With sticks and stones and a new all-purpose weapon, the Habsburgs suffered a mauling at Morgarten.
With sticks and stones and a new all-purpose weapon, the Habsburgs suffered a mauling at Morgarten. Swiss National Museum

The rise of an all-purpose weapon

In the Middle Ages, forces were distributed unevenly. On one side, the armour-clad knight; on the other, the simple peasant farmer. But with the invention of the halberd, the tables were turned…

Adrian Baschung

Adrian Baschung

Adrian Baschung is historian and director of the Museum Altes Zeughaus in Solothurn.

The Schwyzer were carrying formidable weapons when they threw themselves on the Habsburg troops. The Swiss fighters showed no mercy; the opposing soldiers who couldn’t save themselves were massacred indiscriminately. This is how Johannes von Winterthur (c. 1300-1348/49), Franciscan and chronicler, described the Schwyzer battle against the Habsburg contingent in November 1315, at a narrow spot somewhere on the shores of Lake Aegeri. This encounter would later go down in Swiss historiography as the ‘Battle of Morgarten’ and would establish the image, widely held in present-day Switzerland, of the ‘tradition of armed liberation’ enacted by the fledgling Swiss Confederation against the hegemony of the Habsburgs.
Warrior with a halberd, drawn by Ludwig Georg Vogel, 19th century.
Warrior with a halberd, drawn by Ludwig Georg Vogel, 19th century. Swiss National Museum
But what were these absolutely appalling weapons that Johannes von Winterthur was describing, and about which he may have been told by his own father who, together with other Winterthur inhabitants, fought on the side of the Habsburg Duke Leopold and managed to escape the wrath of the people of Central Switzerland? In Latin, Johannes gave the following text passage in his chronicle: «Habebant quoque Switenses in manibus quedam instrumenta occisionis gesa, in vulgari illo appellata helnbartam, valde terribilia, quibus adversarios firmissime armatos quasi cum novacula diviserunt et in frusta conciderunt.» The Schwyz soldiers also had in their hands certain killing instruments, glaives (glaive = a polearm with a broad iron blade), called in their own vernacular ‘Helnbartam’, extremely terrible, with which they tore apart even the most well-armed opponents as with a razor and cut them into pieces.
A page from Johannes von Winterthur’s Chronicle.
A page from Johannes von Winterthur’s Chronicle. e-manuscripta
This passage in the Chronicle of Johannes von Winterthur is the first written account describing the iconic weapon in the hands of the ‘Old Confederates’, and its use: the halberd. Even today, this polearm is sometimes used as a synonym for the Old Confederate fighting spirit and combativeness. We find stylised halberds on emblems of Swiss army associations, and on municipal and family coats of arms. In the following, an attempt will be made to retrace the ‘success story’ of the halberd and to clarify how it came to be in the hands of the Swiss.

Characteristics and use of a halberd

What exactly is a halberd? The general answer to this question, as provided by sources on historical weaponry, is as follows: a halberd is a polearm and is characterised by an axe- or cleaver-like blade in combination with a thrusting blade and, optionally, a hook on the rear. The blade, thrusting edge and rear hook formed a single unit made of iron/steel and were forge-welded during smithing. This distinguishes the halberd from other weapons such as the battle axe, the billhook and the Kriegsgertel, a hooked blade with a spiked beak on the back.
Halberd from the period 1540 to 1586.
Halberd from the period 1540 to 1586. Swiss National Museum
The halberd (from German Halm = shaft or pole, and Barte = blade; also called Hellebarde or Halmbarte in German) was a two-handed all-purpose weapon that was suitable for slashing, thrusting, tearing and cutting. This meant the bearer could take on both mounted adversaries and infantry on foot. The multifunctional nature of the halberd made it easier to use. This may also explain the weapon’s popularity among the Swiss Kriegsknechten, peasants and farm labourers turned fighters, who were recruited almost exclusively from among the ordinary urban and rural population and favoured inexpensive weapons that didn’t require the learning of a new skill. In the territory of what is now Switzerland, from the early Middle Ages to the 19th century each conscript was responsible for procuring his own military equipment. So it made sense to go for an all-purpose weapon like the halberd.

The possible origins of the halberd

So how and where did this weapon of war, which we tend (incorrectly, it seems) to imagine in the hands of the ‘Old Confederates’, originate? This question cannot be answered conclusively at the moment as, interestingly, it is only in recent years that research into historical weapons has begun to explore this topic in depth. If we follow the approach of Swiss weapons historian Jürg A. Meier, the possible origins of the halberd are believed to be in the region of Alsace and Basel, in the 13th century. The oldest written account of the halberd to date can be found in passages from The Trojan War, a romantic poem by the ‘master’ Konrad von Würzburg (c. 1220-1287), one of the ‘Twelve Old Masters’ of medieval minnesang of the High Middle Ages. Konrad wrote this verse novel around 1281-1287 in the city of Basel. In it he describes, in terms similar to those later used by Johannes von Winterthur as referred to above, how the warriors attacked each other with ‘hallenbarten’ and ‘[…] ze stûken si dâ spaltent Ros unde man diu beide’ (they split both asunder, horse and man).
Konrad von Würzburg.
Konrad von Würzburg. Wikimedia
We find further passages in which the halberd is mentioned as a weapon in decrees issued by the authorities of the city of Strasbourg between 1297 and 1322. The carrying and use of various weapons within the city was outlawed under threat of punishment. Among these prohibited weapons the ‘helmparten’ were explicitly mentioned. But what did these precursors of the halberd as we know it in the Swiss Confederation look like? This is where archaeology comes to the rescue: archaeological finds in the soil and in bodies of water, mostly discovered in the Rhine near Basel and in Alsace, which are now held in Swiss museums. These are lightweight, cleaver-like cutting blades, with slightly convex edges and ends that taper upwards to a point. To secure the head to the haft, two round loops were forged on the back of the blade, one above the other.
Halberd blade manufactured between 1200 and 1300.
Halberd blade manufactured between 1200 and 1300. Swiss National Museum
But how did the inhabitants of Central Switzerland become familiar with this polearm, and how did they use it? There is written evidence that men in the Waldstätten region were performing military service with troops belonging to various monarchs from as early as the mid-13th century. For example, Schwyz fighters supported King Rudolf I of Habsburg in his 1289 campaign in Burgundy, marching via Basel and Alsace to Besançon, where they rendered such outstanding service that Rudolf is reputed to have bestowed on them the red imperial flag with the cross. It is therefore possible that knowledge of the weapon used in the Basel/Alsace region was acquired during this campaign. It should be noted here that in the 13th and 14th centuries Basel and its surrounds were a centre for knife blade manufacture. One product of this centre was a combat knife widely used and popular throughout Europe, which was known as a ‘baselard’ on account of its origin. It is therefore conceivable that the knife manufacturers (the occupational title would be ‘cutler’) could also produce cleaver-like blades for polearms.
A 14th-century ‘baselard’.
A 14th-century ‘baselard’. Swiss National Museum
This probable forerunner of the halberd as we know it today, as described above and referred to by Jürg A. Meier as ‘Sichelbarte’, subsequently underwent further development. As in the modern arms race, defensive and combat weapons had to be adapted to advances in design and development. Put simply, a new or enhanced armament necessitates a modification of the weaponry deployed against it, and vice versa. It can thus be shown, based on archaeological finds, that the ‘Sichelbarte’ was altered during the early 14th century as a consequence of better protective equipment. The top of the cleaver blade was tapered and extended to form a thrusting point and the blade itself was worked into more of an upright oblong; however, the haft mounting using two loops on the back of the blade was retained. This progression can be traced in halberd blades found in Lake Lucerne near Stansstad (Canton of Nidwalden) and in Rorbas (Canton of Zurich) (first or second quarter of the 14th century), in the ruins of the castle at Hünenberg (Canton of Zug) (end of the 14th century) and at Greifensee (Canton of Zurich) (first third of the 15th century). It is notable that the thrusting blade and the mounting loops have been reinforced. In addition to the reinforcement, the thrusting blade has also been lengthened.
A halberd blade found in the Greifensee.
A halberd blade found in the Greifensee. Swiss National Museum

Further development

Over the course of the later 15th century a more compact type of halberd increasingly appeared. The haft mounting was still via the back of the blade, but no longer consisted of two loops; instead, the mounting consisted of a socket which transitioned directly into the halberd blade. This type is illustrated, for example, in the descriptions by the chronicler Benedikt Tschachtlan (c. 1420-1493). In his Berner Chronik of 1470, Tschachtlan’s illustrator depicts this type of halberd. It is striking that some polearms had a hook on the rear. This hook or spike was already present on the ‘Sichelbarte’. Contrary to the widely-held view that this hook was used to drag heavily armoured riders from their horses, the basic idea of this weapon extension in battle was more likely that it could punch through the armour plates more easily.
Image from the Bern Chronicle by Benedikt Tschachtlan.
Image from the Bern Chronicle by Benedikt Tschachtlan. e-manuscripta
From the late 15th to the mid-16th century, when Swiss mercenaries were highly sought after by foreign armies, we see continued development of the compact type. For example, the illustrations in the official Bern Chronicles of Diebold Schilling the Elder (c. 1445-1486), which were composed around 1483, depict halberd blades in which the haft is mounted through a socket in the centre between the halberd blade and the rear hook, with the thrusting blade at the tip of the extended part. This made it much easier to thrust with this type of weapon, as the haft, i.e. the handle, and the thrusting blade now lay on the same line. The securing of the blade was also reinforced using side straps, oblong iron strips that extended from the socket and were affixed to the haft using nails.
The evolution of the halberd can also be seen in Schilling’s Chronicle.
The evolution of the halberd can also be seen in Schilling’s Chronicle. e-codices
The halberd was probably developed further by influences from the confrontations with European powers in the theatre of war of Northern Italy (Holy Roman Empire, French king, Italian principalities…). One type in particular came into fashion in which the blade increasingly took on the shape of an axe and the thrusting blade became longer and squarer. Halberds like this were made by craftsmen such as armourer Jakob Ringier (†1586) in the town of Zofingen (Canton of Aargau). Incidentally, Jakob was an ancestor of the present-day Ringier family, which established the Ringier media group, publisher of Blick magazine, among other things.
Halberd from the house of Ringier…
Halberd from the house of Ringier… Swiss National Museum

A halberd renaissance

Since the halberd was very much a close-combat weapon, we may assume that it lost its ‘clout’ with the increasing use of firearms on the battlefields of Europe from the early 17th century or slightly earlier. The proportion of polearm bearers and archers shifted increasingly in favour of soldiers armed with guns. However, we can report that the halberd enjoyed a revival in the territory of what is now Switzerland towards the end of the 17th century. During the denominational conflict between the Reformed and Catholic towns of the Confederation, in the First War of Villmergen of 1656, the armed forces of Bern with their relatively modern equipment suffered a crushing defeat by the troops of the Catholic towns of Central Switzerland which, mostly equipped with polearms, launched reckless and violent assaults in hordes, as in the 16th century. The use of firearms such as matchlock muskets had to be coordinated, and their operation had to be learned and carried out in many individual steps. The loading procedure was also lengthy, meaning a force launching an assault could prevent the firing of the weapon and an adversary armed with a musket could be taken on in close combat. Here the polearm, and thus also the halberd, was superior to the musket, because there were no complicated sequences of operation to be rehearsed: it was a simple matter of thrusting, chopping and slashing!
In the Battle of Villmergen it was halberds versus firearms. The result was clear: 1 – nil to the good old thrust, chop, slash!
In the Battle of Villmergen it was halberds versus firearms. The result was clear: 1 – nil to the good old thrust, chop, slash! Wikimedia
The governments in reformed Bern and Zurich, but also in Solothurn, recognised that the halberd hadn’t yet outlived its usefulness, and had armourers fill large orders for the manufacture of halberds. These orders made use of the weapon forms from the Confederates’ military ‘golden age’ in the 14th and 15th centuries, the archetypes for which were found in the depictions in the illustrated chronicles referred to above or in replicas, e.g. in the Lucerne Armoury. The different types known today under the historical name ‘Sempach halberds’ were developed, mass-produced and stockpiled in the armouries. The dominant Sempach halberds were the Bernese, Zurich and Solothurn types. These halberds were later incorrectly dated to the 15th century, and placed accordingly in Swiss historiography and in historicising representations.

Further posts