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Thursday, March 25, 2021

Battle Ready: Suitable Protection for the European Soldier

When we look at suits of armor, we see Medieval knights. Yet a great deal of the armor that survives was not necessarily worn by a man with the title of knight nor used during the Middle Ages. Most of the surviving European plate armor dates to the Early Modern Period, the 16th and 17th centuries, rather than the 15th century. The Renaissance that bridged the Medieval and Early Modern Periods introduced not only plate armors, but also new weapons and tactics along with changing social norms all of which influenced the armies of Europe at the time.

Hans Thoma (German, 1839–1924), The Knight, 1895. Chiaroscuro lithograph
 on cream wove paper. Prints. Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs Collection. 1926.842

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the number of men who met the social qualifications for the title of knight were in decline while the demand for heavily armored cavalry continued to exist. However, there were men with economic access to the skills and equipment needed to do the job but lacked the noble title. As such the term man-at-arms came into usage meaning any heavily armored cavalryman regardless of social class. The title of knight had become separated from its origins as a specific military role. 

The 14th to 16th centuries saw a gradual return to large scale armies centered mainly on infantry as they once were in classical times. Where up until that point the knightly class held the primary role of defense in Medieval society, increased use of common-born soldiers changed the social contract as now the common people were as much—if not more—responsible for their own defense. This further eroded the importance of the knight in society. 

Still, military professionalism was becoming more regarded. As the soldiers transitioned from mercenaries to citizens recruited to fight for their kings and states, greater emphasis was put on training and discipline. With the growth of unit sizes, the need increased for a more elaborate chain of command with a greater variety of officers to lead. Those positions were initially filled by experienced men during the 16th century but as those positions gained political importance gradually the aristocracy assumed officer roles by the 17th century. Consequently, a noble knight was effectively transformed into an aristocratic officer regardless of military ability.

Christian Rugendas (German, 1708–1781), after Georg Philipp Rugendas l,
  A Battle Scene, 18th c. Mezzotint on cream laid paper. Prints.
Mrs. Kingsmill Marrs Collection. 1926.1178

With the increase in army sizes came the need for more armor. While full armor was a knightly thing, partial suits and elements of armor were used by troops of various types. This usage depended largely on a soldier’s role, which during the Middle Ages depended on social class as troops were, with some exception, required to provide their own equipment. Pikemen, for example, were soldiers who wielded long spears or pikes about 14 to 18 feet long. Carrying such a long weapon required both hands and reduced maneuverability due to being in close ranks therefore creating the need for body armor and helmets. 

To meet this demand, armor makers began creating vast quantities of simplified, mass produced, munitions-grade armor. As the role of raising armies shifted in the 15th to 17th centuries from the nobility to more centralized bureaucracies overseen by absolute monarchs, a need also developed to control the gear of prospective soldiers. 

A soldier’s equipment, including armor, increasingly became issued by the state from government munitions supplies rather than privately procured by the soldiers themselves. As these government-raised troops became more common, the idea of unit history and identity was born with unique unit flags, badges, or other identifying marks, and military music all to help raise morale. Uniforms were initially created for individual units rather haphazardly with dedicated national uniforms only becoming more common by the late 17th and 18th centuries. 

Helmet probably by Richard Wright (English, d. 1654), 
Composite Half-Armor for a Pikeman, English, about 1625–1645.
Steel with modern leather. 14 lb 8 oz (weight).
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1167

By the 16th century, use of firearms on the battlefield impacted the role of the cavalry. The main role of the man-at-arms was the shock attack with the heavy lance, but in the face of disciplined hedges of pikemen and ranks of men armed with arquebuses (firearms), such tactics became less effective.

The Battle of Cerignola on April 28, 1503 would be the first battle where victory was decided by infantry with firearms. On February 24, 1525 the Battle of Pavia saw the role of firearms further cemented with a significant defeat of traditional men-at-arms by squares of pikemen supported by arquebusiers, cavalry, and artillery. These blocks of pikemen used force of numbers both in defense by absorbing the attacks made against it and on offense with brute force bowling over the opposition. But such tactics of using infantry in decisive roles would not become standard until the second half of the 16th century when firearms became more ubiquitous. Cavalry made up 20% to 30% of the French and Spanish armies—the leading powers of their day—and many battles were still decided by cavalry.

Spanish Army on the March, European, early 17th century. Ink engraving on paper.
 Prints. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.595 

In this Early Modern Period, the primary mode of warfare was still the siege and raids. Armies were now far larger—often five times the size of those in the Middle Ages. This was due to infantry being far cheaper to outfit than cavalry, but also being far more useful in a siege especially those troops equipped with firearms who could engage the enemy at a distance. 

While the Medieval fortress was a towering, majestic castle, these proved vulnerable to gunpowder artillery. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the use of cannon shortened the length of sieges as castle walls proved easy targets to hit and knock down. Castle construction all but ceased, but by the 16th century fortresses were redesigned from high lofty towers to low heavily built-up bastions. These were constructed in a star pattern and known as star fortresses. This shape permitted maximum defensive firepower, which allowed for overlapping fields of fire and minimal blind spots—plus a low silhouette making assault and bombardment more difficult. 

Joachim von Sandrart I (German, 1606–1688), Map of Maastricht, about 1632.
 Etching on cream laid paper. Prints. Gift of Tom and Leslie Freudenheim. 2010.223

The scale of the sieges grew in tandem with the armies. It was not unusual for besieging armies to outnumber the populations of the cities they surrounded. Encircling armies and soldiers moving across country lived off the land often overwhelmed the ability of the country they moved through to supply soldiers with ammunition, clothes, and food, as well as fodder for the thousands of animals that accompanied them. This led to devastation of the areas that these armies moved through—or worse, lingered in. It didn’t matter whether they were in friendly territory or that of the foe. Often this led to both civilians and soldiers starving. 

This unfortunate situation ultimately led to whole populations becoming refugees and in turn overburdening the regions they fled to. Added to that the close quarters and squalid conditions soldiers lived in caused disease to run rampant wherever the armies went. Gradual attempts at improvements in the layout of camps to provide better sanitation, hospitals, and the development of supply depots, helped but efforts often fell short of needed goals due to graft and bureaucratic inefficiency. These problems would unfortunately continue to plague armies for centuries to come.

Marten van Cleve I (Netherlandish, 1527–1581), Demolition of the Citadel
 of Antwerp
, late 16th century, oil on panel. Paintings. Museum Purchase. 1938.79

Coming soon: The next installment of this two-part WAM Update examines the rapid addition of pistols to the mid-16th century's man-at-arms arsenal and the gradual reduction of the 17th-century cuirassier's armor to just a cuirass and helmet to increase speed as the more powerful musket could more readily pierce even reinforced armors. This update also explores the swift rise of the musketeer. By the 18th century, these soldiers became the main fighting force of European armies supported by artillery and cavalry, leaving cuirassiers fewer in number. 

—By Neal Bourbeau, Programming Coordinator
    March 25, 2021

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