The recruitment of armies in the early middle ages: what can we know?

Medieval WarfareThe recruitment of armies in the early middle ages: what can we know?

Timothy Reuter

Military Aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective, AD 1-1300 (Copenhagen, 1997)


The study of medieval warfare has probably both benefitted and suffered from the lengthy peace which the OECD countries at least have enjoyed since the second world war. Historians of my generation have not only rarely heard a shot fired in anger, they have seldom had contact with those who have. This may perhaps have freed them from certain kinds of subject-specific concerns: just as historians of monasticism from within the monastic orders are inclined to posit a set of timeless monastic values with which all true monasticism of whatever period conforms, so military historians are prey to the assumption that there is a certain timelessness to warfare. But the price of freedom fro such preconceptions has undoubtedly been that most medievalists — and I include myself here — no longer have the practical experience which might on occasion save them from talking nonsense about military matters.

             Discussions of recruitment and the composition of armies have been affected not so much by developments in military history as by a different set of prevailing trends in medievalists’ interests: ‘constitutional history’, which two generations ago lay at the core of our subject as most of us conceived it, is no longer studied so intensively as it once was. The recruitment and composition of armies has traditionally been at least as much a concern of constitutional as of military historians, because of its links with things like ‘feudalism’ and the powers of rulers over their ‘subjects’. This should be borne in mind when considering what follows. What I intend to do is to look at the different ways in which armed forces could be put together in Europe in the late Merovingian, Carolingian and post-Carolingian eras, and then to go on to the much trickier question of how far we can tell how any particular army was put together on specific occasions. As you will see, I shall be arguing that we know quite a bit about how armies could be assembled, but that we need to show a considerable degree of scepticism when considering how any specific army was assembled. The potential sources of military manpower fall into four main categories: households, mercenaries, followings, and conscripts. They overlap in practice, but the categories are convenient nevertheless. In the first part of my paper I propose to discuss these four groups in turn; in the second, I shall turn to the question of numbers and relative importance, and their implications for the composition of armies. I shall not be talking about fortifications and garrisons, for reasons of time.


Rulers in this period — and quasi-rulers like ealdormen, jarls, Frankish princes and east European princes/dukes as well as many bishops — could normally be expected to have a personal military following in permanent attendance, the kind of warrior corresponding to the milites gregarii or milites casati of eleventh- and twelfth-century sources. Such followings fulfilled important representational and protective functions. They also had a military significance; it would appear that such warriors could take on the role of a rapid-reaction force; the scarae of Carolingian warfare often appear to have been sent out from the court, though references in other sources to scariti homines imply that this need not always have been the case (Reuter 1985: 76-7). There is good, though circumstantial, evidence that this was an activity characteristic of a particular stage in the life-cycle: we should envisage them as being not unlike the iuvenes of eleventh- and twelfth-century sources, earning their keep and their reputations before (if they were lucky) settling down. At any rate Bede and other Anglo-Saxon texts seem to presuppose this (Charles-Edwards 1976; Abels 1988: 30-5), and so do the admittedly late and ‘literary’ but not on that account to be wholly ignored accounts of Icelanders’ service with Norwegian and Danish rulers in the thirteenth-century Family Sagas. Characteristic of such warriors is the way in which they were rewarded by regular gifts of movable wealth, as noted already by Hincmar of Rheims of Frankish followers in the ninth century, and by Alfred the Great’s well-known account of the tools of the trade which kings must dispose of to do their job (Nelson 1983 and 1994: 141). In general we must assume that their royal and other lords assumed responsibility for their upkeep. In this respect they differ from mercenaries, to whom I shall turn in a moment, only in the fact that they might well, socially speaking, have been part of the political community in which they served, or have expected to have become part of that political community at some later stage in their careers. But even this will not have applied to all of them; many kept warriors were men of no particular status, and some may even have been of servile or near-servile origins.


Mercenaries is of course a problematic and morally-loaded notion. We are not yet dealing with the Brabantines and Rotten of the twelfth-century employed by both Barbarossa and his successors and the Angevin rulers, or with the contracts made by counts of Flanders with English rulers. In many ways, ‘foreigners’ would do just as well. There is good evidence for virtually all the major military powers of Europe in the tenth and eleventh centuries that their rulers employed a military bodyguard with a substantially or even exclusively foreign component. This I think remains a valid point even where, as with the huscarles and the hirð, the group’s membership might be extended much more widely to cover those who were no longer permanent members of an elite Praetorian Guard:

—        the evidence for the Ottonian rulers is weakest, but even here there are hints: the Slav warrior who helped to rescue Otto II after the disastrous battle at Cap Cotrone, the ‘present’ of warriors made by Boleslav Chrobry to Otto III at Gnieszno in 1000 (and Boleslav’s unfulfilled promise of military service on Henry II’s Italian expedition of 1014, reciprocated by Saxon service in his Kiev campaign in 1018) (Thietmar of Merseburg III 21, IV 46, VIII 32);

—        possibly, though not unproblematically, the huscarles of eleventh-century England (Hooper 1985), with their precursors in the ‘foreigners’ whom Edgar is said to have taken into his service and shown excessive favour towards (Leyser 1994a: 99);

—        the Slav armies employed by the caliphs of Córdoba in the tenth and early eleventh centuries (Kennedy forthcoming);

—        the eleventh-century Varangian guard at Byzantium;

—        the ‘foreign’ troops who are known to have fought for Boleslav Chrobry, for Stephen of Hungary, and for Jaroslav of Kiev;

—        last, and by no means least, the hirð of tenth- and eleventh-century Danish and Norwegian rulers.

These groups vary quite widely, not least in what we know about them; but characteristic of all of them (except perhaps for the Islamic example) appears to be the way in which membership of them was essentially defined by a personal bond established between ruler and warrior — and not by ‘nationality’, whatever we take that to mean.


The conventional textbook picture of most military organisation in the Europe of, say, 700 to 1100 and beyond, is one of military service based on followings, and in much of western Europe at least based on followings raised on so-called ‘feudal’ principles, whereby followers swore loyalty to a lord, performed military services for him in return for gifts of land, in theory temporary and recallable though less so in practice. To explain why this is a distinctly problematic notion would take more than my allotted time — indeed, Susan Reynolds has recently devoted a monograph of several hundred pages to demolishing the notion that there were, in some clear and juristically precise sense, vassals owing obligations in return for fiefs in Europe, at any rate in the period before about 1100 (Reynolds 1994). It’s probably too soon to pass definitive judgement on this; we’ll need to see the inevitable counter-attack set out more clearly than it has been so far. My own view is that she is perhaps wrong to deny the existence of such things altogether from the eighth-century onwards, but much more importantly right in pointing out that historians have dived for feudalism as soon as they stumble across even quite polyvalent words like homo or beneficium, and right in claiming that they have tended to assume without much evidence that the feudalism given juridical precision by the Libri Feudorum and increasingly also by English, French and Palestinian law-codes and -courts in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries existed ab initio.

             However, to deny the existence of feudalism in this narrow sense before 1100 is not to deny either the existence of things called fiefs and things called vassals before that date: I would argue that in dismissing vassalage in a chapter at the outset, Reynolds has paid less attention than she should have done to the phenomenon, because even though it is not easy to see it as a universal juristic fact, it is very evident — indeed one can reread Bloch’s classic Feudal Society in this sense — that it was a universal social metaphor (Bloch 1939; Reuter 1994). Nor does denying juristic feudalism’s existence force us to underestimate the importance of military followings in which the obligation to follow had a clear practical and moral basis, even if no one troubled to define it juridically. Indeed, some scholars have argued that such followings formed the basis of most early medieval armies, both in Francia and in Anglo-Saxon England. They are certainly clearly visible in Carolingian and Ottonian warfare, and on both sides of the Rhine it could be assumed in the eleventh century that lords could be held responsible for what such men did in the course of private warfare (feud), which again implies a measure of control and leadership.


At one time it was commonplace to think of early medieval polities as consisting of king and ‘people’, the latter regarded as a comparatively broad and numerous stratum, and of early medieval armies as a kind of levée en masse. It was possible, for example, for both Heinrich Brunner and Lynn White, for different reasons, to see the traditional Frankish infantry army based on obligations of military service as giving way only gradually to an élite with the (alleged) widespread adoption of mounted warfare in the eighth and ninth centuries. These certainties have slowly eroded: two of the scholars who have contributed to the erosion, Professors Abel and Bachrach, are present at this conference, and have argued powerfully for late-Merovingian/Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon armies as having consisted essentially of magnates and their followers, rather like the traditionally pyramidal model of the feudal army of the high middle ages in fact, only without the vassalage and benefice (Bachrach 1972; Abels 1988). Free peasants looked like disappearing altogether from the historical scene for a time, but in the end the attempts to turn them all into ‘royal freemen’ have not survived critical scrutiny. As Chris Wickham has recently noted, some national historiographies have far more problems with free peasants than others: they are a highly sensitive issue in German historiography, a not insignificant one in Anglo-Saxon, whereas French and Italian historians are not overly troubled by them (Wickham 1992).

             I too am inclined to think that most armies most of the time were not composed of peasant smallholders. There is indeed some evidence for general musterings on a regular basis, more than might be supposed, in fact. Unlike Professor Bachrach, I am prepared to argue that the Marchfield was part of the Frankish constitution (Bachrach 1974), that is that there was an expectation, at least in seventh- and eighth-century Francia, that there would be a mustering of the army on or around March 1, at least if nothing else intervened, though I won’t bother to review the evidence for this view here; there certainly seems to have been a Bulgarian equivalent in the ninth century, which affords at least a basis of comparison. But I don’t suppose for a moment that all able-bodied weapons-bearers either were expected to appear at such gatherings or actually did so.

             More important, I think, is the evidence which suggests that a distinction was made between service in defence of the country and service on offensive campaigns. I argued in two earlier articles (Reuter 1985 and 1990) that there was little if any evidence for a general military obligation on all free men in sixth-, seventh- and eighth-century Francia, except that everyone was obliged to turn out if their local region was under threat — from a royal pretender or rebellious duke, for example. I take Professor Bachrach’s study of Merovingian Military Organisation, with its distinction between local levies for local campaigns and a more magnate-based kind of army for long-distance campaigns, to be arguing along similar lines (Bachrach 1972). The famous provisions of the capitularies of Charlemagne’s later years, I argued, whereby free men were to form groups of three to six to support the military service of one of their number, were not a restriction of a previously unrestricted military service on grounds of necessity or compassion (concern for the pauperes liberi homines); rather, they were an attempt to extend the notion of defensio patriae to make it more useful and workable in the context of a greatly expanded Frankish empire. This would also chime in nicely with Professor Abels’ conclusion that the trinoda necessitas of Anglo-Saxon England, which included service in the fyrð was not a custom of immemorial origin, but a practice introduced with some force by the eighth-century kings of Mercia (Abels 1988).

             Yet to argue this is not, in my view, to argue that there was no general obligation on free men at all. In ninth-century Francia, at least, there clearly was: if the Vikings or Saracens came to your area, you were expected to turn out, as occasionally also in cases of civil war. The sources for Ottonian Germany before the glory days of Otto I are too thin and late to tell us about the kinds of force (if any) put up against the Magyar invasions, and such military resistance as there was appears to have been put up by aristocratic followings, if we leave aside for the moment Widukind’s problematic agrarii milites, who do not in fact appear to have played any part in Henry I’s Slav and Magyar campaigning, even on Widukind’s own account (Widukind of Corvey I 35; Leyser 1968: 15-20).

             We should also note a tendency at all periods for military obligation to turn into a form of taxation, not just in the supposed later evolution from so-called ‘feudal’ obligation to mercenary armies: the transformation in the Carolingian world of the heribannum, originally a heavy fine on those failing to provide their allegedly due military service, into a small tax on a class of people whom we would not normally think of as being at the forefront of military activity; the distortion of the late Anglo-Saxon political economy by its grotesquely overblown military budget; the famous episode in 1094 when William Rufus summoned military representatives from the shires, relieved them of the money they had been given to support their service, and sent them home again.

             A quite different, and underrated form of conscription is the imposition of military service on subjected peoples. To quote Karl Leyser on the Franks:

‘so ubiquitous were their campaigns, so much was the host the centre of action and the essential institution of dominance and social being, that theseimperata… were for the most part the duty to come to host, to march and fight with the Franks when told to do so’ (Leyser 1994b: 29)

Louis the Pious was notoriously thought to intend making considerable use of the gentes subactae east of the Rhine in the forces he deployed in the early 830s. The Ottonians undoubtedly made use of Slav auxiliary troops, and the more successful late Old English rulers probably used Welsh auxiliaries similarly. There are hints at such practices in the shadowy evidence for the emerging polities of eastern Europe at the same period: certainly it would appear that the Magyars as well as the eastern Franks had Slav auxiliaries with them at the Lechfeld, for example.

Numbers and composition

As I suggested at the beginning, it’s much easier to work out the general resources of military manpower available than it is to work out how these were deployed on particular occasions or campaigns. Characteristically, early-medieval armies in the Carolingian world (and I include Anglo-Saxon England here) either appear in the sources as an undifferentiated mass, or else they are depicted as composed of ethnic groupings: in the Battle of Maldon, for example, or in the Annals of Fulda accounts of the campaigns fought by Charles III and Arnulf. But to know that a king led an army composed, say, of Bavarians, Alamans and Franks, is to know very little. The problems of disaggregating these groups are inextricably linked with the difficulty of constructing a coherent overall view of early medieval societies: it is not so much a shortage of evidence which confronts us, as the near-impossibility of reconciling what is implied by law-codes and other legal texts, by hagiography and narrative sources, and by archaeological evidence (this last presenting itself in a still more mediated form, being seen through the lens of the archaeologist’s own view of social order and social change, which may or may not have been affected by use of contemporary written sources, depending on how the archaeologist has been professionally socialised).

             It is because of problems like these that we have over the past century been treated to quite widely-differing accounts of Frankish, post-Frankish and Anglo-Saxon military organisation. The polarities are the same in both cases: at the one end we have a ruler-figure leading something like a levée en masse, a form of military organization which only gradually gives way to the use of more ‘professional’ and specialised fighting-men; at the other we have an early medieval army composed from the outset of magnates and their followings, a ‘mafia in arms’, so to speak. As with discussions of the aristocracy/nobility of the barbarian kingdoms, and for much the same reasons, the outcome of such discussions has been determined more by the preconceptions the historian brings to the task than by the unambiguous evidence of the sources (Grahn-Hoek 1976: 9). Current fashion favours an emphasis on aristocrats, but no one familiar with the ups and downs of historiographical development would want to claim that the pendulum had finally come to rest.

             To some extent the issue might be decided by settling the issue of how large early medieval armies were. But this is also difficult to resolve. I must confess to being instinctively a small-armies man myself (Sawyer 1971); but I can see the force of the arguments advanced by those — Karl Ferdinand Werner, for example — who want to offer us Carolingian and Ottonian armies measured in thousands rather than dozens (Werner 1968). Clearly the view one takes of the issue will to some extent both affect and be affected by one’s views on the composition of early medieval armies. It is also highly dependent on the way one reads early medieval narrative sources. By and large, the proponents of small armies turn to the small but significant number of texts which suggest that an army might be numbered in two or at most three figures. Let me offer one or two examples:

—        for Anglo-Saxon England, the definition of a here in Ine’s law-code as any group over 35, or the figure of 84 given by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the number who died with Cyneheard in his attack on Cynewulf;

—        for Carolingian Francia, the casualty list given by the Annals of Fulda for the disastrous Saxon battle against the Northmen in 880, numbering about 30 in all; arguably also Flodoard’s account of the numbers (1,500) who died at the battle of Fiorenzuola (923), coupled with Liudprand’s remark a generation later that Italy was still short of knights as a result (Leyser 1968: 32);

—        for Ottonian Germany, Widukind’s account of the young warrior Ekkard, who felt passed over by an appointment made by Otto I, so was clearly a fairly significant figure, and sought to establish his reputation by an attack on the Slav enemy, in the course of which he perished with his eighteen followers, as well as Thietmar of Merseburg’s account of the German army campaigning in Bohemia in 990 — ‘small, but all in iron’ (Widukind II 4; Thietmar IV 12).

Yet the difficulty here is evident. These texts can be assigned significance compared with the much larger number of texts which report huge numbers only if we assume that whenever medieval texts mention large numbers they are fantasizing, whereas whenever they mention small precise numbers they are telling the truth. Why should we? I am aware that scholars have racked their brains over the question of the accuracy of medieval numbers: but even if you can establish some general principles, they always turn out to be useless, or at least not decisive, when considering a specific instance. In any case, even if they are telling the truth here, how can we be certain that they aren’t merely giving the numbers of those who mattered?

             There is an important point about logistics here. ‘Tenth-century armies, like their Carolingian predecessors, needed transport, much labour and many servants. Historians have perhaps been too eager to detect ways and means of social ascent for those who performed the chores.’ (Leyser 1968: 21). If on balance I am inclined to the general assumption that early medieval armies were small and based on followings, however composed, more than on levies, at any rate as far as offensive warfare is concerned, then this is not least precisely because of logistics. Wernerian armies of up to 5,000 warriors would probably have had an overall size of nearer 10,000, counting the servants and camp-followers. This, in northern Europe of the period we are discussing, is about the same size as the best population estimates for the very largest towns. We know well enough that such armies on the move were highly destructive to friend and foe alike; but armies the size of Paris or London moving around the countryside would, I suggest, have left swathes of destruction everywhere more comparable with the downwind ellipse of fallout from a nuclear weapon.

             The other reason which makes me incline to small non-conscript armies is the sheer cost of such service, not so much in weaponry, which I think is in part a red herring arising out of the White-Brunner theses on feudalism, as in the permanent or semi-permanent absence from home. Annual campaigning was certainly the pattern in the Carolingian and Ottonian worlds, and for some Anglo-Saxon history as well. To play in those games, you must either have had your living found for you, or have disposed of a sufficiently large surplus to have your estates run for you.

             But though these are plausible generalisations, they have comparatively little explanatory force in any particular case. Ask me what armies in general were like in this period and who on the whole fought in them and I might be prepared to give you an answer, as you have seen. Ask me how the specific armies which fought at Asselt in 882, or the Dyle in 891, or Riade in 933, or Brunanburh in 937, or the Lechfeld in 955, or Maldon in 991 were composed, and if I am honest, I am forced to shrug my shoulders: we don’t, in the last resort, know for certain.


Abels, R. 1988. Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England, Berkeley.

Bachrach, B.S. 1974. ‘Was the Marchfield part of the Frankish Constitution?’, Medieval Studies, 36: 178-85

Bachrach, B.S. 1972. Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751, Minnesota.

Bloch, M. 1939. La Société féodale. Paris (English trans. as Feudal Society, London 1962).

Charles-Edwards, T.M. 1976. ‘The Distinction between Land and Moveable Wealth in Anglo-Saxon England’, in Medieval Settlement, ed. P.H. Sawyer, London, pp. 180-7

Grahn-Hoek, H. 1976. Die fränkische Oberschicht im 6. Jahrhundert, Sigmaringen.

Hooper, N. 1985. ‘The Housecarls in England in the Eleventh Century’, Anglo-Norman Studies 7: 161-76

Kennedy, H. forthcoming. ‘Islamic Spain and Sicily’, in The New Cambridge Medieval History, 3: 900-c. 1024, ed. T. Reuter, Cambridge.

Leyser, K. (1968), ‘Henry I and the Beginnings of the Saxon Empire’, English Historical Review 83: 1-32 (repr. in his Medieval Germany and its Neighbours, 900-1250, London 1982, pp. 11-42)

Leyser, K. 1994a, ‘The Ottonians and Wessex’, in Leyser 1994c: 73-104

Leyser, K. 1994b, ‘Early Medieval Warfare’, in Leyser 1994c: 29-50

Leyser, K. 1994c, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: The Carolingian and Ottonian Centuries, ed. T. Reuter, London.

Nelson, J.L. 1983. ‘The Church’s Military Service in the Ninth Century: A Contemporary Comparative View?’, Studies in Church History 20: 15-30

Nelson, J.L. 1994. ‘The Political Ideas of Alfred of wessex’, in Kings and Kingship in Medieval Europe, ed. A.J. Duggan, London, pp. 125-58

Reuter, T. 1985. ‘Plunder and tribute in the Carolingian Empire’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, fifth series 35: 75–94

Reuter, T. 1990. `The end of Carolingian military expansion’, in: Charlemagne’s heir. New perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840), eds. P. Godman and R. Collins, Oxford, pp. 391–405

Reuter, T. 1994. ‘Vassalität’, in Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte, 4: 644-7.

Reynolds, S. 1994. Fiefs and Vassals. Oxford.

Sawyer, P.H. 1971. The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn, London.

Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicon, ed. R. Holtzmann (MGH SRG NS 9, Berlin 1935)

Werner, K. F. 1968, ‘Heeresorganisation und Kriegführung im deutschen Königreich des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts’, Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo, 15: 791-843, 849-56.

Widukind of Corvey, Rerum gestarum Saxonicarum libri tres, ed. P. Hirsch and H.-E. Lohmann (MGH SRG, Hannover, 1935)

Wickham, C.J. 1992. ‘Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, 2: 221-46.


This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.