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Early Warfare on Postcards:
The familiar presence of knights and castles in contemporary pop culture is a testament to the durability of the myths that surround them. Even in this day and age where warfare has become dependent on technology, it is the armored knight that remains a solid symbol of the warrior. This is at least part do to the scale of knightly combat, where the values represented in Chivalry can be understood in one to one combat. As we all become more anonymous beings in war as well as in life, there is a yearning to be recognized as an individual, and these knightly myths help fulfill these needs. Today their meaning has been watered down by pop culture that promotes the lowest denominator of recognition, but a hundred years ago on postcards knights and their castles were much more potent symbols.
Fighting men have always had two objectives, to kill and not be killed. To aid in the latter tools were employed to absorb or deflect the enemy’s blows. The most common instrument used to achieve this end was the shield, and later the soldier’s body was also covered with various protective materials. Placing armor on men was always a balancing act between protection and mobility. Carrying all this extra weight greatly added to a soldier’s fatigue, which was a serious matter considering that they might be required to engage in hand to hand combat for hours on end. Despite this drawback there was a trend to build up protective wear into full body suits of metal. The expense of such armor made it impossible to equip an entire army with it. While ordinary soldiers might be provided with some basic protection, the use of full body armor tended to be limited to nobility and those of an elite warrior class. Many of these suits have been preserved as relics and in turn were captured on postcards.
Independent armored warriors also filled the ranks of armies when necessary. First sponsored by noblemen, they eventually grew into a mercenary class in their own right. By the 14th century they often roamed the countryside as Free Companies for hire, dispensing their will through the sword to friend and foe alike. While many of these warriors wore armor they should not be confused with knights even if they were indistinguishable by sight. By the year 1000, knights were clearly moving from being classified as pure warriors to being defined by their social status. Knighthood implied membership in an elite social class and increasingly by the values they held.
The presence of so many knights in Europe was problematic for they were killers by trade. Their lifestyle put them in direct conflict with the pacifist values of the Christian Church who they often served. A compromise seemed impossible for the role of each was inherently at odds with the other. Eventually this situation had to be resolved, and a code was developed that justified their violence by assigning it to the service of the Church. As long as their actions were aimed at defending the faith, their means would be overlooked. Now both could continue on just as before, only in good conscience.
It did not take long for the Church to lose control over the situation as this code began to evolve into something that more closely suited the naturally dangerous lifestyle of the knight. While they were expected to support justice and the oppressed, this often came into conflict with their growing military role, especially after the first call for the Crusades in 1095. Knights who became defenders of the cross and went off to war became an elite class (crucesignati), and the informal set of principals that guided them came to be known as Chivalry. While glory and honor were now sanctified through war, the idea of becoming closer to God through self sacrifice became ingrained in Western thought. These ideals knew no territorial boundaries. While instructive manuals differed enough to show that no one specific code held sway over time, the basic purpose of chivalry always remained the same. War was no longer sinful if fought for a just cause; it could even become one’s duty to fight. The effects of accommodating violence into the dominating Christian religion cannot be underestimated.
There are many variations to the story of St. George and the Dragon, but the most common is that made popular through the Legenda Aurea in the 13th century. In this version a princess about to be sacrificed to a dragon who lives in a lake to prevent him from terrorizing the land is saved by a passing knight who slays him. By this time dragons had come to represent chaos and evil and were seen as the natural enemy of mankind. The only defense against these monsters was to be a good Christian, and this could be proven through their slaying. This story becomes the allegory for the Christian soldier whose duty is to fight against evil. It is not by chance that this story of St. George became popular during the Crusades for it supports the rational behind this conflict. The myth’s continual importance to Western culture can be seen not just through the repetition of this narrative on postcards, but in the application of it to modern wars on propaganda cards.
The first known tournaments of arms took place in France around 1100, from where the practice spread to the rest of Europe. We best recognize these events through the competitive act of jousting, where two fully armored knights on large steeds and armed with a lances would engage in one on one combat. Though jousting fought with blunt weapons was more sport than real combat, it provided knights with a leaning experience when pitted against an uncommon foe. This soon developed into a popular public spectacle that continued into the 16th century long after this type of fighting was made obsolete by more modern weapons. This was in large part due to its ability to elevate social status based on performance in the field.
Jousting by its very nature was always a dangerous practice, many were inadvertently maimed or killed during tournaments. The Church, who would have preferred to see all this violence directed against ungodly Muslims, considered such a death the sin of suicide. This problem was slowly reconciled when Christian virtues were incorporated into tournaments but the tension never fully dissipated. Jousting has since acquired a mythological standing that has entered popular culture. It now inseparable from our perception of knights and their times.
While combat between individual mounted knights is how tournaments are best remembered today, these events often involved large groups of men fighting on foot in a melee. Knights often supported one another in tactical units (conrois), and although fighting on horseback had its advantages, it didnŐt apply to many real situations. There are old illustrations depicting such events for postcards to draw on, but they were referenced infrequently. Imagery of jousting knights on horseback better fit into the romantic stories and legends that followed, and the lowly foot soldier was largely forgotten. It is the mounted knight that has come down to us through myth to become the archetype of the warrior.
By the 14th century much of the original order that had governed knights had broken down and bands of armed men roaming the countryside with little to occupy them was causing great harm to civil society. When not acting as mercenaries they often formed companies that pillaged the countryside with loyalty to no one. Despite the fear these highwaymen inspired, the romanticism that had developed around them and their principals of chivalry continued to grow, and the knight errant became the subject of many songs and tales. Early epics such as The Song of Roland and Song of My Cid were later built upon with Arthurian romances such as Yvain, Parzival, and Le Mort d’Arthur, which all achieved the status of great Western literature. None of these stories were based on true realities of medieval life or King Arthur himself since little is actually known of him. Instead we are presented with situations of universal appeal that kept these tales alive for centuries.
The epic writing of Arthurian Romances would decline in popularity with the knight’s fortunes on the battlefield. New methods of warfare that stressed large formations of common men were eroding the relevance of the individual warrior. By the turn of the 17th century not only was this manner of combat outdated, the notions of chivalry that accompanied the knight also seemed out of touch. This can be seen in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, where the knight is still portrayed as an idealist, but he is mocked for believing in fighting for what is right in a corrupt world. Here Chivalry is no longer portrayed in a glorified fashion but seen as delusional.
While the attitudes expressed in Don Quixote might be close to 17th century reality, the decline of the knight did not put a complete end to the genre in popular culture. Certain aspects of the knight, the maiden, and chivalry had become so ingrained in society through myth that archetypal references could be evoked through simple signs without the need of a specific story line. This type of anonymous expression is probably as common on postcards as direct reference to literary or historical subjects.
There was a revived interest in Arthurian stories with the growth of the Romantic Movement, and by the 19th century there was not only new literature in this vein such as Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the theme was picked up by romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painters who increased the visual vocabulary. The success of these works was only possible in a social environment where the popularity of chivalric ideals were far from extinguished. Even if now separated from military practicality, Chivalry was a part of the social fabric of the Western World onto which its most basic attitudes toward violence were shaped. Some like Mark Twain who penned, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889 could see the folly in this manner of thinking, but he changed few minds with his insights. The dominant romantic portrayal helped create a naivety about warfare that was prevalent in the late 19th century up to the First World War that colored most depictions of it. It is through the myth of chivalry that the knight was viewed when postcards came into production. Even though these ideals led to devastating consequences during World War One, they continue to be found to some extent in today’s military, still propped up by popular culture ranging from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to the Jedi Knights in Star Wars films.
Johanna Kinkel was the founder of the Ladybug Society (Maikaferbund), a literary circle that criticized the German bourgeois through satire, and she took over editorship of the pro-democratic newspaper New Bonner Zeitung after the 1848 revolution. While no radical she was labeled a revolutionary and a emancipate woman; and she was forced to flee to London after breaking her husband out of prison where he was incarcerated for political crimes. Once the German empire was founded the qualities that made her an outcast in her own time turned her into a national hero. Although her poetry and music would come to be celebrated on postcards well after her death, they were seen by this time as part of a greater national myth. Her work is not references to the struggle of 1848 but is tied to medieval romance, which shows how widely these symbols had come to be accepted in popular culture.
The newness of the German Empire in the mid-19th century separated it from many of its older powerful neighbors. There was a long history of the Germanic people people to draw on when forming a national myth but it was not like that of Great Britain or France who had centuries of recorded historical narrative. Historical interpretation in Germany began to rely a great deal on mythology, which spoke to the current needs of the people more than scholarship. Myth was drawn into the national identity supported by popular culture. Postcards came to not only reflect the ideals myth supported, they also reinforced them by their sheer volume. By World War One the numbers of cards dealing with medieval themes increase because the mythology they espouse worked to unite a diverse people into one nation. Postcards also enhanced the perception that Germans were different from their neighbors, which made it easier to go to war.
Interest in the Middle ages did not just extent to literature but to the authors as well. Far too often recorded details of their lives are incomplete, but notable figures like Walther von der Vogelweide did receive recognition on postcards. While he can be considered a love poet, his writings also showed concern over moral virtues and living a balanced life situated between public and personal duty. In his more religious poems he called for men to meet their obligation to God by engaging in warlike activities like the Crusades. The same idea was promoted on propaganda cards from World War One that that called on men to make a sacrifice for their their king and country.
While much great medieval literature revolving around chivalry and the knights are now known throughout the world, there are many local tales that generally remained confined to a particular region. This local lore was sometimes represented on tourist oriented postcards. It was a method of making a card unique enough to stand out against a wide selection of view-cards depicting castles and ruins.
The figure of the knight has since become an archetype representing not only the brave warrior but one who carries the virtues of chivalry, even if they are not well defined. He is sometimes used as a symbolic substitute for a more modern soldier, though more likely in countries where the medieval knight was historically active. This type of symbolism is always more potent when it can be tied to one’s own cultural heritage. While knights of different periods and different cultures were often very different in appearance, it is the full armored suit typically found in 14th century Western Europe that has become the stereotype. This type of symbolism was most prevalent on propaganda postcards published during World War One. Depictions of knights have probably been used more for their symbolic value in contemporary warfare than in representations of historical events.
Although the 13th century Mongol invasion of the lands of the Kievian Rus had a great affect on the development of Eastern Europe, this history was rendered into little more than a footnote when postcards began being produced largely because of a bias of seeing Asians as an inferior people. Even if ignored by historians this period provided a popular backdrop to folktales in which the knight would find a strong presence and become ingrained into local culture.
Eastern knights tended not to wear the stereotypical full body-armored suits of the Western model but were more simply helmeted and clad in shirts of heavy chain mail. This type of body armor was made of thousands of small metal rings, each linked to four others in rows. They helped to protect against the blows of swords and blunt weapons, but it was less effective against pointed weapons like pikes and arrows. Polish heavy cavalry that once wore breastplates adorned with eagle feathers continued to wear chain mail into the 17th century long after it fell out of use in the West. Images of these armored warriors exist on numerous artist signed postcards that mostly illustrate fairy tales, and are a perfect example of how military cards were often more important in reinforcing national myths than depicting historical truths.
Ivan Bilibin, a prolific Russian illustrator used the archetype of the knight in much of his work. Many of his images were reproduced as charity cards for the Commune of Saint Eugenia in the early 20th century. Their popularity did not diminish over time, and much of his work continued to be reprinted on continental sized cards during the Soviet era.
Historical pageantry reenacting important episodes of a nation’s past were especially numerous after the turn of the 20th century until the outbreak of the First World War. They were an attempt to tie the past to the present in order to strengthen the belief in particular values. By providing context, a society could better understand what was expected of them. In Europe this often took the form of medieval pageants where the romance surrounding knights could be seen in concrete form. Numerous postcards of the time cover these events from artist drawn announcements to photo-based scenes from actual events. Many real photo cards capture these events as well. While most of these cards are rather benign representations of parades and actors posing costume, some depict reenactments of combat.
While not ordinarily thought of as military cards, there are countless European view-cards from all nations that depict the relics of fortifications. Though many of these are ancient, their most common form of representation is that of castles, which are privately built fortifications that began to appear around the 10th century. Common to the Levant, they greatly inspired the Crusaders who copied and improved upon their own designs back in Europe. Though we often imagine them today standing on some remote hilltop, they were most often built in or adjacent to towns. This was not to offer protection to the townsfolk but to serve as an administrative center from which the lords authority could be imposed. Kings carefully tried to control the building of castles by lesser lords fearing they might become centers of resistance, but these attempts were rarely completely successful.
Castles tend to be characterized by their tall stone walls that not only made them difficult to assail but made anything dropped from their height potentially more deadly. Towers often added to this height and extended beyond walls so that more firepower could be brought to bare on an enemy’s flank as they approached. As time went on their designs were refined further to incorporate many new architectural features that would aid in killing. While the castle itself serves as a defensive structure, its placement was often part of offensive warfare. As one kingdom seized land from another, the construction of a castle was used to control the acquisition. Often an entire series of castles were built to define and secure a newly acquired border.
None of the traditional methods of assailing wooden forts applied to these new high walled moated stone structures. The only way to capture one was to send an army over its walls on ladders, but this was a costly move and would probably not succeed if the castle was well defended. Usually the defenses had to be surrounded in a siege. Sometimes it just came down to a waiting game, but this could be very long lasting years if the defenders had adequate supplies of food and water. By the 12th century the trebuchet (a counterweight throwing engine) was developed that could hurl a large stone over a good distance with great damaging effect to stone walls. With successive strikes the wall would crumble and an army could more easily attack through the breach. By the 14th century large wooden canon that hurled round stones became the siege engine of choice. Advances in technology would turn the advantage between attack and defense back and forth over the centuries.
As the usefulness of tall defenses became more evident, the military features that once went into the design of castles now went into fortifying entire towns and cities. A castle would still be part of a noble families defense, but they now formed only part of a larger complex of walls, gates, and strongpoints. No King alone could build these fortifications in the size they were needed. Those that ringed towns were built through the long continual efforts of that entire community.
As time went on many walled communities expanded far beyond their walls. At first this might not have been a problem for refuge could still be sought inside, but eventually there might be more people living outside than within rendering the fortifications nearly useless. In these cases the old walls might actually be disruptive to the flow of traffic and they would have to be raised. Where they continue to exist, they have often become tourist attractions and as such they can be found on view-cards.
To have a wall means you must have a gate. By their very nature a gate is the weakest link in a fortification so it was usually surrounded by towers and other defensive mechanisms. Being an entranceway, their design was often meant to impress as much as intimidate, and many of these gateways were quite beautiful. Very often when ancient walls were torn down, gateways remained because they had come to symbolize the town. While postcards of fortified cities are not common, images of gateways abound. Many of those that survived the Middle Ages were destroyed in the wars of the 20th century. While most are gone forever, a number of these structures have been painstakingly restored; an effort that demonstrates just how strong a communities cultural ties can be to them.
Castles were not only purposeful in war, they were also reflections on the wealth and power of those who built them. Thus by the 13th century they had grown very large and sometimes ornate. As larger walled projects took over the role of defense, castles began growing more oriented toward the comfort of the lord who made it his home. These structures might still offer some protection against risings of local peasants but they could no longer stand up to an army ready to invest them. Eventually they evolved into what we now call mansions, though they often retained the traditional castle name.
Castles constructed with highly decorative elements were also popular subjects for postcards because this tempered there violent function and made them seem more fanciful and reminiscent of fairy tales. By the turn of the 20th century the castle had been so romanticized by Arthurian tales, and children’s storybooks that their more ugly association with war could be largely overlooked. This in itself was a grand accomplishment considering that their vast numbers are testimony to Europe’s very violent past. We are now so far removed from their practical purpose that our first thoughts of them do not necessarily go to their historic role in warfare.
One of the most popular castles to find its way onto postcards was Neuschwanstein (Swan on the Rock), begun in 1869 by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Though the high Alpine crag it was situated upon made for a great defense, its positioning was more for the sake of drama. Ludwig did not need a fortress; he wanted to rival the artistry of the chateaus he saw while visiting France. What we see here is how the strength of a romantic ideal kept the need for castles alive after their practical military function had ended.
Many old castles destroyed in war were never rebuilt, and others just succumbed to age. Perhaps once picked over for building material, they attained a new purpose with the birth of Romanticism. Their romantic appeal was now often enhanced by their dramatic hard to reach locations, once chosen to aid in defense but now appreciated as awe inspiring scenery. Their appeal was in their warlike nature but not one revealed by history. Fueled by gothic romances, some castles could become a fantasy of a different sort, drawn from our darker nature. These sites would become prime tourist destinations and thus a popular subject for postcards.
While many old castles have been preserved for their historic value, others have simply been repurposed to function in the modern world. This is most common where they sit within the boundaries of large cities. There they now serve as art museums, libraries, universities, office space, and apartments. Their link to warfare is never completely forgotten but it rarely sits on the forefront of perception.
As weapons grew obsolete, the old armories and guardrooms within castles often took on other uses. The old weapons themselves were often melted down when needed to produce more modern weapons. Those that remained often became both objects of curiosity to preserve and collect. Through their depiction on postcards, displays of arms basically serve as a reminder of the military tradition that castles were once part of. The manner in which arms are displayed can also speak to how this tradition is carried forward and honored. These large displays found in museums, mansions, and arsenals usually served as a monument to past glories.
The image of the castle has been so engrained into western society that they were often built far from their historic origins in both place and purpose. The idea is to convey the myth, not the function. The style was often used in conjunction with arsenals to project the semblance of security. Since many of their battlements no longer serve practical purposes, they could easily be exaggerated into fantasy while still holding on to a military tradition.
With the symbolism of castles firmly engrained into society, their use could be extended beyond that of architecture. In this American parade in Panama a makeshift castle has been placed on a truck to become a police and fire department parade float. Though the type of structure pictured has no relevance to the traditions of either the United States or Panama, the older references carried over from Europe through mythology enable it to function as a symbol of strength.
From modern literature and childrenŐs stories the castle has also achieved a new mythical status divorced from the brutality of warfare. It still existents in the realm of kings and knights but has been sanitized into a fantasy often safe enough for the pleasure of small children. Castles now decorate our amusement parks, and can be found on view-cards illustrating everything from playgrounds to fast food eateries.
Bushi and Samurai
While a number of nonwestern cultures have had their own version of the knight or warrior class, it is rare to see any depictions of them on old postcards except as the victims of imperialist power. Representations of a strong warrior would have clashed with the stereotype of the weak foreigner that was long in the making. This presentation would later come to haunt colonial powers when they became dependent on foreign soldiers to fight their wars. They then had to be presented as strong enough to defeat an enemy but not too fierce to be a threat to friendly Whites. The major exception to this dilemma were the cards that depict the traditional warriors of Japan. They exist solely because Japan had its own strong independent printing industry at the turn of the 20th century, and a local customer base to support it. While Japanese publishers were able to create cards that satisfied Japanese sensibilities while ignoring Western concerns over content, they had become more acceptable to Western eyes as they accepted Western values and customs into their society. These attitudes would later shift with political agendas.
The bushi were the warrior class of Japan that began to make a significant appearance in the late-8th century. They served the Kyoto aristocracy through a network of clan relationships until their leadership grew fractured. This led to conflict, and after the Gempi War of 1180 the military restored order by seizing power under the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo. At first the shoguns and the civil government worked together to rule Japan, but by the 14th century this relationship evolved into full military control with the bushi at the top of the social caste. As clan relationships diminished, loyalty was redirected toward the shogun. In their new subservient role to these lords, the bushi came to be called samurai. The philosophy known as Bushido (The Way of the Warrior) that formed around them eventually became the code that ruled their behavior. This included Confucian concepts of honor and loyalty that were reinforced by Zen teachings.
Samurai fought mounted as well as on foot; usually wearing armor made of bound scales of leather or iron. Cavalry tactics reigned supreme for about one hundred years until the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Here soldiers with firearms positioned behind wooden stockades decisively defeated charging cavalry. As the use of gunpowder began to dominate warfare in the 16th century, the samurai’s traditional leather armor began to be replaced with metal plating. The bow, which had been their primary weapon also began to fade away, but they kept their traditional long sword (Katana). As these swords came to represent their social class, they became prized personal possessions and began taking on a mythology of their own.
By the early 18th century, the lack of warfare had caused many samurai to pursue interests in other fields. After Admiral Perry opened Japan to the West in 1854 this change quickly accelerated. The samurai, unhappy with growing western influence that threatened their position, overthrew the shogun during the Boshin War of 1868, and installed Emperor Meiji in Tokyo to rule over Japan. Despite this change their relevance continued to decrease, and in 1873 the emperor established a modern Western styled army of conscripts for defense. This caused the samurai to rise up again in 1877, but their caste was eliminated when defeated in the Satsuma Rebellion.
Though eliminated as a caste in the late-19th century, these former samurai warriors continued to live on into the 20th century’s golden age of postcards. It is a rare example of ancient warfare touching modern times. The mythology that surrounded the samurai had already been set into Japanese culture for centuries, and with so many around with a living memory of them, they continued to have a strong influence over Japanese society and the new forms of art they produced. Postcards not only reproduced samurai from old woodblock prints, actors portraying samurai in film also became the subject of real photo cards. Samurai remain a staple of popular culture.
Military postcards produced in Japan from the Russo-Japanese War through World War Two often display their modern uniformed officers with a traditional samurai sword in hand. It was not uncommon for the most romanticized elements of military culture to continue on after their usefulness in warfare was eliminated. These samurai warriors were similar in many ways to the Western knight with his Christian based code of chivalry, and as such Westerners found this archetypal figure easy to relate to. Even in the West many officers continued to carry swords as a status symbol rather than a weapon. These similarities not only expanded the audience for this subject on postcards, it would influence Western culture as well where the myth of the samurai remains strong to this day.