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In the Medival battle period, was the mounted knights or infantry the predominate arm?


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Initial post: Aug 29, 2012 6:37:32 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 29, 2012 6:40:47 PM PDT
1874Sharps says:
We have been so dazzled by mounted knights that we naturally have believed that they were, of course, the undesputed kings of the battle field, but I belive the opposite is true. In the age from 500AD to 1400AD the infantry arm (including archers, crossbowmen, bill men, etc right up to arquebusiers) won battle after battle. Movies like Braveheart tell us the same thing, when the knights show up, you run. "Until you build spears, larger than a man!" "If you build them they will die."
Battles like Agincourt, Crecy, Stirling, kephissos, Courtrai, Dupplin Moor, Bannockburn to name a few. Have historiians and general readers been so decieved by the color and grandier of the chivilous arts?

Posted on Aug 29, 2012 7:23:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 29, 2012 8:03:33 PM PDT
DarthRad says:
Here's a great alternative viewpoint of the chivalrous knight in shining armor:

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives

In reality, these guys functioned as paid mercenaries and/or outright thugs working for whoever the local warlord was (the dukes and princes).

Here's the segment about The Knight, on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhWFQtzM4r0&feature=showob

Posted on Aug 29, 2012 7:28:30 PM PDT
It is the people who believe King Arthur and Camelot were real, that medieval and renaissance fairs are accurate representations, not historians and history readers, who believe all that chivalry stuff. It was a court game started in Aquitaine and the south of France.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 29, 2012 7:39:01 PM PDT
DarthRad says:
And here's Terry Jones' version of how the Crusades started (Episode I of the series)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8glhcgltux4&feature=related

Basically, the Pope saw the Crusades as a great way to get control of all these dangerous armed thugs of Europe, the knights in shining armor, and form his own Church Army to grab control of a good chunk of the former Eastern Roman Empire

Posted on Aug 31, 2012 2:31:05 PM PDT
Aerin says:
I completely agree with you as to the knight as a thug - basically a mob enforcer - for the man in power. It is dressed up with an oath of fealty and a supposed code of honor but that only applied to other knights. It never prevented the knight from raping a serf girl in a ditch if he felt so inclined and leaving her vruised and bleeding or prevent him from setting fire to a town and watching the inhabitants burn to death because their lord didn't surrender. The Middle Ages were a dirty and brutal period and, for all its glittering art, so was the Renaissance.

That said, the knight was the tank of his time. The problem was that properly trained infantry (the Swiss and Scottish pike men and the English long bow archers) could stand up to knights, the vast majority of infantry of this period was NOT trained. They were individuals swept up by their local lord and hastily armed to fill out the levies he owed to the king. At best they had minimal training with weapons and the sight of a charge of huge horses carrying armored men tended to break them up into rapid retreat and then rout. One soldier on foot was no match for a knight.

There were exceptions, of course. Where exceptional leaders managed to position their infantry in advance: bowmen behind and above their own knights so that they can kill the oncoming knights while remaining protected and/or the pikemen formed up in squares containing many ranks of men, knights would face major difficulty. And, of course, all these armies were not very maneuverable once on the battlefield: pikemen must remain in their square or be destroyed and bowmen must remain in their protected position or be ridden down. For that matter, knights basically went forward hitting or chopping everything in their path until they won, were killed or, hopefully heard and heeded a recall.

What destroyed the knight was the discovery of gunpowder presumably brought from China. At that point, knights became a liability and the powers that were had to develop trained armies - basically mercenaries - who integrated cavalry and infantry. That is also when the crossbow came into its own. It was actually not as powerful as the long bow and required a far longer reload time but it did not require the years of dedicated practice that a longbow required.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2012 5:37:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 31, 2012 5:40:41 PM PDT
1874Sharps says:
Aerin,
great point about the crossbow. That's why the Church and kings tried to make it taboo except against Muslums. Anyone of any standing could take out one of the elite. The Long bow is so much more romantic and was an incredible weapon but you are correct that it took years of training to master it, you had to have the upper body strength of Swarzenager, and the bows themselves were expensive works of art. The crossbow was the lead to the future with as you say, gunpowder. Kinda reminds me of Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indie went up against the huge arab swordmaster, and with a shrug, took him out with one slug of his S&W m1917 .45.

Posted on Aug 31, 2012 6:26:24 PM PDT
Well, you have two very different castes here.

With exceptions of course, most leaders had relatively small standing armies, as they were very expensive to maintain. It was far easier to raise levies from among the serfs and use them to defend or attack as needs be. They required no expensive outfitting and little or no training. While their were definitely "specialists" , in the forms of bowmen, slingers and various degrees of properly trained foot soldiers (light, medium and heavy), the cost of concentrating on such well-trained men were often prohibitive to all but the most wealthy and powerful. For many leaders, it was simply more economical to raise whatever levies they had to and augment them by hiring mercenaries, who likely were more skilled, to give their side the edge.

"Knights", on the other hand, brought their own hideously expensive equipment with them- horse, armor, weapons, servants, etc., and so at least partially deferred the cost for their services. Absolutely some were nothing more than medieval 'guns for hire'. But chivalry did exist, and many fought for honor and justice (even though one can debate 'whose honor' and 'whose justice'), having sworn fealty to lord or Lord.

Given certain circumstances, knights (and their descendants, cavalry) could turn the tide of battle throughout the time period being discussed. But their time of dominating the battlefield was probably over about midway through this period, due to the technological advances that led to (as has been pointed out) the crossbow and, later, gunpowder. Do not overlook polearms, either, as having a role in diminishing the power of knights. The hard part was carrying an 8' to 13' long weapon to the battlefield; the easy part was setting it to receive a charge. It was something that could be done with common weapons (spears) by the common man.

So, in my opinion, yes the impact of the knight has been exaggerated, largely at the expense of other types of warriors. But Hollywood can, I think, be somewhat forgive for the excess romanticization.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2012 9:51:57 PM PDT
Aerin says:
Except, from my (limited) reading on weapons, the crossbow was NOT strong enough to pierce armor and took so long to reload that the position could be overrun by the mounted knights. It was mote useful as a defense of a fixed position where you could have several crossbows waiting and noncombatants in cover reloading them. But they were a great assasin's weapon.

The longbow, on the other hand, could shoot armor piercing arrows and a trained bowman could keep up a very rapid fire. The best bowmen could have up to three arrows in the air at once.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2012 9:58:13 PM PDT
Aerin says:
The problem with polearms is the same as with longbows: training. It takes training to stand fast when a bunch of big guys covered in metal on huge horses also covered in metal com pounding straight at you. I don't care how carefully someone has explained the concept to you, your lizard brain is going to be screaming RUN!

Posted on Sep 1, 2012 10:27:10 AM PDT
IGS says:
The predominant weapon has always been the same. Artillery. Bow, matchlocks, flintlock and cannon, rifled weapons and artillery with explosive projectile, bolt action rifles and air delivered ordinance, automatic weapons and on and on. But it is an evolving battle with changing players achieving dominance over time. But the three tools have always been the same. Artillery, infantry, cavalry. It has always been that way since the discovery of the horse.

The era in question featured dominance of the armored knight, but then again we must look at Agincourt, Crecy, Pontiers, and others which do not seem to support this theory. And then there is the Mongols. Which means what? It is an excellent demonstration of fire and movement. These are the precursors of the tank. The European division of foot soldier and cavalry was ripe for dislocation and destruction by such an approach.

Posted on Sep 1, 2012 3:55:20 PM PDT
The European knight was great at fighting peasant levies and other European knights. They were highly ineffective against middle eastern mounted archers. Disciplined infantry could break their charge. Once the heavy plate used in the late middle ages appeared, and the charge was the only useful tactic they could employ, they were doomed. At least the old Norman Knights could fight equally well on foot and horseback.

Posted on Sep 3, 2012 2:32:48 PM PDT
Yog-Sothoth says:
MRA: "Disciplined infantry could break their charge."

The "undisciplined" town militia did very well against the French knights at Courtrai (Kortrijk) July 11, 1302. Their crossbowmen took out a few, but the majority fell to two-man teams armed with the "goedendag" - basically a 4-foot (1.3m) club with an iron cap and foot-long (.3 m) spike on the end. One man would take out the horse, the other would take out the fallen knight. The Flemish peasants had flooded the field before battle, and the French cavalry could not really form up for an effective heavy-assault charge - that, plus the professional cavalry's assumption of superiority over peasants. The French had initially sent in the infatry, but the cavalry wanted the "glory of victory", and tried to ride ahead. Their formations got confused and bogged down, and the riders were taken out piecemeal. 500 sets of spurs were taken as trophies, and hung in a nearby church, hence the nickname: "Battle of the Golden Spurs". The date is considered the Flemish (Belgian) "Independence Day".

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 3, 2012 6:34:57 PM PDT
Aerin says:
Sounds rather typical of the French knights. They generally thought they were one step lower than God.

The problem is that fully armed knights weren't really comparable to the cavalry of later (or earlier) periods; they were more like tanks. unstoppable in their own element but dependent on firm, mostly flat, clear ground. Pretty much like tanks.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2012 10:36:32 AM PDT
*We have been so dazzled by mounted knights that we naturally have believed that they were, of course, the undesputed kings of the battle field, but I belive the opposite is true. In the age from 500AD to 1400AD the infantry arm (including archers, crossbowmen, bill men, etc right up to arquebusiers) won battle after battle. Movies like Braveheart tell us the same thing, when the knights show up, you run. "Until you build spears, larger than a man!" "If you build them they will die."

We have a situation where the upper class tended to be mounted and they wrote the history and the legends. We can't also underestimate the role of heavy calvary. The Sturrup made a huge difference in the force of a charge. Infantry was the bulk of the force the use of the calvary can make a key difference in a battle. Even if the mounted knights were not as dominate as thy liked to see themselves they were far more effective than past mounted forces and were far more effective in the fray of battle.

Calvary is a tool not the answer and if not used effectivly it can be defeated. Crecy for example, the ground was soft and the horses were slowed second the Crossbow force on the side of the French did not get their equipment and refused to fight and were killed. Stirling the battle was totally different than the movie. It too place at a bridge and the Scots attaced before the English could get accross the bridge.

I don't know the details of all the battles but there is more to it than if the calvary force is dominant but all the decissions and tactics that go into battles. There was some measumrnet of the force of a lance which like bein hit by a car and a charge can break up infantry lines and if you know aything about warfare when the lines are broken up the individuals become far more vunerable. Most people didn't die in battle but were cut down once the defensive wall was disolved.

Posted on Nov 6, 2012 1:55:23 PM PST
Steelers fan says:
The foot soldier was the backbone of every army from ancient times until the mechanized forces of the twentieth century.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 6, 2012 3:26:50 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 13, 2012 3:44:49 PM PST
IGS says:
Steel,

Tell that to the Mongols. They annihilated anything and everything foot, horsed, or running like mad. They were about 80% horsed and seemed to have no problems whatsoever dealing with infantry. Outmaneuver them, surround them, and then slaughter them. The thing that won wars then is the same that wins them now. Shock, fire, movement, and balance. You use the first 3 to take away the last one and disaster inevitably follows. It has little to do with the armored chivalry. He is a tool, like any other. A weapon with advantages and limitations. Learn to use both and you will do well. Fail to understand them and you get Agincourt, Legnica, Crecy etc

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 6, 2012 3:36:25 PM PST
only until the longbow

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 7, 2012 6:02:18 AM PST
anne says:
IGS: <. . . is a tool . . . a weapon with advantages and limitations. Learn to use both and you will do well. Fail to understand them and you get Agincourt, Legnica, Crecy >

anne: You're not a Star Wars fan by any chance, are you? 'Cause you sound like o-bee-wan.

Posted on Nov 7, 2012 6:43:34 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 7, 2012 6:45:07 AM PST
Steelers fan says:
The Mongolian hordes may indeed have been the sole exception to the prevalence of the foot soldier; they were the most horse-reliant army in history. Of course, troops still dismounted to actually fight. From Wikipedia:

Six of every ten Mongol troopers were light cavalry horse archers, the remaining four were more heavily armored and armed lancers. Mongol light cavalry were extremely light troops compared to contemporary standards, allowing them to execute tactics and maneuvers that would have been impractical for a heavier enemy (such as European knights). Most of the remaining troops were heavier cavalry with lances for close combat after the archers had brought the enemy into disarray. Soldiers usually carried scimitars or axes as well.

The Mongols protected their horses in the same way as did they themselves, covering them with lamellar armor. Horse armor was divided into five parts and designed to protect every part of the horse, including the forehead, which had a specially crafted plate which was tied on each side of the neck.

Mongolian horses are relatively small, and would lose short-distance races under equal conditions with larger horses from other regions. However, since most other armies carried much heavier armor, the Mongols could still outrun most enemy horsemen in battle. In addition, Mongolian horses were extremely durable and sturdy, allowing the Mongols to move over large distances quickly, often surprising enemies that had expected them to arrive days or even weeks later.

All horses were equipped with stirrups. This technical advantage made it easier for the Mongol archers to turn their upper body, and shoot in all directions, including backwards. Mongol warriors would time the loosing of an arrow to the moment when a galloping horse would have all four feet off the ground, thus ensuring a steady, well-aimed shot.

Each soldier had two to four horses so when a horse tired they could use the other ones which made them one of the fastest armies in the world. This, however, also made the Mongol army vulnerable to shortages of fodder; campaigning in arid or forested regions were thus difficult and even in ideal steppe terrain a Mongol force has to keep moving in order to ensure sufficient grazing for its massive horse herd.

Posted on Nov 7, 2012 6:48:50 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 9, 2012 6:16:40 AM PST
Steelers fan says:
In the Western world, though, it was still the humble foot soldier who made up the bulk of fighting forces. The recent film "The Red Baron" (excellent aerial footage) illustrates how disdain for the new, elite pilots, who were, in essence, "knights of the air", was present among German forces in the Great War. Von Richtofen is scorned by a line commander of troops in the trenches as a dilettante who was only in the conflict for its excitement.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 7, 2012 11:26:09 AM PST
IGS says:
anne

I was a soldier and have been involved with kung fu for over 30 years lass. If I sound like the old man it is because all old warriors sound the same.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 7, 2012 11:31:57 AM PST
IGS says:
Yes, the Mongols are the paramount combat solution is the pre-gunpowder era. But as I said, they have weaknesses as well. They had very little ability to hold ground. But they used the ultimate weapon in war ... motion & balance. But Steel, your points are all good ones.

Posted on Nov 9, 2012 1:24:03 AM PST
briefcandle says:
this is a false distinction for often knights were unmounted ie in many battles later in the period preferring to dismount to fight, or to dismount of necessity to fight in the assault or defence in sieges, or the galley and shipboard warfare which was common in the baltic, norht sea and mediterranean. The knight is also impossible to understand without looking at his retinue of lesser mounted servants and , yes, footmen.

The mongol was not a knight, but had a capacity to mass on the steppe and other grassland, cover vast distances and if not surrounding their enemies to inflict defeat, then pursuing them to destruction. This isn't knightly warfare.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 9, 2012 5:09:49 PM PST
Steelers

Big difference between wwi and the middle ages. Most of the foot were peasant levies with spears and no training. Exceptions were the Anglo-Saxon fyrd, Swiss pikemen and English longbow men.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 9, 2012 8:47:51 PM PST
Aerin says:
That is the major point. Well trained and well armed foot soldiers can be a major factor. However, far too many of the foot soldiers of the Middle Ages were untrained peasants pulled out of the fields and armed with whatever weapons were not wanted by the lords men at arms.
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Discussion in:  History forum
Participants:  15
Total posts:  55
Initial post:  Aug 29, 2012
Latest post:  Nov 12, 2012

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