Medieval warfare

Medieval warfare is the warfare of the European Middle Ages. Technological, cultural, and social developments had forced a dramatic transformation in the character of warfare from antiquity, changing military tactics and the role of cavalry and artillery. Similar patterns of warfare existed in other parts of the world. In China around the fifth century armies moved from massed infantry to cavalry based forces, copying the steppe nomads. The Middle East and North Africa used similar methods and equipment as was used in Europe, and there occurred a considerable amount of technological exchange and tactical adaptation between the different cultures. In Japan the Medieval warfare period is considered by many to have stretched into the nineteenth century. In Africa along the Sahel and Sudan states like the Kingdom of Sennar and Fulani Empire employed Medieval tactics and weapons through the 19th century.

Origins of medieval warfare

Perhaps the most important technological change was the introduction of the stirrup, which arrived in Europe in the 8th century, but was already in use in China and the Middle East. The stirrup, along with horse breeding and more advanced iron and steel working, allowed for the development of far more powerful cavalry. Earlier empires, such as the Romans, used horse-borne fighters primarily as lightly-armed scouts and auxiliaries, but the stirrup brought cavalry to the forefront by enabling riders to wield weapons while remaining seated. In Europe, the heavily-armoured knight became central; in Mongolia, lightly armoured horse archers did so. In China and the Middle East, the main forces were somewhere in between.

Many consider the Second Battle of Adrianople as marking the end of the era of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. This battle demonstrated the superiority of mounted cavalry over traditional ground forces, which helped to set the character that medieval warfare would maintain for the next several centuries.

Warfare centred on small cadres of elite, and very expensive, mounted fighters: this was both a product of and a contributing factor to the social order of the Middle Ages. Being a mounted warrior required great skill and much training and thus, unlike in earlier citizen armies, had to be a full time job. This encouraged the division of society into an upper class of nobles and a great mass of commoners. These feudal nobles quickly developed great power within weakly centralized states. This made it more difficult to have large, well trained and organised forces such as the Roman legions. Rather the bulk of the forces were mustered peasants or mercenaries. In some regions, such as high medieval England and Scandinavia or early medieval Spain, the yeomen (the English term), the free peasantry, formed relatively well-equipped infantry.

The end of medieval style warfare was also caused by technological and social change. A revival of the power of central governments would see the rise of standing armies, or semi-standing armies, such as the French compagnies d'ordonnance.

Strategy and tactics

Deployment of forces

It is probably a mistake to talk of "medieval European armies" during the Middle Ages, as Europe was very diverse culturally and the many regions each had their distinctive style. English and American studies in medieval warfare have been heavily based on Anglo-French warfare, which was merely one of these regions.

Medieval Anglo-French armies could be divided into three sections called 'battles' or 'battalions'—the vanguard or vaward, the centre or main-battle, and the rearguard or rearward. The vanguard was often composed of archers and other optional long-range weapons, like slings and stones and the rare and completely optional lightweight simple catapults, while the center was composed of infantry and armored cavalry (knights), and the rearguard was often comprised of more agile cavalry. The usual order of march was vanguard, center, and rearguard, and the three battles deployed on the battlefield with the vanguard on the right, the center in the center and the rearward on the left. However, as armies grew larger and more unwieldy they often deployed as they arrived on the field.

Each section deployed in either linear or block formation. A linear formation had the advantage that all soldiers could take part in battle almost at once (especially those with ranged weapons such as English longbows or crossbows). However, a cavalry charge could easily scatter a linear formation. A block formation was generally more robust, but would delay the soldiers in the rear ranks from entering the fighting (or totally prevent it in the case of the French at the Battle of Agincourt). Block formations gave the advantage of a "back up man" in case one of the soldiers on the front line were injured, and were often quite hard to scatter, especially if the army was well trained.

Cavalry could be arranged in several ways, depending on the situation. While a clump of horsemen was no doubt effective, cavalry in tight formations wielding lances became devastating forces. The most common formation was the line or linear form. The horsemen would arrange themselves in a long line, commonly three or four ranks deep and then charge. However, a well-trained infantry force might be able to withstand such an attack so some forces employed a wedge formation. The horses would be arranged in a large triangle, with the most heavily armored cavalry at the front. When the wedge came into contact with the infantry line, more often than not it would cave in on itself, allowing an infantry charge to move in and scatter the remaining forces.

As cavalry became the dominant force on the battlefield, it also became necessary to come up with ways to counter them. One popular method was the use of pikes, which were spears that sometimes reached lengths of twenty feet. As the cavalry charged, the pikemen would arrange themselves in a tight square or orb formation, which prevented the horses from penetrating too deeply into the infantry line (horses will not run headlong into a wall of spears). With a large block of pikes protecting the rear and flanks, armies could move into an effective position without being routed.

Another method invented by the English was the use of massed archers. The English longbow was a particularly devastating weapon when in the hands of an expert, and the English discovered that by having thousands of archers all fire at once, few armies could manage to make any sort of frontal assault. During the Hundred Year's war, several French knights recalled seeing "the day turn to night from the cloud of arrows raining down". After several volleys against the enemy lines, the English infantry and cavalry could move in to finish off the enemy.

Employment of forces

The experience level and tactical maneuvering ability of medieval armies varied widely, depending on the period and region. For larger battles, pre-battle planning typically consisted of a council of the war leaders, which could either be the general laying down a plan or a noisy debate between the different leaders, depending on how much authority the general possessed. Battlefield communications before the advent of strict lines of communication and electronic communication were naturally very difficult. Communications often took place as they had for millennia and would until the advent of telephone lines and radio - through musical signals, audible commands, messengers, or visual signals (such as standards, oriflammes, banners, flags, etc.).

The infantry, including missile troops, would typically be employed at the outset of the battle to break open infantry formations while the cavalry attempted to defeat its opposing number. When one side gained superiority in cavalry (or had it at the outset of battle) it could attempt to exploit the loss of cohesion in the opposing infantry lines caused by the infantry conflict to hit the opposing infantry and attempt to rout it. This could often be difficult, and careful timing would be necessary for a direct cavalry assault, as an ordered infantry line would often be able to beat off the cavalry attacks. Pure infantry conflicts would be drawn-out affairs.

Cannons were introduced to the battlefield in the later medieval period. However, their very poor rate of fire (which often meant that only one shot was fired in the course of an entire battle) and their inaccuracy made them more of psychological force multiplier than an effective anti-personnel weapon.

Later on in medieval warfare, once hand cannons were introduced, the rate of fire improved only slightly, but the cannons became far easier to aim, largely because they were smaller and much closer to their wielder. Their users could be easily protected, because the cannons were lighter and could be moved far more quickly. However, real field artillery did not become truly effective or commonly employed until well into the early modern period.


A fact of medieval warfare was that a hasty retreat could cause greater casualties than an organized withdrawal. When the losing side began to retreat, the fast cavalry of the winning side's rearguard would intercept the fleeing enemy while their infantry continued their attack. In most medieval battles, more soldiers were killed during the retreat than in battle, since mounted knights could quickly and easily dispatch the archers and infantry who were no longer protected by a line of pikes as they had been during the previous fighting.


Breakdowns in centralized states lead to the rise of a number of groups that turned to large-scale pillage as a source of income. Most notably the Vikings (but also Arabs, Mongols and Magyars) raided significantly. As these groups were generally small and needed to move quickly, building fortifications was a good way to provide refuge and protection for the people and the wealth in the region.

These fortifications evolved over the course of the Middle Ages, the most important form being the castle, a structure which had become synonymous with the Medieval era to many. The castle served as a protected place for the local elites. Inside a castle they were protected from bands of raiders and could send mounted warriors to drive the raiders from the area, or to distrupt the efforts of larger armies to supply themselves in the region by gaining local superiority over foraging parties that would be impossible against the whole enemy host.

Fortifications had a great many advantages. They provided refuge from armies too large to face in open battle. The ability of the heavy cavalry to dominate a battle on an open field was useless against fortifications. Building siege engines was a time-consuming process, and could seldom be effectively done without preparations before the campaign. Many sieges could take months, if not years, to weaken or demoralize the defenders sufficiently. Fortifications were an excellent means of ensuring that the elite could not be easily dislodged from their lands - as a French nobleman once commented on seeing enemy troops ravage his lands from the safety of his castle, "they can't take the land with them".

Medieval siege craft

In the Medieval period besieging armies used a wide variety of siege engines including: scaling ladders; battering rams; siege towers and various types of catapults such as the mangonel, onager, ballista, and trebuchet. Siege techniques also included sapping.

Advances in the prosecution of sieges encouraged the development of a variety of defensive counter-measures. In particular, medieval fortifications became progressively stronger — for example, the advent of the concentric castle from the period of the Crusades — and more dangerous to attackers — witness the increasing use of machicolations and murder-holes, as well the preparation of boiling oil, molten lead or hot sand. Arrow slits, concealed doors for sallies, and deep water wells were also integral to resisting siege at this time. Designers of castles paid particular attention to defending entrances, protecting gates with drawbridges, portcullises and barbicans. Wet animal skins were often draped over gates to retard fire. Moats and other water defenses, whether natural or augmented, were also vital to defenders.

In the European Middle Ages, virtually all large cities had city wallsDubrovnik in Dalmatia is an impressive and well-preserved example — and more important cities had citadels, forts or castles. Great effort was expended to ensure a good water supply inside the city in case of siege. In some cases, long tunnels were constructed to carry water into the city. Complex systems of underground tunnels were used for storage and communications in medieval cities like Tábor in Bohemia. Against these would be matched the mining skills of teams of trained sappers, who were sometimes employed by besieging armies.

Until the invention of gunpowder-based weapons (and the resulting higher-velocity projectiles), the balance of power and logistics definitely favored the defender. With the invention of gunpowder, the traditional methods of defense became less and less effective against a determined siege.

See also: Undermining



A medieval knight was a usually mounted and armored soldier, often connected with nobility or royalty, although (especially in north-eastern Europe) knights could also come from the lower classes, and could even be unfree persons. The cost of their armor, horses, and weapons was great; this, among other things, helped gradually transform the knight, at least in western Europe, into a distinct social class separate from other warriors. Knights fought extensively in the crusades (see Knights Templar, the Hospitallers, etc.).

Heavy cavalry

Heavily armed cavalry, armed with swords or lances, played a significant part in the battles of the Middle Ages. They were often used for charging enemy formations.

Costumes of Roman and German Soldiers From Miniatures on different Manuscripts, from the Sixth to the Twelfth Centuries.
Costumes of Roman and German Soldiers From Miniatures on different Manuscripts, from the Sixth to the Twelfth Centuries.


The role of infantry has been ignored in the past by writers who focused on the role of knights and heavy cavalry. Infantry were recruited and trained in a wide variety of manners in different regions of Europe all thorough the Middle Ages, and probably always formed the most numerous part of a medieval field army. Many infantrymen in prolonged wars would be mercenaries. Most armies contained significant numbers of spearmen, archers and other unmounted soldiers. In sieges, perhaps the most common element of medieval warfare, infantry units served as garrison troops and bowmen, among other positions.

Recruiting or drafting soldiers

In the early Middle Ages it was the obligation of every noble to respond to the call to battle with his own equipment and archer, and infantry. This decentralized system was necessary due to the social order of the time, but led to motley forces with variable training, equipment and abilities.

As central governments grew in power, a return to the citizen armies of the classical period also began, as central levies of the peasantry began to be the central recruiting tool. England was one of the most centralized states in the Middle Ages, and the armies that fought the Hundred Years' War were mostly paid professionals. In theory, every Englishman had an obligation to serve for forty days. Forty days was not long enough for a campaign, especially one on the continent. Thus the scutage was introduced, whereby most Englishmen paid to escape their service and this money was used to create a permanent army.

As the Middle Ages progressed, the wealthier parts of Europe, especially Italy, began to rely mostly on mercenaries to do their fighting. These would be groups of career soldiers who would be paid a set rate. Mercenaries tended to be effective soldiers as long as their morale held out, but they would often break and flee as soon as they determined themselves to be losing. This made them considerably less reliable than a standing army. Mercenary-on-mercenary warfare also led to relatively bloodless campaigns which relied as much on maneuver as on battles.

The knights were drawn to battle by feudal and social obligation, and also by the prospect of profit and advancement. Those who performed well were likely to increase their landholdings and advance in the social hierarchy. The prospect of significant income from pillage and ransoming prisoners was also important. For the mounted knight Medieval Warfare was a relatively low risk affair. Nobles avoided killing each other for several reasons—for one thing, many were related to each other, had fought along side one another, and they were all (more or less) members of the same elite culture; for another, a noble's ransom could be very high, and indeed some made a living by capturing and ransoming nobles in battle. Even peasants, who did not share the bonds of kinship and culture, would often avoid killing a nobleman, valuing the high ransom that a live capture could bring, as well as the valuable horse, armor and equipment that came with him.

Varlet or Squire carrying a Halberd with a thick Blade; and Archer, in Fighting Dress, drawing the String of his Crossbow with a double-handled Winch.--From the Miniatures of the "Jouvencel," and the "Chroniques" of Froissart, Manuscripts of the Fifteenth Century (Imperial Library of Paris).
Varlet or Squire carrying a Halberd with a thick Blade; and Archer, in Fighting Dress, drawing the String of his Crossbow with a double-handled Winch.--From the Miniatures of the "Jouvencel," and the "Chroniques" of Froissart, Manuscripts of the Fifteenth Century (Imperial Library of Paris).


Personal equipment for




Supplies and logistics

As Napoleon famously said, an army marches on its stomach, a weakness that has applied to all military campaigns in history. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, logistics became a poorly understood science in European medieval armies. While strongholds such as castles were carefully provisioned, armies in the field were either incapable or unwilling to provision themselves. As a result, medieval armies resorted to the following logistical methods.

Plunder and foraging

The usual method for solving medieval logistical problems was foraging or "living off the land". As medieval campaigns were often directed at well-populated settled areas, a traveling army would forcibly commandeer all available resources from the land they passed through, from food to raw materials to equipment. Living off the land is not very easy when there is no food ready to eat, so there was, in theory at least, a prescribed "campaign season" that aimed to conduct warfare at a predictable time, when there would be both food on the ground and relatively good weather. This season was usually from spring to autumn, as by early-spring all the crops would be planted, thus freeing the male population for warfare until they were needed for harvest time in late-autumn. As an example, in many European countries serfs and peasants were obliged to perform around 45 days of military service per year without pay, usually during this campaign season when they were not required for agriculture.

Plunder in itself was often the objective of a military campaign, to either pay mercenary forces, seize resources, reduce the fighting capacity of enemy forces, or as a calculated insult to the enemy ruler. Examples are the Viking attacks across Europe, or the highly destructive English chevauchees across northern France during the Hundred Years' War.

Supply chains

When an army did choose or were forced to carry their own supplies, a supply chain or logistical tail was established from friendly territory to the army. The supply chain depended on control of either roads (in Europe particularly old Roman roads), a navigable waterway such as a river or canal, or by sea.

By river or by sea was by far the preferred method to transport supplies, mass land transport of supplies for armies would not become practical until the invention of rail transport and the internal combustion engine. During his invasion of the Levant, Richard I of England was forced to supply his army as it was marching through a barren desert. By marching his army along the shore, Richard was regularly resupplied by ships travelling along the coast. Likewise, Roman campaigns in Central Europe often centered on controlling the Rhine and Danube rivers both as natural obstacles and as a means of transport.

On land, the equivalent was the baggage train and was frequently a trouble spot. Supply chains forced armies to travel more slowly and were relatively unprotected. Attacks on an enemy's baggage—as for instance the French attack on the English train at Agincourt, highlighted in the play Henry V—could cripple their ability to continue a campaign. Because of the unprotected nature of the train, such an attack was considered unsporting. Nonetheless, in most cases the baggage train of a defeated enemy was eagerly plundered by the victorious army.

Famine and disease

A failure in logistics often resulted in famine and disease for a medieval army, with corresponding deaths and loss of morale. A besieging force often starved while waiting for the same to happen to the besieged, resulting in the dissolution of the army and the lifting of the siege. Epidemics of diseases such as smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and dysentery often swept through medieval armies, especially when poorly supplied or sedentary. In a famous example, in 1347 the bubonic plague erupted in the besieging Mongol army outside the walls of Caffa, Crimea where the disease then spread throughout Europe as the Black Death.

For the inhabitants of a contested area, it was not uncommon for famine to follow protracted periods of warfare, for three reasons. Foraging armies ate any food stores they could find, reducing or depleting reserve stores. In addition, the overland routes taken by armies on the move could easily destroy a carefully planted field, preventing a crop the following season. Moreover, the death toll in war hit the farming labor pool particularly hard, making it even more difficult to recoup losses.

Naval warfare

In the Mediterranean, naval warfare in the medieval period resembled that of the ancient period: fleets of galleys rowed by slaves would attempt to ram each other, or come alongside for marines to fight on deck. This mode of naval warfare continued even into the early modern period, as, for example, at the Battle of Lepanto. Famous admirals included Andrea Doria, Khair ed-Din, and Don John of Austria.

However, galleys were fragile and difficult to use in the cold and turbulent North Sea and northern Atlantic, although they saw occasional use. Bulkier ships were developed which were primarily sail-driven, although the long lowboard viking-style rowed longship saw use well into the 15th century. Ramming was unpractical with these sailing ships, but the main purpose of these warships remained the transportation of soldiers to fight on the decks of the opposing ship (as, for example, at the Battle of Svolder or the Battle of Sluys). Warships resembled floating fortresses, with towers in the bows and at the stern (respectively, the forecastle and aftcastle). The large superstructure made these warships quite unstable, but the decicive defeats the more mobile but considerably lower boarded longships suffered at the hands of high-boarded cogs in the 15th century ended the issue of which ship type would dominate northern European warfare.

In the medieval period, it had proved difficult to mount cannons on board a warship, although some were placed in the fore- and aftcastles. Small hand-held anti-personnel cannons were used, but large cannons mounted on deck further compromised the stability of warships, and cannons at that time had a slow rate of fire and were inaccurate.

All this was about to change at the end of the medieval period. The gunport was invented at the beginning of the 16th century by a shipwright from Brest, France named Descharges. The insertion of opening in the side of a ship, with a hinged cover, allowed the creation of a gundeck below the main deck. The weight of cannon distributed to lower decks of the ship increased its stability immensely, effectively providing ballast, and a row of cannon on a lower deck produced the broadside, where the weight of shot overcame the inherent inaccuracy of firing cannons from a ship at sea. An example is the Mary Rose, the flagship of King Henry VIII's fleet, which had around thirty cannon per side, all of which were capable of firing shot nine pounds or more.

The Spanish took this concept and produced the galleon.

The balance redressed: the rise of infantry over cavalry

In the Medieval period, the mounted warrior held sway for an extended time. Typically heavily armored, well motivated and mounted on powerful, specially bred horses, the mounted knight represented a formidable force, more than a match for reluctant peasant levies, or lightly armored freemen unlucky enough to be in their path. Only the noble classes could afford the expense of knightly warfare, and the supremacy of the mounted man dovetailed neatly with much of the hierarchal structure of Medieval times. The winds of change however were blowing. Tactically there were only two ways for infantry to beat cavalry in a direct battle: firepower and mass. Firepower could be provided by swarms of missiles. Mass could be provided by a tightly packed phalanx of men.

Both of course were old news on the field of combat. The Romans used missile troops but as far as core infantry, the legions learned to deal with charging cavalrymen by forming a hollow square, pila(plural of pilum) facing outward. The ancient generals of Asia looked more to firepower, deploying regiments of archers to fend off mounted threats. Alexander the Great combined both methods in his clashes with swarming Asiatic horseman, screening the central infantry core with slingers, archers and javelin men, before unleashing his cavalry to see off attackers. And thus it was that the infantry forces of Europe, finally redressed the balance against cavalry. There are several examples but two outstanding ones will be discussed here: The Swiss Pikemen and the English Longbowman.

Masters of mass- the Swiss pikemen

The use of long pikes and densely packed foot troops was not uncommon in Medieval times. The Flemish footmen at the Battle of Courtrai for example, met and overcame the proud French knights circa 1302, and the redoubtable Scots held their own for a time against English invaders, but it was the Swiss that brought infantry and pike tactics to an extremely high standard, over an extended period- almost a century.

Morale and motivation. Rather than reluctant peasant levies dragooned into service by the local laird, the Swiss often fought as volunteer mercenaries for pay throughout Europe and were generally known as highly motivated, tough minded soldiers, with little respect for knightly trappings. In several historical accounts, the Swiss stood and fought to the last man, even when greatly outnumbered.

Mobility. Historical records indicate that the hard-marching Swiss pikemen also managed to keep pace with cavalry units at times, if only in the confined terrain of the Alpine regions. Such mobility is outstanding but not unknown among foot soldiers. Roman records of operations against the Germanic barbarians show enemy infantrymen trotting with cavalry, sometimes resting their hands on the horses for support. See Caesar's Gallic Commentaries. Centuries later, the fast moving Zulu impis in Southern Africa made their mark, reputedly achieving an outstanding march rate of 50 miles per day. Using their mobility, the Swiss were frequently able to overcome contemporary mounted or infantry forces.

Weapons and equipment. The Swiss utilized more effective versions of pike weapons, including the use of cutting blades and hooks which were excellent for dealing with mounted assaults. Rather than simply meet a poking lance, the cavalryman facing the Swiss could expect to deal with slashing blows that could cleave his armor, or relentless hooks that dragged him from his mount. Pike weapons were considered "unchivalorous" by some of the knightly class, and could be mixed in combat, with spearlike thrusters in the front franks, and slashing halberd men deployed further back after the thrusters had delivered the initial shock treatment. The Swiss wore little armor, unlike the ancient phalanx warriors of old, dispensing with greaves or shield, and donning only a helmet and a relatively light reinforced corselet.

Maneuver and formations. In numerous battles prior to the rise of the Swiss, it was not uncommon for pikemen to group together and await a mounted attack. Such an approach is sensible in certain circumstances, particularly if the phalanx occupies a strong position secured by terrain features. The downside is that it allows the attacking force more initiative. The brave Scots pikemen who won several earlier victories, saw off the cavalry opponents at the battle of Falkirk, but were caught in a static position, meeting their demise, through, ironically, the second prong of rising infantry dominance- the longbow. The Swiss, though by no means the creators, improved on pike tactics by adding flexible formations and aggressive maneuver.

A typical pike force was divided into three sections or columns. The Swiss were flexible in their dispositions- each section could operate independently or combine with others for mutual support. They could form a hollow square for all round defence. They could advance in echelon or in a triangular "wedge" assault. They could maneuver to mount wing attacks- with one column pinning the foe centrally, while a second echelon struck the flanks. They could group in depth on a strong natural position like a hill. Even more disconcerting to their opponents, the Swiss attacked and maneuvered aggressively. They did not await the mounted men, but themselves took the initiative, forcing their opponents to respond to THEIR moves. It was a formula that brought them much battlefield success.

Effectiveness of the Swiss. The Swiss won a series of spectacular victories throughout Europe, helping to bring down the feudal order over the time, including victories at Mortgarten, Laupen, Sempach, and Granson. In some engagements the Swiss phalanx included crossbowmen, giving the formation a missile stand-off capability. Such was their effectiveness, that between 1450 and 1550 every leading prince in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen, or emulated their tactics and weapons (such as the German Landsknechte).

Masters of fire- the English Longbowman

Full article and technical details on the bow available at English longbow.

The English longbowman brought a new effectiveness to European battlefields, not hitherto known widely for native archery. Also unusual was the type of bow used. Whereas Asian forces typically relied on the powerful multi-piece, multi-layered composite bow, the English relied on the single-piece longbow which delivered a stinging warhead of respectable range and punch, able to penetrate contemporary plate armor and chain mail.

Longbows and archers. In the British Isles, bows have been known from ancient times, but it was among the tribal Welsh that proficiency in use and construction became highly developed. Using their bows, the Welsh forces took a heavy toll on the English invaders of their lands. Adapted by the English, the longbow was nevertheless a difficult weapon to master, requiring long years of use and practice. Even bow construction was extended, sometimes taking as much as 4 years for seasoned staves to be prepared and shaped for final deployment. A skilled longbowman could shoot 12 arrows a minute, a rate of fire superior to competing weapons like the crossbow or early gunpowder weapons. The nearest competitor to the longbow was the much more expensive crossbow, used often by urban militias and mercenary forces. The crossbow lacked the range of the longbow, but packed a bolt of greater penetrating power, and did not require the extended years of training and use demanded by the longbow. A cheap "low class" weapon, considered "unchivalrous" by those unlucky enough to face it, the longbow outperformed the crossbow in the hands of skilled archers, and was to transform several battlefields in Europe.

The longbow on the battlefield. Longbowmen were used to deadly effect on the continent of Europe, as assorted kings and leaders clashed with their enemies on the battlefields of France. The most famous of these battles were Crécy and Agincourt. Against mounted enemies, as at Crécy, the bowmen dug a defensive position defended with staves, and unleashed clouds of arrows into the hapless ranks of knights. The result was utter defeat as the screaming shafts pierced armor, felled horses and shattered the cohesion of opposing ranks. Difficult to deploy in a thrusting mobile offensive, the longbow was best used in a defensive configuration. Against mounted opponents or other infantry the ranks of the bowmen were extended in thin lines and protected and screened by pits (as at Bannockburn), staves (as at Crécy) or trenches elsewhere. Sometimes the bowmen were deployed in a shallow "W", enabling them to trap and enfilade their foes.

Reasserted supremacy of the infantry

Taken together, the mass of the pike and the firepower of the bow put paid to the dominance of cavalry on the European scene, and restored the balance in favor of the once-despised foot soldier. Gunpowder eventually was to provoke even more significant changes. Against these, the heavily armored knight made but an indifferent showing.


Technology and War: From 2000 BC to Present, 1989, Martin Van Creveld

The Military Revolution: Military innovation and the Rise of The West, 1988, Geoffery Parker

Significant medieval battles

Medieval wars

Major wars of the Middle Ages, arranged chronologically by year begun.

Medieval warriors: the Vikings

The Vikings were the most feared force in Europe during their heyday. While seaborne raids are nothing new in history, the Vikings brought the practice to a high art, and unlike raiders elsewhere, were to eventually transform the face of Europe. During the Viking age their expeditions, who frequently combined raiding and trading, penetrated most of the old Frankish empire, the British Isles, The Baltic, Russia and Muslim and Christian Iberia. Many served as mercenaries, and the famed Varangian Guard, serving the Emperor of Constantinople, had a big complement of scandinavian warriors.

Viking longships were easily maneuvered, could navigate deep seas or shallow waters, and could carry warriors that could be quickly dispersed onto land due to the ability possessed by the longships to come straight up onto shore. The Viking style of warfare was fast and mobile, relying heavily on the element of surprise, and they tended to capture horses for mobility rather than carry them on their ships. The usual method was to approach a target stealthily, strike with surprise, then disperse and retire swiftly. The tactics used were difficult to stop, for the Vikings, like guerrilla style raiders elsewhere, deployed at a time and place of their own choosing. The fully armoured viking raider would wear an iron helmet and a maille hauberk, and fight with a combination of axe, sword, shield, spear or great "Danish" two-handed axe, although the typical raider would be unarmoured, carrying only a shield, an axe, and possibly a spear.

Opponents of the Vikings were ill prepared to fight a force that struck at will, with no warning, then would disappear to attack other locations or retreat to their bases in what is now Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Norway. As time went on, Viking raids became more sophisticated, with coordinated strikes involving multiple forces and large armies, as the "Great Heathen Army" that ravaged Anglo-Saxon England in the 9th century. In time the Vikings began to hold on to the areas they raided, first wintering and then consolidating footholds for expansion that were to change Europe forever.

With the growth of centralized authority in the scandinavian region, viking raids, always an expression of "private enterprise" ceased and the raids became pure voyages of conquest. In 1066, King Harald Hardråde of Norway invaded England, only to be defeated by Harold Godwinson, the son of one of Danish-Norwegian-English king Canute the Great's Earls, who in turn was defeated by William of Normandy, descendant of the viking Rollo, who had accepted Normandy as a fief from the frankish King. The three rulers all had their eyes on the English crown (Harald probably primarily on the overlordship of Northumbria), rather than being motivated by the lure of plunder.

Medieval warriors: the Mongols

The Mongols were one of the most feared forces ever to take the field of battle. Operating in massive cavalry sweeps consisting of light mobile cavalry and horse archers, together with smaller tactical units, extending over dozens of miles, the fierce horsemen combined a shock, mobility and firepower unmatched in land warfare until the advent of the gunpowder age. From about two centuries, beginning with the rise of Genghis Khan in the 1200s, the Mongol warriors defeated some of the world's most powerful, well established and sophisticated empires, and claiming over one-twelfth of the world's land surface at their height, seen by some as the largest contiguous empire in human history- stretching from Asia, to Central Europe to the Middle East.

Anatomy of the Mongol host

Weapons and equipment: the Mongols deployed three general weapons, bows, scimitars and lances. Of these the most important was the dreaded Mongol Bow. Like many Asiatic bows, the Mongol bow was a composite bow, made from glue, horn, sinew and wood or bamboo. There were two types, one for long range marksmanship, and the other for shorter range purposes. Lances and scimitars were used for close range work within cities, or against dispersed enemies in the field. The central weapon however was the bow, with a range of over 200 yards. Arrows were of different "calibers" for tactical purposes, ranging from warheads capable of penetrating heavy armor, to an assortment of longer range, more specialized heads like "fire" arrows.

Morale, motivation and mounts: The Mongols were exceedingly tough warriors, used to privation and hardship, and extremely dedicated. The Mongol was always seemingly identified with his horse- the equally tough, hardy steppe pony. Reared on the harsh steppes of their native land, from their youth they spent hours on their mounts. The ponies not only furnished the means of transport into battle, but were very important to the Mongol steppe economy-- providing dowries for marriage, milk, blood, meat, hair and skin for clothing and tents, and glue and sinews for bow and arrow making. On the march, the Mongol warrior carried a string of ponies, rotating them as remounts to keep up the momentum of the advance. In a tight spot the Mongol would bleed selected ponies, using their blood to assuage his hunger. This extremely lean way of operation contributed to the rapidity of Mongol maneuvers. Characteristically, the Mongol was practical about his mounts, and would discard or slaughter them as demanded by the situation without sentiment.

Army organization and leadership: Mongol warriors were tightly organized into units of ten, and from that basic building block, grouped into larger formations roughly corresponding to regiments and other units, finally culminating in the distinct field force of 10,000 horsemen, the famous Mongol touman. Several of these divisional equivalents were grouped or subdivided as the situation demanded. Coordination was provided by designated unit leaders, with signalling provided via horns, smokes, flags or other devices.

Logistics: The Mongol logistical system was distinguished by its mobility and practicality. Most columns or toumen were self-sufficient in the short run. The Mongol armies lived off the land heavily. Heavier equipment and bulk material was probably brought up by supply trains, although we have few sources on mongol siege logistics. Some of their light artillery seems to have been carried along the mobile horse armies The large strings of remounts connected to the mobile mongol field armies seems to have posed problems in extended stays in off-steppe territories - a mongol host of the steppe neede to be constantly on the move.

Swarm/encirclement tactics and massed firepower in the field: Mongol tactics were marked by speed, surprise and massive mobility. They approached in widely separated columns, both to ease logistics as well as to gain maneuvering room. Once they had isolated their target, the toumans deployed in wide sweeps, converging on the enemy from several directions. Upon contact the Mongols played cat and mouse, standing-off while devastating opponents with massed arrow fire, or charging in close only to veer off while discharging yet another vicious rain of shafts. Opponents who took the bait and gave pursuit were quickly cut off and liquidated. The constant rain of arrows, the converging swarms of charges and probes, all carried out by the encircling Mongols were usually enough to "soften up" an enemy. Typically the opposing force broke and then the butchery began. As is well known, a force is most vulnerable in retreat, and the Mongols were ruthless.

Flexible tactics - ruses and ambushes: The Mongols were not rigid in their thinking, nor did they adhere to Medieval European notions of chivalry. They deployed a wide variety of large or small tactical subdivisions as the action demanded, and feigned retreat to set traps for pursuers, conducted ambushes, and constantly probed and raided their enemies.

Mongol siege warfare: Primarily a cavalry force, the Mongols made wide use of captured or hired siege engineers to overcome fortifications. A supply train hauled a variety of siege engines in the wake of the touman sweep, and these were deployed against cities, as well as making use of local lumber and resources for other siege equipment. The Mongols were unsentimental and used every trick in the book, from sapper tunnels to treachery. Once a city had fallen, it was subjected to wholesale massacre and pillaging. Those that surrendered were spared the worst, but still had to yield up its treasures, both material and human. The Mongol era is filled with caravans hauling booty to the Mongol core in the steppes.

Mongol terror: Mongol terror and atrocity seems to have left quite a mark, even by the standards of the 13th century. They employed a deliberate policy of terror. It was not unusual for them to round up the surviving civilian population of a city or area, and drive the victims forward against their own people. Contemporary accounts speak of mass mountains of human bones, or of vast areas burned to rubble, devoid of all life. Such atrocities were also put to use in psychological warfare allowing the Mongols to sometimes subdue opponents without fighting.

Mongols in the West

By 1241, having conquered large parts of Russia, the Mongols began the invasion of Europe with a massive three-pronged advance, following the fleeing Cumans, who had established an uncertain alliance with King Bela IV of Hungary. They first invaded Poland, then Transylvania, and finally Hungary, culminating in the crushing defeat of the Hungarians in the Battle of Mohi. The mongol aim seems to have consistently been to defeat the Hungarian-Cuman alliance. The Mongols raided across the borders to Austria and Bohemia in the summer when the Great Khan died, and the Mongol princes returned home to elect a new Great Khan. The Golden Horde would frequently clash with Hungarians, Lithuanians and Poles in the 13th century, with two larger raids in the 1260s and 1280s respectively. In the 1280s the Hungarians repelled the last major raid, and the instability in the Golden Horde seems to have quietened the western front of the Horde. The Hungarians and Poles had responded to the mobile threat by extensive fortification-building, army reform in the form of better armoured cavalry, and refusing battle unless they could control the site of the battlefield to deny the mongols local superiority. The Lithuanians relied on the their forested homelands for defense, and used their cavalry for raiding into mongol-dominated Russia.

Medieval warriors: the Turks

Trade between China, the Middle East, and Europe along the Silk Road extended throughout the period of the Middle Ages. The Turkic peoples were exposed to military technology from the days of the Roman Empire onwards, as well as financial wealth as a result of their position midway on the route. An early Turkish group, the Seljuks, were known for their cavalry archers. These fierce nomads were often raiding empires, such as the Byzantine Empire, and they scored several victories using mobility and timing to defeat the heavy cataphracts of the Byzantines. One notable victory was at Manzikert, where a conflict among the generals of the Byzantines gave the Turks the perfect opportunity to strike. They hit the cataphracts with arrows, and outmaneuvered them, then rode down their less mobile infantry with light cavalry that used scimitars. When gunpowder was introduced, the Ottoman Turks hired the mercenaries that used the gunpowder weapons and asked them to teach their soldiers. Out of these Ottoman soldiers rose the Jannisaries, or Ottoman gunmen. Along with the use of cavalry and early grenades, the Ottomans mounted an offensive in the early Renaissance period and attacked Europe, taking Constantinople, notably with the help of their huge cannons that were bigger than their opponent's, notably Basilica, the giant that pounded the walls of Constantinople. Basilica was itself designed and cast for the Grand Turk by a Christian Hungarian named Urban; a sign that the religion-dominated Middle Ages were drawing to a close.


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