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The knight in armour: 8th - 14th century

The Franks acquire stirrups by about 730. They also develop exceptionally heavy horses (the breeds of northwest Europe are the ancestors of the carthorses later used for haulage and ploughing). With stirrups and a powerful horse, the medieval knight is ready to take the field.

A mounted knight in armour, usually of mail (also known as chain mail), is to a large extent protected from the archer's arrow or the spear of the footsoldier, while his own long lance is a lethal weapon against any opponent. Its thrust no longer depends on the strength of an arm. Seated in a shaped saddle, with his feet in stirrups and the lance held firm against his body, the knight drives home the point of the lance with the full forward impetus of his horse.

Both horse and armour are expensive, so warrior status is now reserved for the ruling class; and with faces concealed inside armour, devices on helmet and shield are essential to identify friend from foe. Painted armour happens also to be a glorious way of advertising one's lineage. It is no accident that possession of a 'coat of arms' is a distinguishing mark of European aristocracies.

Such a system of warfare is ideally suited to feudal societies. The mounted knight holds sway in Europe throughout the Middle Ages until new weapons in the 14th century - such as the pike and the longbow - restore some measure of advantage to the humble infantry.

A weapon of mass destruction: 1139-1346

Pope Innocent II and the second Lateran council take a firm stand, in 1139, against a weapon which they consider morally unacceptable in its devastating capacity to kill. It is the crossbow, invented in China in the 3rd century BC and first recorded in use in Europe in a battle at Hjörungsvag in Norway in986.

The pope and his cardinals make one distinction in this early attempt at arms control. They specify that the weapon is unacceptable in warfare between Christians. They are pontificating a few decades after the success of the first crusade. The implication is clear. The weapon of death may be turned against Muslims.

The crossbow proves effective on crusade. Indeed Richard I wins one of his victories over Saladin, at Arsuf in 1191, largely because of the effect on the Muslim forces of the bolts fired by his crossbowmen. Each bolt, about ten inches long with a square metal head tapering to a point, can be shot with sufficient force to pierce contemporary armour at a range of up to 300 yards. The weapon's limitation is its very slow rate of fire.

The papal embargo fails to stop the spread of the crossbow among Christian armies. It is familiar on European battlefields in the 12th and 13th centuries. Mercenaries from Genoa in particular are famous as crossbowmen - until they confront a new and faster weapon at Crécy in 1346.

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