The Middle Ages was one of the most violent periods in the history of Europe. There were a number of large, long-term wars between the various powers of the time, for example the ‘Hundred Years War’ between England and France. This period of
protracted warfare led to a change in the nature of warfare and it’s features. During the late middle ages there was a period of economic growth and prosperity. This put an increased amount of wealth and resources into the hands of the ruling elite of Europe. But rather than enjoying this wealth in peace, the rulers of the European kingdoms, being a warrior elite, chose to spend their new wealth on weaponry and warfare. The scale of military operations increased as the aristocracy became even more aggressive than before and pushed against the borders of their dominions.
Medieval warfare was fought by ravaging and destruction. There was little or no distinction between soldier and civilian to the attacking armies. The armies were forced to ravage the land they attacked, as supplies were normally insufficient. This was because the logistics and process of supplying a large army was slow, costly and uncertain. For example, the historian John France explains that if each soldier eats one kilo of bread a day, and a pack horse can carry 150 kilos, then to feed a force of 3,000 you would need 140 pack horses. This would further increase as food for the horses was included, and would increase significantly if the army included cavalry, whose warhorses would require even greater supplies. Therefore armies were forced to resort to thieving and pillaging to survive.
Medieval armies consisted of foot soldiers and horsemen or cavalry. Foot soldiers were usually infantrymen, consisting of peasants and other lower class members of society, and were only called into military service when required. They received little training and were poorly armed, at least at the beginning of the middle ages. They appear to have suffered from a lack of confidence in their abilities, which was a result of their low social standing but also of the lack of faith shown in them by superiors. During the period, the use of infantry became more sophisticated and organised.
The use of horsemen as a cavalry unit was a popular tactic in the middle ages. The horsemen were usually knights, who could afford to own a horse and the necessary equipment. By the 13th centaury knights wore plate armour as protection from the increased use of arrows. Knights were often the only professional or semi-professional members of an army. This has meant that many historians have considered them as the integral part of a medieval army. The historian John France states that the knight was the most important element of an army. The knights were a very mobile force, but they could be limited by the landscape on which a battle occurred, which was usually more suited to a foot soldier.
Knights were not an invulnerable force on the battlefield. An effectively employed infantry could defeat a cavalry charge, despite what many modern portrayals of medieval warfare in popular culture show. Foot soldiers that were disciplined, organised and well armed could withstand cavalry, forcing the knights to fight hand to hand on the ground.
A major feature of medieval warfare was the introduction of new weaponry. New weapons were developed and employed by armies in the middle ages. This was due to the improving economy, which allowed for a huge increase in the production of weaponry, and therefore the improved quality of weapons.
One such weapon was the crossbow, a medieval projectile weapon, which revolutionized warfare in the 11th Century. The crossbow was introduced to the English by the Norman Invaders in 1066 and became widely used among the armies of numerous countries. Crossbows were originally constructed of horn and pliable wood but were eventually made of iron which added great power to its firing.
The crossbow became a popular weapon in warfare because its penetrative power was far superior to the antiquated short bow. It could fire up to 350 metres and could easily pierce chain mail or light plate suits wounding the victim terribly, and usually fatally. The bow was also noiseless, accurate and powerful, making it an ideal weapon. It was so shockingly destructive that Pope Innocent II declared the weapon barbarous to be used in warfare, except against infidels. He issued a bull against the use of the weapon in 1139 on the grounds that it was “a weapon hateful to G-d and unfit for Christians.”
The crossbow revolutionized warfare; it rendered the cavalry soldiers and their heavy armour virtually defenceless against the agile, crossbow-armed infantrymen. Kings began to recruit more infantry armed with crossbows than cavalry soldiers.
While the crossbow was indeed a lethal, effective weapon against an army of horsemen, it had its drawbacks for use in the open battlefield. It was extremely heavy and bulky and was very complex to operate. It required the archer to wind up the mechanism after each arrow had been fired. Even experienced archers could fire only one arrow per minute. After all, as described by Payne-Gallwey, the task of firing the weapon involved Taking the weapon from the shoulder of the soldier; Unhooking a windlass from a waist-belt; Fitting the windlass to the stock and string; Winding up the bow; and finally Arranging the bolt and, after taking aim, pressing the trigger. It is easy to see what a complex and tedious task it was to fire the crossbow. It was for these reasons that the weapon was best suited for sieges and defence alone.
Although the crossbow was an effective lethal weapon, it was soon to be overshadowed by the English longbow, a far superior projectile firing weapon. The longbow could be as tall as seven and a half feet, and was drawn to the ear as opposed to the short bow, which was drawn only to the chest. The improved longbow could be fired only up to 250 metres, 100 metres short of the crossbow’s firing distance. The relatively close firing range, however, made little difference in the performance of the longbow since it was able to pierce heavy armour at a shorter distance than the crossbow could pierce chain mail and lighter armour.
Another improvement in the longbow is that it could be fired with greater speed than its predecessor, the crossbow. An experienced archer could fire twenty arrows per minute, while the average archer could fire ten per minute. This made the new weapon fit for battle and operable by the less experienced archers since less practice was needed to fire the weapon.
The longbow was better suited for battle than the crossbow for reasons other than its power, ease of use and quick firing capabilities. The weapon was also useful to frighten the enemy on the battlefield. When fired simultaneously, a shower of thousands of arrows could be fired upon an enemy army. Any soldier would easily fear that at least one arrow would hit him, causing them to lose morale. Descriptions from the time talk of the sky being black with arrows and how they blocked the sunlight out. Horses too were driven into frenzy over being struck with the arrows. The horses would then throw their armoured riders to the ground and bring any formation they had into confusion in their panic.
In order for the shower of arrows to effectively frighten the opposing army, the longbow men required great discipline to fire at the exact same moment. The effects of the longbow would not have been as frightening had the arrows been fired one at a time. The required discipline changed the manner in which the soldiers were trained for battle. The longbow men required years of training from childhood in order to develop the strength to actually draw back 100 to 175 pounds of pressure.
The crossbow was a more advantageous weapon for the simple reason that any man could fire the weapon, even an inexperienced archer. Additionally, the crossbow was, in some respects, more beneficial because the ammunition was less expensive and less bulky than conventional arrows. It was also easier to fire the crossbow from behind a shield than with a longbow.
Both the crossbow and the longbow revolutionized medieval warfare. While each projectile weapon had its own advantages over the other, both played a role in changing the manner in which battles were fought, the types of soldiers that were used and the kind of training that was required. Certainly, the invention of these powerful projectile weapons, which could easily pierce the formerly impenetrable armour, brought with it a new type of strategic warfare.
Another main feature of medieval warfare was the advent of the castle. A castle or fortification was not only of strategical importance, and a properly fortified military residence but also provided a safe place in which shrines could be built, were places of refuge, and places for the lords to live. Most significantly a castle provided an impressive status symbol of the power and wealth of the lord who owned it. Initially castles were designed and built to hold down conquered territory and served to intimidate and strike fear into the local community. Castles were brought to Britain by William the Conqueror, when he invaded England in 1066. William took control of his kingdom by ordering the construction of motte and bailey castles throughout his new dominion. Before the invasion of England, in the Normans other campaigns their usual tactic had been to seize a castle and use it as a base from which to terrorise and subjugate the local area.
Castles were almost impossible to capture in battle, and contrary to popular belief, medieval armies rarely besieged castles. This was due to the immense cost that would be incurred in keeping an army around an area for a prolonged period of time. It was also due to the fact that the besieged castle was often better prepared for the siege than the attacking army, as well as having better conditions than whatever temporary camp the besieging army would be forced to use. As Gillingham states, campaigns against castles would still include the ‘ravaging’ of the land around it as in a normal battle, mainly because the conquest of a castle would use up a lot of resources.
During the Middle Ages technological, social and cultural developments forced a change in the nature of warfare. The main development in medieval warfare was technological. The evolution of new weaponry such as the crossbow and the longbow. Without these developments warfare would have remained in a similar state to what it had been at the fall of the Roman Empire.
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