Medieval Europe: Warfare

Figure 1.--

Warfare was an endemic aspect of life during the long European medieval era. To an extent it defined the era and led to feudal decentralization, althouh historians debate this. Noting appears to the popular mind more than warfare and knights when thinking about the medieval era. The techhnology of medieval warfare declined from the mpre sophisticated technology of later abtiquity the later ancient era. Major technological, cultural, economic and social developments occured gradually over the one mllenium medieval era. And they resulted in a major transformation in the character of warfare and society itself. These changes played a role, first in the devlopment of feudalism and tgen in undermining it. Heavy cavalry in the person of the armored knight came to dominate medival warfare. It was controlled to an extent by the code of chivalry. The feudal system and armored knight gave rise to the desintgration of powerful states into local power centers proteced by castles, a development which was repeated in the Middle East and China. This did not change until gunpowder invented in China resulted un weapons (both firearms anbd artillery) which could penetrate armor anbd castle fortifications. This combined with the quickening of economic life and the reapperance of classical learning led to the Renaisance ending the medieval era.

Nobel Armored Horsemen

The rise of the nobel armored horseman or knight was the key development defining the medieval era. The Germanic tribes which swept ovr the Roman Empire became a new ruling class. Their warruors were given land grants by ribal chiefs, some of whom became kings and barons. In turn these lords divided their fiefdoms into smaller parcels in exchange for oaths of fealty and promise of military service when neded. Armored horsemen were able to extract ealth from the land. And wealth ws neded for war hirses, armor, and weapons. These were all very expensive. Feudalism led to a process of decebtralization. Knights and lords live in small self-sufficent units and could withdrraw behind castle walls which could pritect thenselves from all but the most detemined asault, military actions very expensive to mouht. While we usually think of Europe when thinking about knights, we see comparable developments in the Middle East andFar East.

Medieval Armor

Warriors have desired to protect themselves in battle since the advent of weapon in the stone age. The nature of this protection has evolved both with weapons technology and metallurgy. In the ancient world the cost of metal limited the ability to armor soldiers. Bronze was very expensive to produce. Iron was much less expensive, but required more advanced technology to use for weapons and armor. This development permitted the creation of larger armies as iron weapons could be produced much more cheaply. The fall of Rome (5th century AD) took place along with a general decline of technology in the West. As a result, the use of armor was limited in the early medieval era. Not only had technology declined, but the cost of armor limited the size of armies that medieval monarchs and nobles could amass. The armor used in the early medieval era was chain mail. This consisting of thousands of interlocking metal worked painstakingly by hand to form a shirt, coif, or to a lesser extent leggings. The "mild" or soft steel produced with medieval technology meant that each ring had to be riveted. This was necessary to keep the rings from spreading and opening under the weight of the piece. This mail was worn with a padded garment called an "aketon," or "gambeson." The knight would also be equipped with a shield. This was normally leather-covered wood. Metal shields would be both expensive and heavy. Knights were also equipped with iron and then steel helmets. As medieval weapons technology developed, chain mail became less effective. Here the principal development was the English longbow and the crossbow. Such matters are not just of interest to military historians. English kings using yeomen cheaply armed with long bows to defeat heavily armored French knights. The important of the yeoman class played a role in the rise of democracy in England. The answer to the long bow and crossbow was plate armor. This became possible with the advance of technology. This was not only hugely expensive, but significantly restricted mobility. Plate armor has become a symbol of medieval Europe, but in fact only appeared in the late-medieval period (late 13th/early 14th century). At first plate armor was only used in limited areas to protect vital areas such as the chest and shoulders. Only at the very rend of the medieval era did full body plate armor appear (early 15th century). This was the proverbial "knight in shining armor". It was hugely expensive. It was often combined with chain mail to protecting vital areas that could not be easily covered with plate armor (the groin and underarms). With such armor the shield became redundant. The era of plate armor was a short one. Shortly after full plate armor appeared so did gunpowder weapons. And once an effective gunpowder weapon was developed which could penetrate plate armor (16th century), the heavily armored knight rapidly disappeared. It was very expensive to field armored knight and their mobility was limited. A lightly armored soldier with a gunpowder weapon was relatively inexpensive to field and could be quickly trained. The whole nature of combat and warfare rapidly changed. And it meant the end of the medieval era because armies were no longer formed primarily from a small aristocratic class. Plate armor did not immediately disappear, but continued to be worn for ceremonial purposes. Such "ceremonial" could be very ornate and decorative.

Fighting Trends

Thanks to Hollywood and popular history, one gets the impression that the medieval era was one continual attle aftr another. One might wonder how medieval knights lived so long and survived so many battles given the leatlity of weapons and the almost complete lack of sanitation and effective medical care. The reason is that mjor battles wre relatively rare. It is lmost the opposite of the popular images. There were of coure battles and war, but what is often forgot is thart they spaced over a millenium. One of the greatest warriors of the era, William the Cinqueror, only engaged in open battle twice. Warriors who survived two major battles were seen as experienced battles. William Marshall who had fought in five battles was seen as a living legend in his day. Major battles in the early and high Middle Ages were very rare. The reason for this was major battles were very costlyb affirs and risked the threat of losing all. If you army was routed there was normally no second chance. Reforming a defeated medieval army was next to impossible. There was at the time little command and cintrol, especially after the battle began. The knights of a defeated army to avoid capture would head back to their estates and castles. The peasant militias supporting the knights fled back to their farms or hid in the woods. Unlike the kbights who were valuable because they could be ransomes, the peasants were normlly killed.


Chivalry was a specilized code of military conduct. Interestingly, simolar codes developed in other areas uch as Bushido in feudal Japan. And we we see literature developing extoling the military virtues developed in these codes. Chivalry and the oher feudal codes. Tgey required military expertie abd definded bhavior both during and after battle. There was atring religious element. Abd a central aspect of chivalry and other codes was a sharp destincion between nobiulity and commoners.

Military Threats

Medieval Christian Europe faced several major military threats. The Huns were a major threat at the very outset pf Medieval Europe. The next principal threat was the Moors and Saracens. The Byzantines blocked the Islamic advance in the East, but Moorish armies invaded Spain in the west and crossed the Pyrenees into France. They were stopped by Frankish commander Charles Martel at Tours (732). The Moors retired back across the Pyrenees, but Saracen raiders attacked into Europe penetrating into the Alps and even sacking Rome. Eventually the Ottoman Turks would renew the threat in the East. Another Turkish people, the Hungarians. raided throughout central Europe. They were a major threat until defeated and Christianized. The northern Germanic peoples, the Norsemen or Vikings, were still pagan and began raiding Christian Europe in the 8th century, first striking the rich monastery at Lindesfarne, an island off northern England. The Vikings became a major threat to Christian Europe after the death of Charlemagne and the splintering of his domains. The Vikings established Normandy, a dukedom that rivaled the power of the French monarchy and Duke William of Normandy would conquer England (1066). While Danish and Norwegian Vikings struck west and south, Swedish Vikings moved east and played a major role in the development of Russia. The Vikings while devastating large areas also played a role in the spread of commerce and the evolution of democracy in England. Late medieval Europe would face assaults from the Mongols ad than the Ottoman Empire.

Decisive Battles

The Medieval era stretches for essentially a millennium. During that era there were countless battles. The Medieval era can be defined chronologically in different ways. It is difficult to define the beginning and end of the medieval battles. We tend to view them with disappearance of the Eastern Roman Empire (5th century AD) and the increasing use of gun powder weapons (16th century). The most famous battles of the Medieval era are those fought in Western Europe, essentially because people are most interested in the history of their own people or country. Many of these battles though well known, such as Hastings, were largely dynastic struggles of varying significance. Other battles largely familiar only to historians seem far more important in terms of the consequences to the modern world. The battle of Yarmuk (636) in the Middle East is not well known to the average reader, yet it had profound consequences. The Arabs at Yarmuk decisively ended the Christian Byzantine hold on the Middle East and within decades Muslim armies had entered Europe, conquered Spain and threatened France, a threat defeated at the battle of Tours / Poitiers (732). We will list here the Medieval battles that seem to us of greatest importance.



The greatest artifacts of the medieval era are the castles that can be found all over Europe, especially Western Europe. These castles were an integral part of the Medieval era and feudal system. Security was a major concern of Europeans, constantly facing raids from war-like peoples like the Huns, Bulgars, Maygars, Mongols, Vikings, Saracens, and others. Building fortified structures like castles was important for a feudal lord to establish his control over his land and to guarantee his security. The first castles were rudimentary strongholds. Castle building technology gradually developed to a fine art. The Welsh castles built by the Normans are some of the finest examples of castles building. They also helped to guarantee a feudal lord's authority against his liege lords. The medieval era lasted for a millennium. In the later era the feudal lords and barons posed a obstacle to monarchs attempting to form nation states. Here the invention of gun powder and cannons gave monarchs the ability to reduce even imposing structures resulting in the emergence of the modern nation state. We have not done much work on castles as our site focuses more on individuals than architecture. We note an excellent site addressing the topic of European castles.


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Created: 11:45 PM 1/12/2015
Last updated: 11:46 PM 1/12/2015