Stirrup-less charges? Shocking!

Richard Alvarez unfortunately passed away in 2020. It’s a huge loss to the community of history buffs like me. The two articles that follow (pages 1 and 2) are his work (the first is from 2006), and were a huge help to me in my research. His website is no longer online, so this is my effort to preserve his legacy. Thank you, Sir.

The American Jouster

Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
An Examination of the Mechanics of Shock Combat and the Development of Shock Tactics

In researching my book Mounted Combat: A Guide for Training Horse and Rider, I frequently came across a number of misconceptions regarding the practical realities of shock combat, more specifically the technique for using a couched lance on horseback. These misconceptions cropped up in various books, and in articles and discussions carried out on line.

One of the more serious misconceptions on record was the premise set forth by Lynn White Jr. in his book Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962). White asserted that it was the introduction of the stirrup that made feudalism possible. He pointed out that the stirrup was not in general use in Europe before the 8th century, and possibly as late as the 9th. Without it, he claimed, the charge with couched lance would not be possible. This new technology caused the appearance and rise of the Knightly Class and the development of feudalism.

White’s theory assumed that the stirrups enabled the mounted warrior to withstand the shock of the impact delivered by charging with a couched lance. His argument was almost immediately challenged, but withstood those attacks for almost eight years until Bernard Bachrach disproved it in 1970 by attacking many of White’s sociological arguments. Thankfully, in most historical and archeological circles, White’s theory is now generally believed to be in error. Though it occasionally crops up as a citation in secondary sources.

Maurice Keen in his excellent book Chivalry (Yale press 1984) while acknowledging the contribution of the saddle and lance, still opens his discussion of the advent of the charge with couched lance;

“Without the stirrup, the shock charge with couched lance could not have been a possible maneuver, but the spear and saddle were also important”

pg. 23

It might have been disproved immediately if someone had simply tried the technique on horseback. Instead, it has been replaced with the general assumption that the high-backed saddle is what made the charge with couched lance possible – as if a charge with couched lance bareback were not possible.

Unfortunately, many of the historians and archaeologists (amateur and professional alike) who study the era have little or no training in equestrian skills, and almost none have any training in mounted combat. Instead they use metaphors and analogies that they and their readers can understand. Equating the impact of the charge to being hit by small automobiles. They even use the formulas of physics to predict the force of the impact of horse and rider on a target.


Likewise, they site the earliest appearance of iconographic evidence as the earliest examples of a certain technique, stating that since no earlier evidence exists, the technique or technology must have been absent.

This deductive reasoning falls short when compared to empirical knowledge gained through experimentation and practical application of lance and horse.

This article is an attempt to illuminate the actual mechanics of the technique involved in shock combat. With a deeper understanding of these forces, it is my hope that researchers may better interpret the evidence of manuscripts, illustrations and carvings.

My experience with shock combat began with training for the joust in 1983. Since there were no real handbooks readily available for training horse and rider in mounted combat, my company had to reinvent or rediscover many of the lost skills. The period we set out to represent initially was the early 12th century, with chainmail and surcoat. In 1987, we moved on to the mid 14th, with a partial plate look of camail and jupon. I have gone on to practice mounted combat from various periods, with weapons from medieval to modern.

Among the myriad of skills to be mastered, was tilting at the quintain. Most historians are familiar with the “spinning” quintain from its many representations in period manuscripts. In its simplest form, a shield is mounted at one end of an arm, with a counterweight at the other. If the shield is struck squarely, the arm pivots around a central point, spinning the counterweight into the rider’s path to be dodged or avoided.

While the spinning quintain helps to train the rider and horse in agility and aim, it does little to develop or accustom the horse and rider to the sound and feel of a heavy impact against a static or even mounted opponent. In order to simulate this impact, without killing or maiming our eager but underpaid squires, we developed a rocking or “Shock Quintain”.

This “Shock Quintain” consisted of a pair of heavy wooden shields, (Appx. 24 inches/61cm at the top and 30 inches/76cm long) made of two layers of 3/4-inch (1.9cm) plywood mounted atop an A frame with a 36-inch (91cm) square base. The top of the shields were mounted about 7 feet (2.1m) high, to correspond to the height of a shield held by a mounted opponent. The whole frame is built and reinforced with “2 x 6s” (a board roughly 4cm by 14cm and of any length–for our European readers) and braced with a rectangular lifting frame that projects some two feet beyond the base, about 24 inches (61cm) up the frame. The entire machine weighs approximately 200 pounds (91kg).

Practice at the Quintain in Pennsylvania.

The object of the exercise was to strike the quintain hard enough to knock it all the way over, beyond its projecting braces, onto its shield backs. The rider has to do this without breaking or losing his lance, or being unhorsed. (As a side note, I would like to add, that it hurt a lot.) The purpose of the exercise was to train the horse and rider to the sound of the impact and to develop the proper seat, lance grip, and bridle hand to deal with the recoil of that impact.

The lances we used were ten to twelve feet long, and 1 5/8 inches (4cm) in diameter. Usually they were made of pine, though occasionally they were made of ash or poplar. Medieval replica saddles being expensive and hard to come by, the preferred saddle is a U.S. Cavalry saddle, McClellan issue. This saddle has a very simple wooden tree, covered with rawhide and leather. It has no padding or “horn”, and is built with a moderate pommel and cantle. The seat size varied but 11 1/4 inches (29cm) was common. It is sufficiently rare and unusual, that when recovered, it will pass for a period saddle.

The Author’s McClellan Cavalry Saddle
17th Century Cavalry Saddle, Tower of London

The rider starts his pass at the quintain from one end of the arena. He starts with the lance held at “ready” – that is vertical- because it is easier to maneuver the animal with the lance in this position. After the charge begins, and the rider is settled in to an easy canter, the lance is lowered to the “couched” position. For the purpose of training for the joust, the Quintain was approached on the rider’s left, with the lance couched across the horse’s neck. The rider couched the lance as far out in front as possible. The exact amount varied from rider to rider, but usually 12-18 inches (30-46cm) remained behind his armpit. The arm was “clamped” down over the lance to provide added grip and friction, and the lance hand supported the lance from underneath.

Our lances for practice and the joust were blunted, or rounded off at the tip, without a sharpened metal spear head. The “field of engagement” for the couched lance is approximately 20 to 30 degrees on either side of the horse’s head. Or as I describe in my book, between eleven and one o’clock on the overhead clock, with the horse’s head at twelve. Impact beyond this angle results in a severe twisting, torquing action likely to cause the lance to slip or skip off the target and “clothesline” either or both riders.

It is not really practical to attack a target directly in front of the horse, as this will entail a collision between the horse and the target. When the opponent is another charging horse, the result would be almost suicidal. I suffered my worst personal injury as a result of a “knee to knee” collision with an oncoming rider. This is not to say that the effect of a charging horse impacting a foot soldier was inconsequential, or even incidental. I have witnessed first hand the impact of an armored knight and horse, colliding with a standing squire. The unfortunate lad was thrown a good fifteen feet and had the wind knocked out of him, while the show was halted and an ambulance was called to remove him from the field on a back-board. (He was only shaken up.)

The Knight probably counted on the footman’s fear of just such an impact to act as a kind of “psychological” weapon, to help open the wall. No doubt in combat, trampling an opponent is preferable to being killed, but it still places the horse’s most delicate points of anatomy, his legs, at high risk. Without discounting the effect of a horse to ground collision, I say only that this was not the rider’s primary intention but rather should be considered as a secondary effect of a shock charge.

With the lance firmly couched then, the rider leans in slightly to allow for the recoil of the impact. He also must simultaneously prepare to “yield” with his bridle/shield hand at the moment of impact, isolating the blow from the horse’s mouth.

The author recoils from the impact with the quintain

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. A portion of the force directed at the Quintain is translated back towards the rider. The closer the rider is to a perpendicular impact vector, the more the impact is forced down the lance. That part of the impact not absorbed by the target, comes back down the lance, where it is felt first by the hand holding it, then by the armpit. It is translated from the grip and armpit of the rider, into the rider’s shoulder and pectoral muscles and on down his back muscles, into his seat and legs.

The force of the impact pushes the rider “backwards” in relation to the horse’s momentum. It even occasionally pushes him “Back and sideways” or in the case of striking at a target lower than his armpit, “back and up”. Here is where the saddle comes in.

It is the back of the saddle or the “cantle” as it is called, that allows the rider greater leverage to brace his buttocks against. I say buttocks because the cantle of the McClellan saddle does not rise above the top of the rider’s hip bones. Examination of medieval period war saddles such as Henry V’s at the Met, or illustrations from manuscripts, clearly show the sharp rise in the back of the medieval saddle. Some, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries, even show a pair curving arms that wrap around the knight’s lower hips. (Not unlike the “horns” of the roman saddle I will discuss later). With the singular exception of a few highly specialized late medieval tournament saddles – none however, rise above the rider’s waistline. A few tournament saddles were even made without cantles to facilitate dismounts. But specialized tournament saddles, like the weapons and armor designed specifically for the “sport” are not suitable for war.

The rider then uses the muscles in his arm, chest, back and hips, to translate the force of the impact into the seat and legs. Those legs grip the horse firmly with the knees and thighs, and the shock is braced against the back of the saddle.

Where then, do the stirrups come in?

Most beginning riders understand the usefulness of the stirrup as a mounting aid in getting on the horse’s back. Useful, but not necessary. Stirrups enable the rider to endure longer marches in greater comfort. Stirrups are a logical step in progression to aid in “rising” from the seat, which must be accomplished from the knees without them. Any rider trained in “English” will recall the hard work of “posting” without stirrups as a way to develop leg muscles and seat. They are perhaps best employed in assisting the rider to “rise” in his seat and so isolate the movement of his body from that of his horse. Such isolation is most helpful in firing projectile weapons like bows. This is likely the reason why the stirrups originated in the great horse cultures of the east, which are known as excellent mounted archers.

Additionally, the stirrups can be useful before the impact, to brace the rider more firmly against the cantle. The moment of impact however, tends to pull the rider’s feet up and back – or otherwise “out” of the stirrups.

Useful, yes. But are they “necessary” for the shock of the charge with couched lance? Not especially. To test the effect of the stirrups, one has only to remove them from the saddle and try the pass without them. I have accomplished many successful passes at the quintain without stirrups, with no appreciative loss in the force of impact.

The stirrups are extremely useful for lateral support, and “standing” in the hand to hand fighting of a melee likely to follow a charge. It is especially difficult to pull a man off a horse if he has his feet firmly planted in the stirrups. Stirrups then allow the horseman to exploit the success of the charge, once a lance is broken or discarded in the chest of an unfortunate foe.

Back to the moment of impact. The lance is forced back into the armpit, where it is gripped between the pectoral muscle and inside edge of the biceps and triceps. We learned fairly quickly that to perform a pass wearing only a light shirt or jacket would often result in a tear or abrasion commonly called a Quintain Burn. If the rider’s grip was weak, the lance would slide back causing friction burns along the arm and chest. Repeated passes in one rehearsal often resulted in ugly bruises and bleeding. The effect was reduced when practiced in a leather jerkin or chainmail, though that too had its own peculiar tortures.

If the angle of impact was too oblique, the lance would skip off the surface of the shield, and torque back against the rider’s face, neck or chest. In order to prevent clothes-lining himself, or hitting his horse with the butt of the lance, we developed a technique called “windmilling”. This was achieved by instantly releasing the “armpit grip” and raising the lance above the rider’s head. The momentum of the point was allowed to carry the tip counter-clockwise, clearing the horse and rider’ heads, and brought to a stop by the strength of the wrist alone. A weak grip could result in the lance simply flying away above and behind the rider. This exact move was also useful when the lance penetrated a shield or target, and the rider needed to release a lance to prevent himself from being unhorsed.

Once a solid hit is put on target, the rider focuses his full body on delivering the blow. Arm, wrist and chest grip the lance, while the abdominals contract to assist the back, and the legs grip the horse tightly. It was not uncommon to hear a shout or grunt expelled in our efforts to focus “chi” energy at the moment of impact.

If the lance does not break, then the rider must continue to “push” through the hit, either penetrating the target, or “unhorsing” it. This was accomplished while simultaneously moving the bridle hand forward even as the body recoiled backwards, and strength was expended to maintain the contact.

One of the biggest misconceptions about shock combat is that the combined weight of horse and rider is directly translated to the lance – As if somehow the horse, rider, and lance were one rigid mass. In fact, they may move down the field as one, but at the moment of impact, they react as separate units.

In reality the rider’s body acts as a shock absorber, or buffer, between the lance and horse. It cannot be stressed enough that the rider’s own strength and weight are the key to translating the mass of the horse into the force of impact. Although the size of the medieval warhorse gradually increased over time, the effective size of the lance and horse interface (the rider) did not.

It is the resilience of that interface between lance and horse that determines the amount of energy put into the impact. Thus the amount of the horse’s mass that could be effectively put behind the lance was directly determined by the rider’s size and strength. In other words, a larger, stronger horse does not mean a harder hit, while a larger, stronger rider usually does. In fact, in a joust I am more concerned about a large rider on a small horse, than a small rider on a large horse. Velocity can increase or diminish the relative force of the impact. This is true both in terms of hitting and being hit.

Of course, at some point the amount of force delivered will exceed either the tensile strength of the lance (breaking it), the surface strength of the armor/shield (penetrating it), the physical strength of the riders (unhorsing one or both), or a combination of all three. This, provided the lance does not simply skip off because of the angle of impact, or the rider’s own grip fails, releasing the lance. Failure of tack was not uncommon as well, with saddle cantles breaking and harness straps failing.

A skillful rider can attenuate and control the amount of force delivered behind his hit, regardless of the speed and size of his mount. Force may be added or subtracted by a “Punching” or “Pulling” motion with the lance. This was one part of the skill to be mastered by passing at the Shock Quintain. First, we hit it hard enough to knock it all the way over. Next, we hit it hard enough to knock it back onto its braces, but not onto its back. Finally to amuse ourselves, we took turns hitting it just hard enough to tip it to the balancing point, where it would teeter, and rock back to its upright position. We called this action tilting a “hanger”.

Mastery of this skill was one of the requirements necessary, before I allowed a rider to joust in one of our shows. “Full contact” billing notwithstanding, armed combat between two individuals is still illegal. Safety is paramount. I point out that while the intention of our performance was entertainment, the forces at work here are just the same as in real combat. In a “real” joust I would aim at my opponents head, and try and miss his shield. In a “staged” joust, I was aiming at his shield, and trying to miss his head. As our shows were choreographed with a prescribed number of hits, and even “breakaway” lances, a rider would be called upon to hit sufficiently hard to get a good sound – but not so hard as to prematurely unhorse his opponent. Still harder yet, was the force needed to break our “rigged” lances. On occasion, these lances did not break, and the rider was unhorsed! And hardest of all was the force needed to unhorse a performer hesitant to fall on cue.

Jousting in Arizona

Real lances were often shattered, unplanned “dismounts” were not uncommon, and the horses certainly didn’t know the difference between real and pretend violence. And try as I may, once unhorsed, I couldn’t “fake” the effects of gravity.

More than once, in the course of a joust, a stirrup leather was broken. Rather than ride with one foot in the irons, (a slightly unbalanced position), I usually kicked the other one out, and performed the joust without stirrups.

The tendency then, is for some researchers to see the saddle as being necessary for the delivery of the blow with the couched lance. Without the saddle, they believe, the couched lance charge is impossible. To test this, I removed the saddle, and made several repeated passes at the quintain. By utilizing a “Clenched Seat” position, I was able to deliver sufficient force to topple the target and ride on, safe and sound. The impact did cause my body to “slide back” somewhat on the horse, but by attenuating the impact with my own muscles, I was able to manage the impact well. I have even performed a joust without a saddle, when a girth broke and it was quicker to remove rather than replace the saddle.

Make no mistake – I would rather joust with saddle and stirrups than without. They definitely aid in the rider’s control during and after impact. But if “Shock Combat” without saddle or stirrups is possible, (Though granted, certainly not preferable) what then do we make of the iconographic evidence. And where do we date the “discovery” of the couched lance position and the invention of Shock Combat?

Again, an examination of the human mechanics necessary will shed some light on the evolution of these tactics. Following the precept that “necessity is the mother of invention”, we will try to unravel the chicken and egg story. First, a look at the “couched lance position”.

The use of spears as weapons pre-dates any sort of written history. The terms “spear” and “lance” are often used interchangeably, even by contemporary accounts. For the purpose of this article I will define a “spear” as a pole arm between five and eight feet long, with a sharp point. The term “lance” will apply to a weapon over eight feet long. Spears also make excellent projectile weapons. As such we may refer to them as “javelins”. By adding the speed of the running horse to his own muscle power, a mounted warrior could hurl his spear farther and with greater force. It is logical to assume that a rider would rather hurl his weapon at his enemy and ride off than engage in hand to hand combat.

At some point in the history of mounted combat, (a moment shrouded in antiquity) a man on horseback was fighting with a spear. No doubt this was the same sort of weapon he used when fighting on foot. And yet, for some reason, our ancient warrior was faced with fighting a man on foot who was also holding a spear. If the man on foot had a shield, he wielded his spear with one hand, just as the horseman does. To wield a spear with dexterity, one tends to grip it near the center of balance. Thus the reach of the man on foot and the man on horse are roughly equal – half the length of their spears. The interface between the soldier and his weapon is also limited to the strength of his grip. The choice of using the spear “overhand or underhand” is a tactical decision made in the moment.

If the man on foot had no shield, he might grip the spear with both hands, farther down the shaft. This simultaneously gave him greater control and farther reach than the man on horse. It also strengthened his interface on the weapon, allowing him to put more of his own weight and force into a blow or thrust. To utilize this same advantage of length, a rider must release the reins of his horse and hold on with both hands, or brace the butt under his right armpit while using his right hand to support the length. Whether this was a tactical choice or one born of desperation by either man is immaterial. Once the advantage of greater length was determined it would be exploited. It can even be assumed that a man on foot might “couch a spear” even as he held a shield.

Thus the “Couched position” can be traced to the discovery of the soldier’s armpit. An elementary moment of logic that is forever lost in pre-history. That this technique is elementary and even fundamental can be demonstrated by giving a child a broom. When told to hold the broom extended as far as possible with one hand, the child will instinctively couch it beneath his arm.

If couching a spear is a natural tendency, especially on horseback, it is logical to assume that once the advantage of reach is discovered, means of exploiting it would be developed. The next logical development is a spear longer than the one wielded by the opponent. Thus the lance is born. But heavy lances cannot readily be thrown or used one-handed. In fact they can really only be used in the couched position, so the focus shifts to the impetus of the horse’s movement. The charge with lance follows readily upon this development. But the impact of a high-speed charge with lance forces the rider backwards on his horse. Surely some additional padding or a shaped tree would help. So the development of the raised cantle follows logically as a solution to the problems posed by the “Couched Charge” with lance. Form follows function.

One can see this logical evolution of technology to fulfill a demonstrated need in the armor of later medieval eras. In regards to the use of the couched lance in a charge, this is further exemplified in the developments of the lance itself. As the charge with couched lance became more and more common in medieval Europe, devices for better translating the force of impact to the rider’s body were developed. It is difficult to “clinch” a lance with the armpit and chest, when the chest is covered with plate. The lance tends to slide backwards, and so a roundel is developed either ahead of the hand as a vamplate, or in front of the armpit as a ring or grapper. The lance rest is attached later, with provisions for holding and “arresting” the lance, distributing the force across the rider’s torso. In order to effectively link more of the horse’s mass into the lance, the lance would have to be attached to the horse directly by immobilizing the rider in a solid suit. But these technological developments occurred over centuries. The fourteenth century lance rest comes three hundred years after the Battle of Hastings – evidence that application of a technique often takes time to be reflected in changes to the technology. Yet no one denies that shock combat or even shock tactics were employed during this time. And just because the technology for individual shock combat exists, it does not mean that shock tactics immediately followed suit.

“Shock Combat” then, as I will define it for this article, is the utilization of the horse’s motive power to increase the force behind a spear or lance held in a couched position. While all “Shock Combat” is a form of Mounted Combat, not all Mounted Combat is Shock Tactics. Use of hand weapons from horseback while maneuvering or standing still in a melee, I would not term as Shock Combat. But to think that Shock Combat cannot take place within the crush of a melee situation is an error too. One need only watch a rodeo or horse race to see how quickly a horse can go from standing still to a full gallop. But hand to hand combat with a couched lance, utilizing the horse as additional motive force behind a thrust, is not necessarily “Shock Tactics”.

“Shock Tactics” I will define, as the coordinated use of mounted warriors in a concerted effort to engage in shock combat with a body of enemy troops. (Either mounted or on foot). One of the defining characteristics of shock tactics is the requirement of open space for massed maneuvers. If the origin of the couched position and shock combat can be said to be obscured in antiquity, why then the question about the development of Shock Tactics? Wouldn’t these too have arisen at the same time, and be lost in early history?

The answer can be found in the term “coordinated”. A single isolated incident in combat does not immediately become a widespread tactical technique. The type of systematic training necessary to develop a coordinated mounted unit capable of effectively utilizing Shock Tactics requires vast amounts of time and resources. This means a society must either be centered around an equestrian lifestyle like the early Sarmatians or other eastern horse cultures: OR at the very least it requires a society that will support the training and maintenance of a standing cavalry, as the classical Romans, Persians or Greeks did.

What then do we make of the iconographic evidence, or lack there of?

If form follows function then – the couched lance technique must predate any pictorial evidence in existence for it. Here are a few samples from my library concerning ancient cavalry.

A wall hanging discovered in a 5th century tomb in Pazyryk, clearly shows a Sarmatian rider mounted on a ridged saddle tree with pronounced pommel and cantle but no stirrups. This is illustrated in The Complete Book of Horse and Saddle Equipment published by Exeter Books, 1981. An extract follows:

“To the east of the Scythians there lived another horse people, the Sarmatians. Unlike the Scythians, the Sarmatians fought as a heavy cavalry, using a long heavy lance which the Greeks called a “barge-pole”, and wearing armor. The Sarmatians, using this heavy lance, were probably the first troops to charge bodies of infantry in the accepted cavalry fashion.”

pg. 21

Obviously, the lance was so unusual that the Greeks could only refer to it as a “barge pole”. Certainly not the type of weapon one could easily throw. Virgil, writing in the Aeneid, describes a display of cavalry maneuvers at the funeral of Aeneas’ father. The riders –

“…first galloped apart in equal detachments, then in half sections of three broke ranks and deployed their band as in a dance; and then, at another order, they turned about and charged with lances couched. Next they entered upon other figures too, and reversed these figures, with rank facing rank across a space between; and they rode right and left in intertwining circles. And they began a pretence of armed battle, sometimes exposing their backs in flight and sometimes turning their spear-points for attack. Then they made peace again and rode along in an even line.”

(Virgil, Aenid 70-19 BC)

An examination of the Trajan column, erected in the early second century shows German horses being led across a stream equipped with saddles with pommels and cantles. As to the technology of shock combat, I refer to efforts on the part of Peter Connoly to reconstruct a replica of a roman saddle – the result of which was presented at the Roman Military Equipment Conference in 1987. Connoly’s reconstruction can be found in his book Greece and Rome at War as well as Ann Hyland’s excellent book The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades. The ridged saddle has four short “horns” projecting from the tree. The resemblance to drawings of 12th century medieval saddles is obvious. Ann Hyland recounts her experiments with the saddle:

“It became clear that this saddle must have revolutionized cavalry warfare, bringing it to a stage not thought possible until the advent of stirrups. The front horns permitted putting considerably more poundage behind the lance thrust than was possible with a pad saddle. Lateral sword slashes were more effective due to horn security. This model was clearly the prototype for the medieval war and tournament saddles.”

pg. 5

My own experience in Australian stock saddles with their front thigh roll and Portuguese bullfighting saddles with their tight thigh pads front and back, tend to lend credence to this assertion.

So with the technology to support shock combat: Long heavy lances (the contus), heavy armor, ridged saddle trees, and the military system in place to support the training of a standing army in concerted shock tactics, the question of whether or not “Shock Combat” was possible for the Greeks, or the Roman Army of at least the first century seems answered. Yes.

But possible is not always probable. And the choice of when and how to use a particular type of tactic is after all what wins or loses a battle. Cavalry tactics are chosen battle by battle based on terrain and resource considerations. Just because “Shock Tactics” were known by a given army or commander, does not mean they would be employed at a particular battle. Conversely, just because they were not used, does not mean they were not known. Often the best way to win a battle was to have your cavalry dismount and fight on foot. Many a battle was lost by foolish deployment of cavalry. Cavalry tactics developed as a counterpoint to infantry tactics in a slowly escalating dance for battlefield superiority.

Knowledge of techniques and technologies of warfare can be built upon, improved, developed and passed on, once they are discovered. They can also be lost, forgotten or suppressed. Iconographic evidence of classical battles is spotty at best. Some battles are recorded or illustrated centuries after the fact, and others not recorded by contemporaries at all. Most chroniclers neglect the common-place and mundane. And let’s not forget that history is written by the winner.

Many historians point to the Bayeux Tapestry as the turning point in the “Couched lance technique” and the defining moment of the evolution of “Shock Tactics” in western Europe. Embroidered in 1080 to represent the Battle of Hastings which took place in 1066, the tapestry depicts mounted knights using spears and lances in various fashion. At least one is hurled through the air. Most are either held overhand or underhand in a jabbing or thrusting motion, but a few are held “Couched” underarm, in what we consider to be the classic charge with couched lance position. This then, they assert to be the “snapshot in time” that defines the moment of discovery. The “couched lance technique”, the beginning of “Shock Combat”, the charge with couched lance, and the birth of “Shock Tactics” they assign altogether, to the late eleventh century. Though some do so guardedly.

But a careful examination of a page from the ninth century Frankish work known as the Golden Psalter of St. Gall shows mounted Carolignian soldiers carrying long spears and shields, riding saddles equipped with stirrups and showing only modest cantles and pommels. (Indeed very much like our McClellans). One of the riders even carries his spear carefully tucked below his right armpit, in marked contrast to the others who ride with their spears at “rest” against their right shoulders. Here we see the technologies that developed as a result of utilizing the technique of shock combat clearly present two centuries before the battle of Hastings. As to whether or not Carolignian troops utilized “Shock Tactics” in a given battle, I leave to military historians with better resources. But the system for supporting and training massed troops seems to be a matter of record.

There is an old saying, “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.” What did the Byzantines know, and when did they know it? Were shock tactics, which seem to have been known by the Greeks and Romans, “lost” to western Europe like so many other techniques and technologies, only to be rediscovered or reinvented at a later age? Or did the skills “languish” in eastern Europe, with only the evidence of their existence lost to modern researchers?

What then to make of evidence empirical, anecdotal, and iconographic?

Empirical evidence leads me to believe that the “couched lance technique” was an early development of mounted warfare with a spear, the origin of which is lost in time. It is a technique that is assumed naturally in the course of “Shock Combat” and was readily used whenever necessary by mounted warriors throughout history, whether or not “Shock Tactics” were employed in a particular battle. To say that the “couched lance technique” awaited the development of the stirrup or even the high backed saddle would be in error. Though certainly these later developments served to reinforce and spread the use of such techniques.

My conclusion is that “Shock Combat” was known, and “Shock Tactics” were employed in classical times by various cultures, both east and west. Classical cavalry training and battles are perhaps better preserved for modern scholars than the era immediately following the fall of Rome. But was such information widely known and shared by the cavalry of Byzantium? Are the earliest records of primitive tournaments the foundation for mounted shock training, just as the Roman “hastiludes” were? Only now are modern scholars carefully piecing together the evidence for Shock Tactics.

The development of organized “Shock Tactics” required a civilian or military culture that would support the training and maintenance of a regular mounted army. The answer to when “Shock Tactics” were employed by a particular culture should be directed to searching for the earliest evidence of the establishment and training, and maintenance of a mounted army within that culture. It is during such training that personal experience can be passed on from trooper to trooper. Techniques may be practiced over and over in mock combat, and tactics may be rehearsed in careful formation in order to ensure their successful application in the chaos of what is commonly referred to as the “fog of battle.”

Follow-up article continues here.


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