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.
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
Although scholarly ideas about its dominance and character are undergoing continual revision, the network of
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
Holy Roman Empire, c. 1190
It would be difficult to overstate the reciprocal influences on each other of the
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
The conviction that the Middle Ages was above all the Age of
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’
The innovations in gunpowder and armor in the later medieval period caused rapid changes in sword design. As the transition from chain
For both infantry and cavalry, however, the
Major Sites in the Hundred Years’ War, 1337-1453
The medieval cavalry’s switch to sturdier
The necessary prerequisite to such mounted combat is the
Infantry weapons, such as the spear, remained mostly unchanged until the late medieval period. However, there were experimental modifications. King Philip
There was no shortage of other handheld weapons. The Vikings often used
Armies of the High Middle Ages understood the value of missile weapons and relied upon a variety of them.
The best-known bow of the Middle Ages is the Welsh
The counterpart of the longbow was the
Apart from personal weapons, successful armies also employed a siege
The siege weapons handled by the new specialists worked by one of three means. The
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 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 Bayeux
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
A turning point in medieval warfare came with the widespread adoption of
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.
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.
Well before battle got under way, medieval
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
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
One thing that medieval commanders understood quite well on their own was the utter uncertainty of
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
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.
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
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
Finally, there is the pictorial record. The Bayeux
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Armies and Infantry: Ancient and Medieval
The Franks and the Holy Roman Empire
Crusading Armies of the West
Knights to Cavalry