Evolution of Medieval Warfare
Dispite the conventional wisdom, the techniques of warfare did evolve during the Medieval years. This was so, even though the social order in Medieval Europe was unusually stable.
This social system developed in the Early Middle Ages (A.D. 700-1000) as a result of changes in prevailing military practices. The barbarian kingdoms erected on the ruins of the Roman Empire had generally treated all free adult males as equals before the law, with an equal obligation to render military service. This assumption of a universal male military obligation remained in force over the centuries even as the barbarian kingdoms became increasingly settled and civilized. The form which such service took was usually that of infantryman, with each man required to bring his own arms when called. Armies were thus primarily militia forces, although the king might have a small band of full- time "henchmen" in his service who may be considered professional soldiers. This adequately provided for defense in terms of the types of threat which confronted the various Western European kingdoms in this period. Beginning in the Eighth Century, however, threats of a different nature began to beset the West: the Vikings, the Arabs, and the Hungarians
The nature of the threat posed by the Vikings, the Arabs, and the Hungarians was different from those experienced previously. These peoples were raiders, intent upon plundering what they could, although not adverse to making a land grab if the opportunity was offered. The Vikings raided Western Europe's Atlantic littoral from the sea, while the Arabs did so along the Mediterranean coast, and the Hungarians rode rough-shod over much of Central Europe from the Great Hungarian Plain. These peoples moved far too swiftly for the militia levies. Only forces of comparable mobility, that is on horseback, could possibly muster in sufficient time and move with sufficient speed to catch the raiders before they were off once more.
But mounted forces are difficult to sustain. Horses are expensive . Moreover, mastering the skills of mounted combat was a full-time job. Ultimately, the feudal system was born out of the need to support a class of professional mounted soldiers. A lord would endow a man with land and peasants so that he could procure suitable mounts and equipment, and then prepare and maintain himself and his mount in perpetual readiness for military service.
The new military system proved quite successful. The Viking, Arab, and Hungarian threats were largely beaten off by the end of the Tenth Century. The success of the innovative mounted armies naturally reduced the status of, and the necessity for, the old freeborn militia infantry, so that it became increasingly rare for the commoner militia to be called upon to render military service. The superior fighting qualities of the professional mounted warriors as opposed to the increasingly amateurish militia further enhanced the status of the horsemen.
Eventually the levy of all able-bodied adult males virtually disappeared. The mounted soldier --the knight or man-at-arms with armor and sword and lance-- had become the undisputed master of the battlefield, able to sweep all before him in one mighty charge. Now there was, at first, no inherent notion of hereditary claim by a mounted soldier to the lands allocated for his support, but this began to evolve even as the new military system successfully beat off the various threats. By the end of the 10th Century the feudal system was firmly established.
One unfortunate side-effect of the new system was that it decentralized government to such an extent that the title "king" was, in most countries merely an honorific held by one of the greater nobles. Thus, there was no one to restrain the lords from fighting with each other, and private war was fairly common, as different lords sought to wipe-out alleged insults or, more practically, to steal from their neighbors. Efforts by the Church to curb such activities had some effect, and by the 12th Century Western Europe was experiencing a degree of stability unknown since before the Fall of Rome seven centuries earlier.
Meanwhile. there seemed to be no way to defeat the mounted knight with any degree on consistency. However, fortifications could frustrate even the most capable knights. Strongholds, of course, were primordal factors in war. After the Fall of Rome all manner of ancient Roman, but quite sturdy, structures , from castles to amphitheaters, and from palaces to watchtowers, were pressed into service as fortifications. This enabled many people to survive the barbarian storm, for the latter were inept at siegecraft.
The use of fortifications multiplied in the Dark Ages, particularly as siege techniques remained fairly rudimentary. Fortified places were an inherent part of the new mounted defense system which developed to meet the Viking, Arab, and Hungarian threats. In the event of a raid the local populace could flee to the nearest strongplace --perhaps a walled town, a castle or fortified manor or a stoutly built church-- where, under the direction of the local captain --a professional mounted warrior holding his lands from the crown, or one of the crown's lesser lords-- they could attempt to hold out until the regional contingent of men-at-arms rode to their relief.
Initially such strongpoints were relatively simple, sometimes no more than a mound of earth with a moat and palisade and perhaps a tower of heavy timbers, construction in stone having fallen out of fashion with the demise of Rome. As anyone attacking such a place usually had no notion of how to take it save by starvation or storm, one was generally fairly safe in such a "motte-and-bailey" castle, for raiders usually had little time to starve such a place out, and might not be inclined to pay the price of taking it by storm. Gradually, however, siege techniques became more sophisticated. After all, wooden palisades and towers can be burned, and devices can be improvised for hurling fire and rock over them. Stone therefore once again began to become common in fortification.
By the height of the Feudal Age (A.D. 1000-1300) Europe was dotted with fortified places. By way of example we may note that in the 14th Century there were, in an area of approximately 1050 square kilometers just south of the forest of Fontainebleau in France, twelve forts, 28 fortified churches, five towers, four fortified manor houses, and six full-fledged castles, for a total of 55 fortified places, or roughly one for every 19 square kilometers. Few people were more than a 15-20 minute walk from a place of refuge. This was, of course, after several centuries of development of the prevailing military system.
Thus, at the height of the Feudal Age military activities were characterized and defined by two basic factors: the heavily armed, professional mounted soldier and the fortified place. Both of these were relatively unbeatable, but did possess some serious disadvantages. One of these was expense. The full panoply of a knight, including armor, weapons, and a couple of horses, plus equipment for a squire, a page, and perhaps one or two additional retainers, could cost more than 180,000 ducats at a time when 2,500 ducats a year was a fairly good income. The annual cost to maintain this crew was 15,000-20,000 ducats. Since a knight's daily honorarium was usually about 50 ducats, active service could not bring in enough money to cover expenses. If he served a full year he might earn 10,000 ducats, less room and board (and another 10,000 ducats for his retainers). Moreover it was rare for a knight to serve for an entire year. Normally they rendered only their obligatory 40-days or so, plus a few months here or there as the martial spirit moved him. Even a cut-rate outfit could come to perhaps 60,000 ducats, though the kit and nag one might get for that sort of investment might appreciably affect one's life expectancy in battle. Little wonder, then, that the military system of the Feudal Era required landed wealth to support the knights. And fortifications were far more expensive than knights. (see Sieges .)
The combination of mounted knight and fortified place was the dominant military pattern throughout Western Europe during the Feudal Age. To be sure, it sometimes failed, as when some North Italian urban (city) militia spearmen defeated the mailed men-at-arms of the Holy Roman Emperor at Legnano in 1176, or as at Chateau-Gaillard, a great fortress on the Seine between Paris and Rouenf, but such reverses were exceptions, and could be explained away. The relative invincibility of the military system contributed to the enormous stability of the social system. Nevertheless, by the 14th Century the knight was beginning to encounter some more serious resistance to his domination of the battlefield, in the form of distinctly lower class Swiss pikemen, who several times diced up Habsburg knightly armies by means of a solid phalanx of pikepoints and lots of determination. And equally low class Englishmen were learning to use a new weapon Edward I had coopted as a result of his conquest of Wales, the longbow. Meanwhile, society was becoming increasingly complex, commerce was booming, towns were growing rapidly, and there was a trend towards the reassertion of royal domination in most countries, while the middle level lords had pretty much eclipsed the lower ranking ones in influence. And something else was beginning to appear on the scene which would eclipse both knight and castle, and ultimately help overturn the entire social and political order of Feudal Europe, gunpowder , and cannon .
During the Hundred Years War England was trying to assert the claim of its kings to the throne of France. The war was characterized by long periods of inactivity punctuated by occassional battles engendered by raids or sieges. The English military system, based on the long bow, proved virtually unbeatable on the battlefield by the French, who relied heavily on the traditional man-at-arms. Put simply, on the battlefield the English normally adopted the tactical defensive. Carefully selecting sites with well-protected flanks, they dismounted their men-at-arms to form a defensive line of spearmen, and interspersed large blocks of longbowmen among them. The French would invariably attack, or could be provoked into attacking by long-range arrow strikes. When they came on, whether horsed or dismounted, they would be plastered with tens of thousands of arrows.
Not until the latter portion of the 14th Century did the French finally develop a strategy with which the English could not cope. This was the work of Bernard Du Guesclin (1320?- 1380), Constable of France under the able King Charles V (reigned 1364-1380). Du Guesclin recognized that the English were unbeatable tactically. But, while they could win battles using their longbows and thus gain territory, they had to rely on fortifications in order to hold it. So he adopted a strategy of attrition which avoided open battles with the fearsome longbowmen and relied upon ambushes, night attacks, guerrilla raids, feints, calculated withdrawals, and sieges, for which he used an effective, if modestly sized, artillery train.
The strategy worked well. In a series of campaigns between 1368 and 1380 the English were driven out of virtually all of France. Du Guesclin's artillery helped get him into many of the lesser fortified places, which was a big help, but it was too light to batter a way into the more stoutly built castles and cities, which had to be reduced by more conventional sieges. The English proved incapable of coping with this strategy. Because Du Guesclin consistently, and intelligently, refused battle under any circumstances, there was not a single pitched battle in the traditional style (i.e., with the English longbowmen shooting down the French men-at-arms) during the entire dozen years of fighting.
Du Guesclin's highly unorthodox techniques caused his enemies --who included many high-born Frenchmen desireous of stabbing the low-born Constable in the back-- to accuse him of "unchivalrous" and "cowardly" conduct. The fact that English longbows were not one whit more chivalrous than French guile and artillery was overlooked, of course, as was the fact that Du Guesclin's tactics worked.
In 1380, on the verge of total victory, Du Guesclin and his able master both died. By this time the English were confined to a few cities along the coast of southwestern France, in the ancient province of Aquitaine, and were neither able nor inclined to resume hostilities. The war thus entered another long period of inactivity. Surprisingly, despite the evidence of the increasing inability of fortified places to cope with artillery, little attention was paid to improving fortifications to make them better able to resist gunfire. After all, even Du Guesclin's artillery train was unable to reduce the more extensively fortified places. Progress in gunnery continued in the decades after Du Guesclin's death.
Development of Cannon
Social Impact of Cannon
The Du Guesclin period of the Hundred Years War, and the years immediately following it, had a considerable influence on the growth of artillery.Nor was this influence confined to France and England, for the innovations spread rapidly. Moreover, guns were beginning to appear on the battlefield with some regularity.
Early evidence for the use of cannon in the field is poor. Indeed, after a brief, somewhat suspect, mention of their use at Crecy in 1346, we have no certain information for over forty years, until the famed Italian condottiero Giovanni Acuto --originally a low-born Englishman named John Hawkwood-- encountered some at the Battle of Castagnaro (11 March 1387). Hawkwood's outnumbered Paduans do not seem to have had any cannon, but their Veronese foemen had 20 bombards and three 144-barrel ribaults. Despite an inferiority in firepower, Hawkwood came away with an overwhelming victory, the result of a brilliantly conducted flank attack. Gunpowder had been of but slight influence on the course the battle. The cannon of the age had virtually no tactical mobility, were extremely slow firing, and had little accuracy. While these disadvantages did not seriously impede their use in sieges, it made them virtually useless in pitched battles. Hawkwood, among others, could not help but notice that this new innovation would most likely grow in importance over time.
Although cannon would be present at many battles over the next half-century, their outcomes were not influenced by that fact. Thus, at the Battle of Agincourt (25 October 1415) --during yet another round in the Hundred Years War-- the presence of a considerable contingent of artillery with the French did not prevent yet another generation of English longbowmen from mowing down the French men-at-arms, this time deployed as a dismounted phalanx of pikemen. Indeed, the artillery managed to get off only a few rounds before it was masked by the advance of the men-at-arms, and thus managed to inflict but one fatality on the English.
During this period, only the Hussites demonstrated how effective gunpower weapons could be during the early 15th century. But they were basically a bunch of religious heretics who were eventually brought down by sheer wait of numbers, and their own internal disputes. Meanwhile, significant developments were taking place elsewhere in Europe during the same period.
In 1415 King Henry V of England (reigned 1413-1422) resumed the interminable Hundred Years War with an invasion of Normandy. His brilliance as a strategist and politician soon made him master of much of France. Militarily, the English continued to rely on their time-tested longbows, which contributed to yet another victory over men-at-arms at Agincourt. In addition they had a considerable train of artillery, which proved useful in taking French fortresses. French resistance was inept, due to both military and political weakness. So succesful was Henry that France's Charles VI (reigned 1380-1422), surnamed "the Foolish", renounced his own son in favor of Henry's son, giving him a daughter to wed to seal the bargain, and produce the heir. Feeble resistance continued on the part of the disinherited Dauphin Charles, but it looked like the war had ended in an English victory.
The deaths of both King Henry and King Charles within weeks of each other in 1422 had no noticeable effect on the course of the war, for Henry's able brothers managed to hold things together for their infant nephew, Henry VI (reigned 1422-1461 & 1470-1471). In the period 1422-1428 English control was gradually extended to all of France north of the Loire, save for Orleans. The siege of Orleans (September 1428 - 8 May 1429) proved to be the turning point in the war. The numerous but demoralized defenders benefited from some excellent fortifications, as well as some 70 pieces of artillery of all types brought to the city before the siege. This was probably the greatest concentration of guns in the world at the time. These kept the English out.
Cannon were not yet powerful enough to batter down such stout walls, though they could be very effective at smashing gates and outworks. They were also quite useful in creating fires and could inflict casualties. But techniques had been developed to bolster the defenses of gates and outworks, and neither fires nor casualties were unanticipated events in a siege. The fact that the French were able to respond to English firepower with their own also helped. Nevertheless, given sufficient time Orleans would have fallen. That it did not was due to Joan of Arc (1412-1431). Joan inspired the defenders to renewed efforts and the English were forced to abandon the siege. Joan went on to lead a counteroffensive over the next few weeks which yielded the first French victories since Du Guesclin, culminating in the coronation of the Dauphin as Charles VII (reigned 1422-1461) in newly liberated Rheims. France now had two kings, one the infant son of Henry V, the other the newly crowned son of the last French king.
The war soon entered a new phase, as Frenchmen of all classes began to feel the stirrings of nationalism. This was strengthened when the English foolishly burned the "Maid of Orleans" as a witch on 30 May 1431. As a martyr Joan was even more valuable to France than as a maid-at-arms. Over the next dozen years the French gradually drove the English back, clearing most of Northern France. In 1444 a truce was arranged, leaving the English with Normandy and Aquitaine.
The French used the truce to totally reorganize their army. Charles VII may have been a relatively dim bulb, but he had several able advisors, among them the Duke of Alencon, a good general, who had provided the military smarts for Joan; the Constable de Richemont, a capable commander and administrator; and the Brothers Bureau , who were first class military managers and organizers as well as being fine generals. These men thoroughly reorganized the French state and army. Administration of government was centralized, local autonomy curbed in the interests of the great national struggle. The national finances were reorganized and put on a rational basis, with a resulting windfall to the treasury. This money was used to finance extensive military reforms. A new army was created. The troops were organized into well-disciplined formations --even the men-at-arms-- with clearly defined ranks, a standardized tactical doctrine was introduced, proper rationing allowances and regular pay were established, and a formal chain of command instituted. Enormous sums were expended on the artillery, which was completely revamped. Now it was considered an integral part of the army, with a well-defined role in cooperation with the horse and foot.
The equipment was modernized and standardized, and the pieces were properly mounted on mobile carriages. This was made possible because improvements in metallurgy, and particularly in cannon founding, made it practical to reduce the weight of metal in guns without affecting their capabilities. In addition, trunnions .may have been introduced at this time, axle-like appendages emerging from the underside of the barrel at the piece's center of gravity, which permitted more efficient elevation and training, to the great improvement of accuracy. Cheaper and more effective iron cannon balls definitively replaced stone, which was as likely to shatter on masonry as to shatter it. The crews were professionally organized and paid, formally trained, and subject to proper discipline.
One of the most important elements in the technical reform of the French army came in the form of a significant advance in the making of gunpowder. Early forms of gunpowder were essentially just carefully blended mixtures of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal in the prescribed proportions. By the early 15th Century efforts were being made to insure more efficient mixing. Everything was reduced to fine powders, blended together, and sieved to insure a consistent, but relatively loose mixture. Unfortunately each of the three ingredients has a different specific gravity, with the result that they settle out when in storage, so that it was common for early artillerymen to mix their powder on the spot.
The new French army quickly proved itself a superb instrument. Within weeks of the renewal of the war, the English were on the defensive on all fronts. The French invaded Normandy and systematicly set about reducing strongholds. So good had their artillery become that great fortresses easily succumbed to the pounding of the French guns. Castle after castle fell. More importantly, the new cannon enabled the French to defeat the traditional English longbow tactics in a pitched battle for the first time in over a century. At the Battle of Formigny on 15 April 1450 the English deployed as had their ancestors at Crecy and Poitiers and Agincourt, with dismounted men-at-arms covering their front supported by their longbowmen in the center and on the flanks. The French deployed in similar fashion, with their spearmen covering a broad front supported by crossbowmen. But they also positioned two cannon on their flanks, six- or eight-pounder culverins, long-barreled pieces firing upwards of 1,000 yards, greatly outranging the English bows. These wrought terrible execution in the English ranks, provoking them into a charge. The English were cut to pieces by the combined attentions of the French spears, crossbows, and cannon. Nearly 4,000 of them fell at a cost of perhaps 100 French lives. It was a victory such as France had never experienced and it was due, in large measure, to France's modern artillery. Within five months of Formigny, the first pitched battle in which artillery played a decisive role, all Normandy was in French hands. Some 60 castles, cities, and fortresses had been taken in the space of a year, the average siege lasting but six days. So effective were the new cannon that many places surrendered on terms as soon as the French emplaced their guns. The French pressed on, and over the next few years secured repeated success in both sieges and battles until the English were completely driven from France in 1453, after yet another disastrous tactical defeat at Castillon (17 July 1453). It was a stunning recovery and a remarkable victory, and it was largely attributable to French superiority in firearms.
Cannon and the Fall of Constantinople
So in 1453 gunpowder brought an end not only to the Hundred Years's War, but also to the last remnant of the Roman Empire, making that year a the principal milestone marking the end of the Middle Ages.