Pollaxe

The pollaxe is a type of European polearm which was very popular for foot combat during medieval times. It went by other names and spellings such as poll-axe, pole axe, polax, or Hache (French meaning axe); however the accepted term is pollaxe. Sometimes weapons such as the bardiche or the Danish axe are mistakenly called pole axe as they are indeed axes mounted on poles, but many etymological authorities consider the poll- prefix historically unrelated to "pole", and actually means "head."[1]

There are, however, etymologists who do believe that the word is derived from "pole"[2]

Types of pollaxe

Godfrey of Bouillon holds a short Pollaxe
Godfrey of Bouillon holds a short Pollaxe

The pollaxe design arose from the need to breach the plate armor of men at arms during the 14th and 15th centuries. Generally, the form consisted of a wooden haft some 4-6.5 feet (1.2-2 m) long, mounted with a steel head. It seems most schools of combat suggest a haft length comparable to the height of the wielder, but some cases appear to have grown up to 8 feet (2.5 m) in length.

The design of the head varied greatly with a variety of interchangeable parts and rivets. Generally, the head bore an axe or hammer upon the damaging 'face', with a spike, hammer, or fluke on the reverse. In addition,there was a projection from the top (often square in cross section) built somewhat like a dagger. The head was attached to the squared off wooden pole via long flat strips of metal which were riveted in place on either 2 or 4 of its sides, called langets. Also, a round hilt-like disc called a rondelle was placed just below the head. They also appear to have borne one or two rings along the poles length as places to prevent hands from slipping. Also of note is that the 'butt end' of the staff, which did NOT contain the weapon's 'head', bore a spike.

On quick glance, the pollaxe is often confused with the similar looking halberd and Bec de Corbin. However, the 'axe blade' on a pollaxe seems to have been consistently smaller than that of a halberd. Furthermore, many halberds had their heads forged as a single piece, while the pollaxe was always modular in design.

Strictly speaking the flat back of the axe head is called a poll, the war poleaxes of the middle ages have spikes on the back, a poll not being adequate for penetrating armour. There seems to be confusion as to the direct etymological root of poleaxe, both having merit possibly convergent terms.

Popular Usage

The poleaxe in that spelling, refers to an animal culling device of similar appearance. It was swung so the spike struck the animal, normally cattle, in the forehead. Hence also the phrase 'to be poleaxed' referring to being stunned. This term does not seem to appear before the 19th century.

Notes

  1. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following etymology, s.v. Poleaxe:
    [ME. pollax, polax, Sc. powax = MDu. polaex, pollaex, MLG. and LG. polexe, pollexe (whence MSw. 15th c. polyxe, pulyxe, MDa. polöxe), f. pol, POLL n.1, Sc. pow, MDu., MLG. polle, pol head + AXE: cf. MDu. polhamer = poll-hammer, also a weapon of war. It does not appear whether the combination denoted an axe with a special kind of head, or one for cutting off or splitting the head of an enemy. In the 16th c. the word began to be written by some pole-axe (which after 1625 became the usual spelling), as if an axe upon a pole or long handle. This may have been connected with the rise of sense 2. Similarly, mod.Sw. pålyxa and Westphalian dial. pålexe have their first element = pole. Sense 3 may be a substitute for the earlier bole-axe, which was applied to a butcher's axe.]
  2. ^ For instance, Eric Partridge gives the following etymology:
    L Palus, stake becomes OE pal, whence ME pol, pole, E Pole, the ME cpd pollax, polax becomes poleaxe, AE poleaxe: cf AX (E)

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