Sunday, August 21, 2011

From Knights to Minutemen: What is a Knight Good For?

Before we charge ahead with the story of gunpowder and early-modern infantry tactics, we need to spend a couple of posts looking at our starting point. The first step in understanding the journey ahead of us, after all, is understanding where we are starting from.

First, let's be clear on a couple of points:

1. Gunpowder did not replace knights on the battlefield. Gunpowder was merely the last in a series of developments that rendered knights, in their traditional tactical role (the job they did on the battlefield) of heavy cavalry, obsolete. And heavy cavalry didn't go away; it simply evolved into other forms (which we'll talk about in a future post). Some of those forms, believe it or not, were still fighting with swords and spears in the early years of the twentieth century.

2. Minutemen did not replace knights on the battlefield. For one thing, their roles were completely different; for another, centuries passed between the disappearance of the one and the rise of the other. There were lots of steps in between.

3. Knights didn't go away when gunpowder came into use on European battlefields. That change, too, took a long time--and knights are still with us, after all, even if they don't fight in shining armor like they used to.

So those are clear now. I hope. Let's move on to our story.

This story is about change. So I think it's useful to start not with the changes themselves, but with why things changed.

The why stems largely from the strengths of a mounted knight. A few of these are, in no particular order:

- He sits taller than everybody else. That means he has a better view of what's going on on the battlefield, better situational awareness than his adversaries (at least until he puts his visor down, which he usually doesn't have to do until the moment before he closes with his enemy).

- He's harder to kill than anybody else. When weapons are muscle-powered, a layer of steel (with leather and heavy cloth underneath) between your skin and your enemy is very handy.

- He's faster than almost anybody else. A squadron of knights on horseback can get to most places on a medieval battlefield before their enemies can do anything about it.

- He has gravity on his side. If you've ever boxed or fenced or even tried to cut down a tree with an axe, you know it gets tiring very quickly. Up on his horse, above everybody else, the knight can use gravity as his ally: he strikes downward at his enemies, while they have to strike upward to reach him.

Add to those a couple of facts about who knights were and how they lived:

- They were the world-class athletes of their day, training for combat and physical exertion from childhood and with access to the best nutrition and living conditions available.

- They were the wealthiest, best-equipped combatants on the battlefield, with access to weapons, armor, and horses better than anything anybody else could bring to the field.

All these factors combined to make knights the baddest cats on the battlefield--and gave their enemies plenty of reasons to seek ways around their strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses.

What were those weaknesses? We'll look at those next time.

Go get your nerd on!

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