The Strength, Tactics and Meaning of Knights and Knighthood in Europe

The waging of warfare on the European continent at the time of the crusades did not differ from that waged in the Holy Land. All European powers, of any size—including the more central lands of France, England, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire and the frontier lands of Byzantium, Scandinavia, Scotland, Iberia, Hungary, and the various Baltic and Balkan lands—had adopted cavalry as their primary force by this time. Although the number of horsemen in any army never exceeded the number of infantry, it was the military dominance of the cavalry that formed the tactical, strategic, and chivalric policies of the period.


What was it like to face mounted knights?

In battles, cavalry soldiers showed the confidence of their skill, wealth, and, often, nobility. It was a confidence borne also by their numbers, the strength of their armor, the intensity of their training, their discipline, the closeness of their formation, and an accumulation of their victories. Ambroise, the late twelfth-century poetic Norman chronicler, describes their military presence on the battlefield:

 The most beautiful Christian warriors
That ever saw the people of earth.
They were serried in their ranks
As if they were people forged in iron.
The battle line was wide and strong
And could well sustain fierce attacks;
And the rearguard was so full
Of good knights that it was difficult
To see their heads,
If not higher up;
It was not possible to throw a prune
Except on mailed and armored men

(The Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart)

When formed into a tightly packed, well-disciplined, and trained unit, called by different names throughout the Middle Ages—échelle, constabularium, bataille, and conrois—cavalry could charge with great force and organization. To stand against them took great courage and only a few infantry soldiers of the High Middle Ages seemed to have possessed it. Consequently, battles of the period were often fought by cavalry against other cavalry. Dominant on the battlefield for so long, infantry, for this moment in history, took a secondary role.

The importance of Leadership

The discipline of cavalry forces, and sometimes their training, was largely dependent on their leadership. A good leader most often led his horsed troops to victory, a bad leader often to defeat. During the period of cavalry battlefield domination, leadership was often determined by military obligation, and military obligation was based on what has best been termed “the feudo-vassalic system.” Under this system, all men were “obligated” to perform military service to the lords who owned or controlled the fiefs on which they lived and from which they derived their economic livelihoods. There was no uniformity in these obligations. Terms of feudo-vassalic responsibilities differed with nearly every contract made between lord and vassal. For example, in medieval Romania, service was given until the age of sixty, unless replaced by a suitable heir before then, and consisted of four months of the year spent in castle duty, four months spent in the field, and four months at home. And in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, military service was for the entire year until death. Outside of these more war-torn regions, however, feudo-vassalic military service was much shorter, usually being required only in defensive= situations—when soldiers were required for militia duty—or when the lord who was owed the obligation desired to go on campaign. Under a particularly bellicose leader, this might mean a military service that could last much of the year for many years in a row, while under a weaker, more peaceful leader there was a likelihood of never being required to perform military duties.

What was required of a medieval soldier?

When summoned for duty, a medieval soldier was required to bring himself and, if he had them, his retinue and to pay for almost all of the arms, armor, horses, and provisions needed to sustain them on their campaign or in their fortification. Theoretically this meant that no paid medieval army was needed during the High Middle Ages. In reality, however, to fill out their numbers, most medieval military leaders had to make promises of financial support or reimbursement for lost revenues or animals to those called into service. Even this did not always work. For example, in 1300, when Edward I called his already fatigued feudal levy to military service, only forty knights and 366 sergeants responded, and Edward had to give up Still, despite the importance placed on them by many military historians, battles were infrequent during the High Middle Ages. Large medieval land battles were usually only fought when one power was invading or trying to stem an invasion—for example Stamford Bridge (1066), Hastings (1066), Manzikert (1071), Northallerton (1138), Arsuf (1191), and Falkirk (1298)—or when leading or encountering rebellions, for example Cassel (1071), the Elster (1080), Brémule 1119), Bourgthérolde (1124), Lincoln (1141), Legnano (1176), Parma (1248), Bouvines (1214), Lewes (1264), Evesham (1265), Benevento (1266), and Tagliacozzo (1268). Leaders only very rarely fought more than one large battle—for example, kings William the Conqueror and Henry I, and emperors Henry IV and Frederick II— and then, it seems, only when ego took the place of caution. Often a leader flushed with victory in one battle met defeat in a following battle, such as Harold Godwinson, Simon de Montfort, and William Wallace. Even that renowned medieval soldier, Richard the Lionheart, was only involved in three pitched battles during his career, including those fought during the Third Crusade. In reality, the siege was almost always far more important and profitable for medieval leaders for making conquests and capturing land. A leader as militarily astute as King Philip II (Augustus) fought only one major battle during his lengthy reign over France, the battle of Bouvines in 1214, which in fact could be said to have profited him very little as far as actual land gains. Yet his sieges of notable fortifications and towns throughout Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine brought him nearly all of the “English” lands in France, except for Gascony.

The expenses of a campaign, and the great importance of Cavalry

Interestingly, a medieval battle, while economically very expensive to fight, did not often result in many deaths. As cavalry began to determine what occurred in medieval conflicts some time after the rise of the Carolingians, battlefield deaths became less frequent, as the ransoming of “knights” and other cavalry soldiers began to bring a
large profit to anyone who could capture one. At the Battle of Bouvines, or example, fewer than 200 Allied and only two French knights were killed, although perhaps as many as 40,000 fought in the conflict, while at the battle of Brémule, Orderic Vitalis reports that although “nine hundred knights were engaged, only three were killed,” something he attributes to the fact that “Christian soldiers did not thirst for the blood of their brothers” (Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis. Other high medieval battles had similar low numbers of deaths. This could be ascribed to the primary use of short-range weapons in these battles—the spear/ lance, sword, and mace—as control of one’s weaponry was necessary for the ability to preserve opponents for ransom. However, the nonkilling attitude of soldiers toward their enemies seems far more important, as later high death rates using short-range weapons at the battles of Courtrai (1302) and Nicopolis (1396) would show.

The spread of Knighthood and chivalry throughout Europe

Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, knighthood was being instituted throughout Europe. Called a miles in Latin, chevalier in France, ritter in the Holy Roman Empire, caballero in Spanish, and knight in English, initially those so elevated were nobles whose land, wealth, title, and status distinguished them from ordinary soldiers. It is difficult to know exactly when the practice of making knights began or where it originated. No document exists that indicates how or why the first knights were made, although it seems more than likely that medieval knights were the result of evolution rather than revolution, meaning that they came to exist as they were in the high and later Middle Ages, not all at once, but over a long period of time. Knights were, as the terms describing them often confirmed, cavalry, and they had few other duties than to perform as horsemen in battle. However, before too long, more requirements were placed on them with the result that knights began to be more distinct than other cavalry soldiers. Although all knights remained cavalry soldiers, not all cavalry soldiers were knights. To be a knight meant that one had to earn the title through skill and action displayed in warfare or tournaments. Of course, wars were not waged often, and battles fought even less often. So cavalry practice had to be done elsewhere, and training accommodated by other means. This began early in a prospective knight’s life, if he was a noble. His teacher in this endeavor would be a knight himself, often the boy’s father, if not a relative or close friend. He was trained in riding a horse, couching a lance, using his sword from horseback, and sometimes even throwing a javelin or spear from horseback. This was supplemented by training in the use of weapons when fighting on foot. Roger of Hoveden describes this knightly education, in this case to the sons of King Henry II of England:

They strove to outdo the others in handling weapons. They realized that without practice the art of war did not come naturally when it was needed. No athlete can fight tenaciously who has never received any blows: he must see his blood flow and hear his teeth crack under the fist of his adversary, and when he is thrown to the ground he must fight on with all his might and not lose courage. The oftener he falls, the more determinedly he must spring to his feet again. Anyone who can do that can engage in battle confidently. Strength gained by practice is invaluable: a soul subject to terror has fleeting glory. He who is too weak to bear this burden, through no fault of his own, will be overcome by its weight, no matter how eagerly he may rush to the task. The price of sweat is well paid where the Temples of Victory stand.

The knights and the Tournaments

Perhaps the best places for a young knight or squire (a knight in training) to practice the art of cavalry warfare was the tournament. When and where the first tournament was held is unknown. Recent evidence has suggested that it might have been as early as the beginning of the eleventh century. Certainly by the early twelfth century, they were being held everywhere in Europe. By that time they had also caught the imagination of many writers and artists, and this would persist throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. Early tournaments were mostly melees, where teams of cavalry fought a mock battle over a large field. Much of the fighting in these seems to have been with swords and maces. The earliest tournaments might even have been held before lances were couched— indeed, tournaments may well have popularized the use of this method of cavalry combat. Eventually, the joust became more prominent than the melee. During the last two centuries of the Middle Ages melees virtually disappeared. In jousts, two riders divided by a barrier would approach each other with couched lances. Points were awarded for contact with an opponent’s armor, shield, and helmet. Rarely was a knight unhorsed, as that was thought to be too lifethreatening, but should a lance shatter with audience-pleasing special effects, extra points might be gained. Some knights made their names on the tournament circuit. Individuals, such as William Marshal and Ulrich von Liechtenstein, were renowned throughout Europe for their jousting skills, even having histories written about them—actually Ulrich von Liechtenstein wrote his own. Some skilled jousters could also make a living on the tournament circuit. Victors would profit from “winning” their opponents’ armor and horse, as these were always offered back to their owners for a ransom. There were also times when the church and various governments tried to control tournaments, even prohibiting them. Rarely, though, did these bans last for long, as the urge to joust, and to celebrate jousts, was simply too strong.

The Knights Code

Knighthood also acquired its own code of conduct, called chivalry” by contemporaries as it applied to the horseman, the chevalier or knight. The reasons for the existence of such a code of martial honor are not known. Was it instituted by the church at the time of the crusades as a means of regulating the actions of the warrior class? Or was it something which came from within, from a class of knights who decided they needed a set of virtuous qualities or a rule of conduct to offset their bellicose activities and reputation? While neither the origin nor the reasons for chivalry’s existence may be clearly understood, the qualities that defined a chivalric knight are well known. John of Salisbury enumerated them in the twelfth century:

[a knight’s role is] to defend the Church, to assail infidelity, to venerate
the priesthood, to protect the poor from injuries, to pacify the
province, to pour out their blood for their brothers . . . and, if need
be, to lay down their lives

Knights were also to honor women, whose participation in the code was to allow their knights to give this honor and to support them with love and, on many occasions, with symbols of their support— a garter or sash. Medieval chivalry was championed not only by the brotherhood of knights but also by numerous works of art and literature. A very large number of the Tales of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were written from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, reaching lands and languages that no comparable nonreligious text or genre of text had before. In an era before printing, such a feat must be considered remarkable. It was also undoubtedly sustained by frequent professional sporting events, tournaments, in which the knights often took part.


Oh, Just History things ...!

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