Twelfth Century Infantry Revolution: Horse-Archer Influences on European Tactics
By Cayman Frendt
The European infantry revolution occurred once infantry superseded cavalry as the dominant unit in warfare and once knights began to dismount before battle. Historians have long considered it to be an event of the Late Middle Ages (13th-15th centuries), though the exact starting date has been disputed. Scholars of the subject, however, have only produced Eurocentric work and have not assessed events outside of Europe when arguing a beginning date for the revolution. This is problematic because Europeans fought both in Europe and the Middle East. By assessing events and battles in the East (specifically as a case study of the battles during the early crusade period in the 12th century), this paper illuminates how evidence of the revolution occurred much earlier than previously argued. European crusading knights were particularly vulnerable to the Turkish horse-archers they combatted during this period. Their consistent defeats eventually led to a decline in knightly dominance and even to the knights dismounting before battle. These were hallmarks of the infantry revolution and were occurring nearly a hundred years earlier than scholars have ever argued before - they’ve been missed until now simply because the events occurred first in the East rather than the West.
Infantry were a necessary component of Western Medieval armies: they were relatively
cheap to field and equip, did not require training to fight on horseback, and were
widely available for recruitment. As a result, foot soldiers formed the majority of
European forces throughout the Middle Ages (5th-15th centuries) despite the many changes
to their roles in battle. It is generally accepted that infantry performed a dominant
role in Western warfare of the fifth through eleventh centuries. During this period
advancements in mounted combat were limited, knights and other cavalry were rarely
effective against organized footmen, and many horsemen were actually mounted infantry.
Contrarily, 12th century infantrymen were often delegated to support and protect cavalrymen;
this was because Western warfare came to be dominated by mounted knights (hereafter
knights) and their more aggressive strategies during the 1100s. Knights of this century
were particularly useful because they endangered the bulk of enemy armies – the infantry.
Indeed, 12th century infantrymen often broke ranks against a knight’s charge; only
in later centuries did this begin to change. With new strategies and equipment, Western
warfare later evolved so that infantry could regularly defeat enemy knights in close
combat. This evolution of Western military strategy is known as the Infantry Revolution
(hereafter ‘the revolution’), and its defining attributes included: the decline of
knightly dominance in favor of infantry, and the phenomenon of knights dismounting
before battle (who are often called foot knights). Medieval Europeans were not limited
to the boundaries of the West when conducting warfare. Beginning with the First Crusade
(1096-99), and then continuing with later crusades in later centuries, European crusaders
(hereafter crusaders) waged war in the East against the Islamic World. The Islamic
military featured differing characteristics from those in the West; the greatest of
which was Islam’s heavy reliance on Turkish horse-archers – mounted Steppe bowmen
who dominated the East in the preceding centuries. Though the initial encounters yielded
crusader victories due to Turkish disunity in the 1090s, the 12th century featured
radically different results. Horse-archers dominated the major battles of the Second
Crusade (1147-48), the Third Crusade (1190-1192), and the battles in between. During
this period the horse-archers proved to be particularly effective against the crusaders’
knights. This is significant because, as the period progressed, the crusaders increasingly
relied on their infantry (rather than their knights) to the point that they fielded
foot knights in 1192. These occurrences were not only vastly different than the success
of knights in Europe during this same period, but they also exhibited the defining
attributes of the revolution. Since the only disparity between knights in the East
and West were the foes that they fought, the influence that horse-archers (and their
effectiveness against knights) had on the crusaders’ tactics was considerable. Moreover,
assessing the major battles of the aforementioned period yields substantial evidence
of horse-archers setting the revolution in motion – it simply occurred first in the
East rather than the West. The significance of this evidence not only points to the
possibility of transferring strategies from East to West, but it also indicates that
the revolution occurred earlier than previously thought.
The Infantry Revolution in Literature
The literature on the revolution is plentiful yet restricted. The scholars agree on much, but share a similar lack of evidence in their argumentation. The literature sufficiently establishes that the revolution stemmed from the fall of knightly supremacy and the rise of foot knights. Moreover, it is accepted by historians that these phenomena occurred due to advancements in European infantry technology (in both weapons and strategy). The only contested point is on when the revolution officially began. Overall, the literature offers three possibilities: the late 13th century, the early-to-mid 14th century, and the late 15th century. This is where the limitation of the literature presents itself. Scholars on the subject analyze the outcomes and strategies from battles solely within Europe to offer examples of when infantry superseded knights. Excluding evidence from outside the West is limiting because, as mentioned, Medieval Europeans conducted warfare outside the West as well. Considerably more problematic is the missed evidence of horse-archers influencing a 12th century revolution due to the literature’s Eurocentric scope.
As stated, the 13th century is the earliest cited time of European infantry dominance. Scott Manning’s article, on the origins of the revolution, concedes that improved infantry tactics during the 13th century contributed to many later victories. Manning specifically notes that the battles of Karuse (1270), Maes Moydog (1295), and Falkirk (1298) were excellent examples where infantry defeated enemy knights. Historian Brian Carey also supports that Falkirk serves as proof of infantry dominance and that infantry continued to advance thereafter. The reasoning behind these infantry successes are addressed by John France who, in his widely influential book Western Warfare in the Age of Crusades, argues that infantry superseded the knight by the end of the 13th century. France also argues that infantry tactics, arms, and armor all improved significantly throughout the 13th century (aligning closely with Manning’s article).
John Guilmartin also considers the 13th century, but focuses on how the use of crossbows became more widespread. Guilmartin is echoed by the esteemed medieval military historian David Nicolle, who supports that crossbows caused the decline of mounted knights as early as the 13th century. Just over two decades later, Nicolle’s second book on the topic addresses how mercenary crossbowmen from northern Italy were becoming increasingly popular during the 1200s. It was specifically the French, who at the time served as Europe’s military model, who promoted the growth of Italian crossbowmen by employing them with a high degree of success.A host of literature alternatively argues that infantry developments in the 14th century eventually instigated the revolution. Maurice Keen for instance contests the previously mentioned authors’ ideas by claiming there was not an infantry revolution in the 13th century. Instead, Keen argues that it began after infantry developments during the 14th century. This is supported in Phillip Contamine’s book, War in the Middle Ages, where Contamine also argues that infantry strategy and equipment did not develop until the 14th century. Christopher Allmand furthers this argument by claiming that guerilla warfare was becoming increasingly common in 14th century battlefields – something to which cavalry were not well suited. Moreover, there was an increased production of cheap infantry weapons (such as crossbows, longbows, halberds, and pikes) which were suited for that fighting strategy. Clive Bartlett and Reed Bonadonna specifically support the notion of longbow production as a major step in the revolution, particularly with the English and their deployment of longbowmen beginning in the 1330s. Christopher Allmand also offers battles such as Courtrai (1302) and Bannockburn (1314) as suitable examples of infantry dominance over cavalry (with the former battle being mentioned by numerous other authors for the same purpose). Alternatively, the significance of these battles have been disputed by historian Clifford Rogers who argues that Bannockburn, for example, was merely a victory of circumstance (due to the terrain being favorable for the infantrymen).
Other historians in favor of a 14th century revolution claim that it began specifically with the rise of Swiss pikemen. Bringing attention to the rise of pikemen is common, and it is the focus of Archer Jones’ influential work The Art of War in the Western World (where, for Jones, polearms are a necessity in order for infantry to consistently defeat cavalry). Unlike Jones, Carey and Beeler argue that pikes did not reach their peak (and consequently did not begin the revolution) until the Swiss utilized them. Historian Clifford Rogers offers more specific dating on the rise of Swiss pikemen in his book on military revolutions. Rogers firmly states that the battle of Laupen in 1339, where Swiss pikemen annihilated the Burgundian knights, marked the beginning the revolution.
Stephen Morillo also argues that Swiss pikemen were significant to the revolution, but that they did not meaningfully develop their pike tactics until the late 15th century. Scholar Guy Williams supports Morillo’s argument, and proposes that the Burgundian wars of 1476-1477 marked the end of cavalry dominance. Others who support that the revolution began in the 15th century argue that it was not the halberd that contributed to the rise of infantry, and instead argue that the revolution occurred due to longbows and gunpowder. Furthermore, it should be noted that the 15th century West featured an increased usage of foot knights.
Overall, the literature on the infantry revolution covers the bulk of European infantry
successes in the 13th through the 15th centuries. The literature has clearly offered
various answers to when the revolution may have begun, and most significantly addresses
numerous events within Europe. We are left with mixed opinions on when infantry again
dominated Western warfare, and with an even less clear image on the importance of
European infantry outside of Europe. By not addressing significant non-Western European
wars, such as the Crusades, the literature misses key examples of not only Medieval
European warfare, but also of the revolution. Crusader warfare in the East exhibited
clear signs of cavalry decline during the 12th century, and even featured dismounted
knights by the 1190s. These were occurrences that, as the literature provides, did
not occur until much later in the West. Consequently, the literature misses crucial
evidence that shifts the timeline of the revolution to an earlier date than previously
The Roles of Knights and Horse-Archers
The battles of the 12th century Crusades are enlightening because European warfare in the East differed greatly from the West; this was due to the differing military techniques of their foes. In the 12th century West the knight was dominant, whereas the 12th century East was dominated by horse-archers. The roles of knights and horse-archers in warfare are therefore important to address before the battles, because they help illuminate why the battles between 1147 and 1192 resulted in disaster for crusader knights, despite their success in Europe during the same period. Throughout the 12th century, knights and horse-archers battled each other in more-or-less the same manner. This is significant because the nature of their fighting ultimately revealed the knight’s weakness in battle (something not discovered in the West until nearly a century later). It also explains how warfare differed between the East and West, which ultimately supports why knights in the East dismounted before their counterparts did in Europe.
Twelfth century knights were famed for and reliant upon their use of the couched-lance technique. Tightly packed units of knights would charge in hopes of breaking enemy formations (through shock tactics and, potentially, the lethal force of impact). Ideally, the knights would break through the enemy’s formation, turn around, and then attack the same unit from the rear. Regardless of success in disrupting enemy units, the knights then engaged their foes in close combat. Another tactic the knight employed was flanking, though this was more situational and generally led to the same results.
The “dominance” of knights during the 12th century is complex. Their description of fighting techniques is limited by words such as “ideally” and “situational”, and yet they were a heavily relied upon unit. Indeed, the inclusion of knights did not guarantee victory at any particular battle; alternatively, when used correctly, they were often an unstoppable force. The Medieval military historian David Nicolle offers valuable insight on the dichotomy of the effectiveness of 12th century knights. Nicolle accurately describes the period as a time of the “supposed dominance of cavalry.” He further elaborates on this by describing the necessity of other units that were employed alongside knights. These were generally infantrymen (but not always) who fulfilled various roles that knights would then need not have burdened themselves with (allowing the knights to instead focus on the battle).
Many of the aforementioned roles of support units aren’t imperative to understanding the knight’s role in battle. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the factor that knights rarely fought alone because their coordination with other units was a fundamental part of knightly warfare. As mentioned prior, infantry formed the necessary support units of knights during the 1100s. This allowed knights and infantry to protect each other from flank attacks, and also offered opportunities for coordinated attacks. As Nicolle effectively points out, “infantry continued to play a vital and perhaps increasingly important roles [throughout the 12th century].”
This is not to say that knights were not still a potent force. Despite acknowledging infantry’s often overlooked importance, Nicolle still affirms the master narrative that the knight was dominant; his main point is simply that the knight’s effectiveness was reinforced through their coordination with support units. In short, knights certainly dominated the 12th century battlefield (in the West) – they just generally didn’t win wars alone, relying instead on a system of cooperative tactics with infantry.
Unlike knights, Turkish horse-archers preferred to fight from a distance. They fired their bows from afar, and then utilized their exceptional mobility to ensure the enemy never got too close. Additionally, horse-archers were trained to focus on dexterity over accuracy. This allowed them to fire arrows in rapid succession. There are numerous historical accounts from the Crusades that support the notion of rapid-fire through descriptions of ‘arrow storms’ raining from the sky. Another use of horse-archers was to harass the enemy before the actual fighting began. This sufficiently weakened the enemy, so that they could be more safely engaged in close combat. Some accounts suggest that these raids may have also featured sharpshooters attempting to kill enemy leaders. Finally, the most important horse-archer technique was the feigned retreat. In this maneuver, they drew the enemy’s attention and then fled; during their flight they fired backwards at their pursuers, and often led the survivors into an ambush.
Coordination amongst Islamic units was also prevalent, primarily between infantry and cavalry (much like the crusaders). With that said, horse-archers often made up a large portion of the army. Moreover, the nature of horse-archery allowed horse-archers to be far more independent from their supporting infantry than knights could be. For example, hit-and-run and other ranged harassment/ambush strategies were still viable when unsupported because they involved maneuvers that cavalry could easily make on their own. This factor made horse-archers more tactically flexible than knights.
A typical encounter between knights and horse-archers generally featured the former attempting to reach and kill the latter. By the time of the Second Crusade (1147-49), knights were almost always shot down before they could catch up. These consistent failures occurred for several reasons. First, knights of this period were particularly arrogant about their prowess and were too eager to prove themselves. As military scholar Hatto observed, knights often “lacked self-control” and enthusiastically charged at the first sign of an enemy. This meant that knights were often committed piecemeal, which made them easy targets for Turkish horse-archers. This also made coordination with their support units mostly, if not entirely, unfeasible. The second reason involved a strategy developed by the Turks to fend off enemy knights. It is generally accepted that knight armor in the 12th century was often too thick to be pierced by arrows. Moreover, the arrows used by horse-archers were particularly lightweight, which offered even weaker penetrative capability. To combat this drawback, the Turks began shooting the knights’ horses, which wore little-to-no armor at the time. This strategy was so crucial that the 12th century chronicler al-Tarsusi specifically advised horse-archers to aim for the center of mass in hopes of hitting the horse. The Turks’ technique proved effective and was hard for the crusaders to counter: even if the knight survived, his horse was slain. This, combined with any sustained injuries from falling, often rendered the knight incapable of continuing the fight. Moreover, horses were incredibly valuable and losing one posed a major set-back for the crusaders (both financially and in terms of resource availability).
The aforementioned style of battle set the stage for all the major battles between
the crusaders and the Turks in the 12th century. In each case, the horse-archers annihilated
the crusading forces until the knights finally dismounted at the final encounter of
the period, Jaffa (1192). The described fighting tendencies of horse-archers and knights
during the 12th century are portrayed clearly in each of the major battles, and they
serve as suitable evidence for why horse-archers attained supremacy until the very
end. The battles to be observed include the second battle of Dorylaeum (1147), the
march to Edessa (1148), the siege of Damascus (1148), the battle of Hattin (1187),
and the battle of Jaffa (1192).
The Second Battle of Dorylaeum
At the beginning of the Second Crusade, the crusader force under King Conrad III was one of the largest European armies assembled during the middle ages. Conrad marched his mass of troops from the Holy Roman Empire (modern day Germany) to Byzantium and then through Anatolia in order to reach the “Holy Land”. On 25 October, 1147, during the last leg of their journey, Conrad led his troops through a pass near the town of Dorylaeum in Anatolia. A Turkish force, likely anticipating Conrad’s arrival, caught the crusaders unawares and launched a surprise attack. First the horse-archers fired and feigned a retreat. The German knights were unsurprisingly quick to charge and unwittingly sprang the Turks’ trap. Continuing their pursuit, the knights greatly displaced themselves from the rest of Conrad’s forces. In short, the crusader force was effectively divided in two. The German infantry faced two dangers from this division. First, the absence of the knights who once stood beside them left the footmen exposed to flank attacks; second, the knights who left their positions were supposed to offer support to the infantry when coordinated attacks and defenses were needed. There is no doubt that these factors prevented the footmen from contributing meaningfully to the battle and, moreover, they were instead swiftly slaughtered.
Due to their hasty charge, the knights were committed piecemeal and fared no better than the infantry. Those who fool-heartedly charged alone or in small groups quickly fell to a barrage of arrows. The others charged in close-knit groups, as was customary for the time, in hopes of warding off enemy projectiles. Although being grouped-up provided better protection, it also made them more vulnerable to being flanked. This was because a tight-knit unit took up less space, which meant it took less enemy soldiers to fill the space around them. Another tactical writing by al-Tarsusi in the 12th century addressed this very circumstance. Al-Tarsusi acknowledged that blocks of knights were harder to shoot down, and needed to be engaged differently. He pointed out that they were particularly easy to encircle, and concluded that horse-archers should surround the knights and harry them from all angles. Although al-Tarsusi wrote a little later in the century, it does not mean that the tactical thoughts he expressed weren’t used before his time. It is very likely that the techniques in his chronicles were recorded because of their prior successes. Regardless, the horse-archers either outflanked the remaining knights and then killed them, or the knights fled.
In the end, crusader casualties were high and most of the survivors were killed during
their retreat. William of Tyre, a 12th century Christian chronicler from Jerusalem,
brings this to light by recording that “of [the] seventy thousand mailed knights and
[countless] companies of foot soldiers…barely a tenth part escaped.” While “seventy-thousand
knights” is certainly an exaggeration, his account still captures the aftermath of
this military disaster by depicting the devastatingly high losses. Not only were the
cavalry of little use at the second battle of Dorylaeum, but they arguably only hastened
the crusaders’ defeat. Interestingly, the West’s emphasis on fielding knights led
to the loss of the battle. Since a large portion of Conrad’s men were knights, the
knights’ foolish charge (and their subsequent deaths) not only left a significant
hole in the army, but it also crippled the Germans’ offensive power as well.
The March to Edessa
Shortly after the second battle of Dorylaeum, King Louis VII of France led his crusader army along a similar path as Conrad. The journey took the crusaders along the Mediterranean coast and then through a mountain pass in Anatolia. They planned to retake Edessa, a former crusader city that was captured by the Turks. Along the way, a Turkish army ambushed them as they crossed the mountains; this commenced the second major battle of both the Second Crusade and the surveyed period.
Louis expected a high level of discipline from his knights - a strategy he picked up from the Templars. As a result, they did not make the same mistake as the knights at the second battle of Dorylaeum (that is, they didn’t recklessly charge into the fray). Another difference from the previous battle was that, once ordered to charge, the knights rode in a loose formation to mitigate casualties from concentrated arrow fire. Despite their efforts to improve cavalry performance, however, another limitation of knights presented itself during the fighting. The terrain was exceptionally steep and proved too uneven for the knights to successfully charge. This undermined the primary strategy of the crusader force, and failed charges likely resulted in injury for both rider and steed. While this was problematic on its own, it also meant that the footmen were left to battle without support (for both attacks and defenses). Furthermore, because knights were the West’s dominant unit, the knights’ inability to fight meant that Louis’ army lacked the most important element of its strategy.
The few that survived the Turkish raid were forced to retreat to Antioch. The crusaders’
death toll was devastating and all hope of recapturing Edessa was lost. As William
of Tyre dramatically chronicled: “Our army was reduced to a very few… That day the
glorious reputation of the Franks was lost… their valor…crushed to earth.” While not
as disastrous as the second battle of Dorylaeum, it was still a major loss for the
crusaders. Just as before, the crusaders’ reliance on cavalry ultimately led to their
demise. In this case, the knights cost them the battle by being unable to participate
due to terrain limitations (effectively eliminating the key component of the French
The Siege of Damascus
The failures of King Conrad III and King Louis VII brought to light that the Second Crusade was for naught. On 24 June 1148 a council was held near Acre to determine the crusade’s fate. The council decided to mobilize an army under King Baldwin III of Jerusalem and diverted the crusade’s attention to Damascus – a Turkish controlled city of interest to the crusaders. The sizes of medieval armies are difficult to determine, although an eye witness account claimed that the siege of Damascus was fought by 50,000 crusaders. While there may be little merit to that number, the crusaders expected either a quick surrender or to swiftly overwhelm Turkish resistance. This expectation suggests that the crusading force was large and formidable – 50,000 strong or otherwise.
King Baldwin III’s army massacred the Turkish militia upon arrival at Damascus. This initial victory, however, was short lived. Numerous Turkish relief forces arrived and the siege became a battle of attrition. The crusaders and Turks engaged in several skirmishes over the course of a day. Most of these were horse-archer ambushes intent on picking off isolated groups of crusaders. One skirmish, however, developed into a full-scale clash of arms near the north side of the city. The resulting Turkish casualties were high, but crusader casualties were far greater. Later that century, the Islamic poet Abu’l-Hakam al-Andalusi reported that approximately 70 Turks, 200 crusaders, and 90 crusader horses were killed during the battle. His account is deemed accurate by historian David Nicolle: it was supported with realistic numbers and shed light onto how the battle likely unfolded.
The number of horse deaths suggest that a good portion of crusader casualties were knights. Their horse’s vulnerability to missile fire undoubtedly contributed to a higher mortality rate. Even if losing the horse didn’t always kill the rider, the injury from falling (especially while galloping) most likely put the knight out of commission. This is important because in a battle of attrition, losses – be they through deaths or injury - must be mitigated to obtain victory.
The siege of Damascus ended in disaster. The Turks pushed the crusaders out of the
northern front, and more reinforcements bolstered the Turks’ ranks. Another (massive)
Turkish army was inbound and planned to hit the crusaders from the rear. Word of their
arrival quickly spread through the crusaders’ camp and the siege was abandoned. The
crusaders knew they couldn’t fight on two fronts, and consequently withdrew. Although
they fielded a massive army, the crusaders ended up losing the battle of attrition.
Not only were Turkish raiders picking off their soldiers, they also lost men at a
faster rate when battling the Turks toe-to-toe. Their knights’ extreme vulnerability
to enemy archers undoubtedly played a significant role in the battle’s outcome, for
it contributed to the crusaders’ defeat by drastically increasing their casualty count.
The Battle of Hattin
Salah al Din Yusif ibn Ayyub (or Saladin) rose to power in 1169 and posed a major threat to the crusaders by the 1180s. In 1187 Saladin mustered an army of nearly 30,000 men and turned his attention to the crusader states. Though a Kurd by birth and the sultan of Egypt, Saladin’s armies still heavily employed Turkish horse-archers. He ultimately planned to capture Jerusalem, but a massive crusader force under King Guy guarded the city. To combat this, Saladin strategically sacked the city of Tiberias. As chronicled by Ibn al-Athir, “[Saladin’s] purpose in besieging Tiberias had only been that the [crusaders] should leave their position.” The plan worked and King Guy marched his troops towards the sacked city. The travelling crusaders were then ambushed by Saladin’s host near the Horns of Hattin (the peaks of an extinct volcano). Within six hours, according to the French account of the battle, the crusaders were massacred and Jerusalem was exposed to Saladin’s subsequent conquest.
At the battle of Hattin, the crusaders were surrounded from the very beginning. In
a desperate attempt to fend off their attackers, the crusaders utilized the natural
defenses of the Horns of Hattin. The crusader infantry formed a line to protect the
knights and the knights made counter-charges when Saladin’s soldiers drew near. Their
strategy worked at first, but each counter-charge resulted in more crusader horse
deaths. Most knights lost their steeds to arrows by the peak of the battle and, being
unable to make continued counter-charges, the remaining crusader force became vulnerable
due to a lack of protective support. An anonymous contemporary of the battle recounted
the subsequent demise of the crusaders: “thousands and thousands of [horse-archers]
were charging at the [crusaders], shooting arrows and killing them.” By the end, Saladin’s
forces surrounded and killed their enemies; the survivors were either captured or
executed (King Guy was amongst the hostages). Much like the previous battles, horse-archers
devastated the crusader knights at the battle of Hattin. The horses’ vulnerability
to arrows significantly weakened the crusader force because it hastened the depletion
of their support knight units (which in turn eventually left the infantry unsupported).
Significantly, the crusaders would have held a more formidable position had the knights
dismounted. This is because the foot knights would have still been able to protect
the other infantry, but they would not have been killed in the process since they
were not inherently vulnerable to missile fire like their horses. In the end, because
they did not dismount, the crusaders failed to create a defense strong enough to repel
The Battle of Jaffa
In 1192, King Richard of England began his journey home from the East, but Saladin was not finished with the war that would come to be known as the Third Crusade (1189-1192). The two had battled much during the crusade, and Saladin sought to secure a strong victory with Richard’s absence. Saladin targeted the crusader city of Jaffa, and his army continued the tradition of Muslim dominance since 1147. To put it simply, Saladin quickly defeated the city’s outer defenses until only the citadel remained. The battle then presented a similar situation to the one at the Horns of Hattin - Saladin’s forces surrounded what was left of the city and the crusaders’ resistance was nearly snuffed out. When all hope seemed lost, King Richard postponed his homeward journey and rushed to aid the few who still held Jaffa’s citadel.
With the return of England’s king, the crusaders rallied and refused to surrender. Richard instead established a defensive line – similar to the one at Hattin – to protect what remained. Unlike at Hattin, however, the crusader knights dismounted, knelt beneath their shields, and held aloft their lances. This contrasted greatly with the strategy at Hattin; instead of making risky counter-charges, the knights held a formidable position. Rows of crossbowmen were well guarded behind the man-made wall of dismounted knights and, without their horses present, the crusaders were no longer vulnerable to arrows. With armor and shields to repel arrows, and lances to ward off enemy horses, the crusaders’ defensive line held firm against relentless enemy attacks. Not even the horse-archers meaningfully dented King Richard’s ranks. The crusaders then returned fire with their crossbowmen, who were still safely positioned behind the knights, and killed several of Saladin’s horse-archers. These crossbowmen worked in pairs, where one fired while the other reloaded. This, combined with their frontal line of dismounted knights, proved both invulnerable and lethal.
Saladin quickly realized that he was unable to penetrate Richard’s line. An almost
guaranteed victory was stolen by Richard’s new tactic. Although he did not suffer
many losses, Saladin knew that his army was effectively defeated and he furiously
withdrew. Richard’s forces effectively turned the tide of battle simply because the
knights learned to dismount before battle. This drastic change in results, especially
considering that the battle was nearly won by Saladin at one point, marked a turning
point in European military thought. The earlier addressed battles clearly showed the
weaknesses of mounted knights, and it is fitting that these limitations were completely
mitigated once the knights dismounted. The importance in the role of the crossbowmen
cannot be ignored, but there is certainly a strong point to make about the importance
of the foot knights as well. At the very least, the lack of cavalry prevented many
losses due to the vulnerability of horses; at most, the dismounted knights won the
day and revolutionized the West’s military thinking as a direct result.
The Impact of Fighting Horse-Archers
Once the Eurocentric lens is stripped, the notion that the revolution began in the 12th century gains merit. During the Crusades, knights’ effectiveness was clearly in decline – particularly because of their vulnerability to enemy horse-archers (or more specifically, their horses’ vulnerability to horse-archers). At each of the major battles, the crusaders lost primarily because they relied too heavily on their mounted knights. At the final battle of the period, however, the crusaders amended their military techniques. At Jaffa (1192), the knights dismounted and their foot soldier army (including the foot knights) obtained victory – something mounted knights in the East were unable to do since the First Crusade.
Although knights still fought on horse-back for many centuries beyond the twelfth, Jaffa marked a turning point in the way Europeans conducted warfare. The decline of knights in the East during the 1100s as well as the victory at Jaffa exhibited the vulnerabilities of cavalry and the importance of foot soldiers – all of which were hallmarks of the revolution. This contrasted greatly with knights in the West, who were militarily dominant instead. Within a century of Jaffa, however, Europeans in the West also began to follow a similar trend. As discussed from the literature, infantry began to develop in the 13th through 15th centuries and began to defeat knights in combat as early as the battle of Karuse in 1270 (if not earlier that century). Though the specific disadvantages varied from West to East, the revolution was caused by the same occurrence in both instances – an inherent vulnerability of horsemen being exploited. In the East, it was horse-archers targeting horses as early as the 1100s. In the West, as explained in the literature, it was primarily through the usage of polearms. Although different strategies, they were similar in that both horse-archers and polearms posed a significant threat to the knight’s horse.
Horse-archers certainly influenced the crusaders’ tactics, but it is also possible
that their impact was not limited to the crusading soldiers. Many surviving crusaders
returned home to the West after warring in the East. Their experiences during the
Crusades undoubtedly altered their military thinking. Because the biggest threat in
the West during the 12th century were knights, and because knights were easily countered
by Easterners who killed their horses, it would be reasonable if the surviving crusaders
were inspired to develop a similar method in order to deal with the threat of enemy
knights back home. Although Europeans never meaningfully developed mounted archers
or light cavalry (at least not to the extent of the Islamic World), it has been clearly
illustrated that the widespread use of polearms in the 13th and later centuries proved
equally effective. This fits the timeline of when more and more crusaders returned
to the West, and suggests that they were prompted by the success of horse-archery
to incorporate strategies that emphasized the targeting of enemy horses. Polearms
performed this role flawlessly, and knights in the West became increasingly ineffective
as polearm-wielding infantry became more common. Thereafter, it wasn’t long until
the revolution’s presence was apparent throughout all of Western Europe. From this
and the assessed events, it is evident that 12th century horse-archers initiated the
revolution in the East and even influenced military thought in the West through the
crusaders who went home.
- Allmand, Christopher. “New Weapons, New Tactics.” The Cambridge History of Warfare (2005): 84-100.
- Al-Andalusi, Abu’l-Hakam. “Battle Outside Damascus, 1148.” 12th Century. Quoted in David Nicolle, The Second Crusade 1148: Disaster Outside Damascus. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.
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Cayman is a medievalist who specializes in the crusades. He aspires to attend graduate school in order to further his studies in medieval history and eventually teach. Cayman has always had an affinity for the Medieval Islamic World, and through research his interests in it have only grown. He began this project for his senior thesis to delve deeper into Islamic history during the Crusades. After discovering the supremacy held by the Turkish horse-archers, he shifted his focus to the impact they had on the world around them.
Beyond the crusades, Cayman has a special interest in the earlier Caliphates of Islam, French political history, and the Teutonic invasions of Prussia. This is Cayman’s first major research project.