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The firearm has thought to have been what had killed the age of knights and skilled swordsmen. While it could take years of hard work and practice for a warrior to master a blade or bow, he could pick up a firearm and deal worse damage without the years of skill. A commoner soldier was now even more capable of killing even the most trained swordsman from range.

Without the discovery and development of black powder and other forms of combustion, e.g high explosives warfare would be more heavily relied on skill or other styles of weapons. Due to the chemical process for combustion with black powder and high explosives yielding nothing in my world, firearms and such are not possible.

How would medieval weapon technology, as it was before the introduction of black powder advance without it?

How would Siege weapon technology, a major part of pop culture medieval warfare and actual medieval warfare, develop further due to not having a cannons and cannonades?

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  • $\begingroup$ It could advance very well, thank you. Ah, you want details? Then ask a question about a very specific aspect, preferably showing that you have a modicum of understanding of the subject; as it is, you are asking a very very very broad question, and a very opinion-based one to boot. For example, I wasn't even aware that firearms played any significant role in European medieval warfare (and in medieval warfare anywhere); can you please give an example of a war in medieval Europe (or actually, medieval anywhere) of which the outcome was determined by having better firearms or more firearms? $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 30 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP i realized too late my question was too broad, ill edit it. You know they say sarcasm isn't the lowest form of wit, its not even wit :) $\endgroup$ – Sebastian Morfin May 30 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ "Melee infantry", in the form of pikemen in tercios, were considered pretty damn useful at defending slow-firing musketmen from cavalry charges right up until the mid-1600s, and that's comfortably out of the medieval period. Lance and sabre wielding cavalry were important well into the 1800s. Gunpowder didn't kill the knights and swordsmen, they lasted until well after the medieval period, slowly fading away over the course of a few centuries. (see also questions about the "fall of the roman empire", whenever the hall that was) $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 30 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ Please consider the only half-sarcastic question in my comment: can you think of one medieval war of which the outcome was determined by having more or better firearms? And please remember than swords sidearms for officers, they were seldom used by soldiers in battle. (Yes, they were sometimes used by specialized soldiers in specific tactical situation, but, as far as I know, that's already in the Renaissance.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 30 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP the byzantines might disagree. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 30 at 20:40
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Armoured knights and other highly skilled warrior societies such as the Japanese samurai and the Ottoman Janissaries were already under stress starting in the mid 1400's as the "Infantry Revolution" began. The issue isn't weapons per se, but rather the introduction of weapons and tactics which allowed farmers, townsmen and others with relatively little training to take to the battlefield and effectively deal with highly trained men at arms.

Weapons like the crossbow, pike and other polearms provided the means to attack fully armoured knights and tactics like protecting crossbowmen with pike squares, or using pikes in the advance to push cavalry and men at arms from the field without them having a good chance to reach you were all part of the Infantry Revolution which eventually swept knights and feudal society from the battlefields.

enter image description here

Swiss pikemen advancing

In OTL, plated armour became more elaborate and flexible to allow knights and men at arms to function even under those conditions, and what eventually drove armour from the battlefield was the introduction of reliable firearms which could deliver far more energy than even steel crossbows with 1200 lb draws needing to be spanned with a windlass. In the absence of firearms, we would reach a sort od stalemate, where infantry weapons could not become large or powerful enough to easily overcome armour, while armour would become so expensive that fewer and fewer knights and men at arms could afford full plate.

Once again, the problem would ahve to be overcome by tactics rather than technology. Knights might prefer to wear lighter "half armours" and attempt to outflank or encircle the infantry formations, while infantry might resort to recreating the sort of chequerboard formations the Roman Army used in the Imperial period to allow the pike squares to rapidly redeploy and face threats from any direction. More light forces might appear as scouts, skirmishers and other formations designed to operate in more complex terrain, disrupt enemy formations and prepare the battle space for their commanders by identifying important terrain features.

Other responses might be to recreate torsion powered war engines like the Roman "Scorpion", which would allow you to break up enemy formations at longer ranges than crossbows.

enter image description here

Scorpion in action

Since the true effect of the Infantry Revolution was to allow the creation of effective large forces at short notice, the amount of armour would likely be limited due to considerations of cost. Rather than equipping the townsmen with expensive plate armour, most might only receive a helmet and a brigdine jacket to protect the torso. This would provide some protection and allow for rapid movement (as the troops are not heavily encumbered), so long as the formation remains intact and fighting as a unit.

enter image description here

Brigadine armour for a foot solder

The true limits are how much energy muscle powered weapons can deliver. Pole arms become unwieldy after about 8' in length and pikes after about 12'. Sidearms like swords, maces and hammers also have a pretty hard upper limit to how much energy can be delivered by striking or stabbing the target, and plate armour in the early 1500's was probably optimized to defend the wearer from any conceivable attack, and required either a highly skilled person to defeat or the use of a lot of brute force (a halberd on an 8' pole provided the sort of energy to crack open a knight like a can opener).

enter image description here

Real sword fighting in the middle ages

So overall, the change would likely be to incorporate more tactical flexibility, arm more men with less armour and strive to build larger forces which could dominate the field.

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Steam-Powered Weaponry

Long before black-powder cannons and weapons were commonly used in medieval Europe, Archimedes invented steam-powered cannons. Essentially, they were small brass cannons with a tank filled with water which was heated. This caused the tank to fill with steam and, when enough steam had built up, it would be released into the barrel of the cannon, forcing out a cannonball at high speeds.

It is possible that, without black powder to use for cannons, medieval weaponry may have turned to steam powered cannons.

By extension, steam may also have played a part in the development of existing siege weaponry, perhaps using high-pressure steam to draw extremely high poundage ballistas, or using steam to give trebuchets a bit more force by accelerating the projectile faster.

Taking from Korean history, the Hwatcha was essentially an early missile launcher. It was a cart of 100 to 200 arrows, each with rockets on them. The rockets would be lit, launching the arrows before hitting or landing near targets and exploding. A similar steam-based weapon may consist of many chambers for the arrows and a large water tank at the back, feeding steam into all of the chambers. High pressure steam would launch the arrows, easily thinning out large formations or discouraging them from attackig.

You may even find siege weapons (or, perhaps, anti-siege weapons) which use high pressure steam as a weapon. You might have a cart with a tank of water to be turned into steam, a method for heating the steam and someone holding what amounts to a hosepipe blasting high pressure steam in people’s faces. Could be useful for dealing with full steel plate armoured combatants.

Although, this “steam thrower” might be more useful in a stationary position, such as the gatehouses of castles or on the walls. Perhaps you would have pipes like murder-holes which blast out steam.

Autoloading Bows

At first, this may seem like a ludicrous idea, something that only exists in fiction, but what if I told you such a weapon actually exists? In fact, I can do you one better, I can show you such a weapon has been created.

Whilst not a historical weapon, Joerg Sprave invented a bow which feeds arrows into it automatically. The idea is simple, a “magazine” attached onto the bow which feeds arrows in from the side. Whilst he uses a modern composite bow, you could just as easily do the same thing with a higher poundage weapon which would be better suited to the battlefield. The advantage of such a weapon is you can fire relatively quickly and you don’t have to worry as much about drawing and readying an arrow, the bow will do that for you.

User Nosajimiki reminded me that the Chinese developed similar weapons, the Chu-ko-nu, which were repeating crossbows. The bolts were fed by gravity, as one was fired and the bowstring pulled back, another bolt would be readied to shoot.

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    $\begingroup$ The chinese had an auto loading crossbow called a Chu-ko-nu nearly 2000 years ago. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki May 30 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I had forgotten about that (im not good with names), though i do distinctly remember the historical image depicting them. I will add this into my answer. Although, i will just point out that i was talking about bows, not crossbows, which are, according to Joerg, harder to make auto-loading due to the size of arrows compared to crossbow bolts and how they are used (for obvious reasons, you can’t use gravity to feed arrows into a bow, the bow arms would be in the way). $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris May 30 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ I believe the myth busters tested the steam cannon and busted the Myth. Something about it them not having the required precision to properly seal and pressurize the steam and then release it to launch the ball properly. This would also be really hard if you wanted an arrow version, because you would need to get rid of the stabilizing fins at the end of the arrow to ensure the launcher was properly seal. This is the medieval era after all. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee May 30 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Shadowzee The video I linked shows the cannon working, i think for the Mythbusters it may have been a case of “we can’t get this to work so it must not have worked”, though i’d have to watch their video and see. $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris May 31 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ The Ancient greeks had this weapon known as the polybolos en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polybolos which basically used gears and a chain drive of sorts to fire arrows from a magazine without needing to cock it, just simply turn the handle. $\endgroup$ – Efialtes May 31 at 22:51
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I think Liam Morris's answer about Steam-Powered Weaponry is a really good starting place, but I feel it does not fully represent the more specific question of how weapons would have advanced. Original gunpowder cannons, like the original Steam-Powered cannons, were garbage. They were in many ways worse than the catapults and ballistas of their time, but both weapons saw some niche uses, until people figured out how to make their reliability and rate of fire better.

Instead of the steam-cannon as the solution, I think it should be viewed more as mankind's early steps into the realm of compressed gas weapons. In the late 1500s, when firearms were just starting to dominate the battlefield, we also started to see the advent of compressed air guns. These early air guns were just as powerful as the muskets of their day, but were much more expensive to make. Without gunpowder, these firearms would have dominated the battlefield compared to bows and crossbows, but like a knight's plate mail; would have been too few in number to completely phase out other weapons the way muskets did.

In the late 1700's, Tyrolian invented the Girandoni air rifle which was a semi-automatic 20-shot air rifle. The same way we saw the revolver cylinder push firearms into being the undisputed best weapon, this same innovation would be largely responsible for air rifles completely phasing out other ranged weapons.

By the early-to-mid 1800s, industrialization would be adequate that compresses air guns could start being mass-produced as weapons for the common soldier. By the time of the US civil war, we'd probably start to see armies equipped entirely with air rifles.

Eventually firearms would go toward prefilled compressed gas tanks much like a paintball gun. While paintballs are super squishy non-lethal blobs fired under 700-800 psi, the same technology can easily be used to fire very lethal lead slugs under 3500-6000 psi giving you a weapon that is in every way just as lethal as a modern assault-rifle. The only major drawback being heavier ammo due to those bulky air tanks, and larger slugs to compensate for lower muzzle velocities. But if bullets are not an option, it's still a small compromise when considering the utility advantages vs any medieval weapon alternatives.

enter image description here

But it would not stop at riffles. Artillery would also find its counterpoint in the form of Light-Gas guns. While Light-Gas guns of today are not designed for easy reloading, that is just a matter of necessity not pushing along invention. Creating shells that are integrated with their own rupture plates would be a trivial matter of engineering meaning you could make artillery capable of firing meteor speed projectiles in a simi-rapid fashion that could turn castle walls to dust, sink steel-hulled battleships, and do all the same things we do with modern cannons, and probably better.

enter image description here

Stirling engines would probably be the best option to replace internal combustion engines for use in unarmored vehicles, but their weight and inefficiency at larger scales would make tanks and planes much harder. In WWI, internal combustion engines were barely efficient enough to make the British Mark Series tanks even move to the point that they faced frequent issues with total engine failures which would only be exasperated by the even heavier stirling engines. So, tanks would be slower, less armored, and less well-armed, but probably still achievable. The need for better heat dissipation would also also force engineers to leave the engine section unarmored and mostly exposed. Planes would suffer a similar handicap since limiting weight is such a vital aspect of achieving flight. They would also lose a lot of their utility without any heavy explosives as an option for bombing, but as scouts and transports, they'd probably still see their fair share of use. When modern electric engines come out, they could probably make airplanes and tanks of reasonable quality though. Because of the advantages of water cooling, stirling engines are already often used as an alternative to combustion engines for powering large warships; so, the arrival of advanced naval mechanization would be much less affected.

The only area of modern warfare I do not foresee an equivalent technology developing for without combustion is missiles. Chemical fuel is the only modern technology that I can think of that would offer the thrust-per-mass to make self-propelled projectiles nearly as effective as they are today. It is also possible we would not have achieved space flight yet meaning no GPS, less globalized communications, etc... unless someone could actually make a working nuclear pulse engine.

As for Armor:

Early air rifles fired higher mass lower velocity slugs than muskets to deliver similar stopping power. They may not penetrate heavy plate armor the way a musket or bodkin arrow did, but similar to a Roman sling, it's heavier slugs could have transferred enough kinetic energy through armor to cause fatal internal hemorrhaging anyway. Plate mail over thick padded armor may have stuck around longer than in our world if it could distribute the force well enough without being penetrated, but chainmail, scalemail, brigandine, etc would have all become obsolete at about the same time.

Shields may have lasted longer too. Because a shield does not rest against your body, non-penetrating shots could be better stopped without causing massive internal injuries.

Modern body armor would see some minor, but meaningful changes. Modern armor is designed to stop something like a 7.6×7.6×28mm slug fired at ~60,000 psi. In contrast, an air rifle with a 6000 psi tank would need to fire an 18.7mm round-rifled slug to achieve similar stopping power. The air rifle round would hit slower while being ~4 times as massive as aforementioned slug. This means that armor could use thinner exterior plating to achieve the same impact distribution for impact distribution and thicker interior composites to absorb more energy. Because exterior plates are normally the heavy bits, body armor of a given weight would be much more effective. This could force combat into much shorter ranges where you may need to close within a few feet of a well armored combatant to achieve a fatal shot.

Tanks and ships would face the opposite concern. Light-gas guns have tremendous muzzle velocities; so, they would probably adopt a double hull spaced armor system similar to the ISS in order to protect against light-gas guns. The outer hull being designed to ablate and distentigrate the shot, while the inner hull blocks the plume of smaller debris after it has spread out some.

A Final Thought:

It's hard to say just how early or advanced any of these innovations would actually be. In our world, alternative solutions have always been secondary to combustion technology, but if all the research that went into our version of guns, engines, etc instead went into other systems, we might have started fielding things like light-gas guns, railguns, and/or laser weapons much earlier out of necessity. So what we would have today could very well look like something out science fiction.

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    $\begingroup$ "Tanks and planes would be nearly impossible to power off of steam power or compressed air" Stirling engines would have been perfected instead, allowing for those. Stirling engine cars have been made, and while not quite competitive with internal combustion cars, they do the job well enough. (Pulsejets and ramjets may or may not be allowed here) $\endgroup$ – Eth Jun 3 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed, added stirling engines as an alternative to combustion engines. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jun 3 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ While promising in theory, the Girandoni rifle had major problems that likely would only be solved during the industrial revolution. $\endgroup$ – Kargathia Jun 3 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Kargathia, So did firearms, but the advantages of muskets were considerable enough to warrant a lot of attention prior to being able to make them well. While I agree, Girandoni rifles were even harder to make in the pre-industrial age than muskets, it's reasonable to assume that their utility cost was promising enough that you would have seen a lot more of them if there were no other firearm designs to compete with. There are also much simpler 1-shot air rifles that would have likely held the role of a "commoner's" rifle until such point. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jun 4 at 14:57
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The effects of this change would be felt more in post-Medieval period, in 16-17 centuries. The question is also hard to answer because the development of the firearms was not the single factor that changed how the war was waged. There's a multitude of political and economic factors, and it's hard to predict what would happen if you remove just one single element.

First, the important information - by the end of the 15th century, full plate was almost ultimate protection. In the eternal contest between offence and defence, the defence was decidedly winning. It was almost impossible to pierce good plate head on with muscle-powered weapons - and that includes the crossbows. Even the most powerful ones did loose energy rapidly with the distance.

Another side of the coin was that plate armour was expensive, so obviously not everybody could have it - there were still enough targets on the battlefield that could be defeated by muscle-powered weapons.

As for the sieges, here as well defence was ahead of the offence (although I'm not that qualified to speak about the details).

What I would expect by 16th century, if the firearms were not introduced, is the focus on plate armour and attempts to put about everybody on the battlefield in it. More heavy cavalry, more heavy infantry with polearms. As a sidenote - pollaxe is about the best thing you can have to fight another armored knight on foot, it had hammer end to bash the armor and multitude of spikes to try to stab and pierce the joints, it's also handy to use as a lever in grappling, wrestling and throwing the opponent - the knights didn't need 'judo', they had their own techniques with the same effects.

So, armour is the king, not a gun, sieges are long and protracted, the technical advancements contribute to improvement of the armor, while without gunpowder the offensive capabilities don't increase significantly - I expect spring- and air-powered weapons would appear, but they won't outperform crossbows for a long time.

Without powerful siege-breaking weapons, I expect most of the wars to be fought conducted as positional warfare - trying to take the opponents castles one by one, through lengthy sieges by cutting off supply routes.

The battles are won by the side with most men-at-arms, wars are won by the side with more castles that support each other conveniently.

Most of the other details depend on political and economic factors, and I am at loss to say how that develops without firearms. Is there still Italian Renaissance? Is there still Reformation? Who fights against whom and for what reason? That is just as important as the weapons the war is fought with.

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There are two general areas of advancement.

The first is Technique or Fighting Styles. Depending on how armor advances, the weapons used might grow more massive or might become much finer -- mattock or two-handed sword v. epee or daggers. Depending on the situation and opponent, soldiers might opt for nimbleness and speed and striking at vulnerable spots between joints of the armor. Or, they might incorporate Judo to knock a heavily armored opponent on to their back, where they'd be as helpless as a tortoise with its belly towards the sky.

The second is Metalurgy or Material Sciences.
As you observed, without firearms, people still wear armor. The need for armor to be as protective as possible and as light as possible is self-evident. Given what rules of chemistry still operate on your world, other than the very fundamental exothermic redux operation of Carbon, Sulfur, and an oxidizer, who know when or if they would have discovered how to work with aluminum or titanium and nickel and chromium to make stronger and lighter alloys. They could have even gone on to create ceramic and fibrous armors similar to kevlar and the plates used in modern vests.

All of this means very little since you still have the doomsday weapon of medieval warfare available in your world -- The Crossbow. No skill. Kills just as good as a firearm regardless of shield and armor. It was once declared that the crossbow would destroy the world.

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    $\begingroup$ The crossbow requires no skill? That sounds like someone's famous last words... $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 30 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ @EDL "no more skill than a firearm" also sounds like famous last words (and ain't strictly true). $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 30 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ @LiamMorris the longbowmen would use longbows because they were in many ways much better, and using a mostly-inferior weapon would be silly. The benefit of crossbows is the ease in training their users, not any innate superiority of the weapon itself. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 30 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Starfish Prime, The longbow and bodkin tipped arrows were lethal to armored soldiers and they had high rates of fire. But, longbowmen took a very long time to train. Crossbowmen, on the other hand, were just as lethal to armored soldiers, Because despite their lower rates of fire, a crossbowman could be trained in only a few days, enabling armies to have lots of them. An, if they died, just train some more. $\endgroup$ – EDL May 31 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ As far as I'm aware, crossbows had great penetrating power at short ranges, but lost a lot of power at longer ranges. Combined with the low fire rate and higher production and maintenance costs crossbows were markedly worse than normal bows. The only reason they saw use was the mentioned ease of training and fielding tons of them at once quickly after raising conscripts. But for professional armies that would eventually develop the crossbow would largely fall out of favor. $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 31 at 10:13
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No explosives, eh? Well, if you are going to change how chemistry works on your world, people will wonder about basic life processes too. Anyway, other medieval-level advancements could be:

Metallurgy

Longbows, crossbows and ballistas were already capable of penetrating armor, fortifications, and ships. These weapons stored kinetic energy in wood or fiber, not springs. However, consider that the medieval Japanese made vast improvements in steel during this time, albeit with an eye toward sword making. Perhaps blacksmiths could explore making spring-steel, to make better siege engines.

Magnetism and Electricity

Rail guns, anyone? A world without combustion means that propulsive forces are not chemical in nature. Other answers have already mentioned steam and thermodynamic engines (expanding gasses) to do work. Another option is electricity. Static electricity was known to the ancient Greeks, and the compass by the ancient Chinese, and certainly everyone has seen lighting. Maybe in this world the Baghdad Battery was for real?

Ballistics

The study of ballistics began during medieval times, though it was rudimentary. First, there's the projectile itself. Consider that the transition from musket ball to rifled barrels was a huge advance. Maybe round projectiles were abandoned in favor of darts, with fins that impart spin. Second, had Catholic dogma not held us in the Dark Ages for 1000 years, it's entirely possible that the Renaissance would have happened a lot earlier. This would include the study of physics and the laws of motion, which would improve the accuracy and efficacy of weaponry.

Aerial Attack

The first hot air balloon was not until 1783 but the concept was known by medieval minds. Sky lanterns were known in 3rd century China. Da Vinci and Roger Bacon both conceived of hot air balloons. Da Vinci also thought of gliders. (I will ignore other physically impossible man-powered contraptions since they are not feasible.) So, perhaps hot-air zeppelins and aerial bombardment/scouting/command/close air support?

Propaganda and Totalitarianism

I always assumed medieval war was Total War, but what if some medieval Goebbels realized the true power of propaganda? Certainly ancient Egyptian steles and statues were used to glorify pharaohs and intimidate their enemies, but those did not necessarily motivate entire populations to action. Single-page leaflets and fliers potentially played a significant role in fomenting and focusing the rebels of the American revolution. The printing press and Gutenberg Bible was definitely available since the 1400's. What if the social and political sciences developed to such an extent that lords and governments began to desire and exert not only physical and financial control of its population, but also full totalitarian control of each individual (like the Church basically did). Since the concept of nation-states was still forming at the time, a feudal form of totalitarianism would probably depend more on the cult-of-personality, as we've seen with Stalin, Mao, Kim, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ You... may want to read up on the Middle Ages. Totalitarian Catholic Church-fueled Dark Age myth? This comes from later propaganda, from Renaissance people pretending that their highly cultured time was so much better than those of dirty barbarians then from the Protestant side(s) during the unpleasantness (and centuries of rivalry) beyond those two, and later by varied anticlerical parties. Of course, those weren't nice times nor was the Church clean, but this particular myth has little to no reality behind it, under all those layers of propaganda. $\endgroup$ – Eth Jun 3 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ As for armors, there were definitely arrow-resistant armors at the time, nevermind the videos where they shoot right through flimsy modern recollections. Heavy crossbows at close range could pierce them if you were lucky, but suffered from low mobility and long reload time, making them much less useful than one would think in this role at the time. As for naval combat, the main weapons were boarding and ramming, with incendiary ranged weapons a somewhat distant third. Sinking a ship with ranged weapons at the time was rare at best. This was not 1800-ships-with-arrows-instead-of-cannons. $\endgroup$ – Eth Jun 3 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Eth Thanks, maybe you are right. Incidentally, I meant no offense. I know the Church preserved and fostered knowledge for the West. I know that early scientific research was done in the name of glorifying God's creation. The secularization of rational thought does not guarantee an Enlightenment. I refer to totalitarianism in the sense that [any] religious dogma--at its extreme--demands the full commitment of the heart and mind, and total devotion to its practices and reverence for its leaders. $\endgroup$ – Xplodotron Jun 3 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding armor, there was an arms race with bows. Early naval ranged weapons were primarily anti-personnel, as cannonballs could not penetrate below the water line. But in a world without combustion, a ballistically stable hardened-metal dart presents a feasible option. $\endgroup$ – Xplodotron Jun 3 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry if it came out harsher than intended - the Dark Ages myth is a pet peeve of mine, especially considering as it started as Renaissance propaganda, and the Renaissance period was not nearly as much an improvement as they pretended. As for the Church, "totalitarian" means that it has control over every aspect of society. While it did have political power, it was mostly not directly running things, and had its influence over rulers (and vice-versa) could be extremely varying. $\endgroup$ – Eth Jun 4 at 11:46

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