During the last days of the Roman Empire, the Western European landscape was divided among various Germanic tribes, remaining bastions of Roman administrative rule, and surviving Roman military settlements, or laeti.
During the last days of the Roman Empire, the Western European landscape was divided among various Germanic tribes, remaining bastions of Roman administrative rule, and surviving Roman military settlements, or laeti. The Franks alone were divided into at least four subgroups that competed for control with various Gallo-Roman magnates whose cities and surrounding territories comprised lands sufficient for them to be called sub reguli, or “sub-kings,” in the sources. It is little wonder that any military commander with enough drive and power to stitch together an identifiable fabric from this crazy quilt of disarray would be hailed as more than just another king. Such a man was Clovis
Although Clovis was named consul by the eastern emperor
At this point, an office originally intended to relieve the kings of burdensome daily administrative duties began to encroach on royal prerogatives. The position of major domo had been created to oversee supplies and the smooth running of the royal estates. During the turbulent civil wars, the office came to be occupied by key magnates of the realm who could bring military power to the side of their king. By the mid-600’s, the Merovingian kings had begun to place more military authority in the hands of the mayors. By 687 the mayor Pépin of
This move inaugurated an efflorescence of Frankish power under Pépin and his legendary son, Charles (742-814), known as
The Frankish legacy is one of military conquest. Clovis’s accession to the Frankish throne in 482 came at a time in which there was no one overarching military presence in northern Gaul. Therefore, with a fairly small contingent of troops, Clovis was able, in 486, to conquer the Kingdom of
The sons of Clovis were mostly concerned with one another’s patrimony, but they did cooperate long enough to effect the conquest of
After unity was restored under Chlotar
In the ensuing years, as the Carolingians made their rule officially royal, Pépin the Short conquered central Italy for the Pope, the so-called Donation of
Throughout this period the Franks evolved from a fragmented Germanic tribe to become the single strongest military force in Europe. By incorporating into their fighting forces the strengths of the various peoples they conquered, the Franks became so powerful that the Pope, when threatened in the 750’s with
Despite these variations, the typical
Frankish shields appear to have been round, or occasionally elliptical, and of 32 to 36 inches in diameter. A metal stud in the center permitted the soldier to strike his opponent with a punching motion, giving the shield offensive as well as defensive possibilities. The shield was usually made of wood, rimmed with iron or, in lesser instances, wicker covered by hides.
Swords seem to have been fairly rare in the Frankish world, as they were throughout early medieval Europe. Those that did exist were of two types: the long
A favorite weapon of the Frankish infantryman, particularly in the early years of the period, was the
Although some sources claim that the Franks were without bows and
Body armor included the
Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, united the Frankish kingdoms and solidified the division between the Roman Empire in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East.
Despite the general impression of early medieval warfare as undertaken by ignorant armies, the military organization of this period in Francia was quite complex. When Clovis began his career of conquest he assembled warbands of Frankish sub-kings, the armed retainers of Gallo-Roman magnates, descendants of Roman garrisons, armed colonists, or laeti, from late Imperial days, and barbarian allies. Each of these components could be expected to contribute their distinctive abilities. For example, the Alan laeti of
The major addition to this system, introduced in Francia during the time of Clovis’s warring grandsons (c. 560-590), was the introduction of
Division of Charlemagne’s Empire
The Roman tradition was one of each landowning group supplying a man from their land to serve in the army. This was called
There were, however, distinctions among the levies, of which there appear to have been two types. Local levies, only affecting the territorium of certain cities, did not include the poor or those whose absence from farming or commerce would cause disruption to the flow of society. The city would make the determination as to who would be called up and who would be excused. General levies, on the other hand, were just that: a general call to arms of every able-bodied man. Even general levies were restricted to the areas under direct threat. The general levies, owing to the low level of military fitness among the troops, were not particularly helpful. As the Frankish presence expanded throughout Gaul and into Germany and Italy, so did the concept of local and general levies.
By late Carolingian times, the Franks had virtually re-created the old Roman praebitio tironum. Charlemagne’s edict of 806 required men of a certain level of landholding to fight and those of lesser landholdings to pool their responsibility with others to share in the provision of a warrior. A man whose small landholding was not enough for him to serve personally, but who joined with others to furnish a warrior and supplies, was said to have done his military service. All this could be seen to offer great numerical potential for Frankish armies. Yet out of a possible thirty-five thousand horsemen and some hundred thousand foot soldiers available to Charlemagne, his usual victorious army numbered from fifteen to twenty thousand, at the most. Given the shrunken state of early medieval armies, however, this was more than enough to dominate.
The issue of doctrine, strategy, and tactics to a large degree revolves around the question of how
Despite this alleged barbarianism, there are certain strategic considerations that can be seen in the Frankish campaigns. Clovis seems to have intentionally sought territorial expansion and executed a systematic campaign of besieging cities after his decisive victory in the open field at Vouillé. His sons and grandsons, however, appear to have begun and finished campaigns with little more than a grand raiding objective in mind. It would not be until the era of Pépin the Short and Charlemagne that the Franks would reattain a strategic view of conquest and the reduction of rebellious peoples. With that as their objective, the Franks invested their energies in the capture of key cities, using a type of scorched-earth policy to deny the strongholds their subsistence.
The Franks seem to have been somewhat deficient in siege
Frankish battle tactics included the basic barbarian charge, called
Toward the end of the Frankish period, as
Although sources are not lacking for the period from 482 to 918, many are flawed as reliable sources of information. A common problem is brevity; for example, the Viking invasions are frequently dismissed with a terse “this year the heathen ravaged.” There is also a fundamental problem of worldview. The sources of the early medieval period more frequently recount facts than convey causation. They describe what happened, but not why. Despite an abundance of detail about an event, the lack of analysis often hinders a holistic understanding of the event. Information about weapons, tactics, and military matters must be gleaned from chance comments offhandedly dropped into narratives. It is revealed, for example, that as Count Leudast strode into church, he wore a mail shirt, had a bow and arrow, a javelin, and a cuirass, but his sword is mentioned only when, much later in the story, he is called to defend himself. When descriptions are offered, they can be maddeningly vague.
Nevertheless, the sources available for interpretation do include some gems of Western historiography. They begin with Gregory of
A Byzantine view on the Carolingian military is found in the Tactica of the emperor Leo
A vast and disparate field of supplemental study is that of the lives of the various saints from the period. Once again, it is the accidental rather than the intentional inclusion of material that repays the search.
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Armies of Christendom and the Age of Chivalry
Crusading Armies of the West