Author Topic: Medieval spiral staircases - apparently not defensive after all  (Read 430 times)

Jubal

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Chances are, if you have read anything about medieval castles, you have probably heard that newel staircases in medieval castles were intentionally nearly always designed in the form of a clockwise spiral to give the most space to the right-handed defenders at the top of the stairs to draw and swing their swords while simultaneously restricting the space given to the right-handed attackers attempting to ascend the staircase.

This is something that tour guides often tell people visiting castles. It is also one of those “fun facts” that are often repeated on the internet. Unfortunately, for reasons I am about to explain, it is also almost certainly wrong; there is actually no good reason to believe that medieval staircases were intentionally designed this way for this reason and, in fact, there is a great deal of evidence that indicates that they were probably not...

Link: http://talesoftimesforgotten.com/2019/12/18/no-medieval-staircases-werent-designed-to-give-right-handed-defenders-an-advantage/



I found this really interesting and can honestly say I'd never questioned this piece of trivia enough before. It's a really interesting one. To summarise the article: not all castle staircases had the standard spiral, someone coming up the stairs has a huge advantage far beyond that given by the arm room of being able to go for someone's legs well before that person can get in range of their arm, a lot of the staircases are too thin to swing swords in anyway, and also once your castle gates were breached you were basically dead regardless. Which seems a fair argument to me. Any thoughts?
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Phoenixguard09

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Re: Medieval spiral staircases - apparently not defensive after all
« Reply #1 on: April 20, 2020, 11:00:41 PM »
From the perspective of someone who has studied historical martial arts a lot, the advantage of the high ground in a small scale engagement is massively overrated. As you mention in your recap Jubs, the combatant on the lower steps has a distinct advantage of reach in this particular case.

I would note however, that a tall shield would be very effective while defending a staircase. As is rightly pointed out, most staircases are too narrow for wide swings, but the notion that combatants would be taking wide swings at each other is a little disingenuous. Thrusting up into the legs and waist of man holding the stairs above would have been more common, as it is more effective, less taxing and, particularly in this case, viable in the narrow confines of the stairway.

I would suggest that the design would actually provide a small defensive advantage to the man holding the tower above, but I agree with the premise of the article that the staircase itself was not originally designed for such a purpose, and that is far more likely that defenders would hold the top of the stairs, on stable ground, and allow any attackers to make their way almost to the top of the staircase before engaging. I believe from a combat point of view, the design of the stairway would further impede a right-handed attacker, providing the defender a slight advantage in that way.

In hindsight, I should really do a video on this if I can.
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Jubal

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Re: Medieval spiral staircases - apparently not defensive after all
« Reply #2 on: April 20, 2020, 11:04:01 PM »
I feel like if I was designing a "defensible staircase", I'd design something I could roll a heavy boulder or something down from the top. A sufficiently large spherical boulder would roll down a spiral staircase OK I think, and you wouldn't have to do it regularly so issues of damaging the walls and steps would be minimal.
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Phoenixguard09

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Re: Medieval spiral staircases - apparently not defensive after all
« Reply #3 on: April 21, 2020, 10:39:10 AM »
Agreed, that would seem to be the most effective defence and whoever built the traps in Indiana Jones evidently agrees.
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Jubal

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Re: Medieval spiral staircases - apparently not defensive after all
« Reply #4 on: April 21, 2020, 10:50:32 AM »
You could also use something lighter by having a rail set into the wall and rolling a spiked bar or similar down it, but then you'd have difficulty getting the rail to bypass doors properly, I guess.
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Phoenixguard09

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Re: Medieval spiral staircases - apparently not defensive after all
« Reply #5 on: April 21, 2020, 10:19:32 PM »
At any rate, I do like the author's assertion that actual hand-to-hand combat on the staircase would be untenable. :P
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Silver Wolf

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Re: Medieval spiral staircases - apparently not defensive after all
« Reply #6 on: April 22, 2020, 02:16:21 PM »
What if it's late renaissance and you're equipped with good leg armour and a relatively short halberd?
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Jubal

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Re: Medieval spiral staircases - apparently not defensive after all
« Reply #7 on: April 22, 2020, 11:37:36 PM »
Mm, leg and foot armour - someone with a mace could still break all your footbones without too much issue, it's not just leg-swipes with a sword to worry over. And once you're that armoured on your legs, you're also slower.
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