Medieval warfare: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.

Did you know ...

More interesting facts on Medieval warfare

Include this on your site/blog:


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Ramses II at Kadesh.jpgGustavus Adolphus at the Battle at Breitenfeld.jpgM1A1 abrams front.jpg Military history


Medieval warfare is the warfare of the Middle Ages. In Europe, 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, weapons employing gunpowder date back to the tenth century, and the first permanent standing Chinese navy was established in the early twelfth century by the Song Dynasty.

The Middle East and North Africa used very different methods and equipment than was used in Europe, and there occurred a considerable amount of technological exchange and tactical adaptation between the different cultures. In Japan the Medieval warfare period is considered by many to have stretched into the eighteenth century. In Africa along the Sahel and Sudan, states like the Kingdom of Sennar and Fulani Empire employed Medieval tactics and weapons through the nineteenth century.


Strategy and tactics

Employment of force

The experience level and tactical maneuvering ability of medieval armies varied depending on the period and region. For larger battles, pre-battle planning typically consisted of a council of the war leaders, which could either be the general laying down a plan or a noisy debate between the different leaders, depending on how much authority the general possessed. Battlefield communications before the advent of strict lines of communication were naturally very difficult. Communication was done through musical signals, audible commands, messengers, or visual signals such as raising a standard, banner, or flag.

The infantry, including missile troops, would typically be employed at the outset of the battle to break open infantry formations while the cavalry attempted to defeat its opposing number. Once one side coaxed their opposing infantry into breaking formation, the cavalry would be deployed in attempt to exploit the loss of cohesion in the opposing infantry lines and begin slaying the infantrymen from horse top. Once a break in the lines was exploited, the cavalry became instrumental to victory - causing further breakage in the lines and wreaking havoc amongst the infantrymen, as it is much easier to kill a man from the top of a horse than to stand on the ground and face a half-ton destrier carrying an armed knight. However, until a significant break in the enemy infantry lines arose, the cavalry could not be used to much effect against infantry since horses are not easily harried into a wall of pikemen. Pure infantry conflicts would be drawn-out affairs.

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[citation needed]) and their inaccuracy made them more of a psychological force multiplier than an effective anti-personnel weapon.

Later on in medieval warfare, once hand cannons were introduced, the rate of fire improved only slightly, but the cannons became far easier to aim, largely because they were smaller and much closer to their wielder. Their users could be easily protected, because the cannons were lighter and could be moved far more quickly. However, real field artillery did not become truly effective or commonly employed until well into the early modern period.


A hasty retreat could cause greater casualties than an organized withdrawal, because the fast cavalry of the winning side's rearguard would intercept the fleeing enemy while their infantry continued their attack. 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 were no longer protected by a line of pikes as they had been during the previous fighting.


Breakdowns in centralized states led to the rise of a number of groups that turned to large-scale pillage as a source of income. Most notably the Vikings (but also Arabs, Mongols and Magyars) 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 has 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, or to disrupt the efforts of larger armies to supply themselves in the region by gaining local superiority over foraging parties that would be impossible against the whole enemy host.

Fortifications were a very important part of warfare because they provided safety to the lord, his family, and his servants. They provided refuge from armies too large to face in open battle. The ability of the heavy cavalry to dominate a battle on an open field was useless against fortifications. Building siege engines was a time-consuming process, and could seldom be effectively done without preparations before the campaign. Many sieges could take months, if not years, to weaken or demoralize the defenders sufficiently. Fortifications were an excellent means of ensuring that the elite could not be easily dislodged from their lands - as Count Baldwin of Hainaut commented in 1184 on seeing enemy troops ravage his lands from the safety of his castle, "they can't take the land with them"[1].

Siege warfare

In the Medieval period besieging armies used a wide variety of siege engines including: scaling ladders; battering rams; siege towers and various types of catapults such as the mangonel, onager, ballista, and trebuchet. Siege techniques also included mining.

The Walls of Dubrovnik are a series of defensive stone walls, never breached by hostile army, that have surrounded and protected a maritime city-state of Dubrovnik (Ragusa), situated in southern Croatia.

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 hot or incendiary substances. 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. Wet animal skins were often draped over gates to retard fire. 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 — 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 usually a mounted and armoured 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. During the crusades, holy orders of Knights fought in the Holy Land (see Knights Templar, the Hospitallers, etc.).

Heavy cavalry

Heavily armed cavalry, armed with lances and a varied assortment of hand weapons played a significant part in the battles of the Middle Ages. The heavy cavalry consisted of wealthy knights and noblemen who could afford the equipment and non-noble squires employed by noblemen. Heavy cavalry was the difference between victory and defeat in many key battles. Their thunderous charges could break the lines of most infantry formations, making them a valuable asset to all medieval armies.

Costumes of Roman and German Soldiers From Miniatures on different Manuscripts, from the Sixth to the Twelfth Centuries.

Light cavalry

Light cavalry consisted usually of lighter armed and armoured men, who could have lances, javelins or missile weapons, such as bows or crossbows. Light cavalry was used as scouts, skirmishers or outflankers. Many countries developed their own styles of light cavalry, such as Hungarian mounted archers, Spanish jinetes, Italian and German mounted crossbowmen and English currours.


Infantry were recruited and trained in a wide variety of manners in different regions of Europe all through the Middle Ages, and probably always formed the most numerous part of a medieval field army. Many infantrymen in prolonged wars would be mercenaries. Most armies contained significant numbers of spearmen, archers and other unmounted soldiers. In sieges, perhaps the most common element of medieval warfare [citation?], infantry units served as garrison troops and archers, among other positions. Near the end of the Middle Ages, with the advancements of weapons and armour, the infantryman became more important to an army [citation?].


In the earliest Middle Ages it was the obligation of every noble to respond to the call to battle with his own equipment, archers, and infantry. This decentralized system was necessary due to the social order of the time, but could lead to motley forces with variable training, equipment and abilities. The more resources the noble had access to, the better his troops would typically be. Typically the feudal armies consisted of a core of highly skilled knights and their household troops, mercenaries hired for the time of the campaign and feudal levies fulfilling their feudal obligations, who usually were little more than rabble. They could, however, be efficient in disadvantageous terrain. Towns and cities could also wield militias.

As central governments grew in power, a return to the citizen and mercenary armies of the classical period also began, as central levies of the peasantry began to be the central recruiting tool. It was estimated that the best infantrymen came from the younger sons of free land-owning yeomen, such as the English archers and Swiss pikemen. 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. However, almost all high medieval armies in Europe were composed of a great deal of paid core troops, and there was a large mercenary market in Europe from at least the early twelfth century.

As the Middle Ages progressed in Italy, Italian cities began to rely mostly on mercenaries to do their fighting rather than the militias that had dominated the early and high medieval period in this region. These would be groups of career soldiers who would be paid a set rate. Mercenaries tended to be effective soldiers, especially in combination with standing forces, but in Italy they came to dominate the armies of the city states. This made them problematic; while at war they were considerably more reliable than a standing army, at peacetime they proved a risk to the state itself like the Pretorian Guard had once been. Mercenary-on-mercenary warfare in Italy led to relatively bloodless campaigns which relied as much on manoeuvre as on battles, since the condottieri recognized it was more efficient to attack the enemy's ability to wage war rather than his battle forces, discovering the concept of indirect warfare 500 years before Sir Basil Liddell Hart, and attempting to attack the enemy supply lines, his economy and his ability to wage war rather than risking an open battle, and manouevre him in a position where risking a battle would have been suicidial. Macchiavelli misunderstood the indirect approach as cowardice.

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 could be a relatively low risk affair. Nobles avoided killing each other, rather preferring capturing them alive, for several reasons—for one thing, many were related to each other, had fought alongside 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, armour and equipment that came with him. However, this is by no means a rule of medieval warfare. It was quite common, even at the height of "chivalric" warfare, for the knights to suffer heavy casualties during battles.

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 for


Medieval weapons consisted of many different types of ranged and hand-held objects:


  • Body armour
  • Shield
  • Helmet

Artillery and Siege engine



The practice of carrying relics into battle is a feature that distinguishes medieval warfare from its predecessors or from early modern warfare. The presence of relics was believed to be an important source of supernatural power that served both as a spiritual weapon and a form of defense; the relics of martyrs were considered by Saint John Chrysostom much more powerful than "walls, trenches, weapons and hosts of soldiers"[2]

In Italy, the carroccio or carro della guerra, the "war wagon", was an elaboration of this practice that developed during the 13th century. The carro della guerra of Milan was described in detail in 1288 by Bonvesin de la Riva in his book on the "Marvels of Milan". Wrapped in scarlet cloth and drawn by three yoke of oxen that were caparisoned in white with the red cross of Saint George, the city's patron, it carried a crucifix so massive it took four men to step it in place, like a ship's mast.[3]

Supplies and logistics

As Napoleon famously said, "an army marches on its stomach", a weakness that has applied to all military campaigns in history. Medieval armies were supplied much as earlier armies had been [description please]. With the advent of castle-building and the extended siege[European castles can be dated to the Roman Empire and Medieval sieges tended to be shorter than sieges in antiquity], supply problems had to be solved on a scale seldom seen before, as armies had to stay in one spot for months, or even years.

Plunder and foraging

The usual method for solving logistical problems for smaller armies was foraging or "living off the land". As medieval campaigns were often directed at well-populated settled areas, a travelling 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 chevauchées across northern France during the Hundred Years' War.

Supply trains

Supply trains are as much a feature of Medieval warfare as they are of ancient and modern warfare. Due to the impossibility of maintaining a real front in premodern warfare, the supplies had to be carried with the army and/or transported to it while under guard. However, a supply source moving with the army was necessary for any large-scale army to operate. Medieval supply trains are often found in illuminations and even poems of the period.

River and sea travel proved to be the easiest ways to transport supplies. 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, as in Roman Imperial times, armies would frequently follow rivers while their supplies were being carried by barges. Supplying armies by mass land-transport would not become practical until the invention of rail transport and the internal combustion engine.

The baggage train provided an alternative supply method that was not dependent on access to a water-way. However, it was often a tactical liability. Supply chains forced armies to travel more slowly than a light skirmishing force and were typically centrally placed in the army, protected by the infantry and outriders. Attacks on an enemy's baggage when it was unprotected — as for instance the French attack on the English train at Agincourt, highlighted in the play Henry V—could cripple an army's ability to continue a campaign. This was particularly true in the case of sieges, when large amounts of supplies had to be provided for the besieging army. To refill its supply train, an army would forage extensively as well as resupply itself in cities or supply points - border castles were frequently stocked with supplies for this purpose.

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 could starve while waiting for the same to happen to the besieged, which meant the siege had to be lifted. With the advent of the great castles of high medieval Europe however, this problem was typically something commanders prepared for on both sides, so sieges could be long, drawn-out affairs.

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 Caffa, Crimea where the disease then spread throughout Europe as the Black Death.

For the inhabitants of a contested area, famine often followed protracted periods of warfare, because 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 labour pool particularly hard, making it even more difficult to recoup losses.

Naval warfare

The Battle of Sluys, 1340, from Jean Froissart's Chronicles

In the Mediterranean, naval warfare in the medieval period resembled that of the ancient period: fleets of galleys would exchange missile fire 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, Hayreddin Barbarossa, and Don John of Austria.

However, galleys were fragile and difficult to use in the cold and turbulent North Sea and northern Atlantic, although they saw occasional use. Bulkier ships were developed which were primarily sail-driven, although the long lowboard Viking-style rowed longship saw use well into the fifteenth century. Ramming was impractical with these sailing ships, 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 Svolder or 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, but the decisive defeats the more mobile but considerably lower boarded longships suffered at the hands of high-boarded cogs in the fifteenth century ended the issue of which ship type would dominate northern European warfare.

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 insertion of an 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 eleven heavy guns per side, all of which were capable of firing shot nine pounds or more.

Rise of infantry

In the Medieval period, the mounted cavalry long held sway on the battlefield. Heavily armoured, mounted knights represented a formidable foe for reluctant peasant draftees and lightly-armoured freemen. To defeat mounted cavalry, infantry used swarms of missiles or a tightly packed phalanx of men, techniques honed in Antiquity by the Greeks. The ancient generals of Asia used regiments of archers to fend off mounted threats. Alexander the Great combined both methods in his clashes with swarming Asiatic horseman, screening the central infantry core with slingers, archers and javelin men, before unleashing his cavalry to see off attackers.

Swiss pikemen

The use of long pikes and densely-packed foot troops was not uncommon in Medieval times. The Flemish footmen at the Battle of the Golden Spurs met and overcame French knights in 1302, and the Scots held their own against heavily-armored English invaders. During the St.Louis crusade, dismounted French knights formed a tight lance-and-shield phalanx to repel Egyptian cavalry. The Swiss used pike tactics in the late medieval period. While pikemen usually grouped together and awaited a mounted attack, the Swiss developed flexible formations and aggressive maneuvering, forcing their opponents to respond. The Swiss won at Morgarten, Laupen, Sempach, Grandson and Murten, and between 1450 and 1550 every leading prince in Europe hired Swiss pikemen, or emulated their tactics and weapons (e.g., the German Landsknechte).

Welsh & English longbowmen

The Welsh & English longbowman used a single-piece longbow (but some bows later developed a composite design) to deliver arrows that could penetrate contemporary plate armour and mail. The longbow was a difficult weapon to master, requiring long years of use and constant practice. A skilled longbowman could shoot about 12 shots per minute. This rate of fire was far superior to competing weapons like the crossbow or early gunpowder weapons. The nearest competitor to the longbow was the much more expensive crossbow, used often by urban militias and mercenary forces. The crossbow had greater penetrating power, and did not require the extended years of training. However, it lacked the rate of fire of the longbow.

At Crécy and Agincourt bowmen unleashed clouds of arrows into the ranks of knights. At Crécy, even 15,000 Genoese' crossbowmen could not dislodge them from their hill. At Agincourt, thousands of French knights were brought down by armour-piercing bodkin point arrows and horse-maiming broadheads. The Welsh longbowmen decimated an entire generation of the French nobility.

Since the longbow was difficult to deploy in a thrusting mobile offensive, it was best used in a defensive configuration. Bowmen were extended in thin lines and protected and screened by pits (as at the Battle of Bannockburn), staves or trenches. The terrain was usually chosen to put the archers at an advantage forcing their opponents into a bottleneck (at Agincourt) or a hard climb under fire (at Crécy). Sometimes the bowmen were deployed in a shallow "W", enabling them to trap and enfilade their foes.

The pike and the longbow put an end to the dominance of cavalry in European warfare, making the use of foot soldiers more important than they had been in recent years. Knights began themselves to rather fight dismounted, using two-handed swords, poleaxes and other polearms, as the improved knightly plate armour made them fairly immune to arrows. Gunpowder eventually was to provoke even more significant changes. However, a mounted reserve was often kept, and the heavy cavalry continued to be an important battlefield arm of European armies until the nineteenth century, when new and more accurate weapons made the mounted soldier too easy a target.

Significant medieval battles

Medieval Wars

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

Medieval conquerors

The Arabs

The initial Muslim conquests began in the seventh century after the death of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and were marked by a century of rapid Arab expansion beyond the Arabian Peninsula under the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates. Under the Rashidun, the Arabs conquered the Persian Empire, along with Roman Syria and Roman Egypt during the Byzantine-Arab Wars, all within just seven years from 633 to 640. Under the Umayyads, the Arabs annexed North Africa and southern Italy from the Romans and the Arab Empire soon stretched from parts of the Indian subcontinent, across Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Italy, to the Iberian Peninsula and the Pyrenees. The Arab Empire became the largest empire the world had ever seen, up until the Mongol Empire five centuries later.

The most famous early Arab military commander was Khalid ibn al-Walid, also known as the Sword of Allah. In having the distinction of being undefeated in over a hundred battles against the numerically superior forces of the Byzantine Roman Empire, Sassanid Persian Empire, and their allies, Khalid is regarded as one of the finest military commanders in history. His greatest strategic achievements were his swift conquest of the Persian Empire and conquest of Roman Syria all within just three years from 633 to 636, while his greatest tactical achievements were his double envelopment manoeuvre against the larger Persian forces at the Battle of Walaja, and his decisive victories against the larger combined forces of the Persians, Romans, Greeks and Arab Christians at the Battle of Firaz, and the larger combined forces of Romans, Greeks, Ghassanids, Russians, Slavs, Franks, Georgians and Armenians at the Battle of Yarmouk.

Other famous Muslim military commanders included ‘Amr ibn al-‘As during the Muslim conquest of Egypt against the Roman Empire, Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah against the Persian Empire, Tariq ibn-Ziyad during the Umayyad conquest of Hispania against the Visigoths, Ziyad ibn Salih at the Battle of Talas against the Chinese Tang Empire, and Saladin against the Crusaders.

The early Arab army mainly consisted of light infantry, alongside light cavalry and some camel cavalry. In contrast, the Roman army and Persian army at the time both had large numbers of heavy infantry (Roman legions and Persian daylami) and heavy cavalry (cataphracts and clibanarii) that were better equipped, heavily protected, and more experienced and disciplined. The Roman and Persian armies were also led by skilled generals such as Heraclius and Rostam Farrokhzād respectively. Despite being outnumbered by these superior Roman and Persian armies that were several times larger in almost every early battle, the Arabs were able to overcome the odds and defeat their enemies each time, mainly due to being led by tactical geniuses such as Khalid ibn al-Walid, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, and Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, as well as the better mobility of light cavalry and light infantry units which allowed them to use better maneuvers, including various flanking maneuvers and pincer movements.

In particular, the double envelopment manoeuvre, which Khalid ibn al-Walid successfully used against the larger Persian forces at the Battle of Walaja, is regarded as one of the greatest tactical manoeuvres in history, and was only successfully used once before by Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae.

According to Steven Muhlberger of the ORB Encyclopedia, the "...vigor and prowess of the Arab armies" was due "... to the willingness of the great mass of the conquered population to make a deal with the Arab armies" and the "confidence of the Muslims" due to their religion and "esprit de corps."[4]

The Vikings

The Vikings were a feared force in Europe because of their savagery and speed of their attacks. Whilst seaborne raids were nothing new at the time the Vikings refined the practice to a science through their shipbuilding, tactics and training. Unlike other raiders the Vikings made a lasting impact on the face of Europe. During the Viking age their expeditions, frequently combined raiding and trading, penetrated most of the old Frankish empire, the British Isles, The Baltic, Russia and both Muslim and Christian Iberia. Many served as mercenaries, and the famed Varangian Guard, serving the Emperor of Constantinople was drawn principly of Scandinavian warriors.

Viking longships were swift and easily manoeuvred, they could navigate deep seas or shallow rivers, and could carry warriors that could be rapidly deployed directly onto land due to the longships being able land directly. The longship was the enabler of the Viking style of warfare that was fast and mobile, relying heavily on the element of surprise, and they tended to capture horses for mobility rather than carry them on their ships. The usual method was to approach a target stealthily, strike with surprise and then retire swiftly. The tactics used were difficult to stop, for the Vikings, like guerrilla style raiders elsewhere, deployed at a time and place of their own choosing. The fully armoured Viking raider would wear an iron helmet and a maille hauberk, and fight with a combination of axe, sword, shield, spear or great "Danish" two-handed axe, although the typical raider would be unarmoured, carrying only a shield and spear; swords and axes were much less common.

Almost by definition opponents of the Vikings were ill prepared to fight a force that struck at will, with no warning. European countries with a weak system of government would be unable to organize a suitable response would naturally suffer the most to Viking raiders. Viking raiders always had the option to fallback in the face of a superior force or stubborn defence and then reappear to attack other locations or retreat to their bases in what is now Sweden, Denmark, Norway and their atlantic colonies. As time went on, Viking raids became more sophisticated, with coordinated strikes involving multiple forces and large armies, as the "Great Heathen Army" that ravaged Anglo-Saxon England in the ninth century. In time the Vikings began to hold on to the areas they raided, first wintering and then consolidating footholds for further expansion later.

With the growth of centralized authority in the Scandinavian region, Viking raids, always an expression of "private enterprise" ceased and the raids became pure voyages of conquest. In 1066, King Harald Hardråde of Norway invaded England, only to be defeated by Harold Godwinson, who in turn was defeated by William of Normandy, descendant of the Viking Rollo, who had accepted Normandy as a fief from the Frankish King. The three rulers had their claims to the English crown (Harald probably primarily on the overlord-ship of Northumbria) and it was this that motivated the battles rather than the lure of plunder.

At this point the Scandinavians had entered their medieval period the medieval period marks the end of significant raider activity both for plunder or conquest. Whilst obviously Scandinavian countries would continue to go to war. The growth of centralized authority throughout Europe limited the Vikings raider warfare in terms of opportunity whilst the Christianization of the Viking kingdoms reduced their motivation. The Vikings formed the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Scandinavians started adapting more continental European ways, whilst retaining an emphasis on naval power from an early date - the "Viking" clinker-built warship was used effectively in war until the fourteenth century at least, and the larger Scandinavian warships in this style are all from the medieval period. However developments in shipbuilding elsewhere removed the previous advantage the Scandinavian countries had enjoyed at sea whilst castle building throughout Europe effectively ended any benefit it might bring. Naturally trading and diplomatic links between Scandinavia and ensured that the Scandinavians kept up to date with continental developments in warfare.

The Scandinavian armies of the High Middle Ages followed the usual pattern of the Northern European armies, with heavy emphasis on infantry. The terrain of the Scandinavia favoured heavily infantry, and while the nobles fought mounted as any European knights would do, the Scandinavian peasants formed well armed and well armoured infantry, of which approximately 30% to 50% could be archers or crossbowmen. Crossbow was especially popular in Sweden and Finland. Lamellar armour and coat of plates was the usual Scandinavian infantry armour before the era of plate armour.


The Mongolian nomads were one of the most feared forces ever to take the field of battle. Operating in massive cavalry sweeps consisting of light mobile cavalry and horse archers, together with smaller tactical units, extending over dozens of miles, the fierce horsemen combined a shock, mobility and firepower unmatched in land warfare until the advent of the gunpowder age. From about two centuries, beginning with the rise of Genghis Khan in the 1200s, the Mongol warriors defeated some of the world's most powerful, well established and sophisticated empires, and claiming over one-twelfth of the world's land surface at their height, seen by some as the largest contiguous empire in human history - stretching from across Asia to parts of Poland. Mongols deployed weapons, bows, curved swords and lances. The Mongol bow was a composite bow, made from glue, horn, sinew and wood or bamboo, with a range of over 500 yards according to some references. The Mongols were exceedingly tough warriors, used to privation and hardship. Hardy steppes ponies furnished the means of transport into battle. Warriors were tightly organized into units of ten, and into larger formations such as the Mongol tumen of 10,000 soldiers. Coordination was provided by designated unit leaders, with signalling provided by horns, smoke, and flags. Most columns or tumen were self-sufficient in the short run, living off the land. Their main tactics were speed, surprise and mobility; as well, the Mongols were not rigid in their thinking, and nor did they adhere to Medieval European notions of chivalry. Mongols used siege engineers to overcome fortifications, and Mongol terror was used as a psychological warfare tactic.

Mongols in the West

By 1241, having conquered large parts of Russia, the Mongols continued the invasion of Europe with a massive three-pronged advance, following the fleeing Cumans, who had established an uncertain alliance with King Bela IV of Hungary. They first invaded Poland, then Transylvania, and finally Hungary, culminating in the crushing defeat of the Hungarians in the Battle of Mohi. The Mongol aim seems to have consistently been to defeat the Hungarian-Cuman alliance. The Mongols raided across the borders to Austria and Bohemia in the summer when the Great Khan died, and the Mongol princes returned home to elect a new Great Khan.

The Golden Horde would frequently clash with Hungarians, Lithuanians and Poles in the thirteenth century, with two large raids in the 1260s and 1280s respectively. In 1284 the Hungarians repelled the last major raid into Hungary, and in 1287 the Poles repelled a raid against them. The instability in the Golden Horde seems to have quieted the western front of the Horde. The Hungarians and Poles had responded to the mobile threat by extensive fortification-building, army reform in the form of better armoured cavalry, and refusing battle unless they could control the site of the battlefield to deny the Mongols local superiority. The Lithuanians relied on the their forested homelands for defense, and used their cavalry for raiding into Mongol-dominated Russia.


Trade between China, the Middle East, and Europe along the Silk Road extended throughout the period of the Middle Ages. The Turkic peoples were exposed to military technology from the days of the Roman Empire onwards, as well as financial wealth as a result of their position midway on the route. An early Turkic group, the Seljuks, were known for their cavalry archers. These fierce nomads were often raiding empires, such as the Byzantine Empire, and they scored several victories using mobility and timing to defeat the heavy cataphracts of the Byzantines.

One notable victory was at Manzikert, where a conflict among the generals of the Byzantines gave the Turks the perfect opportunity to strike. They hit the cataphracts with arrows, and outmaneuvered them, then rode down their less mobile infantry with light cavalry that used scimitars. When gunpowder was introduced, the Ottoman Turks of the Ottoman Empire hired the mercenaries that used the gunpowder weapons and obtained their instruction for the Janissaries. Out of these Ottoman soldiers rose the Janissaries (yeni ceri; "new soldier"), from which they also recruited many of their heavy infantry. Along with the use of cavalry and early grenades, the Ottomans mounted an offensive in the early Renaissance period and attacked Europe, taking Constantinople with the help of their huge cannons that were bigger than their opponent's, notably Basilica, the giant that pounded the walls of Constantinople. Basilica was itself designed and cast for the Grand Turk by a Christian Hungarian named Urban. Despite its size, however, it was not very successful as an artillery piece due to its multiple-hour load rate.

Like many other nomadic peoples, the Turks featured a core of heavy cavalry from the upper classes. These evolved into the Sipahis (feudal landholders similar to western knights and Byzantine pronoiai) and Qapukulu (door slaves, taken from youth like Janissaries and trained to be royal servants and elite soldiers, mainly cataphracts).

See also


  1. ^ McGlynn, Sean (Jan. 1994). "The Myths of Medieval Warfare". History Today 44 (1): 32. ISSN 0018-2753. Retrieved September 14, 2009. 
  2. ^ John Chrysostom, Laudatio martyrum Aegyptiorum, 1 PG 50 col. 694f.
  3. ^ Bovesin de la Riva, De Magnalibus Mediolani: Meraviglie di Milano (Milan, 1998), as reported in John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food (New York, 2008), p. 33.
  4. ^ Steven Muhlberger. Section 4: The Impact of the Arabs, Overview of Late Antiquity , ORB Encyclopedia.


  • Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.
  • Creveld, Martin Van. Technology and War: From 2000 BC to present, 1989.
  • 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
  • Kosztolnyik, Z.J. Hungary in the thirteenth century. New York: Columbia University Press: Stackpole Books, 1996. (Parts of which are available online)
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military innovation and the Rise of The West, 1988.

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address