The classic image of the medieval knight, clad from head to toe in shining plates of steel, is actually a product of the late Renaissance, an age when the joust has replaced the battlefield as the primary test of chivalric arms. For most of the Middle Ages, the equipment of the knight was much simpler: chainmail, helmet and shield, with the lance and a long-bladed sword as the primary weapons, sometimes supplemented with daggers or maces.
Chainmail is a simple and effective kind of armor comprised of many hundreds of interlocking iron rings. Mail had been used in the Roman legions as early as the 3rd century B.C., possibly learned from the Celtic tribes to their north. In the early Middle Ages, chainmail was usually assembled only into a simple hauberk with short sleeves. Gradually, this was modified. By the 11th century, many knights had a mail coif to protect the neck, and a few also wore mail leggings. Within another hundred years, the hauberk included full sleeves and the leggings had grown into full mail breeches. Before long, even the hands and feet were covered.
Chainmail offered fairly good protection against the swing of a sword or an axe, both common medieval weapons. It was not as useful against powerful thrusts with spear or lance, but in such circumstances, the shield was meant to be used to deflect such a blow away from the body. Even in the context of a joust, with blunt wooden lances being used by the combatants, a direct hit on the body with the full momentum of a charging horse could be fatal. In such circumstances, avoiding the blow was the only realistic option; in contrast, chainmail could stop the swing of a sword, substituting a bruised shoulder or broken collarbone for a lost limb. Moreover, its flexibility aided the knight in his efforts to evade a blow, or at least the full impact of one.
At the same time, chainmail had its disadvantages. One is the fact that it did little to soften the impact of a blow. Another is the fact that when it did break, fragments of the mail often entered the resulting wound, encouraging infection. Finally, chainmail was heavy, and that weight was disproportionately borne by the shoulders, precisely that area of the body that was already working hard in the effort to swing the sword and raise the shield.
During the age of chainmail, helmets tended to be conical or round caps that left the face open. Many helmets offered a nasal, a vertical bar of metal that protected the nose, but beyond that, the only way to protect the face was through the use of a ventail, a flap of chainmail attached to the coif that could be raised to protect the lower portion of the face. In the 12th century, armorers experimented with a masklike extension of the helmet to protect the face, and by the middle of the 13th century, this had grown into large, vaguely cylindrical helmets that covered the entire head, with only slits for the eyes and a few holes in front for air flow.
Shields had also gone through a transformation in this period. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, shields were generally round in shape. During the 11th century, the Normans adopted the kite shield instead; this shield remained round on top, but extended to a point on the bottom, looking something like the side view of a cone. This design offered some protection to the left leg without requiring the lowering of the shield, and was particularly useful for those fighting on horseback. Fashions changed in armor just as in all sartorial matters, and the kite shield was eventually replaced by the “heater” shield, which is more or less the kind of shield one generally imagines when one thinks of a noble family’s coat of arms. Examples have been found of kite shields made to conform to the design of the “heater” shield by beating back the round upper portion, so the top of the shield is flat.
During this period, the sword and the lance were the definitive knightly weapons. The sword was more highly-prized, serving the knight well both on foot and on horseback. It was harder to make, and just as importantly, to make well, and therefore offered more in terms of status; it should not be surprising that knightly rituals, such as the accolade by which a squire was transformed into a knight, involved a sword. Knightly swords were generally of the longer variety (two or even 2 1/2 feet in length) that dominated weaponsmithing after the fall of the Roman Empire. Such swords were modeled after the Roman spathae that were generally used by the cavalry, as short swords did not offer enough reach for the horseman. These swords were used more for slashing than for stabbing.
The lance, however, may be more important to the military usefulness of the knight. Already in late antiquity, it was becoming increasingly difficult to train, equip and maintain large, disciplined infantry forces like that of the Roman Empire at its height. Forces dominated by cavalry, like the Huns and the Goths, drew the balance of power away from infantry to cavalry. Later, with the introduction of stirrups and the practice of couching the lance under the knight’s arm for a devastating charge, heavy cavalry came to dominate the battlefield for several centuries. Eventually, this will also be the key to the obsolescence of the knight on the battlefield: when well-trained infantry could hold off charges with weapons as long as the lance, or longer, while longbows, crossbows and early firearms could pick off knights from afar, the cavalry would have to redefine its role.
Other weapons were available, but few of these were considered worthy of the dignity of the knight. The mace may well be an exception because of its resemblance to symbols of authority like the king’s sceptre. Despite the fact that it was at least as useful as a sword against chainmail, and perhaps more so (because its power was the exclusive result of its impact, and not because of any cutting), it seems to have been used far more rarely.
It is only in the 14th century that alternatives to chainmail begin to develop. At first, these are merely supplements: breastplates to protect the chest, shoulderplates, braces for the forearm and knee- and shin-guards. Helmets become more elaborate too, with the evolution of designs like the bascinet. The bascinet marks a return to the conical helmet of the past, which offered greater protection against blows to the top of the head than the flat-topped cylindrical helmets, but showed a compromise between the facial protection of the latter and the field of vision offered by the former by offering a visor that could be raised.
During the 15th century, the number of solid metal plates being added to the armor grew, and soon these plates ceased to be additions to a mail base, and became suits of armor supplemented in a few areas by segments of chain. Development continued into the 16th century, but by this time, the importance of the knight on the battlefield had declined, and knightly combat was more and more a ritual phenomenon of tournaments that still enjoyed royal patronage. Knighthood still existed – in fact, still exists today – but the age of the medieval knight had passed.
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