Carey/Allfree/Cairns — Warfare in the Medieval World

 Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B. Allfree, and John Cairns

Warfare in the Medieval World

Pen & Sword, Barnsley-U.K., 2006. Pp. viii, 262. 47 Maps and 2 figure.

9781848847415_p0_v1_s260x420Carey, assistant professor of history and military history in the American Military University System, was assisted by Allfree who served as “Tactical Map Illustrator” and Cairns who served as “Regional Map Illustrator” in writing Warfare. This work is intended as the second volume of a pre-modern military history textbook, volume one treats  Warfare in the Ancient World (2005).  The text under review here is divided into seven chapters:

  • 1-”The Early Middle Ages; The Rise of Cavalry in Europe: Byzantium at War,”
  • 2-The Early Middle Ages: Invasion and Response: The Rise of Heavy Cavalry in Western Europe;
  • 3-”The High Middle Ages: Heavy Cavalry Dominant”;
  • 4-”Late Medieval Warfare: The Mongol Invasion of the West,”
  • 5- “Late Medieval Warfare: The Return of Light Infantry,”
  • 6- “Late Medieval Warfare: The Return of Heavy Infantry,” and
  • 7-”The ‘Military Revolution’ and Early Modern Warfare”.

The volume is rounded out with a “glossary of military terms”; 13 pages of notes, “A selected Bibliography” of 3 pages, and an index.

From Warfare the reader must get the impression that during the Middle Ages military campaigning was dominated by battles in the field. This, of course, is not only misleading but also simply wrong. As specialists in medieval military history have long recognized, warfare during the Middle Ages was dominated by sieges. In fact, the relatively few battles in the field that can be identified, as compared with sieges, were brought about, in general, by efforts to raise a siege or to stop one from being established in the first place. Throughout the Middle Ages, military strategy was based upon avoiding battle in the field. Here the advice of Vegetius’s De re Militari (known only from a redaction in 450 AD) was regarded as the auctoritas. Thus, campaigning, when not focused on sieges, resulted in a war of maneuver. Vernichtungskrieg was not an aspect of medieval Christian warfare.

Because siege warfare was dominant, it was necessary for large armies to be mobilized if the strategic goal was territorial conquest. Thus, the primary targets were massive stone fortress cities, which were the centers of government, population, economic wealth, and religious administration. For example, a city such a Paris, that had a population of some 25,000 ca.800, and could mobilize about 7, 500 able bodied males between the ages of 15 and 55 years of age to serve as militia troops to defend the walls. In such a circumstance, a besieging force that wished to mount a credible threat to take the city by storm and thereby encourage the defenders to surrender prior to the initiation of hostilities had to number a minimum of some  30,000 properly equipped effectives. If a large enough attacking force were not available then it was necessary to starve the  target fortress into submission. This placed an immense logistic burden on the besieging force, which could not live off the land for a lengthy period of time. In addition, such a force required numerous engineers and other specialists to maintain the siege.

Battle represents but a tiny fragment of the total number of military operations undertaken during more than a millennium in Western Europe alone, not to mention the Middle East. In sum, Carey’s focus, while misleading in terms of any general discussion of warfare during the Middle Ages, nevertheless gives promise, initially, of casting light on medieval battle tactics. Carey examines thirty-three medieval battles in detail from those of the emperor Justinian I (†565) to the battle of Lüzen in 1632. It is Carey’s aim “to survey the changing tactical relationships between the four weapon systems—heavy and light infantry, and heavy and light cavalry—focusing on how shock and missile combat evolved on the battlefield of the Near East and Europe.” (p. 1).

While I have no quarrel, in principle, regarding Carey’s identification of four weapon systems, his understanding of what actually was in train regarding the development and use of such systems leaves much to be desired. For example, Carey recognizes that the Byzantines during the sixth century, as he argues in his discussion of Justinianic military operations, gave greater weight to cavalry than had been the case among their Roman predecessors. He argues that this came about because of “prolonged martial contacts with the Near East.” (p. 10). But then goes on to note that the Sassanid Persians, who replaced the Parthians, fought in the same manner as their predecessors. However, Carey seems to want his readers to believe that the Byzantines putatively altered the balance between infantry and cavalry because of what was going on among the Persians. Perhaps seeing the futility of this argument, he then claims that the Byzantines adopted the stirrup sometime in the late sixth century (Justinian died in 565) and thereby made their lancers into true cavalry. Not only is the introduction of the stirrup misdated but what of all the effective mounted lancers, e.g., those who served under Alexander, who had no stirrups?

When we come to the early Middle Ages, Carey’s focus is on Charles Martel. His army at Poitiers in 732 is characterized as composed of “mounted infantry”, apparently because most of those elements of his force that were mounted dismounted to fight on foot in this battle. However, there is no basis to believe that the whole or even most of Charles’ army was mounted for the march south. Moreover, Carey’s account of the battle of Poitiers, itself, is rather more fantasy than fact and the five “maps” of the phases of the battle owe, in my view, a great deal to an overheated imagination. Carey seems unaware that both the Franks and the Muslims maintained archers, and the former even legislated regarding these men.

As Carey’s use of words such a “feudal”, i.e. “Charlemagne relied on feudal levies” and led a “feudal fighting force”, (p. 49) are applied to aspects of Carolingian military organization, it is clear that he is not aware of Reynold’s paradigmatic work, Fiefs and Vassals.[[1]] There is no basis to Carey’s assertion that “heavy cavalry was the centerpiece of the Carolingian tactical system” and “a harbinger of things of come” (pp. 49-50). Heavily armed cavalry using mounted shock combat tactics were not a fundamental aspect of Carolingian military operations in the field or for that matter was it this the case later part of the Middle Ages. Carey’s misunderstanding of the battle of the Lechfield in 955 is but one more example of his effort to see heavy cavalry where it was of relatively minor importance. Unfortunately, the classic treatment of the battle by Bowlus appeared only in 2006 [[2]], too late to be used by Carey.

I could go on pointing out problems with Carey’s treatment of battles in the Middle Ages, which are not, in general, based upon his analysis of the primary sources nor acquaintance with what I regard to be the best scholarly work. In addition, Carey needs to work more carefully with regard to numbers of effectives, which in turn raise the question logistics, in general, and more particularly, the resupply of arrows and crossbow bolts. I will end an already overlong review with various facts that cause problems for Carey’s models. For example, both the Vikings and elements in the armies of the Anglo-Saxons were heavy infantry and enjoyed great tactical flexibility. In addition, the former were able to use artillery. The Magyars were light cavalry armed with reflex bows, but they also could mobilize large numbers of foot soldiers who were capable of using heavy artillery for attacks on major fortresses such as at Augsburg in 955. Finally, despite much that has been written regarding the battle of Hastings, William’s archers were key to victory and his heavily mounted troops not only failed to break the Anglo-Saxon phalanx but were of little value during the pursuit.

Various of Carey’s ideas regarding combinations of men and armaments can be helpful if they are not forced into rigid models, which generally can only be supported by an opportunistic selection of facts and examples. In addition, the elaborate battlefield maps are based too much on imagination or, at the least, undefended imagination. A more loosely structured approach to weapon systems not only likely would work better, but would come closer to being accurate. The glossary, which can be helpful, would seem, at times, to be presenting definitions and needs to be more carefully handled. For example, a clear understanding of both general and select levies (Anglo-Saxon, great fyrd and select fyrd) would be very helpful.

In conclusion, I would not recommend this volume as a teaching tool unless the professor who uses it is an expert in medieval military history, which Carey is not, and can use the examples provided by Carey in an effective and critical manner.

Bernard S. Bachrach

University of Minnesota <>

[1] Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[2] Charles R. Bowlus, The Battle of Lechfeld and Its Aftermath, August 955: The End of the Age of Migrations in the Latin West (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006).

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