The Importance of Women’s Clothes for the Medieval Knight

For the knight in the Middle Ages women’s clothes were very important. Not just any clothes, of course. The striving for the courtly love of a noble woman was one of the most important quests for a knight. The search did not necessarily have to end successfully. You could say that the journey was the reward. The search for courtly love, even if it lasted the knight’s whole life, gave his life a meaning.

If, however, his biddings were rewarded, the knight could consider himself very lucky. No special occasion was necessary for the woman to donate her grace to her chosen knight, but in the sources tourneys are often named. This is something we are well used to because this situations is portrayed in a lot of movies and series.

And indeed, this picture was very real and not uncommon in the Middle Ages. One important difference is that not handkerchiefs were given to the knights, but whole parts of the clothing. The sleeves of the dresses were very common gifts. On many medieval pictures you can see, that the sleeves of these dresses were very long in most cases. It was important, that the woman had worn the chosen part of her clothing on her skin.

These gifts were not only fastened on the knight’s lance. Often the knights put them on their shields. The sources even tell us tht sometimes knights wore whole upper parts of dresses over their armour when they rode into battle or took part in a tourney.

It is interesting that the women’s clothes were often fastened to parts that were designed to protect the knight. It is quite thinkable that the knights hoped for an increased protection, maybe through the blessing of the woman’s love which was seen as a divine blessing.

Literature:

Bumke, Joachim. Höfische Kultur. Literatur und Gesellschaft im hohen Mittelalter. 12. Auflage 2008. München, 1986.

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The Siege in the Middle Ages

I wrote a litlle bit about medieval weapons in this blog and the context they were used in. In this article I will concentrate on the siege. There is not one aspect from the Middle Ages that is often portrait so inaccurate as the strategies used by defenders and besiegers. In the movies, the besiegers attack, are repelled or they take the castle. Of course, after a long and lion-hearted fight by the defenders.

In the real medieval world the preparations for the siege and the real process of it looked quite different. First you have to take into account that sieges were not as frequent as one could think. As I write earlier in this blog, castles where not primarily built to fortify a certain part of land. First of all they were centres of administration, trade and authority. Their garrisons where in most cases very small and not thought of as an force to fight a great army. There were exceptions, though. Sometimes there were special castles, designed to block a mountain pass or ones from which a huge garrison controlled a part of land, like in 11th century England or in the Holy Land. In some cases normal castles where besieged, too. This events took place when two noble families fought each other and attacked each others home. When there was a big war, however, castles where often abandoned. Always think about it: A small, local nobleman would certainly not take the risk to be trapped in his small castle. He would rather leave it to join his lord’s army to meet the enemy in the field.

In the cities the situation was quite different. The citizens lived there permanently, their whole existence lay in the city. Such a big community could not just move to another place. Therefore it is not surprising that in the case of a siege all of the citizens who were able to fight would do that to save their homes. The cities were very well fortified in most cases, mainly with walls, towers and ditches. In peacetime this fortifications where mainly used as a defense against raiders and knights from the country who had a quarrel with the city.

The preparation for a siege was absolutely essential. Enough food and water were two of the most important aspects. It was very important, that the castle or the city had an own source of fresh water. Cisterns to collect the rain where often dug beforehand. Enough weapons and ammunition were also very important. It is written that even the furniture was thrown at the attackers. It was essential to take some precautions concerning the walls and the gates. A ditch was always a good idea, ideally one filled with water or with stakes. The foot of the wall should have been reinforced with a wall of earth. This protected it from siege engines and from falling down when it was undermined. Behind the gates that were attacked most the defenders often erected a wall out of stones, straw, wood and other things. When the attackers broke through the gate, they only faced another wall with defenders on top. The defenders used everything as a weapon that could be used as one. Bows, crossbows, stones, furniture, hot oil or sand, catapults and later cannons and handguns. Of course, the attackers used the same weapons. They additionally used rams, siegetowers, ladders and mines. The mines where an effective method to undermine the walls and to destroy them by lighting a fire beneath them. The heat and the collapsing mine where a grave danger for any wall. Because of that, the defenders often had their own miners to find the enemy mine and to destroy it.

The invention of the weapons powered by black powder was not such a great thread to the defenders. The well known catapults had a greater range, where more accurate and more predictable than the early cannons. The first of them were able to shoot with iron arrows or balls of stone, but there was a constant danger that they would explode instead. After a lot of improvements they became more and more effective and led to some crucial developments. The fortresses were invented.

Last but not least I want to say something about the psychology. Sieges were problematic for both sides. The defenders where often short-handed, had limited rations and were trapped. However, the besiegers had to feed their army, too. When the countryside around the camp where emptied, longer and longer distances had to be bridged, often in enemy territory. Diseases where quite common during a siege and could force one side to surrender. On both sides lasted a lot of pressure. Because of this sieges where only an options when all other options to win had failed.


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The End of the Knights?

The caption is misleading, to be honest. Knighthood did not disappeared, just because the knights lost their importance on the battlefield. It still exists today, most famous are surely the different orders in Great Britain today. Elton John and Sean Connery are two famous examples for modern day knights. Of course you will not see them ride into battle.

Even from the viewpoint of a military historian the exact time of the end of the knights on the battlefield cannot be defined. In most cases the invention of the black powder is seen as the main reason for the end of the heavy armoured riders in battle. But if you take a closer look you will see that this is not the truth. Weapons with black powder existed already in times that are known as the blooming period of the knights, in the high middle ages. And also in later times the cavalry forces were a crucial factor in different battles. That these riders did not belong only to the nobility any longer was not the result of the developments in weapons technology but of a new way to recruit soldiers (who in this times can really be called soldiers instead of warriors) and in battle tactics. Mercenaries  became more important. However, the officers still came from the nobility. The efficency principle was introduced for the first time by Napoleon Bonaparte, a long time after the end of the middle ages. Even after the middle ages it was common within the officers to take part in the charges of the cavalry, a relict from medieval times. Some of high ranking officers were wounded or killed in these charges, a famous example is the Swedish king Gustav Adolf who was killed while leading a cavalry charge in the 30 years war.

There were crucial changes in battle tactics in the middle ages. Charges executed by the knights alone were in many cases not succesful. This was first of all the result of the increasing discipline of the infantry and the more effective tactics and weaponry. Long lances, pikes, halberds, strong bows and crossbows made the foot soldiers more effective against riders. The tactics where not so new. They can also be seen in the the battle of Hastings in 1066 in which the attack of the Norman armoured riders were stopped by the shield wall of the Anglo-Saxons. Weapons on the basis of black powder, especially those in the 15th century, were not very effective at the beginning and produced in far to small numbers. To make it worse, there was the constant risk of blowing yourself up with such a weapon.

As I said before, the hiring of mercenaries became more and more important. This lead to a professionalisation of war. These soldiers were organized in war bands which were lead by experienced captains. These groups were very organized, disciplined and well equipped. They were an important factor for the decrease of the importance of the knights in war. At the beginning they were mostly hired by the cities, who possessed a great amount of money.

The loss of importance of the knights in war did not mean that mounted warriors were not important anymore. The opposite is true. Their form changed. Armoury became lighter and more resistant at the same time, the riders became faster. Lances and sabers were the standard weapons for a long time to come, later they were also equipped with special pistols. You have to distinguish between the knight (=warrior from the nobility) and the cavalry (=mounted soldier). Cavalry existed until the first years of the second world war.


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The Tournament in the early and the later Middle Ages

What comes to your mind when you think of the medieval tournament? Surely you will think of two valiant knights in shining amoury and bright coulours who ride against each other, only separated from each other through a small fence in the middle of the field. One of the knights will either be knocked of his horse or the lance will break at his armour and there will be another round. Surely you will imagine that the knights will be encouraged from the king and the queen who are sitting on the tribune and the peasants who cheer from their stands.

That is not surprising, since this is exactly the way the medieval tournament is portrayed in most movies. And this form of tournament did actually exist in the later Middle Ages. The early times of the tournament looked very different. They were fought on a larger scale, were more brutal and more spectacular.

These fights were not fought on a normal showground, but in the countryside. There different forms of terrain were available for the knights to use: fields, forest, rivers and bushes. The knights could move freely in this environment and they could rest, if they were able to hide themselves and their horses. Participants came from every corner of Christendom, sometimes even kings took part in this tournaments. A knight could gain honour, recognition and fame by winning such a tournament. One could also make money by capturing rich knights and releasing them only after they promised to pay a certain amount of money. All of this was particulary interesting for young knights with nothing to inherit from their families. Only the first-born son inherited the land of the family. The second-born had to earn everything by himself. Why not doing so by doing something he was trained in for his whole life? Rich but unexperienced participants had to be careful, though. They could be recognized by their coats of arms and become targets of poor knights. High-ranking knights like a king would bring some bodyguards with them to prevent others from capturing them.

The armoury did not consist of the well-known plate armour at this time, the 10th and 11th century. The knights wore mailshirts over padded shirts, a closed helmet and pieces of iron on sensible spots. The protection was not so good as in later times, and deaths and injuries were common. The weapons did not differ that much from later times. They were not sharp, but used with the whole strength by the knights.

The opening of the tournament consisted of the formation of the participants and a charge into the middle of the enemy ranks. You had to be fast, otherwise all the worthwile ransoms were taken by other knights. There were an audience, too. It consisted mainly of other knights who already used chants to support their favourite fighters. If someone managed it to win tournaments constantly, he could become famous.

As we see the original tournament differed from that of later times. It was harder, more dangerous but offered also more chances than the later tjosting. Of course you could also lose more. It was also very much more a training for real battle and offered the knights a possibility to make a living by using their abilities to fight in times of peace.


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The Middle Ages – The Dark Ages?

The Middle Ages – an era full of darkness, the fall into an abyss full of violence, insecurity and fanatic religions? According to popular believes these are the main attributes of the medieval times. But is this image correct?

No, it is not. I want to give you a short text about the most important factors, because this field of study is still new. I am sure that a lot of research still needs to be done here.

Lets begin with a short trip to late Antiquity. The defense of the western Roman provinces is organized by German rulers for a more than one generation, especially by the Franks. Their leaders are part of the local elite for a long time. After the Romans had drawn back their troops completely, these rulers had taken full control of this areas. The Roman nobility either left the provinces or tried to work together with the new leaders. Many structures were destroyed, especially the infrastructure. The old Roman way of life was adjusted to the new conditions. The old knowledge was not forgotten, though. In Cologne, the old Colonia Agrippina, the old Roman building were used by the Franks. The local craftsmen continued their work. It is known that Charlemagne used the old Roman baths during his visits. The hinterland of the towns did not change much, either. The local church saved a lot of the old documents and copied them. Even ex- and import still existed, some of the roads and havens were still in use. With the time passing even new buildings were erected.

However, in the countryside the situation was different. A lot of remote farms could not receive goods from the towns anymore, because many roads became unusable or too dangerous. Most of the ancient aqueducts did not remain functional very long. A lot of local warlords existed, even the Franish king was their superior. Nevertheless there were a lot of raids of enemy tribes or of raiders. It became important to create strong structures on a local basis. The feudalism is one development which roots can be dated back to this period.  The traveling court of the early kings shows how much even a king had to adapt to this system, even if under Charlemagne the will to create some kind of capital became obvious.

Art in the Middle Ages was on a very high level. The artworks that still exist today are very impressive and professionally made. New techniques were developed and we can think of the Middle Ages as a way more coulourful era than it is thought of today.

The weapons and strategies were also further developed. In late Antiquity German tribes had already defeated Roman armies in open field battle. Good examples for that are the victories of the Goths. German tribes had been formidable riders in all times and these technique was developed further and further. Armoury, swords, shields, everything was being improved and soon on another level. That is also true for the erection of castles. In the 9th century it became clear, that the techniques of forification used in Roman forts could not protect medieval defenders against the raids of the Normans on the Rhine. Old techniques were not forgotten. Even water pipes and heated rooms existed, they were found in old castles.

Christianity and especially the church meant another development, too. In the old legal frameworl of German tribes you had to pay a certain amount of money if you had killed someone. Only the deed itself was judged, not the intention and the bad moral behind it. This changed now. The wish alone to kill someone was declared a sin. The soul of the one who killed another person would be damaged. The deed itself was now condemend as something unmoral and evil.

As we can see the Middle Ages were not the Dark Ages. Important developments in many fields were made. In many aspects the medieval era was further developed than Antiquity and was the point of origin for Renaissance. The Middle Ages were an important era within the process of the development of mankind.


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The Middle Ages and their modern perception

Note: Due to a lot of views from outside of Germany I decided to translate certain articles into English. I hope you like it!

What would come to your mind if someone would ask you what you think how the Middle Ages really looked like? Many people would think of noble knights, fair women and minnesingers. A romantic picture of a night illuminated by a full moon in which the knight tries to conquer the heart of his woman with the promise to fight in her name in the next tournament. Many of todays castles seem to confirm this image and a lot of reenactments and events show the Middle Ages as rough, but romantic times. But did reality really looked like this back then?

This image seems to be very firmly in people’s minds. I myself was surprised during a discussion at university, when some of my fellow students said that they thought that the castle in „Harry Potter“ would be historical accurate. I just could not believe it. But then it occurred to me that this picture of the Middle Ages is not quite new. Most of the castles that still stand today, especially at the river Mosel, were erected in the 19th century. In this time the people saw the Middle Ages as a very romantic time. After the experience of the victory over Napoleon Bonaparte, which was only possible because the different rulers worked together, the people tried to find a common past. In addition to the victory of Arminius over the Romans in 9 A.D. this past consisted of the Middle Ages in Germany. Monarchs like Friedrich Barbarossa were made heroes of the German people, the life in medieval times was idealised. The castles of the 19th century shall mirror this „glorious“ times. One should keep in mind that most of the castles visited today are not very authentic.

Nowadays we should always keep in mind, that all we can see in exhibitions or during different events show us the Middle Ages as we can see them through the eyes of the 21st century. First of all the people in medieval times had a totally different mentality compared to ours. For us modern people it is already very difficult to understand the mentality of our grandparent’s generation. Is it possible for a time so long ago? Well, it is certainly very, very difficult because all the texts and archaeological findings just give us a small insight into this period. One should keep in mind, that death, hunger, violence and illnesses were part of everyday life. People were way more religious than today. And the human-being of this time was exposed to this dangerous world from his birth until his death. All who survived the dangerous time of their childhood were certainly way more resistant than most modern people and they certainly developed a totally different view on the world.

Most aspects of life in the Middle Ages were rougher, more ugly and particulary less flavoursome than they are presented today. A lot of elements that are shown in movies or in shows did exist back then, but in most cases in different forms. The people lived in a very dangerous era. Maybe one should keep that in mind when he or she comes across any kind of presentation of the Middle Ages that is supposed to show how it really was. Smells, personal experiences and impressions just cannot be simulated in a totally authentic way.


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