When it comes to the Middle Ages, perhaps the most defining image in popular culture is a knight in a full suit of armor mounted on horseback. Hailed as one of the most exciting times in history, the medieval period has been quite romanticized over the years, thanks to literature, cinema, and fine art. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this, but these glamourized depictions may lead to an inaccurate understanding of knights in conjunction with medieval armies and armor. By all means, let’s continue to enjoy and appreciate these mediums while not neglecting the way things really were.
Going back to the image of a knight in a shining suit of armor, one might assume that a knight was the sole hero of a battle. However, the truth is that every victorious battle had many heroes, as knights. Thus, knights fought alongside foot soldiers, such as pikemen and archers who brought with them, different weapons that aided greatly against adversaries. Further support came from squires and attendants who accompanied the armed forces and were responsible for task like armor maintenance, watching over horses, etc. Granted, knights were the primary force, but their success was indeed a team effort and the supporting players deserve recognition.
Another inference that could be made from the common picture of mounted knights in armor is that they were an elite class. While a good portion of knights were comprised of noble men, there was some diversity. Unlike people being born into nobility,knighthood wasn’t inherited, but rather appointed by feudal lords, other knights of high status, and on occasion, priests. Because knights were selected, regular civilians and mercenaries were sometimes knighted for their demonstrations of bravery and sharp skill. In addition, a suit of armor, or at least armor in general, was not an exclusive privilege for just knights. Since protection was essential to withstand opponents’ blows, everyone needed armor of some form, be it knights, foot soldiers, and anyone else who risked potential harm. As armor was the responsibility of the wearer to acquire, its quality ranged widely, but everyone had it. The wealthy would have been able to afford a full suit of armor while the lower classes would have only had a few pieces, most likely a helmet, breastplate, and/or mail. And of course, armor was accompanied by various weapons. With this in mind, one could not assume that a man in armor on the battlefield was always a knight.
One last thing to point out about the portrayal of a knight in shining armor on horseback is the implication that all knights were fighters. True, most knights were, but some also held their position without being in the heat of battle. Some knights had poor health, were too old, or on rare occasion, too fearful to fight. So they would lead in a civilian position of authority instead of a war-time one.
There is no denying that a knight on horseback in a full suit of armor seems more “cool” than what history says and there is no shame in admitting that. Still, a well-rounded perspective is never a bad thing!