In class, we substantially discussed the nature of the warhorse, and the way in which it was portrayed. We accepted, following the opinions of Hyland, Bennett, Davis, and others, that the height of a medieval warhorse was only about 15 hands, instead of the massive horses modern imaginations conceive for the period. We also rejected the idea that cavalry forces could or would “ride down any foot in its way” (Bennett 21). Instead, we followed historical evidence, such as what Gillmor described, to prove that complicated and nimble maneuvers like the feigned retreat were the effective strategies of medieval knights. We also noted the specific instance in which the mounted charge was recorded as being highly effective: the Battle of Dyrrhacium in 1081 and possibly the Battle of Ascalon in 1099. However, we did not discuss for the most part why infantry forces were so potent against cavalry, and what made Ascalon different.
Infantry tactics in early medieval Europe revolved around one concept: the shield wall. Essentially, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, a long line would be formed using a significant amount of the infantry forces, all equipped with a large shield, especially a kite shield, which covers a soldier’s legs. The soldiers stand next to each together, so that the shields defend the front and sides of the entire army. In addition, as the Bayeux Tapestry shows, the most common weapons would be spears or swords, which are held past the wall to kill any fighters who approach. In addition, as the Anglo-Saxon poems The Battle of Maldon and The Battle of Brunanburh describe and the Bayeux Tapestry pictures, archers were placed with the shield wall to pick off as many people as possible. At the Battle of Hastings, the wall was supplemented by the Dane-axes: large (nearly as tall as a man according to the Bayeux tapestry) two-handed axes which in one panel of the tapestry is shown killing a horse in one blow. To an onlooker, the shield wall would provide no targets then, but rather be a solid barrier with a spikes sticking out of it, much like the fortifications used since Roman times.
The shield wall proved to be a hugely effective strategy even against other infantry forces. At the Battle of Maldon in 991, the poet claims that two men held a narrow strait against several hundred Vikings, who eventually resorted to deceit to cross. For cavalry, a charge against that would be unthinkable. The first reason for this is that horses “prefer not to step on people, but will often do anything to avoid it”. There is a large crowd of people very close together in a shield wall with no space for a horse. In that case, the animal would balk at the idea of running at all close to so many people. The second reason why any charge is laughable is that the horse would have to run directly onto a wall of sharp objects. Not only is this against the horse’s nature again, but it is against the riders! As Gillmor and Bennett mention, the bond between horses and riders would be extensive. In order to support the training and the maneuvering of the battle, the horse and rider must understand each other and communicate instantly. Such training would be sure to create a bond of affection between rider and horse. It is for that reason that in 1110, knights were recorded as avoiding a charge by saying “We fear only for our horses” (Bennett 33-34). Even if the opposing infantry were not in a shield wall in the same way the Anglo-Saxons were at Hastings, the same principle applies. A charge might shatter some shields, as the Bayeux Tapestry shows when depicting the shield wall, but it would certainly kill the horses. Such an action would be a tactical disaster by any measurement, meaning that a simple charge could not work against a cohesive shield wall for multiple reasons.
So why was the charge demonstrated as effective multiple times at the end of the 12th century? It seems that at both major instances, the only reason the charge was effective is due to an error on the opposing side. At Dyrrhacium, a battle between the Normans and the Byzantines, the Norman charge is documented as thoroughly effective. It is interesting to note that, as the Byzantine writer Anna Comnena noted, the feigned retreat failed to draw out the shield wall. However, it seems that the Byzantine army was concerned enough with the Norman feint that a charge actually broke into the army. The reason for this, according to some historians, was that the couched lance was thoroughly documented as the tactic of the Normans. The extra impact of the direct charge seems to have been enough to disrupt the Byzantine formation. However, it is worth noting that Comnena describes the Norman knights as immediately being routed by the horse’s panic after the charge. So, while it was effective, the same battle proves the idea that horses were opposed to running straight into masses of enemies.
At Ascalon, the tactical error seems to be that the Fatimid army was simply not ready for battle. In an account by Fulcher of Chartres, the Fatimids were caught unprepared for the attacking Crusaders. In this case, a charge would be highly effective, as “one-to-one, the weight of the warhorses did count” (Bennett 36). It would not matter what gear the Fatimids used, their lack of formation would have lost the battle.
So, it is clear overall that it is the formation of the infantry more so than the details of gear that deterred the warhorses. A well-organized infantry block would win against a much larger group of cavalry, but if a charge could be enacted through some opening, it was possible for a group of knights to obliterate a much larger force.
Gillmor, Caroll, “Practical Chivalry: The Training of Horses for Tournaments and Warfare”
Bennett, Matthew, “The Medieval Warhorse Reconsidered”
Davis, R.H.C, “The Warhorses of the Normans”
Bayeux Tapestry, scenes 2 and 3 of the Battle, accessed from http://www.bayeuxtapestry.org.uk/
Liuzza, R.M, The Battle of Maldon,
Comnena, Anna, The Alexiad, trans. E.R.A. Sewter, Penguin Books, 1996
Haldon, John, The Byzantine Wars: Battles and Campaigns of the Byzantine Era., Tempus Publishing, 2001