Saddle Up With Shakespeare’s Knights

We recently were invited by the San Diego Shakespeare Society to give a talk to its members on Arms, Armor, & Chivalry In Shakespeare’s Histories – and we had a great time preparing the talk, interspersing demonstrations of medieval armor and sword combat, and illustrations from historical source material, with readings and movie clips from Shakespearean works (like Henry V, Hamlet, King John, and even A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to illustrate Shakespeare’s marvelous use of armor terminology in his plays.

Consider, if you will, this passage from Henry IV Part 1, where Vernon describes the knights of the royal army to his cousin, Henry “Hotspur” Percy:

Sir_Geoffrey_from_LPsalter(They are) All furnish’d, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm’d
Rise from the ground like feather’d Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.

Placed alongside the illustration of a mounted knight in his finery from the famous Lutrell Psalter (written in the mid-14th century), you get a pretty vivid picture of what Prince Hal and his company of mounted warriors must have looked like on their way to the Battle of Shrewsbury.

But, in our presentation, the reading also raised some questions: Could a knight in armor “vault into his seat”? Weren’t armored knights slow and heavy? Didn’t a knight need a winch or a crane to lift him into the saddle?

This notion, of course, was only emphasized by one of the film clips we showed – Falstaff’s soliloquy on “honor” from the movie Chimes At Midnight – which actually had a scene of knights being hoisted into position via pulleys on the tree branches!

Of course, we explained that this perception was done for comic effect, and has no basis in reality – and just to drive the point home, here is a marvelous 45-minute lecture, graciously provided by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, called How To Mount A Horse In Armor & Other Chivalric Problems, given by Dirk Breiding, curator of arms and armor. He explains not only did medieval knights have both the capability and the technology to get onto horseback without the use of a block-and-tackle (a simple step works quite nicely, thanks), but also addresses the often-mistaken perception in the difference between Renaissance armor (i.e., the “classic knight in shining armor”) and true medieval armor.