By Adam Ali
In the last few decades there has been an ever growing fascination with medieval history. This interest with everything medieval is fueled by an increasing access to the world of the Middle Ages through the media and popular culture. Movies, TV shows, video games, and websites such as this one allow people who in the past may have only had limited access to medieval history to not only learn and read about it, but also to experience it. This exposure and contact with the medieval world (primarily through our screens) has shaped our perceptions of this era, primarily our image of medieval warfare and the warrior/knight, who is one of the iconic symbols of this era.
Representations of medieval warfare in the media, be they epic battle scenes in movies or TV shows or player controlled scenarios in video games, tend to present these events as non-stop ongoing affairs until one side emerged victorious. They also often show the opposing forces as being very polarized with a clear dividing line separating them that could be religious, racial, or tribal. The warriors and armies are also frequently presented as being more organized and united than they were…and almost always fully armed and armored when on campaign!
The reality on the ground was very different. Most medieval armies were undisciplined, communication and intelligence was always a problem, and the fighting, even when it was fierce, was usually not continuous/non-stop. The fighters often took breaks and were relieved by their comrades while they rested. So what must we do to get a better idea about medieval warfare? Go to the primary sources of course! However, there are problems with these as well. Many (if not most) of the sources were written by non-combatants, scholars, priests, scribes etc. who may have either witnessed the battles or heard about them from participants. Furthermore, primary sources tend to be very biased, and it is the historian’s task to recognize these biases, to interpret them in order to get an idea of the author’s perspective, and to try to reconstruct as accurate an account of the event being described as possible (often using multiple sources if they are available).
Some of the most useful sources on medieval warfare are the ones written by the warriors themselves. Unfortunately, these are scarce because many of these warriors were illiterate and of course they were busy fighting and being warriors. Despite this, some important sources have survived that were written by soldiers, knights, and nobles that give us firsthand accounts of the experience of medieval warfare. These include Geoffroi de Villehardouin’s account of the Fourth Crusade, Jean de Joinville’s account of the Seventh Crusade, Usama ibn Munqidh’s memoir, Baybars al-Mansuri’s chronicle, and Ibn Taghri Birdi’s chronicle. In this article, I will be focusing on Usama ibn Munqidh’s memoir kitab al-Itibar (The Book of Contemplation) and his depiction of warfare in it based on his experiences.
Who was Usama ibn Munqidh?
Usama ibn Munqidh was a 12th century Syrian noble (b.1095-d.1188). His father, Majd al-Din Abi Salamah Murshid, was the amir/ruler of Shayzar, a town (with a castle) in Northern Syria near the city of Hama. Usama’s father retired from the lordship of Shayzar and handed the title to his younger brother Izz ad-Din Abi al-Asaker Sultan. Usama was still the potential successor to his uncle until he was exiled from Shayzar, along with his household, in 1131, when his uncle produced a male heir to whom he wanted to bequeath the title of amir. Following his exile, Usama travelled throughout the region serving under a number of overlords including the Fatimids of Egypt, the Zengids, and the Ayyubids. Through his services to these powerful families in an era of war and conflict left Usama with a treasure trove of military experiences that he has recorded in his memoir.
We face the same problem with Usama as we do with other primary sources. He can sometimes come off as being very biased and subjective vilifying his “enemies” (we will talk about them more below) and praising his allies…and of course himself. The modern 21st century reader would also probably label him as a “racist,” based on the way that he views the Franks (i.e. European Crusaders – I will be using the word Frank/Frankish as a designation for all European Crusaders throughout this article).
However, we must be aware that racism as we define it today is a modern construct and cannot be applied to the medieval period when such a construct with its current definition did not exist. Usama was not the only racist, you would be hard pressed to find a source from this era in which the author engages in talking about or describing the “other” and not find it full of what we would define as racist remarks. A few include archbishop and diplomat Giovanni da Pian del Carpine’s (John of Plano Carpini) account of his embassy to the Mongols in the east, Marco Polo’s travels, Fulcher of Chartres’s account of the First Crusade, Ibn Arabshah’s history of Timur (i.e. Tamerlane), and the Chinese historian Sima Qian’s description of the nomadic Xiong Nu tribes inhabiting the steppes to the north of China. All of these sources treat the “other” as culturally, spiritually, technologically, and socially inferior in their text, which is a common trope in both ancient and medieval sources. After all, if “they” don’t look like us, talk like us, act like us, dress like us, worship like us, eat like us etc.…then they must be barbarians. Despite these biases and exaggerations, such sources are invaluable due to the information they present and for giving us a glimpse into the mindset of the author and his contemporaries. One merit that can be attributed to kitab al-Itibar is that its author often acknowledges the positive and worthy qualities of his foes and points out his allies’ faults. Usama’s memoir, with all its possible exaggerations and biases, paints a vivid picture of the realities of medieval warfare and the shifting allegiances, even across religious lines, of this era.
Arms and Armor
One of the first “myths” I would like to dispel is regarding the arms and armor of this era. We get the juxtaposition, when depicting crusader warfare in popular culture, of the heavily armored European knights fighting the lightly armored warriors and soldiers of the Middle East. The opponents of the Crusaders are often portrayed wearing flowing robes and turbans, wielding scimitars, and firing composite recurved bows from horseback. Although this image is not 100% incorrect, it only paints a partial picture of the reality. As was the case in Western Europe, there were several classes of warriors and soldiers in the Muslim world. Just as in Europe, those warriors in the Middle East who could afford it wore armor into battle. Common sense would dictate that if one were going into battle where there was a chance he would get shot with an arrow or stabbed and slashed with a variety of vicious medieval weapons that they would do the utmost to protect themselves. Furthermore, the tradition of heavily armed and armored mounted knights did not originate in Europe. This form of warfare was transferred there from the east and had originated in Iran and Inner Eurasia.
Usama describes the weapons of a faris (knight in Arabic) as consisting of: a spear/lance, shield, sword, dagger, javelin, and a mace. His protective gear included: a chainmail shirt/hauberk, leggings and stockings, boots with spurs, and a helmet. He also frequently mentions the brigandine (kazaghand) which was probably also very common during his time. The quality of these brigandines probably varied because he mentions both soldiers wearing them as well as nobles and rulers. He describes his father’s brigandine, which comprised overlapping mail shirts (one shorter one on top of the other). Each of these had a lining made of felt and padding to absorb blows. Thus, when facing one another in battle the European knights and their Arab/Turkic/Iranian equivalents were both armed and armored in a similar manner. Furthermore, the standing armies and retinues of the rulers of the Muslim world were composed largely of mamluks (military slaves or former slaves who had been freed) and these men were also heavily armed.
That is not to say that the stereotypical Muslim light cavalry did not exist. These were, during this era, for the most part Arab and Turkmen tribal warriors who often joined the rulers’ armies as auxiliaries. These warriors wore considerably lighter armor, or none at all, were very mobile, and excelled at mounted archery, especially the Turks. Usama tells an anecdote in which a Turk singlehandedly killed forty-three brigands who tried to rob him on the road because of his skilled archery. This may be an exaggeration, but it does give us the impression that the Turks’ archery skills were held in high esteem that this time.
The effectiveness of chainmail and brigandine armor is also grossly misrepresented in the modern reproductions of medieval warfare. On TV and in the movies armor is often more decorative than functional. Swords, spears, and arrows often cut through chainmail like a hot knife through butter. In reality, chainmail afforded its wearer a considerable amount of protection and it was (and still is!) very difficult to cut through it or pierce it. Often the wearer of such armor would suffer from bruises and fractures and that is why thick padded jackets or gambesons/aketons were worn in conjunction with the mail to absorb the shock from incoming blows. Usama gives several examples showing the effectiveness of armor during his time. In one instance, he was approached by one of his men, Jum‘a, during a battle against the amir of Hama, another Muslim lord called Mahmud ibn Qaraja. Juma‘a was crying because an enemy horseman, Sarhank ibn Abi Mansur, had stabbed him with a spear. The crying was not due to a physical wound or pain inflicted, but rather due to the fact that Jum‘a’s pride had been injured because his assailant was a young warrior and he was a veteran of many years. He then plunged into battle, sought out Sarhank, and stabbed him. Neither of the men died or suffered serious wounds, which shows the effectiveness of their armor.
In another example, Usama mentions that a Frankish knight who was covering the rear of the retreating Frankish army against a Muslim force. This Frankish knight charged into their midst and disrupted the pursuers’ ranks. His horse was killed from under him and he was struck with sword and spear several times and was wounded, but he was able to fight his way out and return to his comrades. This anecdote not only demonstrates the martial skills of the crusader knights, but also is a testament to the effectiveness of the armor that they wore. Had this knight been unarmored he would have certainly perished. In another example, Usama describes the duel, during the siege of Kafartab in 1115, between a Turk armed with a sword and shield and a Frankish soldier wearing a “double Hauberk” and wielding a spear. The Turk bested his foe in the duel striking him multiple times with his sword, but Usama states that the Turk’s blows had no effect on the heavily armored Frank who was able to withdraw and take refuge in a tower.
On the other hand, Usama also gives examples of lethal blows in battle. One thing in common in most of the accounts is that the victim was either unarmored or was struck at a point on his body that lacked armor or where the armor was weak. Usama states that he led a small group of twenty horsemen and an unspecified number of “raider/pillagers” on a raid against Apamea around the year 1119. They were unexpectedly confronted by a large force of Frankish cavalry that sought to catch them. One of the Frankish knights had discarded his armor to lighten himself in order to catch up to Usama’s party. Usama states that he turned to face this pursuer and struck him in the chest with his spear, instantly killing him. In another example Usama recounts that one of his warriors fought in a battle without any armor, wearing only two cloth garments. He was struck in the chest by a Frankish knight so that his spear came out of his side. The victim in this case survived, the only explanation to this could be that no vital organs were hit, which makes him a very lucky guy. Usama also tells us that during another attack on Apamea one of Usama’s allies was struck by an arrow in his forearm. He says that the arrow penetrated and nicked his arm bone. The wound festered and the man died. One could only surmise that this warrior, if armored, was probably wearing a short sleeved chainmail shirt or brigandine, leaving his arm, or part of it, unprotected.
In yet another example, one of Usama’s valiant companions rushed into battle unarmored because he was too impatient to await his servant’s return with his armor. He was easily bested by his armored counterparts, taken prisoner, and tortured. Usama also states that one of his men, Rafi ibn Kilabi, was killed by a chisel-headed arrow that struck him in the throat. One thing Usama points out in this anecdote is that Rafi was bringing up the rear and was wearing a kazaghand/brigandine and a helmet without an aventail to protect his neck, and this is where the arrow struck him. A final example should suffice here, Usama states that one of the “most spectacular spear thrusts” he had ever seen was dealt by a Frank against one of his soldiers, a certain Sabah ibn Qunayb. Usama asserts that the spear cut through the three of Sabah’s rib bones on both his right and left sides and then split his elbow joint in two killing him. There are two observations that can be made here. Sabah was either not wearing armor, or if he was it may have been damaged and in need of repair. Secondly, he was most probably struck from the side. Some types of armor (the cheaper ones) had the strongest protection (i.e. metal rings, splints, scales) on the front. So the side may have only been protected by padding, cloth, or other lighter material.
Another point to make here is regarding the combat preparedness of the knights and soldiers. Movies and television often depict a medieval army marching out to war with columns of knights in armor followed by infantrymen with spears and other weapons, all fully armored. In reality, the medieval army on the march was a lot less orderly. Most of the knights/faris probably did not put on their armor until they neared the battlefield and the same goes for the other troops. Weapons and armor were transported in cases carried by mules and camels (and in some cases wagons – but these were more common in Europe). As exemplified earlier, one of Usama’s men who itched to engage in battle ended up charging in without his armor because his servant took too long to bring it. He was also given the option of selecting a kazaghand by Usama’s father from among those being carried by the pack mules, but he could not find one that suited him. Usama also mentions on more than one occasion that the mounted warriors often rode mules during the march leading their chargers beside them and only switched mounts before battle.
Furthermore, the commanders and nobles seem to have had less control over their armies than intimated in popular culture. It is thus noteworthy that the sources state that Yaqub ibn Layth (the founder of the Saffarid Empire in Sistan and Khurasan during the 9th century) had an unusually powerful iron grip on his troops. Eyewitnesses state that one word from their commander was enough to stop the Saffarid troops from looting and pillaging after battle. Usama shows in his memoir that this was an exception in the Middle Ages. He states that in one encounter with the Franks the infantry wanted to pillage the Frankish camp after they had been driven off. Usama commanded them to return to their posts, but they ignored him, were counterattacked by the Franks, and suffered heavy casualties. In another instance, while riding out to fight Muhammad ibn Qaraja, it was Usama’s cavalry that dispersed all over the region; some of them had been drawn out of position by the enemy who withdrew before them. This time the infantry were drawn up in order and held their positions. Usama had to ride out and attempt to gather his dispersed horsemen before the enemy turned on them and destroyed them while they were out of formation.
Based on Usama’s accounts, battles were primarily fought by armored cavalrymen. During battle these knights attacked each other in groups of varying size and fought then withdrew as fresh groups joined the fray. It appears there were pauses and lulls in battle or some of the fighters withdrew to rest while others continued fighting. Once again, this is not surprising as fighting non-stop for long periods wearing heavy armor could indefinitely exhaust even the strongest and most conditioned warriors. This is exemplified by the Roman legions of antiquity. They fought in lines that relieved each other over time intervals so that the front line could rest reform and reenter the fight after the relieving lines had become exhausted.
When they were present, the infantry formed a battle line behind which the cavalry could retire to rest and regroup before launching their next attack. This was the sole function of the infantry in open field battles and Usama at one point calls them “defenseless, useless fools” when they try to follow a group of routed Frankish knights, only to be counter-attacked and put to flight by those same Franks. In other instances Usama praises the infantry. When fighting Tancred of Antioch Usama states that the infantry of Shayzar held fast against repeated cavalry charges by the knights of Antioch.
It also seems that infantry played a more prominent role in sieges. At Kafartab in the year 1115 Khurasani sappers undermined one of the towers bring it partially down. It was the infantrymen who were the first to scale what remained of the tower and engaged the Franks in melee combat on the walls. Two centuries later during the Mamluk period, when cavalry was still dominating the battlefields there are multiple accounts of infantrymen saving the day in battles that took place in the hilly and mountainous regions of Syria and Anatolia, which is a testament to their ability to fight on broken terrain.
Another merit of Usama’s memoir is that it conveys the human emotions of its author and the others mentioned therein. During Usama’s raid on Apamea that was mentioned earlier the Franks turned around and fled after Usama killed one of them. He rode in their pursuit and had set his sight upon one of the Frankish knights in the rearguard who wore a gambeson and a mail hauberk and “rode a black horse as big as a camel. Usama admits that he was scared of the giant warrior and he feared that he was luring him into a trap and would turn on him at any moment and take him prisoner. However, Usama noticed the knight spurring his mount while it twitched its tail and hind quarters indicating that it was exhausted. This was the sign he needed and he attacked him and drove his lance though him using the momentum and weight of his own mount.
In another account Usama and his family rode out to fight their rivals the Banu Qaraja of Hama. However, upon arrival at the battlefield Usama noted that his enemies had mustered a large force of Turkmen tribesmen and others and he realized that they were too numerous for the army of Shayzar and prudently withdrew. He mentions this withdrawal in a matter-of-fact manner and does not seem to be ashamed of such an act, since to him it probably made sense to retreat to fight another day rather than to throw away his life and that of his family and retainers in a skirmish.
Usama mentions the attack launched on Shayzar by the Nizari Ismailis in 1114. He describes the encounter between one of his men, Hammam, and an Ismaili who had made his way up to his uncle’s portico. The Ismaili attacked Hammam with a knife. Hammam struck his assailant with his sword on his head above his eye. The blow cut through the man’s head crushing the skull and causing his brain matter to spill out. It is noteworthy that Usama mentions Hammam’s reaction after this encounter. He dropped his sword and vomited all the contents of his stomach. Although this scene is described in graphic gory detail, it is Hammam’s reaction of horror and revulsion after dealing his opponent that fatal blow to the head that brings a human touch to an otherwise brutal event. In addition to that, Usama also includes an interesting section in his memoir in which he mentions the phobias of some of the brave warriors around him. He mentions his uncle, Sultan, who was one of the most courageous people he had ever come across and states that he had made many brave stands in battle, but was “overcome by shudders” at the mere sight of a mouse! Another brave household warrior, Sunduq, suffered a similar effect upon seeing a snake. Once again, revealing the fears and phobias of men who were dauntless warriors in battle really humanizes them and makes them more relatable as people to the reader.
Enemies and Friends
Usama’s memoir also sheds light on the very complex relationships in the Levant during the 12th century. Due to the fact that these events were taking place during the Crusades, one would assume that it was a conflict between Muslims and Christians. However, the situation was considerably more complex than simply drawing a line dividing religions. As was the case in the conflicts in the Iberian Peninsula during the medieval period and along the Byzantine frontier, the lines were really blurred and individuals and groups of various religions and ethnicities often allied with “the enemy” against their own people. For example, Muslims and Christians frequently allied against other Muslims and Christians in medieval Spain. The Byzantines employed Muslim Turks in their armies. The Umayyads, Abbasids, and independent Muslim polities that emerged during the ninth century employed Christians such as the Maradites (from the mountains of Syria and Lebanon), Copts to man their fleet, and Frankish renegades and mercenaries. They also employed Hindus in the east along with Iranians who had not yet converted to Islam, most of whom belonged to the various Khurramiyya cults that dominated much of Iran, pagans, and some Zoroastrians and Buddhists too. Furthermore, for much of its history large parts of the Ottoman army were composed of Christian troops including Greeks, Serbs, Albanians, and others.
The situation in the Levant during the Crusades was no different. Although Usama constantly criticizes and curses the Franks throughout the text, he also admits their merits including their bravery and martial prowess. He describes one instance in which one Frankish knight by the name of Badrahu shamefully put four Muslim horsemen to flight. He also attributes the most magnificent spear thrust he had ever seen to a Frankish knight and I have also mentioned above how a lone Frankish horseman bravely charged a pursuing army and delayed them singlehandedly and managed to return to his people despite losing his horse and being wounded.
Usama also presents anecdotes in which he describes his friendship with some of the Franks. For instance he mentions his friendship with a respected knight from the army of King Fulk V (son of Fulk) of Jerusalem. He states that this knight and Usama became close companions who spent a lot of time together and that knight referred to Usama as his “brother.” Upon his departure to Europe, the knight even offered to take Usama’s fourteen year old son and to foster him and teach him the art of western chivalry, an offer that Usama politely declined. Usama seems to have viewed those Franks who had been living in the Levant for a while more positively than those who were newly arrived from Europe due to their assimilation to their new environment. Among these long term inhabitants of Jerusalem were the Templars. Usama refers to the knights of this holy order as “his friends” and further states that even after having converted al-Aqsa Mosque (i.e. the Dome of the Rock) into a Church, they always cleared a small room for Usama within that he could use as a mosque for worship.
In another instance he mentions an old Frankish knight at whose home Usama had dinner. The knight assured Usama that he himself had ceased eating Frankish food and never consumed pork and that all his food was prepared by Egyptian cooking-women. This same old knight saved Usama’s life in the marketplace shortly afterward when a Frankish woman clung onto him and accused him of killing her brother. Usama admits that as a crowd gathered he feared for his life and was certain he would be lynched. However, the old Frankish knight dispersed the crowd stating that Usama was a merchant and not a warrior and thus saved him from a violent death at the hands of a Frankish mob.
The situation was not very different when it came to war. In his memoir Usama mentions that a fortnight after taking Kafartab a Seljuk army led by a Turk Commander, Bursuq, (Usama’s father and the forces of Shayzar were a part of this army) was ambushed by the army of Roger of Salerno, the Lord of Antioch and decisively defeated at Danith (between Kafartab and Aleppo). Usama states that this ambush was successful because Roger had allied with Lulu the Eunuch, who was the Lord of Aleppo. Lulu had sent a message to Bursuq asking him to send/lead an army to Aleppo so that he could hand the city over to him. It was this army, according to Usama, that was ambushed and destroyed.
Finally, regarding the Franks, Usama is very critical of the way that they practiced medicine. However, he has no scruples admitting when their treatments worked and even using them himself. For example he states that a Frankish physician healed a festering wound using strong vinegar that other physicians and treatments could not heal. He also learned how to treat scrofula sores from a one of his retainers who learned it from a Frank. This treatment involved soaking the ashes of burned glasswort leaves in olive oil and strong vinegar and washing the sores with this mixture.
A large part of the text of kitab al-Itibar that deals with describing battles shows Usama fighting against Muslims as much as he was against the crusaders. He fought Muslims in Cairo during factional struggles within the Fatimid court, he battled Bedouins on the road during his travels, he fought off the Nizari Ismailis when they attacked Shayzar, and some of the fiercest battles he describes were against the Banu Qaraja, who were the rulers of Hama. We can therefore conclude that combat in the Levant during the 12th century was a very complex affair with regard to the way the warriors were armed and armored, the way in which battles were fought, and the shifting alliances that blurred the lines that we tend to draw based on religion, ethnicity, and culture.
Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.