By Professor Daniel Moran
Last updated 2011-02-17
The mounted knight, clad in chain mail or plate armour, became the characteristic military embodiment of the resulting, steeply hierarchical social system. A man had to own some land if he wanted to belong in the medieval nobility, and this land was the source of the finance that provided the equipment, specially-bred mounts, and servants that a knight required.
Such aristocratic warriors dominated European battlefields from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries. Their chief advantage in combat came from the horses they rode. The momentum of a knight's mount could now be transmitted to his weapon by means of the stirrup, a humble piece of technology that reached western Europe from Asia around the time of Charlemagne (c.800).
The image shown above is that of a miniature from the Chronicle of the French poet Jean Froissart, which recounts the history of the Hundred Years' War. Seen here is the clash of French and English armies at the Battle of Auray (1364), in which mounted knights are featured. Also shown are the means by which such knights would soon be eclipsed - massed formations of infantry, armed with pole-arms and missile-firing weapons.
Provided they maintained their cohesion, such masses of pike-wielding infantry presented a formidable obstacle to opponents on horseback, since a horse will not charge into what appears to it to be a solid barrier, however determined its rider. The English bowmen, like the one shown in the lower right, were yet more dangerous. Their bodkin-pointed arrows could penetrate even the heaviest armour.
The threat from missile weapons became insuperable after the infantry's pikes and bows were replaced by firearms. Thereafter the cavalry's responsibilities would increasingly be confined to reconnaissance, raiding and the pursuit of already beaten opponents. In these roles it survived into the 20th century. It was not the gun but the internal combustion engine that finally drove the mounted warrior from the battlefield.