Back in the west, infantry of this period tended to be poorly armoured and equipped. They were treated as social and military inferiors by the mounted elite. Most were taken from the servants of the knights and the retinues, and occasionally from the city militias. Even the better equipped would only have had a padded or quilted jacket as their main body protection, and a very basic iron cap as a helmet. Their weapons might have been a spear, or possibly a bow. Only the better armed men would have had swords.
There were exceptions, of course. The growth of the middle classes in certain parts of Europe was accompanied by a shift in the balance of social and military power, and an increase in the role played by infantry. In the developing urban communities of what are now Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, for instance, foot soldiers had greater prominence, and infantry naturally had a role to play in siege warfare. Similarly, mercenaries could be hired for specific campaigns, to increase numbers, skills and flexibility, but they were always a luxury item in a largely non-monetary economy and the piecemeal nature of their recruitment militated against their use as cohesive units. Crossbowmen were still seen as expensive specialists, rarely employed in sufficient numbers to make a battle-winning difference.
But infantry in Europe generally had the lower-status roles. Their weapons remained broadly the same. Their armour remained rudimentary. And the amateurish way that they were recruited and deployed meant that medieval infantry remained a low-priority adjunct to those higher up the social hierarchy. Perhaps most importantly, there is little evidence that they were able to perform cohesively as units. Their ability to manoeuvre was even more limited than that of the knightly cavalry.
In the crusader states, however, their role gradually assumed greater prominence. The inconvenient truth of warfare in the east was that any European-style army without large numbers of missile-armed infantry, archers or crossbowmen was a sitting target for enemy light cavalry archers. There were always areas where the deployment of infantry was difficult. Large parts of the frontier lands of eastern Galilee, or the Oultrejourdain, for instance, were characterised by open spaces with few defensible positions or other terrain suitable for infantry to make a stand. Unprotected infantry, particularly when at the end of an inevitably rudimentary supply line, were vulnerable to armies with a high proportion of light horse. But the need for crusader armies to include significant numbers of effective infantry was recognised at an early stage, as were the penalties for failing to do so.
The learning curve for forces arriving from Europe was steep and extremely painful. The armies of the Second Crusade, for instance, had brought infantry with them who were neither well armed nor skilled, and the lack of archers was to prove a particular problem. Many of the devout but poorer volunteer infantry in the German army were just a liability. The knights and their cavalry retinues were relatively well prepared but, as Odo of Deuil wrote, it would have been better if they ‘had instructed the infantry [‘pedites’] in the same way and, keeping the weak at home, had equipped all the strong with the sword instead of the wallet and the bow instead of the staff; for the weak and helpless are always a burden to their comrades and a source of prey to their enemies’. Even lightly equipped pilgrims could make a useful contribution if they were armed with bows but beyond this the pious poor were merely another set of mouths to feed.
As so often, demand helped drive progress. The need for good infantry meant that they had a higher status than their counterparts back in Europe. Difficulties in encouraging new settlers meant that the lower orders of the Frankish population were always in a far stronger negotiating position than their peers in the west. Conditions had to be attractive enough to persuade large numbers of people to come, and to stay. To offset the dangers of their new lives, more freedoms were part of the inevitable trade-off. Recruits from the rural settlements tended to be tenant farmers rather than serfs. The militia from the towns and cities were likely to be burgesses, home-owning tradesmen. And the capture of the coastal cities enabled a resurgence of commerce that generated money to sustain cadres of standing ‘semi-professional’ infantry and to hire in mercenaries. Under these circumstances, the infantry of the Latin East were increasingly likely to be more effective and better motivated than their European equivalents.
The process of producing upgraded infantry had begun at an early stage. The infantry survivors of the First Crusade were true veterans. The nature of the march, with its inevitable battles and hardships, meant that the survivors were the most experienced and hardened of their peers, equipped with the best armour and weapons available from those who had fallen around them.
The increasing professionalism of the crusading infantry was reflected in the quality and sophistication of their defensive armour. Towards the end of the century we find examples where infantrymen were still fighting and manoeuvring in formation despite having many arrows sticking out of their armour and, as chroniclers always enjoyed pointing out, looking more like hedgehogs than men.
A detailed description of the kind of equipment a well-armed infantryman might be wearing survives from the siege of Acre in 1190, and shows just how effective it could be, even in the most difficult of circumstances. A Frankish infantryman:
was in the ditch outside the city walls. He wandered back and forth, searching for weak spots in the walls, and firing the crossbow which he was carrying in his hand at the enemy. His armour was quite adequate for an infantryman: his head was protected by an iron covering; he also had a mailshirt and a tunic made of quilted linen, popularly called a ‘doublet’. Its skilful cross-seaming makes it difficult for a weapon to pierce it. While he was standing, looking up, suddenly a Turk fired a crossbow bolt at him with great force from the top of the wall and struck him in the chest, piercing all the armour, i.e. the iron headpiece, and the mail shirt and doublet.
And yet the bolt did not kill or even seriously wound him. Contemporaries attributed this lucky escape to a holy amulet which he was carrying, and, who knows, it may have helped. But it is clear that the different layers of armour so reduced the penetrative impact of the force that it was possible to survive even a crossbow bolt fired at relatively close range.
Muslim commentators were also impressed by the level of protection enjoyed by the Frankish heavy infantry. Baha’ al-Din describes the way in which Saladin sent his troops to harass Frankish infantry marching in column, only to find that their armour made them extremely hard to stop:
He sent the skirmishers forward and the arrows on both sides were like rain. The enemy army was already in formation with the infantry surrounding it like a wall, wearing solid iron corslets and full length well-made chain-mail, so that arrows were falling on them with no effect. They were shooting with crossbows and wounding the Muslims’ horses, their cavalry and infantry. I saw various individuals among the Franks with ten arrows fixed in their backs, pressing on in this fashion quite unconcerned.
The crossbow was one of the key weapons of the Frankish army. Although the social status of the lance ensured that it got much more attention in the chronicles, the crossbow was arguably just as important. As we shall see, the relationship between crossbow and lance encapsulated the interdependency of infantry and cavalry in the army.
The crossbow had many of the positive characteristics of an early musket and many of the same drawbacks too. Like the musket, it was more effective than a simple bow, with a good range and excellent penetrative power. Most importantly, unlike a bow, it was easy to operate and required far less training. To be a good archer took years, but an adequate crossbowman could be fielded in a matter of days. It was the ideal weapon for, say, an urban militia or the more prosperous yeoman farmers called up as part of the arrière-ban. There were improvements in crossbow design over the course of the twelfth century, with the heavier and simpler wooden bows being gradually superseded by lighter and more expensive composite horn bows. The more sophisticated newer models would be more likely to be used by professional mercenaries or the military orders. But the simpler versions would be found over a longer period of time among the poorer or less professional elements of the army, and were still capable of good service.
The drawbacks were also similar to those of the early musket. ‘Spanning’ the crossbow, the process of pulling the bow string back, locking it in place and getting a bolt ready for firing, took far longer than the time an expert archer would need to load and fire an arrow. Slow loading times meant that they needed to be deployed en masse, so that at least some of the crossbows would be ready to fire at any given time.
They also needed the protection of spearmen, to deter enemy cavalry from coming to close quarters. Correctly used, however, this was an extremely effective combination. The tactical crossbow ‘teams’ that we hear of on the Third Crusade (two crossbowmen alternately loading and firing behind spearmen providing close protection) are not mentioned as being a tactical innovation, so they had presumably been in use, perhaps less formally, for many years before. The availability of ready-loaded crossbows, combined with the protection offered by spearman with their shields, makes it feasible that the Frankish crossbowmen, or the more professional ones at least, were able to use volley fire to keep Muslim horse archers at bay.
There was always a clear recognition that the effectiveness of infantry was largely dependent on the way they interacted with the cavalry, however. The knights needed infantry support but the reverse was also true. From the earliest days of the Latin kingdom commentators were aware that the Frankish army operated best as a ‘combined arms’ force, and that disaster was more likely to strike if either arm was left to fight on its own.
In May 1102 at the battle of Ramla, for instance, King Baldwin I of Jerusalem was widely criticised for his impetuosity in pressing on into battle without waiting for his infantry to join him: ‘It was indeed very rash for the king to neglect to wait for his men and to proceed into battle in disorderly fashion because he should have known better. Without foot-soldiers and hardly waiting for his knights, he hurried to meet the enemy until at length he foolishly threw himself into a multitude of Arabs.’
Conversely, infantry could be severely cut up by enemy cavalry when isolated, even for relatively short periods of time. As Fulcher of Chartres commented about the battle of Jaffa in 1102, the infantry needed support just as much as the knights did: ‘When our [knights] by vigorous fighting penetrated the hostile ranks in one place, it was immediately necessary to come back somewhere else. This was because our enemies, when they saw our footmen without the protection of knights, would rush at once to that place and slay those in the rear’.
The Frankish infantry were capable of performing disciplined manoeuvres in the face of the enemy, even when closely engaged. Fresh units were able to relieve tired ones, and take their place in the battle line. Baha’ al-Din noted that during an attack on a Frankish column some ‘of their infantry rested while marching beside the sea, not being engaged in the fight. When those engaged in the battle became tired or were debilitated by wounds, the company that had been resting would take their place and the previously active company would take a rest.’
The Itinerarium Peregrinorum, commenting on a march in September 1191, made clear how vital, and how professional, the infantry could be. They:
struggled with great resolve and contended with untiring valour, turning to face the Turkish assault which threatened them from behind. So they walked backwards as if they were retreating because otherwise they could not protect their backs adequately. In fact, because of the Turkish threat from behind they advanced with their faces turned towards them all that day, travelling back-to-front, fighting every step of the way.
The noble author, in a statement that would have been unthinkable in contemporary Europe, summarised their performance: ‘How essential those valiant crossbowmen and archers were that day!’
The professionalism of the Frankish infantry should not be overstated. The quality of the infantry available to crusader armies was inevitably variable and every force would encompass men with widely differing abilities and skills. Unlike western Europe, however, the key difference in the crusader states was the urgency of the need. Infantry in the east had to become better equipped, better deployed and far better integrated into military practice because no Frankish army could survive without them. Desperation, as ever, turbo-charged military evolution and trumped the conservatism of social conventions.
Mercenaries were an increasingly important part of Frankish armies, particularly in the second half of the twelfth century as the momentum of ‘total war’ increased, and the succession of campaigns into Egypt were followed by the Ayyubid counter-offensives of the 1170s and 1180s.
The word ‘mercenary’ has rather pejorative connotations to a modern ear but in the context of the time it was far more neutral and pragmatic. These were often merely men, local or otherwise, fighting for pay and subsistence rather than because of feudal obligations. As with modern soldiers, needing to earn a salary while on campaign was not necessarily at odds with motivations of piety or patriotism. The Italian city states, for example, fought in the east for very sound commercial reasons, but the desire to make money could also be accompanied by genuine religious sentiment, and a sincere wish to help defend the Holy Land.
The range of men classed as ‘mercenaries’ also covers a wide spectrum. Some might be highly professional soldiers from western Europe who had made the trip east looking for steady work. These might have specialist skills, for instance with crossbows or with particular aspects of siege warfare. At the other end of the spectrum might be relatively poor urban workers, armed with a spear: not a full-time professional perhaps but someone who was available for pay when replacements were needed.
The most ambitious mercenaries came from the very highest ranks of society, and these tended to cause most social friction. Such newcomers were a valuable source of talent, but the fact that they were ultimately looking for fiefs rather than just a salary meant that they provoked much jealousy among their peers. They were generally treated as ‘parvenus’ by the local nobility, furious at the extra competition for the best available heiresses. Reynald of Châtillon came east in search of an heiress and struck it rich, becoming prince of Antioch by marrying Princess Constance, and later becoming lord of the strategically vital Transjordan. He must have had extraordinary charisma and personal qualities, but despite this even the normally even-handed William of Tyre could not help describing him disdainfully as a mere ‘mercenary knight’ [‘stipendarius miles’].
Gerard of Ridefort, who eventually became master of the Templars, was similarly much reviled by his contemporaries, who enjoyed reminding anyone who would listen that his origins were as a mercenary. They also liked to suggest that the only reason he turned to the celibacy of the Templars was because he had been left at the altar by the Tripolitan heiress he had hoped to marry. The bitterness of rejection and the sexual frustration of celibacy, they implied, were at the root of this ‘parvenu’s’ reckless behaviour on the battlefield.
The existence of mercenary knights and other heavy cavalry was apparent from the first days of the crusader states. Referring to the situation in the kingdom of Jerusalem in August 1113, William of Tyre commented that King Baldwin ‘was poor and needy, so that his means barely sufficed for his daily needs and the payment of his knights [‘equitum stipendia’]’.
At the siege of Tyre in 1124, when military resources were stretched to the limit by the length and difficulties of the blockade, substantial numbers of mercenaries were involved, and this was doubtless repeated in many other major campaigns as the century progressed. Fulcher of Chartres wrote that ‘because a lack of money at that time hindered us all, a large sum was collected man by man to pay knights and hired footmen [‘militiae et clientelae’]. Such a project as the proposed siege [of Tyre] could not be completed without payments to the men.’ Later in the siege, when a Damascene relief army arrived, the ‘entire cavalry forces and the mercenary infantry [‘equites omnes et stipendiarii pedites’] were to issue forth from the camp under command of the count of Tripoli and William [of Bures], the king’s constable and administrator of the realm’. It is interesting to see that the mercenary infantry were felt to be the best quality foot available, and most suited to manoeuvre in the field. The other, less manoeuvrable, infantry were left behind with the more static role of guarding the siege engines and preventing sorties by the garrison of Tyre.
Ironically, the successful siege of Tyre, itself only made possible by the use of mercenaries, was a turning point. From 1124 onwards, all of the Palestinian and Syrian coastal cities north of Ascalon were back in Christian hands. Trade routes to Europe could be opened up more freely, exploiting the rich opportunities offered by access to the western end of the Silk Roads. On the back of such trade, a monetary economy could flourish again. And with money flowing between Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, the crusader states could establish themselves as the destination of choice for mercenaries looking for steady employment.
Large parts of the defence of the crusader states were given over to mercenary units. In 1132 we find Renier Brus, the lord of the key frontier castle of Banyas, present with the king and the feudal army of the Latin Kingdom at Jaffa, trying to settle a relatively rare dispute between the nobility before it could degenerate into civil war. Renier seems to have taken all his feudal troops with him when he went to the king, but his castles still needed to be guarded. William of Tyre, in discussing the capture of Banyas by the Damascene forces in December of that year, makes it clear that the entire Frankish garrison were mercenaries: ‘The citizens were taken prisoners, and all the mercenary soldiers in the city, both knights and foot soldiers [‘qui in ea erant stipendiariis utriusque, tam equitum quam peditum’], were seized.’
As the ‘arms race’ with the new Ayyubid super-state hotted up later in the twelfth century, mercenaries were in increasing demand. The principle of taxation, arrived at by the General Council of the Latin Kingdom in 1183, had a primary purpose of allowing greater numbers of mercenaries to be hired. William of Tyre, who was present at the assembly, wrote that ‘it was resolved by common consent that a census of all the lands of the realm be taken. If such a report were available, it would be possible in an emergency to obtain foot and cavalry forces [‘equitum peditumque copias’] so that the enemy, if he returned, would find us prepared for resistance.’ By medieval standards, this was an extraordinary step. With the feudal contingents operating at maximum capacity, and with colonial settlement already highly intensive, the only course of action left was to try to squeeze the economy to provide access to more troops. The entire direction of the economy was geared towards its ability to support large mercenary contingents, non-feudal paid soldiers. This was now a society on a permanent war footing.