Carolingian Arms and Armor in the Ninth Century


Carolingian Arms and Armor in the Ninth Century

By Simon Coupland

Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol.21 (1990)

Introduction: This study seeks to ascertain the nature of the armament carried by the Carolingian army in the ninth century by examining the written, iconographic, and archeological sources. The value of such an approach was demonstrated by Gessler’s study of Carolingian weaponry published in 1908, but this work is now largely outdated, and more recent discussions of the subject have seldom contained a balanced evaluation of all three types of evidence. Thus Ferdinand Lot simply stated, “Il y a peu de chose a dire de l’armement,” and subsequently included the briefest of discussions. Ganshof regarded the Psalterium aureum as the only reliable pictorial source and obtained almost all the rest of his information from capitularies. Verbruggen basically repeated Ganshof’s findings, citing the tenth-century Leiden Maccabees as additional iconographic evidence. Only Last has given detailed consideration to all three types of material, but he produced what was intended to be no more than a summary of current knowledge. The article’s brevity was also a handicap, so that illustrations were reproduced without suitable discussion of parallels, possible models, or conformity with other types of evidence. Finally, although a recent book by Nicolle set out to provide an accurate portrayal of Carolingian arms and armor, it displayed little critical evaluation of the sources. This resulted in such bizarre features as an illustration of a ninth-century Breton cavalryman equipped with third-century Roman horse armor and a “fourth– to seventh-century Romano-Byzantine helmet”!

From this brief survey of the secondary literature, it is apparent that a detailed examination and comparison of the different types of primary material is long overdue. Among the written sources, ninth-century narrative texts rarely described arms or armor, and it was only in the capitularies of Charlemagne that Carolingian military equipment was discussed in detail. As a result, these few references have been extensively cited and studied.

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Sharan Newman