Part 50 - The Crusades, Pt. 2
by Lord Thomas the Black
Welcome back to everyone’s favorite maille-related monthly: “Blackmaille”! On with the show…
Last month we discussed the maille worn by the Islamic peoples of the Holy Land. This month, we flip sides and join our European brethren for a look at the maille worn by the crusaders themselves.
NOTE: As with the Islamic maille article, with the current conflict in the Middle East, I’d like to avoid any discussion of the political or religious reasons for the crusades. I understand it’s a touchy subject to some, and I’d like to avoid any death threats (from either side!). As a result, this article will mostly be a comparison/contrast of crusader maille vs. Saracen maille.
As was the case with “Saracen”, the term “crusader” covers many different nations. English, French, Spanish, Germans, and Italians (among others) all traveled to the Holy Land at the behest of Pope Urban II and the Council of Clermont, who desired among all else to unify the quarrelsome nobility towards a common goal (mostly so they’d stop fighting amongst themselves for a change).
Unlike the Islamic peoples, however, European crusaders were much more uniform in their armor and weapons. Maille was the dominant armor on the battlefield at the time, and would remain so until after the crusades had passed.
The first crusade began in 1096. This was the height of the “age of maille”, so most crusaders’ kits consisted of a maille haubergeon with attached coif, maille chausses (leggings), a conical helm with nasal, kite shield, sword and spear. In short, not that different from the Norman kits only thirty years earlier. This basic kit, with a few changes, would remain the norm until the middle of the 1300’s, when coats-of-plate began to take the field.
For the most part, crusader maille differed from that worn by the Saracens in that it was heavier. Wire close to 14 gauge wasn’t uncommon amongst the crusader armies, with thick linen gambesons worn underneath. While this served them well enough in the cooler climes of Northern Europe from which they hailed, in the burning sun of the Holy Land, it was a costly, deadly mistake. Heat stress was rampant, and the availability of water could make or break an army. Take, for example, the Battle of Hattin. The seriously dehydrated crusaders were decimated by Saladin’s army, who blocked the crusaders’ path to water, ensuring a Saracen victory.
Crusaders’ maille also lacked the decoration of their Saracen counterparts. Whereas Saracen maille and maille-and-plate armors were heavily stamped, etched, or engraved with floral, animal, and calligraphic motifs, European armor of the time bore little, if any, decoration, focusing instead on utility over appearance.
The biggest difference between the two armies, and the one that had the most influence over the outcome of the crusades, was in their respective cultures. It was a fundamental difference in mindset. It came down to a battle of paradigms: “strike swift, and skillfully” vs. “strike hard, and take a blow like a man”. The Arabs were proud of the empire their ancestors had conquered in the name of Allah, and thought of themselves as hardy, indomitable desert warriors. The Europeans, on the other hand, were people who fought mass battles on horseback in which people were routinely maimed or killed for FUN, who hit each other with spears at 50 MPH for relaxation, who drew steel at snickers or odd glances, who went to full-scale war with their neighbors if they married the wrong person, who hunted wild boar with spears and swords in their plainclothes because it wasn’t sporting to wear armor. They were living in entirely different worlds.
In fact, up until the end of the 12th century, the equipment used by each side was broadly similar. Both sides relied on long straight swords and lances, both sides used maille shirts. In the 11th and 12th centuries Muslims even used tall, kite-shaped shields. After the 12th century, they diverged. Islamic armies started to rely more on Turkish horse-archers, and sabers gradually replaced swords. On the other hand, the European knight just got heavier and heavier. Great helms appeared, maille covered the whole body, and in the second half of the 1300’s the coat of plates appeared. The reliance on Turkish horse-archers was an important difference between the armies. With these swift-moving and mobile troops, the Saracens were able to inflict large amounts of damage to a crusader force, weakening them before the final charge. The crusaders brought archers as well, but they were mostly reserved for city defenses, where a long range and a powerful bow could keep a siege at bay for some time.
In the end, it’s not important which armor was better, the crusaders’ or the Muslims’. Both had their arguments for and against. What made the most difference in the crusades was the tactics used by each army. In the beginning, the hard, brutal force of the European invaders was enough to overwhelm the scattered armies of Islam, and the first crusade was a rousing success for this reason. However, soon the nations of Islam united under Saladin (a strategic and tactical genius), and in the span of a few years, their new tactics resulted in one crushing defeat after another for the Europeans, until the Holy Lands were once more in the hands of the “infidel”. Despite these defeats, the crusades went on for centuries. Chalk it up to the stubbornness of the European mindset, that they just couldn’t let it go when they’d been beaten. Or maybe it was the fact that the Saracen armies were fighting for their homelands that made them victorious again and again. Entire libraries have been written on this subject already, and by better writers than I. I invite you to look up this subject in your local library, and draw your own conclusions.
In the meantime, thank you for joining me for another month of “Blackmaille”! As usual, any questions, comments, hate mail, or fan mail can (and should) be sent to me at:
c/o Tom Beckett
13628 Belmead Ave
Grandview, MO 64030
Or you can email them to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Join us next month, when we wrap up our three-month look at the crusades with a look into Ridley Scott’s blockbuster epic of the crusades, “Kingdom of Heaven” (one of my favorite movies, by the way!). See you next month!
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