Thursday, August 25, 2011

From Knights to Minutemen: What Are a Knight's Weaknesses?

So we've talked about knights' strengths, about what made them dominate the battlefields of Europe from Charlemagne to Henry V. If that's all there was to the story, we could spend the rest of the series wondering why anybody bothered to fight them at all. If they were so invincible, why didn't their very existence end war?

The question answers itself. They weren't invincible. Here we'll talk about some of the weaknesses that allowed dismounted and unarmored foes to defeat them from time to time--even before gunpowder appeared on the battlefield.

First and most obvious, full plate armor is heavy. Really heavy. It's a myth that a knight armored for battle couldn't stand up if he got knocked from his horse, and another that he had to be lifted onto his horse by a crane. Only the very heaviest armor, designed for jousting in the 15th century, was ever that limiting--to go into battle in something you can't stand up in would be really, really stupid. And most knights weren't stupid.

But it was still heavy. And even though knights were the world-class athletes of their day, fighting in heavy armor is hard work. Stop a charging knight, bring his horse down or knock him off of it, and it's going to take him some time to get up. If you can get men--lighter-armed, faster men--to him while he's still on the ground, put them to work whacking him in the head with hammers or maces or sticking swords or knives or spears through the joints in his armor, he'll go down just like anybody else on the field.

Second, his horse--as great an asset as it is--is vulnerable. It's true that many horses could carry a fully-armored rider and wear some armor themselves, but when a horse is already carrying two hundred fifty pounds of armored rider, there's a limit to how much more it can carry. Even wearing armor, most of a horse's neck and legs and all of its belly are exposed.

And a horse depends on its rider to avoid obstacles. See, horses don't like to run full-speed into people with sharp things pointed at them, which means they must either be trained to obey their riders absolutely, or they must wear blinders that keep them from seeing what's ahead. Either makes them vulnerable to obstacles like pits or trenches or spikes placed where their riders won't see them until it's too late to avoid them. And when he's off his horse, a knight is a heavily-armed infantryman, hard to kill to be sure, but slower than most of his enemies.

Third, a knight can't see very well through the little slits in his visor, nor can he hear very well through the metal. On a hot day, you can bet breathing isn't easy, either. Better than taking a sword to the face, of course, but the very thing that protects him makes him vulnerable to surprise and attacks from the sides and rear.

Finally--and maybe most important of all--knights are expensive. Their weapons, armor, and horses are the best to be had, but quality isn't cheap. And their equipment must be maintained, which means skilled craftsmen must travel with the army. And the knights have to eat, as do their horses (most knights would have two or three, at least) and all the people who must travel with them to keep them healthy and their equipment maintained. Each knight might have five or six people to support him. All of them eat, but only a few of them fight. It works out when a knight is worth ten men on the field, but if you can field six men with halberds or pikes for the cost of one knight, and the knight is only worth three men... well, you start to see things differently.

So war in the late middle ages became more and more about how to make knights less important on the field, about minimizing the impact of their strengths and taking advantage of their weaknesses. Next time, we'll talk about some of the ways medieval armies did this, even before gunpowder.

Go get your nerd on!

No comments:

Post a Comment