Knightly Arms – Plebian Arms

Knightly Arms – Plebian Arms

By Zdzislaw Zygulski Jr

Quaestiones medii aevi novae, v. 4 (1999)

Introduction: The science dealing with the arms of the past – Waffenkunde, hoplology – developed during the second half of the nineteenth century and was continued in assorted environments in the course of the following century. This was by no means an academic science, and did not form part of university curricula. Its institutional basis was composed primarily of museums displaying arms, specialised scientific societies or associations of lovers of old arms, whose members included collectors and amateurs. This state of things is retained up to this day. Ultimately, there came into being two schools of historical studies concerning arms: German‑language, concentrating German and Austrian experts, chiefly in Berlin, Dresden, Munich and Vienna, and English-language, i.e. British and American, especially in London and New York. Less significant centres are located in France (the Parisian Muse de l’Armée), Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Central and Eastern Europe: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Russia.

Systematic research was initiated by work on “great inventories” of preserved collections of arms from past epochs: antiquity, the Middle Ages and the modern era, shifting the term “old arms” in time. In the first place, the investigations dealt with typology and terminology, leading to the appearance of lexicons, a field in which pride of place went, once again, to the Germans and the English. Bashford Dean, an outstanding American expert on arms, and a naturalist by training, was convinced that types of arms evolve, similarly to plants or animals, and could be arranged in genetical sequences; consequently, he constructed typological tables. This system corresponded to museum interpretations: arms were put in order, described and shown usually according to uniform types and chronological criteria. A readily applied method was to distinguish between defensive and offensive arms, firearms and cold steel, and ceremonial and hunting varieties. In the distinction of arms a fundamental role was played by actual items, sometimes obtained via archaeological excavations, but also by their depictions in the plastic arts or descriptions found in literature. Attention was paid to the production of arms and their practical function; less concern was devoted to their social determinants and ideological role in culture. In the latter range, the greatest number of theoretical studies and museum displays pertained to ceremonial and tournament arms. Many years ago, the author of this text studied the significance of armour as a symbolic form, an approach which met with interest both at home and abroad. The intention of this particular article is wider‑ranging, namely, to find an answer to a question concerning the essential role of knightly arms in the military sense and in comparison with arms used during the Middle Ages by non-knightly battle formations. Those issues have been examined upon numerous occasions, but the problem consists in the fact that the historians and the sociologists dealing with them were not experts on arms, while the latter, submerged in typology, are usually distant from purely ideological nuances. Indubitably, in the course of the Middle Ages, knights lost their battle merits and were defeated frequently by soldiers who had at their disposal plebeian arms that functioned much better on the battlefield.

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