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Introduction: Warfare and the Middle Ages Maurice Keen

Introduction: Warfare and the Middle Ages Maurice Keen

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become useful. Looking at it in his way, one can place at one extreme what I have called the great

confrontations, wars waged on the authority of popes, kings, and princes. Notable among these were

the struggles between popes and emperors of the period 1077–1122 (the Wars of Investiture) and of

the Hohenstaufen period (between 1164 and 1250): the series of wars (which grew out of them) that

we call the War of the Sicilian Vespers, and their subsequent ramifications (1282–1302, and

beyond): the great Hundred Years War of England and France (1337–1453). At the other end of the

scale stand endless petty confrontations, often amounting to no more than family feuds between

aggressive local lords or castellans, but potentially not much less devastating than great wars for the

welfare of local people. In between there were wars between protagonists at every level of

domination, between rival lords at comital, ducal, or princely level in competition for land and

inheritances, and between rival cities; and between protagonists at different levels of dominance, of

leagues of barons against kings (as in England in King John’s time and in the time of Simon de

Montfort, and later in the Wars of the Roses), of leagues of cities against their overlords (as of the

Lombard League against the Emperor Frederick I), and endless individual baronial rebellions against

overlords who they claimed had oppressed them or had infringed their rights. The resort to violence

was a ready one in the middle ages, at every level of authority.

The difficulty with this sort of classification is that it can be very difficult to keep the categories

apart. In medieval political conditions, greater struggles and lesser rivalries very easily blended into

one another, though without, in most cases, one fully absorbing the other. This was a consequence of

underlying conditions and the limitations of even the most effective and authoritative of medieval

power structures. Between the time of Charlemagne and the later middle ages, virtually no royal,

princely, or papal government had the resources in terms of money, manpower, and supply to sustain

on its own continuous, large-scale hostilities over an extended period. The solution to the problem

was obvious, to find allies whose interests might induce them to join in whatever cause was at stake

at their own expense and for their own advantage. Such a struggle as the Wars of Investiture between

the popes and the German Salian Emperors Henry IV and Henry V had an almost infinite capacity to

draw other parties and their quarrels into its orbit; Saxon and princely rebels against Salian kingship,

Norman adventurers in South Italy seeking superior sanction for their conquests, Patarene anticlericals at odds in Milan with episcopal authority. The later, Hohenstaufen chapter of the papalimperial rivalry illustrates the same point in a different but comparable way. The party labels Guelf

and Ghibelline which loom so large in the story of the wars of Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth

centuries originally denoted theoretically the allies and supporters of the church and the pope

(Guelfs) and of the emperor (Ghibellines). In fact from the start they were collective labels for the

rival lords, rival city governments, and rival family factions which the two great protagonists

succeeded in enlisting to the aid of their respective causes because they were at each other’s throats

anyway. Long after the main struggle had been decided against the Empire in the later thirteenth

century, Guelfs and Ghibellines continued to league together and to fight one another under the same

old labels. Wars tended constantly to spread outwards from their epicentres as well as inward

towards them. This made it very hard to delimit and control their scale, impact, and duration, let

alone to define their ‘level’ in terms of categorization.

War is thus central to the narrative political story of the middle ages. It is also central to their

cultural history. Indeed, their martial secular culture may arguably be claimed to be, along with their

Christian ideology, one of the two chief defining features of their civilization. The middle ages are

often recalled as the Age of Faith: they are often also recalled as the Age of Chivalry, or as the

Feudal Age.

In a famous triad, the thirteenth-century author of the Chanson des Saisnes (the ‘Song of the Saxon

Wars’) declared that there were three ‘matters’ of which every man should know something: the

matter of Britain, the matter of France, and the matter of Rome the Great. The matter of Britain meant

the stories of King Arthur, and of the adventures of his knights in battles and tournaments. The matter

of France meant the stories of Charlemagne and his paladins, and their part in wars against Saracens

and in the internecine struggles of the Carolingian nobility. The matter of Rome the Great meant the

history of Greece and Rome, of the wars of Alexander and Caesar and, most emphatically, the Trojan

war. These three matters did indeed become the most staple themes of secular aristocratic literary

creation from the twelfth century on. Lays and romances based on them inevitably focused around

warfare, around accounts of wars, battles, tournaments, and single combats (in the medieval versions

of the classical stories, their antique heroes appear as knights in contemporary armour, with fine war

horses and heraldic blazon on their shields). Literature thus became a powerful influence in

reinforcing and fostering for the secular aristocracy a martial value system whose bellicosity should

not be underestimated. Along with courage, loyalty, and liberality, it set a very high price on physical

strength, good horsemanship, and dexterity with weapons, and on impetuous ferocity in combat. This

value system was what we call the code of chivalry, and these military virtues and skills were the

defining features of its cult of honour.

Alongside this literary triad of the author of the Chanson des Saisnes may be set another triad, the

traditional medieval division of Christian society into three orders or estates. These were, first, the

clergy, whose business was with prayer and with pastoral ministration to society’s spiritual needs;

secondly, the warriors, whose business it was with their swords to uphold justice, protect the weak,

and to defend church and homeland; and, third, the labourers, by whose toil the land was tilled and

whose work provided for the material needs both of themselves and of the two other, more socially

elevated estates. First clearly articulated by King Alfred in his translation of Boethius, this

conception of society in terms of three functionally related estates achieved over time such wide

currency as to seem almost a truism: ‘you know that there be three estates of men’, the poet Gower

wrote in the fourteenth century. It was of course at best an ideal formulation which never accurately

reflected the facts of life and of social gradation. The specific justification that it offered for the

warrior’s calling as a Christian vocation with a vital social function was however profoundly

influential. It underpinned the secular aristocracy’s self-image as a hereditary martial estate and gave

a firm ideological grounding to its claims to status and privilege.

It is natural and appropriate to associate this threefold vision of society and its view of the

warrior’s place in it, with what historians call feudalism. True, the military model of feudalism,

which has been widely used in order to explain relations in the upper echelons of medieval society in

terms of a hierarchic structure of contracts, based on grants of land by superior lords to lesser men in

return for military service, is now looked at askance by many scholars. Nonetheless it remains true

that in the relations between a great (or even not so great) lord and his subordinates, whether as his

bodyguards or household servants or tenants or kinsmen, or as in later medieval England as retainers,

military service throughout the middle ages was consistently presented as a specially prized and

dignified form of service. Whether we call them feudal or not, notions of lordship and clientage to

which military service was central permeated medieval conceptions of social relationships at the

aristocratic, landowning level, and to a considerable degree, at other levels as well.

An acceptance, in some measure at least, of the aristocrat’s right of resort to military violence

was the natural obverse to this perception of obligations. That is what lies behind the tone of moral

confidence with which nobles tenaciously resisted (for instance in France in the time of Louis IX)

attempts to curb their customary seigneurial right to pursue their own claims by private wars on their

own motion (in what is sometimes called ‘feudal’ war), notwithstanding the adverse social

consequences which could so obviously stem from the privilege. The dignity associated with the

warrior’s functional status could serve as a reminder of his ethical and social duties: it could also

promote more wars.

Both feudalism and chivalry—or something rather like them—were features of medieval civilization

in its longue durée. There are variations in their specific modes of manifestation over time and from

region to region, but they or something like them are always there. One reason for this was the very

slow rate of technological advance in the art of warfare during the middle ages. There were

developments, and important ones at that: the extended use of stone in fortification (especially in

castle building): new techniques for manufacturing better armour for both fighting men and horses:

new sophistications in the design of crossbows and longbows. Yet there was nothing that altered

radically and rapidly what John Keegan has called ‘the face of battle’—until the coming of

gunpowder artillery and of new techniques in ship design and navigation at the end of the medieval

period. The cultural perception of the warrior aristocrat and of the code of behaviour and social

standing appropriate to the military calling did not shift very markedly or very fast, largely because

the conditions of the martial context of battle, to which a warrior was expected to respond, shifted

only very slowly.

A second reason for the longevity of the chivalrous ideal and of feudal factors (or comparable

ones) is more complex, and requires more careful consideration. In the twelfth century there was a

real breakthrough, not in the art of war but in bureaucracy and the techniques of literate

administration. The exponential growth in governmental records of all sorts from that point on bears

impressive witness to its impact. This breakthrough opened new vistas of possibility for central

governmental supervision down to local level (provided the ‘centre’ was not too remote

geographically). Static administrative headquarters, such as Paris and Westminster, acquired a new

importance. Princely rulers, with the aid of their professional clerical servants, gained a new

capacity to supervise legal processes and local conflicts of interest, and above all to tax (and to

borrow, offering anticipated revenue as collateral) on a greatly extended scale. This should have had

a very important effect on the capacity of such rulers to plan, organize, and direct large-scale military

operations, and indeed it did. Yet in the context of warfare that effect was in many respects

secondary, especially once the scene changed from the planning table to the operational field. The

impact on traditional martial attitudes and behaviour in belligerent conditions was in consequence

less sharp than one might expect it to have been, and only began to be fully apparent after a

considerable time lapse, arguably not until well into the fifteenth century.

One positive and more immediate effect of the new administrative potential of government was

that rulers such as the kings of France and of England in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth

centuries found themselves able to gather large armies from a wider recruiting base than had their

immediate predecessors, and to entertain higher and better defined territorial and dynastic ambitions

for the outcome of successful war. They also found it possible, through literate publicity, organized

preaching, and other brands of stage management, to reach out for a more conscious and patriotic

collective response to their war-making from their subjects, and thus to justify more imperative fiscal

demands. These were among the most important factors which, in the later middle ages, were visibly

accelerating the definition on the map of the future power structures of Europe.

Greatly improved and professionalized though administrative services became, they nonetheless

still had their limits. War is and always has been a highly cost-intensive business. For a very long

time—in effect till the end of the middle ages—the new fiscal and monetary resources into which

rulers were now able to tap, while adequate to pay for military service during actual campaigns,

were not sufficient to enable them to maintain standing, permanent forces on any really significant

scale, let alone to train them. They could of course employ mercenaries, whose captains came ready

equipped with standing forces and technical military skill. Demand here helped to create supply: but

mercenaries did not come cheap, and there were other problems, notably what to do with them when

a campaign was concluded. In order to raise armies late medieval rulers had in consequence still to

rely primarily, as their predecessors had done, on their greater subjects, who had the wealth to equip

themselves and their followers, an established social charisma, and a nexus of connections among

kinsmen, vassals, tenants, and servants which made them ideal recruiting agents. Untrained in the

formal sense, these lords and magnates, along with their followers, and like their ancestors before

them, were men who had been brought up physically to martial exercises, to horsemanship, hunting,

and jousting, and civilly to a sense of social obligation with very strong martial resonances. In the

field, the service of such men and their followers was a very adequate substitute for a professional

army. What assured their availability, however, even now that they were usually paid or promised

pay for a campaign’s duration, was not that they had ‘taken the king’s shilling’, but their traditional

sense of their standing in society and its functional obligations. In these conditions, it was positively

in a ruler’s interest to cultivate rather than to castigate their traditional outlook, to present himself as

the companion and generous patron of his martial, aristocratic subjects, to heed their sensibilities and

maintain their privileges. Otherwise he risked losing control of his war machine. Small wonder then

that it was only very slowly and partially that the new administrative capacities of government began

to have a significant effect on feudal and chivalrous manners of living, and on the accompanying

mental attitudes that had been formed and forged in earlier times.

Thus for a long time it seemed necessary, from a ruler’s point of view, to accept the price that was

attached to this condition of things, alternatives to which were in any case perceived only dimly, if at

all. That price was the ongoing risk that the martial energies and resources of a ruler’s greater

subjects continued to be all too easily channelled into causes other than his, into crusades, into

confrontations with fellow magnates, into private territorial adventures—and rebellion. That is a

chief reason why the middle ages, to their close, were so dominated by wars at so many levels.

But time passes. Lessons of experience sank in, and perceptions of new potentialities sharpened.

At the end of the middle ages rulers were getting richer and were learning more about how to flex

their governmental and administrative muscle. One symptom of this was the more strenuous and

better directed effort made to control the right of their great noblemen to make war other than by their

leave: another (partly as a means to that first objective) was that we find them (or some of them, the

Kings of France and Spain in particular) beginning to establish large-scale military forces on a

standing, paid basis. Chronologically, this opening of the story of professional, national standing

armies coincides with the time in which technological advances in gunnery and navigation were

beginning to have significant impact—and when a good many historians recognize the passing of the

age of chivalry. Around 1500, shifts in conditions which had been from a military point of view

defining features of the medieval period were beginning to accelerate. That is why this book ends


The fact that warfare and the warrior ethos were so central to the secular history of the middle ages,

political, social, and cultural, has shaped the planning of this book. It is divided into two parts. The

aim of the contributors to Part I has been to bring out, stage by stage and age by age, something of the

societal experience of war, and of the impact of its demands on human resources and human

endurance. Contributors of the first four chapters of Part II have sought to trace thematically the most

important developments in the art of warfare: in fortification and siegecraft, in the role and

equipment of the armoured cavalryman, in the employment of mercenary forces. The penultimate

chapter examines the gradual emergence of an articulate approach to the non-combatant; and the final

one considers some of the factors that were changing the face of battle at the close of the middle ages.

Limitations of space have meant that we have not been able to give separate attention to as many

themes and topics as we would have wished. Ideally, this book would include individual chapters

on, for instance, medieval opinions about the just war, on feudal relations and changing perceptions

of their military significance, on chivalry and the tournament, on rights to loot and ransoms, and on

taxation for war purposes. We have done our best to incorporate some treatment of these and other

matters into the framework of various chapters, but inevitably there has been some skimping on

topics that we recognize as important.

One omission imposed by lack of space is the absence of any in-depth treatment of the Byzantine face

of medieval warfare. To have attempted to do justice to it would have meant placing in context a

whole series of great wars, in the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, and beyond, which have no direct

connection with the warfare discussed in this volume. It would have meant, too, outlining a structure

of military organization radically different from that of the contemporary Western European world—

a structure moreover that under force of circumstances was altered over time almost beyond

recognition. So the telling of that story will have to wait for the publication of the forthcoming

illustrated history of Byzantium from Oxford.

Nevertheless one very broad and general point seems worth making here. The Byzantine story is

in many ways the reverse of that which this volume seeks to trace. At the beginning of the period here

covered the Byzantine Empire was a major territorial power, served by a sophisticated bureaucracy

and with an effective system of tax collection. Its army was a powerful military machine, with an

established provincial command structure, readily mobilizable for large-scale campaigns. In his

Precepts, the great tenth-century soldier Emperor Nicephorus Phocas was able to outline for the

army principles of recruitment and training, to detail the arms and equipment needed by respectively

light and heavy cavalry, infantry, javeliners, and archers, and to discuss with assurance tactics and

strategy. Yet the eleventh century would see the erosion of imperial authority through the growing

independence of the great, semi-feudal landowners of the provinces, and the loss of control of the

Anatolian hinterland as a result of Seljuk incursions, and, at its end, a new threat developing from the

West. In the twelfth century, relations with the crusading West deteriorated steadily, and in 1204 the

army of the Fourth Crusade stormed and seized Constantinople. Though the Byzantines did succeed in

recovering their capital city in 1261, theirs was thereafter an empire in name only. They failed to

regain Greece, and their last strongholds in Asia Minor were soon lost to the Ottomans. At the end

there was still an administrative bureaucracy in Constantinople but there was no longer a recruiting

base for an army. Well before the time that the emergent Western monarchies began to show signs of

an ability to curb effectively aristocratic martial independence, Byzantium had lost control of its

provinces to regional great nobles, and in the Balkans to warlike invaders, Slav, Bulgar, and Serb. In

the end all went down before the Turk, whom the Westerners succeeded ultimately in halting, a little

within the line of the Danube.

To both these contrasted histories, Western and Eastern, Latin and Greek, warfare and its

outcomes provide an essential connecting theme. It is now time to turn to look in more detail at the

Western side of the story, with which this book is principally concerned, beginning in the time of

Charlemagne, whose eighth-century Frankish empire resembled that of contemporary Byzantium

perhaps only in that both were essentially military powers.





WARFARE was perhaps the most dominant concern of the political elites of the eighth, ninth, and tenth

centuries. Other medieval social orders have been described as ‘a society organized for war’:

Carolingian and Ottonian societies were largely organized by war. The political community, when it

came together, was often called ‘the army’ even when it was not functioning as one. And usually it

did come together in order to function as one. Massive coercive force was repeatedly deployed

against subordinate peoples on the frontiers, with considerable success. It was also deployed, with

less consistent success, against invading predators—Northmen (Vikings) along the Atlantic and

North Sea coastlines from the early ninth century, Muslims along the Mediterranean coastline from

the last years of the eighth century, Magyars from the Danube valley from the last years of the ninth

century. And of course it was deployed against rivals within the Frankish world, by both rulers and

magnates. Its deployment required substantial investment in organization (taxation and other forms of

funding, transport, command structures), physical resources (food, water, equipment), and manpower

(conscripted and ‘voluntary’). Increasingly also investment in defensive fortifications was required.

Success in warfare brought prestige, authority, and power beyond the immediate results of the

campaigning itself; failure similarly risked a crisis in the legitimacy and stability of political


The significance of warfare becomes obvious as soon as we examine the course of late Frankish

and post-Frankish history. The eighth century saw an almost unchecked sequence of Frankish military

successes under the leadership of what was to become the Carolingian family, acting first as mayors

of the palace under the titular rulership of the last members of the Merovingian dynasty, from 751

onwards as kings, then finally, after Charles the Great’s coronation by the pope in 800, as emperors,

with a Roman resonance to their title and dominion. Looking back from the early ninth century, the

Carolingians saw their own rise as dating from the battle of Tetry in 687, when Pippin II and the

eastern Franks had defeated the western Franks. Much of the military activity of the period up to the

death of Charles Martel in 741 was devoted to internal consolidation: eliminating the ‘tyrants’ within

the kingdom, as Charles the Great’s biographer Einhard put it. But there were other campaigns:

campaigns to re-establish authority over the formerly dependent peoples in Alamannia and Bavaria; a

major war of conquest taking Frankish control down through Burgundy and the Rhône valley to the

Mediterranean coast; successful battles against Islamic invading forces in 732/3 and in 737 which

ended the possibility of Islamic expansion beyond the Pyrenees.

The two generations which followed saw the final subjugation of Alamannia and Bavaria as well

as of the remainder of southern France, the conquest of the Lombard kingdom of Italy in a lightning

campaign in 774, and the conquest and Christianization of the Saxons in a series of campaigns

between 772 and 785, 792–3, and 798–803. In the 790s, the major potential rival to Frankish

hegemony in Continental Europe, the Balkan empire of the Avars, was crushed in a few brief

campaigns, and the wealth accumulated by the Avars in more than two centuries of plundering raids

and tribute-taking was carted off to Francia, where Charlemagne distributed it to churches and to his

military following.

By the early ninth century, the Franks and their rulers had largely run out of opponents against

whom they could profitably campaign. The maximum extent of earlier Frankish domination in the late

sixth and early seventh century had been re-established and put on a quite different footing. The

Celtic and Slav peripheries along the Breton and east Frankish frontiers offered only meagre

opportunities. Neither the Danes to the north of Saxony, nor the Byzantine outposts and Lombard

principalities to the south of central Italy, nor the emergent Muslim powers in Spain were attractive

targets: wealth was there, but not for the taking. The Franks never campaigned in the Danish

peninsula, nor, after the first decade of the ninth century, against the Byzantines in Italy. The

territorial gains made by the Franks in what was to become Catalonia were made, after Louis the

Pious’s campaigns in 801–2 and 810, by local forces rather than by the Frankish kings themselves.

Yet the apparatus of military power built up in the course of eighth-century expansion still needed

maintaining. Increasingly, the Frankish elite turned in on itself. Between 830 and the end of the

century, a substantial proportion of all campaigns fought by Frankish forces were fought against other

Frankish forces. In the early 830s and early 840s two extensive civil wars turned on the succession

to Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son and successor: these culminated in the partition of the

Frankish empire into three at the treaty of Verdun (843); Charles the Bald, Louis’s youngest son,

became king of west Francia (what would become France); Louis became king of the eastern Franks

(what would become Germany), and Lothar, the eldest, ruler of a corridor of lands stretching

between these two kingdoms down to Italy, the ‘middle kingdom’. Further partitions followed, and

further disputes: the attempts in 857–8, 876, and 879–80 by the rulers of east or west Francia to take

control of the other’s kingdom; the series of campaigns between 861 and 880 to decide the

distribution of the middle kingdom; and the fighting between 888 and 895–6 to settle the nature and

extent of the hegemony to be exercised by Arnulf, king of east Francia, over the remaining Frankish




Increasingly also, the Franks and their rulers were themselves threatened militarily. It was

probably news of their own successes and the wealth they had accumulated which attracted

predators: attacks by Islamic pirates on the Mediterranean coastline of the Frankish empire are

recorded from the late eighth century, becoming frequent from the middle of the ninth century,

especially on the southern French coast and in southern Italy. At about the same time, slightly after

their first recorded appearances in the British Isles, Viking incursions began along the Channel and

Atlantic coasts. These too increased sharply from the 840s onwards, with brief remissions in the

870s and 890s. Finally, two decades later, the east Frankish lands began to suffer from the incursions

of the Magyars, a horsed confederation originating from the Russian steppes with a formidable

capacity for swift movement and effective deployment of archery and cavalry, for scattering to

ravage over a wide area and for reconcentrating their forces with unexpected speed when opposed.



The patterns established in the later ninth century—warfare against invaders or rivals—continued

to hold good in the tenth century in the western and southern parts of the Carolingian empire, west

Francia, and Italy. Raids on west Francia declined, without ever entirely ceasing; warfare against

rivals increased to compensate, and, in an anticipation of the world of the high middle ages, moved

down a level from wars between kings to wars between princes and magnates. In Italy Carolingianstyle disputes over kingship continued until the mid-96os, and predatory Muslim raiding along the

coast and in the south was a problem for even longer.

In east Francia, however, events took a rather different turn. Under the leadership of the

Liudolfing frontier dukes of Saxony, the kingdom was reshaped and reforged in the first half of the

tenth century. In some ways this remaking resembled that carried out by the early Carolingian leaders

in Francia two centuries earlier, and it too culminated in an imperial coronation, that of Otto I in 962.

Carolingian success against Islamic invaders was mirrored by Ottoman success against Magyar

horsemen, at Riade (933) and on the Lechfeld, south of Augsburg (955). But there were also

significant differences. Carolingian imperialism had brought about major disturbances in the patterns

of landholding and power within the Frankish lands. The Liudolfing/Ottonian reconstruction was a

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Introduction: Warfare and the Middle Ages Maurice Keen

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