Medieval Warfare


Related Topics

Evolution of Medieval Warfare

Recruiting, Organization, Tactics

Pay for the Troops


Just War

Ransom for Those Captured in Battle

Siege Warfare


Warfare was a way of life in Medieval Europe. The nobility held their power by virtue of their status as professional soldiers. Many commoner soldiers were also professionals, usually led by nobles. And all who wished to maintain their safety and security had to be ready for a fight. It was, without too much exaggeration, a population in arms.

The form of warfare in Medieval Europe was that which developed out of the military traditions and practices of the German tribes that overran the Roman empire in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. The Romans had been fighting the German tribes since the 2nd Century BC. The Romans had a professional, standing army and, as a result, they usually won. The Germans were bigger and wilder, but not highly organized and not nearly as professional. This changed over the centuries as technology improved and the Germans learned more about how the Romans did things, while the Romans frittered away their time having civil wars and such. In short, the Germans got better and the Romans didn't. A major innovation in the century before Rome fell was the widespread use of armored cavalry by the Germans. This came about because of the introduction of the stirrup in the first centuries AD, as German tribes migrated to the vast plains of Russia and adapted to mounted combat. There was also the German exposure to the Asiatic nomads coming in from the east (the Huns). The wealthier (and usually more skilled) German warriors began to do most of their fighting on horseback. Wearing a lot of armor and wielding a long sword, and even longer lance, the massed charge of these mounted Germans became more and more effective. As a result, the Romans suffered a number of serious defeats, even though the Romans also adopted the same mounted form of warfare. The Romans tried to adapt, but internal problems kept getting in the way of a thorough reform of the military system, and things just went downhill throughout the 5th century. The funny thing was, most of the German invaders were still infantry. But the availability of those heavy, armored cavalry troops often made a decisive difference.

While the Germans ultimately proved themselves superior militarily, the Romans had the edge in all other respects. In particular, the elaborate and efficient Roman form of government provided, century after century, a steady supply of tax money and recruits with which to form a standing army. The Germans had nothing like this, and as they settled down in the conquered Roman lands, they found their lack of administrative skills a major handicap. Fortunately, another aspect of German tribal traditions came to the rescue. It was customary for the heads of tribes (from the wealthiest families, not surprisingly, who now styled themselves kings) to reward their most powerful and successful warriors with a portion of the goodies after a successful campaign. The invasions of Roman territory had provided enormous opportunities in this department. Following a practice already common back in Germany, the new rulers gave their mounted warriors large tracts of land (thousands of acres in some cases) to run as their own little balliwick in the king's name, as well as a good chunk of the land for their personal use. The people on this land were under the control of the warrior, who provided administrative and legal services for the population. And taxed "his" subjects any way he liked.

Some of the farmers, the poorest, were serfs (either before the Germans arrived, or due to the depradations of the invading armies). These serfs owned no land, but were allowed to work a few acres for themselves while providing up to half their time to work the new rulers lands. This was the feudal system. It was nothing radically new, and had existed in much the same form earlier. Even the Romans had used a version of it in some places. The German kings expected their warlords to use whatever profit they could wrest from their land (eventually known as a fief) to support themselves. In return, they had to maintain their military skills and answer the king's call when armed forces were needed. With this system, the new German kings put trusted men in charge of every village and town while maintaining armed forces at the same time.

While the new military system wasn't as efficient as the Roman one, it was sufficient. Although the East Romans still had their professional army, they were not much of a threat after the 7th century, when the Moslem Arabs drove their armies right up to the walls of Constantinope several times. The East Romans (or Byzantines) had proven capable of defeating the fedual German armies in the 6th and 7th centuries and one could say without much exaggeration that it was the Arabs who saved the Germans by preoccupying the "Byzantines". In the century before the Moslims showed up, the East Romans were well on their way to reconquering the western portion of the empire. Later the Turks came along and not only kept the East Romans engaged, but eventually broke Byzantine military power.

The Arabs also invaded German lands, at least in Spain and thence into southern France, an by sea into portions of Italy. But the Arabs, man for man, weren't any better than the Germans. In Spain, the Arabs were at the end of a long campaign across North Africa and the Germans had superior numbers. The East Romans took the full brunt of the Arab armies and it was only the superior quality of their army that managed to stop the more numerous Arabs.

As impressive as the mounted man-at-arms (whether knighted or not) appeared, he was a warrior, not a soldier. Roman troops had been soldiers. Drilled, disciplined, and thoroughly professional, the Roman army failed only when it got sloppy with recruiting, training, and politics. Medieval troops were not so much sloppy as highly variable and individualistic. Medieval knights, like their Samurai counterparts in Japan, trained and fought as individuals. While thousands of these warriors would frequently join together as an army, and make grand, massed charges at the enemy, they always thought of themselves as fighting as individuals, not as part of a military unit.

Naturally, leading a Medieval army was a tricky proposition. Fortunately, winning battles with such armies was less of a problem because, for a long time, all the armies were the same. Tactics were simplistic in the extreme. Both sides lined up their masses of mounted troops, with foot troops in the front ranks. The infantry usually opened the battle. When one or the other side's leader judged the moment appropriate, a mass charge of mounted men would be launched. This usually decided the affair one way or another.

There were a lot of variations. Some nations still relied on a lot of infantry, if only because they were too poor to support a lot of mounted troops. Examples were the Scots and the Swiss. The poverty stricken Scots, with a more populous and wealthier England to the south, always faced their mounted foes with infantry, and had often managed to hold their own. The Swiss threw off the rule of the Hapsburgs , and maintained their independence with nothing but highly disciplined infantry. Even the Germans maintained elements of their ancient infantry tradition. Indeed, the Germans continued to win victories with infantry armies up to the 11th century.

But, all things being equal, the mounted man-at-arms was superior. It wasn't just the horse, the knight was also better armed and armored. Moreover, a knight devoted his life to training with his weapons and was usually quite good at it. The downside was that the knight's believed their own propaganda. Foot soldiers were disdained and discipline was seen as incompatible with a noble warriors honor. The basic problem was that every noble (knights and above) thought he was above obeying orders. A duke or a count had some control over his knights (and each knight's small band of armed followers), but each such noble was less impressed by the royal official, or king himself, in charge of the entire army. Every noble thought he, and his troops, deserved the post of honor in the first rank. An army commander would try and line up his various contingents in such a way that each would be used to best effect. Most knights (of whatever rank) simply wanted to get at the enemy and fight it out man to man. This was the mentality of knights through most of the Medieval period.

Moreover, unlike the Romans the feudal warriors did not train together as a unit. There were exceptions. The Swiss fought on foot and basically reinvented the Greek Phalanx . The major Swiss innovation here was the use of less body armor, even more discipline and organization in the spear formations, and greater speed and flexibility of movement. This last element was neccessary because the Swiss often fought in broken, hilly terrain (that is, Switzerland) and had to be flexible and swift to prevent the mounted knights from hitting them in their vulnerable flanks or rear. Indeed, these were the tactics the highly disciplined and mobile Romans used to defeat the original Greek Phalanx spear formations. The Swiss drilled endlessly, and fought with a ferocity that impressed even the armed nobles they faced. The Medieval knights were never able to get organized sufficiently to defeat the Swiss.

The most effective infantry of the Medieval period were the English yeomen. These were English and Welch farmers who owned their own land (hence the term "yeomen") and were paid by the king to train in peacetime, and answer his call when he needed to raise an army. The typical English army of the period would be 80-90 percent yeomen, the remainder being men-at-arms (knights and serjeants, commoners equipped as knights). The yeomen were basically light infantry, who knew how to ride a horse. For hand-to-hand fighting they usually carried a sword, an axe, or a mallet (quite effective against a dismounted knight in full armor). But their principal weapon was the longbow. Originally a hunting weapon in Wales, it's major drawback was that it required years of practice to use effectively.

The king offered money, and other favors, to encourage the peacetime training, and good pay for when the yeomen were called to action. The king also offered fines and other punishments if the yeomen didn't practice their archery in peacetime. But the yeomen were skilled at more than just handling the bow. Their training concentrated on firing in groups (they were organized into units of 20 and 100 men). Peacetime training consisted of individual archers learning how to fire at a specific range. This took a lot of practice. The archers soon learned which angle to point their bows in order to land their arrow on a white sheet (the common target, representing a group of enemy troops) at different ranges, a practice called "clout shooting" (i.e, cloth shooting). In addition to individual practice, they also drilled with their units. In a formation ten ranks deep, only the men in the first few ranks could even see the enemy, or hear the commands of their "centenaur" (leader of a hundred.)

In battle, the centuries (each with a hundred archers) would line up in formations of up to ten ranks deep. In front of each century would be an experienced (and very well paid) centenaur. A typical English army would have 50 or more centuries of archers available. In overall command would be a Master of the Archers, an experienced knight who was (unlike most knights) skilled with the longbow. The Master of the Archers would keep his eye on the enemy and judge how many yards distant the foe was. When ordered to fire, the Master of the Archers would estimate the range to the enemy and then bellow out "ready," quickly followed by his range estimate, to the Centenaurs, who would turn and bellow it to their archers (especially the most experienced ones, placed in the first rank to provide an accurate guide for the archers behind them). The Master of the Archers would then yell "loose," the Centenaurs would echo the command, and thousands of arrows would fly skywrd, most of them to land where, and when, the Master of the Archers wanted them.

The Master of the Archers might order only a few of his Centuries to fire, if enemy troops were only advancing on a portion of the front. But in Medieval warfare it was generally all or nothing. An attack usually called for the knights to advance on a broad front.

The yeomen could let loose a dozen arrows a minute, creating a steady stream of deadly missiles. Advancing horsemen were doomed, as their unarmored (or even partially armored) mounts went down from arrow wounds. The riders went down also, often with broken bones and other injuries in the process, not to mention exposing them to the possibility of being trampled by their onrushing comrades.

When the French knights advanced on foot, the results weren't much different. The long range (up to 300 yards) plunging fire would eventually cause some wounds. The sight and sound of all those arrows raining down was quite demoralizing. As the enemy knights got closer to the yeomen, they would get hit by direct fire from the front row of archers (the most experienced and accurate ones) and discover that at point blank range, the yard long arrows did indeed have an armor piercing tip. For those knights that got to within ten yards of the yeomen would encounter several rows of sharpened stakes, and perhaps even a ditch. Usually the English would post their own dismounted knights in a sort of phalanx to support their archers, which only made matters worse for the attacking French. At this point, there were few enough knights for the yeomen to successfully engage them in single combat. Well, it was more lopsided than that. Supported by the English knights, the archers would put down their bows and come out from behind their defenses with sword or axe or mallet once they saw they had a 2-to-1 or better advantage over the surviving knights. The yeomen would then team up to capture knights alive, and reap the ransoms captured nobles always brought. One yeoman would engage the knight from in front while another hit him from the side or rear with the flat end of an axe or a mallet. The stunned knight, now on the ground, would invariably surrender. The yeomen rarely lost these combats and took few casualties in them, even if they did not wear much armor. The ransoms thus obtained made many a yeoman family wealthy. The news of these riches travelled far and fast, making it easier for the king to keep his yeoman at their peacetime training and eager to answer the royal call when another campaign was afoot.

There were never that many yeomen, some 10,000-20,000 were raised for each campaign. While some of them became full time professionals during the Hundred Years War, most remained basically farmers who fought on the side. Typically, they would answer the king's call in the Spring. If they were lucky, they would go off to war after the Spring planting was out of the way. With the approach of Winter, the king would allow many to return home. In practice, all those that wanted to go home would do so. Campaigning was rarely done in the Winter and all the king needed then were troops to man the fortifications in his French lands. Garrison soldiers could be obtained locally and cost less than yeomen.

Families worked together in the period, so an family consisting of two generations, 20-30 people, and a half dozen or so married couples (plus children of all ages) could send off two or three yeomen to war while those who stayed home covered all the labor requirements needed to keep the farm going. When their yeomen returned from France, they would have several thousand ducats in pay, not to mention that, if they had had a good campaign, thousands more in loot and ransom money. After battles like Crecy, Poitiers, or Agincourt, many yeomen came home with 100,000 ducats, some with or more. This was a fortune in Medieval terms. Land cost several thousand ducats an acre, and such large sums of money made the yeomen even more prosperous farmers.

But in practice, through most of the period battles were rare, mainly because it took so long to line up all your troops in order to have one. If the other fellow didn't want to fight, he could just keep marching away. Of course, an exceptionally large, or better led, army could force an opponent to give battle. This was usually done by cutting your opponent off from any easy escape route and, in effect, giving him an offer to do battle that he couldn't refuse. Most armies were undisciplined masses of troops, straggling along on the primitive roads or cross country. Scouting was primitive, if it was done at all. When a scout, or passing traveller, brought word of an enemy army in the vicinity, an army leader would often want to hold a council of war with his leading nobles, lest some of them refuse to obey any hastily conceived orders to move off in a different direction. Sometimes battles were by pre-arrangements, with the Heralds working out the details of where and when the armies would meet. So battles didn't happen all that ofte. And when they did, most frequently, a battle was forced when an army sought to break a siege.

Sieges were the most common for of large scale combat in the Middle Ages. . Political control Medieval times depended on who held the numerous castles and walled cities that dotted the countryside. These fortifications held reserve supplies of food and large numbers of troops. From these bases, the nobility controlled the sountryside. If you wished to "conquer" an area you had to take the fortified places away from whoever currently held them. Since these places were built to resist being taken, a siege was the usual result. Sieges took time, some went on for months, and money, some cost literally millions of ducats. The larger force outside often had more serious food problems than the besieged. The surrounding countryside was often stripped bare of food at the approach of an enemy army. But the defender could not always depend on the besieger giving up because he was hungry. The usual hope was that a friendly army would come up and chase the besiegers away. This often resulted in a battle as a means to determine of the siege would continue or not.

Sieges themselves were largely a matter of engineering work, with a little knightly combat thrown in to keep the warriors from getting bored. It was not uncommon for an impromptu tournament, or series of duels, to be arranged between the knights on both sides, just to enliven what was otherwise a very tedious process. The English had an advantage in sieges for most of the war (until the French developed superior cannon ) because their yeomen were more effective at siege warfare. In addition to being able to sweep defenders from castle walls with their accurate and long range archery, the yeomen were also more skilled at the more mundane aspects of siege work. Being well paid mercenaries, the yeomen went about the digging and building that comprised most siege work in more professional manner than their French counterparts.

Armies took siege technicians with them on campaign. These were usually carpenters and miners, plus master siege artisans who had years of experience in the techniques of siege warfare. The typical siege consisted of throwing a cordon of troops around the fortified place and then building rock (or fire) throwing catapults to attack the troops on the walls, tunnels to collapse the walls, scaling ladders and movable towers to allow troops to go over the walls, and battering rams to demolish walls or gateways. But the typical activity was the threat of an attack. The custom was that if the city surrendered without a fight, it would not be pillaged by the enemy troops. Both sides preferred to end the matter through negotiation and this was basically a war of nerves. The besieger didn't really want to attack, as this would get a lot of his troops killed and it might not work, at least not the first time. Moreover, the besieger was usually after permanent possession of the place and disn't want to be stuck with the damage his angry troops would inflict if, after successfully storming the place, they pillaged it (thus wrecked everything in sight and killed off a fair percentage of the population). The defender didn't want to risk an assault either, but for different reasons. In many cases, time was on the side of the besieged. If careful preparations were made, the defenders might well have had a better supply of food and water than the besiegers. Moreover, there might be a relief army on the way. The defender had to calculate whether he could fight off enough assaults so that the attacker ran out of men or enthusiasm for the task.

If the attacker could make a breach in the wall with, say by tunneling which caused the wall to collapse, this might give the defender sufficient reason to surrender without an assault. Catapults throwing fire balls into the city or castle might start fires that would also encourage a surrender. Negotiations were usually underway from the very beginning (or even before, as the advancing army sent forward Heralds to try and convince the commander of the castle or town that it was never too early to surrender). Of course, the commander of the defenders had more than his honor at stake. His boss might punish him quite severely (unto death, perhaps) if the fortified place was lost without every possible action being taken to avoid such a loss.

There was also the question of cost. Your typical fortress or castle (the former had fewer towers and less comfotable living accommodations) had a garrison of 100-300 men. These were usually locals, full or part time soldiers on the regular payroll of the local lord. Say an army of 1,000 men approached, mercenaries, costing the attacker, on average, 170,000 ducats a week to maintain. It would take several weeks to invest the place, build siege engines (catapults, etc.), and start digging tunnels. By this time the cost would already be up to half a million ducats, with less than a hundred thousand gained from pillaging the surrounding countryside. That pillage would going to cost the local lord tens of thousands of lost taxes in the future, and some of the damage would be to things the lord owned, such as flour mills or buildings. Nevertheless, it would be costing the besieger a lot more than it would be costing the defender. If the place is taken by negotiation, there would be loot inside the castle. In addition to at least several thousand ducats in cash, there were no doubt many other valuable items. Everything from captured weapons and tools, and perhaps some gold or silver objects. But the besieger had to decide when to stop throwing good money after bad. We may not think of Medieval warlords as accountants, but they had to pay their bills, too. Unpaid troops tended to drift away, leaving you defenseless in hostile territory. It wasn't all adventure and glory. A lot of Medieval warfare was the headaches delivered via a clerk's report on your current cash position.

Medieval warfare was also very dependant on the quality of leadership. The troops didn't vary much from area to area (except in the case of the yeomen or Swiss pikemen), nor did the methods. There were few books on "how to make war," and most military leaders obtained their positions because of their social standing, not their military track records. As a result, when good leaders were present, they would quickly reorganize their troops, redistribute what good subordinate leaders there were more effectively, and run their army on a more efficient basis than their opposition.