Although many fantasy games contain military elements, large-scale campaigns, wars, and sieges, few games seem to reflect how medieval armies really operated. When a military unit appears in a game, its structure is often simply a graft of a quasi-modern hierarchies onto an even more quasi-medieval setting and it is left at that.
The battles themselves often also have a distinctly modern flavor, incorporating elements of recent conflicts such as the moral ambiguity of recent wars or the ethnically charged conflicts that have plagued modern history.
These details are interesting twists and can add much to a game’s flavor. We’ve had fun with deliberate anachronisms in our own campaigns. However, the realities of medieval warfare–its structure and organization, its rules of engagement, and myriad other details–can also greatly enhance one’s enjoyment of the game.
This article will focus on warfare in the fourteenth century, a paradoxical period that saw the height of chivalry and also the beginning of the end for the knightly aristocracy.
Even as the Order of the Garter was being established and the nation-state was still an emerging concept, national armies were beginning to be dominated by hired “professional” soldiers. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were also the era of the Hundred Years’ War, a bloody conflict between England and France that forever changed the nature of warfare, introducing massed longbow archery and gunpowder onto a battlefield that had once been the domain of the mounted knight.
First, however, it is important to understand the genesis of the medieval military machine.
And to grasp that, we have to get feudal.
The Medieval Army
Under the feudal system, which was really a feature of the High Middle Ages, armies were supposed to be made up of knightly levies called up by the king or by a local lord in times of need to serve for a specified period each year. Traditionally, these summoned knights were obligated to serve for 40 days.
The whole idea behind the feudal system was that the king gave land to his barons with the understanding that they would provide a set number of men that he could depend upon in times of war. To use proper terminology, we would say that the king enfeofed the barons. The barons in turn would sub-enfeof knightly tenants on the same terms, which would help the baron meet his commitment to the king. These knights would be expected to show up to serve under their baron who in turn would serve under the king when the monarch called a general muster. An enfeofed warrior was expected to bring along the appropriate equipment: at least one destrier, a couple of riding horses, arms, and armor, as well as support troops. Those additional troops varied widely and could be of noble or common birth, but generally amounted to two or three squires (also sometimes referred to as sergeants or men at arms). At first the squires’ role was mainly to supply the knights with replacement equipment and guard the baggage, but over time they became heavily armed front line fighters in their own right.
This gathering of knights and their dependent soldiers, sometimes termed the feudal host, proved unwieldy and inefficient. The loyalty of knights tended to be toward their immediate lord, they had to be discharged after they served their allotted time, and they were often independent of mind and even prone to rebellion.
(*In England, as a holdover from Anglo-Saxon tradition, these household supporters were called the familia regis.)
(*In England, as a holdover from Anglo-Saxon tradition, these household supporters were called the familia regis.)
In addition, the knights were often resentful of the service, having administrative tasks and a more pleasant existence at home. An early attempt to rectify this problem was a practice called scutage: knights and barons could pay a certain amount of cash in exchange for the right to stay home. That way, knights could avoid unwanted service while enabling the king to hire professional soldiers whom he could then keep in the field for longer periods of time. The king’s household supporters* aided this process by providing a ready group of additional professional soldiers who could be called upon to lead hired detachments. One interesting characteristic of this group was its international composition: Status was still more important than national identity for much of this period.
The international quality of many medieval armies is a specific feature that is worth noting. The very concept of nationhood was still only just beginning to develop, and the strongest loyalties were largely very locally regional and personal. Medieval armies were regularly composed of forces from numerous different regions that would be considered international by today’s standards. It was not at all uncommon for a great lord or king to hold lands in or titles to multiple geographic regions that were held in feof to other lords and kings. For much of the middle ages the English kings held large territories in France in feof to the French king. The tension such arrangements caused were one factor that led to the hundred years war. It was not at all uncommon for regional lords to shift their loyalty from one claimant to another in contested areas, and interpersonal relationships and alliances often meant far more than any commonalities of nascent national identity.
The development of Parliament in England, and of similar institutions elsewhere in Europe, enabled national taxation, and that accelerated the professionalization process. Kings began to contract with individuals for certain specific numbers of troops for a set payment. These individuals, usually barons or knights actively involved in campaigning, would then subcontract with other knights, archers, foot soldiers and the like in order to provide the requisite troops. This was part of the movement now called bastard feudalism. Bastard feudalism will be the subject of a later essay, but in short it was the practice of building an affinity or group of retainers who were personally loyal to the lord in exchange for support and a place in his household, rather than for more regular sub-enfeudation.
The very loose organization of most medieval armies was a consequence of the shifting and difficult-to-establish ties of authority and duty within the society as a whole. Still soldiers tended to operate in groups of like armed and armored men. Though a disparate array of troops might be mustered together, when it was time to fight on the battlefield they would be grouped up by function: cavalry, infantry, archery, and the like. These groupings, called battles, would be deployed to assist each other and to take advantage of natural synergies. For instance, groups of archers might have spear infantry placed before them to stop cavalry charges. Each battle would be under the command of an individual leader, often a noble, but–especially in the case of archery units–sometimes one of their own. In combat they would act semi-autonomously, able to take advantage of the changing situation rapidly in a world without effective battlefield communication.
Types of Troops and the Course of Battle
Heavy cavalry still dominated the field for much of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, but the effectiveness of tightly disciplined, well-armored ground troops against the chaos of a cavalry charge was proven again and again in the Hundred Years’ War. The English won most of their major battles thanks to a combination of tightly packed dismounted knights supported by their deadly longbowmen. Though the gun did make its military debut in these conflicts, it was the English longbow that arguably put the nail in the coffin of traditional chivalry. The longbow required constant practice to be used effectively (which is why constant practice was mandated by law in England) but its rate of fire so drastically surpassed that of the crossbow that it proved decisive in no fewer than three amazing victories for the English in the course of the war.
Elsewhere, in France, Italy and Germany, the crossbow was rising to prominence. The longbow remained largely an English peculiarity, but in the rest of Europe elite crossbow corps became the most desirable breed of soldier. Protected by a rank of mantlet-carrying shield bearers to hold off enemy fire while they reloaded, these troops could prove very effective, though slow. Crossbow troops were often raised as part of a city’s levies–a group of troops required by the founding charter of a free town or city, similar to the troops owed by an enfeofed noble. Mounted crossbow corps were able to move rapidly about the field and deploy more effectively than their foot counterparts, and mercenary units of this type drew outrageous wages.
Much has been made of the development of tightly disciplined spear formations, such as those used by the Scottish to defeat English cavalry charges, or the impressive Swiss pikemen. These troops were particularly effective in confined terrain where they could hold a line, but they had to form defensive hedges when in the open. Even these troops were still vulnerable to cavalry charges and long-range weapons, so commanders needed to maintain a balanced array of forces for them to be effective.
In the sort of large-scale battle that we hear about in history classes or watch on film, the fight would often begin with some light missile skirmishing, leading to in a concerted charge by one side or the other. The basic idea was to break through an opponent’s line, or to come at them from the flanks. Often the two sides simply went at it head to head, attempting to break through protective pike or dismounted knight barrier, or clashing cavalry against cavalry.
In reality, however such all-out engagements were relatively rare.
Warfare more often consisted of skirmishes and raids into enemy territory (often termed chevauchees), in which marauding troops looted and pillaged the countryside in order to undermine the economic base of the region. Defensive forces would often hole up in nearly impregnable fortifications and wait for a relieving army to scare off the invaders. Such defensive structures remained surprisingly effective, bogging down invading armies in siege or forcing them to turn their backs on hostile forces in the field.
The advent of gunpowder and effective cannon eventually ended the viability of that defensive tactic, but that transformation wouldn’t really occur until the very end of the Middle Ages.
Now that we have an idea of the nuts and bolts of medieval warfare, let’s home in on some realities of medieval warfare that are often overlooked.
One major difference has already been noted: the difference in military structure. This held true in camp and on the march as well. For nobles, command was a natural prerogative. Commoners could and did rise to prominence and even to positions of command, but this was usually over the troops from which they had been drawn: an archer might at times command a battle of archers, for instance.
But there was no formal chain of command and advancement like that which exists in almost all modern armies. Rank was mostly determined by birth and little structure existed outside of this overarching hierarchy. Almost all soldiers were to some degree voluntary participants. Although musters might be called demanding a certain number of troops, these slots were usually filled by those willing to fight for pay–not necessarily mercenaries in the traditional sense, but opportunistic locals.
Combat itself was a bit different from how we might imagine it. Although the medieval battlefield could be a bloody place, the weaponry generally was not equal to the armor available, and the wounds caused by slashing weapons were less often fatal than one might expect. This reversed somewhat later in the fourteenth century, especially with the rising use of piercing weapons, both missiles and melee weapons (such as the estoc) alike. Surgery was relatively primitive, but stitching and bone-setting were quite within the contemporary grasp. Disease was a far more likely end for any soldier, noble or base, than death from wounds in battle.
Dysentery, in particular, would sometimes kill more soldiers than the weapons did.
An important conflict in Shakespeare’s I Henry IV revolves around the handling of prisoners, who are worth a lot of money. The dispute over who should get the ransoms helps set the stage for civil war.
One of the most pronounced benefits of noble status was that relatively few knights were slain in war. It was more likely that they would be subdued and held for ransom, a concept that takes some getting used to for modern minds. It was entirely permissible to free a captured knight in return for payment, knowing full well that he would return to the enemy army to fight again. The fraternity between members of the noble class was stronger even than the bonds of national interest. Common soldiers could make their fortune taking such nobles prisoner (though they often “sold” their captive to a noble in their own army), but they could expect no such treatment from the enemy, noble or common. Being a common soldier on the losing end in a battle was a disastrous proposition.
This is only an introduction to the complex field of medieval warfare, still being actively debated and re-envisioned. There are myriad topics, such as the development of heavier forms of armor, or changes in siege technology, that I have not even touched on which could fill pages on their own. For those interested in further exploring the field, I recommend the following books.
- David Nicolle, Medieval Warfare Source Book. Volume 1: Warfare in Western Christendom. Arms and Armor Press, London 1995. This very approachable book gives a wonderful overview of the entire medieval period, with detailed comparisons of changing techniques, troops, and tactics. It is a good place to go for a detailed overview of the subject.
- V. B. Norman, & Don Pottinger, English Weapons and Warfare 499-1660. Barnes and Noble, New York 1966. Another overview, specifically concentrating on the fascinating English developments. Its focus is mainly on military technology, and it contains an array of simple but effective illustrations.
- If you prefer to learn about medieval warfare through historical fiction, try Arthur Conan Doyle’s, The White Company and Sir Nigel. These two classics from the creator of Sherlock Holmes deal with the participation of a few characters from across a broad class spectrum of social backgrounds in the Hundred Years’ War. Though terribly out of date in some ways, these books are nevertheless compelling reading, a bit juvenile at times but still informative.†
Later this week we will publish a follow up companion article that applies the lessons of medieval warfare to our in house fantasy setting of The Vault, describing how the regional forces in the Basin Kingdoms are organized and deployed. There is also an option in the form of the Imperium’s Legions for those who like to use a more modern form of military structure with defined ranks and roles in their games. These are loosely based on the famed legions of Rome, but updated to work in a more medieval setting.