Oh dear lord what is he on about now?
Okay, I’ve recently become something of a fan of historical fiction. Specifically Arthurian era fiction in the form of reading Jack Whyte’s A Dream of Eagles series (which might actually beat out A Song of Ice and Fire for sex and violence by time I’m done reading it) and roleplaying the Pendragon RPG. In both these mediums I’ve read, to no end, the mention of the importance of cavalry combat.
Now prior to this, I was unaware that medieval England put much use into cavalry beyond what was necessary as the English longbow and warship are often cited as the means of military device that allowed England to be the dominant force of its time. When I say cited I, of course, mean in popular media. And yet, historians will, and still do, argue that one innovation completely revolutionized military combat at the rise of Britain on the level of the invention of the bow and the mass use of gunpowder. Not only that, they will go even farther to say that this singular invention is the entire reason for feudal class structure in society as we know it.
You ready for it?
No this isn’t an S&M thing!
Yep. The stirrup. A simple strap of leather or loop of metal meant to keep the rider stable and help him or her get on the horse is considered on par with gunpowder and bows for impact on military combat. Think about that.
Why exactly? And if so, why don’t you know about it?
Okay, first let’s tackle why. The benefits of a stirrup may seem casually, almost blatantly obvious. They help a rider ascend a horse and stay mounted.
To fully understand the significance of this improvement you must understand that prior to the use of the stirrup in combat the pinnacle of modern military formations was the Roman Legion. It was so good that it went relatively unchanged for the entirety of the Roman Empire and beyond. Generally speaking, this is what the standard legionnaire looked like.
March all day and murder all night!
The reason this design didn’t change was, well because it was about as close to perfection as one could get. That is, in regards to foot soldiers. Cavalry at the time of the Roman Empire was not a popular option mostly because combat from a horse ended about the time the rider was pulled from his horse once he was engaged in close combat. Plus without a means of stabilizing oneself while on horseback, any poor swing or thrust with a weapon would set a rider off balance. Basically, it made the rider a piñata, and if his horse was killed and fell over with him still on it, he would probably get stuck underneath. So for that reason the standard Roman Legion was built to fight in formation with enough armour to keep the legionnaire safe but not enough to tire him after a day’s march and setting up of camp.
Then, well, something started to happen; cavalry combat started to become more and more viable. Unfortunately this is the part of history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the British Empire known as the Dark Ages and This period is called that for a reason. To that end I don’t even have a clue as to what happened during this time, definitively. But I have a rough idea.
Around that time, Roman armies in Britain, Gaul and other such places became left to their own devices and were forced to form their own governments and means to defend themselves. At that point, the stirrup became more widespread and suddenly units on horseback were completely dominating foot troops. To protect themselves these riding troops they would wear more armour and because they were on horseback they could wear it without it tiring them in long marches. In addition they could carry more weapons, weapons large enough and heavy enough to attack either a mounted soldier or a man on the ground. Thus the standard Roman Gladius sword, a simple two foot long (ish) blade ideal for close combat, was replaced with gradual lengthening until it became the well-known English Longsword which could attack easily from horseback. Thusly the armoured knight became effectively a tank on the battlefield, nearly impenetrable from all assaults.
Now, the fact that we now had knights on horseback means we also had, for the first time, squires designed to help maintain the knights so we no longer had soldiers who led and maintained their own camp as the Roman Legion did. That was the work of squires who were basically mechanics to the tank that was the Knight. Also, some historians argue that the use of horses led to a class divide which became feudal society. The reason why this feudal structure existed, they attest, is because that not every person could own and pay for the care of a horse. As a result, typically the rich and high born nobles were the only ones who could afford horses and thus advance in military rank as knights and gain command. That is the theory, though it is widely argued.
So, knowing all of that now, you’re asking yourself why on earth do you not know this? Hollywood would take any chance it could to use history to make a movie so why not? Especially in the films about King Arthur and the end of the dark ages, are these facts used? In fact, as far as I know, the only film that I know of that puts a strong emphasis on jousting and horse combat is A Knight’s Tale. Think about that for a second. That movie is more accurate about the value of horse combat then most films based on the time period.
I should point out that lance combat, from which jousting evolved, was pretty much the best way to take down an enemy armoured knight on horseback. If you were on horseback that is.
So why not? more films about cavalry combat? Well, most of the big Hollywood films tend to visually follow the Robin Hood era to combat by having a scrappy hero with little means to defend himself against an unbeatable hoard and let’s be honest, no matter how much your mongrel horde might have pillaged, murdered and raped, they are still going to look pretty piddly against a fully armoured knight designed to subdue ground troops. I think that’s part of the reason why modern military organizations are always made so evil.
What a lot of Hollywood films really like to do is show warriors wearing light armour, fast and mobile which was more common during later in England’s military career with the improvement of the bow. Still cavalry remained a damn essential part of the formation. Honestly, that sucks because there’s a lot of great moments of visual potential that haven’t been tapped from having a scene where a bunch of friends don their heavy armour, mount their steeds and plunge forward into combat. Maybe it’s just expensive to get that many horses for staging cavalry combat. It certainly would be if they got hurt.
Still, it’s become convention now that you have a group of heroes with incomplete armour running around without horses, even getting off their horses to fight despite having the advantage on horseback.
And in all of this you might be asking, wait, if you’re raging on convention in fantasy story telling why not say something about Tolkien? Hell, most of the fantasy cues in modern fiction are taken from him. On that point I can see your argument since most of the Fellowship proceeds on foot mixing different armours and weapons but I should point out that Tolkien freaking adored horse combat. If memory serves he considered it one of the great tragedies of modern combat being the fact that men no longer used horses. If you don’t believe me then I point out that the most successful battles in the series happen on horseback, plus the greatest fighting force in the film is the Riders of Rohan! Cavalry baby!
And that’s why I think a lot of us don’t know how historically significant cavalry was. These days the image of a faceless armoured knight on horseback is considered a (almost clichéd) symbol of terror, a villain to be struck down in a final battle. It doesn’t matter that when the first Briton soldiers rode into battle they were often outnumbered against Saxon hordes that’d plagued their lands for generations, killing their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. During that time a united style of armour and dress wasn’t a symbol of conformity or oppression, it was a symbol of achievement and brotherhood. That a group of people abandoned in a strange land could amass and train themselves to not only repel a tireless enemy but chisel out peace in their country. Knights weren’t oppressors or tyrants they were well-trained heroes dedicating their lives to the art of combat so others could live in peace.
But I guess that’s just too difficult to represent artistically these days.
So too does this work exist.