Protochivalry? Frankish Armored Cavalry in the 8th–10th Centuries as They Depicted in Visual Sources
Keywords:armored cavalry, chivalry, couched lance, mounted shock combat, Carolngian visual arts.
The article is devoted to the analysis of how Carolingian cavalrymen and their arms and armour are depicted in a set of Carolingian visual sources dating back to VIII – X centuries. How a Frankish horseman was armed in the VIII-X centuries is generally clear. However, the questions of how well a Frankish horseman fought and how he used his weapons in a battle have so far remained unnoticed by researchers, with the exceptions of Lynn White, Bernard Bachrach and Guy Halsall. But even they were more interested in general trends than in particular combat practices. This is largely due to the conciseness of written sources. As Timothy Reuter argues, “yet the face of battle
… generally eludes us when we read these works”. However, in studies of the Frankish combat practices, visual sources are of paramount importance, as only they provide a holistic and clear picture of the cavalry armament complex, as well as the use of this complex in a combat.
In recent times, the historiographical debate about the time when armoured cavalry appeared in the Frankish army and about the period when such cavalry transformed itself into chivalry is incomplete. It largely revolves around the relevance of the theses uttered by Lin White in the 1960s.
Important sources in this debate are the Carolingian visual material that scholars exploit permanently but arbitrarily. This text is an attempt to systematize the Frankish iconography of the VIII - X centuries as an iconographic complex depicting armoured cavalry, its armament and its practical use. The Frankish iconography of VIII - X centuries confirms clearly the existence and importance of armoured cavalry in the army of the first Carolingians, despite the modern scholar’s different views on its force level, as well as its leading role in Frankish military culture in no later than the second half of the ninth century. The cabinet view of Western researchers about the uselessness of cavalry during sieges is not confirmed by sources. On the contrary, both the images and texts of that period demonstrate the widest possible use of cavalry in such military actions, primarily as a force for rapid response to the initiatives of the besieged. Technological transformations in mounted fighting were slow. Despite the fact that the stirrups have been recorded in Europe since the VII century, in the Carolingian visual material stirrups first
appeared in the second half of the ninth century in a miniature from the manuscript "The Life of Saint
Wandrille”. Further, their images are frequent but irregular, so Lynn White's theory on the crucial role of the stirrup introduction for transforming the Carolingian society of VIII - IX centuries and corresponding introduction of mounted shock combat during this period is not confirmed by visual sources. However, Bernard Bachrach's opposition thesis about the unpopularity of stirrups among the Franks in this period cannot be accepted either. It is likely that the stirrups’ introduction and the transformation of military techniques was slow, in parallel with the increase in the quality and quantity of saddle horses. The image of a couched lance has appeared permanently in the Frankish iconography since the 9th century. The motif of a rider with a lance held by a straight grip horizontally in an arm bent at an elbow first appears in the ninth century in The Golden Psalter of St. Gallen and The Boland Prudence, in the context of a cavalry march and the pursuit of one cavalry unit by another. Stirrups, saddles and spurs are visible too in the Carolinian iconography in that period. The third image of a couched spear on the relief of a sarcophagus from Civita Castellana is difficult to attribute chronologically accurately. By analogy with the images of war horses, equestrians and their equipment, the relief can be widely dated to the ninth century. In the Carolingian visual material of the tenth century, the motif of thecouched lance is found twice more (Codex Perizoni, Psychomachy of St. Lawrence) in the images of a siege and a convoy of captives. In four images from five, there is no enemy hit with a lance stroke, while in the fifth, the relief displays a hunting scene with a hunter on horseback striking a wild boar with a lance. Interpretation of these images by means of German and Italian fencing manuals, as well as the 1938 military regulations for the Polish cavalry, leads to the conclusion that the armoured
cavalry’s knowing the technique of couching a lance does not automatically mean their ability to mounted shock combat. Holding the spear horizontally under the armpit gave a rider the opportunity to use fencing techniques and shock blows with a shaft or "winged” ends of lance head, which were effective in a melee. According to the Carolingian visual sources, the spread of stirrups since the ninth century seems indisputable, resulting in the development of armoured cavalry and its combat effectiveness in the Frankish army. Although the identification of a couched lance with mounted shock combat techniques is erroneous, the war horse and rider's armament, consisting of a spear, sword, shield, helmet, and body armour, defined the Carolingian and Ottonian armoured cavalry as a fighting force. This set of equipment was the technological basis, and the community of its bearers was the favourable environment in which chivalry emerged later as a fighting force. Frankish military technologies of the VIII - X centuries and the Frankish military culture of this period in the broadest sense of the term served as the technological and cultural basis for forming chivalry and chivalrous military technology in the
future. Despite the obvious growing importance of cavalry in the Frankish army and progressive experiments with spear-wielding techniques during the VIII - X centuries, which are clearly proved by both visual and textual sources of the day, the available source material does not prove the existence of mounted shock combat among the Frankish military elites. So, it is early to speak about the emergence of knightly military technology and, accordingly, chivalry as a fighting force in the VIII - X centuries. However, Lynn White's thesis that it was the period that opened the "window of opportunity" for transforming equestrian combat and developing and proliferating weapons for it and ultimately for the growth of cultural and political role of specialists capable of it in the Frankish kingdoms remains relevant.