Saturday, February 02, 2013

Today's research snippet. Serjeants. Scum of the earth, salt of the earth

If you're a reader of my novels you will often come across me mentioning 'serjeants' in military roled. But what exactly is one?

Another name for a serjeant is a 'sirven' which is a broad term that covers both the notion of 'servant' and 'man-at-arms.' They were men who would perform menial tasks in the household such as making beds, preparing meals, making fires, but were also thoroughly capable of disarming a knight if ordered. All purpose common soldiers with duties both domestic and military more or less covers their role.
They were mostly excluded from the council chambers and when an army was on the road in battle mode, they were usually sent to do the dirty work. They were the pillagers and destroyers. The men who extorted ransoms and bullied hostages and generally made life miserables for the victims of their lord's displeasure or war mongering.
Despite this brutish assessment of their 'talents' they were seen as a valuable military resource rather than 'scum'. They were valued for their belligerance and fighting prowess. Those who had access to good equipment, which many did, were also valued.
Good equipment would consist of in the very best cases similar gear to a knight - a mail shirt, helmet, shield, spear, sword, axe, club etc
The mail shirt scenario was only for the top of the tree. The men in the middle would have had a head protector of some kind - the oft mentioned Chapel de fer - iron cap, but no one is quite sure what this is in the 12thC except that it's considered lighter wear than a full helm. They would have had a protective garment such as a gambeson, also called a pourpoint in 12th and 13thC texts and made of fabric or leather. Offensive weapons included axes, long-handed sickles, clubs, bows, crossbows, knives, rocks, slings, sharpened stakes - in fact anything to rack up the damage.
When on the road with an army the serjeants would perform such tasks as escorting siege engines and once settled in for the siege itself they would assist in siege work by filling the moats and sapping the walls. They kept watch, they worked on barricades, they supported archers and slingers, and might even have those skills themselves.
When it came to the thick of the fighting they acted as dispatchers to those whom the knights brought down but didn't kill. They mopped up.
Basically they were the dogs bodies, working in a support role, usually military, but kept busy when they weren't at war. The forebears of Tommy Atkins.

Today's research photo. 

 Detail of links from a mail shirt on display in the Museum of London.

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