Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets
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When you hear the word 'medieval,' what's the first thing that comes to mind? If you're like me, you think of armored knights charging a field with lances lowered. The armored knight encapsulates a great deal of medieval society. In a world of illiteracy and squalor, the knight was the greatest technological achievement of his time. He was the height of medieval military technology, combining the protection of armor with the speed and maneuverability of the horse.
In an age in which military might was the primary vehicle of political power, knights were near the top of the socioeconomic ladder. They were the aristocracy of their time. Lands and titles were granted to knights in exchange for military service. It could be said that Charlemagne created the feudal system for the sole purpose of producing these incredible fighting machines. So let us examine the technology behind these awesome warriors.
To understand the military technology of the armored knight, we must first have a clear picture of what these knights were designed to do. The point of the knight is to charge into the enemy line wielding a long spear or a lance. Done alone, this tactic would be suicidal. But if you take a few hundred knights, you can form them into a wedge. You then send that wedge of knights charging into the enemy with their lances lowered. Usually, the mere sight of tons of steel and murderous flesh hurtling toward them is enough to put defenders to flight. Failing that, the knights would crash into the enemy ranks, shattering their formation and giving your foot soldiers a chance to close in and finish them off.
This tactic requires the solution of several technical problems. The first is obvious: how do you keep your knight and his mount alive? The enemy isn't just going to wait for your knights to hit them. They're going to shoot arrows at them, and they're going to form a wall of spears to withstand the charge. So what do you do? The answer to this problem is armor.
Armor went through a lot of changes in Medieval Europe. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, metal became much more scarce. Mining is a labor-intensive process, and medieval lords had far less manpower at their disposal compared with the armies of slaves available to the Roman Empire. Medieval smiths had to find ways to make the most out of little bits of metal.
The first solution was chain mail, a sort of armor made from interlinking rings of metal. This created a sort of metal fabric, which was flexible and maneuverable. This flexibility made chain mail ideal for protecting joints and limbs, but it also proved a weakness. Chain mail acted as a sort of hard skin. This made it an excellent protection from small piercing attacks from arrows and slashing attacks from swords. However, it did little to protect its wearer from the pierce of a lance, since the links would either bunch together or tear under the tremendous force. Chain mail was also useless against blunt force, since the flexible mail would just as easily form around your collapsing skull.
As metal became more plentiful and new techniques found their way to Europe, Europeans began supplementing chain mail with plate armor. The long, rigid nature of the plates helped overcome some of the limitations of chain mail. Rather than simply crumpling on impact like mail, a plate can deflect, or turn, a blow. Failing that, a plate at least spreads the damage out over a larger area rather than passing an impact directly to its wearer like the mail would do.
Europeans experimented with a variety of methods, including scale armor, a type of armor made of overlapping plates, and the coat of plate, or brigandine, in which metal plates were sewn into a sturdy fabric. Though these armors still offered some flexibility, their many seams meant that they were riddled with weak points, and their small plates could only do so much to turn a blow. The final solution was full plate armor.
These are the suits of armor you see standing in museums. Unlike mail, plate armor has a structure all its own. That means that a blow is spread across the entire plate, dampening its impact on the wearer. More importantly, this structure means that you can design plate armor in such a way that it turns a blow aside rather than having to absorb it.
Of course, full plate also has its limitations. First of all, it's not very flexible. You can't put plate over a joint without severely limiting a knight's movement. However, a charging knight doesn't really need all that great a range of movement. He doesn't need to do backflips. Heck, he doesn't even need to walk, really. He just needs to sit on a horse and point his lance in the right direction.
The second disadvantage to plate is that it makes the knights even heavier. Plate did not replace chain mail but rather supplemented it. Most knights still wore a full coat of mail beneath their plate to protect the few vulnerable places on the plate, especially around joints. These limitations combined to make the knight himself incredibly heavy and nearly immobile. He would depend upon his horse for mobility and maneuverability.
However, the dependence on the horse raised new technical problems. How do you keep this awkward, heavily armored warrior from falling off his horse? He has to hold a heavy lance several meters long on top of a charging horse. How will he keep his balance? He's going to charge that lance into a crowd of men. How do you keep him from being thrown off the saddle at impact? And then he's going to lay about the enemy with a sword. How do you keep him from overbalancing and falling off?
Luckily for knights, over the centuries a series of technologies had developed which, when combined, would allow knights to stay on their horses. These technologies all centered on the saddle, where the rider meets the horse.
The saddle has taken many forms throughout history. It started out just as a pad for the horse's back. Around 500 BCE, the nomads of the Eurasian Steppe began making saddles with a raised ridge at the back, called a cantle, to keep riders from sliding off the back. They also developed the pommel to give riders something to grab onto to maintain their balance. Around 200 BCE, the Chinese began making saddles with a solid wooden core, or saddle tree, to better distribute the weight on the horse's back. Sometime in the following centuries, someone, probably another Asian Steppe nomad, came up with the stirrup. The stirrup is a solid loop hanging from either side of the saddle where a rider could put his feet.
These technologies had found their way to Eastern Europe as early as the 6th century, where they were put to use by the Byzantines to great effect. A couple centuries later, Western Europeans began to adapt these technologies for their knights. To help the knight keep his balance during the charge, they raised the pommel and cantle. This also kept the knight from being unseated on impact.
Stirrups were also helpful in both of these regards. Yet the real strength of the stirrup arose after impact, when knights would lay about the enemy with their swords and foot soldiers would try to pull them down. The stirrup gave the knight a solid platform to stick his feet into. This allowed him to wield his weapons with deadly accuracy without overbalancing and kept foot soldiers from pulling him from his saddle.
So, we've got our knight protected. We've got him on the horse. Just one teensy technical problem remained: How do you get a horse to charge into a wall of pikes? Horses have a certain sense of self-preservation. You can cover them with all the armor you like; the horse is not smart enough to realize that he is protected. To persuade a horse to run headlong into a pike line, you need to goad it forward. A charging knight cannot be bothered with a flail, nor can he be troubled to steer his horse with reigns. His hands are busy killing people. The solution was the spur.
A spur is a pointy thing attached to a rider's heels. They come in several forms, starting with a spike and culminating in the round rowel spur we see in western movies. Whatever their shape, spurs allow the rider to give his horse a sharp poke with either foot. A knight could use his spurs to drive his mount forward and to steer his mount without using his hands. Spurs were so important to knighthood that they became a status symbol. Knights wore gilded spurs and their squires wore spurs of silver. A dishonored knight would have the spurs struck from his boots.
So, we've seen the technical innovations that made the medieval knight possible. We've followed the development of armor from chain mail to plate. We've seen how the cantled saddle and stirrup kept these heavily armored knights on their horses. And we've seen how spurs drove horses to battle and freed up the hands of knights to focus on killing. These technological innovations would have huge socioeconomic implications for medieval society.
Creating an armored knight was incredibly resource-intensive: metal for the armor, horses, food for the horses - it all adds up. And that doesn't even account for the decade of training it took to make a knight out of a squire. Considering the relatively limited resources available to Medieval Europe, the armored knight was one of the most expensive warriors in human history. The incredible cost of knights would consume much of Europe's resources and energy for many centuries. That hefty cost would form a clear delineation between the aristocracy, who could afford arms, armor and horses, and the peasantry, who could not.
Indeed, the whole feudal structure was designed to funnel an area's resources to a few individuals so that they could produce these unstoppable but expensive war machines. A king would grant lands and titles and, in exchange, his vassal would provide armored knights as well as foot soldiers. This system allowed a king to draw upon a large host of armored knights without having to support and outfit those expensive warriors himself.
This was a good strategy at the time. Considering the limited resources of early kings, they were still able to pack quite a punch. However, all this military power came at a price to the king. So long as kings depended on knights of feudal lords for military power, their own political power was rather limited - for, to paraphrase Mao, 'political power springs from the tip of a lance.' For better or worse, the dependency of kings upon armored knights served to decentralize power in Europe for many centuries.
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Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets