When we think of medieval battles than we usually imagine large-scale fighting between large armies that leaves behind a large number of fallen knights. But was that really the case? Or did knights intentionally try to not kill each other on the battlefield?
Whenever possible knights tried to not kill each other. First of all, it was difficult to kill a knight in full armor. And many knights, even from different countries, knew each other from tournaments or military adventures like the crusades. There was also the Christian commandment to not shed the blood of fellow Christians. So knights often tried to drive each other off the battlefield or take prisoners who brought in ransom money.
Let`s find out more
Did knights try to kill each other in battle?
Some sources indicate that knights actually tried to not kill each other whenever it could be prevented. One of these sources, a report written by the monk and chronicler Ordericus Vitalis, mentioned a battle between a French and English army in the second half of the 12th century.
According to the report of the monk and chronicler Ordericus Vitalis, a total of 900 French and English knights fought in that battle but only 3 of them were killed!
That report as well as countless others that are quite similar indicate that knights actually hesitated when it came to killing other knights whenever it could be avoided. And the chronicler Ordericus Vitalis does not only report these instances, but he also presents the 3 reasons why knights might have shied away from killing their opposing social peers.
Let`s check out the 3 reasons!
3 reasons why knights did usually not try to kill each other
According to the chronicler Ordericus Vitalis there were 3 reasons why medieval knights shied away from killing enemy knights in a battle. Do you want to find out more about how medieval battles worked? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Killing a knight in full armor is not that easy
Let`s start out with the most obvious reason. The armor that knights wore in battle was designed to keep the knight alive and unharmed. (By the way, here you can find out what knights wore outside of battle when they did not need their armor).
In the 12th century, the time in which the battle about which Ordericus Vitalis wrote occurred, the armor of a knight consisted of a full suit of chainmail that effectively protected him from the toes to the chin and a Great helmet that covered the entire head.
And while chainmail still had some disadvantages compared to the suits of full plate armor that were developed later, chainmail was still highly effective. Here you can find out more about the effectiveness of the different types of medieval armor like the Gambeson, chainmail, or full plate armor and the advantages and disadvantages of each type of armor.
So because of the effectiveness of medieval armor, it was actually quite difficult to kill a knight in his armor. Here you can find out more about how knights could be killed even while wearing armor and which efforts were necessary for that.
Comradeship and personal relationships between knights
Let`s once more take the already mentioned battle between French and English armies (including knights) as an example. One might think that English knights had never had any positive personal interactions with the French knights that they were now facing in that specific battle.
But that was actually not the case. We generally have to distance ourselves from the idea that people in the Middle Ages did not travel! Especially knights were rather mobile, not only during the crusades but also in regards to tournaments!
Many knights, including knights from both England and France, knew each other!
One major factor for that apart from shared military adventures like the crusades were tournaments. Northern France was basically the heartland of holding tournaments while tournaments were prohibited in England for most of the time. So when English knights wanted to participate in tournaments then they had to travel to Northern France where they would meet knights from all over Western Europe.
Here you can find out more about why Northern France developed into the center of Western European tournaments. And here you can find out more about how tournaments worked and whether or not the teams in the mass tournaments (the melee) were organized according to the nationality of the knights.
The negotiations over captured warhorses, armor, and knights after the end of the melee, but especially the feast at the end of the tournament were occasions where knights from all over Western Europe met in a friendly (and alcohol-soaked environment).
So it seems more than likely that the frequent participation in tournaments and the feasts after the tournament resulted in personal connections between knights from all over Western Europe. And these connections might have prevented knights from trying their best to kill each other when they recognized each other on the battlefield.
Here you can find out how knights were able to tell each other apart even when they were wearing armor and helmets that covered the entire body. And here you can find out more about how often tournaments were held.
But the most important reason why knights tried to not kill each other whenever it could be avoided can be found in Christianity.
The Christian commandment to not shed the blood of fellow Christians
During the Middle Ages faith played a much bigger role for most people, especially knights, than today. And that faith (at least in theory) also influenced the reasons why war was waged.
A rightful victory could only be archived when faithful Christians were protected through that victory. Or in other words, a rightful victory could only be won over unbelievers.
Because of that, knights usually tried to not kill the opposing knights but would rather try to drive them off the battlefield or – even better – capture them. Taking the hostile knights prisoner was one of the aspects of knightly warfare that was trained in tournaments. Please check out my article here for more information on how medieval tournaments worked and how (little) they differed from actual battles.
Another reason why the commandment to spare the life of the enemies’ knights was often followed was the fact that most battles in medieval Western Europe were parts of feuds that had the goal of protecting legal rights and not the goal of extinguishing the enemy. Because of that defeated knights could often hope to be spared.
However, the commandment to not shed the blood of fellow Christians did only include the knightly enemies, not the footsoldiers that made up the bulk of every medieval army.
Here you can find out more about the size of medieval armies.
The footsoldiers of a defeated medieval army were exposed to the wrath of the victorious knights whom they could not outrun. There are countless reports of how victorious knights allowed the knights of the losing side to escape the battlefield while massacring the footsoldiers of the defeated army in a wild rage.
For more information on what happened after a medieval battle, I would like to recommend you my article here.
There were however also situations when not even the knights of the defeated army were spared. And these situations where both the defeated knights and infantrymen were killed usually happened when the existence of the victorious army was endangered.
A prime example of that is the English victory at the battle of Agincourt in 1412. While the English had won the battle their position still made them vulnerable. So after that battle, the victorious English side had made so many prisoners that the English king Henry V ordered his soldiers to kill the prisoners. And while the English knights still protested the English Longbowmen had fewer qualms and followed the royal order…
But whether or not that was a one-time incident and how the wounded and fallen of a battle were usually treated is a story for another time. If you are interested in the answers then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Do you wonder why tournaments were held in the first place and which purpose they originally had? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Sabine Buttinger, Jan Keup: Die Ritter (Darmstadt 2013).