In challenging cherished assumptions, we must be careful that we are not simply reproducing past errors in an inverted form. Trusting medieval illustrators on the size of horses is neither more important nor more rigorous than trusting medieval commanders on the importance of those horses, regardless of their exact dimensions. Both Carroll Gillmor in “Practical Chivalry: The Training of Horses for Tournaments and Warfare” and Matthew Bennett in “The Medieval Warhorse Reconsidered” stake out positions within a new orthodoxy that largely discounts the worth of heavy cavalry in medieval European warfare. But this position then requires both to explain the cultural and documentary ubiquity of armored men on armored horses. Bennett, having assembled some contradictory evidence, is noncommittal - “There remains the question of just how much a warhorse – the specialist destrier – existed as a vehicle for status rather than battle” (39). Gillmor has no such qualms, asserting outright, “The infrequency of set battles in the period 1050 – 1300 and the relative unimportance of mounted knights when set battles did occur, must mean that horses were primarily trained to fight in tournament-style contests” (18).
This blog post has neither the space nor the expertise to challenge the fine work and intriguing conclusions of these historians. Suffice it to investigate a few of their points – both authors' discussion of infantry effectiveness and Gillmor's account of tactics and the cultural centrality of tournaments – before comparing the mustered evidence to how that evidence is expected to perform.
Ridiculing the comparison of the knight with the tank, Bennett notes that, “Most academics, however, have been pointing out for a long time that formed infantry will always see off a cavalry charge if they stand firm and do not dissolve into panicky flight” (21). “Formed infantry” and “do not dissolve” are key here, because most infantry – in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and even as late as the 19th century – were poorly trained and minimally motivated to participate in the feudal battles of their superiors. Heavy cavalry, after all, don't need to smash through enemy lines or trample their opponents. The ordinary reaction of someone on foot who is charged by a horseman is to turn around and run, and shock tactics from ancient Assyria to riot policing have relied on precisely this fear. As late as Waterloo, in 1815, Napoleon hoped that his cuirassiers might break the Duke of Wellington's infantry, and their failure to do so testifies much more to the discipline of the British soldiers than to Napoleon's ignorance of what horses can or cannot do.
Likewise, at Courtrai and Bannockburn – examples that Gillmor is quick to cite (17-18) attacking knights ran up against well-drilled footmen in close ranks, united by loyalty to their commanders and homelands. But in accounting for these unusually capable infantry, we must also account for the mounted knights' apparent belief in their own chances of victory, to the point of risking their own lives and those of their immensely costly destriers. Far from representing the knights' failures to understand their own obvious obsolescence, these defeats were likely shocking.
Perhaps most illustrative here is the detailed example that Bennett provides to prove the uselessness of the heavy cavalry charge. On pages 33 and 34, he quotes Usama ibn Munqidh's report of the crusader Prince Tancred's failure against Syrian footmen at Shaizar in 1110. “You have these sergeants... in front of you,” Tancred berates his riders, “yet you are not capable of moving them!' They answered, 'We fear only for our horses; otherwise we would have crushed and pierced such enemies with our lances'... They then made several charges against the men of Shaizar, and lost seventy horses, but could not move the enemy from the position that they had taken up.”
For Bennett, this showcases the knightly charge as a futile and rarely successful tactic. But it seems to me that Munqidh's account in fact suggests the opposite. In 1110, Tancred was 36, an experienced commander who had been engaged in more or less continuous crusading warfare for fifteen years leading up to the confrontation at Shaizar. Either he was an unusually stupid man who had been unusually lucky in his earlier battles – or he was acting according to his experience that a frontal assault of well-equipped horsemen was usually sufficient to see off opposing infantry. That he persisted in this conviction even as his men were beaten back time and again, sustaining the grievous and hard-to-replace loss of seventy warhorses, indicates that Tancred was surprised and frustrated by the extraordinary, unexpected tenacity of the Syrians.
In certain situations, fighters (including knights themselves) did indeed “fight better” on foot, as Bennett states on 36. But his subsequent grudging admission that they did not always do so – indeed, that the cases when they did were unusual enough to warrant special mention by the chroniclers – should suggest that commanders like Tancred were not fools to invest in their heavy cavalry and expect it to achieve victory.
Carroll Gillmor's article is even more selective in its use of sources and fixation on certain exceptions. Its focus on the Frankish empire in the centuries around the turn of the first millenium does indeed create a very different picture of cavalry warfare from the smashing charges of cliché medievalism. But generalizing from the Bretons – an isolated and culturally distinct population at the margin of Europe – is almost certainly unjustified. Rather than providing a pattern that High Medieval heavy cavalry likely imitated, Regino's Bretons seem to be performing a difficult but recognizable maneuver, somewhat similar to what the Spanish later termed the caracole. It represents one adaptation of heroic mounted warfare to a more organized military model, based on evasion, missile weapons, and, yes, swift lead change to produce circular sweeping maneuvers and feigned retreats. But the Bretons seem to have abandoned these tactics as they became culturally and politically assimilated with the French – certainly there are no later references to distinct Breton maneuvers in the battles of Jean de Montfort or Bertrand du Guesclin.
The history of cavalry in the West is, to some degree, a history of the alternation of these evasive tactics with an alternate approach based on direct charge and close combat. This opposition can be seen in accounts of the confrontation between Darius' javelineers and Alexander the Great's lancers in the late 4th century BCE, all the way through the tactical innovations of Gustavus Adolphus' hakkapeliitta against the Imperial pistoleers at Breitenfield and Lutzen during the Thirty Year's War.
In places, the evidence is in clearly unresolved dissonance. On page 15 of the article, Gillmor attempts to undermine Bachrach's challenge of the importance of the stirrup by asserting that feigned retreats would have been “very difficult to accomplish” without them. And yet they were accomplished without stirrups, by riders across vast swathes of Eurasia - Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia – almost from the moment that cavalry enters the historical record. That such tactics were not only possible but widespread suggests that we know very little about the actual techniques used in historical horsemanship, and that attempting to apply modern standards to them is perhaps a futile exercise.
Finally, the insistence on knights as primarily “athletes” (20) is, I think, charming but misguided. No modern polity has staked its survival on a NASCAR competition. Medieval kings routinely bet their kingdoms on armed confrontation, and the list of monarchs killed while fighting (as knights – that is, mounted and wearing armor) is ample testimony to the stakes attached to the martial skills honed in tournaments (as well as a persistent reliance on the charge and melee combat). Of course the line between the tournament and warfare was blurred – both featured weapons, ransoms, and death. But one suspects that Richard III, whose recently-discovered body is a forensic catalog of the effects of close-combat weaponry on human flesh, would disagree profoundly with Gillmor's assertion of the tournament as the ultimate test of knightly ability. An imperfect but perhaps more apt analogy might be modern fighter pilots like the Thunderbirds, whose aerial displays are indeed stunning spectator sports, performed at great cost and substantial personal risk. But no one would argue that the Air Force exists primarily for such entertainments.