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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Sat 09 Feb, 2008 10:57 pm    Post subject: Impetuous Knights         Reply with quote

When reading books about the High Middle Ages, you often come across statements that knights in medieval Europe were impetuous and would break ranks to pursue targets on their own while on horseback. There are also quite a few statements indicating that they were not necessarily all that reliable.

My question is, how well are both of these assertions supported by period evidence and documents? Is there enough evidence for us to make generalizations of this nature? Or are we basing statements of these sort from descriptions by chroniclers of things that were worthy of note precisely because they were unusual?

The reason I ask is that historians often make these statements as though we can take them for granted as being true, so I'm wondering on what basis do we have to take it for granted that the statements are true.
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Vaclav Homan




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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 1:45 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Knighthood was fool of individualits. For them was more impotant glory and honour. I have stadied history in Czech. There is many tale about absurd and egoistic bearing in battle.
For them was some time importent privat aim as achievement of own troops. Knights was peoples there was all of the characters.
Beyond was normal that knights struggled through opponents formation and again back (and several time), this cases are documentary ( for example Czech king Premysl Otakar II).
It was demonstration of power and combat desire, some time assist to triumph or check.

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Robin Palmer




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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 6:01 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

While I cannot off the top of my head quote referance I have read numerous acounts of such activitys throughout the middle ages far to many to be discounted

. It must be remembered that the knight had two sources of income his estates and war. The key was ransom to be had from a captured noble. Warcick castle includes an entire tower built using a dukes ransom, a goods rich capture could be worth ten or twenty years income for a knight. Many lords became rich on ransom William marshal won a fortune in war and tourney. It was one reason why medieval war evolved the way it did whatever the origional purpose for the war for the knights it meant a chance to get rich. Many did die but far more were captured and ransomed knight did'nt set out to kill each other it simply did'nt make financial sense to them.

While not strictly medieval period sir Frances drake during the armada battles pulled out of the line to capture a spanish vessel and loot it's cargo for himself. The only complaint leveled was a demand he share the prize with the other captains his action in itself was not unusual.

A small foot note are what were called shooting stars knights who's horses bolted bit between their teeth into enemy ranks a misfortune which rarely ended in death the victim was usually captured and help for ransom. Such events were viewed with amusement by all concerned as a fact of life one which could happen to any of them.
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Jared Smith




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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 6:41 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Lets not generalize that all medieval knights were undisciplined and disorderly!

I think some of the battles (possibly some in our feature articles) reflect the fact that specific groups did not discipline themselves to work in unison. However, some groups such as Tuetonic knights had a reputation for discipline, keeping cavalry charges together, and coordinating supporting troops with repeated rallys and regrouping during battles. These achieved great success in several situations where they were significantly outnumbered.

It is easy enough to identify forces today that don't prioritize open battlefield strategy. There are plenty that do, but there are a mixture of traits, and probably always has been.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence!
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Peter G.




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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 7:09 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

i guess most knights were NOT undisciplined and unorderly.
There may have been some woolheaded fools who wanted to prove themselfs in a single charge-but in old times like in modern times-a lone soldier in a battle is a dead one-or very very lucky.

Like today in knight battles the most important task was to maintain order/discipline.

The knights did fight in conrois, squadrons 50-150men large, depending of the size of the army-not singlehanded.
If you want to know more about it get

"The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages from the Eighth Century" by Verbruggen-hard to read but really enlightning
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Alex Oster




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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 8:01 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have to agree that with knights being on hoseback, they most surly would be the ones who would run out. The infantry can't be used like cavalry. It might appear unorganized, but I'm sure that the cavalry were used to pick at flanks and run down the routed often enough. Casual observers might see that as impetuos, but i think that it serves its cause to brake the enemies lines.
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Darrin Hughes




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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 9:17 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Whilst I'm not sure if this directly addresses your question, I can think of at least three well documented examples of the unreliability of cavalry almost certainly affecting the outcome of a battle.
Edward,Prince of Wales, at Lewes,
The Milanese mercenaries at Verneuil, &
Rupert at Naseby.(I know this is 17th century but the principle remains the same).
I'm sure there are plenty of others.

On each occasion the cavalry achieved it's first objective of breaking the enemies flank, and on each occasion having achieved that objective, they just kept going. At least 2 of these were because the cavalry encountered the enemy baggage train and found that far more attractive than returning to the battle( Naseby & Verneuil ). I'm not sure why Edward kept chasing the routed troops at Lewes, but it almost certainly led to the loss of the battle to deMontfort's rebels.

I think that the role of mounted knights may have been over-stressed by some historians because of the whole Chivalric thing. I can't think of too many battles where mounted knights alone have turned a battle, but I can certainly think of a few where there actions were to the detriment of their own side. Maybe this is because I mainly concentrate on battles that involved the English, and many of our most successful battles seem to have come after we realised the damage that could be done to an aggressive or over-eager enemy riding into a defensive line of infantry and archers, with the cavalry used very much as shock troops, or to ride down the enemy when they start to break ranks.

As has already been pointed out, because they were more mobile than anyone else on the field, mounted knights often found themselves presented with opportunities for wealth or personal glory that they were culturally conditioned to take advantage of.

Cheers,
Darrin.
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James Arlen Gillaspie
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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 11:36 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Nicopolis would be a good example of how a winnable battle was lost by the insistence of impetuous warriors bent on glory.
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Doug Lester




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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 1:46 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The question of knights breaking away form the main in battle to pursue personal glory reminds me of an old saying from the American west. "There are old gun fighters and there are bold gun fighters, but there are no old bold gunfighters".
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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 3:30 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

James Arlen Gillaspie wrote:
Nicopolis would be a good example of how a winnable battle was lost by the insistence of impetuous warriors bent on glory.


Can you specify further?
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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 3:37 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Peter G. wrote:
i guess most knights were NOT undisciplined and unorderly.
There may have been some woolheaded fools who wanted to prove themselfs in a single charge-but in old times like in modern times-a lone soldier in a battle is a dead one-or very very lucky.

Like today in knight battles the most important task was to maintain order/discipline.

The knights did fight in conrois, squadrons 50-150men large, depending of the size of the army-not singlehanded.
If you want to know more about it get

"The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages from the Eighth Century" by Verbruggen-hard to read but really enlightning


Peter,

Verbruggen's book is at the top of my must-have list to read, because I understand it's very good.
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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Sun 10 Feb, 2008 3:52 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Craig Peters wrote:

Can you specify further?


This might help:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Nicopolis

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Robin Palmer




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PostPosted: Mon 11 Feb, 2008 8:00 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There are numerous examples of knightly pride causing their down fall including the recent discovery of the French battle plan for Agincourt. Had the French followed it the English army would have been destroyed in the event the French knights refused to obey orders and were defeated. It is important to remember the knight considered himself lord and master of all he surveyed in theory he owed loyalty to his liege or king. In reality the higher the rank the less he felt he owed the great earls and lords held themselves the kings equal. Often they refused to take orders believing themselves superior to all around them result caos numerous documentary sources note commanders complaining about armys of lords each considering himself the best leader and refusing to listen to any other.

Cavalry noble or not have always been notoriously difficult to control once loosed. General Wellington had little time for them considering them a fire and forget weapon almost impossible to recall once launched. An opinion based on experience despite his every effort to instill discipline and proven at Waterloo when the British cavalry charged and while successful enough took no further useful part in the battle.
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Lafayette C Curtis




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PostPosted: Fri 15 Feb, 2008 3:42 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Craig Peters wrote:
James Arlen Gillaspie wrote:
Nicopolis would be a good example of how a winnable battle was lost by the insistence of impetuous warriors bent on glory.


Can you specify further?


Maybe this article would give a more complete overview than the Wikipedia page:

http://www.deremilitari.org/resources/pdfs/mhm2.pdf


As for your original question, Craig: I believe the answer is very simple. Medieval soldiers were soldiers, and like soldiers in any other period in history some of them must have been quite timid, some quietly competent, and some suicidally impetuous. The commander's skill and experience, combined with the military institutions in place, determine how well the armies can enforce a uniform standards that forces the timid soldiers to be braver and the impetuous soldiers to exercise more common sense. When this system worked, it worked very well indeed; I bet you're quite familiar with examples like the precise discipline of the German mercenary men-at-arms in Italy whether on horseback or on foot. But when it failed, it failed spectacularly--the best example being Crecy, where a breakdown in the French command-and-control system resulted in dozens or even hundreds of uncoordinated piecemeal attacks that allowed the English to deal with only small portions of the larger French force at a time, probably even reversing the numerical balance at the actual point of engagement.

I'm not sure whether Nicopolis should be considered to be an example of impetuosity or not, except if you include the commanders' impetuosity within the bill. The Western Crusaders were definitely impetuous in this sense, with their leaders cheerfully ignoring the local Hungarian commanders' sensible advice due to a misplaced confidence in the universal applicability of their tactics. But, of course, for every example like this we can also find things like the English contingent that behaved in a very professional and controlled manner in their expedition to aid the Teutonic Knights during a lull in the Hundred Years' War--and even examples of timid and indecisive behavior, like the long delays in the Hungarian attacks at Mohacs (1526) that prevented the Hungarians from taking advantage of their commander's (Pal Tomori?) brilliant plan and its initial success against one Turkish wing.

Just like any other period of warfare, in fact. I know I'm repeating what I've already said, but this repetition doesn't make the idea less true. Wink
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Lafayette C Curtis




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PostPosted: Fri 15 Feb, 2008 3:48 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Robin Palmer wrote:
There are numerous examples of knightly pride causing their down fall including the recent discovery of the French battle plan for Agincourt. Had the French followed it the English army would have been destroyed in the event the French knights refused to obey orders and were defeated.


Really? Actually I prefer to see the battle the other way around--the French plan relied on the English adopting a static defensive stance so that the French flanking forces would be able to maneuver around the extremities of the English wings, but as I see it the plan failed precisely because the English didn't defend; they advanced until the French were within range of their arrows, then shot, then got bored when their shots failed to sting the French, and finally decided to attack first with one massive charge on foot that bowled over the first French battle and threw it back in confusion against the second battle waiting behind. If anybody were impetuous in this battle, then it was the English rather than the French--and in this event their impetuosity worked in their favor by giving them enough momentum to break the French line with their charge!

Of course, that's not the only plausible interpretation for the English victory, but I prefer the dynamic and offensive aspect of it compared to the more traditional and defensive interpretations of the English tactics in that battle.
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Scott Eschenbrenner




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PostPosted: Mon 18 Feb, 2008 9:45 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Lafayette: which study does that interpretation come from? Were the battle plans featured in Curry's recent work? I haven't read it, so I wonder if I'm missing out on something big. My understanding of the battle, which may be outdated, is that the English moved to within extreme range of the French line after waiting part of the morning. They began shooting, which goaded the French into advancing on the English lines. I didn't know that the English had actually initiated a charge on the French; at best, they seem to have come forward a bit to meet the French advance. I was aware of the two mounted squadrons that flanked the French dismounted line, but they seem to have been impeded by the constricting woods on each side, and would have been slowed enough by the archers' stakes that their horses were vulnerable to arrows. Had the English remained in their original position, south of the woods, there would have been space for the cavalry to outflank the archers. Again, my sources might not be up to date.

I think a few generalizations are justifiable about knights' impetuosity; most have been made already, and I particularly agree with the examples of Crecy and Nicopolis. In the latter battle, I don't think the entire leadership was at fault. In my opinion, had the views of Sigismund and more level-headed French knights like Coucy prevailed, the European army could have won using better tactics. However, Boucicaut and others bent on personal glory precipitated the frontal attack and insisted they take the lead. Anyway, my point was that not all of the leading Crusaders were so paranoid about having their 'honour' stolen by the Hungarians. A stronger command structure may have made a difference.

I would not be surprised if the greatest "innovation" that kept heavy cavalry relevant for five centuries, was not better armour or weapons, but rather better discipline that allowed a commander to use cavalry as he saw fit. Without discipline, the cavalry will do what they see fit, which may have little relevance to the tactical situation. Would it be fair to say that a French heavy cavalry unit of 1500 probably had better discipline and cohesion than an equal number of French knights circa 1300? By those terms I mean a respect for the orders of their commander and an attitude that saw themselves as part of a larger army, rather than purely individuals. Surely these qualities were present from time to time in various earlier feudal armies, but not nearly to the same degree as a later professional one.
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Michael Edelson




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PostPosted: Mon 18 Feb, 2008 9:56 pm    Post subject: Re: Impetuous Knights         Reply with quote

Craig Peters wrote:
When reading books about the High Middle Ages, you often come across statements that knights in medieval Europe were impetuous and would break ranks to pursue targets on their own while on horseback. There are also quite a few statements indicating that they were not necessarily all that reliable.


I find it interesting that the exact same things were said about Japanese samurai in the earlier periods of Japanese history (pre Edo). When I read your post I had to do a double take because I was reminded of reading similar accounts when studying Japanese history and wasn't sure if you were talking about Europe or Japan. Very different picture of their culture than what we see with the ultra-conformist society of modern Japan.

The parallels between European and Japanese feudal cultures are fascinating, but perhaps not unexpected.

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Shayan G





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PostPosted: Tue 19 Feb, 2008 6:12 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I remember reading also about many instances during the early Crusades in which knights would impetuously break off to follow Muslim horse-archers or skirmishers, often getting ambushed in return. Unfortunately as I'm studying abroad right now and don't have the book with the firsthand accounts, I can't specify when and where and who--if anyone can supply names and dates I'd be very grateful.

The accounts on the "Frankish" side were generally hilarious in such instances, with colorful monastic curses towards the pride of the knights! Monks on occasion demonstrated their mastery of letters in very creative ways Eek!
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Scott Eschenbrenner




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PostPosted: Tue 19 Feb, 2008 3:41 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Shayan, you're right about that. In fact, smart Muslim commanders like Saladin counted on being able to draw off Frankish knights by harassing them with horse archers and taunting them into breaking ranks. Richard I was able to turn this into a victory at Arsuf in 1191. He had ordered the knights to stay in formation despite the tempting targets that the light Muslim cavalry presented. At a certain point, one group could take no more and charged their assailants precipitously. This was what Saladin had been hoping for, since he could now exploit the break in Richard's formation. However, Richard quickly decided to support the un-ordered charge by calling on the entire formation of knights to attack the Muslim forces. Saladin had not expected this, and the turnaround was so sudden that it was effective in routing his forces.

So it seems an ill-advised charge could be successful, so long as the commander thought on his feet and seized the opportunity. But I think more often than not, a poorly-timed and unsupported charge would be defeated by the usually superior numbers on the Muslim side. Observers on both sides were probably well aware of this, but it's hard to tell a knight not to charge when he's under attack and has been brought up to believe that he is a member of the finest fighting force in the world.
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PostPosted: Tue 19 Feb, 2008 6:49 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Perhaps the Group that best exploited this chivalric over-enthusiasm were the Mongols during their 13 century invasion of Europe. The general tactic was a false cavalry charge, followed by a tactical retreat to draw pursuit, finally followed by an about-face / ambush when the heavily armed knights had worn and spread themselves out far from the protection of their infantry lines. Apparently the Mongols could use this tactic over and over and the Europeans would not learn. Perhaps the most famous example was Subodei's crushing defeat of the German, French, and Polish pride of chivalry near Liegnitz in 1241.

Or so I have read, in popular history sources like 'Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world' by Weatherford.
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