The French army should have decimated the invading English. Henry V’s troops—immortalized in the eponymous play by Shakespeare as “A city on th’inconstant billows dancing, For so appears this fleet majestical”—likely numbered 8,000 against some 12,000 French, according to the University of Southampton’s Anne Curry, who has written extensively on the medieval Battle of Agincourt, which occurred in October 1415. Not to mention that the English army had a ratio of five lower-class and lower-paid archers to men-at-arms, while the French mobilized more aristocratic knights.

But Henry V had scouted the battlefield well and he knew to protect his archers with stakes, which thwarted the French cavalry. He also benefited from a muddy battlefield, into which the heavily armored French knights sunk.

“The French got themselves slaughtered, because they charged across muddy fields wedged in between forests on either side, and the English deployed themselves with archers,” says Jeffrey Forgeng, Worcester Art Museum’s curator of arms, armor and medieval art. “The French got bogged down in the muddy field, and they barely reached the English line. They were completely slaughtered.”

Five hundred and fifty died in that battle and 320 were taken prisoner. “That is a terrible toll for what some chronicles claim was only 30 minutes of fighting,” Curry says. There are numerous accounts of heaps of corpses, from which the English pulled survivors out imprisoned following the battle, and there is some debate about whether arrows could penetrate the armor. “The force with which an arrow would have hit is huge,” she says. “I have heard someone say it could kill by concussion.” And whereas armored men could have risen under normal circumstances after falling, that would have been tougher in the mud. Many likely suffocated when other fell on top of them.

“A stage fight has to be engaging to the audience; a real fight often lacks anything resembling a narrative.”

James Hester,
University of Southampton

Another medieval battle, the 14th century Battle of Morgarten, has a similar story. There, the Swiss deployed very cheap foot soldiers, who were highly motivated to defend their own land. They ended up defeating Duke Leopold I’s superior army of Austrian knights, having capitalized on a battlefield that wasn’t open terrain. “There are a lot of stories in the 1300s and the 1400s of cheap foot soldiers defeating very expensive knights,” Forgeng says. “It’s kind of the writing on the wall in terms of where things are happening.”

History, it seems, is at odds with Hollywood and conventional wisdom, which often imagine medieval battles of fully-armored knights taking on similarly protected opponents. This misconception makes the Monty Python sketch about the Black Knight’s “flesh wounds” all the more hilarious, but it’s not how battles would have played out, according to Forgeng. He’s come to enjoy battle depictions in HBO’s Game of Thrones, the seventh season of which debuts Sunday, July 16. “The series says some interesting things about violence in culture in general and medieval culture in specific in ways that I think popular culture in the past hasn’t always done,” he says. But what of the show’s battle scenes?

For one, full suits of armor purport to be military and practical in ways that they often weren’t even in the Middle Ages, when they were romanticized instead. “If people back then had been running cost-benefit analyses on armor, they would have given it up by 1400, certainly by 1500,” he says. “The expense of producing these suits of armor was completely out of proportion to the actual outcomes of what they achieved on the field of battle.”

“They’re as much about projecting an image of oneself as a sort of chivalric ideal and about the imagination, as they are about getting a job done on the battlefield,” Forgeng continues. “You think that this object is military equipment, but that’s at best half the story. At least as important are fashion and expressions of gender identity and class identity, and construction of the self and of community.”

James Hester, a doctoral candidate studying with Curry, distinguishes between depictions of medieval equipment—a full suit of armor of which would weigh about 50 pounds—and techniques. Although depictions of medieval-era battles in shows like GoT take some liberties, their production teams have clearly done their homework. “The equipment definitely shows inspiration from period designs,” Hester says. But fighting techniques are a different story.

“Very rarely will a stage fight be an accurate recreation of a real one,” Hester says. “A stage fight has to be engaging to the audience, able to be followed and further the story. A real fight, being under no obligation to be any of these things, is often chaotic, brief and lacking anything resembling a narrative.”

Choreographers staging Hollywood fights can hope, at best, to “pepper their fight sequences with historic techniques, so as to give them more of an accurate look,” according to Hester. But they invariably create battles that last longer than real ones would have lasted. And those scenes often involve “actions that would be foolish to attempt in real life,” he says.

Knights’ armor was less about hard-nosed military strategy than propagandist posturing.

There has been success with other periods, as in depictions in 1977 film The Duellists of late-18th and early 19th century swordsmanship. “I cannot call to mind any films or series set in the Middle Ages that have attempted the same,” Hester says.

Mythology is powerful too, of course. Henry V is known more for the line that Shakespeare created for him—“Once more unto the breach”—than he is for anything he actually said, as Julius Caesar is for a line he never uttered, “Et tu, Brute?” But comparing what is historical and what is theatrical yields telling lessons.

By studying real medieval battles, Forgeng says, we can learn about the role of the military in our own culture today. Just as knights’ armor was less about hard-nosed military strategy than propagandist posturing, so too are contemporary military enterprises that purport to be about the national interest in fact about engaging in a “kind of cultural and symbolic expression,” he says. “What we think we are doing has nothing to do with what’s actually happening.”