Monday, November 13, 2006

Spurs or Swords?

Steve Muhlberger’s Early History blog has an interesting quote from Geoffrey de Charny’s questions on war, concerning a combat between two otherwise equal groups of mounted men at arms:

“One of the parties does not have any weapons except for their hands, but they have good spurs on their feet; those in the other party each have a good sword in their hands but no other weapons, but they have no spurs and can’t get any. Which of these would you rather be?”

A hundred years later it was still regarded as an open question. In Tirant lo Blanc, the following exchange occurs:

“….replied the hermit. “Let us see what you, who are young and versed in arms, have to say. Which would you rather be: strong but not skillful, or skillful but not strong?”

There were many opinions among the knights. Then the hermit asked which they would prefer: “To enter battle with sword but no spurs, or with spurs but no sword, for I can tell you I have witnessed such combats. I even saw one, fought before the Duke of Milan, in which two knights chose to joust in equal armor, but one was on horseback with only a sword, while the other was on foot with a lance and dagger. Who do you think had the advantage?”

The obvious implication is that this is a question without an obvious right answer from the 14th or 15th century point of view. I think the initial modern reaction is that being swordless is a crushing disadvantage and however bad being without spurs was, surely being without a sword was worse. But our modern reaction is unlikely to be informed by actual experience of how effective a sword is against an armored opponent fighting in earnest, or how easy it is to get a medieval warhorse to approach other warhorses garnished with men yelling and waving implements of destruction, either with or without spurs as tools of persuasion.

Surviving medieval fighting manuals suggest that even if two armored men start out with swords, the fight is quite likely to come down to wresting in the end: even on horseback. And accounts of mounted deeds of arms suggest that even with spurs getting a warhorse to override its instincts for self preservation is no easy task.

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