The Rise of Infantry: How They Surpassed Knights on the Medieval Battlefield

Throughout the Middle Ages, knights were considered to be the most formidable force on the battlefield.

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Armed with heavy armor and powerful weapons, they were feared by their enemies and revered by their own side.

However, by the end of the medieval period, knights were no longer the dominant force on the battlefield. Instead, it was the infantry foot soldiers who had come to overtake them.

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In this article, we will explore how this evolution of warfare transpired and the time period in which it occurred.

Evolution of Warfare

The evolution of warfare from the dominance of knights to the rise of infantry foot soldiers took place over several centuries. The earliest signs of this change can be traced back to the 14th century when the English longbowmen proved to be a formidable force on the battlefield.

The longbow and its range and accuracy made it effective against even heavily armored knights.

English longbowmen Battle of Agincourt
English longbowmen fire a series of arrows at the enemy at the Battle of Agincourt

Gunpowder Weapons

The use of gunpowder weapons in the 15th century further eroded the dominance of knights. The first handheld firearms, such as the arquebus, were inaccurate and slow to reload, but they could still penetrate armor at close range. As gunpowder technology advanced, so did the effectiveness of firearms, making them more and more deadly against knights.

Arquebus Medieval Period

At the same time, infantry foot soldiers were becoming better organized and better trained. The use of pikes and other polearms, such as the halberd, allowed infantry to hold their own against charging knights. They could also form defensive formations that were difficult for knights to penetrate, such as the famous Swiss pike square.

Medieval Warfare Battles Batalla de rocroi por Augusto Ferrer Dalmau
Medieval Warfare Battles Pikemen are victorious at the Battle of Rocroi

Centralized Nation-States in Europe

The emergence of centralized nation-states in Europe also played a role in the decline of knights. As monarchs gained more power and resources, they were able to raise larger armies of foot soldiers.

These armies were often composed of peasant levies, who could be equipped with basic weapons and trained in basic tactics relatively quickly and inexpensively. This made it possible to field armies that could outnumber and overwhelm the traditionally smaller armies of knights.

A Medieval army attacks
This is a well-armed medieval army with foot soldiers armed with pole-axes and longbowmen Firing on the enemy

By the end of the medieval period, knights were no longer the dominant force on the battlefield. While they still played a role in battles, they were often used as shock troops or as a reserve force to exploit weaknesses in the enemy lines. The primary fighting force was now the infantry, composed of foot soldiers armed with pikes, halberds, and firearms.

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In conclusion, the evolution of warfare from the dominance of knights to the rise of infantry foot soldiers took place over several centuries, beginning in the 14th century with the rise of the longbow and culminating in the 16th century with the widespread use of firearms.

The emergence of centralized nation-states, the development of new weapons and tactics, and the increased training and organization of infantry foot soldiers all played a role in this transformation. Today, the legacy of this evolution of warfare can still be seen in modern military tactics and technology.

5 Great Books about the Rise of Medieval Infantry

“Medieval Warfare: A History” by Maurice Keen
This book provides an overview of medieval warfare, including the rise of military forces during the Middle Ages. It covers topics such as the development of feudal armies, the impact of new technologies, and the changing strategies and tactics employed in medieval warfare.

“The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages
From the Eighth Century to 1340″ by J.F. Verbruggen: This comprehensive work examines the evolution of military systems and tactics in Western Europe from the early medieval period to the 14th century. It explores topics such as the rise of feudal armies, the role of knights, castle warfare, and the impact of new weapons and armor.

“Warfare in the Medieval World” by Brian Todd Carey
This book offers a global perspective on medieval military history, covering different regions and cultures. It explores the rise of military forces, the development of siege warfare, the impact of cavalry and infantry, and the strategies employed during medieval conflicts.

“The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England” edited by Nigel Saul
While not solely focused on the military, this book provides a comprehensive overview of medieval England, including the rise of military forces. It covers topics such as the organization of armies, the role of knights, castle building, and the impact of warfare on society and culture

“The Medieval Soldier: 15th Century Campaign Life Recreated in Colour Photographs” by Gerry Embleton and John Howe
This book offers a visual exploration of the medieval military, focusing on the 15th century. It includes color photographs of reenactments and reconstructions, depicting the equipment, clothing, and tactics used by medieval soldiers.

These books offer different perspectives on the rise and development of medieval military forces, covering topics such as organization, tactics, weaponry, and the societal impact of warfare during that era.