Many commentators continue to peddle the chivalric myth that knightly cavalry dominated medieval warfare, and their sole concept of war was glorious, undisciplined charges. The destruction of an East Roman army by Goths in the battle of ‘Adrainople’ (378) has been seen as opening the new era, during which infantry were unimportant. It is said, in the eight century, the Frank Charles Martel created a heavy cavalry force, seizing church lands to share among his followers in return for military service; that the introduction of the stirrup soon after 700 made the new heavy cavalry possible, employing the technique of mounted shock combat in which the lance was held firmly in the armpit (‘couched’); and that this made heavy cavalry masters of the battlefield. Thus, a respected historian of war described medieval warfare as ‘the war of the knights (War in European History – Michael Howard). This interpretation was also attractive since it seemed to explain the development of feudalism, a method of organizing society in which knights granted land to their greater subjects in return for military service, and bound them by oaths of loyalty.
But the idea that cavalry dominated medieval warfare is false. Many writers have been misled by sources, which, produced by members of ruling elite, concentrated on the exploits of the ‘milites’(generally translates as knight). This does not mean common infantry were unimportant. In fact, while cavalry were important in battle, battles were relatively rare. Cavalry were of cause useful for reconnaissance and escort, but infantry were necessity in the attritional, fortress-based warfare and deliberate destruction of opponents’ resources, which dominated medieval campaigns.
What may have been most significant about Carolingian and Ottonian cavalry was the armour they wore, rather than simply being cavalry. Their main weapon was the sword. The development of the couched-lance technique in the eleventh century made western European cavalry more potent. The astute Byzantine princess Anna Comnena noted that ‘a mounted Frank is irresistible; he would bore his way through the walls of Babylon.’ The impact of a well-delivered charge could shatter any body of troops. A successful charge needed discipline to maximize its impact. Knight fought in small groups (conrois) of friends. These tactical units were the building blocks from which larger battles (batailles) were formed. It was normal to keep close order, endure enemy provocation, and to charge in line. Jousting was the preliminary round – the main action was conducted with sword and mace. Timing was vitally important, particularly against Turks, whose light horse archers were like swarms of gnats who evaded a poorly-timed charge, returning when Frankish horses were exhausted to shoot them before closing in. But as early as 1097, the crusaders used their infantry as a shield to protect their vulnerable horses before charging. This was possible because infantry were already significant in western warfare.
In the fourteenth century, English men-at-arms began habitually to dismount for battle alongside massed archers. Densely packed common infantry armed with spears and pikes – Fleming’s, Scots and Swiss – defeated mounted chivalry, for example at Courtrai and Bannockburn. This has led to the argument that feudal cavalry were by this time eclipsed, but in the later fifteenth century ‘super heavy cavalry’, with effective plate armour and armoured horses, enjoyed a revival. From the 1300’s, the lance became much heavier and the breastplate was equipped with a rest, enabling the lance to be held steady at speed. This development made the ‘mounted man into a form of living projectile whose force of impact against both horse and foot was greater than it had ever been’ (Malcolm Vale).
Mounted men-at-arms combined with archery and gunfire were able to crack open enemy formations, a renewed effectiveness which continued into the sixteenth century. Throughout the ‘Middle Ages’, unsupported heavy cavalry never possessed the vast superiority often attributed to them, but, combined with infantry, especially archers, they played a significant part in war.