Go to any museum, lecture or Renaissance Faire and you’ll find them. They may be lecturers, curators, reenactors or stagefighters, but they’ll all share a common theme. Ironically, even the ones who pay lip service to other ideas often end up returning to this one.
Knights didn’t do any actual fighting, they’ll say, or all the real work was done by peasants. Men-at-arms, professional soldiers not necessarily of noble birth, won’t usually receive acknowledgement at all. Often they’ll draw from different parts of a pool of outright myths. Some will throw out absurd statements that “greatswords could weigh up to 40 pounds!” A disconcertingly large number will be happy to tell you how blunt Medieval swords are, while simultaneously talking about their ability to bash through armor. Still others will claim their combat shows represent historical combat, then cover for their lack of technique by emphasizing that it’s “battlefield combat” instead of a “gentleman’s duel.”
Let’s recast a few of these ideas in a different light. If you tried to tell someone that Kenjutsu wasn’t really intended for use outside of duels and that Samurai weren’t that important on the battlefield, you’d either be laughed at or verbally assaulted. But for all that Orientalism’s lingering ghost wants you to think of, say, Germany and Japan as vastly different, they weren’t. Obviously they’re completely different countries, but there’s an extra “alien” emphasis between the two that has no basis in reality. Like Japan, Germany spent large portions of its history as a collection of warring states. Like Japan, Germany often contended with foreign invaders (the French and the Mongols, for example). Like Japan, Germany’s feudal armies were based on a mix of peasant conscripts and hardened professionals. And, like Japan, Germany’s states developed one of the most refined sword traditions on the planet.
So why is it that supposedly well-educated historians are so eager to accept anything good about the Land of the Rising Sun, but have so much trouble with the Rhineland? I believe there are two main factors at play: one, a deeply European assumption that the passage of time means progress. Two, all the horseshit the Victorians smeared on our museum displays. Let’s begin with that, shall we? The idiocy about brittle, blunt swords weighing 20-40 pounds is theirs. So is the idea (admittedly reasonable if swords had actually weighed 20-40 pounds) that swordsmanship before the saber and rapier consisted of artless bashing. They conjured our images of dirty, unwashed hordes living in squalor and terror of a wrathful God, of an anarchic maelstrom of unending brute violence.
If you’re aware of the Victorians’ views about other people, you know they have a habit of this. For all that the 1800s brought the abolition of slavery, they also brought a host of ideas that perpetuated it under other names. Eugenics, colonialism, nationalism and a bevy of other discomfiting ideas all reached their high point during the 19th Century. The common theme was that white people in the 1800s were the best, and all others were shit. Including earlier groups of white people. But the Victorian’s views often alloyed extreme bigotry with a kind of strange inverse Romanticism. As much as they demeaned and reviled Africans (the denizens of “the Dark Continent”), they had a genuine fascination with them. “The Savage” represented a more emotional version of humanity, a being free from endless social posturing and puritanical codes of conduct. Was this idea accurate?
Ha, no. You didn’t really need me to answer that, though.
When we consider the myths the Victorians passed down to us, however, we should remember just how fascinated they were with grotesque imagery. They were fond of stories that twisted our ideas of humanity, both in the horror genre and outside of it. This was the era in which guns became advanced enough to push out every other weapon. After holding on for three centuries past their battlefield prime, swords, spears and the other weapons of the “Dark Ages” finally lost relevance in the face of breech-loading, then magazine-fed rifles and modern howitzers. The last echoes of the Chivalric ideal faded into the mist of history. They became a thing of vapor and empty breath, stories the same as any other. The Middle Ages became distant enough that they stopped seeming real. And then, of course, the Realist movement happened.
Realism is not actually realism. Realism is depressive. Realist writers always took the dimmer view on any issue, and frequently the dimmest. They tore down anything idealized with gusto, a habit of theirs we never really got rid of. But in their desperation to prove how silly it was to have hope, they supplanted many classic ideals with mirror-universe ones. Instead of honorable warriors, they asserted that all war is pointless and all who wage it scum. Instead of tender, eternal love, they promise that either you’ll hate each other inside a year or your dearest one will be struck down by illness. To put it in English professor’s terms, the Realists idolized the destruction of idols.
That brings us back to the present, and the readiness of so many people to accept a grimdark view of history. Some deconstruction is needed, of course: spears have always been the most effective weapon on any battlefield. Swords have their reputation almost entirely due to their “elite” status, one arguably derived from the nobility who preferred them instead of their killing effectiveness. But if you listen to the way many historical educators discuss combat in the Middle Ages, even the Renaissance, you’ll note a pattern. It’s not one of explicit statement, but the way they present ideas. Let me return to that line from the first paragraph: “battlefield combat, not a gentleman’s duel.” In literal terms, it just describes the (supposed) style of fighting. But consider the separation it creates and the words surrounding it. “Battlefield combat” draws on all the gore-spattered war films the audience has seen, and all the anthologies they’ve read. “Gentleman’s duel” gives us two powdered fops prancing out to ten paces in their wigs. This also suggests that gentlemen would not have been present on the battlefield.
It’s key that none of this is explicitly stated. A favorite trick among irresponsible historians is to use connotation (a word’s implied meanings and the connections it creates for the audience) to make a point without stating it. This allows them to argue for things they have no actual evidence for in such a way that no one can argue back. It’s the same thing politicians do. They rarely make concrete statements, because a concrete statement can be proven wrong. They put everything in sweeping generalizations so that if counterarguments are raised, they can just say “Oh, well, I didn’t really mean that.” You know and the Congressman knows that he hates queer-spectrum people. But you can’t prove the meaning of an implication, because an implication by its nature goes unstated.
Back to the matter at hand: history, like life, is not fair. Knights were horrendously expensive and the number one rule in military history is that you don’t spend money on things you don’t need. Unless you’re the modern U.S. government, at any rate. The RenFaire diatribes try to supplant the ideal of the armored knight with the ideal of the industrious peasant. Ironically that’s a condescending attitude the nobility themselves expressed. Even a poor knight had a small estate and a number of servants to see to his needs. He was poor nobility, not a poor person. The same people who openly acknowledge that wealth is an advantage on pretty much every front in the modern world try to pretend it was different in history. It wasn’t; think about the daily life of a peasant versus the daily life of a low knight.
The peasant exists before any of the conveniences we now rely on it. He does not have power tools or a car. He probably doesn’t have a horse because horses are expensive. He likely has a family to take care of, either previous generations or his own wife and children if not both. In order to do this, he will be on his feet working by hand for most of the day. He may have time at the end of the day for training, but he certainly won’t have the energy. Without access to instruction, he won’t benefit much regardless unless he’s a natural talent, and few people are.
The knight has people to feed him and tidy his house for him. Now, maybe he is a fop, but he’s still a well-fed fop who studies the arts of battle at least enough to banter with his peers. Even a terrible knight will be better trained than a diligent peasant. This also assumes that the peasant lives in a country where it’s legal for him to practice with arms, or that the local nobility won’t have him quietly killed off in any case. If the knight truly cares about his training and believes in the ideals of chivalry (and many did), he’ll not only spend several hours a day at practice, but be mentally conditioned to withstand his own fear of mortality. He is, in short, a warrior from birth. He would also have access to at least reasonable armor and weapons.
A peasant’s converted scythe or pitchfork would be a reasonable counter to a knight’s spear, but as far as armor he would be helpless. Consider this: you’re in a sword fight. You’re wearing mail with a steel helmet and breastplate. Swords cannot cut anything you’re wearing, and only a perfect thrust will penetrate chain. Your opponent has: a tunic. He just has a tunic. If you tap him too hard, you’ll draw blood. Now add that you’ve trained several hours a day since you were a child. Your opponent just got his sword yesterday (he stole it). Maybe he’s a great person. Maybe you’re a complete asshole. Maybe he’s fighting for his family and friends, and you just want him to know his place. Do his high ideals help him beat you?
No. No, they do not. You kill this poor, decent man effortlessly, because you’re a heavily-armed professional and he’s an underfed serf.
Logic alone indicates how lopsided the comparison really is. Fortunately, given the wealth of peasant rebellions throughout history, we don’t need to use logic alone. The Battle of Cassel, 1328: French peasants rebel against the nobility in Flanders. 3,200 of them are slain in order to kill a total of 17 French knights. The Battle of Mello in 1358: Outnumbered between 2 and 3 to 1, a force of French knights slaughter their peasant opponents almost to the last. The German Peasant’s Rebellion of 1524 sees more than 300,000 peasants rise throughout the Holy Roman Empire. As many as 100,000 are butchered to inflict minimal losses on their noble foes.
The records are painful, but there’s no way around it. Battlefields in the age of the sword were dominated by knighthood and nobility. The balance of power shifted only when guns reduced the importance of human skill to the point where anyone could compete. In recent years, the European invasion of Africa has been cast as a totally one-sided bloodbath. In fact, disunity among the Africans (compared with non-aggression pacts and alliances among the invaders) prevented gun-armed native people with an overwhelming numerical advantage from offering consistent resistance. Admitting this, however, would undermine the prevailing narrative, which tends to favor casting the natives as helpless and innocent at the expense of historical accuracy.
Willful attempts to ignore these or other aspects of history are misguided at best and disastrous at worst. Does it make for miserable reading that so many humans died to achieve nothing? Of course. But we rely on understanding history to chart our course for the future. If we base our guesses on a false version of the past, who knows where the hell we’ll wind up? Revisionism makes people happier, but the point of history isn’t to make us happy. It’s to tell us the past, or as close to it as possible.