In the medieval era, men were taught the proper way to fight in the Norse, Anglo-Saxon, or Frankish “shield wall.” A well-trained warrior knew, and could execute, the most effective blow for creating gaping holes in his enemy’s shield wall and it was a blow from below, where least expected.
In most Hollywood portrayals of medieval battle scenes, most of the action is “over the top.” That is, it is the dramatic down-swing of sword or axe or the thrusting of spear or lance. The former was to kill by assaulting the head and the latter to kill targeting the torso. But men were prepared by constant drilling to parry such blows by skillful use of their own weapons. Moreover, many were further protected by shields, helmets, and body armor of one sort or another.
What most warriors were neither trained nor equipped to defend was the unexpected blow from underneath the shield’s rim. In other words, a cutting blow to the feet, ankles, or calves carried out with a short sword or spear or a long knife (seax) designed for both slashing and stabbing.
The point of this short essay is two-fold, physiological and tactical: Physiologically, non-fatal wounds below the knee are much more debilitating than non-fatal wounds above the knee. I know–I’ve had several of each type. Obviously, from another completely practical angle, a car won’t run with flat tires and a man won’t run with wounded feet or ankles (nor will he be able to stand and fight). But if you’ve ever had serious below-the-knee wounds or injuries you know what I mean (and I still don’t know how to explain it).
A couple of examples: 1) when I was a small boy, I nearly severed the little toe on my right foot by stepping on a piece of broken glass while wading in a creek. I threw up. A few months later I crashed mouth first into gravel from a height of about ten feet. I did not throw up (and proudly did not cry either!). When older, I severely twisted an ankle while playing sports . . . and I threw up. And finally, a few years ago I was receiving some instruction in a form of martial arts for old men (not the kind you see in movies). The instructor showed me how to defend both above and below the knees but would show me how to assault only above the knees. I asked why (and I had an inkling about what the answer would be) and he told me: “I won’t teach a man to inflict the sort of pain you can inflict below the knees until he has shown me he can be responsible in using such knowledge.”
The point is that hitting underneath the shield’s rim, while not spectacular visually, is often the most effective place to strike a foe. And is it a blow he likely will not expect; moreover, it inflicts great pain. So, it’s using a tactic that is surprising and effective. That is the point I want to make. Never do what the enemy expects, and in being deceptive you can sometimes hit him in the most vulnerable and deadly areas. Learn to execute the blow from beneath the shield’s rim.