Representations of medieval times in modern literature and television are often centered around the violence and near-perpetual warfare of the age. While it is widely understood that the Middle Ages were a time of war and strife, cinematic portrayals often gloss over or dramatize the events in order to make them more accessible to a modern audience.
In reality, understanding the Middle Ages military, style of war, and reasons for fighting require first understanding the feudal system, the concerns of the time, and the political, social, and economic climate of the age.
The Feudal System
In the most basic terms, the feudal system was a class system designed so that everyone contributed to the common welfare and everyone was protected from the trials of war. Those at the bottom, the peasants, performed manual labor, paid dues and levies, and supplied their military services on a regular basis, reporting to a noble or lord.
At the same time, the nobles dedicated a great deal of time and study to methods of fighting, military strategy, and analysis of current events and rival kingdoms. Nobles trained more highly-skilled warriors, including knights, and were to supply a particular number of military personnel to aid in any warfare.
Life under the feudal system was difficult for peasants, and strong performances and displays of loyalty were frequently the only way to rise above the challenging day-to-day life of hard toil and manual labor. Strong fighting skills were widely regarded by all, and men were under great pressure to prove their abilities in battle to afford their families a better life.
The Nature of Warfare
While warfare was frequent, it was rarely on a scale as large as one country against another. Instead, small wars often broke out between neighboring or rivaling kingdoms. One monarch would set his sights on the land or resources of another, and war would be declared. Such warfare was often spontaneous and unpredictable. The feudal system and the responsibilities and obligations inherent to those in each class simplified the process of responding to attacks and setting out upon sudden, unexpected missions.
While nobles and knights dedicated a large amount of their time to training their skills and assessing various military strategies, the Middle Ages military is a far cry from the sophisticated and organized militaries with which we are familiar today. Fights happened quickly and with little time for preparation or forethought.
Whoever was available and able to fight was expected to be on scene and ready for battle at a moment’s notice. Units did not train together or have time to devote to planning and plotting strategic maneuvers. Instead, war time frequently devolved into melee battles and one-on-one skirmishes, with the side left standing at the end of battle declaring victory.
Cavalry and Knights
While elements of the feudal system of the time aimed to protect the entire populace from attacks, in truth, this type of society was oppressive to the vast majority of its citizens, who did not have access to money, education, or training, and were instead born into lives of heavy physical labor from which escape was difficult, if not impossible. As such, monarchs and nobles believed that allowing such a large number of peasants access to military training or weaponry could lead to revolution that could disrupt the entire fragile society they had constructed.
As such, the development of an organized cavalry was nearly impossible. Peasants could become skilled in mounted combat or hand-to-hand combat with careful practice and training on their own time with rudimentary equipment. However, they had no ability to organize together, practice strategic moves, or learn basic elements of warfare which the nobles kept largely to themselves. Instead, during war time, knights, who were highly skilled in mounted combat and had been exposed to a great deal of militaristic technique, were placed in charge of the peasantry to lead the charge.
Unfortunately, this tended to create chaotic situations of “every man for himself,” and the knights could only do so much in the midst of battle to organize their troops. In effect, the pressure to maintain the status quo within the feudalistic society discouraged the formation of strong cavalries that could have proven great assets to any kingdom.
Organization of the Military
The Middle Ages military was largely disorganized. Male residents of each kingdom were drafted into service for just 40 days at a time, because to remove too many citizens from the lands would lead to loss of crops, loss of livestock, and loss of income. The inability of the military forces to remain intact for any significant period of time prevented them from organizing and learning new skills and tactics to fight more efficiently.
Instead, the largest part of winning a battle required taking the initiative and catching the opponent off guard. Kingdoms that had relaxed and did not have an active defense mounted and ready at all times were ripe for surprise attacks that were little more than massacres. Once victory had been claimed by the invaders, the military would quickly disband, individuals returning to their homes separately, leaving them all open to counterattacks and retribution not only from the village they had just overtaken, but also from any other troops who were present along their routes home.
In the mid-1300s, a change in tactics began to rise to popularity. Instead of charging in to dangerous melee attacks, range fighting that had been widely used centuries before came back into vogue. In 1339, the Swiss soundly defeated a cavalry of knights on horseback with the use of pikes and axe throwers at the Battle of Laupen.
In 1342, at Crecy, the English returned to the use of bows and arrows with metal tips to defeat an incoming attack from the French. Over time, the reapplication of ranged warfare which had been used successfully a thousand years prior led to more disciplined and organized means of attack and defense, requiring more training, communication, and organization in order to achieve the best results.