Have you ever looked at a suit of medieval armor, whether it was presented in a museum or a movie, and asked yourself how in the world a medieval soldier was able to tell apart friend and foe when the armor covered the entire body including the face?
In the following, I would like to answer the question of how knights and other medieval soldiers were able to tell apart friend and foe during a battle and which tools were used for that purpose.
Long, flowing linen surcoats with slits on the bottom half in both the front and the back for better mobility that had the individual coat of arms emblazoned on them were used during the Middle Ages to tell apart friend and foe and to easily identify knights even when they were wearing armor and great helmets that covered their faces.
Let`s find out more.
This is how medieval soldiers were able to tell apart friend and foe during a battle
During the Early Middle Ages, warriors who were wealthy enough used conically shaped helmets that had a strip of metal protecting the nose. Apart from that strip, the face was pretty much visible so identifying knights was not such a big problem.
But that changed in the 12th century.
In the 12th century, Great helmets with a cylindrical shape and a flattened top were developed. These Great helmets enclosed the entire head and only had two narrow horizontal viewing slits and a couple of small air holes. That offered excellent protection but also had two disadvantages.
First of all, breathing while wearing a great helmet was rather difficult because of the small air holes. Additionally the great helmet also completely covered the face of its bearer who would become unidentifiable because of that, especially among other knights who were also all dressed in suits of chainmail.
More on how effective medieval armor like chainmail was in my article here.
And while medieval knights, just like medieval infantry, would fight in close formations, more on how medieval battles worked in my article here, it was still necessary to be able to tell apart friend and foe not only during a battle but also during tournaments.
Now that second part of the sentence might surprise you. Why did knights have to be able to tell apart friend and foe during a tournament? Didn`t medieval tournaments consist of two knights jousting while being separated by a barrier? Well, yes and no.
The early medieval tournaments didn`t have anything to do with jousting but were more or less like real battles with the exception that knights tried not to kill each other. But the weapons and tactics used in these tournaments that could stretch over vast areas were identical to the ones used in real battles. For more information on these early versions of medieval tournaments, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Jousting on the other hand was a specialized medieval tournament that was introduced in the Late Middle Ages. More on the reasons why jousting was introduced and quickly became popular in my article here.
So at the very latest after the introduction of great helmets in the 12th century knights had to use other tools to tell apart friend and foe than just relying on recognizing faces.
There were basically two options that will be explored in the following:
Crests as a way to identify knights in battle
Although the great helmet that covered the entire face of its bearer was one of the main reasons why an additional way of identification became necessary it also offered a solution to the problem. The flattened top of the great helmet allowed for the attachment of heraldic signs.
These heraldic signs that were attached to the top of the great helmets were usually a light construction made from a wooden body that was covered with cloth and that oftentimes had the shape of animals. Other, simpler crests were made off tufts of feathers.
But these crests as heraldic signs for identification of the knight had one big disadvantage. Since these crests were attached to the top of the great helmet they could not be too heavy or they would have greatly hindered the knight. So a lightweight construction was necessary. But such a light construction was not robust enough to survive a battle.
Because of that, crests that were attached to the top of great helmets were mostly used in tournaments but were not robust enough for being used in actual battles.
Here you can find out more about how effective knights were during medieval battles.
Another, more robust but still highly visible place to put the heraldic signs had to be found. And that place was the surcoat that knights wore over their armor. Here you can find my article with more information on the effectiveness of different types of medieval armor like the chainmail or plate armor.
Heraldic signs on the surcoats of knights as a way of identification in a battle
Surcoats were probably first introduced in the 12th century and were worn above the armor. The surcoats of knights were usually long and flowing, with slits on the bottom front and back for better mobility, and could either be sleeveless or have sleeves. Additionally, the heraldic signs, the coat of arms, were put onto these surcoats to allow the knight to be identified even when he was wearing armor and a great helmet.
The surcoats could also be used to mark the alliance of common soldiers to one side when they were dyed in the accordingly colors. For example, the knights templars wore white surcoats with a red paw cross while sergeants (members who weren`t knights) wore black or brown surcoats. These surcoats made them recognizable wherever they went and were also important for creating a feeling of solidarity. Knights templars were even prohibited from eating and drinking if they did not wear their white surcoats with the red pay cross!
The surcoats with the emblazoned coats of arms were highly effective in identifying alliances but also in identifying the men who wore them.
Just one example.
After the battle of Crecy in 1346, the victorious Englishmen send heralds on the battlefield to identify the fallen french knights by the coats of arms on their surcoats.
Do you want to find out more about what happened after a medieval battle in general and to the dead and wounded of both sides in specific? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
And if you want to find out which weapon was the most common on a medieval battlefield (and why swords were neither as common nor as effective as one might think then you might enjoy 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 Keupp: Die Ritter (Stuttgart 2013).