Human society is never free from conflict. Every society in every place and time, therefore, needs warriors to resolve conflicts and wars effectively by using their courage and fighting skills and to provide a living example based on compassion, discipline, and self-development in accordance with the code of ethics they adhere to. The samurai and knight were two elite warriors serving during the middle ages Having high skills in martial arts, they were highly respected for their honor, courage, helpfulness, and dedication to serving their respective lord, and protecting their country. Despite their similarities in various traits, the samurai and knight were different in origins, training, armor, and code of conduct.
The Samurai arose in the 7th century when Japan implemented a feudal system. To secure their riches, the landowners (daimyos) recruited the samurai. The first samurai were peasants who got long training and became a highly skilled warrior class. Most samurai working for a daimyo were the lord’s relatives. To empower them, some samurai were hired from outside of the clan. When the hired samurai were not in service, they would return to their lands to till the soil. In mid-1870 the samurai class was outlawed as the Meiji restoration aimed to modernize Japan, including its army.
Though the first samurai were originated from peasants, they soon rose to power and formed a special social class, i.e., military nobility and officer caste. The caste was hereditary as children born into samurai families since their childhood, were supposed to go to a Ryu (school/lineage) to get a samurai warrior rigorous training. The training uniquely combined physical training, Kendo ("the Way of the Sword"), the moral code of the samurai called Bushido ("The Way of the Warrior"), spiritual discipline, i.e., Zen Buddhism. Chinese studies, and poetry. Girls also received martial arts training. Although most samurai women were mainly assigned to defend their homes against invaders, not to fight on the battlefield.
The traditional suits of samurai armor consist of the kabuto (helmet), the mengu (face armor mask), the dou (the torso armor), the kusazari (armor for the legs), the kote and kogake (for the arms), and the katana swords, bow, and arrow. The kabuto was decorated on top with horns, which, together with the mengu decorating with a bristling mustache, was designed to strike fear into the enemy. The samurai armors had many variations and ornaments as each clan used to create a unique identity using color and ornaments on its armors. But these armors were generally made of leather, and later iron scales or plates tied together, decorated with different designs of silk laced cords. All of these elements were relatively light and were principally designed for protection and mobility as well. Since the Samurai were supposed to be skillful in fighting from horseback and on the ground, they also rode a horse, and only the samurai were allowed to ride horses in battle.
The samurai were obliged to lead their lives according to bushido, an unwritten strict code of honor and morals. Strongly Confucian, the bushido code stressed a combination of loyalty to one's master, honor until death, martial arts mastery, sincerity, self-discipline, frugality, respectful ethical behavior, and compassion towards others. Since they firmly held total loyalty and honor until death, they accept death in serving their master a valiant end and committing seppuku or hara-kiri (method of taking one's own life) rather than facing defeat or humiliation at the hand of their enemy as an honor.
Although the European knights emerged in the same social system and period (i.e. feudalism in the medieval era) like their counterparts in Japan, they originated from the highly skilled ancient world cavalry armored forces and officers—not from peasants. Since the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Western Europe became a feudal society and landlords hired knights to protect their palace and territory from neighboring lords, bandits, and sea raiders. Knights were hired because they were the most effective type of warriors at the time. Different from daimyos who first recruited samurai from their relatives, European lords could not recruit relatives because they usually equated to nobles, a class higher than knights. By the end of the 16th century, European countries began creating professional armies that were cheaper, quicker to train, and easier to mobilize. Consequently, knights became obsolete and disappeared.
Different from the samurai caste which was hereditary, knighthood was not inherited. Though the sons of knights might have a privilege to get military training and opportunities to be a knight, it was a military qualification someone had to earn himself. To be a knight, one should spend about 14 years training. Unlike the samurai candidates who got training a special school (Ryu), knight-candidates was trained in a castle of a lord where he learned riding, war skills, and sports (hunting, hawking) from the knight. He was also taught comportment, courtesy, cleanliness, music, and dancing by the ladies in the castle, and learned lessons in religion from the chaplain. When he was judged ready (generally between the ages of 18 and 21) he was knighted in a religious ceremony in which had to swear to the knightly code called chivalry.
In terms of armors, it is obvious that the knights' armors which were mainly made of metal were much heavier than the samurai's. Knights had two types of armor: chain mail and plate. Chain mail was made from thousands of metal rings designed to build a long cloak called a hauberk. A chain mail hauberk could weigh as much as 13 kilograms. To help cushion the armor weight, it was covered with a padded cloak underneath. The Chain mail was flexible and offered good protection, but it could still be pierced by an arrow or thin sword. Thus, by the 1400s the second type called plate armor was created. It offered better protection but less flexible and heavier than chain mail. A full set of plate armor, including the helmet, rerebrace (for upper arms), breastplate (to protect chase), pauldron (for shoulders) vambrace (for lower arms), gauntlets (for hands), cuisses (for thighs), poleyns (for knees), sabatons (for feet), and greaves (for ankles and calves) weighed more than 25 kilograms. The main weapons of a knight were a sword, a lance, a mace, and a longbow (particularly used in battles or for hunting). Like the samurai, a horse was also a part of a knight’s weaponry. The horse was also armored for protection by using metal plates to cover its neck, head, and sides.
The knights’ code of conduct was called chivalry which obliged the warriors to "protect the weak, defenseless, and helpless, and fight for the general welfare of all" (Moulik, 2020) unconditionally. Chivalry was based on a combination of military ideals, Christian values, and etiquette. It required knights to be bold, gallant, loyal to their feudal or military superiors, preserve their personal honor, generous to a fallen foe, reverent to God, protect the weak and the poor, and respect women. Different from the samurai who committed suicide to maintain their honor, Christian law, one of the bases of chivalry, bound knights against suicide and strove to avoid death.
The samurai and knights were two highly respected warrior groups that played an important role in the same social system taking place in the same era but two different continents. Although they had some similar traits, they were different in terms of origins, training, armor, and code of conduct. The samurai originated from peasants, while knights were from the highly skilled ancient world cavalry armored forces and officers. The samurai was hereditary and children of the samurai were trained since childhood in a Ryu that uniquely combined physical, social, moral, and spiritual training. Knighthood was not hereditary. To be a knight, a child go through a long training in a castle of a lord. The training covered riding, war skills, sports, comportment, courtesy, cleanliness, arts, and lessons in Christianity. In terms of armor, the samurai’s outfits were much lighter than the knights because the former’s armor was mainly made of leather, while the latter’s armors were made of metal. The samurai lead their lives according to bushido which stressed loyalty to one's master, honor until death, sincerity, self-discipline, frugality, respectful ethical behavior, and compassion towards others; but the knights’ code of conduct was chivalry which required knights to be bold, gallant, loyal, preserve their personal honor, generous to a fallen foe, reverent to God, protect the weak and respect women. All of these differences are essentially caused by the two different cultures in which they lived.
Moulik, A. (2020). Rogues Among the Ruins. Niyogi Books
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