Monday, January 07, 2008

Back to the Middle Ages: the Mail-shirts

It's been a while since I posted anything on the Middle Ages, so here goes.

I've been thinking about Charny's unanswered Questions on War (1350s) and what they tell us about knights and men at arms -- especially men at arms. To help interpret Charny's text I've been casting about for other documents that will help me interpret Charny's eccentric material. One obvious one is the ordinance of arms that Charny's royal patron, John II of France, issued about the same time.

King John was trying to recruit a better army by raising the pay he was offering; at the same time he defined what kind of status, armor, and horse that various types of warriors would have to have to qualify for the new wages. As a result, his ordinance says something about the terminology used to describe warriors.

The ordinance divides warriors into gens d'armes (men at arms) and gens d'pie' (men on foot). Then the ordinance spends a deal of time discussing the first group. It's clear that gens d'armes to John, his commanders and accountants, were cavalrymen, and well-armored ones at that.

The gens d'armes are also divided into four groups: bannerets, knights, esquires, and vallets. All are expected to have horses and equipment, including the vallets, a term used for servants, though not necessarily low-born ones.

Later on, the same armed and mounted group called gens d'armes earlier is redivided into two groups: gens d'arms and haubergeons ("mail-shirts"). And these paired groups are referred to together repeatedly, in a way that makes clear that they have similar equipment and responsibilities.

In the mid-14th century, Charny tells us, the term gens d'armes was a general one that included many men who were not of knightly rank (or maybe even esquires' rank) but depending on their capabilities might be as good as knights. Am I wrong to think that in the 1350s there were a lot of warriors hanging around who might be seen as either "servants" or "men at arms" dependening on the situation, but whose most obvious attribute was the fact that they had "mail-shirts?" And as a result, such men were commonly called "mail-shirts," even by the king when he was speaking as a legislator?

Image: From the site of GDFB, who will sell you a habergeon.

[Click on the label "Charny" below for more posts on Charny's Questions; or you can click on my book Jousts and Tournaments and acquire for yourself the most detailed discussion of the text.]

1 comment:

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