warfare and weaponry
The science of warfare went through several important transformations over the course of the Middle Ages. In the time of the Roman Empire, the migrating Germanic tribes organized themselves around individual leaders, whose comitatus of personal followers swore loyalty only to them. They fought on foot, charging the enemy in densely packed masses and fighting with swords, shields, and battle-axes. The fall of Rome allowed new “barbarian” states to rise in western Europe, and each of these had its own way of organizing armies and campaigning against enemies. The Visigoths drafted slave and free men into their armies, and among the Lombards, only free men were obligated to perform military service. When the wealthy Lombard nobles began to organize their own private bands of followers, the Lombard military weakened, allowing the Franks under Charlemagne an easy conquest of Italy during the eighth century.
The weapons of this time varied little from those used during the days of the empire. Heavy wooden clubs and maces were used to bludgeon opponents, and axes were wielded in close quarters or thrown across a short distance. The Anglo-Saxons of England were widely renowned for their skillful use of the two-headed battle-ax. Infantry soldiers also used long and short spears, daggers, and double-edged swords that could penetrate leather armor or chain mail. To protect themselves, foot soldiers and cavalry wore leather or iron helmets and carried round or oblong shields, made of wood, leather, or metal.
The Muslim invasion of the Frankish realm during the 730s was a turning point in military history. After their victory over the Muslims, the Franks—who had previously fought on foot—adopted the warhorse to parry the threat of the mounted Muslim army. The stirrup, which arrived in Europe at about the same time, allowed mounted warriors to remain steady while fighting, giving them a crucial advantage over infantry. The training and expense of a mounted knight, however, could only be met by a new way of organizing armies, which gave rise to the system of feudalism. To recruit loyal knights, the Frankish rulers offered grants of land in exchange for personal loyalty and regular service. This example was followed by wealthy landowners, who found the feudal system a useful way of maintaining their private military forces. Over the next five centuries much of western Europe would organize itself around the exchange of land tenure for service, a process that was helped by the collapse of the Frankish state during the Page 294 | Top of Article ninth century, the raids of Vikings and Magyars that followed, and the rise of smaller duchies and counties such as Normandy and Anjou in northern France.
The knight on horseback dominated the warfare of the feudal period. Protected by their suits of heavy armor and chain mail, and carrying a fearsome array of powerful weapons, a group of knights could dominate a battlefield. They used long lances in charges against other knights and swords in close combat and against foot soldiers. Infantry soldiers grouped themselves into lines or squares and fought with spears and swords.
Rather than a great contest between nations, warfare was usually a localized affair between petty princes and landowners. Small battles and long sieges were common, and small groups of mounted warriors crisscrossed Europe in search of booty, land, conquest, and glory. For defensive purposes, the nobility of western Europe raised thousands of stone castles, which allowed the wealthy to build a self-sufficient fortification that could withstand long sieges. This era was celebrated in contemporary prose romances that described the deeds of knights and the adventurous campaigns of the crusaders in the Holy Land.
During the eleventh century Europe began to experience economic growth and the rise of powerful, centralized kingdoms. The monarchs of France and England could now afford to maintain larger military forces and to hire mercenaries, and the service of landowning knights began to decline in importance. The mercenaries were often recruited from the poorer regions of Europe, where a career as a soldier provided the only opportunity for young men without land or an inheritance. Many mercenaries specialized in a certain type of fighting or in weaponry, such as the crossbow, that took long years of practice to master.
The crossbow, as well as the longbow, brought about another important change in medieval warfare beginning in the fourteenth century. Flying at great speed, a thick crossbow bolt could penetrate a knight’s armor at long range; and a deadly rain of longbow arrows could bring down great swaths of enemy infantry. The battles of the Hundred Years’ War changed entirely the role of the mounted knight and brought foot soldiers and archers to the forefront. Another revolution in warfare began during the middle of the fifteenth century, when the French used cannons effectively against English outposts in northern France. Gunpowder had arrived in Europe, used to propel explosive bolts or charges from devices held by hand or placed in the ground. The harquebus, an early long gun, was first used by German soldiers during the fifteenth century. Swords, lances, spears, and daggers proved useless in the larger, more complex battles of maneuver that were taking place. At the same time, cannon grew larger and more effective, and by the close of the Middle Ages artillery was making the strong stone walls of the medieval castle obsolete. See also armor ; castle.