Lanza Gineta: Spanish Light Cavalry of the Early Italian Wars

The article that follows is Part 1 of an analysis of the armies that contended in Italy during the initial phase (1494-1504) of the long Italian Wars. This included two French invasions, the first opposed largely (and ineffectively) by the Italian states themselves and culminating in the Battle of Fornovo (1495), and the second wrecked in Naples by Gonzalo de Cordoba, Spain's "Great Captain." Gonzalo's victories at Cerignola and on the Garigliano (both in 1503) were battles of annihilation that cemented his reputation as one of history's greatest soldiers and marked the beginning of a century of Spanish military dominance in Europe.

Gonzalo's first Italian expeditionary force, which was defeated at Seminara I (1495), had much in common with the essentially medieval armies of the reconquista. The second, however, was reorganized by Gonzalo taking into account the lessons of Seminara and became the progenitor of the decidedly modern armies that established and maintained Spanish hegemony in Europe and in many regions overseas during the 16th century.

An important part of the Spanish army at this time was the light cavalry, arguably the finest body of light horse in the world. This article examines Gonzalo's light cavalry: the jinetes and arqueros.


The Spanish word jinete means horseman or rider, but during the period of the reconquista and the Italian Wars it referred also to the highly skilled Spanish light cavalrymen who troubled the French so much in the "small war" that was the basis of Gonzalo's strategy.

The jinetes (also called "genitors") originated during the period of the reconquest as the Spanish counter to the excellent light cavalry of the Moors. They were, in fact, near duplicates of their Moorish adversaries, having adopted Moorish arms and tactics. Sir Charles Oman (1924; 2: 180) dates their emergence to the mid-14th century and states that they took their name from the "jennets" or light coursers that they rode.

Their appearance and primary battlefield role is documented by a near-contemporary painting of the battle of "La Higueruela" (1431), which hangs in the Escorial Palace. La Higueruela was a victory of King John II of Castile over Mohamed, King of Grenada. The painting is accessible at second-hand through reproductions in Oman (ibid., 2: facing p. 180) and Sotto (in color, facing p. 144). It shows jinetes engaged in a lively skirmish with Moorish light horse, while the heavy cavalry and infantry of the opposing armies stand by, awaiting commitment.

Detail from the fresco painting of the Battle of La Higueruela in the Sala de Batallas of the Monastery of El Escorial, Madrid, showing Christian and Moorish jinetes in combat. The fresco, which is about 60 yards long, was completed in 1587, having been copied from an earlier 15th century fresco in the Alhambra, Seville.

The jinetes of the painting wear mail hauberks with bascinets, cuirasses, and plate shoulder, elbow, and knee guards. They were thus relatively heavily armored and appear to have had the advantage of their Moorish adversaries in this respect. The amount of armor protection belies the classification of the jinetes as light cavalry, but it must be remembered that, in this period, any horseman with less armor protection than a man-at-arms was considered a "light cavalryman." In addition to body armor each jinete carried a large round or Moorish-style heart-shaped shield.

The weapons of the jinetes shown in the painting are the light lance, called by the Spanish the lanza gineta, which could be used either for thrusting or throwing, and the sword. We know also from other sources that they could be armed with javelins and darts. Oman notes that a Portuguese knight was killed at Aljubarotta (1385) by a dart thrown by a jinete that "pierced right through his body."

This statement is undoubtedly derived from the Chronicles of Froissart in which the Duke of Lancaster is quoted as saying:

By my faith, of all the arms the Castilians and your countrymen make and use, I love the dart best, and love to see it used; they are very expert at it; and I tell you, whoever they hit with it, he must indeed be strongly armed, if he be not pierced through and through.
To which the duke's squire replied:
You say truly, for I saw more bodies transfixed at these assaults than I ever saw before in all my life. We lost one whom we much regretted, Senhor Joao Lourenço da Cunha, who was struck by a dart that pierced through his plates and his coat of mail and a gambeson stuffed with silk, and his whole body, so that he fell to the ground.
These darts, or assegais, were noted as being a common weapon among the Castilians. Reference to contemporary illustrations and the illustrated later work of Tapia (see Bibliography) show that the assegais and lances of the jinetes could be wielded with one or two hands and that those thrown and lying on the ground could be recovered by the mounted jinete leaning from his horse. These skills were easily transferable to sport, particularly the hunt, and to the bull-ring.

The jinetes were consummate horsemen who rode sprightly bob-tailed horses, jockey style, that is, using very short stirrups. Bayard's Loyal Serviteur, 129ff., described this as riding à la geneta, "that is to say...as do the Moors." Their riding skills were complemented by their skills with their weapons and their tactical prowess. Typically, they employed "Moorish tactics," skirmishing with enemy light cavalry and harrying formed troops by feigned charges, false retreats, and a great deal of dashing to and fro. A squadron of heavy horse or an infantry unit weak in missile weapons that was beleaguered by a swarm of jinetes was in a most unenviable position, especially if it abandoned its formation to strike out at or pursue its tormentors. The jinetes were so agile and proficient in the use of their weapons that they could easily overcome individual men-at-arms or small, disordered groups of horse or foot. They could, of course, be checked or driven off by comparably skilled light horse--like the Venetian stradiots – but the French in Naples possessed no light horse capable of dealing with them and suffered severely as a result.

Infantry, provided it maintained order and cohesion and could keep the horsemen at a distance with firepower, had little to fear from the jinetes.

The tactics employed by the jinetes at Seminara I during Gonzalo's first campaign in Naples were typical. The jinetes attacked a strong body of French gendarmes that was reordering, having passed a stream. In the usual fashion the jinetes charged in, let fly their javelins, and then suddenly wheeled in feigned retreat--intending, of course, to return to the fray if their impetuous enemy followed. The Calabrian militia of Gonzalo's Neapolitan ally, King Ferdinand, tragically misunderstood the tactic and, imagining the Spanish horse defeated, bolted the field en masse. Gonzalo was left to shift for himself, but there was no French pursuit, and the Spanish retreat (and Neapolitan rout) was covered by the jinetes.

The versatility of the jinetes was the key to Gonzalo's Fabian strategy in Naples. They controlled the countryside, harrying enemy detachments, collecting intelligence, and gathering forage. At the Siege of Atella (1496) Montpensier's army was penned up by the activity of the jinetes and the Venetian stradiots acting in tandem, blockaded, and starved into surrender. The victory, achieved without a major field action, was Gonzalo's first in Italy. Likewise, in the "small war" about Barletta, the jinetes were masters of the countryside, making a mockery of the French blockade. And, when Nemours marched to Cerignola, parties of jinetes hovered about his line of march, delaying him long enough to allow Gonzalo to complete his preparations for the battle.

It is no exaggeration to state that the jinetes were indispensable to Gonzalo in Naples. Considering the array of troop types, the Spanish were truly superior to the French in only one category and that was light cavalry. The jinetes gave Gonzalo capabilities that the French could not match, and he was wise enough to exploit these advantages to the fullest.

Jinetes constituted 38% of the Spanish horse at Cerignola (550 of 1,450), and 8% of the entire army (550 of 6,950). In the force organized for the second Naples expedition (1500), they were 50% of the cavalry (300 of 600) and 8% of the total. At Seminara I the jinetes were approximately 40% of the Spanish horse (400 of 1,000). In the army that confronted the French in Perpignan in 1503 there were 4,500 jinetes among the 6,500 horse (69%). The total strength of the army was 19,500.

These data, adduced from various sources, all considered reliable, show that in the period under consideration jinetes could constitute from 38-69% of the cavalry in any typical Spanish army. They would be about 8-23% of all field forces. These data underscore their significance in the early Italian Wars Spanish army.

It is not possible to determine definitively what the organization for combat of the jinetes was. Companies generally appear to have numbered 50-100 troopers.


A second type of Spanish light cavalry in Naples was the arqueros (archers) or ballesteros of the heavy cavalry lances. These were analagous to the archers of the French lances and were capable of fighting in the line of battle or engaging in skirmish fire action, depending on their arms. These archers wore the same armor as the jinetes and were armed with either the light lance or light lance and crossbow. Their battlefield role was to support the men-at-arms with shock or fire action, but they were not proficient skirmishers. Most often, they would be found supporting the hombres de armas in subunits.


At some point in the early Italian Wars mounted men armed with long firearms appeared. Despite speculation and, perhaps, wishful thinking, it may be doubted that these troopers, called escopeteros by the Spanish, actually fired from the saddle like later dragoons that engaged in the decidedly ineffectual practice of file-firing. They likely were used to provide highly-mobile fire support for other light cavalry elements and dismounted to engage in fire combat. As such, they would have been invaluable, not only in close country, but also in champagne, where they might provide a steady point d'appui in melees against enemy troops or have proved useful in countering infantry armed with arquebuses. Again, the French had no counterpart.


Barado y Font, Francisco. Museo militar. 3 vols. Barcelona: M. Soler, 188?

Calvert, Albert F. Spanish Arms and Armour. London: John Lane, 1907.

Clonard, Serafin Maria de Soto y Abbach, conde de. Historica organica de las armas de infanteria y caballeria españolas. Vol. 2. Madrid: D. B. Gonzalez, 1851.

Oman, Charles William Chadwick, Sir. A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages. 2 vols. 2d ed. revised and enlarged. London: Methuen & Co., 1924. Vol. 2 deals with the period 1278-1485.

__________. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1937.

Sotto y Montes, Joaquín de. Síntesis histórica de la Caballería española. Madrid: Escelicer, 1968.

Tapia y Salcedo, Gregorio. Exercicios de la gineta al principe nuestro senor d. Baltasar Carlos. Madrid: Ediciones Turner, 1980? Original ed., Madrid: D. Diaz, 1643.


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Text copyright © 1992 by Curt Johnson


This page was created 29 October 2007; revised 2 November 2007.