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The Japanese Samurai Versus The European Knight

By Mohammed Abbasi

For six centuries the medieval knight dominated the battlefield and influenced the Western world greatly. The armored, mounted warrior, born in Middle Ages, revolutionized warfare and became the foundation of the new political structure known as feudalism. The Church put the medieval knight to the ultimate test-the First Crusade of 1095. The Church, which Christianized almost all of the knights, gave them a very high status in society, one that was sought after even by kings and princes. In the end, the legendary knights of the Middle Ages were lost in a world in which there was gunpowder, muskets, cannons, national states and so on.

No soldier or warrior has ever been around as long as the knight. They fought on the battlefields in Europe for over six to eight hundred years. Slowly, the knight rose his social status from that of the peasant to nobility. They were supposed to follow a code of honor and rules for a knight known as chivalry, which was actually not very well followed.

In England and in America, the popular image of the knight is mostly English, thanks mostly to the story of king Arthur. Real knights, though, first originated in France and weren’t even known in England for a long time. The king Arthur tale was about the political countryside of post-Roman Britain.

Basically, there were three main stages of the knight: first, the emergence of the armored, mounted soldier in the ninth and tenth centuries; second, the development of knighthood in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries as an institution, and the age of the makers of the King Arthur legend; and third, the fall of knighthood as a result of the rise of new social forces in the late Middle Ages and early modern times-like colonization in the new world, and the discovery of guns, cannons, and bombs.

The early knights lived in castles like the early fortress that was built in Rudesheim in Germany during the 11 th-century. In the fifth century, the Western half of the Roman Empire was destroyed by the invading Germanic tribes. Powerful local lords and war chiefs offered protection to the peasants in return for service, which gave rise to a feudal society.

In the late eight century, the Holy Roman Empire was created by Charlemagne, king of the Franks. To build and defend his new empire, he needed thousands of well trained and prepared soldiers. At the top of his army were armored cavalry men which were pretty much the first knights of Medieval Europe. The armies led by Charlemagne and his allies were the only ones who were able to stop the invading Vikings who raided northwest Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries. The heavily armored cavalry of Charlemagne’s Empire led his armies to victory against the Carolingian and Ottoman emperors; they were also able to move quickly and easily. The early knights fought with spears, swords, and sometimes a bow and arrows. Their armor was usually an iron helmet, body armor, and a large wooden shield. These equipments were so effective that they hardly changed for 300 years! However, all the things that a knight had were very expensive to make and to acquire. The knights had to live all over Western Europe if they wanted to defend every area from invaders. Only they alone could defend the people of Europe from people like the Vikings, Magyar Hungarians, Saracans and Muslims from the south , and others who almost destroyed the huge and wealthy empire that Charlemagne made.

The development of feudalism helped sustain the knight class. A local lord, noble, or other leader would grant land to a knight in return for his military service and loyalty. Peasants, then, would get protection from the knights and local lords, but they had to work hard to serve them by feeding them with their crops and by paying them a lot of taxes. This kind of feudal system raised the role of the knight from mere soldiers to members of a new and powerful ruling class.

The Normans are known by many historians as the most effective of the ‘new knights’-they were descendants of the Vikings who settled in Normandy in northwest France. The Normans learned a lot about warfare from Charlemagne's armies and won many battles through careful planning and daring attacks. They made states in southern Italy and Sicily, and conquered a lot of Great Britain. Many Normans also served in the Byzantine armies, and when Pope Urban II called for a crusade against the Muslims, Norman knights were at the forefront of the great armies that went to the Holy Land.

The arms and armor used by knights and other Western European fighting men changed a lot during the Middle Ages. However, from the earliest days, armor almost always had more than one layer. The first layer would be a pair of loose breaches (see picture on next page) and a shirt. Over the breeches the knight would wear hose, which were like two separate tight-fitting trouser legs. Over his hose, a 12 th-century knight wore mail leggings, called chausses. Next, to cushion his armor, he would put on a padded coat called a gambeson. On top of this would be a tunic (kind of like a robe), which was very long and used as a mark of wealth and status. The knight’s armor consisted of chain mail-sheets of interlocking iron rings-mostly worn over some sort of quilted padding that absorbed the shock of a blow. As his main piece of armor, the chain mail shirt was called a hauberk, which usually had a chain mail hood called a coif. The hauberk was really weird because over this the knight would wear a short surcoat known as gipons, where it would really hard to wear in the summer because it would get very, very hot. The knight also had a helmet, called a bastinet, to protect his head, and a wooden shield. He was armed with a heavy sword that was used for cutting mainly, and not stabbing. Some were equipped with long lances, like those long sword like weapons that would be seen in tournaments where two knights would charge at each other while on horses. In the 14 th-century, the lower layers of clothing and armor were similar to those worn earlier, but the knight had extra protection on his arms, elbows, legs, knees and feet. The strongest part of the armor was now the plate armor, which was made of metal scales and plate covered in decorative cloth.

The knight’s most important possession was his special war-horse, the “destrier”, which is special because it was born and raised for the sole purpose of aiding a knight in battle. Without this expensive animal, the knight wouldn’t be considered a full member of the elite members that followed the cavalry. In training, the knight practiced using weapons while riding this large animal, and war-horses were looked after carefully and were so valuable that some wealthy kings even dressed them in armor before going to battle.

In battle, a closely packed group of knights on horseback walked into the attack, then lowered their lances to make their final charge. The sight of the dozens of knights riding side by side, with the blades of their lances was very frightening.

When charging, a knight almost stood on his stirrups (foot supports), but was held steady by the raised back of his tall, wooden frame saddle, which gripped his hips. He held his heavy lance, which was usually over twelve feet long, in a couched position (almost sitting down), as it was locked tight under his armpit. This meant that it could only be moved just a little bit to the left or to the right when he aimed at his target, but it gave him a very firm grip at the lance. Basically, the knight, with his horse and lance, became totally unstoppable. It was really hard for another knight to get knocked off his horse, since his feet were almost ‘latched; on to the stirrups; but once he got knocked off, it was almost impossible for him to get back on during a battle.

Knights were the leaders and the backbone of most western European armies. They were supported by the squires, who were young men that fought only in an emergency, and professional cavalry sergeants, including highly paid archers. There were also thousands of highly equipped foot soldiers from towns, or peasants who were forced to leave their homes in the country, who had little or no training.

To win a battle, the knights of one army usually had to defeat the knights of another army. The other soldiers tried to protect their own knights. One of the most important battle tactics was conrois. This was a close formation of knights designed to charge at enemies that were just standing around, and other cavalry, and was supposed to catch the enemy off guard. It was almost impossible to stop a conrois once it was started, and once the knight split up, it was really hard to get them back together again. So, if the tactic was going to be effective, the knights had to knockout their enemy in one huge blow (doesn’t it remind you of the legend of the green giant earlier?).

At first, the knights, and men in general treated women very poorly, or more like ‘possessions’. But when the crusaders returned to Europe, their view of women changed after seeing how the Muslims treated their women. Courtly love, and love songs from troubadours became very popular. This type of love between the knight and his ‘lady’ wasn’t very sexual, but very mature and romantic; the woman would give the knight a handkerchief that the knight would take with him to the battle field and fight with the cloth on his arm of tucked away somewhere safe.

There were many reasons why knighthood declined towards the end of the Middle Ages. Archers began to replace knights as the ‘elite on the battle fields, while new weapons like steel-armed crossbows, gunpowder, cannons, and eventually handguns made the heavily armored knight seem weak. The main cause of the knights’ decline though was that western European was changing and the feudal knight was now outdated.

“On the little island of Oki, the passing months and days brought with them only additional sorrows. The Emperor wondered, ‘Of what great crimes have I been guilty that I should be made to suffer so?’ Even while he thus lamented his karma [fate], he tried to think of how he might atone for his sins…He somehow managed to conceal the tears that fell, lending an indescribable nobility to his face. Although he was no longer young, he was still so graceful and handsome that it seemed almost sacrilegious even to himself that such majesty would be wasted in so dreary a place.”

-The Masukagami [“Mirror of Clarity”], anonymous, 1370.

Although fighting men played an important role in Japanese history from the nation’s beginning, the class of warriors known as samurai did not emerge until the twelfth century A.D. By that time, many small chiefdoms were unified into a central state that was headed by an emperor or empress who was believed to be a godly figure. In his study of early Japan, Jonathan Norton Leonard writes: When landholders found they could no longer depend on royal officials for protection against outlaws or predatory neighbors, they armed their sons and retainers[servants] and put themselves under the leadership of chiefs renowned for fighting ability…To gain additional strength for defense or offense, the warrior-chiefs of each small region banded together and offered their services to more important lords. In return for this support the lords agreed to protect the minor chiefs and their followers and to share with them any booty that they might win. The lords in turn pledged allegiance to still loftier noble men who were members of some ancient and mighty family, or at least claimed to be.

This was very similar to the feudal system in medieval Europe where the lords protected the vassals in return for their services. In medieval Japan, the relationship between warriors and clan chiefs was very intense. An outcome of this feudal arrangement was a strict code of warrior behavior emerged known as Bushido (way of the warrior), which called upon warrior to sacrifice his life for his master. Such an act was thought of as the highest from of honor and respect. It was during the twelfth century that these warriors became known as samurai, meaning “those who serve.” Although the samurai were mainly soldiers, many excelled in the arts and philosophy. In these pursuits, the samurai normally showed the same type of discipline that characterized their martial skills.

Throughout the centuries dominated by many different shoguns (military leaders) and daimyos (ruling families), the samurai evolved from servants to military rulers (similar to hoe the medieval knight rose in status). However, the samurai weren’t one single group of fighter-there were many different ranks and jobs, where a complex system of subclasses existed. At the top were wealthy chieftains, while at the other end of the scale were poor samurai barely made a living. In between the two levels, here were many different social levels with different lifestyles, privileges and responsibilities.

Most of the stories about samurai that go out to the public as movies, books or plays and art depict these legendary warriors in history as ferocious men with extraordinary swordsmanship, battling, mastering of the martial arts, and the strict code of discipline by which they lived and followed. Although these views show accurate accounts of samurai I a particular time of their ‘evolution’, there are many other phases of the samurai- seven centuries total! Not many people know, for example, that the first samurai were mounted archers, more skilled with bows and arrows than with swords!

What I found even more surprising was that many samurai warriors became scholars, poets, artists and philosophers who like to make fine handwriting in ink and brush (calligraphy), flower arranging, and the tea ceremony.

Horses and bows were very important in Japan (as in medieval Europe), and were used in warfare from very early times, as shown in statues and artifacts found in tombs of early chieftains. Samurai eventually became very skilled in using the horse. Because their main weapon at this time was the bow and arrow, early samurai exploits were spoken of in Japanese war tales as the “Way of the Horse and Bow.” The quickness and force with an archer could shoot an arrow was amazing! A bunch of arrows made of mainly wood with poison tipped points were worn on a warrior’s right side so he could quickly take out an arrow and fire it as he galloped along on his horse.

Although they weren’t as important as the bow, swords of various sizes and types were also part of a samurai’s armory in the early days. They were mostly for fighting close up with an enemy. Many different kinds of spears were used also. The naginata, one of them, was a curved blade fixed to the end of a pole several feet long. This was known as a woman’s spear because samurai girls were taught to use it from an early age. That was one main difference between the medieval knights and the samurai of Japan-women fought among the samurai as well as men, even though most of them weren’t as respected as the males. A device called the kumade that looks like a long-handled garden rake was used to grab the clothing or helmet of enemy horsemen and to take them off their horse.

Common samurai archers had armor made of lamellae pieces laced together with colorful cords. The lightweight armor allowed for greater freedom of movement and was light, so it was easier on the horse, which could even move faster. The knights of Europe though, wore a lot of armor, and eventually they wore an entire ‘metal’ suit, which gave them a lot of trouble in movement, and was much heavier than what the samurai wore-plus, it must have literally killed some of them during the summer due to so much heat; after all, the medieval knight wore a lot of clothing, as you saw earlier.

I don’t want to focus too much on the earliest samurai, but examine the later samurai, where the sword was their main weapon, rather than the bow and arrow.

As political events changed throughout the centuries, so did weapons and armor. One of these changes was the shift from bow and arrows to spears and swords as the main weapons of the samurai. Changes in armor followed as well. Some mounted archers wearing heavy armor were very effective in wide-open places, but as time went by, the samurai had to fight more on rough, wooded and mountainous terrain, where it was hard to stay on a horse. The bow and arrow was slowly abandoned, along with heavy armor. Light, flexible armor that gave more freedom of movement when fighting with swords was developed. Later, in peaceful times, armor further evolved into very ornate dress uniforms now recognized as works of art.

As the sword and spear became more popular, disputes came up among warriors about which one was more effective in combat. Unlike swords, which were used mainly to slash or pierce the enemy (if the warrior could get close enough), heavy spears were better for knocking down armored warriors from their horses. Overtime, samurai swords became prized possessions of a samurai warrior, and were considered to be the soul of a samurai’s being. During the peaceful Tokugawa era, only samurai were allowed to wear two swords- one with a long, curved blade called a katana, and another shorter one called a wakizashi. Samurai were very, very sharp. A katana could literally cut a person in half when used by a warrior trained in the art of swordsmanship. Fine swords were not only effective weapons, but works of art as well. With beautifully decorated handles and coverings. Before being used in battle, new swords were often tested on the bodies of criminals. Sometimes new swords were used to carry out the execution itself.

As changes in weaponry changed, so did combat tactics by the samurai. I’m going to use an example of two enemies to examine the tactics used.

The Taira and Minamoto clans were bitter rivals for many years. The Minamoto were strongest in the frontier regions. A battle that occurred between the two clans in 1183 is a good example of how formal battle tactics declined.

Kiso Yoshinaka, a Minamoto warlord, made many raids on Tiara provinces from his mountain territory. In retaliation, the Taira sent an expedition against him in 1183. When the two armies met high up in the mountains, Yoshinaka promptly got the Taira into a traditional samurai battle. The Taira got excited because they were skilled in this kind of traditional fighting. Yoshinaka fooled them though-he knew they would come to him with enthusiasm, thinking that they had the advantage. But the Minamoto would fight very informally, and untraditionally, and planned to cut off the Taira’s retreat.

More changes in traditional combat tactics occurred among the samurai as a result of Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. During two invasions from China’s Kublai Khan, the samurai clans worked together to drive away the Mongols. However, the Japanese samurai were at a disadvantage because they were used to fighting one on one combat whereas the Mongols fought as organized units. The samurai were able to hold off the Mongols thanks to the forces of Mother Nature.

So as time went by, the size of Japanese armies increased, and a new style of warfare called ashigaru (“light feet”) came about, where disciplined troop movements and imaginative strategies were used.

Life among the samurai changed drastically, but the strict discipline and training that turned them into fighting men continued in peacetime as well.

“If the king wants to make me canstable, He must pay his soldiers to maintain them… For soldiers want their pay. If they aren’t well paid, they won’t serve, And if they go unpaid, they’ll pillage.”

-Du Guesclin, quoted by Cuvelier

“No other samurai with such a low stipend spent as much money as I did. And how I blustered and swaggered about, with a trial of followers at my beck and call!… I have no learning to speak of, having taught myself to write only in my twenties-and barely enough to cover my own needs at that. My friends were all bad and none good…My past conduct truly fills me with horror. Let my children, their children, and their children’s children read this record carefully and savor its meaning. So be it."

-Katsu Kokichi, Early Winter, Tempo 14, The Year of the Tiger (1843-translated by Teruko Craig).


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