Lords and Ladies: Military Training

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Lords and Ladies: Military Training


The Castle Yard. Medieval soldiers received varying degrees of training. Conscripted villagers were given little, while training a knight could take a decade. For a member of a garrison or a young noble, the training site was the castle yard. In the small, open spaces inside the castle walls, various tools could be set up to aid the apprentice soldier. Archers had targets, and swordsmen had their training ground. One of the most common pieces of equipment was a cloth dummy stuffed with straw and set on a rotating pole at a man’s height. This dummy could be used to train a foot soldier with a sword or a horseman with various weapons. Because the dummy was the size of a man, the soldier could learn to aim his strokes instinctively, and because it moved, it could swing around and even hit a soldier who did not place or time his blow correctly. Soldiers also learned swordplay by fencing with each other. Their vulnerable areas were wrapped in padding, and they attacked

each other with a wooden sword. While some mock battles followed set procedures, injuries could occur, and broken bones or cuts needing stitches were not uncommon. As long as these injuries were caused unintentionally, a fighter who hurt a fellow trainee was not liable for any penalties, as he would be during individual combat.

Exercise and Education for the Noble Soldier. By the thirteenth century literate soldiers could read a series of treatises about the art of war, some of which were written by people with battle experience. This sort of literature—along with classical examples such as Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars—continued to be popular among nobles well into the Renaissance. Yet, much of a medieval nobleman’s training was based on experience, repetition, and hard work. Daily training involved hours of individualized practice with various weapons, not group drills as in modern armies. Hours of horseback riding were also expected, as the horse was both an essential tool in noble warfare and the fastest means of transportation. In the process, a knight who escaped injury could develop impressive strength.

Medieval Armor. Armor became increasingly complicated throughout the Middle Ages. The protective clothing worn by foot soldiers, archers, and even poorer nobles was never as complex or expensive as that worn by members of the upper nobility. In fact, the modern conception of knightly armor and combat in the Middle Ages is based on accounts of “knightly” combat from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, just as armor was becoming impractical. The primary components of the medieval armor used in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were wool, highly cured leather, and steel. Wool was the basic fabric for most of medieval soldiers and knights’ underclothes. It provided padding in especially vulnerable areas, such as the thighs, or in places where chafing might occur, including around the shoulders. Layers of cured and hardened leather had been the foundation for protective gear since at least the


Jean le Meingre, more commonly known as Boucicaut, was marshal of France and governor of Languedoc and Guyenne in the fourteenth century. A knight, councilor to the king of France, and chamberlain of the king, he was known throughout France and England for his military feats. This contemporary description of his physical abilities illustrates the strength and coordination necessary for a successful medieval soldier.

He executed a somersault fully armed, except for his basinet, [a light steel helmet], and whilst dancing he was armed with a mail coat. Item, he leapt onto a courser without placing his foot in the stirrup, fully armed. Item, with a strong man mounted on a great horse, he leapt from the ground onto his shoulders by taking his sleeve in one hand and without any other hold. Item, placing one hand on the saddle pommel of a great courser and the other near the horse’s ears, seizing the mane, he leapt from the ground through his arms and over the horse. Item, if two walls were an arm’s length apart and as high as a tower, he could climb to the top without slipping on the ascent or descent, simply using the strength of his arms and legs, without any other assistance. Item, wearing a coat of mail he ascended the under side of a great ladder placed against a wall to the top without using his feet, simply jumping with both hands from rung to rung and, then, taking off this coat, he did this with one hand until he was unable to ascend any higher.

Source: Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, translated by Michael Jones (oxford & New York; Blackwell, 1984), pp. 216–217.

Roman Empire, and they were the most-common defense in the Middle Ages. The headgear that many fighting men wore was made of layers of hard leather tied onto the head, and chest and leg protection were fabricated from the same material. Such armor was so insubstantial that shocked chroniclers sometimes described these soldiers as going “naked” into battle. Leather had the advantage of being relatively cheap, flexible, and light, at least when compared with the other available material for effective armor: steel. Steel, however, gave far more protection than leather and was the preferred armor for any soldier who could afford it. The most common form of steel protection was mail, which was made of small steel rings laid over each other and welded together. Mail was good protection from sword thrusts, but it could only partially deflect damage from a blow. Although a soldier wore padding under his mail, medieval documents record cases in which mail was driven into a soldier’s body and then needed to be cut out. Horses also had armor. Leather, mail, and other steel protectors were placed over a horse’s vulnerable areas, such as the chest, the neck, and between the ears. Like the knights who rode them, horses were dressed elaborately on ceremonial occasions. A horse might be draped with an elaborately embroidered cloth featuring the knight’s coat of arms or other decorative patterns and colors with symbolic meanings.

Making Armor. Armor and weapons were custom-made through much of the Middle Ages. In fact, it was remarkable when, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Capetian monarchy of France began creating small stockpiles of crossbows, shields, lances, and armor. Although certain regions, such as Toledo in Spain, were known for the quality of their steel and, therefore, their armor and weapons, the local blacksmith-armorer made much of the arms and armor that medieval nobles used. Customized production also helps account for modern debates about the techniques used in making military essentials, such as mail shirts and leggings. Scholars have discussed for decades how the rings were interwoven and the exact method of attaching them (such as riveting or welding). It appears that there were local variations in how mail was made. Most larger villages, towns, and castles supported a blacksmith. Although a smith could specialize in armor, most often he also supplied all of the metal tools to his community and the villages within market distance. The forge was in a separate building at a good distance from other structures to minimize the danger of fire.

Working with steel demanded large, hot fires and sometimes ovens for softening or melting materials. One feature of a medieval armory or smithy was a large, brick fire pit about three feet tall and located at least several feet from a wall. A well-equipped smith had a large bellows with a foot pump angled alongside this fire so that he could regulate the air getting to the fire and, thus, the heat at which it was burning. Water was another essential commodity for a medieval smith. Not only did it cool the metal while it was being worked, it could be used to put out small fires. Leather buckets were as essential to a smith as iron hammers, anvils, bellows, and the various pliers and other tools he used for shaping metal.

Dressing the Noble Soldier. The clothes of the medieval soldier varied greatly according to century and the soldier’s social status. The description that follows is based on what a nobleman would have worn in approximately the middle of the thirteenth century. A soldier started by putting on a pair of linen breeches, or braies. Noblemen’s braies were generally made of higher-quality cloth than peasants’ braies, and slits were cut on both sides of the front near the waistband in order to attach other clothes. A soldier then slipped on a pair of wool hose over his braies and tied them to the braies by threading leather thongs through those slits. A wealthy knight then put on two coverings. The first was a layer of flexible-mail hose known as chausses. Chausses even sometimes had feet attached to them, like the pajamas with feet that small children sometimes wear. Further padding, generally stuffed with wool, was placed at the thighs. The layering on the upper body mimicked that found on the hips and thighs, with a shirt, another lightly padded shirt, and a full-mail hauberk (a sleeveless tunic) draped over the two shirts. The head was covered with a padded woolen cap and then a mail hood was set over the cap; sometimes this hood was attached to the hauberk, and other times it was a separate piece of armor. Finally, the mounted soldier wore steel sheet armor that protected his shoulders and torso. Heraldic devices painted on the sheet armor were relatively new at this period and became more common in the later-thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. All these layers were topped by a riveted steel helm with eye slits, holes around the mouth for breathing, and a strong and straight noseguard. One of the most common misconceptions about medieval knights is that these outfits weighed so much a knight was helpless. His armor and weapons weighed between sixty and seventy pounds, about the same weight as the weapons and pack carried by a modern foot soldier. To stand up, a knight had to roll onto his knees.


John Clark, ed., The Medieval Horse and Its Equipment (London: HMSO, 1995).

David Edge and John Miles Paddock, Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight: An Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages (New York: Defoe, 1988).

Maurice Keen, Nobles, Knights, and Men-at-Arms in the Middle Ages (London & Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press, 1996).

David C. Nicolle, Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350, 2 volumes (White Plains, N.Y.: Kraus, 1988).

Matthias Pfaffenbichler, Medieval Craftsmen: Armourers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

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