Gateway to the Classics: When Knights Were Bold by Eva March Tappan
When Knights Were Bold by  Eva March Tappan

The Knight's Arms and Armor

The chief weapons used by knights were the lance and the sword, and therefore they needed especially some sort of protection against the thrust of a lance and the stroke of a sword. Every knight wore a helmet, for nothing would please his enemy better than to strike a mighty blow that would cleave his head from its crown to the breastbone. There were many sorts of helmets. Some were shaped like closely-fitting hoods, covering the back of the head, but leaving the face unprotected. Some were cone-shaped and had visors that could be lifted, and others were much like broadbrimmed hats. Some had a piece of iron called a nasal which extended down over the forehead and nose; and some covered the whole head like a kettle and had slits through which the knight might peer out at his enemy—or through which the enemy might sometimes thrust the point of a spear. The helmet was not always plain by any means, for it was often beautifully ornamented with silver or gold. It was heavy enough at best; but the warrior bold never objected to increasing its weight by adding as a crest a little image of an eagle or a lion or a dragon to suggest to his enemy what a brave man he was.



The warrior must guard his heart as well as his head, and he always wore some sort of armor to protect his body. For a long while this was in the form of a short tunic or shirt called a hauberk. With it, chausses, or breeches, were worn. At the neck a hood of mail was joined to the hauberk, or habergeon, which served to protect the back of the head. In the earlier times the hauberk was made of leather or cloth and was often thickly wadded and quilted. Indeed, the leather hauberks never went entirely out of use so long as armor was worn. Sometimes they were really handsome, for the leather was stamped, colored, and gilded in elaborate patterns. They were cheap and convenient; but when an enemy was galloping up to a man and thrusting a lance at his heart with full force, even the thickest leather was small protection. It occurred to some one with an inventive mind that if rings of metal were only sewed upon this tunic, it would not be so easy for either lance or sword to reach the heart of a man. The rings were sewed on in rows, and before long larger rings were sewed over them. Then some one said to himself, "Why sew the rings on leather or cloth? Why not interlace them in a network?" and soon knights were setting forth to battle with coats of mail made of interlaced rings. A coat of this kind was far less clumsy and heavy than a leather tunic. Moreover, it could be rolled up into so small a bundle that it could be carried on the back of a saddle.



This was a fairly good protection against sword and spear, and probably the knights who first went out to battle with new and shining ring or chain armor felt that nothing better could ever be invented; but there were two other weapons whose blow was only made more dangerous by this armor. These were the battle-axe and the heavy battle-hammer, or martel. The head of the hammer sometimes weighed twenty pounds, and with a strong man to wield it with both hands it became a terrible weapon. The priests and bishops of those days were often called upon to lead their people in fighting as well as in praying. The Church law forbade them to "take the sword," but it said nothing about the hammer; therefore they took the hammer and went into battle with clear consciences. When either hammer or axe struck its crushing blow, chain armor was worse than nothing, for it tore the flesh beneath it into rough, jagged wounds that were hard to heal.


knight in armor

The next invention was to fasten on plates of steel at the most exposed places, and soon the coudière protected the elbow and the genouillière the knee. Little by little the chain armor disappeared, and armor of overlapping scales took its place. Every piece had its name. The chest and back were protected by a cuirass; the throat by a gorget, and thighs by cuisses, the arms and shoulders by brassarts and ailettes, and the hands by gauntlets, while the chausses were extended to protect the toes. The chain armor was much easier to put on, and a knight could slip it over his head even after he saw his enemy in the distance galloping toward him. The plate armor protected him from sword and spear and in great degree from hammer and battle-axe, but it took so long to put it on that the knight had to wear it not only in time of battle, but whenever there was the least danger of being surprised by an enemy. When two knights fought, the one who could unhorse the other was usually the winner, for while his adversary rolled helplessly on the ground, he could slip a thin, slender dagger in between the plates of his armor and kill him. To do such a deed, however, would have been a shame and disgrace to any true knight unless he first asked, "Will you yield, rescue or no rescue?" If the vanquished man replied, "I yield," the dagger of mercy, as it was called, was not used, but he was led away as a prisoner. If a knight fell into the power of a man who had not taken even the first steps toward knighthood, he was indeed in difficulties. Naturally, he wished to save his life; but to surrender to an adversary of low degree would be a humiliation hard for any valiant knight to endure. Some one discovered an amusing way of escaping from this dilemma. He simply made his captor a knight and then surrendered to him; thus saving both his life and his pride.

The knight wore golden spurs. These were his especial badge of honor, and they were forbidden to all of lesser rank. He carried a shield large enough to protect his body and to serve as a litter on which, if he was wounded, he could be carried from the field. Across his shoulder he often wore a silken scarf called a baldric, embroidered by the lady for whose glory his deeds of prowess were done. In Joseph Rodman Drake's poem on The American Flag, he said that its white came from "the milky baldric of the skies," meaning the Milky Way. Another way by which a knight could show loyalty to one's lady-love was to fasten her glove or scarf to his helmet. Still another way was to fasten one of her sleeves to his shoulder. Sleeves were so long in those times that they sometimes touched the ground, and must have hampered the knight badly. The fashion of wearing them as pennons was much more reasonable.

As a protection from the heat of the sun, which beat down upon his armor of steel, the knight wore also a sort of sleeveless tunic called a tabard, and also jupon, gipon, and surcoat. At first this was made of linen or a coarse cloth known as fustian, but as people became more luxurious, silk or fur or cloth of gold was used. It must soon have become badly stained by the armor beneath it. The poet Chaucer never failed to notice whether things were fresh and clean and dainty, and he wrote of a knight who had just returned from warfare,—

Of fustian he wered a gipoun

Al bismotered [stained] with his habergeoun.

After armor was so made that it hid the face of the knight, the custom arose of engraving some device upon the shield or breastplate by which he might be recognized. This was also embroidered upon his surcoat and upon the trappings of his horse. These are the "arms" or "coats of arms" or "armorial bearings" that have been handed down in many families, together with the figures on the helmets known as crests. The oldest arms were simple arrangements of straight lines, but soon the devices became more complex. Circles, trefoils, arrows, and swords were used. The figures of animals appeared, such as cranes, mullets, lions, and horses; and also fabulous beasts, such as dragons and unicorns. Frequently a device was chosen which had connection with some event of its bearer's life. If a man had a noted adventure with a wolf, he was likely to choose the figure of a wolf for his coat of arms. The terms in which arms are described are taken from the French; for instance, in figure 2, if the shield is silver and the bar, or "rafter," is red, the proper description would be: "Argent, a chevron gules."



The favorite weapons of the knight were the spear and the sword, as has been said. The spear was made of ash and had a head of iron. Just below the head the ensign, called the gonfanon, or pennon, was fastened. This was sometimes made of linen, but often of the richest silk. The sword which hung from the knight's belt was his darling. He spoke of it almost as affectionately as if it had been a brother in arms. "My own good sword," he called it. He even gave it a name. Charlemagne's sword was Joyosa; Roland's was Durindana; Arthur's was Excalibur. The Cid's favorite sword, Tizona, was buried with him. The sword was more than a weapon, for blade and hilt formed the sacred sign of the cross, and many a good knight and true has kissed it fervently and murmured his last prayer as he lay dying on the field of battle. Not only the sword, but also many other parts of the knight's equipment had their significance. The straightness of the spear symbolized truth, and its iron head, strength. The helmet suggested modesty; the spurs, diligence. The shield reminded him that as by its use he saved his own body, so ought he to use that body to protect his lord when in danger.


knight on horseback

The knight's good steed that carried him into the battle was an important part of his equipment. The powerful horses of Spain were always liked by knights, but the Arabian coursers were even greater favorites. The horses of the Arabs had been petted and loved and treated almost as members of their masters' families for so many generations that they were fearless servants and devoted friends. If the knight was thrown from his seat, the horse had no thought of running away, but stood quietly beside him, waiting for him to mount. The horse as well as his rider was protected by armor, so that head, chest, and flanks were safe from spear thrusts. He was arrayed in trappings as handsome as his master could afford. The housings, or saddlecloths, were often of rich material and decorated with embroidery. On his head, he, too, wore a crest, and around his neck a collar of little bells. Chaucer says of a monk who liked to go hunting,

And whan he rood men myghte his brydel here

Gynglen in a whistlyng wynd as clere,

And eek as loude as doth the chapel belle.

It was on the bridle, however, that the knight lavished his pennies. This was ornamented with gold and silver and embroidery, and even with precious stones, that flashed and sparkled as the steed bore his rider proudly into the contest. After the combat of the day was over, the tent pitched, and the supper prepared, the faithful horse was not forgotten, and one of the early pictures shows him eating comfortably from a crib in his master's tent close to the knight's own table.

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