Frankish Art of War. Weapons and organization of Charlemagne’s army

During the last Merovingians and majordomo, especially Charles Młot, the Franks focused on developing heavy cavalry. This led to the emergence of a completely new system of government. Charlemagne also built his strength on the basis of cavalry units. How were they armed and equipped? How much did it cost to serve in the Frankish army?

“Already during the Merovingian era there was an increase in the number of cavalry in the ranks of the Frankish armies” – Comments of Hans von Mangoldt-Godlitz in Die Reiterei in den germanischen und fränkischen Heeren bis zum Ausgang der deutschen Karolinger.


It turns out that one of the turning points in this area is The famous Battle of Poitiers in 732When Charles the Hammer repulsed the invasion of a great Muslim army from Andalusia against the Frankish state.

At the decisive moment of the engagement, the unexpected attack of Aquitaine’s heavy cavalry on the enemy camp set up at the edge of the forest settled the battle in favor of the Franks. Regardless, during the fighting the king appreciated the combat capabilities of the heavy Islamic cavalry.

Late medieval image of the Battle of Poitiers (Levan Ramishvili / public domain).

The necessity of a well-armed cavalry in the face of many wars, against internal and external enemies, led by Charles the Hammer and then his successors from the Carolingian dynasty, required many organizational and social reforms.

Service cost

The rider’s equipment – horses, offensive weapons, protective equipment – was a very expensive investment. According to the historian Hans Delbrück, referring to the set of laws of the Franks, called Lex Ripuaria, published in Austasia at the beginning of the VII century, the prices for war equipment at that time were: helmet – six cows (one cow equals one solid ), armor – 12 cows, sword Sheath – seven cows, spear with armor – two cows, war horse – 12 cows.


This meant that the heavily armed knight had to have sufficient material resources. He could not work for them, as he had to have time to take part in military campaigns which often lasted for months, not to mention the ordinary things like entertainment, revealing things etc.

This is how the feudal system was created, in which vassals obliged to military service acquired the land possessions that were the basis for their preservation. Of course, the class of vassals was not uniform: from magnates (counts, provincial military rulers – dux, archbishops, bishops, abbots) to simple, less wealthy knights sitting on estates the size of a few mansi (fiefs). The wealthy vassal had at his disposal a large number of smaller vassals. (…)

The text is an excerpt from Robert F.  Barkovsky, Fontenoy 841 (Bellona 2022).
The text is an excerpt from Robert F. Barkovsky titled 841 (Bellona 2022).

Arming Frankish warriors

There is a wealth of literature on the offensive and defensive weapons used in Western Europe during the Carolingian period. In general, the Carolingian warrior fought with: a sword, a spear, an axe, a knife and a bow – attempts were made to force the latter to use the last weapon, as evidenced by the aforementioned ruling in Chapter House.

Shields, helmets, and shields served as protective equipment. Enlisted infantry from poorer social classes (not being able to have a sufficiently eloquent horse here) usually had more modest equipment than riders: round or oval shield, spear, sword or axe and knife.


In addition to the armor, direct body protection is usually provided only by an iron helmet. In turn, the equipment of the cavalry, recruited from the richer classes, consisted of: round shields, spears, swords, helmets, shields (mandatory from the beginning of the 9th century) – usually long-sleeved, much less armor.

The most effective weapon, but also the most expensive one was the sword. The swords (called spatha) used in the days of the early Carolingians, about a meter long and with wide blades, were forged from twisted iron rods.

The spears had wings at the base of the blade, which was very practical during combat: they prevented the pole from penetrating too deeply into the opponent’s body, and at the same time prevented the injured person from tearing it apart.

Carolingian steel cavalry

Let’s take a look at the Carolingian heavy knight. The leather caftan was covered with a long-sleeved chain cover (Lorica) or – more often – breastplate. The Latin word Lorica also took the name of the armored cavalry – Lorica.

Frankish forces on the cover of Poitiers 732 by Robert F.  Barkovsky.
The Frankish forces on the cover of Robert F Barkovsky’s book Poitiers 732.

In addition, the shield was supplemented with covers made of metal foil that protected the shins (ukri) and forearms. The so-called metal arm (manica) was probably needed only to cover the hand without the armour being used. The head was protected by an iron helmet. Underneath, the knight was wearing a leather cap. The wings are mentioned above.

In contrast to the later medieval knights, the Carolingian knight carried a spear at his head or at arm’s length in his attack. An important innovation was the use of stirrups (borrowed from eastern nomads, such as the Avars), which facilitated riding and staying in the saddle while riding and in combat.

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“Iron, iron everywhere!”

Description of heavy cavalry citing Notker Balbulus (Stutter), a Benedictine monk of St. Gallen, in Charlemagne’s life (Gesta by Carola Magni), in an episode showing the approach of a Frankish cavalry led by Charles at the Lombard city of Pavia in northern Italy in 773:

Suddenly it darkened over the plain when the Iron King himself finally appeared [Karol Wielki], crowned with an iron helmet; His broad chest was protected by an iron chain, in his left hand he held an iron spear, and his right hand was free to pull out his indomitable sword.


His thighs were also covered with iron chain, and his legs, like his other legs, were covered with iron trees. His armor was pure iron, without any color additives. Around him, behind and in front of him, rode all his riders, whose arms resembled the equipment of a king.

Iron filled the fields and roads, and the sun’s rays reflected from it in all directions. The terrified residents of Bowie shouted in panic, “Iron, iron everywhere! [O ferrum, heu ferrum!]”.


The text above is an excerpt from Robert F. Barkovsky titled 841. It was released by Bellona Publishing in 2022.

The title, main and sub-headings come from the editorial office. The text has undergone a major revision.

The text is an excerpt from Robert F.  Barkovsky, Fontenoy 841 (Bellona 2022).

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