BYZANTINE CAVALRYMEN, 14th CENTURY

An extract from Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 2
by Ian Heath

[Based on a Mural of Saint Mercurius in Ohrid, Macedonia, c.1295AD with shield from a Byzantine Mosaic Icon with Saint Demetrios and Reliquary, 14th century Constantinople]
[Based on The Romance of Alexander by Pseudo-Callisthenes, Byzantine Trebizond, Instittuto Ellenico di Venezia codex 5, 14th century]
49, 50 & 51.      BYZANTINE CAVALRYMEN, 14th CENTURY

Despite its archaic appearance, there can be little doubt that this type of armour, which had remained virtually unchanged since the 10th century, still predominated amongst the Byzantines even at this late date or so we must assume from the complete absence of any evidence to the contrary. Admittedly, however, the majority of surviving 14th-15th century Byzantine paintings of soldiers are religious rather than secular (i.e. they portray military saints such as George and Demetrius), and where they are non-religious they tend to be of historical personages or events, so it is possible that some deliberate attempt may have been made by the artists to introduce classical elements, though the fact that such armour appears in paintings alongside contemporary civilian dress would tend to suggest otherwise. Even as late as the mid-15th century, a fresco painted in the Brontocheion monastery in Mistra, possibly a portrait of Constantine XI, again depicts such armour, complete with pteruges and breast-band (see 57). The Byzantines’ continued use of such obsolescent equipment, demonstrating their innate inability to move with the times, may very well have been a major contributory factor in, or else a symptom of, their military decline.

49 is based on sources of the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century and depicts a type of armour that seems to have flourished during the period c. 1290-c. 1330. It differs from the more usual Byzantine style of armour, such as depicted in figures 50-52, mainly in the addition of a sort of waistcoat, buttoned down the front, and an upstanding collar of small rectangular laminae which presumably indicates that some sort of coat-of-plates is worn beneath the leather (?) corselet concealed by the waistcoat. The latter must have been quilted it is otherwise difficult to understand its importance. Pteruges remain very much in evidence, however, and the legs and arms remain characteristically unarmoured.

50 and 51 are more typical Byzantine soldiers, both dating to the mid-14th century. Figure 50, from a fresco depicting St Demetrius, wears a hip-length mail corselet, with an officer’s sash tied round his chest, and is armed with lance, shield, sabre and bow, the last two being added from a Thessalonikan ms. of the same date; note the non-Asiatic style of the bowcase, this being the shape depicted in virtually all Byzantine and Serbian pictures of this period. There would have been a quiver hanging at the right, of the type shown in figure 69. The shield is of a shape frequently to be found in Byzantine art, being long with almost straight sides; it would have been slung behind the back by its guige-strap when the bow was in use.

Figure 51 is taken from a ‘Romance of Alexander the Great’ ms. that probably dates to c. 1360. In addition to a mail corselet, with leather fringes at shoulder and waist plus leather breastband and shoulder reinforcements, he wears scale or mail chausses (probably an indication of Frankish influence) which covered the feet too and could be worn with or without the boots. Strangely, similar armour for the forearms is not in evidence in this particular source. His coif is of quilted fabric or leather, though others substitute mail or scale hoods. This is about as heavy as Byzantine armour seems to have got during the 14th century, though interestingly just one figure in the ms. adds a scale hood that covers his entire face except for the eyes, as depicted in 51a. Others wear equipment virtually identical to that of 50 and 52, with or without pteruges at waist and/or shoulder, and some substitute quilted or lamellar corselets (the latter sometimes over a mail haubergeon), or even studded armour that is presumably of brigandine construction. Shields arc circular or almond-shaped, usually either painted some solid colour (most often red) or else in red-and-white or blue-and-white stripes or chevrons, seemingly common Byzantine practice at this date (see also figures 50 and 52). Basic cavalry arms in this ms. are invariably depicted as lance and sword or sabre, though it is clear from several of the miniatures that officers carried a mace now as in earlier times.




Next: 52 & 53. BYZANTINE INFANTRYMEN, 14th CENTURY, in Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 2 by Ian Heath