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During the feudal age in Europe there were some kind of hierarchy among nobles, for example, a small lord provided military service to a larger lord, which did the same to a yet larger lord, etc. which at the end might serve a monarch such as a king.

Whose colors or coat-of-arms were worn by men-at-arms in a battle, for example in the shields, surcoat or armors? Did they wear the colors of their immediate lord? How could armies distinguishes friend or foe if there were hundreds of coat-of-arms?

Or did they use the colors of their monarch or the army? In this case how would the men of different lords be distinguished? And how easy were changing these when the political situation changed, e.g. serving different army, feud between lords under the same monarch?

The time and place I'm looking at is mid 14th century in Western Europe, during the beginning of the Hundred Years' War.

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3 Answers 3

Ordinary soldiers did not wear emblems or colors. Units had pennants or flags. Knights might have an emblem, but that would normally be the house of the knight, not anyone else. Here is a picture illustrating a battle from the 100 Years War. As you can see they use flags and pennants:

Battle of Auray, 1364

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The knight's emblem -- would that be so he can be identified in death (I suppose by whoever wins, to identify "score" by the enemy or to identify who's dead by his own side)? –  Mac Cooper Jun 9 '14 at 11:44
Are we talking about knights or soldiers? Those are two totally different things. Random soldiers were lucky if they could afford shoes. Nobody could read. Things were a lot different then. Its not like WW2 where guys are running around with dog tags on. –  Tyler Durden Jun 9 '14 at 12:26
The knights... I'm not sure I understand, I did say "the knight's emblem". –  Mac Cooper Jun 9 '14 at 13:42
The title of the post says "men-at-arms", not knights. –  Tyler Durden Jun 9 '14 at 14:13
Wow that sounded angry, sorry about that! I'm revising at the same time as browsing and wrote that out superfast to explain and didn't take the time to proof read, so it kinda looks like I'm having a go and I was only explaining the thought process. So it wasn't an angry comment, honest :) –  Mac Cooper Jun 9 '14 at 15:55

The following quotes, from English Medieval Knight 1400-1500 By Christopher Gravett on Google Books, states that retained Men-At-Arms would have worn their lords colours.

Great lords employed knights and men-at-arms in private retinues, indeed sometimes so many that they formed private armies. Under this system of ‘livery and maintenance’, the retainers wore their lord’s coat with his livery colours, usually the two principal colours from his coat of arms, and they were maintained at his expense.

It is worth mentioning that a Knight that was the retainer of one lord could have their own retainers.

The Black Book of Edward IV gives the following guide to the maximum number of retainers allowed by various ranks of noblemen:

King: 600 Viscount: 80

Duke: 240 Baron: 40

Marquis: 200 Knight: 16

Earl: 140

The book also states that a Lord would ask his retainers to supply men (in the form of men at arms and archers) for an army. That Lord, would then ask the same of his retainers who would in turn gather their retainers - presumably this chain would continue downwards until the required number of men had been gathered.

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So very sorry Your Majesty, but it seems that 602 people showed up for your levy, and you're only allowed 600. Awful lot of bother, but we can either kill off two of your retainers, or bump you up to an Emperor... Nope, nope, that won't work, The Black Book doesn't have an entry for Emperor. Would you consider splitting the kingdom in half? two kings with 301? no, I can see why not. We could send two men home, but they'd still be your retainers, even if they're not here. Tell you what - why don't we have four of them fight to the death? All nice and legal.... –  Mark C. Wallace Jun 9 '14 at 12:39
Yeah, I have no idea how the author stated those numbers, just thought I'd post them for interest - they are found in the book I linked to. I didn't expect that level of withering sarcasm. –  Kobunite Jun 9 '14 at 12:44
The numbers are fascinating. I'm just always amused, both by legalism throughout the ages, and by our (by which I mean my) habit of assuming that the legalism was implemented. Quotes like that remind us that although the past is an alien country, we would recognize many of the inhabitants. –  Mark C. Wallace Jun 9 '14 at 13:11
Just for the record, no "withering" was intended. I was hoping for dry irony, not sarcasm. –  Mark C. Wallace Jun 9 '14 at 13:11
Fair enough. :-) You are right though - that kind of thing is really interesting, especially when you come across issues of enforcement... –  Kobunite Jun 9 '14 at 13:30

Englishmen, as well as their Gascon allies wore the red St George's cross stitched over; front and back so as to distinguish each other. Anyone found 'posing' with one who wasn't one of them scored a death sentence. It was an ordinance given by Richard II that every member of the army, lord and archer must wear it over their armour/clothing.

Sources: Hundred Years War, Volume 3 by Johnathan Sumption

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