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  • Author: Jürg Gassmann x
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The cavalry horse, tactics and training in Western Europe – the Euro-pean provinces of the Roman Empire of the West and the Frankish Empire – du-ring the Early Middle Ages (c. 500-1000) are still subject to many myths in both popular media and academic literature. Source material is admittedly thin, yet it is specific enough to allow us to correct many of these misconceptions and outright errors.

The article initially summarises the current state of knowledge on the war horse of the period, by reference to the archaeological record. It then reviews the cavalry’s battlefield tactics, derives the skill level required to execute the manoeuvres described in the sources, and analyses where and how this training could have been provided.

The information gleaned provides an insight into the skills and expertise neces-sary to achieve the requisite sophisticated level of horsemanship. We shall argue that these imply a considerable investment in organisational infrastructure, per-sonnel and institutional memory, which has so far not received much academic attention, and has wider implications for our view of the era.


The period sees the transition of the ordinary fighter from feudal levy, yeoman or city burgher militia, to subject in an absolute polity, to today’s concept of the free citizen in a democratic state. In the period, the Swiss Confederacy was the only major polity that was not monarchical, but republican, and at the same time eschewed a standing army in favour of continued reliance on militia throughout.

A commonwealth’s military organisation is clearly one of fundamental importance to its own understanding of the nature of rule - its “constitution”. The article traces the transition and relates it to the concept of government under the different theories of the period.


By the Late Middle Ages, mounted troops - cavalry in the form of knights - are established as the dominant battlefield arm in North-Western Europe. This paper considers the development of cavalry after the Germanic Barbarian Successor Kingdoms such as the Visigoths in Spain or the Carolingian Franks emerged from Roman Late Antiquity and their encounters with Islam, as with the Moors in Iberia or the Saracens (Arabs and Turks) during the Crusades, since an important part of literature ascribes advances in European horse breeding and horsemanship to Arab influence. Special attention is paid to information about horse types or breeds, conformation, tactics - fighting with lance and bow - and training. Genetic studies and the archaeological record are incorporated to test the literary tradition.


The article considers the importance of military service in social advancement, here understood as filling the role of “prince” in feudal law and thus participating in the government of an estate, in the transition from the Late Middle Ages to the Renaissance or Early Modern Age. In the context of a city burgher or a petty noble or knight advancing into a government role, did honour require that the individual have experience in fighting – in war, military organisation and leadership? How did mercenaries figure? What role, if any, did Fechtmeister, Fechtbücher, Fechtschulen or Kriegsbücher play?


The Bologna archives preserve the bye-laws of 24 „armed societies”, dating from between 1230 and the early 1300s, written in good notary Latin. Though known to exist in other Italian city-states, only few non-Bolognese armed society bye-laws are preserved. These armed societies had disappeared everywhere by the Late Middle Ages.

This article explores the function of these armed societies and the feudal law aspects of the bye-laws - was their function predominantly military, social or political? Why did they suddenly appear, and just as suddenly disappear? How did they fit into Bologna’s constitution - how did they relate to the civic authorities, the guilds?

How did these armed societies operate? Who were the members? What arms did they have? Did they participate in the warfare between the city-states, the battles of the Lombard League and the Holy Roman Empire, the struggles between the Emperor and the Pope, the feuds between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs?


The non-lethal simulated training of lethal reality, whether it be single combat or war, was historically a question of life and death.

We provide an analytical framework for evaluating historical precedents in fight simulations by focussing on two key questions: What was the philosophy guiding the conception of reality – in particular, did historical practitioners see reality as deterministic, and if not, how did they see it? And how did the simulations deal with the elements of quantity, quality, timing, and information?

The analysis shows that our ancestors’ perception of the reality of fighting chan-ged over time, as their interpretations of reality for the world at large changed. Considerable intellectual effort and ingenuity were invested into attempts to understand reality and formulate corresponding realistic simulations, making these ludic artefacts reflective, sometimes iconic for, and occasionally ahead of their historical-cultural context. Seemingly irrational phenomena, such as the persistence of lethal duelling, had perfectly pragmatic elements.


This article is based on the talk presented on 27th November 2016 in the course of the Journées d’études sur le costume et les simulateurs d’armes dans les pratiques d’arts martiaux anciens. The talk itself involved practical demonstrations and interaction with other presentations given at the event; this article does not purport to be a transcript of the presentation, but elaborates on the key themes of the presentation: The objectives of HEMA as a modern practice, and their relationship to what we know about the historical practice of the European martial arts in the Middle Ages, including physical fitness, fencing techniques and tactical awareness, based on the Fechtbücher extant. A key element of the discussion involved a comparison between the objectives of and drivers behind historical and modern tournament rule-sets.