The Myths of Medieval Warfare

The Myths of Medieval WarfareThe Myths of Medieval Warfare

By Sean McGlynn

History Today  Vol. 44 (1994)

The study of medieval warfare has suffered from an approach that concentrates on its social, governmental and economic factors to the detriment of military methods and practice. The nature of feudal society has been analysed in great depth, but its application to how wars were actually fought has largely been ignored and frequently misinterpreted. Despite recent important work these misinterpretations have been stubbornly persistent, perpetuating the long-held myth that the art of warfare reached its nadir in the Middle Ages. John Keegan’s latest book, A History of Warfare (Hutchinson, 1993), reflects the view of some leading military historians in referring to ‘the long interregnum between the disappearance of the disciplined armies of Rome and the appearance of state forces in the sixteenth century’. In The Wars of the Roses (Cassell, 1993), Robin Neillands regards knightly warfare as involving no great skill, being simply a matter of bludgeoning one’s opponent to the ground. Whereas these and other historians have assimilated a number of the more correct observations on medieval warfare, the complete picture has remained frustratingly obscure.

That this should be so is due in the main to the success of the pioneering work of historians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among whom were Henri Delpech, Hans Delbrück and Sir Charles Oman. Oman’s influence has been particularly pervasive because of the continuing availability of a work considered a classic, The Art of War in the Middle Ages (the first edition was published by Blackwell in 1885, with a ninth printing by Cornell University Press in 1990; the final revised and improved edition in two volumes was published by Methuen in 1924, reprinted by Greenhill in 1991). Although much of Oman’s wide-ranging work was of value, his conclusions on ‘feudal’ warfare remained flawed. Ironically, both he and the distinguished historian, Ferdinand Lot, recognised the supreme importance of fortified places, but they concentrated instead on the appeal and drama of knights and battles.

Collectively, damaging myths of medieval warfare emerged from these historians. Battles were all important, fought by opposing armies of knights who would inadvertently encounter one another. The ensuing melee was a confusion of individual duels by glory-seeking knights set on establishing a martial reputation. The knight was ill-disciplined, too proud to fight on foot, adhered only to the most rudimentary tactics and was poorly led. No thought was given to logistics and ravaging was carried out for want of a coherent strategy. Infantry and archery, if present at all, were only marginal and ineffective, insignificant until the revolutionary tactics of the fourteenth century. The early modern period saw a new age in warfare, marked by the greater efficiency and tactics of the standing armies and by the prevalence of sieges.

Unfortunately, the study of medieval warfare has been dominated by general historians (military and otherwise), soldiers and enthusiasts whose neglect or uncritical use of the available primary sources has led to judgements formulated through inappropriate modern and comparative interpretations. The growth in governmental records in the later Middle Ages has provided a wealth of quantitative information on military matters, and the period has accordingly received more research than the eleventh to thirteenth centuries; but the potential of chronicles from this earlier period has not been fully exploited.

Despite his contributions to the subject, John Beeler wrote that the only literate class of the day were the clergy and monks who understandably ‘had little comprehension of military matters, and even less interest in … strategy and tactics’ (Warfare in Feudal Europe, Cornell University Press, 1971). This overlooks the evidence: William of Poitiers, Villehardouin and Joinville were just a few of the fighting men who wrote detailed accounts of war. The monks and clergy, meanwhile, could show as keen an interest in war as their fathers, brothers and patrons were members of the fighting class, the bellatores: Suger, Abbot of St Denis, gives a vigorous account of King Louis VI at war in his Life of Louis the Fat; Bishop Hugues of Auxerre would gather knights about him to discuss military lessons from Vegetius’ De Re Militari, a classical text valued as a handbook on war by medieval commanders. Many ecclesiastics took a more active involvement: the Bayeux Tapestry depicts Bishop Odo of Bayeux in battle at Hastings and Archbishop Turpin is given a heroic role in The Song of Roland (’Thousands of strokes the stout Archbishop strikes’).

All writers, whether military or clerical, came from the first ranks of the social order. It is this social aspect that explains the relative omission of lowly foot-soldiers and archers in the sources: they were always present in war but were afforded little mention. This has mistakenly been taken as evidence for their very limited value before the end of the thirteenth century.

The more egregious errors concerning medieval warfare should have been dispelled by two important revisionist books, R.C. Smail’s Crusading Warfare 1097-1193 (Cambridge University Press, 1956) and J.F. Verbruggen’s The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages from the Eighth Century (North-Holland 1977, originally published in Brussels in 1954). Both authors discredited the excessive focus of their predecessors on battles, stressing that in fact medieval commanders would normally adopt a strategy of battle avoidance rather than risk the consequences of a pitched battle. King John II of France was taken prisoner at Poitiers (1356) and at Bosworth (1485) the death of Richard III meant the loss of both king and cause. Verbruggen observes that between 1071 and 1328 in Flanders, frequently invaded, there were only eleven battles of note.

Smail’s study of crusading campaigns without battles shows that military activity on these occasions was nonetheless intensive, with intelligence gathering, ravaging, logistical concerns and other actions. Battles were only one of the means available to attain the objects of war … the true end of military activity was the capture and defence of fortified places’. This meant that medieval warfare confined itself to the achievement of known and limited aims, a concept different to the twentieth century’s one of engagement and destruction of the enemy’s forces and the unconditional surrender of the defeated.

Verbruggen also recognised the role of the castle but, even more than Smail, he concentrated on armies in the field, successfully challenging the myth of the blundering knight who had no idea of tactics. He went further than Smail in emphasising the skill and professionalism of the milites, the heavy cavalry of the Middle Ages. He contends that medieval warfare should not be judged according to the capability of the foot-soldiers, as had been the case, ‘but rather according to that of cavalry’. In reality, it should be evaluated on a number of important criteria infantry, logistics, strategy, tactics, recruitment, and sieges for example – of which cavalry is only one, albeit very important, element.

Verbruggen dismisses the view of battles as involving little more than knights in a series of individual combats. This myth has arisen from a misuse of the sources:

historians have kept the name of the prominent nobleman who fought at the head of his unit, but in their account of the engagement they forget the words cum suis, avec sa gent, cum sua acie [‘with his troops’), with the result that the fighting of entire formations is represented as a duel fought out by two champions.

These formations were made up of small tactical units (conrois) from which the larger batailles were formed. Knights trained for war in such units, especially at tournaments where manoeuvres and tactics were practised over a wide area through countryside and villages, formalised tilting at the lists coming only in the late thirteenth century. Sources such as The History of William the Marshal confirm the level of skills necessary for combat’, as the twelfth-century chronicler, Roger of Howden, wrote: ‘without practice the art of war did not come naturally when it was needed’.

Training instilled discipline into the knight. The image of the impulsive knight charging headlong into the fray is largely a false one.An Arabian warrior in the Crusades, Usamah ibn Munqidh, complained of his enemies: ‘Of all men, the Franks are the most cautious in warfare’. Discipline was vital to the success of the cavalry The shock charge, the knight’s greatest tactical weapon, depended on the serried ranks of the cavalry maintaining tight formation during the assault thereby creating an irresistible force that could, according to the Byzantine, Anna. Comnena, break through the walls of Bahylon. The victory won by Simon de Montfort’s greatly out numbered French force at Muret in 1213 showed what it could achieve the Crusaders burst through the enemy ranks to reach King Peter of Aragon, killing him and annihilating his army. Incidentally, this battle also offers a good example of a medieval commander directing his mounted tactical reserve in a decisive flank attack. Verbruggen also establishes that knights could be recalled from: charge and be reorganised for further assaults, rebutting a long-held belie to the contrary. A variation of this was the feigned flight, most famously employed at Hastings in 1066, a tactic devised to draw out the defences of the enemy, thereby rendering him more vulnerable to a renewed cavalry charge.

The knight, then, was a disciplined and well-trained professional soldier. Was he also chivalrous? The knight’s code of honour should not be under- estimated and was of great importance, but so was his quest for financial rewards. Capture of an opposing knight, whether in a tournament or on the battlefield, meant lucrative gains from ransom and booty (preda) in the form of expensive armour and warhorses. A knight was worth more alive than dead. Orderic Vitalis, writing on the battle of Brémule in 1119 informs us that only three knights were killed, but 140 were taken prisoner. He attributes this to the protective efficacy of the armour and because the knights, as ‘Christian warriors, had no desire to shed the blood of their brothers’. Indeed not; they desired instead to ransom their brothers for large sums of money. The belief that medieval warfare centred around knightly duels has fuelled the study of chivalry. However, in warfare, chivalry applied only to the knight, and it ignored other vital elements. Maurice Keen in Chivalry (Yale, 1984), the standard work on the subject, highlights this when discussing advances in cavalry tactics, judiciously noting that ‘advances in castle building and in techniques of siege warfare were equally or even more important’.

The various strands of war are admirably drawn together in Philippe Contamine’s classic, War in the Middle Ages (Blackwell, 1984; translated by Michael Jones). This authoritative overview stresses the interconnection of war with society as a whole, rightly holding that war is ‘the product of a whole cultural, technical and economic environment’. He places war against the background of the commercial revolution and changes in government and administration in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the outcome of which was an increasingly monetised society.

Perhaps the most obvious implication of a money economy for war was the emergence of the permanent armies identified with the early modern period. In this light the innovative indenture system of Edward I (1272-1307) is seen as instrumental in heralding the eventual decline of the feudal summons in favour of more professional, paid forces. This belief is countered in an important recent book edited by Matthew Strickland, Anglo-Norman Warfare (Boydell, 1992), which makes accessible to a wider audience a collection of eclectic academic articles by specialists, primarily written during the last fifteen years. Where recognition has been given to medieval warfare for proficient recruitment; the use of effective infantry, archery and dismounted knights, competent leadership and strategy, and the chevauchée, historians have tended to date these developments from the later Middle Ages, and especially from the revolution in tactics and organisation under Edward I. The contributors to Anglo-Norman Warfare trace these developments to an earlier period, encouraging debate between early and late medievalists. Whereas some of these issues were raised by Smail, Verbruggen and Contamine, their conclusions were sometimes hesitant and not fully developed; more importantly, the degree of emphasis, repeatedly accentuated in these articles, recreates a much clearer and more authentic picture of the true nature of warfare throughout the Middle Ages.

J.O. Prestwich argues that feudalism has been overrated as a method of military organisation; money always formed the sinews of war and was a more consistent method of recruitment. As Richard FitzNeal wrote c. 1179, money was ‘poured out in fortifying castles [and] in soldiers’ wages’. The Treaty of Dover in 1101 is given as an example of an early indenture system. By the terms of this treaty, Henry I of England hired 1,000 Flemish knights from. Count Robert of Flanders at the price of £500 per annum. Prestwich significantly remarks that at a time when the feudal levy of England did not produce more than 5,000 knights, Henry had ‘been arranging for the service of 1,000 knights from one external source alone’. Elsewhere, he writes that the military household (familia regis) of the Norman kings ’supplied the standing professional element, capable of fighting independent actions and, for a major campaign, providing the framework into which other forces could be fitted’. This permanent force was prominent in battles and controlled an extensive network of castles; in structure and size it was comparable to the familia regis of Edward I. This degree of continuity in the military organisation of England in the Middle Ages reveals the long evolution to the standing armies of the early modern period.

In articles affirming the skill of medieval generalship as demonstrated by Richard the Lionheart, William the Conqueror and William the Marshal, John Gillingham addresses some of the routine activities in warfare. Ravaging (terram depopulare, vastare) and plundering were not matters of mindless destruction or the only means of obtaining food and supplies (the importance of logistics to military considerations is underlined); destroying the enemy’s crops and livestock undermined his economic base and thereby deprived him of the revenues essential for the waging of war. It was a possible means of provoking an opponent into the field, but normally a strategy of battle avoidance prevailed. In 1054, Duke William defended Normandy by shadowing the invading forces, preventing them from ravaging and foraging his lands, all the while avoiding a full engagement. The effects of ravaging could be devastating, as commanders put into operation a cardinal lesson of Vegetius: ‘the main and principal point in war is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than the sword’. In the Hundred Years’ War ravaging is better known as the chevauchée.

According to Oman, the later Middle Ages lay claim to ‘one of the first medieval generals who shows a complete appreciation of the value of time in war’, referring to Edward IV on account of his ‘accustomed celerity’ in the Wars of the Roses. As Gillingham shows, The History of William the Marshal is just one source that makes repeated reference to rapid troop movements and the element of surprise: at Winchester in 1141 King Stephen’s swift and unexpected arrival put the Empress Matilda to flight; and a night march by John Marshal in the same year was used to lay an ambush.

A royal act from France in 1188 stipulated that Tournai had to provide 300 heavy infantry (predites bene armatos) when summoned by Philip II, a substantial number from one source, and one of many cases to rebut the view that medieval foot-soldiers only became a significant and effective force in the fourteenth century. Articles by Matthew Bennet, Jim Bradhury and John Gillingham reveal the ‘vitally important’ role of infantry by such telling examples as when the spears of Henry II’s foot-soldiers saw off the French cavalry at Gisors in 1188 (’not the kind of thing that is supposed to happen in medieval warfare before the battle of Courtai in 1302′) and the series of battles in England and Normandy between 1066 and 1141 which display the tactical combination of cavalry, dismounted knights, archers and infantry.

Medieval strategy cannot be understood outside the context of siege warfare and the castle’s military role, areas that have been subject to oversight. Matthew Strickland’s article on invasion and defence strategy builds on Smail’s conclusions by analysing the Anglo-Scottish campaigns of 1138 and 1173-74. He details how some castles would be deliberately destroyed or left unprepared at the outbreak of war, with resources and manpower concentrated on a number of key strongholds. This was a common medieval practice, as implemented by Charles VI of France during the Hundred Years’ War following a survey of his castles by his knights. Although this would not stop an invading army from ravaging the surrounding territories, ‘the conquest of a disputed region could only be achieved by the occupation or the destruction of its castles’. Rather than giving battle and risk losing garrison manpower, a defending force was often better to remain in relative safety behind castle walls until the invading force withdrew. This was exactly the policy of Count Baldwin of Hainault in 1184 who, immured in his castle and watching enemies ravage his fields, remarked: ‘They can’t take the land with them’. Given that the most fundamental principle of medieval warfare was the rule of territory through occupying strongholds, much work remains to be done on castle strategy to improve our understanding of war in the Middle Ages. (A forthcoming companion volume to Anglo-Norman Warfare, focusing on castles and fortifications, will make more accessible some of this work.)

As the ultimate objective of medieval strategy was the control of fortifications, this meant sieges – and lots of them. As with ravaging, the chronicles are replete with references to sieges (obsidiones). Jim Bradbury’s The Medieval Siege (Boydell, 1992) is a much needed comprehensive survey of this neglected field. The multitude of methods involved in taking a strongpoint – starving, mining, storming, bombardment, treachery, bribery, ruse and, most usually of all, negotiations – indicate how large a branch of conflict poliorcetics (siege warfare) is it is also the most important part. Paradoxically, despite recognition of this, it has received relatively little attention; but nor has it been misrepresented. Sieges have occasionally been more closely identified with early modern warfare, but this should no longer be so as Geoffrey Parker has noted their key role in the Middle Ages in The Military Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

A major implication of sieges for armies in the field was their duration. A besieging army settling down for a long investiture was vulnerable to disease and being caught between the garrison and a relieving army. It is instructive that most battles arose from sieges and many involved relief forces: Tinchebrai (1106), Lincoln (1141), Formigny (1450). Primary strongholds generally required a lengthy blockade: Chateau-Gaillard (1203-4) and Rouen (1418-19) each lasted nearly six months; Calais (1346-47) took eleven months. Medieval warfare was clearly not a seasonal occupation restricted to the summer months.

A particularly contentious issue in medieval military debates concerns the longbow: was it a revolutionary or an evolutionary weapon Jim Bradbury turns his attention to this question in The Medieval Archer (Boydell, 1985), convincingly challenging the conventional view that the longbow was a new and devastating weapon only fully adopted by the English after the experience of Edward I’s armies against Welsh archers at the end of the thirteenth century. He notes that the term ‘longbow’ was not used by contemporaries, even during the Hundred Years’ War. Of greater importance, he stresses the role of the archer throughout the Middle Ages, and not just from the fourteenth century. Although the 1181 Assize of Arms (Henry II’s famous ordinance for the arming of his English subjects) makes no mention of the bow, the continental edict of the same time does (arcum et sagittas). Bradbury investigates the significant part played by archery at the battles of Hastings (1066), Bourgthéroulde (1124) and of the Standard (1138). Together with the specific mentions in Henry III’s Assize of 1252, this brings the bow up to the eve of the Welsh Wars. The continuity is even more marked when one considers a successful summons by King John in 1215. Roger of Wendover reports that many men had to be dismissed from the expeditionary force; only the most important troops were retained, and these included the archers.

The archer’s role is best recognised in the famous battles of the Hundred Years’ War, most notably Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), the startling result of Edward I’s original tactics in his Scottish wars. But Bradbury clearly proves that the tactic of deploying archers with dismounted knights was a practice used in the twelfth century. Archers at Bourgthéroulde halted a cavalry charge before it reached the knights on foot. At the Battle of the Standard most of the English knights dismounted while others were kept for the cavalry reserve. Archers and spearmen were positioned in the front rank; dismounted knights were mixed in with the archers. In both battles archery was instrumental to the victory. Thus ‘it is not easy to see anything novel in the use of dismounted men-at-arms and archers in the Hundred Years’ War’. What was new and developed in the Scottish wars, however, was ‘the sheer increase in the number of archers employed’, and it was this that created such an impact in the fourteenth century.

Every period of history has its share of military blunders, inept leaders and poor organisation, but it is a mistake to consider them as the norm in medieval warfare rather than as exceptions to the rule. War in the Middle Ages was fought as competently as in any other period and the era does not represent a hiatus in the evolution of military history. In about 375 BC, Plato wrote in The Republic that it is ‘of the greatest importance that the business of war should be efficiently run’. The Middle Ages channelled their best efforts to this end, and with appreciable success.

This article was originally published in History Today, vol. 44 no. 1 (1994). We thank History Today and Sean McGlynn for their permission to republish this article. An updated (2001) historiographical surveys are to be found in Sean McGlynn’s essays in Charles Messenger (ed), Reader’s Guide to Military History .

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