War gear of the First Crusade

When the organized Princes’ Crusade armies set out, they had the best standard weaponry of the time. So what did the average soldier carry?

The most important weapon of the era was the spear, whether it was a throwing lance (or even dart) or a pole-ax that included a spear point with other hooks and barbs. Spears are the primary weapon of the Bayeux Tapestry. Their shafts were eight or nine feet long, probably made of ash wood. Spear heads were made of iron, and the quality of the iron (therefore how sharp its edge stayed) varied with the owner’s wealth.

Imagine being a foot soldier who had to walk across Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, and then Anatolia (Turkey). Do you want to carry that spear the whole way? While it might make an okay hiking staff occasionally, you don’t want to wear out the ash pole by constantly slamming it on the ground. You will bring a pack horse (or donkey or mule) along to carry your gear, with the spear tied into the bundle.

The pack horse will also carry your mail shirt, the most expensive gear you own. It’s made of iron wire that was wrapped around a stick while hot, so that it cooled into a non-springy spiral. The wire was cut into rings, and the ends of the rings flattened, with holes bored into each side. When the rings were hooked together like the Olympic symbol, tiny rivets slipped into the holes, securing the rings shut.

Tens of thousands of iron rings are fitted into your shirt. It may only cover your torso, protecting at least your vital organs. If you can afford more rings, your shirt hangs down as a curtain around your upper legs, too. It’s split in front to let you ride a horse or walk easily, but it forms a swinging barrier for any blade aiming to cut your leg off. If you can afford even more rings, it has arm protection too.

The mail shirt is very heavy and uncomfortable, and it must be stored wrapped in oiled cloth to protect it from rusting. When you wear it, you need a quilted tunic against your skin so that the rings won’t pinch and cut you. So that’s another key part of your gear, a linen quilt-shirt that’s stuffed with wool or other padding (when cotton starts being imported, that will be its first use).

The Bayeux Tapestry, which shows the fathers of the current Crusaders, also shows mail shirts being carried with a pole through the arms, between two men. This suggests the weight as well as the need to let gravity keep the rings straight. I don’t think the Crusaders managed them this way, but it does suggest how heavy and inconvenient they were.

You have a linen hood to go under your helm, and probably a padded cap as well. The helm is made of plate iron, probably with some chain mail attached to the bottom edge as neck protection.

You also need a light-color linen tunic to go over the mail, to reflect the sun. First Crusaders may have learned this part the hard way. A mail shirt gets very, very hot in the Middle Eastern sun. This concern was probably also why the Princes’ Crusade set off in August, 1096: so that the hottest months were already past.¬†When fighting pilgrims (they still just called themselves pilgrims at this time) wore a fabric cross as the Pope had suggested, they put it on the outer reflective tunic.

If you’re a knight or in training to be one, you have at least one sword, but if you are a foot soldier from the manors and towns around the province, you don’t. Sword technology going into the First Crusade was similar to what’s found in Viking graves. The blade had been specially treated to increase the carbon content; some of its metal might qualify as steel. The pommel had a guard on each side of the hand, while the iron shaft at the handle’s core was covered by wooden grips carved to fit the hand. Some swords were made so large and heavy that they required two hands, but I think they came later than 1100.

Shields were made of wood: plywood layers with the grains crossed to make it stronger. Shields couldn’t stop a hurtling spear or a direct blow from a sword. They could block arrows or turn less direct blows. It was worth having a shield, more than not, but it wasn’t a big iron plate you could hide behind. That would have been way too expensive and heavy. The shield was covered with linen to stop splintering, and then shellacked with paint. It carried the lord’s insignia.

The rest of your gear, piled on the pack horse, consists of food and water storage containers, small tools, and extra cloth items like a blanket. You always carry a knife at your belt, the way modern people routinely put on wristwatches. Your boots are made of leather, but they have soft soles like moccasins. You probably have some extra soles along, with a needle and awl; you may even have an extra whole pair of boots in the pack, knowing that you’ll be walking. Somewhere in Bulgaria or Anatolia, your pack horse will die, and you’ll have to decide what you can heft on your back.

The Princes, of course, had even more gear: tents, chests of money, more extras of everything, and servants who needed gear just to tend the gear.


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