Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Warfare in medieval times was never static or predictable - although there were ideals and conventions to follow, in the field commanders had to use their initiative and adapt to the needs of the moment. In this concise, wide-ranging study, Helen Nicholson provides the essential introductory guide to a fascinating subject.

Medieval Warfare
- surveys and summarises current debates and modern research into warfare throughout the whole of the medieval period across Europe
- sets medieval warfare theory and practice firmly into context as a continuation and adaptation of practice under the Roman Empire, tracing its change and development across more than a millennium
- considers military personnel, buildings and equipment, as well as the practice of warfare by land and sea ...

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
It is a truth universally acknowledged that warfare was central to medieval society. The power and authority of kings rested largely on their ability to wage war successfully; social theorists depicted the warriors as forming one of the three divisions of society, with an essential role within it; and those who recorded the history of the period devoted the bulk of their pages to describing war.
Helen Nicholson

1. The theory of warfare

Abstract
Medieval warfare was such a supremely practical art that it may seem perverse to begin by considering theory. It is true that theory and practice were often far apart, yet the theory forms a basis from which the practice can be considered.
Helen Nicholson

2. Military personnel

Abstract
Gregory, bishop of Tours 573–94, describes in his ‘History of the Franks’ how, in AD 585, the army of the Merovingian King Guntram of the Franks set out to attack the city of Poitiers, whose inhabitants had rebelled against him. Having captured Poitiers, the army marched south to crush the army of Gundovald, who claimed to be a son of King Lothar I (d. 561) and therefore Guntram’s brother and a contender for the throne. This army contained men on horseback and on foot. Gregory mentions that they were armed with javelins, or spears. The army had a large baggage train of wagons, which was left in the care of the less able-bodied when the army went to attack the church of St Vincent at Agen.
Helen Nicholson

3. Military buildings

Abstract
A military building is any building that plays a role in military activity, from the army camp to the fortress. It can be temporary or relatively permanent. Yet not all buildings which are generally regarded as military had a solely military purpose. Walls of stone or earth, such as the late Roman limes on the German frontier, or King Offa of Mercia’s dyke on his western frontier, could simply mark a boundary, the ‘cut-off point’ between one ruler’s region of authority and the next. A castle, while being built to offer secure housing against marauders and to house warriors who could conduct hostilities against other warriors, was also a centre of administration and a home and could display the wealth and artistic taste of its owner; it could be a palace as well as playing a role in war.
Helen Nicholson

4. Military equipment

Abstract
Christine de Pisan, writing in 1408–9, set out the military equipment required for a siege. She was apparently listing the materials actually used in a real siege described to her by the military men who were her informants on current military practice. The equipment required to besiege a tresforte place, a very strong place, included some impressive ordnance: ‘Again, four great cannons, one of which is called garite, the next rose, the next seneca and the next maye.’ These were presumably cannons that had recently fought for France; it was normal to give large artillery pieces names, be they stonethrowers or gunpowder weapons. They might, however, have been particular types of cannon. Garite, Christine tells us, hurls weights of 400–500 pounds (180–225 kilograms); Rose hurls weights of 300 pounds (135 kilograms) and the last two hurl weights of 200 pounds (90 kilograms) or more. Finally, there was a gun called Montfort hurling 300-pound weights. Interestingly, Caxton’s translation of this section of her work gives 500 pounds for Garite and 400 for Rose; perhaps his manuscript gave different figures, or perhaps the larger cannon of his day were more powerful.1
Helen Nicholson

5. The practice of land warfare

Abstract
It is a commonplace among historians of medieval warfare that battle was rarely engaged — as Vegetius had stated, battle should be avoided as far as possible because it involved too many risks and its result was final. It was often better to draw out a campaign and to harass the enemy by burning crops and besieging buildings, rather than commit everything to a few hours of direct engagement. This chapter, therefore, will consider various ways in which warfare was waged, and not simply battles. The discussion will follow the logical course of a campaign, from initial training to the final peace.
Helen Nicholson

6. Naval warfare

Abstract
The sea played various roles in warfare during the medieval period. It could simply be the geographical area over which warriors must travel before engaging in military action. Ships could be used as a base for attacking coastal fortifications. Some warfare was actually fought at sea, between warriors standing on the decks of ships: this warfare was naval in its situation, but otherwise was similar to land warfare. Once the ships had grappled each other and been drawn together, the battle was fought with bows, javelins and swords as it was on land; the ship acted simply as the method of transportation. However, by the thirteenth century it is possible from the surviving sources to identify tactics or methods of fighting which were specific to naval warfare, and which set warfare at sea apart from warfare on land.
Helen Nicholson

Conclusion

Abstract
This survey has considered theoretical approaches to warfare during the period 300–1500, the personnel involved in war — how armies were recruited and who served in them — fortifications and other buildings used in warfare, equipment used by warriors, and how war was fought by land and sea. Overall, it is clear that some aspects of war remain constant. In the period covered by this study, commanders concentrated on raiding and devastation of the enemy’s land rather than pitched battles. Throughout the period, there were sieges of strongpoints, although the quality of siege artillery varied. Those who had ships at their disposal used them for both trading and raiding. Throughout the period, armies consisted of warriors on horseback, supported by warriors on foot. Highly mobile raiding bands did not always include the warriors on foot; in areas such as Frisia where the landscape was not easily passable for horses, armies generally lacked warriors on horseback. In areas of rough terrain such as Ireland and the west and north of the British Isles, mounted warriors generally dismounted to fight. Nevertheless, the overall pattern remained.
Helen Nicholson
Additional information