Chapter 4 - A Transition of War
The Middle Ages
Previous Contents Next

The period from 800 to 1453, the high Middle Ages, was a period of violent transition that began with the end of the Dark Ages and ended with the Renaissance. When this period began Europe was still attempting after years of barbarization to reestablish an imperium along Roman lines (the dream that drove Charlemagne), and when it ended the idea of an imperium was dead, replaced by the quilt-like pattern of the national state system that has survived to this day. For 700 years (800-1453) Europe was wreaked by dynastic struggles, religious wars, renewed invasions from outside European borders, brigandage, guerrilla war, and national conflicts. The Viking invasions of the 9th century added such havoc to an already chaotic state of affairs that the Church conceived of the First Crusade (to be followed by seven others) as a mechanism for deflecting the war-like spirit of feudal combatants toward other targets outside Europe. For 700 years, Europe knew little respite from the ravages of war and destruction.

The centralizing efforts of Charlemagne resulted in the solidification of the new feudal order marked by extreme decentralization in all political, economic, social, and military functions. The next seven centuries may best be defined by the constant struggle between the forces of centralization led by would-be national monarchs against the forces of decentralization and peripheralization which characterized feudalism as a form of societal organization. In the end, the forces of centralization overcame feudal pressures but proved unequal to the task of reestablishing any form of imperial order encompassing national identity and loyalty. In this way Europe gave birth to the nation-state.

The military organization of the Middle Ages was a direct reflection of the political, social, and economic decentralization of feudalism. Most wars were fought not by nation-states but by rival monarchs who raised armies by levying requirements for soldiers and arms on subvassals. Accordingly, there were no centralized arms industries, no permanent standing military forces to speak of, and no efforts to maintain logistical organizations or to train armies. What few efforts were made in these areas were made by local vassals as they saw fit.

Military doctrine and tactics were almost nonexistent, and battles showed all the sophistication of armed scuffles and sword-swinging melees among groups of mounted men. It was, as one author has remarked, a period of squalid butchery. After each battle, the armies disintegrated as the knights returned home under the command of their local vassals. Tax collections for military purposes were highly sporadic, usually taken in kind, and, in any case, were left to local military commanders who were also the chief political officials. As the 14th century dawned, Europe was caught in a period of transition between feudalism and the rise of the embryonic national state.

The decentralization that characterized feudalism placed the armed knight at the pinnacle of the social and military order, and the form of mounted individualized combat at which the knight excelled had swept infantry from the field almost a thousand years before. Moreover, the development of infantry was further hindered by the nature of the social order that regarded it as the height of dangerous idiocy to arm the peasantry. The last time Europe had witnessed a disciplined infantry force was under Rome. The start of the Hundred Years War saw the supremacy of the mounted knight remain unchallenged. By the time this series of dynastic wars ended, new military forms had emerged which signaled the beginning of the end of that supremacy.

To counter the power of the mounted knight, the opponent had either to withstand the shock of a mounted assault against infantry or be able to deliver sufficient missiles from a distance great enough to inflict casualties on the mounted formation and prevent it from closing with the infantry. At the Battle of Laupen (1339) the Swiss infantry annihilated a force of mounted knights by the simple trick of reinventing the Macedonian phalanx complete with 18-foot pikes similar to the sarissae used by Alexander's infantry sixteen hundred years earlier. The Swiss infantry, pikes at the ready, stood the shock action of the cavalry charge. Swiss halsberdsmen and axe throwers attacked the knights by chopping off the legs of the horses and butchering the knights as they lay helpless on the ground. At Crecy (1346), the English reinvented the second solution for dealing with the cavalry charge by destroying a force of French knights at a distance with hails of metal-tipped arrows fired from long bows. In both instances, the solutions represented the rediscovery and reapplication of ancient, long-forgotten techniques used by Alexander, the Romans, and the Persians for defeating heavy cavalry. For the first time in a thousand years, disciplined infantry forces once again began to appear on the battlefields of Europe.

Previous Contents Next