then is directed to hang his dagger on his right side and to hang a short [single-handed] sword from a bare ring on his left side 'so that he may pull it out lightly.' Finally, he should take his long sword in one hand and his pennant bearing either Saint George or Our Lady in the other as he goes toward the field. Afterwards, the author includes a list of items that the combatants should have waiting for them in field:

The day that the Pelaunt and defaundaunt shal fighte what they shal have with hem in the felde
A tente muste be pight in the felde 
Also a cheyre
Also a basyn
Also vj loves of breed
Also ij galones of wyne
Also a messe of mete flesshe or fisshe
Also a borde and a peyre of trestelis to sette his mete and drynke on
Also a borde clothe
Also a knyf for to cutte his mete
Also a cuppe to drynke of
Also a glas with a drynke made
Also a dosen tresses of armynge poyntis
Also an hamyr and pynsones and a bicorne
Also a smale nayles a dosen
Also a spere a longe swerde shorte swerde and dagger
Also a kerchif to hele the viser of his bascinet
Also a pensell to bere in his hande of his avowyre

When translated from Middle English into modern English:

The day the appellant and defendant shall fight they shall have the following them in the field:
A tent must be pitched in the field
Also a chair
Also a [water] basin
Also 6 loaves of bread
Also 2 gallons of wine
Also a meal of meat or fish
Also a [table] board and pair of trestles to set his meat and drink on
Also a table cloth
Also a knife to cut his meat with
Also a dozen sets of arming points
Also a hammer and pliers and an anvil
Also a dozen small [arming] nails
Also a spear, long sword, short sword and dagger
Also a kerchief to hold the visor of his bascinet
Also a pennant to bear in his hand of avowed [patron saint] .

Hasting MS [f.122b.]

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