lance

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Assyrian cavalry with lances.

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Polish Winged Hussars.

A long cavalry spear used for thrusting at the enemy. It was not a javelin, which it replaced among the Franks in the late 9th century. Early medieval lances were 8 to 10 feet long, usually carved from a sturdy wood such as ash or apple. Reliance on the lance by medieval cavalry began under Charlemagne (r. 768-814), who ordered all knights to use lances in his 792- 793 edict “Capitulare missorum.” Frankish armies continued to use the lance as a thrusting weapon, and did not yet unite weight of warrior and warhorse in combined mounted shock combat. That development only arrived with the couched lance, probably around 1100 (the date of introduction remains controversial). It established battlefield dominance by 1150. The heavy lance thereafter served as the principal weapon of cavalry in the Middle Ages, and the main weapon of specialized units of lancers into the gunpowder era.

Since shock and not thrusting was the new method of attack, cavalry lances became heavier, sturdier, and longer: up to four meters of hardened wood with a solid iron tip (usually leaf-shaped to cut deeply into mail and flesh), and a pennon to prevent its passing right through an enemy soldier. When full plate armor became common for rider and warhorse in the 15th century the “arrêt de cuirasse” was used to bracket the lance against the breastplate. This allowed a still heavier lance to be used. However, this change came just as heavy lancers were being shuffled off the battlefield by gunpowder weapons, which led to abandonment of the lance in favor of alternate cavalry weapons and tactics such as the pistol and caracole, and a reduced assault combat role for cavalry in favor of large infantry formations. It has been argued by Claude Gaier and other French military historians that what finally drove the heavy lance from the battlefield, or at least from French battlefields, was “not infantry but mounted pistoleers.” That is not the dominant view in more general military histories.

pennon

A crossbar below the lethal tip of a lance to limit its penetration of an enemy’s body by making contact with his ribs. This permitted it to be more easily extracted and used again.

arrêt de cuirasse

A late medieval device, something like a bracket, used to anchor a heavy lance against the breastplate of a full suit of plate armor. It temporarily revived an offensive role for heavy armored cavalry in Europe.

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