“What is the function of orderly knighthood?” wrote the twelfth-century English philosopher John of Salisbury. “To protect the Church, to fight against treachery, to reverence the priesthood, to fend off injustice from the poor, to make peace in your own province, to shed blood for your brethren, and if needs must, to lay down your life.” This was a splendid ideal, often put into practice during the Middle Ages. It lingers still in the army-officer tradition of France and Germany, in the public-school tradition of England. To medieval men, knighthood was more than a career; it was a spiritual and emotional substructure for an entire way of life.
The knight, the chevalier, was a man who owned a cheval, who served in the cavalry, and who guided his life by chivalry. His duty was to fight the enemies of his feudal lord. Said the fourteenth-century French chronicler Jean Froissart: “Gentle knights were born to fight, and war ennobles all who engage in it without fear or cowardice.
Fighting was the gentleman’s trade. He had been bred to it from babyhood, with all his education directed toward toughening his body and spirit. His school was a guardroom in a military post; his home a castle, perpetually prepared against assault. As a vassal he was frequently summoned to wars of lord against lord, to be paid for his services with booty taken in the capture of an enemy castle or with goods plundered from merchants on the roads. Or he might receive a summons from his king, who found profit in making war. “Only a successful war could temporarily fill royal coffers and re-endow the king with fresh territory,” writes the scholar Denys Hay. “Every spring an efficient king tried to lead his warriors on aggressive expeditions. With peace came poverty.”
War was also the gentleman’s joy. Peacetime life in a grim castle could be very dull, for the typical noble had almost no cultural resources and few diversions besides hunting. Battle was the climax of his career as it was often the end. The noble troubadour Bertrand de Born speaks for his class: “I tell you that I have no such joy in eating, drinking, or sleeping as when I hear the cry from both sides: ‘Up and at ‘em!’, or as when I hear riderless horses whinny under the trees, and groans of ‘Help me! Help me!’, and when I see both great and small fall in the ditches and on the grass, and see the dead transfixed by spear-shafts! Barons, mortgage your castles, domains, cities, but never give up war!” (It is true that Dante, in the Inferno, saw the bellicose Bertrand de Born in hell, carrying his severed head before him as a lantern.)
As Europe became more stable, central governments more efficient, and the interests of commerce more powerful, the warlike ideal faded. The military organization of society yielded to a civil structure based on legality. In the late Middle Ages, knights found themselves out-of-date; war fell more and more into the hands of base ruffian mercenaries, sappers and miners, and artillerymen. The military traditions of the noble knight remained, but were transformed into the pageantry of which we read in Froissart. Commercialism altered the noble caste; around 1300, Philip the Fair of France openly sold knighthoods to rich burghers, who thereby gained exemption from taxes as well as social elevation. In our time, the chevalier has become a Knight of Pythias, or Columbus, or the Temple, who solemnly girds on sword and armor to march past his own drugstore.
The knight was originally the companion of his lord or king, formally admitted to fellowship with him. Around the year 1200, the church took over the dubbing of the knight and imposed its ritual and obligations on the ceremony, making it almost a sacrament. The candidate took a symbolic bath, donned clean white clothes and a red robe, and stood or knelt for ten hours in nightlong silence before the altar, on which his weapons and armor lay. At dawn, mass was said in front of an audience of knights and ladies. His sponsors presented him to his feudal lord and gave him his arms, with a prayer and a blessing said over each piece of equipment. An essential part of the ceremony was the fastening of the spurs; our phrase “he has won his spurs” preserves a memory of the moment. An elder knight struck the candidate’s neck or cheek a hard blow with the flat of the hand or the side of his sword. This was the only blow a knight must always endure and never return. The initiate took an oath to devote his sword to good causes, to defend the church against its enemies, to protect widows, orphans, and the poor, and to pursue evildoers. The ceremony ended with a display of horsemanship, martial games, and mock duels. It was all very impressive; the more earnest knights never forgot their vigils or belied their vows. It was also a very expensive undertaking, so much so that by the fourteenth century, many eligible gentlemen preferred to remain squires.
The knight was bound to serve his master in his wars, though in the early period of feudalism for only forty days a year. Wars were, then, necessarily brief – raids rather than actual wars. Few pitched battles occurred unless one party sent a challenge to fight at a set time and place. The commander’s purpose was not to defeat the enemy but rather to harm him by burning his villages, massacring his peasants, destroying his source of income, while he raged impotently but securely in his castle. “When two nobles quarrel,” wrote a contemporary, “the poor man’s thatch goes up in flames.” A chanson de geste of the period happily describes such an invasion: “They start to march. The scouts and the incendiaries lead; after them come the foragers who are to gather the spoils and carry them in the great baggage train. The tumult begins. The peasants, having just come out to the fields, turn back, uttering loud cries; the shepherds gather their flocks and drive them toward the neighboring woods in the hope of saving them. The incendiaries set the villages on fire, and the foragers visit and sack them. The distracted inhabitants are burnt or led apart with their hands tied to be held for ransom. Everywhere alarm bells ring, fear spreads from side to side and becomes general. On all sides one sees helmets shining, pennons floating, and horsemen covering the plain. Here hands are laid on money; there cattle, donkeys, and flocks are seized. The smoke spreads, the flames rise, the peasants and the shepherds in consternation flee in all directions . . . In the cities, in the towns, and on the small farms, wind-mills no longer turn, chimneys no longer smoke, the cocks have ceased their crowing and the dogs their barking. Grass grows in the houses and between the flag-stones of the churches, for the priests have abandoned the services of God, and the crucifixes lie broken on the ground. The pilgrim might go six days without finding anyone to give him a loaf of bread or a drop of wine. Freemen have no more business with their neighbors; briars and thorns grow where villages stood of old.”
With the coming of large-scale wars, such as William’s conquest of England, and with the crusades, the rudiments of strategy began. Military thinkers reflected on the role of cavalry and infantry, the choice of terrain, the use of archers, and the handling of reserve units.
The supreme cavalry tactic was the charge at full gallop against a defensive position. Terrified peasants would break and run before the oncoming menace of iron men on wild beasts. Nevertheless, the charge had its dangers for the attackers; in broken or swampy terrain it was ineffective, and a concealed ditch could bring it to naught. Stouthearted defenders could protect their position with rows of sharpened stakes planted at an angle between them and the enemy. In the face of such an obstacle, the most intrepid steed will refuse. If the defense possessed a well-drilled corps of bowmen, these would greet the charging knights with a hail of arrows or bolts. But they had only a few moments. The effective limit of an arrow was only about 150 yards, and good armor would deflect all but direct hits. A sensible archer aimed at the horse, for a knight once dismounted was at a serious disadvantage.
Once the cavalry charge was over, the battle became a series of hand-to-hand engagements. As the armies engaged, the archers retired, leaving the battle to the knights. The issue was decided by the number killed and wounded on either side; the side with fewer casualties held the field. The number of knights killed in battle was remarkably small, however; prisoners of distinction were held for ransom. There was even a curious traffic in captives, who were bought and sold by merchants on speculation. Non-ransomable prisoners were stripped of their precious armor, and then they were often finished off with a dagger to save the cost of maintaining them.
The medieval army, until the thirteenth century, consisted almost entirely of combatants, with very few of its men concerned with the auxiliary services and supplies. Medical services hardly existed, and soldiers had to forage for themselves, for the army was expected to live off the country. Usually about a third of the troops were mounted knights, although the proportion varied greatly with circumstances. Some of the infantry were professional soldiers, but most were peasants impressed for the campaign. They wore whatever armor they could provide, usually heavy leather jerkins reinforced with iron rings, and they carried shields, bows and arrows, swords, spears, axes, or clubs.
The knight’s equipment represented a compromise between offensive and defensive demands, or between the need for mobility and the need for self-protection. For offensive purposes, the queen of weapons was the sword. The knight, who had received it from the altar after a night of prayer, could regard it with holy awe as the symbol of his own life and honor. Certain swords are celebrated in legend, Arthur’s Excalibur, Roland’s Durendal. The pommel of the sword was often hollowed, to contain relics; to take an oath one clasped one’s hand on the sword hilt, and heaven took note. To suit individual tastes, there was much variation in the sword blade, grip, and guard. The most popular model had a tapering blade three inches wide at the hilt and thirty-two or thirty-three inches long. It was equally effective for cutting or thrusting. The steel blades were made of layered strips of iron, laboriously forged and tempered. Much learned discussion dealt with the relative merits of blades from Toledo, Saragossa, Damascus, Solingen, and Milan. Two-handed swords had their vogue, but the soldier who used one had to be very strong. Since neither arm was free to carry a shield, he was likely to be undone by an agile adversary while he was preparing his blow. These swords were best used for judicial beheading.
The lance or spear was the traditional weapon of the horseman, and it lingers to our own times as a symbol of the mounted knight. In 1939, the Polish cavalry, with ridiculous gallantry, carried lances into battle against German tanks. With a ten-foot steel-pointed spear, a charging knight could overthrow a mounted enemy or reach over a shield wall and pin his victim. But his spear was nearly useless after the first clash; the knight had to throw it away and take to the sword or battle-axe, which could deal cruel blows even through armor, often driving the links of chain mail into the wound, where they would fester and cause gangrene. Some knights carried a mace, or club, the most primitive of weapons, made all the more fearsome by the addition of deadly spikes. The mace was the badge in battle of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and it was also, as the scholar William Stearns Davis points out, “the favorite of martial bishops, abbots, and other churchmen, who thus evaded the letter of the canon forbidding clerics to ‘smite with the edge of the sword,’ or to ‘shed blood.’ The mace merely smote your foe senseless or dashed out his brains, without piercing his lungs or breast!” By one of history’s pretty ironies, the mace survives as a sanctified relic, borne before the president at college commencements by the most ornate member of the faculty.
Arming a knight was a slow process. In time, as the weight and complexity of armor increased, the chevalier was unable to prepare himself for conflict unaided. He had to sit down while a squire or squires pulled on his steel-mailed hose, and stand while they fitted the various pieces, fastening them with a multitude of straps and buckles. First came an undershirt, made of felted hair or quilted cotton, to bear the coat of mail, or hauberk. This was an actual shirt, usually extending to mid-thigh or even below the knee and composed of steel links riveted together. If well made, it could be very pliable and springy and could even be cut and tailored like cloth. A superb hauberk in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is composed of over 200,000 links and weighs only about nineteen pounds. Cruder coats of mail could weigh two or three times as much. Despite its strength, the hauberk did not fully protect the wearer against a mighty blow. It was also subject to rust; as a result very few early hauberks have survived to our own time. One method of derusting was to put the coat of mail with sand and vinegar into a leather bag and then toss it about. Our museums have adapted this technique for cleaning hauberks by making powered tumbling boxes.
Defensive armor steadily became more elaborate, with coifs to cover the neck and head, elbow pieces, knee guards, and greaves. Because the face remained vulnerable, helmets increased in weight and covered more and more of the face until they came to resemble cylindrical pots with slits for the eyes. As usual, security was gained at a cost. The knight had to bandage his head, for if he took a fall, he might easily sustain a brain concussion. William Marshal, a famous English champion who lived at the end of the twelfth century, won a tournament, and afterward could not be found to receive the prize. He was finally discovered at a blacksmith’s, with his head on the anvil and the smith hammering his battered helmet in an effort to remove it without killing the wearer. In a hot fight on a hot day, the sun beat down on the helmet; perspiration could not be wiped away, one could not hear orders or messages or utter comprehensible commands, and if the helmet was knocked askew, one was blind. There are many examples of death from heat stroke or from drowning after a fall into even a little stream. At Agincourt, many French knights fell into the deep trampled mud and suffocated. Moreover, the pot helmet concealed one’s identity; hence knights painted bearings on their helmets and shields. Thus, heraldry began.
In the fourteenth century, the hauberk yielded to plate armor, which was fitted to the figure and often magnificently decorated. A full suit of plate armor weighs sixty pounds or more. Just the helmet and cuirass of one French knight at Agincourt weighed ninety pounds. If properly articulated and well oiled, plate armor permitted much freedom of movement. A famous fifteenth-century French athlete could turn a somersault wearing all his armor but his helmet and could climb the under side of a scaling ladder using only his hands. But no matter how well equipped, the armored knight was still vulnerable. A base villein could stab his horse, a pikeman could hook him in the armpit and bring him down, and once dismounted, he was in a sorry state. He moved clumsily. His buttocks and crotch were unprotected to permit him to hold his seat in the saddle. If he fell on his back, he had to struggle like a turtle to right himself. A light-footed adversary could readily lift his visor, stab him in the eyes, and finish him off.
The shield was generally made of stout wooden boards, nailed together, bound by casein glue, and covered with heavy hide surrounded by a metal rim. Often it had a metal boss in the center to deflect the opponent’s sword blade. Foot soldiers carried round shields, but knights usually bore kite-shaped shields, which protected the legs.
To carry the steel-clad knight into battle or tourney, a heavy, powerful horse was needed. Such chargers were rare and costly in days when fodder was scarce and animals usually thin and small. Horse farmers bred them deliberately for size and strength. The Arabian strain was popular, and a white stallion was the most prized of all. Riding a mare was considered unknightly. To sustain the clash of battle, the horse needed long and careful training. His rider, cumbered with sword, shield, and spear, usually dropped the reins and guided his mount by spurring, leg pressures, and weight shifting.
The great weapon of infantry – and of Mongol and Turkish cavalry – was the bow and arrow. The short bow is very ancient, the property of most primitive peoples the world over. As we see in the Bayeux tapestry, it was drawn to the breast, not the ear; at short range it could be lethal. The six-foot longbow, shooting a three-foot “clothyard” shaft, was apparently a Welsh invention of the twelfth century; it became the favorite weapon of the English. Only a tall, strong man with long training could use it effectively. There is a knack: The bow-string is kept steady with the right hand and the body’s weight is pressed against the bow, held in the left hand one pushes instead of pulling, using the strength of the body more than that of the arm. At short range, the steel-headed arrow could penetrate any ordinary armor. A good archer could aim and deliver five shots a minute.
At the end of the twelfth century, with the general adoption of the crossbow as a weapon, the age of mechanized warfare began. The crossbow is a short instrument of steel or laminated wood, mounted on a stock. One draws it usually by setting its head upon the ground and turning a crank against a ratchet. A catch holds the drawn bow until one is ready to trigger the short, thick arrow, called the bolt or quarrel, which has great penetration at short range. The church deplored the use of this inhuman weapon, and many considered it to be unknightly. While a good longbowman could beat a crossbowman in range and rapidity of fire, with the new weapon the half-trained weakling could be almost the equal of the mighty archer.
The medieval art of war was centered upon the castle or stronghold, the nucleus for the control and administration of surrounding territory as well as the base for offensive operation. Within its walls, a little army could assemble and prepare for a little war. It was designed to repel the attacks of any enemy and to shelter the neighboring peasants fleeing with their flocks and herds before a marauder. The earliest castles of medieval times – such as those William the Conqueror built in England – were of the motte-and-bailey type. They were mere wooden structures with a watchtower, set on a mound, or motte, and surrounded by a ditch and palisade. Below the mound was a court, or bailey, within its own ditch and stockade, spacious enough to provide shelter for the domain’s staff of smiths, bakers, and other workers, and refuge for peasants in time of alarm. The motte-and-bailey castles were replaced by stone structures, many of which we still visit. The first datable stone donjon, or keep, was built in France at Langeais, overlooking the Loire, in 994. Stone construction had to await the progress of technology, effective stonecutting tools, hoisting devices, and winches. Once the techniques were mastered, castlebuilding spread fast and far. A census taken in 1904 lists more than 10,000 castles still visible in France.
One could see the castle from afar on its commanding hill, or if it was in flat country, perched on an artificial mound. Sometimes the building gleamed with whitewash. The visitor passed a cleared space to the barbican, or gatehouse, which protected the entrance. Receiving permission to enter, he surrendered his weapon to the porter and crossed the drawbridge over the dank, scummy moat, the home of frogs and mosquitoes. Beyond the drawbridge hung the portcullis, a massive iron grating that could be dropped in a flash. Such a portcullis was discovered at Angers. Although it had not been used for 500 years, its chains and pulleys, when cleaned and oiled, still functioned. The castle’s entrance passages were angled to slow attackers and were commanded by arrow slits, or “murder holes,” in the walls above. At Caernarvon Castle in Wales the visitor has to cross a first drawbridge, then pass five doors and six portcullises, make a right-angled turn and cross a second drawbridge.
One traversed the enormous walls, sometimes fifteen or twenty feet thick, to reach the inner bailey. The walls were topped by runways, with crenelated battlements to protect defending archers and with machicolations, or projections with open bottoms through which missiles or boiling liquids could be dropped. At intervals, the wall swelled out into bastions, which commanded the castle’s whole exterior. If by some unlikely chance an attacker succeeded in penetrating the interior, he could not be sure of victory. The different sections of the parapets were separated by wooden bridges, which could be destroyed in a moment to isolate the enemy. In the winding stairways within the walls, there were occasional wooden stairs instead of stone ones; these could be removed, so that an unwary assailant, hurrying in the gloom, would drop suddenly into a dungeon.
The heart of the defensive system was the keep, a tower sometimes 200 feet high and with walls twelve feet thick. Underground, beneath the keep, were the oubliettes, dungeons opening only at the top and used for prisons or for storing siege provisions, and enclosing, if possible, a well. Above were living quarters for the noble and his guardsmen, and at the top, a watchtower with a heraldic banner flying from it.
The stoutness of the castles is made evident by their survival on many hilltops of Europe and Syria. During World War II, some sustained direct hits by high-explosive and incendiary bombs, with little effect. At Norwich and Southampton, the medieval walls were hardly harmed by bombardment, whereas most of the houses built against them were destroyed.
But the castles were not impregnable. Remarkable siege engines were invented, especially by the Byzantines – battering rams, catapults that hurled stone balls weighing as much as 150 pounds, arbalests, or gigantic crossbows. Miners would patiently and dangerously dig a tunnel under the moat, under the very walls. The tunnel was propped with heavy timbers and filled with combustibles. These were ignited, the props were consumed, and with luck, a section of the wall would fall into the moat. At the same time, archers drove the defenders from the battlements. Soldiers ran forward with bales of hay, baskets of earth, or other material, to fill the moat. Others followed them across this causeway and hung scaling ladders against the walls, with shields held over their heads to deflect missiles. To climb a ladder holding the shield on one arm and keeping a hand ready to grasp the dangling sword is no small achievement. An alternative method of attack was to construct a wheeled wooden siege tower as high as the wall, with a commando party concealed on the top story. The tower was pushed up to the wall, and a drawbridge dropped, on which the gallant band of assailants crossed to the battlements. It was in this manner that the crusaders took Jerusalem.
The casualties in storming a castle were usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable. There are many examples of successful attacks on supposedly impregnable castles and towns. Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre with his siege machines in 1191. Edward, Prince of Wales, “the Black Prince,” took Limoges in 1370 by mining and direct assault. Irritated by the resistance, he commanded that more than 300 men, women, and children be beheaded. “It was great pity to see them kneeling before the prince, begging for mercy; but he took no heed of them,” says Froissart, with hardly a hint of reprobation. In general, however, the defense of castles and walled towns was stronger than the offense. By far the best way to reduce a stronghold was to find a traitor within the walls, and if one could not be discovered, then to starve out the garrison. But a prudent castellan kept his fort well stocked with a year’s supply of food, drink, and fuel. Hence, sieges could often be very long, lasting as much as two years, and were almost as exhausting to the besiegers as to the besieged.
The dwindling of feudalism and of the nobles’ independence and the introduction of gunpowder and siege cannons in the fourteenth century made the castle obsolete. Gentlemen abandoned the discomforts of life in an isolated stone prison without regret. They much preferred a spacious manor house or a residence in town among their own kind.
War was waged on the high seas as well as on land. In time of need, the monarch would simply commandeer his nation’s merchant vessels. These might displace 200 tons or more; by the fifteenth century, we find even 1,000-tonners. A crusader’s ship could transport 1,000 soldiers with their horses and equipment. The ingenious Frederick II built for his crusade fifty vessels, similar to modern landing craft, with doors at the waterline, so that knights could disembark on horseback. In the Mediterranean, the Byzantines, Venetians, and Genoese favored long, narrow galleys, very maneuverable and with formidable beaks for ramming the enemy.
The admiral built on his merchant ships a forecastle and a sterncastle, from which his archers could fire down on the enemy’s decks. His purpose was to sink his opponent by ramming, or if that did not work, to grapple and disable him by cutting his rigging and then boarding. For hand-to-hand combat, he was likely to carry quicklime to blind the defenders, and soft soap mixed with sharp bits of iron to render their footing precarious. The Byzantines mounted catapults on their ships; they also introduced the West to Greek Fire, apparently a mixture of petroleum, quicklime, and sulphur. The quicklime in contact with water ignited the bomb, a primitive napalm.