The push of pikes in the 14th century

Monday, February 08, 2016

Pikes (very very long spears) are often associated with the Swiss in the late 15th century and even more with the armies of the Early Modern period. But they were already around in the 13th century and, more important to us, well used in the 14th century. This blogpost shall talk about the general sources we have for this for the region of the Low Countries which, when combined, present a pretty clear-cut case.

Pikes in the 14th century
The pike is a weapon that was used by infantry. It should then be of little surprise that we already find a pike mentioned in 1268 in the accountbooks of the city of Ghent in Flanders, one of the earliest and most densely urbanised regions of Europe, meaning a large potential supply of infantry city militia and a great chance of extant written records. Likewise the chronicle of Melis Stoke of 1301-1305 describes how in 1304 a large number of citizens of Dordrecht (then the most important city in the county of Holland) attacked and chased off an army of the duke of Brabant at Waalwijk. These Dordrecht burghers were armed met pieken ende met staven (with pikes and with staves). A Middle Dutch poem of c. 1340-1360 talks about the common people generally fighting battles with haren piken, met haren bilen (their pikes, with their axes). The Hainault chronicler Froissart mentions picques and goudendas (staves with an iron pin on top) being used by the Flemish city militias at the battle of Cassel in 1328 and he talks about the presence of Hollandois Piquenaires (pikemen from the county of Holland) at the siege of Tournai in 1340. He goes into more detail with his description of an ambush that took place in Flanders in 1380: The city of Ghent had sent out an army of more than a hundred strong, tous piquenaires (all pikemen). They caught their enemies, the lord of Enghien and his knights, by surprise and beat them due to their overwhelming numbers of 10 to 1, but also because of their longues picques.
In 1346 the city militia of Ghent was painted on the walls of the Leugemeete Chapel in that city. When this chapel was demolished over a century ago, luckily drawings were made. Here you can see the part that shows the guild of weavers, armed with godendags / staves with pins on top and what look like spears. Considering the common combination of the use of staves with pikes, and not spears, these depicted spears may well have represented pikes that were not drawn to their full length because of a shortage of space / artistic license.

To the east of the counties of Flanders and Holland, the Westphalian city of Dortmund was at war with the archbishop of Cologne and the count of Mark in 1388-1389. The city council hired extra soldiers for this purpose: 153 mounted men-at-arms, 27 English archers and 49 gesellen myt peycken (men with pikes). The archers got paid 5 guilders a day if they came on horse, 4 when on foot. The pikemen got paid 4 guilders a day as well. These numbers can be compared to the soldiers that nobleman Jan van Blois, lord of Schoonhoven and Gouda, took with him on two campaigns into the duchy of Guelders. The first one was in 1361. Next to a whole load of mounted men-at-arms he brought 30 archers and 14 piekenaers and he had 16 pikes made for them. In 1372, when he was going to claim the ducal crown of Guelders with an even bigger army, he had "50 pikes prepared, straightened and ironed (put pikeheads on them)": Van 50 pieken te reeden te rechte ende te ijseren. During his campaign in Guelders, provisions for Jan's army were also bought in 'our' Hanseatic city of Deventer, which is situated in the bishopric of Utrecht but close to the border with Guelders. Pikes were not an uncommon sight there either. The city's accountbooks show that in 1357 two of them had 'irons' (pikeheads) put on, and in 1364 a pike was reimbursed that had been lost by a man during his escort of the city councillors to the nearby town of Zutphen:

Pro duabus lanceis dictis peke ad inponendum ferros: 2 s. 8 d.
Eynen knapen die in der nacht sinen piec hadde verloren die mit onsen scepenen tot Zutphen was ghevaren ... : 15 s.

From the same accountbooks we learn that the Deventer city councillors would go around town to make sure that all the citizens had the proper amount of personal armour at home, according to their wealth, so that they could serve as the city militia in times of war. Alas the exact type and amounts are not known for Deventer, but we can can get an idea from a surviving law of the town of Schiedam from the end of the 14th or early 15th century. It states for example that citizens from the lowest property class (possessing goods worth up to 24 pounds), should own 'a staff, or a mace/club or a pike'. Since this lowest class probably made up at least half of the population, the amount of pikemen the town could turn out would have been considerable. We had already encountered this in the 100+ pikemen army of Ghent in 1380.
Another visual representation of pikemen has survived in Italy. They are depicted on a fresco in Padua, made by Altichiero da Zevio in 1378, showing the beheading of Saint George.

Pikes in 14th / early 15th century battle
Concerning the way pikes were used in battle we can first have a look at the Chronicles of Jean Froissart again, to be more precise his description of the battle near Kuinre in 1396. Albrecht of Bavaria, count of Holland, Zeeland and Hainault had sailed from Enkhuizen to Kuinre near the border of Frisia with an army of men from all three of his counties. The bonnes villes et gens du pays (good towns and people of these lands), had provided Albrecht with a grand nombre d'arbalétriers et cranequiniers, picquenaires et gens d'armes (great number of crossbowmen, cranequin-crossbowmen, pikemen and men-at-arms). Also some troops from England and France had joined this venture. The Frisians which Albrecht had come to battle and subdue were armed with longues picques and bâtons ferrés but, except for shields, were poorly armoured. They had the vantage point though, standing on and sheltering behind their defensive dike in between two wet moats (this type of defense line is called a landweer) which means that Albrecht's army could not use horses but had to fight on foot.
The army was ordered in a line, the trumpets were sounded and it advanced. The troops from Holland had cleverly made ponts de lances et de piques (bridges of lances and pikes) to cross the first moat. In the ensueing battle many daring attacks were made, with grand poussis de lances et de piques (great pushes of lances and pikes). Only when the Hainaulters had found a passage over the landweer somewhere further along, where they able to outflank the Frisians and could Albrecht's army defeat them. It is interesting to note that the term 'push of pike'  was still used in the 17th century to describe fights between pike blocks, suggesting that the way they were used in battle had not changed that much either.

The advantage of having pikes (spears of 4,5 to 5 meters long: food for the next blogpost) is that you can form up a line of battle which is a few ranks deep where the second, third and fourth ranks can still join the fight at the front because of the length of their weapons reaching over the ranks in front of them. A pike block should be tightly packed together to make sure no enemy can pass between the pikes. This also means that in case of emergency the deeper ranks can do with less armour than the men in the front line. This, and the main target area, are described in a chronicle of the bishopric of Münster: In 1407 a mounted army of two nobles and their retinues from Cleves invaded the said bishopric near Gescher. Local lord Hynrick van Gemen quickly gathered his soldiers and huesluden (farmers) on foot and marched towards them. Having arrived at Gescher and ordered his men into battle he told them:

Gy menne, de nyn harnsch anne en hebben, gy solt achter uns beharnscheden gaen, und wyket nycht und schuwet uns und steket myt den peyken under de iseren hode.
"You men, who have no armour on you, you shall go behind our armoured (men) and will not move nor fear and you will stab with the pikes underneath the iron hats (in the faces of the enemy)."

The 'Wisby Project'
All these sources combined have made us at Deventer Burgerscap decide that we should aim to form a proper pike block (that does not target faces...). We have picked the Battle of Wisby reenactment event in August 2016 to realize this. Of which, and of the measurements of pikes, I will speak in the next blogpost.

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