By Steven Muhlberger
I was recently asked how movies about the Middle Ages often show that it was fairly easy for a peasant to fight and kill a knight in battle. That a heavily armoured knight could be dragged off his horse and just struck dead with a dagger. Isn’t that an oversimplification, he wanted to know? Weren’t knights tougher than that?
You know, I said, that history is full of oversimplifications and the medieval period most of all. But I agreed that knights – or “men at arms” as many medieval soldiers were called – had very substantial advantages over fighters who were neither noble nor professional.
Money talks, armour stops
Let’s consider how commoners related to warfare. Nobles, gentlemen and many prosperous men had weaponry, horses and armor and had the ability to take part in wars. In fact, in many places these well-equipped men might be required to have arms, based on their wealth.
Look at the 12th century “Assize of Arms” promulgated by the English king Henry II. To raise a useful army the king required certain types of freemen to keep arms of a certain sort. For instance the wealthiest freemen listed, “knights holding one fee,” were expected to have a hauberk (a mail shirt, long or short) a helmet, a shield and a lance, while a free man worth 10 marks was expected to have an “aubergel”, an iron headpiece and a lance. It’s clear that these free men of both sorts were a significant part of the king’s forces; at the same time their armor was not particularly impressive – certainly not by later standards. Surely unarmed or lightly armed peasants who might face these free men would have even less equipment.
By the fourteenth century we have more detailed information about the more organized royal armies and the more advanced harness used by them. A French royal ordinance of 1352 planned for an army divided roughly into two: (1)“men-at arms” (well-equipped cavalry) and (2) “men-at-arms on foot” (various kinds of infantry). The “men-at-arms” included a variety of statuses: bannerets (knights who led their own retinues), plain knights, armored squires. The various groupings were paid according to status and armor. For instance, a banneret was paid twice as much as a plain knight. Footmen were paid even less: crossbowmen were offered 1/7th of what a knight was paid. Undoubtedly the pay was indicative of the perceived worth of the recipient. Kings and other lords wanted value for money. Recruiting practices pushed men-at-arms to acquire more sophisticated gear.
The funerary brasses that became so popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries give us an idea of the evolution of armor from mostly mail to mostly plate armor. The new armor was expensive and required a real commitment to fighting. I think the individual armored knight or man-at-arms of the sort commemorated by a brass monument would have terrified a common warrior wearing cheaper protection. Imagine how those wearing the cheapest armor might feel when facing a well-armed and no doubt well-trained man-at-arms of this sort; now visualize a peasant with no armor in the same position!
Peasants in battle
Not that all peasants were alike. The fictional “Little John” of Nottingham Forest and the factual fighting woman “Big Margot” of France were examples of the possibility that some people with unusual characteristics – in these two cases unusual size and strength — might be able to make an impact, whatever their rank.
Confidence and determination and unusual resources also made it possible for groups of commoners to assert themselves during the post-plague period. In the 1300s, the Flemish cities organized themselves as disciplined forces and defeated noble-led armies. Bruges, for instance, had several advantages: it was a populous, rich trading city that could afford to resist the traditional ruling class if the right circumstances occurred; and indeed many citizens were willing to put their lives on the line to achieve their own vision of self-government. The townsmen of Flanders even adopted a scary and non-standard weapon, the goedendag – a combination of a short spear and long club. These commoners (many of whom by this time were more prosperous than earlier generations) had distinctive weaponry and a tactical protocol which made them an effective military and political factor.
However, when peasants came to blows against knights, the outcome was rarely in their favour. This can be seen in the Jacquerie, a French peasants’ rebellion that took place in 1358. In the aftermath of the 1356 Battle of Poitiers, many parts of France fell into chaos, and the commoners were angry at their own nobles for their failures in the war against the English.
Jean Froissart and other chroniclers relate how these peasants began attacking castles, killing nobles. They had early successes, but once the local elites got somewhat organized, the rebellion would be soon crushed. One story is a very good example of how powerful knights could be in battle: An army of peasants – Froissart claims they were 9,000 strong – came to the castle of Meaux to attack the Duchess of Normandy. The surrounding town of Meaux joined in the rebellion, welcoming the peasant army. It looked as if they would be able to capture the castle, but then a group forty knights arrived, led by the Count of Foix and the Captal de Buch. The knights took up their swords and lances and rode out to confront the peasants. Here is how Froissart describes the battle:
[When the peasants] saw [a noble company] drawn up in this warlike order – although their numbers were comparatively small—they became less resolute than before. The foremost began to fall back and the noblemen to come after them, striking at them with their lances and swords and beating them down. Those who felt the blows, or feared to feel them, turned back in such panic that they fell over each other. Then men-at-arms of every kind burst out of the gates and ran into the square to attack those evil men. They mowed them down in heaps and slaughtered them like cattle; and they drove all the rest out of the town, for the villeins attempted to take up any sort of fighting order…In all [the nobles] exterminated more than seven thousand Jacks on that day. Not one would have escaped if they had not grown tired of pursuing them.
The knights were not finished though – they then returned to the town and burned it down to ashes in retaliation for their aiding the rebels. Among the noble ranks only one man was killed in this fight. Other battles that took place during the Jacquerie had similar results – whether on horse or foot, the knights dominated and crushed the rebels. They also took bloody vengeance on the commoners, killing those who were not even involved in the rebellion.
What did this mean for your question, you asked? In the Middle Ages wealth was closely associated with a military function. Either warriors were associated with lords as retainers or the lords were themselves fighters. In either case, these military men would have had better access to weapons, armor and training than peasants. They had the experience of battle and killing, and they could use all the advantages to be superior on the battlefield. If a knight came face-to-face with a peasant in battle, then the latter had the odds very much against them.
Such figures like Little John surely existed; during the Hundred Years War lesser men such as Robert Knolles, an English archer raised from the lowest ranks to command armies. They were not typical – that was why they became famous. And the exceptional warrior – the hero – still has his and her place in popular entertainment.
Steven Muhlberger, before his recent retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include the “Deeds of Arms Series” published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: British Library MS Sloane 2435 fol. 85r