The Technology Behind the Armored Knight

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  • 0:05 The Armored Knight:…
  • 1:11 Heavy Cavalry Tactics
  • 2:23 Armor: Chain Mail to Plate
  • 5:54 Staying on the Horse:…
  • 8:20 Steer with your Legs,…
  • 9:39 Social Implications of…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson looks at the technology behind the armored knight. We'll follow the development of medieval armor and the development of the saddle. Finally, we'll look at the implications of this expensive form of warfare.

The Armored Knight: Symbol of an Age

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.

Heavy Cavalry Tactics

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: Chain Mail to Plate

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.

Staying on the Horse: The Stirrup & the High-Cantled Saddle

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.

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