Arms and Armor Crusades


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The arms and armor of the Christian West, Outremer, and Byzantium had a great deal in common from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, while those of the Islamic world varied considerably.


The composite bows that dominated archery throughout the Muslim world came in a variety of forms. These ranged from early types with angled tips that acted as levers to produce an easy draw but that wasted kinetic energy and were difficult to use on horseback, to the smoothly recurved Turkish style composite bow, which has been described as the ultimate cavalry weapon before the invention of firearms. An “arms race” involving the Turkish horseman’s composite bow and the Western infantryman’s crossbow was, in fact, a minor epic in the history of the crusades.

The impact of the crossbow on later medieval warfare on land and at sea is, in fact, difficult to overstate. Crossbows were used by most settled rather than tribal armies in the Near and Middle East, including crusader and Frankish armies, those of the Byzantine Empire, and several Muslim states. The Byzantines certainly knew of this weapon before the crusaders arrived; their word for it (Grk. tzaggra) derives from the Persian- Turkish term jarkh or charkh rather than from any Western source. Bearing in mind the widespread assumption that crossbows were essentially western European weapons, it should also be noted that the earliest reference to a belt and hook to span more powerful forms of handheld crossbow is found in a twelfth-century manual written for Saladin, just as the clip to keep a crossbow bolt in place when shooting on horseback or aiming downward first appeared in a mid-fourteenth- century Egyptian military manual.

Although straight swords continued to be more common than curved sabers in most areas throughout this period, the similarity between Christian and Islamic blades was often superficial. For example, two twelfth-century swords found in a cave in Gibraltar look remarkably European, although their all-iron hilts are made in a way not seen elsewhere in western Europe. The Gibraltar swords are, in fact, early versions of a relatively light weapon that evolved into the distinctive Grenadine swords of the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Light swords were also associated with a fencing technique of much earlier Indian or Persian origin that came to be known in Europe as the Italian Grip.

By the late eleventh century, the use of the baldric, or shoulder strap, rather than the sword belt was rare as a way of carrying a sword. However, the baldric was apparently readopted in thirteenth-century Outremer, perhaps because it was suitable for fighting on foot in defensive siege warfare. In contrast the Frankish cavalry elite were among the first Christian warriors to copy the long-established Middle Eastern fashion of carrying two swords: one on a belt and the other attached to the saddle.

Although the curved saber was already widespread among Turkish-speaking peoples, this weapon had started to spread beyond the Turco-Mongol heartlands of central Asia. It reached the Middle East by the tenth century, if not earlier. The saber did not, however, spread to western Europe until early modern times. The fausso (heavy bladed sword with a single curved edge) of mid- to late twelfth-century Spain was in some respects similar. Though not considered a sword, it was wielded with one hand, and mention of it may have been an early reference to a weapon later known as a falchion in thirteenth- to fourteenth-century western Europe.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the twelfth century saw considerable variation and experimentation in cavalry spears. The lances used by western European armored cavalry may have been relatively uniform, but those used by Almohad horsemen in Morocco were described as notably shorter than those of their Almoravid enemies in the same country. Light javelins (called ausconas or azconas) remained characteristic of twelfth- to thirteenth-century Navarrese infantry in northern Spain. Dardos (light javelins) were similarly used in Castile, while javelins largely made of iron were used by North African Berbers throughout this period.

Sophisticated maces were popular among Muslim troops in the Middle East, where Turkish maces (possibly war booty or based upon Muslim models) were also listed among equipment used by the military orders in Outremer. From there they spread to Europe. The early popularity of a large dagger called a couteau d’armes (literally “knife of arms”) may similarly have reflected Islamic military influence. Firearms appeared at a very early date in the Muslim world but were not adopted as enthusiastically as in western Europe. Meanwhile Byzantium’s apparent lack of firearms until the 1390s may have reflected its relative poverty rather than an unwillingness to use these new weapons. In contrast various Anatolian Turkish forces may have used tüfenk (handguns) by the mid-fourteenth century.

Shields and Helmets

There were fewer changes in the shapes and sizes of shields used in the Muslim world than in Christian Europe between the late eleventh and late fourteenth centuries. Nevertheless, there was still considerable variety within existing traditions. According to one late twelfth-century Egyptian source, shields could be made of spiral cane bound with cotton, or be kite-shaped like those used by Frankish cavalry, or be flatbottomed infantry mantlets comparable to those seen in twelfth- to fourteenth-century Italy. The spiral cane shield was particularly associated with Turks and Mongols, although it actually seems to have developed in Iraq several centuries earlier. A completely different sort of shield continued to be used in the Sahara, North Africa, and al- Andalus, this being the large and expensive leather lam, described as ten hand-spans across, three cubits long, and capable of protecting both rider and horse.

Helmets underwent several important changes, most clearly in Byzantium and western Europe, where facial protection became increasingly important. Nine anthropomorphic helmet visors were found in association with a coin of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos when the Great Palace of Constantinople was excavated. These face masks were comparable to those found in greater numbers in grave sites associated with the Kipchak Turks and Volga Bulgars in southern and eastern Russia. Helmets that covered the wearer’s entire face similarly appeared quite suddenly in twelfth-century Christian Iberia; some of them were almost certainly predecessors of the western European great helm.

Another type of European helmet that may have first appeared, or more properly reappeared, in Byzantium was the brimmed form subsequently known in western Europe as the chapel de fer (war hat). Comparable helmets had been seen in eleventh-century northern China and may actually have been brought west by the Mongols or their immediate Turkish predecessors. They then became popular in thirteenth- century Outremer, presumably because they were more suitable in the Middle Eastern climate than were the enclosed helmets increasingly seen in western Europe. Several remarkable helmets of hardened leather and/or wooden construction have recently been excavated in the citadel of Damascus. They are clearly Islamic and appear to date from the thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Maml%k period.

During the thirteenth century the separate head-protecting mail coif (close-fitting hood) had largely replaced an earlier style in which the coif formed an integral part of the mail hauberk. Despite the fact that Christian Iberian armor looked basically the same as that of the rest of Mediterranean western Europe, much of it had names that derived from Arabic rather than French or Latin. One example was the mail coif (Sp. almofar), a term that came from the Arabic al-mighfar. Meanwhile, by the mid-fourteenth century, low, domed helmets with long, mail aventails (flaps) covering the entire face and shoulders had been adopted in Turkey and Persia. This style was probably of Mongol origin. Several sources maintain that many Muslim soldiers protected their heads by wearing large turbans rather than proper helmets. During the fourteenth century, a form of helmet popularly known as a turban helmet because of its increasingly bulbous shape also appeared, first in Turkish Anatolia and then in some neighboring Islamic countries. It is said to have been worn over a small closely wound turban, though in reality it was probably worn over a form of arming cap. One of the most distinctive pieces of Christian Iberian armor was a stiff gorget around the neck. This first appeared in the late thirteenth century, later spreading to other parts of Europe, and may have evolved out of the earlier espaliere, a thickly quilted shoulder-and-neck defense. In fact most pieces of medieval European quilted armor including the padded jupeau d’armer (arming coat) had Middle Eastern origins.

Body Armor

Hauberks (coats of mail, often incorrectly called chain mail) remained the standard form of body protection until the fourteenth century. The European hauberks were worn over thickly padded soft armor; the eastern Islamic kazaghand was a form of padded, cloth-covered, mail armor known in Outremer as jaserant mail. Otherwise the overwhelming bulk of armor used in Outremer was in purely western European style, mostly imported from Europe itself. The will of an Italian crusader who died at Damietta in 1219 mentioned a “panceriam with one long sleeve and a coif” [W. S. Morris, “A Crusader’s Testament,” Speculum 27 (1952), 197-198)]; such armor, with a single mitten for the right hand, had also been illustrated in late twelfth-century Italian art. Meanwhile an early thirteenth-century French crusader recalled that a “jousting” hauberk, rather than an ordinary hauberk, proved particularly effective against Egyptian archery. In contrast, relatively light mail armor was preferred by most Anatolian Turkish soldiers.

Another form of thirteenth- to fourteenth-century Turkish Anatolian armor was the çuqal, which seems to have been secured by hooks or buckles. It was clearly comparable to the late fourteenth-century Mamluk qarqal, which was a form of scale-lined, cloth-covered armor based upon the Mongol khatangku dehel. The Islamic qarqal was also comparable to the western European coat of plates or even to early forms of brigandine (close-fitting body armor lined with much smaller scales than the coat of plates), which, like the qarqal itself, probably owed a great deal to Mongol-Chinese technological influence. Like the kazaghand and the khatangku dehel, the European coat of plates was covered in fabric. The coirasses or corazas (cuirasses) worn by Iberian infantry rather than cavalry during this period appear to have been heavy forms of probably leather-based scale armor, sometimes with a colored xamete (covering). The term foja (scale-lined “girdle”) was used to describe another form of early thirteenth-century Spanish body protection worn with an ordinary mail hauberk. It had a raised throat protection incorporating metallic elements and was probably an early form of coat of plates. In fact some of the earliest European illustrations of coats of plates come from late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century northern Spain.

Lamellar armor remained an essentially Asian and Middle Eastern form of construction. During this period the jawshan (lamellar cuirass) could be made of metal, horn, or hardened leather, some being laced with gut and others with silk cords. As in earlier centuries, some jawshans were so heavy that only the strongest soldiers could wear them, these perhaps being of the extensive fashion worn by Mongol and Maml%k heavy cavalry. The latter was known in fourteenth-century Turkish countries as the cebe cevsen (“complete cuirass”).

The main technological advance in armor construction in the later medieval Middle East was, however, the invention of what is called mail-and-plate armor. Here relatively small pieces of iron plate armor were linked by larger or smaller areas of mail, a system that probably first appeared in the mid-fourteenth century. Even though it offered considerable protection and great flexibility, mail-and-plate armor never caught on in western Europe, perhaps because it was more suitable for light rather than heavy cavalry. The otherwise obscure bürüme armor mentioned in late fourteenth- century Ottoman Turkish sources was associated with richer fief-holding cavalry and may have been a form of mail-and-plate, though the term may have meant an European plate-armor cuirass.

Various forms of soft or fabric armor had always been widespread in western Asia and the Middle East. In late twelfth- to early thirteenth-century Byzantium, for example, the linothorax was made of linen, though it may merely have been an unpadded surcoat. In Syria felt was used as soft armor or padding beneath a mail hauberk. The Templars’ jupeau d’armer (quilted arming coat) was similarly worn beneath a mail hauberk. The Berber troops of fourteenth century Tunisia were again known for their quilted cloth or soft leather armor, while comparable protections were used by the famous almogavar light infantry and light cavalry of Christian Iberia. Even more distinctive was the fireproof clothing, impregnated with talc, silicate of magnesium, and powdered mica, worn by specialist fire troops in twelfth-century Syria.

The reasons for a sudden revival in the use of separate limb defenses during this period are unclear. Perhaps the first clear illustrations of separate gauntlets in medieval European art appear in late thirteenth-century manuscripts from the Byzantine Empire and Outremer. In contrast, the earlier Arab-Islamic kaff form of arm defenses seems to have dropped out of use, to be replaced by a rigid vambrace for the lower arm, probably as a result of Sino-Mongol influence. Comparable arm defenses in late twelfth- and thirteenth century Europe apparently developed separately, though it is interesting to note that Spanish examples remain among the earliest.

Whereas separate leg protections developed into elaborate pieces of armor in western Europe between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, this trend was far less apparent in the Middle East. Solerets for the feet, mentioned in the Rule of the Templars, appear to have been protective and were among the earliest references to a specific form of foot armor. The obscure sidera gonatia of fourteenth-century Byzantine sources may have been old-style mail chausses (legpieces) or a form of leg protection imported from the West, while the fourteenth-century Turkish budluq seems to have been a mail or mail-and-plate cuisse (upper leg protection) covering only the front of the thigh and knee.

Horse Armor

Horse armor had long been used in both Byzantium and the Islamic world, and was adopted in western Europe during the later twelfth century. Nevertheless horse armor remained rare in Outremer, even in the thirteenth century. According to a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century Turkish literary source, some Byzantine cavalry used horse armor that only covered the front of the animal. This sounds like a reversion to a much earlier style seen in the seventh century, but it is more likely to have reflected Iberian influence via large numbers of Catalan mercenaries in the Aegean area. Within Iberia itself, horse armor was generally referred to as a peytral, meaning the front part of a bard (complete set of horse armor), and had again been mentioned since the late twelfth century. One of the oldest surviving examples of a medieval rather than Roman iron chamfron (armor for a horse’s head) was, however, discovered in an eighth- to fourteenth century site near Khartoum in Sudan. It was almost certainly imported from Egypt, probably for parade purposes. In more practical terms, horse armor of probable mail construction was used by the heavy cavalry of late thirteenth century al-Andalus, while lamellar horse armor was more characteristic of Middle Eastern Muslim heavy cavalry from the eleventh century onward.

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