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a brief history of

sudhanshu singh

Civilizations of the Middle Ages …..…………………………………....... Iv

The Britons …………………………………………………………....……. Iv
The Celts ……………………………………………………………........…. V
The Franks ……………………………………………....……..…..….....….. V
The Vikings ………………………………………….………………............. Vi
The Teutons ………………………………………………………..........…... Vii
The Goths ……………………………………………....………..….....……. Viii
The Byzantines ………………………………………………………...…… ix
The Persians …………………………………………………………....….. . x
The Saracens …………………………………………………………...…… x
The Turks ……………………………………………………………...…… xi
The Mongols …………………………………………………………...…… xii
The Chinese ………………………………………………………….....…… xiii
The Japanese …………………………………………………………...…… xiv
The Middle Ages………..……………………………………………….. xvi
Rome Before the Fall ………………………………………………………... xvi
The Fall of Rome …………………………………….……………………… xvii
The Dark Ages………..………………………………………………… xviii
Politics ……………………………………………………………………... xviii
Dark Age Religion ………………………………………………………….. xviii
Charlemagne ………………………………………………………………... xix
The Vikings ………………………………………………………………… xx
The Crusades………..…………………………………………………... xxii
Feudalism………..……………………………………………………... xxiv
Feudal Contract …………………………………………………………….. xxiv
The Manor …………………………………………………………………. xxiv
The Late Middle Ages………..………………………………………….. xxvi
Economy …………………………………………………………………… xxvi
Religion ……………………………………………………………………. xxvi
Technology …………………………………………………………………. xxvii
Feudalism's Decline ………………………………………………………… xxviii
The Renaissance ……..………………………………………………….. xxix
Armies of the Dark Ages ……..………………………………………….. xxx
The Rise of Knights …..…………………………………………………. xxxii
Chivalry ……………………………………………………………………. xxxii
Becoming a Knight ………………………………………………………….. xxxiii
Warfare of the Middle Ages ………..……………………………………. xxxvi
Weapons of the Middle Ages ………..…………………………………… xxxvii

Cavalry Weapons …………………………………………………………… xxxvii
Missile Weapons ……………………………………………………………. xxxix
Hand Weapons ……………………………………………………………... xl
Armies of the Middle Ages ……..………………………………………... xlii
Organization ……………………………………………………………….. xlii
Strategy ………………………………………………………………..…... xliv
Battle Tactics …………………………………………………..…………... xliv
The Mongols ……………………………………………………..…………. xlvii
Castles ……..…………………………………………………………... l
The Castellation of Europe …………………………………………………... l
Castle Defense ……………………………………………………………… li
Capturing Castles …………………………………………………………… liii
Gunpowder ………..…………………………………………………… lvii
Cannons ……………………………………………………………………. lvii
Handguns ………………………………………………………………….. lvii
Naval Warfare ……..…………………………………………………... lviii
Byzantine Ships …………………………………………………………….. lviii
Mediterranean Ships ………………………………………………………... lix
European Ships ……………………………………………………………... lix
Chinese Ships ……………………………………………………………….. lix

Civilizations of the Middle Ages
From the beginning of the mankind up to the present times, several civilizations evolved. In beginning
these civilizations were fewer in numbers and far fetched. With passage of time several more
civilizations evolved; some small while others large in size. I will first go through brief notes on some
of the medieval civilizations.

The Britons (500 AD Onwards)

Following the withdrawal of the Roman legions to Gaul (modern France) around 400 AD, the British
Isles fell into a very dark period of several centuries from which almost no written records survive. The
Romano-British culture that had existed under 400 years of Roman rule disappeared under relentless
invasion and migration by barbarians. Celts came over from Ireland (a tribe called the Scotti gave their
name to the northern part of the main island, Scotland). Saxons and Angles came from Germany,
Frisians from modern Holland, and Jutes from modern Denmark. By 600 AD, the Angles and Saxons
controlled most of modern England. By 800 AD, only modern Wales, Scotland, and West Cornwall
remained in largely Celtic hands.
The new inhabitants were called Anglo-Saxons. The name was derived from the Angles and Saxons.
The Angles gave their name to the new culture - England from Angle-land. English, the Germanic
language they brought with them, replaced the native Celtic and previously imported Latin. Despite
further invasions and even a complete military conquest at a later date, the southern and eastern parts
of the largest British Isle have been called England ever since. Its people and language were called
In 865 AD the relative peace of England was shattered by a new invasion. Danish Vikings who had
been raiding France and Germany formed a great army and turned their attention on the English.
Within 10 years, most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had fallen or surrendered. Only the West Saxons,
i.e. modern Wessex, held out under Alfred, the only English ruler to be called "the Great."
England was divided among the Vikings, the West Saxons, and a few other English kingdoms for
nearly 200 years. The Viking half was called the Danelaw which meant “under Danish law". The
Vikings collected a large payment, called the Danegold i.e. the Dane's gold, to be peaceful. The Danes
became Christians and gradually became more settled. In time the English turned on the Danes, and in
954 the last Viking king of York was killed. England was united for the first time under an English
king from Wessex.
In 1066 the Witan or the king's council offered the crown to Harold, son of the Earl of Wessex. Two
others claimed the throne: Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, and Duke William of Normandy.
The Norwegian landed first, near York, but was defeated by Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge.
Immediately after the victory, Harold force-marched his army south to meet William at Hastings. The
battle seesawed back and forth all day, but near dusk Harold was mortally wounded by an arrow in
the eye. Over the next two years, William, now also called the Conqueror, solidified his conquest of
During the remainder of the Middle Ages, the successors of William largely exhausted themselves and
their country in a series of confrontations and wars attempting to expand or defend land holdings in
France. The Hundred Years War between England and France was an on-and-off conflict that
stretched from 1337 to 1453. It was triggered by an English king's claim to the throne of France,
thanks to family intermarriages. The war was also fought over control of the lucrative wool trade and

French support for Scotland's independence. The early part of the war featured a string of improbable,
yet complete, English victories, thanks usually to English longbowmen mowing down hordes of
ornately armored French knights from long range.
The English could not bring the war to closure, however, and the French rallied. Inspired by Joan of
Arc, a peasant girl who professed divine guidance, the French fought back, ending the war with the
capture of Bordeaux in 1453. The English were left holding only Calais on the mainland but not for

The Celts (500 AD to 1500 AD)

The Celts (pronounced "kelts") were the ancient inhabitants of Northern Europe and the builders of
Stonehenge 5000 years ago. Julius Caesar had battled them during his conquest of Gaul. The Romans
eventually took most of Britain and the Iberian Peninsula from them as well. At the end of the
ancient Roman Empire, the Celts occupied only parts of northwestern France, Ireland, Wales, and
parts of Scotland. During the course of the Middle Ages, they strengthened their hold on Scotland and
made several attempts to take more of England.
The Irish remained in small bands during the early Middle Ages. By 800 AD the four provinces of
Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster had risen to power under "high kings." Viking raids began
in 795 AD and then Viking settlements were established in the middle ninth century. The most
important of these was at Dublin. Brian Boru became the first high king of all Ireland around 1000.
In 1014 the Irish defeated the Danes of Dublin at Clontarf, although Brian Boru was killed.
An Irish tribe called the Scotti invaded what is now southern Scotland during the early Middle Ages,
settling permanently and giving the land its name. They pushed back and absorbed the native Picts
who had harassed the Romans to the south. The Scottish kingdom took its present shape during the
eleventh century but attracted English interference. The Scots responded with the "auld (old) alliance"
with France, which became the foundation of their diplomacy for centuries to come. Edward I of
England (Longshanks, or "hammer of the Scots") annexed Scotland in 1296.
William Wallace who was also known as the Braveheart led a revolt of Scotland, winning virtual
independence at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Defeated the next year at Falkirk, Wallace
waged a guerrilla war until he was betrayed, captured, and executed in 1305. Robert the Bruce
declared himself king of Scotland after murdering his main rival. He drove out the English, winning
the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Edward III of England recognized Scotland's independence in
1328, but war between the Scots and English carried on for several centuries. The crowns of the two
countries were united in 1603, long after the Middle Ages were over.
No prince in Wales proved strong enough to unite the country. In the late thirteenth century, Edward
I took over the government of Gwynedd, one of the strongest Welsh principalities in Wales. He
proceeded to build five great castles in Wales, effectively placing the country under English rule.

The Franks (509 AD Onwards)

The Franks were one of the Germanic barbarian tribes known to the Romans. In the early part of the
fifth century, they began expanding south from their homeland along the Rhine River into Roman-
controlled Gaul that is now known as modern France. Unlike other Germanic tribes, however, they
did not move out of their homelands but, rather, added to them. Clovis, a Frankish chieftan, defeated
the last Roman armies in Gaul and united the Franks by 509 AD, becoming the ruler of much of the
western Europe. During the next 1000 years, this Frankish kingdom gradually became the modern
nation of France.

The kingdom of Clovis was divided after his death among his four sons, according to custom. This led
to several centuries of civil warfare and struggle between successive claimants to the throne. By the
end of the seventh century, the Merovingian kings who were the descendants of Clovis were rulers in
name only. In the early eighth century, Charles Martel became mayor of the palace, the ruler behind
the throne. He converted the Franks into a cavalry force and fought so well that his enemies gave him
the name of Charles the Hammer. In 732 AD the Frankish cavalry defeated Muslim invaders moving
north from Spain at the Battle of Poitiers, stopping forever the advance of Islam from the southwest.
Charles Martel's son, Pepin, was made king of the Franks by the pope in return for helping to defend
Italy from the Lombards. Pepin founded the dynasty of the Carolingians, and the greatest of these
rulers was Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, who ruled from 768 AD to 814 AD. He expanded the
Frankish kingdom into an empire and was responsible for a rebirth of culture and learning in the
West. Charlemagne's empire was divided among his grandsons and thereafter coalesced into two major
parts. The western part became the kingdom of France. Later kings gradually lost political control of
France, however. Central authority broke down under the pressure of civil wars, border clashes, and
Viking raids. Money and soldiers could be raised only by making concessions to landholders. Fiefs
became hereditary and fief holders became feudal lords over their own vassals. By the tenth century,
France had been broken into feudal domains that acted as independent states.
In 987 AD the French nobility elected Hugh Capet their king, mainly because his fief centered on
Paris was weak and he was thought to pose no threat. He founded the Capetian line of kings, who
worked slowly for two centuries regaining the power by making royal roads safe, adding land to their
domain, encouraging trade, and granting royal charters for new towns and fiefs in vacant lands. By
allying themselves with the church, the Capetians took a strong moral position and benefited from the
church's cultural, political, and social influence. Royal administrators were made loyal to the king and
more efficient by eliminating the inheritance of government offices.
Beginning with Philip II in 1180, three superior rulers established France as one of the most
important nations in Europe. They improved the working of the government, encouraged a booming
trade, collected fees efficiently, and strengthened their position atop the feudal hierarchy. Although a
national assembly called the Estates General was established, it held no real power and was
successfully ignored.
From 1337 to 1453 France and England fought the long conflict called the Hundred Years War to
decide ownership of lands in France that had been inherited by English kings. The eventual French
victory confirmed the king as the most powerful political force in France.

The Vikings (500 AD to 1100)

The Vikings meaning "northmen" were the last of the barbarian tribes called Germans by the Romans
to terrorize Europe. Spreading out from their homelands in Scandinavia, they struck suddenly across
the seas from their dragon boats (called such because of the dragon heads carved on the bow and stern).
They began by raiding, pillaging, and withdrawing before any serious armed resistance could be
mounted, but they gradually grew bolder. Eventually they occupied and settled significant parts of
Being pagan, they did not hesitate to kill churchmen and loot church holdings, and they were feared
for their ruthlessness and ferocity. At the same time, they were remarkable craftsmen, sailors,
explorers, and traders.
The Viking homelands were Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They and their descendants controlled,
at least temporarily, most of the Baltic Coast, much of inland Russia, Normandy in France, England,

Sicily, southern Italy, and parts of Palestine. They discovered Iceland in 825 AD and settled there in
875 AD. They colonized Greenland in 985 AD. Some people think that the Vikings reached
Newfoundland and explored part of North America 500 years before the voyage of Columbus.
Vikings began raiding and then settling along the eastern Baltic Sea in the sixth and seventh
centuries. At the end of the eighth century, they were making long raids down the rivers of modern
Russia and setting up forts along the way for defense. In the ninth century, they were ruling Kiev and
in 907 AD a force of 2000 ships and 80,000 men attacked Constantinople. They were bought off by
the emperor of Byzantium with very favorable terms of trade.
Vikings struck first in the West in the late eighth century. Danes attacked and looted the famous
island monastery at Lindisfarne on the northeast coast of England, beginning a trend. The size and
frequency of raids against England, France, and Germany increased to the point of becoming
invasions. Settlements were established as bases for further raids. Viking settlements in northwestern
France came to be known as Normandy derived from “the northmen", and the residents were called
In 865 AD a large Danish army invaded England, and they went on to hold much of England for the
next two centuries. One of the last kings of all England before 1066 was Canute, who ruled Denmark
and Norway simultaneously. In 871 AD another large fleet sailed up the Seine River to attack Paris.
They besieged the city for two years before being bought off with a large cash payment and permission
to loot part of western France unimpeded.
In 911 AD the French king made the Viking chief of Normandy a duke in return for converting to
Christianity and ceasing to raid. From the Duchy of Normandy came a remarkable series of warriors,
including William I, who conquered England in 1066, Robert Guiscard and his family, who took
Sicily from the Arabs between 1060 and 1091, and Baldwin I, king of the crusader kingdom of
Viking raids stopped at the end of the tenth century. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway had become
kingdoms, and much of their king's energy was devoted to running their lands. The spread of
Christianity weakened the old pagan warrior values, which died out. The Norse were also absorbed by
the cultures into which they had intruded. The occupiers and conquerors of England became English,
the Normans became French, and the Rus became Russians.

The Teutons (919 AD to 1250)

The origin of Germany traces back to the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800
AD. Upon his death the empire was split into three parts that gradually coalesced into two: the
western Frankish kingdom that became France and the eastern kingdom that became Germany. The
title of Holy Roman Emperor remained in Charlemagne's family until the tenth century when they died
out. In 919 AD Henry, Duke of Saxony was elected king of Germany by his fellow dukes. His son
Otto became emperor in 962 AD.
The Holy Roman Empire that Otto I controlled extended over the German plain north to the Baltic,
eastward into parts of modern Poland, and southward through modern Switzerland, modern Austria,
and northern Italy. From the outset, the emperors had a difficult problem keeping control of two
disparate regions-Germany and Italy-that were separated by the Alps.
The Holy Roman Empire was successful at first because it benefited the principal members, Germany
and Italy. The Germans were not far removed from the barbarian condition. They had been conquered
by Charlemagne only a century earlier. They benefited greatly from Italian culture, technology, and

trade. The Italians welcomed the relative peace and stability the empire ensured. Italy had been
invaded time and again for the previous 500 years. The protection of the empire defended the papacy
and allowed the city-states of Italy to begin their growth.
The imperial armies were manned partially by tenants of church lands who owed service to the
emperor. A second important contingent were the ministriales, a corps of serfs who received the best
training and equipment as knights but who were not free men. These armies were used to put down
revolts or interference by local nobles and peasants or to defend against raids by Vikings from the
north and Magyars from the east.
Because Germany remained a collection of independent principalities in competition, German warriors
became very skilled. The most renowned German soldiers were the Teutonic Knights, a religious order
of warriors inspired by the Crusades. The Teutonic Knights spread Christianity into the Baltic region
by conquest but were eventually halted by Alexander Nevsky at the battle on frozen Lake Peipus.
A confrontation between the emperors and the church over investiture of bishops weakened the
emperors in both Germany and Italy. During periods of temporary excommunication of the emperor
and outright war against Rome, imperial authority lapsed. The local German princes solidified their
holdings or fought off the Vikings with no interference or help from the emperor. In Italy, the rising
city-states combined to form the Lombard League and refused to recognize the emperor.
Political power in both Germany and Italy shifted from the emperor to the local princes and cities. The
ministriales rebelled, taking control of the cities and castles they garrisoned and declaring themselves
free. During desperate attempts to regain Italy, more concessions were given to the local princes in
Germany. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire existed in name only. The
throne remained empty for 20 years. The German princes cared only about their own holdings. The
Italian city-states did not want a German ruler and were strong enough to defend themselves.
Future emperors in the Middle Ages were elected by the German princes but they ruled in name only,
controlling little more than their own family estates. Germany remained a minor power in Europe for
centuries to come.

The Goths (200 AD to 714 AD)

The Goths were a Germanic tribe on the Danube River frontier known to the Romans from the first
century AD. Pressured and then displaced when the Huns moved west out of Central Asia, the Goths
moved west into Europe and over the Danube River to escape the oncoming hordes. After taking part
in the fall of Rome, they vied with other barbarians for the leavings of the Western Roman Empire
during the Early Middle Ages.
The Goths originated on the island of Gotland in the Baltic, to the best of our knowledge, and split
into two groups as they migrated south across Central Europe. The Visigoths, or West Goths, settled
in modern Romania during the second century. The Ostrogoths, or East Goths, settled farther to the
east on the northwest coast of the Black Sea. In 376 AD the Visigoths were driven from modern
Romania by the Huns and moved south across the Danube. Their strength was estimated at 60,000
men, women, and children. They defeated a Roman army from Constantinople, settled briefly south of
the Danube, and then pushed into Italy. In 409 AD they sacked Rome under their king Alaric and
then moved north into Gaul. The Romans gave them southwestern Gaul. From there they eventually
extended their rule into all of modern Spain and Portugal.
The Ostrogoths broke away from Hunnish rule and followed their cousins into Italy late in the fifth
century. They were encouraged to invade by the Eastern emperor, who wanted to depose the barbarian

then ruling as viceroy. Under Theodric, king of modern Switzerland and the Balkans already, the
Goths entered Italy in 488 AD, completing its conquest in 493 AD.
Theodric's kingdom did not last long following his death in 526 AD. Using a struggle for succession as
an excuse, the Byzantines sent an army to Italy in 536 AD led by their great general Belisarius. The
Byzantines hoped to regain Italy and restore the old Roman Empire in the West. The war dragged on,
devastating the countryside in conjunction with plague and famine. In 552 AD the Ostrogoths were
finally defeated in Italy. They ceased to exist as a separate group by the late sixth century when
northern Italy was invaded by a new group of barbarians called the Lombards.
The Visigoth kingdom lasted somewhat longer. In the late fifth century Clovis of the Franks pushed
the Visigoths out of France and over the Pyrenees Mountains. Following the death of Clovis his
kingdom fragmented and the Visigoths were temporarily left alone. In 711 AD a new threat appeared
from the south. Islamic armies crossed over from North Africa and destroyed the last Gothic kingdom
in four years.
The Goths are remembered for being the first to sack Rome and thereby beginning the final collapse of
the ancient world order in Europe. Their admiration for Rome and attempts to preserve it, however,
allowed much of the Roman culture to survive. For example, the modern languages of Italy, France,
Spain, Portugal, and Romania are derived from Latin influenced by later settlers. They are not
variations of German, as was the case in England.

The Byzantines (476 AD to 1453 AD)

The Byzantines took their name from Byzantium, an ancient city on the Bosphorus, the strategic
waterway linking the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea. The Roman Emperor Constantine had renamed
this city Constantinople in the fourth century. He also made it a sister capital of his empire. This
eastern partition of the Roman Empire outlived its western counterpart by a thousand years,
defending Europe against invasions from the east by the Persians, the Arabs, and the Turks.
The Byzantines persevered because Constantinople was well defended by walls and the city could be
supplied by sea. At their zenith in the sixth century, the Byzantines covered much of the territories of
the original Roman Empire, lacking only the Iberian Peninsula that consisted of modern Spain and
Portugal, Gaul – the modern France, and Britain. The Byzantines also held Syria, Egypt, and
Palestine, but by the middle of the seventh century they had lost them to the Arabs. From then on
their empire consisted mainly of the Balkans and modern Turkey.
The first great Byzantine emperor was Justinian I who lived from 482 AD to 565 AD. His ambition
was to restore the old Roman Empire and he nearly succeeded. His instrument was the greatest general
of the age, Belisarius, who crisscrossed the empire defeating Persians to the East, Vandals in North
Africa, Ostrogoths in Italy, and Bulgars and Slavs in the Balkans. In addition to military campaigns,
Justinian laid the foundation for the future by establishing a strong legal and administrative system
and by defending the Christian Church.
The Byzantine economy was the richest in Europe for many centuries because Constantinople was
ideally sited on trade routes between Asia, Europe, the Black Sea, and the Aegean Sea. It was an
important destination point for the Silk Road from China. The nomisma, the principal Byzantine gold
coin, was the standard for money throughout the Mediterranean for 800 years. Constantinople's
strategic position eventually attracted the envy and animosity of the Italian city-states.
A key strength of the Byzantine Empire was its generally superior army that drew on the best
elements of the Roman, Greek, Gothic, and Middle Eastern experience in war. The core of the army

was a shock force of heavy cavalry supported by both the light infantry which consisted archers and
the heavy infantry that consisted armored swordsmen. The army was organized into units and drilled
in tactics and maneuvers. Officers received an education in military history and theory.
Although outnumbered usually by masses of untrained warriors, it prevailed thanks to intelligent
tactics and good discipline. The army was backed by a network of spies and secret agents that provided
information about enemy plans and could be used to bribe or otherwise deflect aggressors.
The Byzantine navy kept the sea-lanes open for trade and kept supply lines free so the city could not
be starved into submission when besieged. In the eighth century, a land and sea attack by Arabs was
defeated largely by a secret weapon, Greek fire. This chemical weapon, its composition now unknown,
was a sort of liquid napalm that could be sprayed from a hose. The Arab navy was devastated at sea
by Greek fire.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs overran Egypt, the Middle East, North Africa, and
Spain, removing these areas permanently from Byzantine control. A Turkish victory at Manzikert in
1071 led to the devastation of Asia Minor, the empire's most important source of grain, cattle, horses,
and soldiers. In 1204 Crusaders led by the Doge of Venice used treachery to sack and occupy
In the fourteenth century, the Turks invaded Europe, capturing Adrianople and bypassing
Constantinople. They settled the Balkans in large numbers and defeated a large crusader army at
Nicopolis in 1396. In May 1453, Turkish sultan Mehmet II captured a weakly defended
Constantinople with the aid of heavy cannon. The fall of the city brought the Byzantine Empire to an

The Persians (220 AD to 651 AD)

The Persian Empire had existed for many centuries when the Middle Ages began. It had been
reassembled following the conquest by Alexander in the fourth century BC and the subsequent breakup
of his empire in later centuries. The Persians had been fighting the Romans since the third century AD.
The Persian Empire stretched from Mesopotamia to India and from the Caspian Sea to the Persian
Gulf, encompassing the modern nations of Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. They fought the Romans, and
later the Byzantines, for control of modern Syria, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and Arabia. The
capital of the Persian Empire was Ctesiphon, called Baghdad today.
During the third and fourth centuries, the Romans made several attempts to subdue the Persians. In
364 AD a peace treaty was signed between the two that allowed the Persians to consolidate their
power to the east and north. Beginning with the sixth century, the Persians began attacking the
Byzantine Empire in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and modern Turkey. The war between the two powers
went back and forth. In 626 AD the Persians besieged Byzantium itself without success, and the
Byzantines were able to invade Persia the following year. Peace was made between the two exhausted
empires in 628 AD.
The Persians were unprepared for the fury of the Islamic Arabs in the seventh century. The Sassanid
dynasty of Persia ended in a battle in 636 AD. The Persians did not have a capital with defenses
comparable to those of Constantinople. Muslim conquest of Persia was complete by 651 AD.

The Saracens (613 AD Onwards)

The name Saracen applied originally to nomadic desert peoples from the area stretching from modern
Syria to Saudi Arabia. In broader usage the name applied to all Arabs of the Middle Ages. These

desert nomads erupted suddenly in the seventh century and established a far-reaching empire within a
century and a half. Their conquest was fueled by faith and high morale. Following the teachings of the
prophet Mohammed, their intent was to change the religious and political landscape of the entire
By 613 AD the prophet Mohammed was preaching a new religion he called Islam. Largely ignored in
his home city of Mecca, he withdrew to Medina, built up a strong following there, and returned to
attack and capture Mecca. Following his death in 632 AD, his teachings were collected to form the
Koran, the Islamic holy book. In 634 AD his followers began their jihad, or holy war. Within five
years they had overrun Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Their tolerance of Jews and Christians eased their
conquest because these people had been suffering some persecution under the Byzantines.
In the next 60 years, both North Africa to the west and Persia to the east fell to Islam. In the early
eighth century, Saracens from Tangiers invaded the Iberian Peninsula and conquered the Visigoth
kingdom established there after the fall of Rome. In Asia they took Asia Minor from the Byzantines
and attempted to capture Constantinople with a combined attack from land and sea. The great walls
of the city frustrated the land attack and the Saracen fleet was defeated at sea. In the west, Charles
Martel of the Franks stopped a Saracen invasion of modern France in 732 AD at Poitiers.
Frustrated in the west, the forces of Islam turned east. By 750 AD they had conquered to the Indus
River and north over India into Central Asia to the borders of China.
In 656 AD the Muslim world fell into civil war between two factions, the Sunnites and the Shiites.
They differed on several points, including who should be caliph and interpretation of the Koran. The
result of the 60-year war was that the Islamic state broke into pieces, some governed by Sunnites and
others by Shiites. The Sunnites kept hold of the Iberian Peninsula while Egypt and modern Iraq were
governed by the Shiites. The new Islamic states acted independently, thereafter.
Muslim Spain developed into one of the great states of Europe during the early Middle Ages.
Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in relative harmony, and a rich culture rose out of these
multiple influences. There was a flowering of the arts, architecture, and learning. By 1000, however,
Muslim Spain had divided into warring factions. This civil war facilitated the slow reconquest of the
peninsula by the emerging states of Castile and Aragon, completed finally in 1492.
Asia Minor and the Middle East were conquered by Muslim Turks in the early eleventh century. In
response to a call for aid from the Byzantines, a series of Crusades was launched from Europe to
regain Palestine from the Turks. The independent Muslim states in the area lost Palestine and the
Eastern Mediterranean coast to the First Crusade. In the last part of the twelfth century, the great
Saracen leader Saladin succeeded in uniting Egypt, Syria, and smaller states, and he retook Jerusalem.
The Muslim states remained independent long after the Middle Ages and eventually developed into the
modern Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa. They went into economic decline,
however, when the European nations opened trade routes of their own to Asia in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries.

The Turks (1030 Onwards)

The name Turk refers to two different Muslim groups of the Middle East-first the Seljuks and then
the Ottomans. The Seljuks, nomads from the steppes near the Caspian Sea, converted to Islam around
the tenth century. Approximately 70,000 Seljuks started as mercenaries to fill the ranks of the Islamic
army of the caliph of Baghdad. These mercenaries converted to the Sunni branch of Islam. In 1055
they became the real power behind the caliph in Baghdad and began extending their rule. Their leaders

took the title sultan, meaning "holders of power". By 1100 they controlled most of Anatolia that was
taken from the Byzantines. They also controlled Palestine, the lands surrounding the Persian Gulf, the
holy cities of Arabia, and as far east as Samarkand.
In 1071 the Seljuks achieved a stunning victory over a Byzantine army at Malazgirt in modern
Turkey, which led to Turkish occupation of most of Anatolia. At nearly the same time, they
successfully captured Jerusalem from its Egyptian Muslim rulers. These two events shocked the
Byzantines, the papacy, and the Christian Europeans. The result was the Crusades, which carried on
for the next 200 years.
The Seljuk Turks were worn down by the recurring wars with the Crusaders, even though they were
successful ultimately in regaining control of Palestine. They were threatened simultaneously by the
activities of the Assassins, a heretical sect of Islam. Internally, Islam entered a period of introspection
because of the popularity of Sufi mysticism. During this period of exhaustion and weakness, they were
attacked suddenly by the Mongols and collapsed. Baghdad fell to the invaders in 1258 and the Seljuk
Empire disappeared.
Islamic peoples from Anatolia (modern Turkey in Asia Minor) were unified in the early fourteenth
century under Sultan Osman I and took the name Osmanli, or Ottomans, in his honor. The Ottomans
swore a jihad against the crumbling Byzantine Empire and took their campaign around
Constantinople into the Balkans. In 1389 the Serbs were defeated. In 1396 a "crusader" army from
Hungary was defeated. Ottoman successes were temporarily halted by the Mongols under Tamerlane,
but he moved on with his army and the Ottomans recovered.
Sultan Mehmed II who was also known as "the Conqueror" at last captured Constantinople on May
29, 1453. The great walls of Constantinople were battered by 70 guns for eight weeks and then 15,000
Janissaries led the successful assault.
The Ottomans pushed on into Europe following the capture of Constantinople and threatened a sort of
reverse Crusade. They were stopped by a Hungarian army at Belgrade in 1456, however. Attacks on
Vienna were repulsed in 1529 and again in 1683. At its peak in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman
Empire reached up into Europe to Budapest and Odessa and included all of Greece and the Balkans,
the lands surrounding the Black Sea, Asia Minor, the Levant, Arabia, Egypt, and most of North
Africa. The Ottoman Empire remained a significant world power until World War I in the twentieth

The Mongols (1206 to 1405)

The Mongols were nomads from the steppes of Central Asia. They were fierce warriors who fought
each other over pasturelands and raided developed civilizations to the east and south. At the
beginning of the thirteenth century, the Mongol clans united and began a campaign of foreign
conquest. Following in the hoofprints of the Huns, their predecessors by a thousand years, they carved
out one of the largest empires the world has yet seen.
The Mongols inhabited the plains south of Lake Baikal in modern Mongolia. At its maximum, their
empire stretched from Korea, across Asia, and into European Russia to the Baltic Sea coast. They held
most of Asia Minor, modern Iraq, modern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, parts of India, parts of
Burma, all of China, and parts of Vietnam.
The Mongol clans were united by Temuchin, called Genghis Khan, in the early thirteenth century. His
ambition was to rule all lands between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and he nearly did so.
Beginning with only an estimated 25,000 warriors, he added strength by subjugating other nomads

and attacked northern China in 1211. He took Beijing in 1215 after a campaign that may have cost 30
million Chinese lives. The Mongols then turned west, capturing the great trading city Bukhara on the
Silk Road in 1220. The city was burned to the ground and the inhabitants murdered.
Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, his son Ogedei completed the conquest of northern China
and advanced into Europe. He destroyed Kiev in 1240 and advanced into Hungary. When Ogedei died
on campaign in 1241, the entire army fell back to settle the question of succession. Europe was spared
as Mongol rulers concentrated their efforts against the Middle East and southern China. Hulagu, a
grandson of Genghis, exterminated the Muslim "Assassins" and then took the Muslim capital of
Baghdad in 1258. Most of the city's 100,000 inhabitants were murdered. In 1260 a Muslim army of
Egyptian Mamelukes (warrior slaves of high status) defeated the Mongols in present-day Israel,
ending the Mongol threat to Islam and its holy cities.
Kublai Khan, another grandson of Genghis, completed the conquest of China in 1279, establishing the
Yuan dynasty. Attempted invasions of Japan were thrown back with heavy loss in 1274 and 1281. In
1294 Kublai Khan died in China, and Mongol power began to decline in Asia and elsewhere. In 1368
the Yuan dynasty in China was overthrown in favor of the Ming dynasty.
In the 1370's a Turkish-Mongol warrior claiming descent from Genghis Khan fought his way to
leadership of the Mongol states of Central Asia and set out to restore the Mongol Empire. His name
was Timur Leng (Timur, "the Lame"). He was known as Tamerlane to Europeans and the Prince of
Destruction to the Asians. With another army of 100,000 or so horsemen, he swept into Russia and
Persia, fighting mainly other Muslims. In 1398 he sacked Delhi, murdering 100,000 inhabitants. He
rushed west defeating an Egyptian Mameluke army in Syria. In 1402 he defeated a large Ottoman
Turk army near modern Ankara. On the verge of destroying the Ottoman Empire, he turned again
suddenly. He died in 1405 while marching for China. He preferred capturing wealth and engaged in
wholesale slaughter, without pausing to install stable governments in his wake. Because of this, the
huge realm inherited by his sons fell apart quickly after his death.

The Chinese (581 AD to 1644 AD)

China was reunited in 581 AD after a long period of internal war by the founders of the Sui dynasty.
For most of the 1000 years that followed, China was one of the largest and most advanced civilization
in the world. Because of its geographic isolation from the West, it was able to develop and maintain a
unique culture that spread its influence over much of Asia.
An emperor generally held supreme power as the son of heaven. Natural disasters or other calamities
were taken as proof that the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn, however, and could justify
revolt. Mandarins were conservative civil servants who operated most of the government at the local,
province, and imperial level. Mandarins earned their positions by passing detailed civil service
examinations based mainly on the works of Confucius.
The T'ang dynasty ruled China from 618 AD to 907 AD. China under the T'ang was large, wealthy,
and powerful. There was extensive foreign trade and interest in the arts among the upper class.
Printing and gunpowder were invented. The last 100 years of T'ang rule witnessed tumultuous
peasant revolts, however, and wars between local military rulers that the imperial court could not end.
The years from 907 AD to 960 AD were known as the Five Dynasties period. Northern China was
held by barbarians, and southern China split into 10 rival states. From one of these, an army general
named Zhao Kuang-ying seized power and unified the southern states, founding the Song dynasty.
His descendants reunited China within 20 years.

The Song dynasty ruled at least part of China until 1279. This was another period of cultural
brilliance, and it was considered the great age of Chinese landscape painting. There was a dramatic
improvement in economic activity, including a large overseas trade. Population and cities grew; food
production grew faster than population, a money economy developed, and industrial output increased.
No city in Europe could approach the populations of Chang An, Beijing, and Guang Zhou, all with
more than 2 million inhabitants.
The wealth of China attracted enemies, however, and the Mongols began attacks in 1206. By 1279
they had completed the conquest of Song China and moved the capital to Beijing. The dramatic
economic improvement of the Song dynasty ended with the Mongol conquests and the estimated 30
million deaths that they caused. The Mongol Yuan dynasty reunited China and reestablished it as a
great military and world power. Chinese influence was spread into Asia. Hanoi was captured three
times and tribute was extracted from Burma. Trade with India, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf was
developed. Marco Polo visited China during this period.
Natural disasters and higher taxes in the fourteenth century caused rural rebellions. A Buddhist monk
rose to be one of the leaders of the Red Turbans, a secret society opposed to the emperor in Beijing. The
rebels seized Nanjing in 1356 and drove the Mongols from Beijing 12 years later, establishing the
Ming dynasty. The Ming presided over another cultural flowering and established a political unity
that outlasted the Ming and continued into the twentieth century. The Ming clamped down a strict
conservatism and isolation, however, discouraging change and innovation, banning foreign travel, and
closing the Silk Road.
Some of the most noteworthy aspects of medieval China are the technologies that were invented there,
usually many centuries before a similar technology was invented in, or transmitted to, the West.
Important Chinese inventions included the compass, the wheelbarrow, the abacus, the horse harness,
the stirrup, the clock, iron-casting, steel, paper, printing, paper money, gunpowder, and the stern-post

The Japanese (500 AD to 1340 AD)

Located 100 miles off the mainland of Asia, at its closest point, Japan was a land of mystery at the
edge of civilization. Isolated at first by geography and later by choice, the Japanese developed a
distinctive culture that drew very little from the outside world. At the beginning of what were the
Middle Ages in Europe, the advanced culture of Japan was centered at the north end of the Inland
Sea on the main island of Honshu. Across the Hakone Mountains to the east lay the Kanto, an
alluvial plain that was the single largest rice-growing area on the islands. To the north and east of the
Kanto was the frontier, beyond which lived aboriginal Japanese who had occupied the islands since
Neolithic times.
Some believe that by the fifth century AD the Yamato court had become largely ceremonial.
Independent clans, known as uji, held the real power behind the throne. Clan leaders formed a sort of
aristocracy and vied with each other for effective control of land and the throne.
In 536 AD the Soga clan became predominant and produced the first great historical statesman,
Prince Shotoku, who instituted reforms that laid the foundation of Japanese culture for generations to
come. In 645 AD, power shifted from the Soga clan to the Fujiwara clan. The Fujiwara presided over
most of the Heian period that lasted from 794 AD to 1185. The new leadership imposed the Taika
Reform of 645 AD, which attempted to redistribute the rice-growing land, establish a tax on
agricultural production, and divide the country into provinces. Too much of the country remained
outside imperial influence and control, however. Real power shifted to great families that rose to

prominence in the rice-growing lands. Conflict among these families led to civil war and the rise of the
warrior class.
Similar to the experience of medieval western Europe, the breakdown of central authority in Japan,
the rise of powerful local nobles, and conflict with barbarians at the frontier combined to create a
culture dominated by a warrior elite. These warriors became known as Samurai, meaning “those who
serve”. They were roughly equivalent to the European knight. A military government replaced the
nobility as the power behind the throne at the end of the twelfth century. The head of the military
government was the Shogun.
Samurai lived by a code of the warrior, something like the European code of chivalry. The foundation
of the warrior code was loyalty to the lord. The warrior expected leadership and protection. In return
he obeyed his lord's commands without question and stood ready to die on his lord's behalf. A Samurai
placed great emphasis on his ancestry and strove to carry on family traditions. He behaved so as to
earn praise. He was to be firm and show no cowardice. Warriors went into battle expecting and
looking to die. It was felt that a warrior hoping to live would fight poorly.
The Kamakura period (1185 to 1333) was named after a region of Japan dominated by a new ruling
clan that took power after civil war. The Mongols attempted to invade Japan twice, in 1274 and
1281, but were repulsed both times. A fortuitous storm caused great loss to the second Mongol
invasion fleet.

The Middle Ages
The expression "Middle Ages" has been employed by Western civilization to define the 1000 years that
span European history from roughly 500 to 1500 AD. The beginning of the Middle Ages is marked by
the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the generally accepted end of classical ancient history. The end
of the Middle Ages is noted by the beginning of the Renaissance (the "rebirth" of Europe). Events
marking the end of the period include the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the first use of the printing
press in 1456, the European discovery of the Americas in 1492, the Protestant Reformation, triggered
by Martin Luther in 1517, and the flowering of the arts in Italy. The Middle Ages thus fall in the
middle between ancient and modern history.
Historic periods in Asia and the Middle East do not fit easily into the concept of a European Middle
Age. China evolved gradually from prehistoric times up to the advent of Western modern history
without the great disruptions that befell Europe. China passed under the control of several dynasties
and suffered from invasion, but the basic culture progressed steadily. Japan progressed steadily, as
well, and was left largely alone. The history of the Middle East fits together more closely with the
European Middle Ages because these two regions were adjacent and shared many interactions.

Rome before the Fall

The Roman Empire of the fourth century AD extended entirely around the basin of the Mediterranean
Sea, including modern Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and North Africa. Modern France (called Gaul) and
modern Spain and Portugal (Iberia) were entirely Roman. Modern England was Roman, but modern
Scotland and Ireland were barbarian (non-Roman, or noncivilized). The northern borders of the empire
were the Rhine and Danube Rivers. The lands north of these rivers were occupied by a variety of tribes
of Scandinavian origin that the Romans called the Germans.
Rome was engaged in border skirmishes with the tribes north of the great European rivers. Strong
emperors occasionally extended the empire over the rivers while weak emperors tended to lose those
lands. The largest organized rival of the Romans was the Persian Empire to the east, occupying
modern Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Persians were the political descendants of the
Parthians who had revolted away from Greek rule following Alexander's conquests and thereafter
resisted successfully Roman invasions.
The Romans had existed as an important power for over 1000 years. They had brought stability,
prosperity, and order to the civilized West. Excellent roads connected the far reaches of the empire
with the capital at Rome. These were built originally for military purposes but improved all
communications and trade. Roman law kept the internal peace and 20 to 30 Roman legions defended
the frontiers.
All was not perfect, however. Emperors held absolute authority. This worked well with good emperors,
but incompetent ones could do great harm. The rules for succession to the throne were never clear, and
debilitating civil wars often resulted. The bureaucracy that managed the empire on a daily basis grew
more corrupt, increasing the dissatisfaction of the common citizen. The wealth of the empire gradually
concentrated in the hands of a minority while a large slave population did most of the work. The
borders of the empire were immense and put a strain on military resources (500,000 soldiers defended a
frontier that required 3 million or more to be secure). Roman conquests had ceased in the second
century AD, bringing an end to massive inflows of plunder and slaves. Taxes increased and production
fell as the workforce declined. A plague may have killed 20 percent of the empire's population in the
third and fourth centuries, further reducing trade and production.

In the late third century, the Roman Empire was split into eastern and western halves in an attempt
to make for easier rule and better control. In 323 Constantine became emperor after a civil war and
established his eastern capital at Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. During the next
century the eastern and western parts of the empire gradually established separate identities, although
nominally the same empire. These identities were partially due to the different pressures brought to
bear on them from the outside and the local culture. The Western Empire was predominately Latin;
the Eastern Empire was predominately Greek (although they referred to themselves as Romans). The
Eastern Empire survived the cataclysm of the third and fourth centuries because it had a larger
population (70 percent of the empire's total), better emperors, more money, and a far better army and

The Fall of Rome

Around the year 200 AD, nomadic tribes on the great grass steppes of Central Asia began migrating
toward China, India, Persia, and Europe. The reasons for this migration are not fully understood. The
largest group of nomads was the Huns. Their small stature and small ponies belied a fierce and
determined ruthlessness. They terrified other tribes they encountered in their migrations, causing
something like a domino effect. Moving west, the Huns displaced the Goths living northwest of the
Black Sea, for example, who pushed south over the Danube into the Balkans lands ruled by the
Eastern Roman Empire. More Huns moved toward the German plains, encouraging other Germanic
tribes to cross the Rhine.
The Western Roman Empire was already weakened by this time from sporadic raids and invasions
across the Rhine and Danube. Germanic tribes with growing populations coveted the sparsely occupied
lands in Gaul and the benefits of being within the Roman Empire. By 400 the Roman army was
already 30 to 50 percent German mercenaries. In desperation, some barbarian groups were enlisted into
the Roman army as entire units to help defend against other groups. This was especially popular
during civil wars of the fourth century, when pretenders to the throne in Rome needed to raise armies
quickly. These barbarian units did not have the loyalty and discipline of the legions and kept their own
leaders. This stopgap measure backfired when whole barbarian armies revolted. The Rhine and Danube
frontiers dissolved and Germanic tribes moved into Gaul, the Balkans, and even Italy itself. The
fighting was nearly incessant along the shrinking frontier and the number of loyal Roman troops
continually diminished.
The last legions in Britain were withdrawn for service in Gaul in 410, abandoning that province
forever. Saxon raids increased and became actual invasions. The Jutes, Frisians, and Angles, other
Germanic tribes from the north German coast, joined the Saxons. Together they overwhelmed the
Romano-British culture and took possession of what is today England (Angle-land).
The Eastern Roman Empire suffered through the loss of most of the Balkans but was able to deflect or
bribe the barbarians before they could attack Constantinople. The invaders in this area were the Goths,
who had become much more civilized through their contact with the Eastern Empire than had the
Germanic tribes along the Rhine. The Goths came as settlers primarily, not conquerors.
During the fifth century Rome was sacked several times and the Western Empire ceased to exist
effectively. Italy was repeatedly invaded and ravaged. In 476 the last recognized Roman emperor was
killed. Italy and the old Roman Empire were now occupied by Germanic tribes. Despite a general wish
by the barbarians to preserve the stability and order of the past Roman civilization, only vestiges of it
survived the turmoil and devastation that followed the invasions. Most of Europe fell back into a
much more primitive and barbaric period.

The Dark Ages
Following the fall of Rome, Western Europe entered what has been called the Dark Ages. This name
was applied partially because so much of the Roman civilization was destroyed and replaced by a more
barbaric culture. The name was used also because so little written history survived from the period
that shed light on the events that took place.

The New Political Landscape

The Roman government and courts were swept away with most of the Roman culture. Tribal war
bands were the new government. A strong leader surrounded himself with loyal warriors that were
paid with booty from raiding. Tribal law, based on trial by combat or by the swearing of oaths,
replaced Roman law. Small kingdoms arose gradually based on tribal loyalties, but governing was
difficult because literate civil servants were scarce, communications were poor, trade was at a
standstill, and there was little or no money in circulation. The people survived on subsistence
agriculture. Life at this time was described as nasty, brutish, and short. The average life expectancy
was 30 years, skewed by a very low survival rate for children and a high mortality of women in
At the start of the Dark Ages, the list of European powers read as follows:
i. Franks: much of modern France and parts of Germany along the Rhine.
ii. Ostrogoths: northern Italy, Switzerland, and the Balkans.
iii. Visigoths: Spain and Portugal.
iv. Vandals: Western North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy.
v. Various Germanic tribes, including Saxons and Lombards: Germany.
vi. Anglo-Saxons: England.
vii. Celts: Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany.
viii. Magyars: Hungary.
ix. Slavs: Poland and western Russia.
x. Byzantines: Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and much of the Balkans, including Greece.
In succeeding centuries, the list saw the following changes:
i. Vandals: destroyed and replaced by the Byzantines.
ii. Visigoths: destroyed and replaced by Franks in France and Muslims in Spain and Portugal.
iii. Ostrogoths: attacked and eventually absorbed by the Lombards in Italy and Byzantines in
The Dark Ages are considered to cover the years from 500 to 1000. The three most important forces
that shaped this period and brought the relative darkness to an end were the spread of new religions,
the rise of the Frankish Empire, and the predations of the Vikings.

Religion in the Dark Ages

Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century and had begun
spreading among the Germanic tribes before the fall of Rome. The split of the Roman Empire into
eastern and western halves also resulted in a split within the Christian Church. The western part,
centered in Rome, became Catholic. The eastern part, centered in Constantinople, became Orthodox. In
the seventh century, one of the last of the world's great religions, Islam, was founded in Arabia.

The spread of Christianity among the barbarians was a powerful civilizing force and helped to ensure
that some vestiges of Roman law and the Latin language carried on in France, Italy, Spain, and
Portugal. Only in England was Roman Christianity subsumed by pagan beliefs. The Franks became
Catholic under Clovis and thereafter spread Christianity to the Germans across the Rhine. The
Byzantines spread Orthodox Christianity among the Bulgars and Slavs.
Christianity was brought to Ireland by St. Patrick in the early fifth century and spread from there into
Scotland and back into England from the north. In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great sent
missionaries into England from the south. Within a century, England was Christian once again.
During the turmoil of the Dark Ages, a few strongly committed Christians withdrew from society to
live as hermits, usually on the wild and forbidding edge of civilization. Hermits in turn inspired more
conventional priests to pledge vows of poverty and service, harkening back to the teachings of Jesus
Many of these priests formed new communities of like believers called monasteries. Pope Gregory
encouraged the building of monasteries throughout Christian Europe. In parts of Europe they became
the only remaining centers of learning. Irish monks, for example, are credited by some with preserving
civilization in their monasteries. Irish monks went out into other parts of Europe to teach and revive
an interest in learning. Monasteries were the main source of educated men who could help administer
government, and many became important assistants to kings.
In time monasteries grew wealthy with donations of land, as did the Roman church. Different
monastic orders were founded with different goals. Some kept entirely to themselves, some trained
missionaries to be sent into the wild, some advised the popes on church doctrine, and others provided
important community service such as care for the elderly, health care, and emergency relief.
Islam was founded in Arabia in the seventh century by the prophet Mohammed. It spread rapidly and
inspired a great movement of conquest. The political map of North Africa, the Middle East, and
Central Asia changed almost overnight. All of North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle East,
Asia Minor, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, parts of India, Pakistan, and part of Russia became Muslim.
During the brief period that the Islamic Empire remained united, it threatened to accomplish its goal
of converting the entire world to its beliefs. The stability and economic growth within the new
Muslim world brought peace and prosperity far in advance of that in Western Europe of the time. The
Muslim culture surpassed even the Byzantines in art, science, medicine, geography, trade, and
Conflicts between the Muslims and Christians resulted in the Crusades, a series of attempts by western
Christians to regain the Holy Lands in Palestine.

The Franks consolidated their kingdom in modern France under a series of strong kings and warlords
during the seventh and eighth centuries. In 732 AD they defeated a Muslim army invading France
from the Iberian Peninsula. Around 750 AD, the Franks pushed into Italy to rescue Rome and the
pope, who were under attack by the Lombards. In 768 AD Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, became
king of the Franks and began his remarkable reign.

Charlemagne returned to Italy across the Alps in 774 AD and rescued the Pope once again. He became
king of both the Franks and Lombards and effective ruler of Rome. He continued his conquests,
simultaneously converting his enemies to Christianity. He took southern France and northern parts of
Spain. He moved into western Germany, converting the Saxons and fighting off the Magyars of
Hungary. He established "marches" on his frontier, which were buffer states between the Frankish
Empire and barbarian tribes to the east. On Christmas Day in 800 AD, Charlemagne was crowned
Holy Roman Emperor by the pope. The title was a surprise and one he had not sought.
The importance of Charlemagne transcends the size and creation of the Holy Roman Empire, which
fell apart soon after his death anyway. He was a great supporter and defender of the Catholic Church
and used it to encourage learning and the arts. He set up schools in association with cathedrals to
educate civil servants and nobles to improve government. He collected and codified the laws,
improving the system of justice. He invented feudalism as a way of providing local order while
retaining central authority.
The great promise of European revival radiating from the Frankish Empire was stopped short,
however. Following the death of Charlemagne's son, the empire was split three ways among his
grandsons. The western part evolved later into modern France. The eastern part became Germany much
later. The central part was contested by the other two through succeeding generations into the
twentieth century. A more immediate problem was the sudden appearance of Viking raiders from
Scandinavia, who greatly disrupted northern Europe for the next two centuries.

The Vikings
The inhabitants of Scandinavia had made their living by herding, farming, and fishing for centuries.
In the sixth and seventh centuries, they began trading along the Baltic Sea and deep into Russia along
its great rivers. For reasons unknown, they began aggressively raiding the coasts of Europe suddenly
in the late eighth century. Perhaps they were amazed at the relative riches they had encountered as
traders, or they perceived a weakness among the civilizations to the south, or new sailing and boat
technologies gave them the power to travel farther and more quickly. In 793 AD the pagan Vikings
struck the great monastery at Lindisfarne, established by the Irish off the northeast coast of England.
Fast, low-draft longboats allowed the Vikings to strike quickly from the sea and up rivers. Because
roads were so poor in the ninth century, the Vikings could concentrate against a rich village or
monastery, land quickly, drive off any resistance, and carry off slaves and plunder before any
organized response could be mounted. People living along the coasts and rivers of Germany, France,
and Britain lived in fear of the raiders. The central authorities of these lands fell into disfavor because
they could do little to defend against these hit-and-run attacks. The people turned to local nobles who
built castles for defense. This shift of power strengthened the local nobles and weakened the kings.
The Vikings became bolder as the ninth century progressed. Larger Viking groups combined to make
actual invasions, not just raids. They sacked major cities including Hamburg, Utrecht, and Rouen.
They settled on islands off Britain, in parts of Ireland (founding Dublin), Iceland, and Greenland. The
Danes captured and ruled the eastern half of England for a century. Another force sailed up the Seine
River and besieged Paris for two years before being bought off with money and plunder. Another
group ruled part of Russia from Kiev and assaulted Constantinople from the Black Sea. They raided
the Muslim Iberian Peninsula and deep into the Mediterranean.

In the tenth century, the king of France bought peace with the Vikings by ceding them part of his
country (Normandy, "from the northmen," or Normans) and making their ruler a French duke. As part
of this agreement, the Normans converted to Christianity. The Normans became one of the most
remarkable groups in the Middle Ages. Later they conquered England, establishing the first great
European kingdom. Other Normans conquered Sicily, half of Italy, and established Crusader kingdoms
in Palestine.
Viking raids stopped at the end of the tenth century, partly because they had become Christians and no
longer followed the warrior values of their past pagan beliefs. Scandinavia divided into kingdoms, and
the new rulers concentrated on ruling what they owned. The Viking settlers in Russia, France, and
Britain were absorbed by the cultures that surrounded them. The warrior cultures in Europe that had
evolved in response to the Viking threat soon had a new outlet for their aggression, however, in the
Holy Land of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Crusades
Making pilgrimages to holy sites had been a popular activity for European Christians for centuries.
There were important religious centers in Europe but the most important site was the Holy Land in
Palestine. The rise of the Seljuk Turks made travel to Jerusalem and other Middle Eastern locales
suddenly much more dangerous. The Turks had little use for non-Muslims and ended the relatively
peaceful relations between the Arabs and Christians. At the same time, the Turks put tremendous
pressure on the Byzantines by capturing the valuable lands in Asia Minor. As a result, Pope Urban
called for a Crusade by Christian warriors to recapture Palestine from the Muslims.
The call for a Crusade electrified the knights of Europe. They were strong believers, and the pope
promised a heavenly reward for those who died in the cause. Of equal or greater importance was the
opportunity to grab land and wealth abroad, rather than continuing to squabble with relatives and
neighbors at home.
By 1097, an army of 30,000, including many pilgrims and camp followers, had crossed into Asia
Minor from Constantinople. Despite feuding among the leaders and broken promises between the
Crusaders and their Byzantine supporters, the Crusade stumbled forward. The Turks were just as
disorganized, or more so. The Frankish heavy knights and infantry had no experience fighting the
Arab light cavalry and archers, and vice versa. The endurance and strength of the knights won the
campaign over a series of often very close victories. Antioch was captured through treachery in 1098
and Jerusalem in 1099 by assault against a weak garrison. The Christians debased themselves after
both victories by slaughtering many of the residents regardless of age, faith, or gender. Many of the
Crusaders returned home, but a hardy band remained to set up feudal kingdoms similar to those in
The Crusader rulers of Palestine were greatly outnumbered by the Muslim population they attempted
to control, so they built castles and hired mercenary troops to hold them. The culture and religion of
the Franks was too alien to win over the residents of the area, however. From their secure castle bases,
the Crusaders struck out to intercept raiding Arabs. For about a century the two sides engaged in a
classic guerrilla war. The Frankish knights were powerful but slow. The Arabs could not stand up to
charges by the heavy cavalry but could ride circles around them, hoping to disable their units and catch
them in ambushes in the desert. The Crusader kingdoms kept mainly to the coast, from which they
could get supplies and reinforcements, but the constant raids and unhappy populace meant they were
not an economic success.
Orders of Christian warrior monks were formed to fight for the Holy Lands. The Knights Templar and
Hospitillar were mainly Frankish. The Teutonic Knights were German. These were the fiercest and
most determined of the Crusaders, but there were never enough of them to make the region secure.
The Crusader kingdoms survived for a while in part because they learned to negotiate, compromise, and
play the different Arab groups off against each other. A great Arab leader appeared, however, who
united the various Islamic groups. Saladin became Sultan of Egypt and Syria in 1174. In 1187 he won
a great victory over the Crusaders in the desert and recaptured Jerusalem.
For another century the Europeans made several attempts to reassert control over the Holy Land and
Jerusalem, with only a rare temporary success. Eight more Crusades followed and most failed to do
more than get ashore and make some progress inland before being pushed back. The Fourth Crusade did
not even reach Palestine. Under the guidance of the Doge of Venice, they sacked Constantinople
instead, a blow from which the Byzantines never recovered. One of the worst Crusades was a

Children's Crusade launched in 1212. Several thousand European children got as far as Alexandria in
Egypt, where they were sold into slavery.
The legacy of the Crusades included a new hostility between Christians and Muslims, a deterioration
of the feudal system, and exposure to new cultures. Feudalism declined because many lords went
bankrupt, leaving their lands to their kings. Many serfs became Crusaders and never returned. New
words entered the European languages, such as cotton, muslin, divan, and bazaar. Europeans brought
back new textiles, foods, and spices. Demand back home for these new goods increased trade and
contributed to the growth of the Italian trading city-states, especially Genoa and Venice. This demand
was also the impetus for the great age of discovery that began in fourteenth century. Treasure brought
home increased the local money supplies, aiding economic growth.

The predominant economic and political structure of the Middle Ages was feudalism. This system
evolved in response to a breakdown in central authority and a rise in social chaos following the end of
Roman rule. A hierarchy of strongmen in allegiance replaced the Roman system of emperor, senate,
province, city, and town.

The Feudal Contract

Feudalism was an agreement between two nobles, one the lord and one the vassal. The vassal pledged
an oath of fealty (faithfulness) to the lord and agreed to carry out duties in his behalf. The most
important duties were usually military service, normally limited to 40 days per year, providing soldiers
to the lord's army, and providing revenue to the lord. The lord agreed to protect the vassal with the
army at his command and to provide the vassal with the means of making a living. The vassal was
given control of a fief that was usually a large holding of land, but he could also be assigned the job of
tax collector, coiner, customs agent, or some other responsibility that created revenue. A lord with
many vassals thus had steady sources of revenue and an army. A feudal contract was made for life. A
lord could take back a fief if the vassal failed in his duties. It was much harder for a vassal to leave a
lord. During the early Middle Ages fiefs were not inherited, which was to the advantage of the lord.
The more fiefs he had to give out, the harder his vassals would work to earn them. As the Middle Ages
progressed, vassals found opportunities to make their fiefs inheritable, leaving the lords fewer fiefs to
pass out as rewards.
Only nobles and knights were allowed to take the oath of fealty. In practice most nobles were both
vassals and lords, fitting in somewhere between the king and the lowest knight of rank. Feudalism
was never neatly organized, however. Vassals might be more powerful than lords. The dukes of
Normandy, controlling much of France and all of England, were more powerful than the kings of
France who were their lords. Vassals might have several lords, causing problems when different lords
wanted the vassal to provide a service. The senior lord, or liege lord, was usually given preference.
Nobles also discovered that if they were strong enough they could ignore the rules of feudalism and
attack neighbors to get what they wanted. Such private wars were endemic throughout the late
Middle Ages

The Manor
The most common fief was a land holding called a manor. During the Middle Ages nine families
worked on a manor producing food to feed themselves and provide food for a tenth family to do
something else. In the modern United States, the relationship is perhaps 100 to 1 in the other
A typical manor was a great house or castle, surrounded by fields, cottages, pastures, and woodlands.
The manor was largely self-sufficient. Surpluses of a few commodities were traded with other manors
for commodities in shortage. As the Middle Ages continued and the markets of towns grew, manors
became more specialized because they were more efficient at producing only a few commodities. Some
manors specialized in cheese, pigs, wine, grain, or vegetables, for example.
Landlord, The lord of the manor occupied the manor house or castle with his family, servants, and
retainers. Retainers were usually knights and professional soldiers on hand to provide defense and be
ready to fulfill any feudal military obligations to a senior lord. The larger the manor, the greater was
the number of retainers.

The population of a manor consisted mainly of peasants who were non-noble and non-professional
people. The farmhands were mostly serfs who spent up to half of their week working the lord's lands
in return for his protection. Each serf family owned several rows in each of the manor's fields from
which it obtained a living. Serfs were not slaves, but they were not free either. They could not marry,
change jobs, or leave the manor without the lord's permission. But a serf had some rights, unlike a
slave. His position was hereditary and passed down in his family. His land could not be taken so long
as he fulfilled his obligations. While the relationship between vassal and lord seems comparable to serf
and landlord, a clear distinction was made in the Middle Ages between an honorable contract to
provide military service versus mere manual labor.
Farming technology gradually changed the lives of serfs as the Middle Ages progressed. Food
production increased and surpluses were sold, providing serfs with the money to buy their freedom. By
the end of the period, there were few serfs in Western Europe.

The Late Middle Ages
The Dark Ages witnessed widespread disruption throughout Europe and the replacement of the
previously predominant Roman culture with Germanic tribal culture. For 500 years Europe had
suffered repeatedly from invasion and war. The life of the average peasant was rarely affected,
however, and social stability and culture gradually recovered, although in new formats. By roughly the
year 1000, Europeans were creating a new medieval civilization that surpassed the ancients in almost
every way.

Economic Revitalization
At the start of the Dark Ages, Northern Europe was deeply forested. By 1000 AD, much of the forest
was gone and most of the rest was going, replaced by farmland and pasture. The soil was generally
excellent, a loess of finely ground rock deposited during the last receding Ice Age. Two key inventions
accelerated the deforestation of Europe and led to increasing food production. The first was the horse
collar that originated in China and gradually came west. The improved collar fit across a horse's breast,
rather than its windpipe, allowing it to pull much heavier loads without choking. The second
invention was the heavy wheeled plow, which was needed to cut into the deep soils and extensive root
systems of the old forests. Dramatic increases in food production were the foundation of population
growth and economic revitalization in Europe.
Increasing population, no longer needed on the manors, migrated to the towns that were already
growing in response to the needs for larger markets. Food surpluses and the products of new industries
(cloth-making, shipbuilding, and tool-making, for example) traded in the new markets and trade fairs.
Kings encouraged the growth of towns because residents were usually allied with the central authority
rather than local feudal lords. Citizens of towns paid taxes, not feudal service. Within towns there
appeared a new middle class that supported itself by trade, industrial production, and lending money.
Merchants came to dominate the town governments, growing both rich and powerful.
Craftsmen and merchants organized themselves into associations that were called guilds. These
associations controlled prices and production, ensured a high standard of service or manufacturing,
and organized the training of crafts through apprenticeships. These controls ensured both a high-
quality product and a high-quality of life for guild members. Guild members often concentrated in one
part of town, such as Threadneedle Street and Ironmongers Lane in London. Guilds formed an
important power block within the political structure of the towns.
Increased trade led to a new boom in manufacturing. Both led to the rise of banking, centered mostly
in northern Italy in the thirteenth century. Fledgling businesses needed money to get started and to
function efficiently. Money acted as a medium of exchange and standard of value and was necessary
for moving beyond an inefficient barter economy. Italy had cash surpluses from its lucrative
Mediterranean trade, especially with the Levant. The gold florin of Florence became the most popular
coin of the late Middle Ages.

Christians proved their faith by going on pilgrimages to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, and even
Jerusalem. Pilgrims who had visited Santiago de Compostela wore cloth cockleshells on their clothing
as a badge of distinction.

The prosperity of the twelfth century and later was increasingly expressed in the arts, especially
architecture. The enduring symbol of Middle Ages architecture was the cathedral. Magnificent church
buildings were erected in thanks to God for the blessings bestowed on the people. Towns competed to
build the most glorious cathedral and the loftiest spire reaching toward heaven. Cathedrals were the
largest capital investments of the period, taking as much as a century to build and costing a fortune.
The predominant building material for cathedrals was stone, which minimized the hazard of fire.
There was little steel at the time, and iron was too soft to hold up the immense buildings of
unprecedented height. Architects evolved new solutions to old problems, devising the pointed arch and
flying buttress to spread the weight load from vaulted ceilings onto massive stone supports. The new
building technologies made possible great open cathedrals, large windows (often of beautifully stained
glass), and high spires. The French pioneered the new cathedrals. Notre Dame of Paris was begun in
1163 and finished 72 years later. The cathedral at Chartres was begun in 1120 and completed in 1224
after burning twice during construction.
Cathedrals were a great source of civic pride and prestige. Pilgrims and new churchgoers brought
increased revenues to the cathedral town.
By the late Middle Ages, science in Europe had caught up with the ancients and passed them by. The
technology that interested the people was practical, not theoretical. They sought better ways to do
things, both to make life more comfortable and to improve business. They were interested in
understanding the natural world because they had increasingly more leisure time for contemplation.
The rudiments of mathematics and science were acquired from the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula
and Sicily when Christians retook those areas. The Muslims had been actively studying the ancients
and new ideas from Asia since the early Middle Ages. The Muslims passed on the Arabic numerals
used today and the concept of the zero, invented in India.
Practical research began challenging logic in the quest to understand the laws of nature. The value of
observation, experimentation, and empirical (countable) evidence as support and proof of theory was
recognized. This led to the scientific method of the later Renaissance, which is the basis for all modern
scientific research. Ancient Greeks had suggested the scientific method, but it fell out of favor and had
been forgotten.

The Decline of Feudalism

Political Changes
By the beginning of the late Middle Ages, western Europe had been divided into feudal holdings of
various sizes. Kings atop feudal hierarchies did not exercise a strong central authority and nations
existed as cultural groups, not political entities. By the end of the late Middle Ages, strong central
authority controlled England, Spain, Portugal, and France. Political power in those areas had been
wrested away from the local feudal lords.
William the Conqueror established the first of the strong European monarchies after winning the
throne of England in 1066. Following his victory at Hastings and five more years of fighting to break
remaining resistance, he began taking steps to consolidate his power. He kept one-sixth of England as
royal land. Half of the rest was given as fiefs to Norman barons who were his direct vassals. He gave
one-quarter of the land to the Church and the remainder was divided among the Anglo-Saxons. The

entire feudal hierarchy was forced to swear fealty to him as liege lord. He claimed ownership of all
castles, prohibited wars between lords, and made royal coinage the only legal money. These were
important first steps in the decline of feudalism, although they could not always be enforced, especially
by later kings of lesser ability than William.
In the twelfth century, England's King Henry II created the chancery and exchequer, the beginnings
of a civil service. The chancery kept records of laws and royal transactions; the exchequer was the
treasury. Both offices were not hereditary, making it easy to remove unwanted officials. The staffs of
the new civil service were paid a salary rather than given a fief, making them dependent only on the
In 1215 the unpopular King John of England was forced to sign the Magna Carta, a feudal document
that made the king subject to the laws of the land and required that the barons have a voice in the
king's decision through a Great Council. Wording of the Magna Carta led to important interpretations
in later centuries, including the concept of "no taxation without representation." When a later English
king ignored the Magna Carta, the barons seized power in 1264 and ruled temporarily through an
expanded Great Council called the Parliament. The new Parliament included not only the barons and
high-ranking churchmen but also representatives from the large towns.
Although this parliamentary government was short-lived (15 months), Parliament itself could not be
suppressed or ignored. From this period on, only Parliament could repeal laws it had passed. No taxes
could be imposed without its approval. When kings needed money in the short term (during the
Hundred Years War, for example) they were often forced by Parliament to concede more power in
exchange. Parliament and the civil service continued to grow in importance, and they proved capable
of running the country, regardless of the current king's ability or any temporary rebellion by the
While the king, civil service, and Parliament were pushing down on the power of barons from above,
pressure was also rising from the bottom of the feudal hierarchy. Several factors worked toward
freeing the serfs from their contracts with the lords, including increasing town populations, cessation
of barbarian raids, and a fearful plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century.

The Black Death

The plague that became known as the Black Death struck Europe suddenly and with devastating
effect in the middle fourteenth century. It moved west from Central Asia, appearing in the Black Sea
area in 1346. It spread southwest into the Mediterranean and then up and around the North Atlantic
Coast and into the Baltic. By 1348 it was in Spain and Portugal, by 1349 in England and Ireland, by
1351 in Sweden, and by 1353 in the Baltic States and Russia. Only remote and sparsely populated
areas were spared. Between a third and a half of the population of Europe, the Middle East, North
Africa, and India died, based on modern estimates of the loss.
The Black Plague was probably a variety of the bubonic plague, a bacterial infection still encountered
today and still dangerous. The bacteria were carried in the saliva of fleas that had sucked the blood of
infected rats. The fleas jumped to human hosts when infected rats died and the bacteria spread rapidly
in the human blood stream. The plague took its name from its most hideous symptom - large black and
painful swellings that oozed blood and pus. Victims developed a high fever and became delirious. Most
died within 48 hours, but a small minority was able to fight off the infection and survive.
Entire towns were depopulated and the social relation between serf and lord fell apart. People who
could farm or make things were valuable. The move to cities accelerated once the plague had passed.

The Renaissance
Beginning in fourteenth-century Italy, Europe went through a transition over 400 years from
medieval to modern times known today as the Renaissance, meaning a "rebirth" or "revival". The
Renaissance is a nebulous concept for which there is no clear beginning or end. It does, however,
usefully mark the complete recovery from the barbarism of the Dark Ages to the new advancement in
all fields that transcended the achievements of the great ancient civilizations.
Many different factors at work in the Middle Ages contributed to this revival and new advancement.
One was the renewed interest in learning. The first college at Oxford University was founded in 1264.
By 1400 there were more than 50 universities in Europe. Education and debate were stimulated by
access to ancient texts preserved by the Arabs and freshly translated into Latin. Europeans had made
contact with the Arabs in the Holy Land, in Sicily, and in Spain. The rediscovered works of the
ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, for example, became the standard for teaching mathematics into
the nineteenth century. The Arabs also transmitted a new system for numbers, the concept of the
decimal point, and the concept of zero, all invented in India. The spread of learning accelerated rapidly
following the invention of the printing press around 1450.
A second factor was the rising standard of living, especially in the great commercial cities of Italy. The
Crusades had opened European eyes to the wealth of the East, especially silks, spices, and cotton. The
merchants of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and other cities came to dominate the trade between Europe
and the Eastern Mediterranean. With the excess wealth they accumulated in business, these
merchants began embellishing their homes and cities with art. Sculpture, painting, architecture, music,
poetry, and literature found new expression, exhibiting an interest in subjects beyond the religious
themes that dominated previously in the Middle Ages. Popular depictions of everyday life, romance,
and adventure revealed that European culture was becoming more humanistic and less focused on
The revival was also due to technological progress that led to more efficient production of goods and
services. Manufacturing, farming, and trade all improved past the abilities of the ancients. The drive
for profits encouraged inventiveness and exploration. A middle class of merchants and craftsmen
began grasping political power commensurate with their economic power, at the expense of declining
By roughly 1500 the nations of Europe were leading the world in many important technologies.
Energies unleashed by the exploration of the world, the search for trade routes, the Protestant
Reformation, and continued political competition in Europe itself would make Europe the dominant
region of the world within a few centuries.

Armies of the Dark Ages
The Germanic tribes that overran the Roman Empire at the start of the Middle Ages fought primarily
on foot with axes and swords, while wearing little armor other than perhaps helmets and shields. They
were organized into war bands under the leadership of a chief. They were fierce warriors but fought in
undisciplined mobs. The disciplined Roman legions had great success against the Germanic tribes for
centuries, in part because emotional armies are usually very fragile. However, when the Roman legions
declined in quality at the empire's end, the Germanic tribes were able to push across the frontier.
Not all Germanic tribes fought on foot. Exceptions were the Goths, who had adapted to horses when
they settled previously north of the Black Sea. Both the Visigoths and Ostrogoths learned about
cavalry by being in contact with the Eastern Roman Empire south of the Danube and barbarian
horsemen from Asia. The Eastern Roman armies put a greater emphasis on cavalry because of their
conflicts with mounted barbarians, the Parthians, and the Persians.
Following the fall of Rome, most fighting in Europe for the next few centuries involved clashes of
foot soldiers. One exception might have been the battles of Britain's Arthur against the invading
Saxons, although we have no evidence that his success was due to using cavalry. Arthur may have
halted Saxon progress in Britain for 50 years, perhaps because of cavalry or the use of disciplined
troops. Another exception was the Byzantine army that recaptured North Africa from the Vandals
and almost restored Italy to Eastern Roman control in the sixth century. The strength of the
Byzantine army of this period was cavalry. The Byzantines benefited also from both superior
leadership and an understanding of tactics that the barbarians lacked.
Fighting in these first centuries rarely involved groups that could be described as armies. They were the
same war bands as before, small by Byzantine or Asian standards and employing limited tactics or
strategy. The main military activities were raids to obtain loot in the form of food, livestock, weapons,
and slaves. Aggressive tribes expanded by devastating the food production of enemies, starving them
out, and enslaving the survivors. Battles were mainly clashes of war bands, fighting hand to hand
with axes and swords. They fought as mobs, not the disciplined formations typical of the Romans.
They used shields and helmets and wore some armor. Leather armor was common; only chieftains and
elites wore chain mail.
In the early eighth century, Visgothic Spain fell to the warriors of Islam, many of whom fought as
light cavalry. At the same time, nomadic Magyars from the Hungarian plains increased their mounted
raids on western Europe. In 732 a Frankish infantry army was able to defeat a Muslim cavalry raid
near Poitiers, ending Muslim northward expansion. Charles Martel, warlord of the Franks, was
impressed by the Moorish cavalry and began mounting part of his army. This conversion continued
later in the century under the great king of the Franks, Charlemagne. Frankish heavy cavalry was the
genesis of the mounted knight that came to typify medieval warfare.
Annually for 30 years, Charlemagne conducted military campaigns that extended the size of his
empire. The Frankish army consisted of both infantry and armored cavalry, but the cavalry was his
most valuable force and the part that got the most notice. It could move quickly and strike hard
against foes fighting mainly on foot. Charlemagne's campaigns were economic raids, burning, looting,
and devastating enemies into submission. He fought very few battles against organized opposition.
The Vikings fought exclusively on foot, except that it was their habit to gather horses upon landing
and use them to raid farther inland. Their raids began in the late eighth century and ended in the
eleventh century. The descendants of Viking raiders that became the Normans of northwestern France

adapted quickly to the use of horses and became some of the most successful warriors of the late
Middle Ages.
In the early tenth century, the Germans began developing the use of cavalry under Otto I, both as a
rapid response force against Viking raids and to repel mounted barbarian raids from the East.
By the end of the tenth century, heavy cavalry was an important component of most European armies
except in Anglo-Saxon England, Celtic lands (Ireland, Wales, and Scotland), and Scandinavia.

The Rise of Knights
By the time of Charlemagne, mounted warriors had become the elite military units of the Franks and
this innovation spread across Europe. Fighting from a horse was most glorious because the mounted
man rode into battle, moved quickly, and trampled down lower-class enemies on foot. When cavalry
faced cavalry, the charge at speed and resulting violent contact was exhilarating. Fighting while
mounted was most prestigious because of the high cost of horses, weapons, and armor. Only wealthy
individuals, or the retainers of the wealthy, could fight mounted.
Kings of the late Dark Ages had little money with which to pay for large contingents of expensive
cavalry. Warriors were made vassals and given fiefs of land. They were expected to use their profits
from the land to pay for horses and equipment. In most cases, vassals also supported groups of
professional soldiers. At a time when central authority was weak and communications poor, the
vassal, aided by his retainers, was responsible for law and order within the fief. In return for his fief,
the vassal agreed to provide military service to his lord. In this way, high lords and kings were able to
raise armies when desired. The elites of these armies were the mounted vassals.
As the Middle Ages progressed, the elite mounted warriors of western Europe became known as
knights. A code of behavior evolved, called chivalry, which detailed how they should conduct
themselves. They were obsessed with honor, both at war and at peace, although mainly when dealing
with their peers, not the commoners and peasants who constituted the bulk of the population. Knights
became the ruling class, controlling the land from which all wealth derived. The aristocrats were noble
originally because of their status and prestige as the supreme warriors in a violent world. Later their
status and prestige were based mainly on heredity, and the importance of being a warrior declined.

When first used, the term "chivalry" meant horsemanship. The warrior elite of the Middle Ages
distinguished themselves from the peasants and clergy and each other by their skill as horsemen and
warriors. Fast and strong horses, beautiful and efficient weapons, and well-made armor were the
status symbols of the day.
By the twelfth century, chivalry had come to mean an entire way of life. The basic rules of the
chivalric code were the following:
i. Protect women and the weak.
ii. Champion justice against injustice and evil.
iii. Love the homeland.
iv. Defend the Church, even at the risk of death.
In practice, knights and aristocrats ignored the code of chivalry when it suited them. Feuds between
nobles and fights over land took precedent over any code. The Germanic tribal custom that called for a
chieftain's property to be split among his sons, rather than pass to the eldest, often triggered wars
among brothers for the spoils. An example of this was the conflict between Charlemagne's grandsons.
The Middle Ages were plagued with such civil wars in which the big losers were usually the peasants.
In the late Middle Ages, kings created orders of chivalry, which were exclusive organizations of high-
ranking knights that swore allegiance to their king and each other. Becoming a member of chivalric
order was extremely prestigious, marking a man as one of the most important of the realm. In 1347

during the Hundred Years War, Edward III of England founded the Order of the Garter, still in
existence today. This order consisted of the 25 highest-ranking knights of England and was founded to
ensure their loyalty to the king and dedication to victory in the war.
The Order of the Golden Fleece was established by Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1430 and became
the richest and most powerful order in Europe. Louis XI of France established the Order of St.
Michael to control his most important nobles. The Orders of Calatrava, Santiago, and Alcantara were
founded to drive the Moors out of Spain. They were united under Ferdinand of Aragon, whose
marriage to Isabella of Castile set the foundation for a single Spanish kingdom. He eventually became
master of the three orders, although they remained separate.

Becoming a Knight
At the age of 7 or 8, boys of the noble class were sent to live with a great lord as a page. Pages learned
basic social skills from the women of the lord's household and began basic training in the use of
weapons and horsemanship. Around the age of 14 the youth became a squire, a knight in training.
Squires were assigned to a knight who continued the youth's education. The squire was a general
companion and servant to the knight. The duties of the squire included polishing armor and weapons
(prone to rust), helping his knight dress and undress, looking after his belongings, and even sleeping
across his doorway as a guard.
At tournaments and in battle, the squire assisted his knight as needed. He brought up replacement
weapons and horses, treated wounds, brought a wounded knight out of danger, or made sure of a
decent burial if needed. In many cases the squire went into battle with his knight and fought at his
side. A knight avoided fighting a squire on the other side, if possible, seeking instead a knight of rank
similar to or higher than his own. Squires, on the other hand, sought to engage enemy knights, seeking
to gain glory by killing or capturing an enemy knight of high rank.
In addition to martial training, squires built up their strength through games, learned to at least read,
if not write, and studied music, dancing, and singing.
By the age of 21, a squire was eligible to become a knight. Suitable candidates were "knighted" by a
lord or other knight of high standing. The ceremony for becoming a knight was simple at first, usually
being "dubbed" on the shoulder with a sword and then buckling on a sword belt. The ceremony grew
more elaborate and the Church added to the rite. Candidates bathed, cut their hair close, and stayed up
all night in a vigil of prayer. In the morning the candidate received the sword and spurs of a knight.
Knighthood was usually attainable only for those who possessed the land or income necessary to meet
the responsibilities of the rank. Important lords and bishops could support a sizable contingent of
knights, however, and many found employment in these circumstances. Squires who fought
particularly well might also gain the recognition of a great lord during battle and be knighted on the
Mock battles between knights, called tournaments, began in the tenth century and were immediately
condemned by the second Council of Letrán, under Pope Innocentius II, and the kings of Europe who
objected to the injuries and deaths of knights in what they considered frivolous activity. Tournaments
flourished, however, and became an integral part of a knight's life.
Tournaments began as simple contests between individual knights but grew more elaborate through
the centuries. They became important social events that would attract patrons and contestants from
great distances. Special lists (tournament grounds) were erected with stands for spectators and

pavilions for combatants. Knights continued to compete as individuals but also in teams. They dueled
against each other using a variety of weapons and held mock mêlée battles with many knights on a
side. Jousts, or tilts, involving two charging knights fighting with lances, became the premier event.
Knights competed like modern-day athletes for prizes, prestige, and the eyes of the ladies who filled
the stands.
So many men were being killed in tournaments by the thirteenth century, that leaders, including the
pope, became alarmed. Sixty knights died in a 1240 tournament held in Cologne, for example. The pope
wanted as many knights as possible to fight on the Crusades in the Holy Land, rather than be killed in
tournaments. Weapons were blunted and rules attempted to reduce the incidence of injury, but serious
and fatal injuries occurred. Henry II of France was mortally wounded, for example, in a joust at a
tournament held to celebrate his daughter's wedding.
Challenges were usually issued for a friendly contest, but grudges between two enemies might be
settled in a fight to the death. Tournament losers were captured and paid a ransom to the victors in
horses, weapons, and armor to obtain their release. Heralds kept track of tournament records, like
modern baseball box scores. A low-ranking knight could amass wealth through prizes and attract a
wealthy wife.
Military Orders
During the Crusades military orders of knights were created to support the Christian goals of the
movement. They became the fiercest of the Crusaders and the most hated enemies of the Arabs. These
orders carried on after the Crusades in Palestine ended in failure.
The first of these orders were the Knights of the Temple, or the Templars, founded in 1108 to protect
the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The Templars wore a white surcoat supplanted with a red cross and
took the same vows as a Benedictine monk-poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Templars were among
the bravest defenders of the Holy Land. They were the last Crusaders to leave the Holy Land. In the
following years they grew wealthy from donations and by lending money at interest, attracting the
envy and distrust of kings. In 1307 King Philip IV of France accused them of many crimes, including
heresy, arrested them, and confiscated their lands. Other European leaders followed his lead and the
Templars were destroyed.
The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Hospitallers, were set up originally to tend to sick and
poor pilgrims visiting the Holy Sepulcher. They converted shortly into a military order. They wore a red
surcoat with a white cross and also took the vows of St. Benedict. The Hospitallers set a high
standard and did not allow their order to become rich and indolent. When forced out of the Holy Land
following the surrender of their great castle, the Krak des Chevaliers, they retreated to the island of
Rhodes, which they defended for many years. Driven from Rhodes by the Turks they took up residence
on Malta.
The third great military order was the Teutonic Knights, founded in 1190 to protect German pilgrims
traveling to the Holy Land. Before the end of the Crusades they had turned their efforts toward
converting the heathens in Prussia and in the Baltic States.
To distinguish knights on the battlefield, a system of badges called heraldry was developed. A special
badge was designed for each nobleman to be shown on his shield, surcoat, flags, and seal. A surcoat
decorated with a knight's badge became known as a coat-of-arms and this term came to describe the
badges themselves. An independent organization known as the College of Heralds designed the

individual badges and ensured that each was unique. Badges were recorded by the heralds in special
books under their care.
Coats-of-arms were handed down from one generation to the next and would be modified by marriage.
Certain designs were reserved for royalty in different countries. By the late Middle Ages towns, guilds,
and even prominent non-noble townsmen were granted coats-of-arms.
On the battlefield, combatants used coats-of-arms to distinguish friend and foe and to choose a worthy
opponent in a mêlée. Heralds made lists of knights about to fight based on their badges. Heralds were
also considered neutrals and would act as intermediaries between two armies. In this manner they
might pass messages between the defenders of a castle or town and its besiegers. After a battle, heralds
identified the dead by their coats-of-arms.

Warfare in the Middle Ages
The traditional and popular understanding of European warfare in the Middle Ages held that
mounted knights dominated European battlefields during the years 800 to 1400. Knights were encased
in plate armor and charged with lances, scattering, skewering, and riding down any foot troops in the
way as they closed with each other to decide the battle. The era of the knight came to an end when
infantry reestablished a prominent battlefield role with new weapons such as firearms, and revived
skills like formations of massed pikeman. This view was fostered by the art and limited accounts of the
era that featured the mounted nobility while ignoring the commoners and peasants who fought on
foot. The perception that knights dominated and that warfare consisted mainly of cavalry charges is
Foot troops were an important component of all armies in the Middle Ages. They fought in hand-to-
hand mêlées and as archers and missile troops. Foot soldiers were critical for both sides in sieges
against castles and fortified towns.
Warfare in the Middle Ages was dominated actually by sieges of one sort or another. Battles on open
ground between armies were infrequent. Armies played a sort of chess match, maneuvering to take
important castles and towns, while avoiding engagements where a large and expensive force might be
On those occasions where pitched battles did occur, knights could be devastating. A determined charge
by armored knights was a powerful force. It was more likely, however, that victory went to the side
making best use of the three major army components together-mêlée infantry, missile troops, and
cavalry. Also important were the factors that have always influenced battle, such as intelligent use of
terrain, troop morale, leadership, discipline, and tactics.

Weapons of the Middle Ages
For most of the Middle Ages, the technology of weapons was little changed from that of the ancient
world, remaining primarily variants of the club, knife, spear, axe, and arrow. An important innovation
was the heavy mounted horseman using the lance. The mounted knight was significantly more potent
than any cavalry of the ancient world. The closest ancient equivalent may have been the Companion
cavalry of Alexander the Great.
By the tenth century Europe had bypassed the ancients in most areas, including weaponry. The
evolution of the heavy horsemen triggered corresponding innovation to defend against them. This
resulted in new pole arms to ward off or engage knights.
The longbow and crossbow were innovations in the West. The crossbow was known to the ancient
Chinese, however.
The revolutionary technology of the Middle Ages was the development of gunpowder weapons, both
the cannons and the hand weapons, which are discussed later.

Cavalry Weapons
Since the first appearance of cavalry around 1000 BC, mounted troops have fulfilled several important
roles in battle. They acted as scouts, skirmishers, a shock force for mêlée combat, a rear guard, and the
pursuit of a retreating enemy. Cavalry were divided into several different categories depending on
equipment and training, and some categories were better suited for certain roles than others. Light
cavalry wore little or no armor and was best suited for scouting, skirmishing, and acting as a rear
guard. Heavy cavalry wore armor and was better suited for use as a shock force that charged the
enemy. All types of cavalry excelled at pursuit.
Knights of the Middle Ages were heavy cavalry, and the code of chivalry emphasized their role as
shock troops charging enemy cavalry and infantry. From the thirteenth century on, the term man-at-
arms was used to describe armored warriors fighting on horse and on foot. The new term applied to
knights as well as squires, gentry, and professional soldiers.
The advantages of knights in battle were speed, intimidation, power, and height. As the Middle Ages
progressed, the equipment of knights improved to enhance these advantages.
The spear, and later the larger lance, was the weapon with which cavalry opened a battle. It was ideal
for stabbing opponents on foot, especially those in flight. The presentation of the spear in front of a
mounted horseman added greatly to the intimidation caused by an approaching charge. Much of the
force of the horse could be transmitted through the spear point at the moment of impact. The charging
knight became a thundering missile.
Historians disagree on the importance of the stirrup to the rise of knights. The stirrup first appeared in
Asia and reached Europe in the eighth century. Some believe that it was critical to the rise of knights
because it allowed the rider to brace himself and his lance, thereby transmitting the entire force of the
charging horse through the lance point. No one argues with the advantage of this force multiplication,
but others suggest that the high saddle developed in Roman times allowed riders to transmit this
power before the stirrup appeared. The Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts William's conquest of England
in 1066, shows the highly regarded Norman knights using their spears mainly as overhand stabbing or
throwing spears, not as couched lances. By this time the stirrup had been known in Europe for at least

two centuries. For the remainder of the Middle Ages, the mounted charge by knights holding couched
lances was the epitome of combats for knights. It was not always the correct tactic, however.
The initial charge by knights often resulted in the loss of spears or lances, or the charge ended in a
general mêlée. In either case, knights switched to another weapon. This was usually their sword. The
cavalry sword evolved into the saber, a wide, heavy blade that a man standing in his stirrups could
swing down with tremendous force on the head and upper body of opponents. Swords were the
weapons that knights prized most highly because they could be carried on the person, prominently
displayed, and personalized. They were the most common weapons for hand-to-hand combat between
knights. Good swords were also expensive, so ownership was another distinction of the nobility.
Other choices of mêlée weapon included the hammer and mace (evolutions of the club), the axe, and the
flail. Hammers and maces were popular with fighting churchmen and warrior monks trying to obey the
letter of the Bible's admonition about shedding blood, which edged weapons were prone to do.
Under no circumstances did knights use missile weapons of any kind. Killing an opponent at range
with an arrow, bolt, or bullet was considered dishonorable. Knights fought worthy foes of the same
rank when possible and killed face to face or not at all.
Chain mail armor was worn by the late Romans and by some of the invading Germanic tribes,
including the Goths. Chain mail remained popular with the nobility of medieval Europe until more
protective plate armor came into use in the thirteenth century. The change was made in part because
an arrow or sharp sword point could pierce chain mail. A cloth tunic, called a surcoat, was worn over
the chain mail, especially during the Crusades to reflect the sun.
Helmets also evolved from simple conical designs, to large metal buckets, to large sculpted pieces
designed to deflect arrows. Later, helmets could be bolted to the armor worn on the body.
Full suits of armor weighing up to 60 pounds appeared in the fourteenth century. Plate armor was
well designed and knights retained a surprising amount of agility. An armored knight on the ground
was not helpless and could easily stand up. There are accounts and depictions of armored men doing
handstands and other gymnastics in lighter moments. Later suits put increased emphasis on deflecting
missiles and reinforced areas most exposed to blows. Elaborate full suits of engraved plate armor
appeared late during the age and were more ceremonial and prestigious than practical.
Armor was a large expense for a knight who equipped himself and a squire. An important lord had to
provide armor for many knights. The making of armor was an important business, and a large market
in used armor developed during the Middle Ages. Common soldiers on the victorious side of a battle
could make a substantial sum by stripping dead knights of their armor and selling it.
Knights took special pride in their horses, which were bred for speed and strength. They required
extensive training, as well, to be manageable during a charge and mêlée. Horses were trained to charge
with minimal guidance, freeing the knight to hold his shield and lance. Historians disagree as to
whether the horses of knights were the heavy horse thought necessary to carry the weight of a fully
equipped knight or a smaller horse valued for its speed and agility.
Horsemanship was another characteristic by which the elite knights distinguished themselves from the
commoners. It was practiced while hunting, a popular leisure activity of the nobles that carries on
today in the traditional foxhunt.

Missile Weapons
Bows of one type or another played an important role in battle throughout the Middle Ages. They
were used as direct fire weapons against individual targets on battlefields and during sieges. In some
cases they were used as area fire weapons.
Missile fire allowed men to cause casualties at range. Archers were used as light troops to cause
casualties and weaken enemy morale due to losses before mêlée combat. If the enemy force could be
weakened or shaken, the chances of winning the mêlée were enhanced.
Bows used during the Middle Ages were of various types, including the short bow, the composite bow,
and the longbow. The short bow was 3 to 4 feet long and rather easy to make and use. It was
employed widely and the most common bow encountered. It had medium range, power, and accuracy
and required substantial experience and training for effective use.
The composite bow was of Asiatic origin. It was made from a composite of wood or bone strips bonded
together. The lamination created a more powerful bow, but one that required more strength and
training than the common bow. This relatively short bow was the preferred weapon of horse archers,
especially the Mongols and other horse armies from Asia. A variant of the composite bow was curved
forward at the tips during manufacture by steaming and bending the laminate. This re-curved bow
generated more power and required a high degree of strength and skill.
The longbow originated in Wales and spread to England. It was a 6-foot bow made from a single
piece of wood, usually from the yew tree. The longbow shot a 3-foot arrow. These were fitted with
broad tips for use against infantry for piercing leather armor and causing lacerations and narrow tips
for use against armored men to pierce mail or plate armor. Shooting the longbow required extensive
training and practice; men experienced with the weapon could get off six well-aimed shots in a minute.
Longbows had a long range and were quite powerful. Large contingents of experienced longbowmen
were a devastating force on many battlefields of the Middle Ages. They could fire individually aimed
shots or rain down a barrage of arrows into an area.
The English encouraged the use of the longbow by sponsoring archery tournaments throughout the
land. All other sports were banned on Sundays. This created a large pool of experienced bowmen from
which they could recruit. Each English shire was required by law to provide a number of bowmen each
year. There was usually no shortage of applicants because the pay of the soldiers was quite good
relative to other work.
The crossbow was known in ancient China but seems to have been reinvented in Europe around 900
AD. It had good range and was more powerful than most bows, but it took much more time to load.
An average crossbowman fired 2 shots per minute.
The bow of the crossbow was held horizontally and fired with a trigger that released the taut
bowstring. To load, the front of the weapon was pointed to the ground and held in place by foot. The
bowstring was pulled up and back with both hands or with the help of cranks. The crossbow fired a
quarrel, or bolt, which was much shorter than a typical arrow. The quarrel did have flights or feathers
for stabilization in flight and had a sharpened metal point.
Crossbowmen often carried a pavise shield into battle to provide cover while they loaded. This was a
tall shield with wooden braces attached. A force of crossbowmen set up a wall of such shields and bent
down behind the wall to load. When they shot, only the crossbows and their helmeted heads appeared

over the wall of shields. If forced to fight in the open against a comparable force of longbowmen, they
were usually forced to withdraw.
The crossbow was a deadly weapon and was very popular for the simple reason that it took little
training to operate. Relatively raw soldiers could become proficient with a crossbow very quickly, and
a well-aimed shot could kill a knight in armor who had spent a lifetime in combat training. The
crossbow was considered unfair in some circles (those of the knights, primarily) because it took so little
skill. Richard I of England, the Lionheart, was wounded twice by crossbow bolts. The second proved
fatal. The idea of such great men being killed easily by common soldiers or worse was appalling to the
nobility. In the twelfth century a pope tried to get the crossbow banned for being inhumane.

Hand Weapons
Foot soldiers armed with hand weapons were the third principal component of medieval armies, along
with cavalry and missile troops. Mêlée infantry fought hand to hand and were important both in
pitched battles and during sieges. Infantry consisted of peasants, common soldiers, and dismounted
Hand Weapons
The Franks of the Dark Ages fought with a throwing axe called the francisca, from which their tribe
took its name. Their neighbors, the Saxons, fought with a large, one-sided knife called a scramasax,
from which they took their name.
With the development of the heavy cavalryman came the heavy sword, which was used in hand-to-
hand fighting on foot as well. Variants of the sword included a two-handed version that required a lot
of space to wield. Men-at-arms employed a variety of weapons on foot, including axes, both one-
handed and two-handed, maces, flails, and hammers. A variant of the mace was a spiked ball fastened
to a shaft by a chain. As armor improved to reduce the effect of sword blows, crushing and puncturing
weapons became more favored.
Pole Arms
The basic spear was a useful weapon throughout the Middle Ages because it was cheap to make and
simple to use. Common foot soldiers and peasants could be armed with it and pressed into battle
service. In most cases such an expedient was of little use, but with experience and some training large
bodies of spearmen could be effective.
Pole arms evolved through the medieval period and eventually reached a point where formations of
foot troops skilled in their use were extremely effective. Advanced pole arms consisted of a spear point
with one or more weapon faces below the point. This additional weapon might be a large long blade,
an axe, a billhook, a hammer, or a spike.
Long pole arms evolved in response to the mounted knight and resulted in a revival of a formation
something like the ancient Greek phalanx. Horses would not charge a disciplined formation of men
that bristled with extended pole weapons. A dense formation of pole arms held high also served as
some protection from arrows.
Foot soldiers first learned to stand behind wooden stakes set in the ground to ward off cavalry. They
then learned to deploy spears, pikes, and other pole arms to ward off cavalry. This allowed the
formation to move and take its anti-cavalry stakes with it, in effect. In a mêlée, the various
attachments at the end of the pole were used to pull horsemen off their mounts, push them off, or
cause wounds to the rider or horse. Although armored men were not helpless when prone on the

ground, as some have thought, they were at a disadvantage, at least temporarily, to men wearing little
or no armor before they could rise.
As the towns grew in the second half of the Middle Ages, they built up their own militias of troops for
defense and for feudal military service. Pole arms were popular weapons with the town militias
because they were relatively cheap to provide and effective for the cost. Town militias trained with
these weapons and developed useful battlefield tactics. In time, formations of pole-armed men learned
to be aggressive, not simply defensive. Massed formations of pikemen could physically attack other
infantry and even cavalry. The Swiss lacked the pastureland to support horse armies but became
famous as pikemen. They often served as mercenaries in other continental armies. The lowland cities of
Flanders and the highlands of Scotland also fielded pike units that were highly regarded.

Armies of the Middle Ages
The first medieval armies were tribal war bands carried over from ancient times. These evolved into
feudal armies made up of a lord's vassals and their respective retainers. Fief holders were required to
provide a period of military service each year. This began as weeks or months of service by the vassal
accompanied by professional soldiers he retained personally. The armies of later kings and wealthy
lords consisted of a higher proportion of professionals and mercenaries. Late in the period, vassals sent
money instead of actually serving in armies, and this "martial tax" helped kings to support armies year-
Service in feudal armies was a matter of duty and honor for the knights. In a warrior society, knights
lived for the opportunity to fight. Success in battle was the main path to recognition and wealth. For
professional soldiers, often the sons of the aristocracy left with little when the eldest began inheriting
everything, fighting was a job. It was duty for peasants also, when they were called up, but certainly
not an honor.
By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many commoners joined the ranks for pay that was often
much better than that for more peaceful employment. A strong attraction for a commoner to become a
soldier was the prospect of loot. Tribal warriors stayed loyal to their warrior chief and fought for him
so long as he provided them with a living and loot. These ideals of the war band carried over into the
feudal age. Low-ranking knights and professional foot soldiers longed for the opportunity to take part
in the assault against a rich town or castle because strongholds that resisted were traditionally looted.
A soldier could gather up many times his year's pay during the sack of a city. Pitched battles also
offered opportunities for gain. The armor and weapons of the dead could be sold and captured knights
could be ransomed.

The organization of feudal armies was kept simple in comparison to the large national armies of more
modern time. There were no permanent regiments, divisions, or corps until the very end of the age.
When a feudal army was summoned, each vassal traveled to the meeting point with any knights,
archers, and footmen that he was required to bring. At the meeting point, the contingents would be
reassembled by role. The knights and their squires kept and marched together, as did the archers and
Special units, such as engineers and the operators of siege artillery, were usually professionals hired for
the campaign. Christian mercenaries, for example, operated the artillery employed by the Turks against
Being a mercenary soldier was a respected profession in the late Middle Ages. Warrior entrepreneurs
formed mercenary companies that allowed a rich lord or city to hire a ready-made competent fighting
force. Mercenary companies existed that were all of one skill. For example, 2000 Genoese crossbowmen
served in the French army at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. Other mercenary companies were mixed
forces of all arms. These were often described in terms of the number of lances they contained. Each
lance represented a mounted man-at-arms plus additional mounted, foot, and missile troops. A
company of 100 lances represented several hundred fighting men. This system was the origin of the
word "freelance."
Command hierarchy within a feudal army was flat. Not much maneuvering was anticipated so there
was little provision of large staffs to support the commander and pass orders.

In 1439 Charles VII of France raised Royal Ordinance Companies. These companies were filled with
either knights or infantry and were paid from tax revenues. Each company had a fixed complement of
men; their armor and weapons were chosen by the king rather than left to personal choice. This was
the beginning of modern standing armies in the West.
There was little provision for food and medical supplies. Medieval armies lived off the land, to the
detriment of everyone residing in an area they occupied or passed through. Having a friendly army
march through was no better than having the enemy pass. Medieval armies did not linger in one area
for long because local supplies of food and forage were quickly exhausted. This was a particular
problem during sieges. If an army laying siege did not make arrangements to have food and supplies
brought in, it might have to lift its siege to avoid starvation long before the defenders had to
Sanitation was also a problem when an army stayed in one place. A medieval army brought along
many animals, in addition to the horses of the knights, and sewage problems led to dysentery. Feudal
armies tended to waste away to disease and desertion. During his campaign in France, Henry V of
England lost an estimated 15 percent of his army to disease at the siege of Harfleur and more on the
march leading up to Agincourt. At the battle itself, he lost only 5 percent. Henry V died of disease
related to poor sanitation at another siege.
Deployment for Battle
Most battles were set-piece affairs where the two sides arranged themselves before the fighting began.
Campaigns of maneuver and meeting engagements were rare.
Prior to battle, commanders divided their forces into contingents with specific tasks in mind for each.
The first separation might be into foot soldiers, archers, and cavalry. These groups might be divided
further into groups to be given individual missions or to be held in reserve. A commander might
arrange several "battles" or "divisions" of knights, for example. These could be launched individually as
desired or held in reserve. Archers might be deployed in front of the army with blocks of infantry in
support. Once the army had been arranged, the only major decisions were when to send in the
prearranged pieces. There was little provision for pulling back, reforming, or rearranging once the
fighting started. A force of knights, for example, could rarely be used more than once. After they had
been committed to action, they were usually reinforced or withdrawn. A full charge by heavy cavalry
caused such disruption, lost equipment, and loss of horses that the force was essentially spent. The
Norman knights at Hastings were reformed for further attacks, but they did not launch a full charge
because they could not penetrate the Saxon shield-wall.
Superior commanders made use of the terrain to their advantage and conducted reconnaissance to
evaluate the enemy's strength and weaknesses.
The ultimate rewards from successful battle included honors and grants of fiefs. The proximate
rewards included booty from looting bodies, ransacking captured towns and castles, selling the armor
and weapons of the dead, and ransoming high-ranking prisoners. Knights were expected to pay
ransoms to save their lives. One of the highest recorded ransoms was more than US $20 million paid to
a German prince for the release of Richard I of England, captured during his return from the Crusades.
At Agincourt the English were holding a large group of French knights at the rear for ransom. During
the battle, a French contingent raided toward the rear of the English and briefly panicked Henry V.

He ordered the execution of the held French knights to prevent their release, thereby forgoing a fortune
in ransoms.
The capture of knights was recorded by heralds who kept a tally of which soldiers were responsible and
thereby due the bulk of the ransom. The heralds then notified the prisoner's family, arranged the
ransom payment, and obtained the prisoner's release.
The popularity of ransoms seems remarkably civil but masks a darker story. Low-ranking prisoners of
no value might be killed out-of-hand to eliminate the problem of guarding and feeding them.

Medieval military strategy was concerned with control of the economic basis for wealth and, thus, the
ability to put armies in the field. At the start of the era this meant primarily ravaging or defending the
countryside because all wealth originated in the fields and pastures. As the age progressed, towns
became important control points as centers of wealth from trade and manufacturing.
Holding and taking castles was a key element of war because they defended the farmland. The warrior
occupants of the castle controlled the neighborhood. As towns grew they were fortified also.
Defending and taking them gradually became more important than fighting for castles.
Field armies maneuvered to take the key fortified points and ravage the countryside, or to prevent the
enemy from conducting such a campaign. Pitched battles were fought to end the destruction of enemy
invasions. The Battle of Hastings in 1066, for example, was fought by the Anglo-Saxons to stop an
invasion by the Normans. The Anglo-Saxons lost and the Normans under William spent the next
several years establishing control of England in a campaign of conquest. The Battle of Lechfield in
955 AD was fought between the Germans and Magyar raiders from the East. The decisive victory of
the Germans under Otto I brought an end to further Magyar invasions. The defeat of the Moors in
732 AD by Charles Martel ended Muslim raids and expansion out of Spain.
The battles of Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, all fought during the Hundred Years War between the
English and French, were all attempts by the French to stop English incursions. The French lost all
three battles and the English raids carried on. In this case, however, the raids did not establish
permanent control for the English and the French eventually won the war.
The Crusades were attempts to take and hold key strong points in the Holy Land from which control
of the area could be maintained. Battles in the Crusades were fought to break the control of one side or
the other. The victory at Hattin in 1187 by the Saracens under Saladin made possible the recapture of

Battle Tactics
Medieval battles evolved slowly from clashes of poorly organized war bands into battles where tactics
and maneuvers were employed. Part of this evolution was in response to the development of different
types of soldiers and weapons and learning how to use these. The early armies of the Dark Ages were
mobs of foot soldiers. With the rise of heavy cavalry, the best armies became mobs of knights. Foot
soldiers were brought along to devastate farmlands and do the heavy work in sieges. In battle,
however, foot soldiers were at risk from both sides as the knights sought to engage their enemies in
single combat. This was mainly true of foot soldiers early in the period who were feudal levies and
untrained peasants. Archers were useful in sieges as well, but also at risk of being rundown on the

By the late 1400's commanders were making better progress in disciplining their knights and getting
their armies to work as a team. In the English army, knights gave their grudging respect to the
longbowmen after the archers demonstrated their value on so many battlefields. Discipline improved
also as more and more knights fought for pay and less for honor and glory. Mercenary soldiers in Italy
became well known for long campaigns during which no appreciable blood was spilt. By that time
soldiers of all ranks were assets not to be discarded lightly. Feudal armies seeking glory evolved into
professional armies more interested in living to spend their pay.
Cavalry Tactics
Cavalry was divided typically into three groups, or divisions, to be sent into battle one after another.
The first wave would either break through or disrupt the enemy so that the second or third wave could
break through. Once the enemy was running, the real killing and capturing could take place.
In practice, knights followed personal agendas to the detriment of any commander's plan. The knights
were interested primarily in honor and glory and jockeyed for positions in the first rank of the first
division. Overall victory on the field was a secondary concern to personal glory. In battle after battle,
the knights charged as soon as they saw the enemy, dissolving any plan.
Commanders dismounted their knights on occasion as a way to better control them. This was a popular
option with the smaller army that had little hope in a contest of charges. Dismounted knights
bolstered the fighting power and morale of common foot troops. The dismounted knights and other
foot soldiers fought from behind stakes or other battlefield constructions designed to minimize the
impact of cavalry charges.
An example of undisciplined behavior by knights was the Battle of Crécy in 1346. The French army
greatly outnumbered the English (40,000 to 10,000), having many more mounted knights. The English
divided into three groups of longbowmen protected by stakes driven into the ground. Between the
three groups were two groups of dismounted knights. A third group of dismounted knights was held in
reserve. Genoese mercenary crossbowmen were sent out by the French king to shoot into the
dismounted English army while he tried to organize his knights into three divisions. The crossbows
had gotten wet, however, and were ineffective. The French knights ignored their king's efforts at
organization as soon as they saw the enemy and worked themselves into a frenzy, shouting, "Kill!
Kill!" over and over. Impatient with the Genoese, the French king ordered his knights forward and
they trampled down the crossbowmen in their way. Although the fighting went on all day, the
dismounted English knights and longbowmen (who had kept their bowstrings dry) defeated the
mounted French who fought as an undisciplined mob.
By the end of the Middle Ages, heavy cavalry had been reduced to roughly equal value on the
battlefield in comparison to missile and foot troops. By this time, the futility of charging well-
emplaced and disciplined infantry was well understood. The rules had changed. Stakes, horse traps,
and trenches were routinely employed by armies to protect against cavalry charges. Charges against
massed ranks of pikemen and archers/gunners left only a pile of broken horses and men. Knights were
forced to fight on foot or wait for the right opportunity to charge. Devastating charges were still
possible, but only when the enemy was in flight, disorganized, or out from behind his temporary
battlefield defenses.
Missile Troop Tactics
For most of this era missile troops were archers using one of several types of bow. At first this was the
short bow, then the crossbow and longbow. Archers had the advantage of being able to kill and wound
enemies at range without joining in hand-to-hand combat. The value of these troops was well known

in ancient times, but the lessons were temporarily lost in the Dark Ages. The land-controlling warrior
knights were supreme in the early Middle Ages and their code demanded hand-to-hand combat with a
worthy enemy. Killing with arrows at a distance was dishonorable to the knights so the ruling class
did little to develop this weapon and use it effectively.
It became apparent gradually, however, that archers were effective and very useful, both in sieges and
in battle. More and more armies made room for them, if grudgingly. The decisive victory of William I
at Hastings in 1066 may have been won by archery, although his knights traditionally get the most
credit. The Anglo-Saxons held a hillside and were so packed into their shield-wall that the Norman
knights had great difficulty penetrating. The fighting flowed back and forth all day. The Anglo-
Saxons ventured out of their shield-wall, partly to get at the Norman archers. When the Anglo-Saxons
came out, they were easily run down. For some time it seemed that the Normans must fail, but many
believe that Norman archery was winning the battle. A lucky shot mortally wounded Harold, the
Anglo-Saxon king, and the battle ended soon thereafter.
Foot archers fought in massed formations of hundreds or even thousands of men. When within a
hundred yards of the enemy, both crossbow and longbow shots could penetrate armor. At this range,
archers shot at individual targets. It was maddening for the enemy to take this damage, especially if
they could not respond. In the ideal situation, the archers disrupted the enemy formation by shooting
into it for some time. The enemy might be safe from cavalry behind stakes, but it could not block all
the arrows or bolts coming in. If the enemy left its protection and charged the archers, friendly heavy
cavalry would respond, hopefully in time to save the archers. If the enemy formation just stood its
ground, it might waver eventually to the point that cavalry could charge effectively.
Archers were actively encouraged and subsidized in England because the English were at a population
disadvantage when waging war on the mainland. When the English learned how to use large
contingents of bowmen, they began winning battles, even though they were usually outnumbered. The
English developed the arrow barrage, taking advantage of the range of the longbow. Instead of firing
at individual targets, the longbowmen fired into the area occupied by the enemy. Firing up to 6 shots a
minute, 3000 longbowmen could put 18,000 arrows into a massed enemy formation. The effect of this
barrage upon horses and men was devastating. French knights in the Hundred Years War spoke of the
sky being black with arrows and of the noise of these missiles in flight.
Crossbowmen became prominent in mainland armies, especially in the militia and professional forces
raised by towns. With a minimum of training, a crossbowmen became an effective soldier.
By the fourteenth century the first primitive handguns were appearing on the battlefield. When these
worked, they were even more powerful than bows.
The difficulty in using archers was protecting them while they shot. To be effective they had to be
fairly close to the enemy. English longbowmen carried stakes onto the battlefield that they pounded
into the ground with mallets in front of the spot from which they wished to shoot. These stakes gave
them some protection from enemy cavalry. They relied on their firepower to fight off enemy archers.
They were at a disadvantage if attacked by enemy foot soldiers. Crossbowmen carried a large pavise
shield into battle. This came with supports and could be set up in walls, from behind which the men
could shoot.
By the end of the era, crossbowmen and pikemen were working together in combined formations. The
pikes kept enemy hand-to-hand troops away while the missile troops (crossbowmen or handgunners)
fired into the enemy formations. These mixed formations learned how to move and actually attack.
Enemy cavalry had to withdraw in the face of a disciplined mixed force of pikemen and

crossbowmen/gunners. If the enemy could not respond with missiles and pikes of their own, the battle
was probably lost.
Infantry Tactics
The tactic of foot soldiers in the Dark Ages was simply to close with the enemy and start chopping.
The Franks threw their axes just before closing to disrupt the enemy. Warriors relied on strength and
ferocity to win.
The rise of knights put infantry into a temporary eclipse on the battlefield, mainly because disciplined
and well-trained infantry did not exist. The foot soldiers of early medieval armies were mainly
peasants who were poorly armed and trained.
The Saxons and Vikings developed a defensive posture called the shield-wall. The men stood adjacent
and held their long shields together to form a barrier. This helped to protect them from archers and
cavalry, both of which their armies lacked.
Infantry underwent a revival in those areas that did not have the resources to field armies of heavy
cavalry-hilly countries like Scotland and Switzerland and in the rising towns. Out of necessity, these
two sectors found ways to field effective armies that contained little or no cavalry. Both groups
discovered that horses would not charge into a barrier of bristling stakes or spear points. A disciplined
force of spearmen could stop the elite heavy cavalry of the richer nations and lords, for a fraction of
the cost of a heavy cavalry force.
The schiltron formation was a circle of spearmen that the Scots began using during their wars for
independence around the end of the thirteenth century (featured in the motion picture Braveheart).
They learned that the schiltron was an effective defensive formation. Robert Bruce offered battle to
the English knights only in swampy terrain that greatly impeded the heavy cavalry charge.
The Swiss became renowned for fighting with pikes. They essentially revived the Greek phalanx and
became very proficient at fighting with the long pole arms. They formed a square of pikemen. The outer
four ranks held their pikes nearly level, pointing slightly down. This was an effective barrier against
cavalry. The rear ranks used bladed pole arms to attack enemies that closed with the formation. The
Swiss drilled to the point that they could move in formation relatively quickly. They turned a defensive
formation into an effective attacking formation also.
The response to massed pikemen was artillery that plowed through the ranks of dense formations. The
Spanish appear to have first done this effectively. The Spanish also fought the pikemen effectively
with sword and buckler men. These were lightly armed men who could get in among the pikes and
fight effectively with short swords. Their buckler was a small and handy shield. At the end of the
Middle Ages, the Spanish also first experimented with the combination of pikemen, swordsmen, and
handgunners in the same formation. This was an effective force that could take on all arms in varying
terrain, on both defense and attack. At the end of this era the Spanish were the most effective fighting
force in Europe.

The Mongols
The nomadic horse peoples of Mongolia assembled the world's largest land empire in a series of military
conquests spread over a few generations, beginning in the twelfth century. In the course of their
conquests, the Mongols fought most of the other world powers of medieval Asia and Europe, winning
in almost every case. Their empire was built entirely on military conquest, thanks to an army that was
unlike any other in the world. They were thought invincible by most of their opponents. Their

campaign into Europe turned back only after a death in the ruling family. The possible claimants to
the throne headed home with their forces and never returned.
The Mongol Army
The Mongols were nomadic herders and hunters who spent their lives in the saddles of their steppe
ponies. They learned to ride and use weapons, especially the composite bow, at an early age. For
hunting and war, every able-bodied male under the age of 60 years was expected to take part. The
armies of the united Mongol tribes consisted of the entire adult male population.
They fought under a strict code of discipline. Booty was held collectively. The penalty was death for
abandoning a comrade in battle. This discipline, together with leadership, intelligence-gathering, and
organization, raised the Mongol force from a cavalry swarm into a true army.
The Mongol army was organized according to a decimal system, with units of 10, 100, 1000, and
10,000 men. These numbers for units were probably rarely approached due to casualties and attrition.
The 10,000-man unit was the major fighting unit, like a modern division, capable of sustained fighting
on its own. Individual soldiers identified most with the 1000-man unit of which they were a part, the
equivalent of a modern regiment. Original Mongol tribes fielded their own 1000-man units. Conquered
peoples, such as the Tatars and Merkits, were broken up and distributed among other units so that
they could pose no organized threat to the ruling family.
Genghis Khan created a personal guard unit of 10,000 men. This unit was recruited across tribal
boundaries and selection was a high honor. In its early stages it served as a form of honorable hostage-
holding. It grew into the family household and the source of the growing empire's ruling class.
Mongol soldiers at first received no pay other than booty. Advancement was based on merit. Once the
rapid conquests slowed, a new system of pay was put in place. Officers were later able to pass on their
posts to heirs.
Each soldier went on campaign with approximately five horses, allowing quick changes and rapid
movements. No comparable armies moved as rapidly as the Mongols until the mechanized armies of the
twentieth century.
The Mongols fought mainly as light cavalry archers (unarmored), using the compound bow. This was a
compact weapon of impressive range and penetration power. They employed Chinese and Middle
Easterners as siege engineers. Infantry, garrison troops, and heavy cavalry (wearing armor) that used
lances came from the armies of subjected peoples.
Mongol Tactics
The Mongol armies relied on firepower, the ability to move quickly, and a reputation for ruthlessness
that came to precede them. All of their opponents moved much more slowly and deliberately. The
Mongols looked for opportunities to divide an enemy force and overwhelm the pieces with rapid
bowshots. They sought to surround or encircle enemies and achieve local superiority of numbers. Horses
of mounted enemies were wounded, dismounting the riders and making them more vulnerable.
The Mongol light cavalry could not stand against a heavy cavalry charge, so they feigned flight to
draw the knights into exhaustive charges that left them vulnerable. The fleeing Mongols turned
rapidly and became the hunter. They excelled in setting ambushes and surprise attacks. Mongol army
leaders made great use of scouts and synchronized force movements to catch the enemy at a

The Mongols made extensive use of terror. If the population of one city was massacred after capture,
the next city was more likely to surrender without a fight. This proved the case, as city after city
surrendered upon the approach of Mongol armies.

Fortifications and earthworks had been employed for defense since the Stone Age. True castles did not
appear in Europe until the ninth century, however, partly in response to Viking raids and partly as a
manifestation of decentralized feudal political power. From the ninth through the fifteenth century,
thousands of castles were constructed throughout Europe. A 1905 census in France counted more than
10,000 castle remains in that nation alone.
During the feudal period, local nobles provided law and order, as well as protection from marauders
like the Vikings. Castles were built by the nobles for protection and to provide a secure base from
which local military forces could operate. The obvious defensive value of a castle obscures the fact that
it was primarily an offensive instrument. It functioned as a base for professional soldiers, mainly
cavalry, which controlled the nearby countryside. At a time when the centralized authority of kings
was weak for a number of reasons, a network of castles and the military forces they supported
provided relative political stability.

The Castellation of Europe

Beginning in the ninth century, local strongmen began dotting the landscape of Europe with castles.
These were first of simple design and construction but evolved into stone strongholds. Many of these
belonged to kings or the vassals of kings, but the majority appears to have been built out of self-
interest by local nobles. They were justified by barbarian threats, but the nobles employed them to
establish local control. This was possible because Europe had no strategic defenses and no strong
central authorities at the time.
An example of the castellation of Europe was the Poitou region of France. There were three castles
there before Viking raids began in the ninth century and 39 by the eleventh century. This pattern was
repeated across Europe. Castles could be built quickly. Until the appearance of cannon, castle
defenders had a great advantage over any attackers.
Widespread castle construction and the maintenance of large bodies of soldiers for their defense
resulted not in peace and mutual defense against invaders but incessant warfare.
The Evolution of the Castle
The earliest castles were of a type called the "motte and bailey". The motte was a broad, leveled mound
of earth, typically 50 feet high. A large wooden tower was built atop the motte. Below the motte was
an enclosure within a wooden palisade called the bailey. Here were placed storehouses, stock pens, and
huts. Both the motte and bailey were small islands surrounded by a water-filled ditch, excavated to
construct the motte. A bridge and steep narrow path connected the two parts of the castle. At a time
of danger, the defensive forces withdrew into the tower if the bailey could not be held.
In the eleventh century, stone began replacing earth and wood in castle construction. The wooden
tower atop the motte was replaced with a round stone fortification called a shell keep. This grew into
a tower or keep. A curtain wall of stone enclosed the old bailey and the keep, and was in turn
surrounded by a ditch or moat. A single fortified gate protected by a drawbridge and portcullis led into
the castle. The best-known example of a basic keep-type castle is the original Tower of London, built
by William the Conqueror. This large square structure stood by itself at first and was whitewashed to
draw attention. Later kings improved this castle with the curtain walls and other improvements seen

Castle design advanced when crusaders to the East returned with news of the fortifications and siege
engines they had encountered in their travels. Concentric castles were designed that enclosed a central
keep within two or more rings of walls. Walls were strengthened first with square towers and then
with round towers. The angled corners on square towers were easy to shear off, making the whole
tower very vulnerable. Round towers were more resistant to attack. Embattlements were added at the
top of walls and towers to make fighting from above more effective.
Cannon appeared in Europe in the early fourteenth century, but effective siege artillery was not used
until the middle fifteenth century. Castle designs changed in response to the power of cannon. High
perpendicular walls were replaced by low sloping walls. By the middle of the fifteenth century castles
were in decline because of the rising power of kings. In the eleventh century William the Conqueror
claimed ownership of all castles in England to get them out of the hands of nobles. By the thirteenth
century it was necessary to ask a king's permission to build a castle or strengthen an existing one.
Kings worked to demilitarize castles to minimize their usefulness to potential rebels.
Castles were abandoned as living quarters for nobles and fell into ruin. Fortified towns were
increasingly important because the wealth of the land had shifted to the cities.
Castle Construction
Construction of a castle might take less than a year or up to 20 years to complete. For several centuries
castle-building was an important industry. Renowned master masons were in high demand and gangs
of castle builders moved from site to site. Towns wishing to build cathedrals had to compete for skilled
workers with lords wishing to build castles.
Construction of Beaumaris Castle in North Wales began in 1295. The design was symmetrical, with
no weak points. At the height of its building, it required the effort of 30 blacksmiths, 400 masons, and
2000 laborers. Laborers did most of the excavation, carrying, lifting, well-digging, and stone-breaking.
This particular castle was never completed. The massive castle at Conway, built in Wales by Edward I
of England, took 40 months to build.
Castle walls were masonry shells filled with stone rubble and flint mixed with mortar. Wall width
ranged from 6 to 16 feet.

Castle Defense
The basic principal of castle defense was to maximize the danger and exposure of any attackers while
minimizing the same for defenders. A well-designed castle could be defended effectively by a small
force and hold out for a long period. A stout defense allowed well-supplied defenders to hold out until
the besiegers could be driven away by a relief force or until the attacker was forced to fall back by lack
of supplies, disease, or losses.
The keep was a small castle often found within a large castle complex. This was a fortified building
that often served as the castle lord's residence. If the outer walls fell, the defenders could withdraw
into the keep for a final defense. In the case of many castles, the complex began with the keep, which
was the original fortification on the site. Over time, the complex might have been expanded to include
an outer wall and towers as a first line of defense for the keep.
Stone walls were fireproof and protection against arrows and other missiles. An enemy could not climb
sheer walls without equipment such as ladders or siege towers. Defenders on top of the walls could

shoot down or throw objects down against attackers. Attackers wholly exposed in the open and
shooting up were at a great disadvantage against defenders largely protected and shooting down. The
strength and protection value of castle walls was increased where possible by building on cliffs or
other elevations. Gates and doors in castle walls were minimized and given heavy protection.
At the corners of and perhaps at intervals along a long wall, towers were placed as strong points.
Towers extended out beyond the vertical plane of the wall face, allowing defenders in a tower to shoot
along the face. From a corner tower, defenders could shoot along two different wall faces. A gate
might be protected by towers on each side. Some castles began as simple towers and evolved into a
greater complex of walls, an inner keep, and additional towers.
Walls and towers were often improved to provide greater protection for defenders. A platform behind
the top of the wall allowed defenders to stand and fight. Gaps were built into the upper wall so
defenders could shoot out or fight while partially covered. These gaps might have wooden shutters for
additional protection. Thin firing slits might be placed in the upper walls from which archers could
shoot while almost completely protected.
During an assault, covered wooden platforms (called hourds) were extended out from the top of the
walls or from towers. These allowed defenders to shoot directly down on enemies below the walls, or
drop stones or boiling liquids on them, while being protected. Hides on top of the hourds were kept wet
to prevent fire. Stone versions of hourds, called machicolations, might be built over gates or other key
Ditches, Moats, and Drawbridges
To accentuate the height advantage of the walls, a ditch might be dug at their base, completely around
the castle. Where possible, this ditch was filled with water to form a moat. Both ditches and moats
made direct assaults against walls more difficult. Armored men risked drowning if they fell into even
relatively shallow water. Moats made undermining a castle's walls difficult because of the risk of the
mine collapsing during construction and drowning the miners. In some cases, attackers had to first
drain the moat before moving forward with an assault. Then the ditch had to be filled in places to
allow siege towers or ladders to go up against the wall.
Drawbridges across a moat or ditch allowed the castle occupants to come and go when necessary. In
time of danger, the drawbridge was raised, reestablishing the ditch and sealing the walls. Bridges were
raised by a mechanism within the castle that was protected from the attackers.
A portcullis was a strong grating that slid down the walls of the castle gate passageway to block the
entrance. The gate of a castle was inside a gatehouse, which was a strong point in the castle defense.
The passageway of the gate might be through a tunnel in the gatehouse. The tunnel was blocked by
one or more portcullises, in the middle or at the ends. The winding mechanism that raised the portcullis
was in the top of the gatehouse and heavily guarded. The portcullis itself was usually a grating of
heavy timbers or iron. Defenders and attackers could both shoot or stab through the grating.
A strong castle had both an outer gate and inner gate. Between the two was an open area called the
barbican. This was surrounded by walls and designed to be a trap for any attackers who got through

the outside gate. Once inside the barbican, attackers could only go back out the outer gate or fight
their way through the inner gate. In the meantime they would be targets for arrows and other missiles
in the open.
A relatively small number of men could guard a castle in peacetime. At night any drawbridge was
raised and the portcullis was lowered, effectively locking the door. Under threat of an assault, a much
larger force was needed to defend a castle.
Competent archers and crossbowmen were needed to shoot from the walls and towers at attackers
making an assault or just preparing for one by attempting to drain the moat or fill the ditch. Each
attacking casualty lowered the morale and fighting power of the attackers. Heavy losses from missile
fire could cause the attackers to break off.
If the attackers managed to actually close for hand-to-hand fighting, a strong fighting force of
swordsmen was needed to hold them off. Men were needed to throw down rocks or pour hot liquids
from the hourds. Men were needed to make repairs to damaged wall sections or put out fires started by
flaming missiles. An aggressive defense looked for opportunities to sortie out from the castle and raid
the besieging army. A quick raid that burned a siege tower or trebuchet under construction delayed an
assault and lowered the morale of the attackers.
In times of emergency, local peasants were enlisted to help with the defense. Although untrained as
soldiers and not skilled usually with the bow or sword, they could help with many of the other tasks.

Capturing Castles
Capturing or defending strongholds was a common military activity during the late Middle Ages
because of the proliferation of castles and fortified towns and their strategic importance. Although a
small force could hold a castle, it took a large force to take one. The attacker had to have a sufficiently
large army to control the countryside around a castle, fight off any relieving force, and assault the
stronghold directly or at least hold the siege tight. This was an expensive proposition.
As an army approached the castle, the locals usually withdrew inside, taking anything of value with
them, especially food and weapons. If the siege was expected to be a long one, however, peasants not
capable of fighting might be refused entrance to conserve food. There were many recorded instances of
people being thrown out of towns under siege to preserve food. When English king Henry V besieged
the city of Rouen, the defenders expelled the weak and the poor to conserve food. The English refused
to allow these unfortunates through their lines. Old men, women, and children huddled between the
city and the English army for months, scrabbling for scraps and dying of starvation, until surrender
was negotiated.
As an army approached, the possibility of surrender and terms might be negotiated immediately,
especially if the castle or town was undermanned. The attackers weighed carefully the chance of
assaulting the stronghold if negotiations failed. If a quick assault was thrown back or was judged too
risky, the attackers sealed off the castle and began a siege. Once siege artillery had fired at the city, the
siege was officially underway. To withdraw without good reason was dishonorable and unacceptable
in most cases.
A large siege was something like a social event. The fifteenth-century siege of Neuss lasted only a few
months, but the attackers built up a large camp that included taverns and tennis courts. Nobles taking
part in sieges made themselves comfortable, often bringing along wives and their households.
Merchants and craftsmen from neighboring towns rushed forward to set up shop and provide services.

Siege Formalities
The reality of warfare during this period was that castles and towns were very rarely captured by
assault. Assaults were usually an act of desperation or made much easier by acts of treachery or
stealth. Unless the garrison was greatly under strength, it was just too costly in lives to assault. It
was much more typical to orchestrate a siege according to the prevailing rules of warfare and honor
and take the castle with relatively little loss. It would be treason for the defenders to surrender
without a fight so the siege was maintained and the castle walls were battered. If the castle's owner
was not inside, his deputy in charge, called a castellan or constable, could surrender the castle with
honor after so many days if no relief force had appeared. Castellans often requested a contract that
specified exactly what were their obligations and under what circumstances they would not be
punished for surrendering.
In those rare instances where surrender was not an option or an option disdained, it was the accepted
policy that little mercy was shown after a successful assault. Common soldiers and even civilians
inside might be massacred and the castle or town was looted. Captured knights were kept alive,
usually, and held for ransom. All attackers received a share of the spoils. Practical application of this
policy was a further inducement for defenders to negotiate surrender after a reasonable period of siege.
King Henry V of England took the city of Caen after a long siege in 1417. He then allowed his army
to sack the city from one end to the other in payment for the defender's stout resistance. Every man in
the city who was not a priest was killed. At his next stop, the castle of Bonneville, the defenders
agreed to surrender the keys after seven days with no relief, even though both sides understood there
was no prospect for relief.
The Krak des Chevaliers was the most famous of the Crusader castles in the Middle East and still
stands impressively in modern Syria. It was defended by the Knights Hospitaller during the era of the
Crusades and withstood over a dozen sieges and attacks over 130 years before falling finally to
Egyptian Arabs in 1271. The story of its capture was unusual but typical in the sense that the
defenders did not fight to the death.
The Arabs disdained an attack on the main gate of the Krak des Chevaliers because breaking through
there led into a series of deadly narrow passages and on to a second, even stronger gate. They attacked
the south wall instead by undermining the great tower at the southwest corner. This got them inside
the outer curtain wall. Before attacking the even stronger central keep, however, they tried a ruse. A
carrier pigeon was sent into the castle with a message from the Hospitaller's grand master, ordering the
garrison to surrender. Outnumbered and with no hope of relief, the defenders accepted the command of
the message, understanding it was a fake, and surrendered the great castle with honor.
The key problem to taking a castle or fortified town was overcoming the walls that prevented entry
and protected the defenders. One solution to this problem was undermining a section of the wall so
that it collapsed. This was only possible before castles had moats or after the moat had been drained.
It was not possible to undermine when the wall was built on solid stone.
The miners dug a tunnel up to the wall and then along it under its foundation. The tunnel was
supported by timber supports that gradually took on the load of the wall overhead from the earth that
was dug out and removed. At a prearranged time, the timbers in the tunnel were set on fire. As the
timbers burned the support for the wall overhead disappeared gradually and a section of the wall
collapsed, if all went as planned. The collapsed wall created an opening for a direct assault by soldiers
into the castle.

Mines were laborious and time-consuming. Defenders who became aware of the tunneling reinforced
the threatened wall with a secondary wall so that the collapse did not completely open the defenses.
Defenders were also known to countermine, digging their own tunnels under the walls trying to
intercept the enemy tunnel. When the tunnels encountered each other, actual fighting broke out
The besieging army set up positions around the castle to prevent escape or sorties by the soldiers inside.
The nearby farms and villages were taken over by the besiegers. Patrols were set to bring notice of any
relieving army approaching and to forage for food. The leaders of the attackers examined the situation
and decided whether to simply besiege the castle or to actively prepare to attack it. If the castle was to
be simply starved into surrender, the attackers concentrated on keeping the defenders caged in and
preventing any relief force from lifting the siege. Choosing how best to attack a castle might involve
any of the following options:
i. Undermining a part of the wall.
ii. Selecting a wall section to breach by battering it with hurled stones or with cannons,
although these were not effective until around 1450, near the end of this period.
iii. Selecting a part of the ditch and moat, if present to fill.
iv. Building siege towers and ladders to scale the walls.
v. Choosing a gate or other section to batter with a ram.
The speed of work on assault preparations was in proportion to the urgency for taking the castle, the
prospects of surrender, and the manpower available. If the attackers had ample supplies of food, no
relief was expected, and the defenders were likely to surrender after their honor had been satisfied,
work on assault preparations might be little more than a show. If the attacker's supplies were short,
relief was expected any day, or the defenders were obstinate, preparations might go forward day and
When preparations were complete, the defenders were given one last chance to surrender before the
Siege Equipment
Siege equipment was used to get past the walls and other defenses of the castle so that the superior
strength of the attacking army could be brought to bear against the defenders at a minimum
disadvantage. Most equipment was designed to knock down or breach the walls. In addition to the
simple scaling ladder, siege equipment most commonly used during the Middle Ages included the
trebuchet, the mangonel, the siege tower, the battering ram, and the pavise.
Once a breach was made or a siege tower put in place, a volunteer force of soldiers led the assault. This
force came to be known as the "forlorn hope”, because of the casualties they were expected to take. But
the successful survivors of this force were usually the most highly rewarded with promotion, titles, and
The trebuchet was a large catapult powered by a heavy counterweight, usually a large box of rocks.
The long throwing arm was pulled down against the mass of the counterweight and a large stone was
loaded. When the arm was released, the heavy weight dropped down, pulling the throwing arm up,
and flinging the large stone missile in a high arcing trajectory. Missiles thrown by this weapon
plunged downward and were best used to smash the tops of towers, embattlements, and hourds. It

was difficult to damage sheer vertical walls with the trebuchet unless the missiles came down right on
top of the wall. The trebuchet was assembled out of bow shot and defended against a possible sortie by
the defenders seeking to burn the weapon. The trebuchet was useful for smashing wooden roofs and
then setting the rubble on fire with incendiary missiles.
The mangonel was a different type of catapult powered by twisted ropes or strips of hide. A ratchet
gear twisted the ropes, building up tension. When released, the ropes spun, flinging the throwing arm
forward. When the arm hit a heavy restraining bar, any missile in the basket at the end of the arm was
thrown forward. The restraining bar could be adjusted to change the trajectory of the missile.
Mangonels had a flat trajectory, in comparison to the trebuchet, but could generate the same power. It
could take a large number of mangonel shots to do any appreciable damage to a wall. However, the
thrown missiles and pieces of the broken wall helped to fill in the ditch, creating rubble pile which
attackers could climb.
Siege towers were moved close to the walls and then a gangplank was dropped from the tower to the
top of the wall. Soldiers in the tower could then advance across the gangplank and engage the
defenders in hand-to-hand combat. Such a tower was often huge. It had to be protected with wet
hides to prevent being burned. It was ponderous to move because of its weight. It had to be either
pushed forward or pulled forward against pulleys previously mounted on stakes near the base of the
castle wall. The ground had to be prepared ahead of time, usually with a roadway of flat wooden
planking on heavily packed earth to ease the tower's movement. A fighting area on top of the tower let
archers shoot down into the castle as the tower approached. Soldiers mounted the stairs inside the
tower once it was close. Assaults from a siege tower were never a surprise to the defender because so
much preparation had to be done. The defenders took steps to build up the threatened part of the wall
or prevent the gangplank from dropping. They attempted to grapple the tower as it approached and
pull it onto its side. Up to the last moment of the assault, siege engines would fire on the target
section of wall to disrupt the defender's preparations to receive the assault. If the first group of
attackers from the tower got over, a steady stream of men would follow over the gangplank to
complete the capture of the castle.
A battering ram had a large pole with an iron head that was slung inside a moveable housing and
rolled up to a wall section or gate. Once up to the wall, the pole was swung back and forth against the
wall. The force of the blows broke through the wooden planking of the door or stone wall, creating an
opening for attack. The roof of the ram was covered with wet hides to prevent burning. Operating
battering was dangerous work. Enemies above dropped large rocks, boiling water, or burning fat on
the ram, attempting to destroy it or kill the men operating it. Even when a gate or drawbridge was
smashed, there were usually several portcullises and the gatehouse to be fought through. At the siege of
Tyre during the winter of 1111-1112, the defending Arabs came up with an ingenious defense against
the ram. They threw down gappling hooks, grabbed the ram, and pulled it away from the wall. Time
after time they were able to disrupt the use of the ram.
Attacking archers and crossbowmen took shelter on the ground behind large wooden shields called
pavises. A narrow firing slit at the top of the pavise allowed the man behind to shoot up at the
defenders. England's King Richard I, the Lionheart, received a mortal shoulder wound from a
crossbow bolt when looking around the side of a pavise.

The Advent of Gunpowder
The Chinese had gunpowder by the eleventh century and made some military use of it to propel rockets.
These were more weapons of terror than useful missile weapons, however. The Chinese also
experimented with fireworks. They did not realize the potential of gunpowder as an explosive or
propellant for missile weapons.
Gunpowder gradually worked its way to the west where Europeans found much more destructive uses
for it. The oldest surviving artwork from Europe that portrays a gunpowder weapon appeared in
1326. This primitive cannon was loaded with a spear of some sort, not a cannonball. Europeans had
been experimenting with gunpowder for the previous half-century. The oldest surviving description of
the formula for gunpowder appeared in 1260 and was attributed to an English friar named Roger
Bacon. By 1340 cannonballs of lead, iron, and stone were being used. The English had cannons on the
battlefield at Crécy in 1346, but there is no mention in the battle accounts of their usefulness.

It took several centuries of experimentation before gunpowder weapons became truly useful. One
difficulty was developing gunpowder that ignited quickly, uniformly, and powerfully. Another was
designing suitable cannons that would not burst. Poor manufacturing techniques plagued early
cannons, and it was almost as dangerous to serve them as to be shot at by them. King James II of
Scotland, for example, was killed by an exploding cannon in 1460.
Cannon and gunpowder technologies were sufficiently advanced by the middle of the fifteenth century
that they were recognized as important weapons. This was made clear in 1453 when huge siege
bombards firing massive stone cannonballs battered the walls of Constantinople. Although the
proximate cause of the fall of Constantinople was a small gate being left open, the bombardment
would have eventually made a direct assault possible.
Cannons of the Middle Ages were used in sieges to batter walls and on battlefields to fire into massed
ranks of the enemy. Their ability to batter sheer vertical walls led to refinements in castle-building.
Low sloping walls replaced high vertical walls. The usefulness of cannon on the battlefield was
limited during this period because the cannons were so ponderous. It was difficult to move them into
new positions during the action.

Illustrations of various types of handguns appeared around 1350. These were primitive weapons
consisting of a hollow tube blocked at one end and a hole in the side near the blocked end for igniting
the powder. A slow-burning cord was placed in the hole to ignite the powder and fire the ball
previously loaded down the barrel. There was little use in attempting to aim the early handguns. They
were effective only when fired in volleys by many men at massed targets. By 1450 handguns were
being used by most of the advanced European armies. Bows and crossbows continued in use as
infantry missile weapons through the sixteenth century, however, because they were still inexpensive
and effective.

Naval Warfare
The need for warships in the Mediterranean Sea largely faded after the Romans gained complete
control of the surrounding lands. There was no other empire with a navy to offer competition, and
piracy was all but eliminated. Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, new civilizations
sprang up from the ruins of the empire and piracy reappeared. Warships were needed again to defend
against invasion, project military power, and protect sea trade routes.

Byzantine Ships
The Byzantines were the great Mediterranean naval power of the early Middle Ages. Naval power
was critical to their survival and to their extended empire. The land defenses of Constantinople were
excellent and made outright assault of the city very difficult, but the city had to keep its sea supply
open to prevent a successful siege. So long as the navy could bring in supplies, the city was assured of
The main Byzantine warship of the early Middle Ages was the dromen, an evolution of the ancient
oared warships, such as the trireme. A typical dromen was long and narrow for speed. Power was
supplied by 50 to 200 rowers and lateen sails. A mast was placed in the middle of the front half and
rear half of the ship. The dromen carried a beak at the bow for pinning enemy vessels prior to boarding.
Rams were rarely seen. Platforms were built in the center, bow, and stern. From these platforms
archers and catapults could fire at enemy ships and crews. A typical battle involved attempts to ram or
disable enemy ships, then grappling and boarding by marines.
The Byzantines effectively used a secret weapon called Greek fire. This was a mixture of chemicals
that burned fiercely upon contact with air. It was pumped out of hoses against enemy ships or thrown
in bombs. It was a devastating weapon against wooden ships and decisive for the Byzantines in their
naval battles against the Arabs. The secret of Greek fire was so important and so closely guarded that
it was eventually lost and we do not know today exactly what it was.

Mediterranean Ships
Oar-powered warships, called galleys, remained the principal warships of the Mediterranean beyond
the end of the Middle Ages because the waters were relatively protected from fierce gales. At the same
time, the Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice gradually became naval powers in proportion to the
increasing importance of their trade with the Levant. The Arabs also built navies to influence trade
and support their conflict with the Byzantines and other Christians for control of the Mediterranean.
The beginning of the Crusades in the eleventh century brought ships from Northern Europe that had
evolved very different designs.

European Ships
The Germanic tribes that occupied Northern Europe around 500 AD developed several new ship types.
The typical trading ship was wide-bodied and of deep draft. It mounted a single mast at first and later
more as it grew in size. The Norse called this type of ship a knarr. We know a lot about this ship
today because one was recovered from the bottom of a harbor in Denmark in the 1960s. Much of the
trade and exploration of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings was carried on in this type of ship. It evolved
into the cog, the principal merchant ship of the later Middle Ages. This deep-draft ship was designed
for easy sailing and high cargo capacity.

Ship fighting in northern Europe was mainly an extension of land combat. Towers were built on the
bow and stern of the cog for protection and as firing platforms for archers. Crews fired at each other
with arrows as they closed, but the intent was only to disable enemy crewmen and soldiers. Ships came
together and attempted to capture each other in hand-to-hand combat. Sailing ships in these waters
had no ability to ram. There was no weapon with which to do great structural damage to another ship
or sink it until cannon appeared in the fourteenth century. Some 400 English and French cog-type
warships carrying large contingents of archers and foot soldiers engaged in a naval battle at Sluys in
1340 typical of the later Middle Ages. They simply jammed together for archery fire and close combat.
The first cannon were mounted in the bow or stern of ships. Small cannon mounted on the side rails
were used against enemy crews. The English ship Christopher of the Tower of 1406 was the first built
purposely to carry guns. Ships began to mount broadsides of cannon with the ability to puncture
enemy hulls only at the very end of the Middle Ages.
The Viking longship was more of a transport than a warship. Vikings rarely fought from their
longships. When they did, there are reports of boats being lashed together to provide a platform for
hand-to-hand fighting. The longship was powered by oars until the eighth or ninth century when sails
appear to have been added. Although they looked fragile and unlikely vessels for ocean travel, modern
replicas proved to be very seaworthy. The additional range provided by sails explains partially why the
Vikings began reaching out to raid in the ninth century.
The Irish curragh was a small boat used mainly for coastal trading and travel but capable of deep
ocean sailing also. This boat was built of animal hides stretched over a wooden frame. The hide skin
was sealed with pitch for waterproofing. These incredibly light boats were powered with a small sail
or could be rowed. In rough weather the hide covering could be closed to make the boat watertight and
relatively unsinkable. Irish monks explored the North Atlantic in these boats and reached Iceland long
before the Vikings. There are unsubstantiated tales that monks sailed to the New World as well.
The Crusades brought northern ships into the Mediterranean and contact between the sailors and
shipbuilders of north and south. The southerners began adopting features of the cog, including its big
hull and square sail. The northerners learned about the compass, stern rudder, and lateen sail.

Chinese Ships
The greatest shipbuilders of the Middle Ages were probably the Chinese. The familiar Chinese junk was
a better ship than anything available in the West for many centuries. It was an excellent combination
of cargo space, sailing ability, and seaworthiness. In 1405, Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho built a huge
navy manned by 25,000 men and explored much of the Southwest Pacific and Indian Oceans. The
rulers of China disdained this feat and its discoveries. The greatest ships in the world at the time were
beached and allowed to rot.