Medieval warfare

Template:History of war 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, if often more advanced, technologies than Europe. In Japan the Medieval warfare period is considrered 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 well after they had been supplanted in Europe.


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 organized forces such as the Roman legions. Rather the bulk of the forces made up of peasants were vassals of individual lords who both recruited and armed them.

The potency of the Medieval knight offensively and the castle defensively, both very costly, made for the utter dominance of the wealthy during the Medieval period. While peasant revolts were common, they were, with few exceptions, suppressed. One exception was the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

The end of medieval style warfare was also caused by technological and social change. Gunpowder, cannons, and firearms made both armour and castles obsolete. A revival of the power of central governments would see the rise of much larger and more coordinated armies.

Strategy and tactics

Deployment of forces

Medieval European armies were typically 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 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

Some medieval armies had minimal training and little cohesion. Any pre-battle planning was limited and battlefield communications were very difficult. Communications often took place through musical instruments, audible commands, messengers, or visual signals (such as standards, oriflammes, banners, flags, etc.) Many medieval battles tended to result in large mêlées.

The purpose of the vanguard for an attacking army was generally to help create holes in the defending front line. The archers would fire over the shields of the infantry into the defending army, who would be prepared to return that fire.

Eventually, the center would move in, and the infantry would charge alongside the mounted knights.

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.


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 rearguard intercepted the fleeing enemy while the infantry pressed on. 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 had been protected by a line of pikes during the fighting.


Breakdowns in centralized states lead to the rise of a number of groups that turned to pillage as a main source of income. Most notably the Vikings (but also Arabs, Mongols and Hungarians) also 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. Later in their development castles served as protection from other local elite in the region.

Fortifications had a great many advantages in the Medieval period. They provided refuge from the chronic raiding that occurred in the Middle Ages. The ability of the heavy cavalry to dominate a battle on an open field was useless against fortifications. Primitive or nonexistent roads made transporting siege equipment very difficult and time consuming. The general lack of central military organization also made large and sustained sieges difficult. Fortifications were an excellent means of ensuring that the elite could not be easily dislodged from their lands.

Medieval siege craft

In the Medieval period besieging armies used a wide variety of siege engines including: scaling laders; 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. 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 &mdash ;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.



A medieval knight was a 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.

Missing image
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. Their part, however, was essential. 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, 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 lead 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.

Missing image
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


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 Kaffa, 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. Bulkier ships were developed which were primarily sail-driven. Ramming was impossible, 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 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.

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 English concept and produced the galleon. However, the Spanish continued to consider warships as floating fortresses, whereas the English began to emphasize long distance gunnery and seamanship. The difference between the English approach and the Spanish approach was typified by the annihilation of the Spanish Armada.

Significant medieval battles

Medieval wars

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


  • Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
  • Keegan, John. The face of battle : a study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. London : Barrie & Jenkins, 1988.
  • Keen, Maurice. Medieval Warfare: A History. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • McNeill, William Hardy. The pursuit of power : technology, armed force, and society since A.D. 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Nicholson, Helen. Medieval Warfare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004,
  • Oman, Charles William Chadwick. A history of the art of war in the Middle Ages. London: Greenhill Books ; Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1998.
  • De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History ( Ages wide 2

fr:Armement médiéval


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