Our society values peace highly, but our students still find medieval fighting pretty cool. Take advantage of the taste for mayhem by learning some science lessons from the fighters of the Middle Ages.
Here is Mark Morley, a physics teacher from Heritage High School in Rogers, Arkansas, and a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. More than 30,000 members of this group reenact Medieval life and battles. Mark explained to us how he gets his students excited about physics by getting medieval in the classroom.
Mark’s armor is very heavy, as was that of the French knights in the 14th century whose role he plays in medieval reenactments.
The reason his helmet has to be so heavy? When a knight was hit in the head, the energy used by his opponent to thwack his helmet was transferred to the surface of the helmet. The energy caused the helmet to move, and to keep moving until the movement was stopped either by the strength of the knight, by the ground if he fell, or by the extent of movement possible for the neck if he remained standing. The neck could become overextended and snap back, describing the S curve we call “whiplash.” The brain inside the knight’s skull would also be moving, and it might continue moving after the skull stopped, becoming squashed against the skull.
While the initial movement of the knight’s head is caused by the force of the opponent’s blow, gravity takes over once the knight begins to fall, and the movement will accelerate at a rate of about 32 feet per second per second — that is, each second of the fall, the knight moves faster by 32 feet per second compared with his speed in the previous second.
Unless the knight who was hit was able to stop the movement of his helmet by his own strength, it was very likely that he would injure his neck, or that his brain would hit against the bone of his skull and receive brain injury.
A heavy object and a light object dropped at the same time will reach the ground at the same time (see resources on this in our Galileo lesson plans), but it takes more force to move a heavy object in the first place. Therefore, a heavier helmet will be less likely to be moved by an opponent’s blow at a speed which the knight cannot counteract with his muscles.
Mark has very strong neck muscles, after all his years of fighting in armor.We don’t recommend experiments with real helmets and heads in your classroom. However, we created an experiment that examines the physics topic:
- Knights We made the knights for the experiment from water bottles topped with “helmets” of different weights, from a paper cup to a small cast iron saucepan.
- Opponents In order to get as close as possible to uniform force, we had students throw balls rather than directly hitting. We easily determined that it took a great deal more force to move a heavy helmet than a light one. Please let us know if you find a means of gaining greater precision.
An alternative might be to discuss this matter of helmets and then listen to a podcast on weight of armor. The speaker concludes that the weight of the armor was a drawback that made plate armor a bad choice. The History Channel video linked below says that it’s not the weight but the heat that is an issue with armor. Have students conduct research and decide whether the weight of armor was necessary or a design flaw.
- Extensive background information about armor and weapons, and the interaction between the two
- The History Channel examines medieval armor
- An interesting (though science-free) art project for knights in armor.
We had the opportunity to speak with the man who made Mark’s armor, Andy Ward. He makes most of the armor with a hammer and anvil, in the same way armorers in the Middle Ages would have done. However, he also has a hydraulic press for speeding up fancy work. Andy made the hydraulic press himself, and hydraulics is another interesting physics topic.
I have a large trebuchet in my back yard, from the Trebuchet Physics summer program my son went to a few years back. His team didn’t win the trebuchet toss for speed or distance, but they got lots of points for style, and the trebuchet allowed them to dominate snowball fights in the neighborhood.
It also gave them excellent insights into physics.
In spite of our direct experience, we found that Try Engineering has such a good trebuchet lesson plan that we are not tempted to make a new one. If you don’t want to do the building, you can also have a look at energy transfer with Nova’s Trebuchet Energy Transfer video lesson. You can also read a simple explanation of the physics of the trebuchet.
We found a couple of other interesting things online:
- a webquest for high school students
- a siege engine page if you enjoyed the trebuchet and want to extend the experience
We cannot think of any point in the study of force and motion that can’t be illustrated with medieval weaponry. Check out our page of Middle Ages Lesson Plans if you’d like to flesh out the subject a bit.