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Man-at-arms (also called armsman or coistrel) was a medieval term for a soldier, almost always a professional.[1] It was a term relating to service as a fully armoured heavy cavalryman. It could refer to knights or noblemen, or to members of their retinues, who were well-equipped and well-trained (deriving from having men under arms—meaning to be trained in the use of arms) when serving as armoured cavalrymen. The terms knight and man-at-arms are often used interchangeably, but while all knights certainly were men-at-arms, not all men-at-arms were knights.

In England

Armour of an Early 16th century man-at-arms.
Men-at-arms at the battle of Berwick, from the "Holkam Bible picture book" (manuscript dated circ. 1327-1335)

Due to the military hierarchy of medieval Europe, and the importance of the knight in the European Feudal system, professional soldiers were of great importance and social significance. The military equipment of the time was highly expensive, and high-quality wargear such as a mail hauberk represented a huge investment. Therefore a professional soldier who wore full metal gear to battle (including a helm and coif) was a representation of wealth and status. The more well equipped men a knight had in his retinue, the better his local standing. Due to the endemic in-fighting and civil disruptions of the 12th–14th Centuries, in the Hundred Years' War and across the borderlands of Scotland and Wales, military status was incredibly important, and could assure the survival of some families.

The term man-at-arms primarily denoted a military function, rather than a social rank. The military function that a man-at-arms performed was serving as a fully armoured heavy cavalryman; though he could, and in English armies often did, also fight on foot. The man-at-arms could be a wealthy mercenary of any social origins, but more often had some level of social rank based on income, usually from land. A serjeant-at-arms, an esquire (a man wealthy enough to be a knight but who was not because he did not want the costs and responsibilities of that rank), a knight bachelor, a knight banneret and all grades of nobility usually served as men-at arms when called to war. Although the social structure of the Norman society of England was generally static, the easiest manner for a man to attain social rank and improve his standing was through military service, as the Norman states, unlike the Germanic ones, believed in knighting men of common birth who demonstrated nobility and courage on the field. Although this was rare, it was known, and therefore some non-knightly men-at-arms could advance socially to the status knights if they performed a great notable deed and received reward. The knighting of squires and men-at-arms was sometimes done in an ignoble manner, simply to increase the number of knights within an army (such practice was common during the Hundred Year's War). In chivalric theory any knight could bestow knighthood on another, however, in practice this was usually done by sovereigns and the higher nobility. It is recorded that the great mercenary captain Sir John Hawkwood knighted a number of his followers, though he could reasonably be expected to provide the income his created knights required to maintain their new status.

A knight was technically a man-at-arms, but a man-at-arms was not necessarily a knight. In this way it was understood that a person referred to merely as a "man-at-arms" was a man of the higher echelon of the military scale, but was neither of noble birth nor a knight himself. By this time, the term was only ever used to refer to professional soldiers, usually of a distinctly higher order than archers or Billmen and serving in the same tactical role as knights.

The fully armoured man-at-arms was gradually replaced in the course of the 16th century by later cavalry types, the demi-lancer and the cuirassier.

In France

Fully armoured gendarmes from the Italian Wars (mid XVIth century).

In some countries, such as France, the men-at-arms (gens d'armes) became a paramilitary with police duties.

There, a military corps having such duties was first created in 1337 and was placed under the orders of the Constable of France (connétable), and therefore named connétablie. In 1626 after the abolition of the title of connétable, it was put under the command of the Maréchal of France, and renamed Maréchaussée. Its main mission was protecting the roads from highwaymen.

The gens d'armes were originally heavy cavalry in the king's household, the equivalent of the "Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms". In 1720 the maréchaussée was subordinated to the gendarmerie; after the French Revolution the maréchaussée was abolished and the gendarmerie took over its duties in 1791.


  1. ^ Old French: gen d'armes, plural gens d'armes or gendarmerie as a collective noun.


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