Armies of Christendom and the Age of Chivalry

Most historians agree that warfare in the Middle Ages cannot be studied in isolation. By its very definition, war–organized violence by groups against other groups–reflects the societies involved and, in turn, shapes them.

Political Considerations

Most historians agree that warfare in the Middle Ages cannot be studied in isolation. By its very definition, war–organized violence by groups against other groups–reflects the societies involved and, in turn, shapes them. This dynamic was especially true in the high medieval period, when military needs fueled administrative developments in finance, organization, recruitment, supply, and the tools of government itself. Before then, however, the very deterioration of such structures would limit the forms that warfare could take. Larger cultural issues would likewise play off of, and be played upon, by war. The Christian Church spent centuries trying to restrain or redirect the violence of its newest converts, the Germanic peoples. In time, however, the Church would find itself inextricably entangled in violent endeavors. On the secular side, the cult of Chivalry;cult ofchivalry developed first as the expression of a new, knightly identity; once in place, this new ethos sometimes had its own power to shape the contours of battle.ChristendomChivalry;age ofCrusadesChristendomChivalry;age ofCrusades

Although scholarly ideas about its dominance and character are undergoing continual revision, the network of Feudalism;Europefeudal relations that lay across most of Europe in this period was the hallmark of medieval politics and war. In summary, these arrangements were coming into being even during the reign of CharlemagneCharlemagneCharlemagne (r. 768-814), but their evolution was speeded by the breakup of his empire and of effective central government, coupled with foreign invasions by Vikings;impact on feudalism[feudalism]Vikings and MagyarsMagyars. By the end of the first millennium, the Western European population’s overwhelming need for protection had caused feudalism to be cobbled together in varying ways across the former Carolingian lands. The typical model of feudalism appeared thus: Men in need (vassals) would approach someone (a lord) capable of protecting them because of his already collected followers. In officially entering this lord’s entourage, the Vassalsvassals would swear faithfulness or Fealtyfealty to that lord. The price of protection for the vassal was his own service in the lord’s retinue, or Mesne (retinue)mesne, as it was later called. Other obligations later became standard, but military service was the original and fundamental one. These early vassals depended on the lord for upkeep, and in the absence of a money economy, the institution of the Fiefdomsfief evolved. Usually in the form of land, the fief provided the economic component of feudal relationships; with it, the vassal had the wherewithal to report with all the panoply of war: horse, armor, weapons, and supplies for campaign.

Military historians have recognized for some time that feudalism did not accurately describe all the means whereby medieval armies came together. The idea of the “nation-at-arms” still compelled many to answer a summons. This was as true of the Anglo-Saxon Fyrd (Anglo-Saxon army)fyrd before 1066 as it would be 150 years later when King JohnJohn (king of England) John (1166-1216) of England summoned even the most recently liberated Serfs;medieval English serfs to repel French invaders. On the continent, King Louis Louis VILouis VI (king of France)[Louis 06] VI (1081-1137) in 1124 gathered more of his vassals together to face a German attack than he had ever commanded as a feudal lord. In addition, money was never truly absent; its role in Recruiting;feudal recruiting and maintaining armies continued throughout the High Middle Ages. Thus, military historians see less incongruity than do legal historians in the use and prevalence of contracts to engage soldiers in the late medieval period.

Holy Roman Empire, c. 1190

It would be difficult to overstate the reciprocal influences on each other of the Roman Catholic ChurchChurch and medieval warfare. At first, though, the Church saw little success in its efforts to curtail the violence of its members. Before the year 1000, it had already proposed the idea of the Truce of Truce of God (medieval Christian concept)God. The Truce endeavored to set certain days aside as inappropriate for any violence: Days of religious significance obviously dominated this agenda, thereby “officially” making large parts of the yearly calendar off-limits for warfare. The Peace of God quickly followed, which insisted that certain groups, primarily the unarmed populace such as clergy, women, children, and peasants, were also off-limits. Although both movements had limited success, constant appeals indicate how often they were violated by combatants. Such calls on the conscience of medieval warriors went unheard for the most part, but the many gifts to the church by soldiers testify to the soldiers’ uneasiness about their profession.

When Urban IIUrban II (pope)[Urban 02]Pope Urban II (c. 1042-1099) preached in 1095 that Europe’s knights could actually earn redemption instead of condemnation by going on armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he struck a more responsive chord than he had anticipated. The success of the First Crusade Crusades;First (1095-1099)(1095-1099) guaranteed that generations of Europe’s Knights;Crusadesknights would “take up the cross” both as penance for their violent misdeeds and as a novel continuance of their profession. The Church would rail against Christians who killed Christians in wars, including even those simulations of war, Tournamentstournaments, which were condemned in numerous councils. Against infidels and heretics, however, Divine sanctions for warfarewarfare was deemed more than licit; it was divinely approved. As the later Crusades not only failed to achieve similar success but also went terribly awry, as did the Fourth Crusade Crusades;Fourth (1198-1204)(1198-1204) at Constantinople, the Church found its military involvement more problematic. The Church got further involved in the development of the knightly caste, as it sanctioned some of the trappings of chivalry. The vigils that preceded formal dubbing ceremonies as well as the oaths taken by new knights seemed to confirm that the Church had indeed domesticated its most troublesome sons. Such an appearance was deceptive, though, because chivalry always remained more a secular creation than an ecclesiastical one.

In fact it ought to be remembered that chivalry was the province not only of a secular group but also of a knightly caste that was not alone on Christendom’s battlefields. In the early 1100’s writers such as Ordericus Ordericus VitalisOrdericus Vitalis (Anglo-Norman chronicler)Vitalis (1075-c. 1142) remarked that the absence of fatalities among knights came from a mutual Christian desire to hold violence in check. This idea of brotherhood among foes continued throughout the Middle Ages. The national orders of chivalry of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries regularly welcomed foreign members who displayed the requisite chivalric virtues. Although chivalry might restrain lethal tendencies among knights, however, it hardly mattered when aristocratic warriors met their social inferiors. With ransoms or honor rarely at stake, this combat was far more vicious and far more deadly.

Military Achievement

The conviction that the Middle Ages was above all the Age of Cavalry;medievalCavalry is primarily a legacy of the great military historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For them, this was the military contribution, and a questionable one at that, of the Middle Ages to history. The British historian Sir Charles Oman (1860-1946) wrote of the “complete superiority of heavy cavalry” and drew a compelling picture of the massed charge of horsemen with their couched lances. Although this image continues to be propagated in film and general histories, even very good ones, military historians have revised their view of the role of heavy cavalry to one of more limited importance. Some suggested that the end of cavalry’s dominance originally seemed to lie in the successes of the Swiss Pikemen;Swisspikemen of the 1300’s. Others focused on the Hundred Years’ War Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)(1337-1453), in which the Longbowslongbow supposedly played the more decisive role. This interpretation, however, has since evolved to place more emphasis on the combined use of forces by the English to cripple the French charge. Other historians credit the Flemish Flemish infantryinfantry, who withstood the French in the opening years of the 1300’s. The motion picture Braveheart Braveheart (film) (1995), even though it transposed the actions of Bannockburn (1314) and Stirling Bridge (1297), validated, with some dramatic license, those who credit the Scots with teaching the English the value of foot soldiers. Historians of the Angevins and Anglo-Normans have demonstrated the pivotal role of infantry, or dismounted knights, at multiple battles. Although the mounted knight was a hallmark of the Middle Ages, he was not the period’s definitive warrior.

As a result of this improved understanding of medieval combat, a better appreciation of the military achievement of the Middle Ages is possible. Rather than seeing an epoch of heedless courage and pell-mell charges that appear as an endless cycle of fruitless violence, late-twentieth century historians have come to appreciate the sophisticated answers of medieval commanders to problems that were peculiarly their own. At first, the emphasis on cavalry grew quickly because of the need to counter the mobility of Viking, Magyar, and Muslim raiders. Other military issues came into play, however, as the new feudal blocs began to compete with each other. This competition drove innovation: in tactics, weaponry, fortification, and behind the lines, in the very creation and provisioning of armies. The crucible of invasions and internal fighting honed the overall military practice of Christendom so that it was able for centuries after 1095 to field armies far away in the Middle East. The experiences of Crusader forces sharpened European armies, as veterans returned with an appreciation of the successes to be gained by discipline and practice. Although Europe would effectively give up crusading after 1291, other conflicts, especially the Hundred Years’ Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)War, would further the development of military establishments. Amending the thesis of historian Geoffrey Parker on a Military Revolution (Parker)“Military Revolution” in the early modern period, medievalists have traced the outlines for earlier changes that might account for Europe’s later military preeminence.

The Saxon SaxonsDynasty came to power in 918 in the Germanic territories of Charlemagne’s former empire. Reviving not only Charlemagne’s imperial title but even some of his political and military power, this dynasty managed to withstand the double threats to any medieval government: internal factiousness and external invaders. The victory of Otto the Otto I the GreatOtto I the Great[Otto 01]Great (912-973) at the Battle of the Lechfeld Lechfeld, Battle of (955)(955) confirmed their success. By the end of the medieval period–a date open to much dispute–an entirely different military and political situation prevailed. The nation-state was replacing the feudal system, permanent armies appeared by the 1470’s, and Charles Charles VIIICharles VIII (king of France)[Charles 08]VIII’s (r. 1483-1498) invasion of Italy in 1494 showed that old styles of warfare no longer applied against national armies wielding powerful gunpowder weapons.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Two Uniforms;medieval Christendomweapons especially dominated the personal medieval arsenal: the Swords;medievalsword and the spear. The latter was undoubtedly the most popular weapon employed, but the former was the most prized. The expense and time involved in the manufacture of swords restricted their availability and thus contributed to their importance as status symbols. Not surprisingly, those who could afford a mount also owned swords, and the sword became associated with cavalry and medieval society’s elite. The long Long swordssword tended to be between 75 and 100 centimeters in length with a blade of up to 6 centimeters in width, double-edged, and counterweighted by an enlarged pommel behind the hilt. A fuller, or groove, ran much of the length of the blade’s center, removing some of the weapon’s weight without sacrificing any strength; the result was a sword that averaged 1.5 kilograms in weight. Some time before the tenth century, blacksmiths began to taper the Bladesblade so that it began a gradual narrowing immediately from the cross-guard. This development helped shift the blade’s center of gravity closer to the hand, making the sword even more manageable. The importance attached to swords ensured their preservation across generations of owners and thus led to an increasing number of them available in the later Middle Ages. At one muster in England in 1457, swords were second only to bows in the number of weapons brought.

The innovations in gunpowder and armor in the later medieval period caused rapid changes in sword design. As the transition from chain Chain mailmail to plate Plate armorarmor became more widespread after 1350, the emphasis in sword design moved from slashing to perforating. Blades grew shorter and stiffer, because the point was now the offensive part of the weapon.

For both infantry and cavalry, however, the Spears;medievalspear was the weapon that lay most often at hand. In the wake of some efforts at standardization by the Carolingians, spears for both branches averaged 2 meters in length, but both archaeology and contemporary art evidence a wide variety of spearheads. The basic similarity testifies that for infantry and cavalry alike it was a thrusting weapon. If the Bayeux Bayeux tapestrytapestry’s representation is true-to-life and not an effect of the weaving, spear shafts were rather flimsy even late in the eleventh century.

Major Sites in the Hundred Years’ War, 1337-1453

The medieval cavalry’s switch to sturdier Lances;medievallances came with its implementation of “mounted shock combat.” This form of attack is the archetypal view of medieval combat: The horse-borne warrior, lance couched under his armpit, charges his enemy. The combined weight of the knight and his horse are thus concentrated in the irresistible point of the lance. At least, contemporaries saw it this way. Byzantine princess and historian Anna Comnena, AnnaComnena, AnnaComnena (1083-c. 1148) suspected that the walls of Babylon would not withstand a charge by the Frankish Crusaders she witnessed passing through Constantinople in 1095. Popular poems such as the French epic Song of Roland, The Le Chanson de Roland (eleventh century; The Song of Roland, c. 1100) painted a far more graphic, if exaggerated, picture, making reference to a knight charging his foe, cutting through his bones, and tearing the whole spine from his back.

The necessary prerequisite to such mounted combat is the Stirrupsstirrup, which holds the rider on his Horses and horse ridinghorse, and this small piece of equipment has created quite an industry among scholars trying to date its first appearance in Europe. The old assumption that mounted shock dominated the entire medieval period was unseated in 1951 when D. J. A. Ross contended that references to such assaults came no earlier than the late eleventh century chansons de Chansons de geste geste such as that of Roland. Lynn Townsend White, Jr., challenged this argument a decade later when he tried to date the stirrup (and shock combat) as early as the 700’s. A bevy of historians, among them Bernard R. Bachrach and David Charles Nicolle, arose to counter White’s assertion, and, on the whole, their arguments have focused on the early twelfth century as the moment when mounted shock combat became the primary cavalry tactic of Christendom. To date, their contentions have carried the field.

Infantry weapons, such as the spear, remained mostly unchanged until the late medieval period. However, there were experimental modifications. King Philip Philip IIPhilip II (king of France)[Philip 02 king of France]II (1165-1223) of France and his retinue at Bouvines Bouvines, Battle of (1214)(1214) faced mercenary foot soldiers who endeavored to pull the king and his knights from their horses with hooked spears that caught their chain mail links. Unhorsed, the knights were threatened by the soldiers’ daggers, which could reach unarmored areas, such as the groin or armpit. In the 1300’s and 1400’s the Flemish and Swiss levies began utilizing Pikespikes in regular formations that achieved repeated victories against cavalry. Other alterations of the spear resulted from combinations: spear and ax became the Halberdshalberd; the Billhooksbillhook had a curved blade on the side of a lance.

There was no shortage of other handheld weapons. The Vikings often used Axesaxes in battle, as did the Anglo-Saxons. The Bayeux Bayeux tapestrytapestry may show one of the earliest representations of a Macesmace, which had by the twelfth century become a popular weapon in tournament melees and on the battlefield. The Daggersdagger, like the sword, evolved in form to whatever shape was most effective at penetrating the weak points of armor.

Armies of the High Middle Ages understood the value of missile weapons and relied upon a variety of them. Slings;medievalSlings were still used as late as the thirteenth century, especially in the form of staff Staff slingsslings, which propelled the missile more forcefully. For the early part of the period, shortBows and arrows;medievalbows and composite, or Turkish, bows predominated. The latter were adopted by Christians from their Muslim foes, particularly in Spain;bowsSpain, where the Christians even went so far as to emulate Muslims in the use of horse archers. In the Crusader kingdoms, warriors turned to native horse Horse archersarchers willing to fight for their new masters. The composite bow was less popular to the northwest, perhaps because the wetter climate affected the glue that held the bows together. Short bows were used by the Normans, including William the William the ConquerorWilliam the Conqueror (king of England)Conqueror (c. 1027-1087), who saw no dishonor in personally using the weapon. William took a great many Archers and archery;Normanarchers with him to England, where they proved their worth by the attrition they caused in the formations of Harold II (c. 1022-1066).

The best-known bow of the Middle Ages is the Welsh Longbows;Welshlongbow. Averaging 1.8 meter in length, with an exterior strip of sapwood and an interior strip of heartwood to increase its spring, the longbow was able to propel “cloth-yard shafts” from 365 to 400 meters. At 200 meters, the longbow’s arrows could penetrate chain mail. After facing this formidable weapon in the thirteenth century, the English reacted by recruiting large numbers of Welshmen proficient with the bow to serve in their continental armies. The longbow had its heyday during the Hundred Years’ War, playing a large role in British victories at the Battles of Crécy Crécy, Battle of (1346)[Crecy, Battle of](1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt Agincourt, Battle of (1415)(1415). However, the longbow was one weapon among several that the English used wisely in conjunction with others to assure victory. The longbow’s use continued with English armies until the fifteenth century, when the government simply found itself unable to ensure that there were enough bows, arrows, and archers to fill the usual complements.

The counterpart of the longbow was the Crossbowscrossbow, which was known throughout the period but grew in usage as siege Siege warfare;crossbowswarfare became a larger component of campaigning. From that function, it developed also into a weapon of field armies. Its potential for lethality resulted in official bans of its use by the Roman Catholic Church;crossbow banChurch in the late eleventh century and 1139. The repeated bans also testify to the fact that medieval soldiers did not give up such a weapon easily. After 1200, the Church finally approved the crossbow’s use against non-Christians. Nonetheless, Christians often used it against other Christians. English king Richard Richard I “Lion-Heart”Richard I “Lion-Heart” (king of England)[Richard 01]I (1157-1199) was so fond of using crossbows that he was erroneously credited with introducing the weapons to the French. Experimenters improved the bow across the Middle Ages, constantly increasing its power and range while attempting to decrease the time necessary for reloading. The original wooden bow and stock became a composite bow by the 1200’s and would be made entirely of steel by the 1400’s. Stirrups, ratchets, and levers were all added to ease the task of drawing the bow’s string back to the trigger. Load times varied between 12 and 35 seconds, but the tremendous power was sufficient to puncture even the plate armor of the later Middle Ages. The advantages of the crossbow, power combined with a low level of training necessary for accuracy, would be the same ingredients that in the later fifteenth century would enable the gun to displace the crossbow on the battlefield.

Apart from personal weapons, successful armies also employed a siege Siege trainstrain, a collection of raw materials, prefabricated weapons, and personnel who could build and operate such pregunpowder artillery. The importance of such weapons is reflected in the complaint that the so-called artists of war, Knights;replaced by specialistsknights, had been replaced by the new specialists: engineers, miners, crossbowmen, and artillerists.

The siege weapons handled by the new specialists worked by one of three means. The Onagers (catapults)onager was a survivor from antiquity in which a single beam, inserted through a horizontal braid of animal tendons or hair, was pulled back into firing position. This torsion Torsion catapultsweapon was less powerful than its classical predecessors and was immensely heavy; one reconstruction weighed nearly 2 tons. The Ballistaeballista of the Romans was probably a two-armed torsion weapon, but the term referred in the Middle Ages to a tension weapon that was essentially an oversized crossbow on a stable platform. Lever Lever machinesmachines were the third variety of pregunpowder artillery. The use of lever artillery originated in China and spread via Byzantium and the Islamic lands. Lever artillery relied on either traction power or a counterweight. In the former case, a crowd of operators hauled downward on ropes attached to one end of the lever-arm, causing it to swing on a pivot and release its projectile in a high arc. This was the Petraria (stone thrower)petraria, or stone Stone throwers thrower. The Trebuchet (catapult) trebuchet was the pregunpowder giant; it replaced the human hauler with a fixed counterweight that allowed truly impressive weights to be launched. Projectiles;for trebuchets[trebuchets] Projectiles typically weighed between 50 and 75 kilograms, with a range of approximately 200 meters.

Given the impressive arsenal that both the well-to-do knights and common soldiers carried into battle, there is little wonder that medieval combatants also invested in sophisticated personal Armor;medieval Christendomarmor. The simplest, most efficient form of armor remained the Shields;medievalshield, in use since ancient times. In the tenth century, the shield was still evolving, from a round shape to that of an elongated kite. The new shape better protected the legs of horsemen without adding too much weight. In addition, infantry could jam the shield’s lower point into the ground for more stability when creating the formation called a “shield-wall.” Although the shield would later be shortened, this triangular shape remained standard until the best plate armor made shields themselves redundant.

Armor itself underwent several changes throughout the medieval period. The primary body armor before 900 had been a leather jacket with metal scales attached. By the eleventh century this form of armor had grown more complex; the BayeuxBayeux tapestrytapestry shows coats of chain mail on most of the Normans. Made up of thousands of interlocked rings, this hauberk was probably worn over a padded undergarment both to prevent chafing and to soften opponents’ blows should some of the links be broken and forced inward. This form of armor, with continued improvements, would dominate Europe and the Crusader kingdoms for several centuries. Extra pieces of mail would be added for the lower legs, the back of the neck, the lower face, feet, and hands. The Helmets;Crusadershelmet evolved from a conical shape with only a nasal guard to the “great Great helmhelm,” an enveloping, metal defense for the entire head. As missile weaponry evolved, plate armor became widely adopted. Steel;in armor[armor]Steel, which had been tested especially against crossbows, began to be combined with chain Chain mailmail and later replaced it. Eventually, knights would wear form-fitting plates that covered not only all major parts of the body but also protected complex joint areas such as the knees, elbows, and even fingers. Apart from such armor’s protective benefits, its gleaming qualities also appealed to those who could afford it.

Because medieval warriors were usually responsible for outfitting themselves, there would be little use of standardized uniforms until the late Middle Ages, when powerful rulers and some cities would either provide or require them. Before that point, the emphasis fell more on individual insignia and costume. Although the Bayeux tapestry shows some painted shields, the earliest evidence for heraldic Heraldrydecoration comes from the reign of Stephen, king of England, also known as Stephen of Stephen of BloisStephen of Blois (king of England)Blois (r. 1135-1154). During his day, the Clare family began consistently to display its gold and red bands, and Geoffrey of Anjou (Geoffrey Geoffrey of AnjouGeoffrey of Anjou (Geoffrey Plantagenet)Plantagenet, 1113-1151) his two lions, which would in changed form become the English royal insignia. Although the participants in the Crusades;Third (1187-1192)Third Crusade (1187-1192) would adopt national identifiers such as differently colored crosses for the French, English, and Flemish, the real shift from personal to corporate designations came later. Wealthy cities such as Tournai were outfitting contingents in uniform livery in 1297 and again in 1340. Men from Wales and the adjoining marches wore green and white costumes and hats when serving on the Continent in the mid-1300’s. As revenues increased, princes also began to outfit notable units within their forces; thus, French kings Charles VII (1403-1461) and Louis XI (1423-1483) contributed to the distinctiveness of their Scots Archers in the fifteenth century. The dukes of Burgundy would do likewise before their finances and power failed.

A turning point in medieval warfare came with the widespread adoption of Gunpowder;medieval Europegunpowder weapons. The first known recipe in Europe for gunpowder comes from 1267 in the works of Roger Bacon (c. 1220-c. 1292), more than two centuries after its first mention in Chinese texts. Within sixty years the first evidence for Cannons;medievalcannons appears in the illustrated margins of medieval texts, followed by their confirmed use at Puy-Guillaume Puy-Guillaume, Battle of (1338)[Puy Guillaume](1338) and then against Lille Lille, Battle of (1341)(1341). Within twenty years, evidence of gunpowder artillery spread from Italy to Scandinavia and from Russia to England. The most dramatic example of the new technology was the Bombardsbombard. With a weight of around 16,000 kilograms and firing balls of 380 kilograms, the largest of these giants could breach almost any wall with only several well-placed shots. On the battlefield, however, the effect of early cannons was more limited. They may have been used at Crécy in 1346 merely for the shock effect of the noise they made. The adoption by the early 1400’s of smaller calibers made cannons more accurate, and a roll call of distinguished victims began.

Even though the overall battlefield effect of cannons remained negligible, the sudden vulnerability of elite warriors, the quick obsolescence of old defenses, and the new demands on military budgets spelled the end of chivalric warfare.

Military Organization

Medieval warfare, at its most proficient practice, was a sophisticated affair, marked by careful preparations, skillful analysis of risk and reward, and the use of multiple branches of service. This thesis, however, has been only recently accepted by a wide audience holding a more traditional image of feudal armies as violent mobs. The historian Oman claimed in 1885 that medieval troops were neither disciplined nor unified, and this idea has been long held. The conviction that chivalric ideals were “inimical” to battlefield discipline and organization appeared repeatedly in encyclopedia articles and surveys of military history throughout the twentieth century. It was supposed that knights, ever desirous of increasing their personal glory, turned battles into giant melees of individual combats. However, closer attention to the original sources by recent scholars has shown otherwise.

A fourteenth century English knight. In the late Middle Ages the cult of chivalry developed as the expression of a new, knightly identity, an ethos that sometimes shaped the contours of battle.

(Library of Congress)

Well before battle got under way, medievalKnightsknights reported to a muster less as individuals than as members of a group. At the very least, they came as part of a lord’s retinue, following his banner and perhaps wearing colors or insignia indicating their corporate identity. By the 1300’s, even individual knights typically reported with a coterie of aides. In fourteenth century France this group, often called a Lance (unit of knights)lance, consisted of two men; in the 1400’s the standard composition was three. These units could then be organized as necessary into larger units called by multiple terms: Banner (unit of knights)Conrois (unit of knights)Échelle (unit of knights)[Echelle]banners, conrois, échelles, batailles, or Battle (unit of knights) battles. Such units were then spread in compact ranks across the perceived battlefield. The widespread use of these terms across Europe and in all vernaculars indicates such tactical units had a long history in medieval warfare.

Vernacular literature also reveals that these units stayed together compactly in battle rather than being dispersed enough to allow the individual combats supposedly characteristic of war in the Middle Ages. The Chansons de gestechansons de geste (literally “songs of war”) repeatedly describe the ranks of armies as being drawn up so tightly that objects thrown amid them would not have reached the ground. Latin prelate William of William of TyreWilliam of Tyre (Latin prelate) Tyre (c. 1130-1185) provides a particularly instructive example, describing a Crusade in 1180 to relieve the fortress of Darum. Partly out of fear and partly from lack of training, the crusading knights crowded so compactly together that their ability to launch an attack was hampered. Nonetheless, this dense group forced its way through the Muslim lines with steady pressure, rather than a dramatic charge. Their success was a testament more to their organization and discipline than to their reckless courage.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

A legacy of late nineteenth century medieval studies has been an appreciation of the quality of medieval military strategy and tactics. Until that time, medieval historians had been heirs to the military tradition of the decisive battle. Such historians often had been frustrated by the study of medieval military efforts, because they saw a quite random pattern of violence marking medieval campaigns. The historians could not find the decisive, battlefield resolution that they assumed was the natural goal of any expedition. The repetitive medieval cycle of raid and counterraid appeared only as senseless violence. The appearance was only made worse by the fact that medieval commanders had, in the fifth century Roman military theorist Flavius Vegetius Vegetius Renatus, FlaviusVegetius Renatus, FlaviusRenatus’s treatise De Re Militari (between 383 and 450 c.e. ; The Fovre Bookes of Flauius Vegetius Renatus: Briefelye Contayninge a Plaine Forme and Perfect Knowledge of Martiall Policye, Feates of Chiualrie, and Vvhatsoeuver Pertayneth to Warre, 1572; also translated as Military Institutions of Vegetius, 1767), a reputable guide to the tactics and strategy of late fourth century Rome. Numerous copies of this work in both Latin and native dialects survive as evidence of its popularity. There is also narrative evidence that commanders such as Geoffrey of Anjou consulted Vegetius’s work for instruction on building incendiary devices. At the end of the Middle Ages, the dukes of Burgundy turned to Vegetius for counsel in building new siegeworks. Although the actual influence of Vegetius has been questioned, his work nonetheless served to introduce generations of medieval leaders to larger strategic issues.

One thing that medieval commanders understood quite well on their own was the utter uncertainty of Battle;strategic avoidance ofbattle. It was to be avoided not from fear, but from a sound recognition that far better means lay at hand to force an opponent to the bargaining table. The Latin kings of Jerusalem avoided battle as a policy, because the price of failure would be too high. In 1187 Guy de Guy de LusignanGuy de LusignanLusignan (1129-1194) gambled at Hattin, Battle of (1187)Hattin, and Saladin’s (1138-1193) resulting victory left the rest of the kingdom incapable of defense. The destruction that attended so many raids was actually part of the medieval “science of war.” Far more than daredevil heroes or wanton destroyers of countryside, good commanders such as William the Conqueror and Richard I conducted strategic raids that had the cumulative effect of enfeebling the opponent at the least risk to one’s own army. Richard’s case is all the more dramatic; in nearly thirty years of campaigning, he fought only one pitched battle by his own choice.

There were, of course, times to seek battle, as evidenced by William the Conqueror at Hastings (1066), Frederick II (1194-1250) at Cortenuova (1237), and the French in the great battles of the Hundred Years’ War. Each demonstrates a different aspect of strategy. The French doubtless felt they had met Vegetius’s criteria for offering battle; they had superiority of numbers, and the foe was in pitiful condition. Their defeats at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt served to reinforce the lesson of fickle fortune. Frederick II gambled in 1237 by dividing his forces, but he did so as a ruse; by convincing the Milanese that he was retiring for the winter, he engineered a devastating ambush. Under different conditions William worked to provoke Harold to battle in 1066, primarily because he could not hope to hold his invasion force together indefinitely. Many other battles, however, occurred in more accidental fashion; even though a clash was intended, Bouvines took place on a Sunday in 1214 because Otto IV’s forces overtook those of Philip II more quickly than was expected.

Although anything might transpire when battle did occur, a few themes appear amid the varied actualities. Although many other elements of medieval warfare are often emphasized, knights and their potential charge remained the central concern in battles. The actual, successful delivery of such a charge as both initiation and conclusion of a battle seems to have been a rare occurrence. Of more concern were the reserve or flanking units of cavalry, which many commanders kept ready. This very disposition belies the contention of some scholars that once battle was joined, the possibility of giving orders disappeared in the chaos. The prebattle arrangement of forces varied over the years. From the eleventh through early thirteenth centuries, commanders formed several long shallow lines composed mostly of infantry but often augmented by dismounted knights. Its primary role was to withstand the opponent’s charge. In protected positions, or even in front of this first line at the very start, archers would add their missile fire so as to disrupt the enemy assault. Variations on this line would appear. The Knights Knights TemplarTemplar had a “crown” formation they adopted for defense; the Flemings at Bouvines and the Scots a century later at Bannockburn withstood charges in circular formations. As the Flemings and later the Swiss fielded large numbers of infantry in the 1300’s, they utilized massive arrangements of squares and wedges with no real cen-

ter. Where the defending force was not wholly composed of infantry, the concern was to break the foe’s charge or at least engage it until a counterattack came from reserve or flanking units. Once a formation broke, the pursuit naturally involved the mounted units; even here, the pursuers had to take care they were not being drawn out of their formation and into an ambush by a feigned retreat. In all cases, the charging knights constituted a minority on the battlefield but remained uppermost in the minds of leaders and combatants.

Medieval Sources

In the area of military affairs, and most especially combat, medieval sources present a number of intersecting problems. The authoritative writers of the age were churchmen, men unlikely to have witnessed combat, particularly if they were monks. Some, such as William of William of TyreWilliam of Tyre (Latin prelate)Tyre or Ordericus Ordericus VitalisOrdericus Vitalis (Anglo-Norman chronicler)Vitalis, are noteworthy for having obviously sifted through their informants’ accounts to give posterity as full and accurate a narrative as possible. However, the details of battle often did not concern such writers; they were more interested in the miraculous than the human aspects of battle. Thus they told more of the saints who appeared in the melee than of the actual tactics employed. Moreover, because the lesson to be drawn from a military event was far more important, ecclesiastical writers tended to treat numbers with some license. Medium-sized hosts numbered 300 so often as to defy belief, whereas truly large armies appear in multiples of 100,000, numbers quite beyond the administrative capabilities of any medieval government. Further complications arose when clerics adapted terms from antiquity to refer to peculiarly medieval items.

Such problems can be occasionally resolved, however, by relying also on secular, typically vernacular sources. The documents written for the military elite help us by using more precise language. Even the fanciful world of the chansons de geste can be instructive if carefully culled. Such songs had a practiced, knightly audience in mind who would have little appreciated an inaccurate picture of the realities of battle, apart from the superhuman accomplishments of the heroes. The Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal (c. 1225; the story of Guillaume le Maréchal) often reads like the chansons but rather is a biography that has been found correct in many questionable details. Many of the poem’s events were clearly witnessed in person. Firsthand accounts include those of Ambroise Ambroise d’ÉvreuxAmbroise d’Évreux d’Évreux (fl. c. 1190), who was at Arsuf with Richard I; Jean (or John) de John of JoinvilleJohn of Joinville Joinville (c. 1224-1317), who was at Mansurah; and Jean le Jean le BelJean le Bel Bel (c. 1224-1317), who was in Scotland. These sources provide details on tactics, strategy, and weaponry, as well as a picture of the actual experience of the medieval warrior in combat. There were moments of both fear and courage.

Finally, there is the pictorial record. The Bayeux Bayeux tapestrytapestry is a uniquely rich source. Numerous medieval manuscripts, even many that do not deal specifically with military topics, abound with decorated letter forms and illustrations of combat in the margins. Awareness of the dates of such manuscripts allows scholars to refine theories on the use of certain weapons and armor. Similarly, the carvings in churches and monasteries reveal much about medieval armaments. The seals of many feudal lords are also instructive, although only for the weapons of the elite. Where details of armaments can be discerned in these smaller figures, though, the dating is quite precise.ChristendomChivalry;age ofCrusades

Books and Articles

  • Abels, Richard P., and Bernard S. Bachrach, eds. The Normans and Their Adversaries at War: Essays in Memory of C. Warren Hollister. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2001.
  • Bowlus, Charles R. The Battle of Lechfeld and Its Aftermath, August 955: The End of the Age of Migrations in the Latin West. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Bradbury, Jim. The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Translated by Michael Jones. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
  • DeVries, Kelly. Guns and Men in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500: Studies in Military History and Technology. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2002.
  • _______. Medieval Military Technology. Lewiston, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1992.
  • France, John. Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.
  • Funcken, Liliane, and Fred Funcken. The Age of Chivalry. 3 vols. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.
  • Harari, Yuval N. Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 2007.
  • Nicholson, Helen J., and David Nicolle. God’s Warriors: Crusaders, Saracens, and the Battle for Jerusalem. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2005.
  • _______. Medieval Warfare: Theory and Practice of War in Europe, 300-1500. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Nicolle, David. Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350. London: Greenhill Books, 1999.
  • _______. Fighting for the Faith: The Many Fronts of Medieval Crusade and Jihad, 1000-1500 A.D. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword Military, 2007.
  • Strickland, Matthew, ed. Anglo-Norman Warfare. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1992.
  • Verbruggen, J. F. The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1997.
  • Walsh, Michael J. Warriors of the Lord: The Military Orders of Christendom. Alresford, England: John Hunt, 2003.

Films and Other Media

  • Braveheart. Feature film. Icon Entertainment, 1995.
  • Charlemagne. Television miniseries. Acorn Media, 1994.
  • The Dark Ages. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.
  • Henry V. Feature film. BBC/Curzon/Renaissance, 1989.
  • In Search of History: The Knights Templar. Documentary. History Channel, 2005.
  • Knights and Armor. Documentary. History Channel, 2002.

Armies and Infantry: Ancient and Medieval


The Franks and the Holy Roman Empire

The Anglo-Saxons

The Lombards

The Magyars

The Vikings

Crusading Armies of the West

Knights to Cavalry