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Saturday, 7 May 2011

Warfare and society in the early medieval West

[This is the text of a general lecture that I gave at the Universitad del Pais Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea in Vitoria last Wednesday.  To anyone who knows anything about the subject, I cannot promise anything new or surprising; to anyone else I hope it might be a useful sort of introduction and overview.  Essentially, after a brief historiography, I try to relate the practice of warfare to its important role in society and politics.]

One of the most common images in the popular idea of the early middle ages – the dark ages as they are still often called in the UK – is of violence and warfare: in the UK the image of invading barbarians or Vikings, pillaging and plundering Roman Britain or the Christian kingdoms; in this part of the world the constant warfare of Christian and Muslim; the warrior, king or aristocrat, clad in mail and carrying his great sword. It is certainly not my intention in this lecture to argue that this picture is mistaken! Warfare was common in the early Middle Ages, and possibly more common even than our sources suggest. What I want to discuss instead is why this period saw so much warfare, and why this was a not a symptom of mindless barbarism and violence. Warfare played a very important part in early medieval society and politics but because of this it was often limited in scale.

The first point I want to make is to ask – very briefly – how we define warfare, and peace. And how early medieval people did. There were many levels of violence in the early medieval world, and sometime these were quite clearly defined according to the law – or at least the law tried to define them. An eighth-century Anglo-Saxon law famously defines the different activities of thieves, of a ‘band’ and of an army according to the number of men involved. There was a similar attempt to differentiate between private warfare between nobles (which was called werra, from which we get most modern European vernacular words for war) and that of the king – ‘public’ warfare – which was referred to a by the Latin term bellum in Carolingian Francia. Christian penitentials also sometimes differentiated between killing in public warfare and killing done in the course of private disputes.

Mostly, however, the differentiation was fairly blurred between what we might think of war today – official, large-scale conflict between different political units – and the levels of violence below such as border-raiding. A series of treaties exists that were signed between the doges of Venice and the Carolingian rulers of Italy, which makes it clear that there was a constant ‘background noise’ of cattle rustling and other cross-border raiding that the rulers of the two side agreed to try and prevent. It seems that this sort of thing, which an Iberian audience can readily envisage in the usually imagery of Christian/Muslim raiding across the border, went on most of the time and was only stopped (in theory) at exceptional moments. Overall it seems that in the early medieval way of seeing war and peace was the opposite of the modern western way. It was peace that was the exceptional state of affairs that required formal marking through legal activities. Some level of what would now be considered warfare appears to have been a constant across almost all frontiers. Why this should have been the case is something that will concern me later on in my lecture.

There have been a number of traditional ways of seeing early medieval warfare. Probably the oldest, perhaps finding its most famous proponent in the prolific English historian Sir Charles Oman, was to see early medieval warfare as essentially mindless barbaric ravaging, a sorry decline from the scientific warfare of the Romans, only be rectified with the reappearance of military science in the renaissance. That this was not the case has long been established, not least by J.F. Verbruggen, but there are still some problems in the perception of early medieval warfare.

Most of these, I suggest, stem from not taking early medieval warfare on its own terms and trying to force it into a different framework, which it won’t fit. One of the most prolifically maintained, has been the attempt by one American professor to argue for a complete continuity of ‘Vegetian’ Roman warfare, regular armies and the social and economic structures of the early Roman period which maintained them. He has famously argued that early medieval armies numbered many tens of thousands of men, perhaps up to 100,000 men under arms at one time, though not necessarily all in the same army. The fact that the economy of the early middle ages could never have supported such enormous concentrations of manpower – indeed nor could that of the late Roman Empire, or late medieval and early modern states up to at least the eighteenth century – is what has led him more recently to move his arguments onto attempts to maintain that the Roman socio-economic system continued with no break at all into the middle ages, to the ninth century and beyond – in the teeth of decades of sophisticated archaeological work showing the opposite to be the case.

Fortunately, though, these ideas have been little heeded by scholars with any subtle understanding of the period, but they need to be referred to for the simple fact that in quantitative terms they rather dominate recent historical writing on the topic. A rebuttal of the thesis need not take long. There is no written evidence of any sort which documents the survival of any sort of regular, paid ‘standing army’ in the usually understood sense, anywhere in western Europe outside areas controlled by the Byzantine Empire or, later the Umayyad emirate, later Caliphate, of Cordoba. There was serious economic decline in north-western Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries and slightly later in the more southerly, Mediterranean regions. An important period of change, which I will refer to later on in this lecture and which I will be discussing in greater detail in another lecture, tomorrow, broke most of the direct links between the later Merovingian ad Carolingian worlds and the late Roman Empire, so that very few areas of direct continuity can be identified. Even after the economic upturn of the seventh century, in the north-west, the economic and social structures of western Europe could not support large armies. If pressed I should say that, before the ninth century, large armies probably tended to number in the region of 5,000 men. After that forces of 10,000 may have been practical on occasion but one doubts that such forces were maintained as single armies for any length of time. In some areas of Europe – Ireland and northern Britain for example – one would think that armies were smaller throughout the period that concerns me.

At the same time, though, the arguments that numbered early medieval armies in hundreds or even fewer can also be rejected. Mostly these are derived from a misunderstanding of some legal sources. Some raiding forces might have been of this order of size, however. Ultimately, however, the only honest answer would be that we do not know how big early medieval armies were. The point I would like to stress is that the size of armies probably varied not simply according to time and place within the early medieval world but also according to the type of warfare that was being waged. As I will suggest later on, early medieval warfare came in several forms and scales, with their own particular practices.

Similarly, the ‘equal-and-opposite’ argument to the ultra Romanist continuity argument, that this was a period of ‘Germanic’ barbarian warfare, is also to be rejected. This is manifested in extreme form in a recent book by Michael Speidel (otherwise, perhaps ironically, a respected scholar on the imperial Roman army). This is a position that, equally, can only be maintain by a set of very forced and uncritical readings of the material. The debate over Roman versus barbarian clouds the issue. A recent encyclopaedia entry on the subject obscures the issue further rather than elucidating it. It states that, for me, Roman warfare was already ‘barbarian’ before the end of the Roman Empire. This is nonsense; certainly I have never argued that at all, or even seen the debate in these terms.

There was continuity from the late Roman Empire on into the post-imperial world in some important senses, but this was neither a straight prolongation of the late imperial Roman army nor a ‘barbarisation’ of Roman warfare. It is a simple matter of constant and dynamic change. The Roman army evolved in the course of the fifth century, within the frameworks that were established in the fourth century. It continued a process of what we might call ‘barbarisation’ but we must be very careful about what we mean by that term. I have been very careful to clarify that this was an issue of the Roman army adopting what it thought were martial barbarian identities and practices – in opposition to the civic Roman identity appropriated by the now separate civil service – but that these were very much rooted within the traditions of Roman ethnography. They were not genuine features imported wholesale from barbaricum. The actual practice of warfare did not change very noticeably.

We can detect an evolution, during the fifth century, from the regular Roman army of the fourth century into the ‘ethnic’ armies of the fifth and sixth centuries, but this is not to be understood as the impact of tribal barbarian societies on the western Empire. Service in the later fourth-century Roman army was inherited from father to son – a hereditary occupation – at least in theory. The Roman army had its own separate legal jurisdiction. I have just said that it had adopted a number of what it considered to be barbarian customs, costumes and identities. Many regiments bore the name of barbarian groups but they were quickly recruited from all sorts of people. A sixth-century Egyptian papyrus records a violent ‘police action’ by a group of ‘Franks’ billeted in the area. These ‘Franks’ are very unlikely indeed to have been actual Frankish recruits from Gaul; what is much more likely to have been the case is that they were members of the regiment of ‘Franks’ stationed in Egypt since about 300 AD. More than two centuries later these, by now solidly Egyptian troops still called themselves ‘Franks’. This is a very important case study. At the very end of the fourth century, furthermore, the Empire began to pay its troops (and civil servants) through the ‘delegation’ (delegatio) of tax revenue to the army. In other words, tax payers paid a section of their tax directly to designated soldiers. Whether tis was done on an individual or a regimental basis is unclear. In some circumstances these delegationes could be inherited by a soldier’s heirs. This came hand in hand with a certain tax exemption, which also applied to certain lands owned by soldiers, not least the lands they were given on discharge, often drawn from the agri deserti (deserted fields), for which no tax-payer was registered.

If you put all of these elements together you get a picture rather like that which we can detect in later fifth and sixth-century sources. By this date, in the west, armies were raised from people of a particular ethnic identity, usually barbarian, probably but not necessarily an inherited status. These warriors had their own laws – the so-called barbarian codes – they held lands which were exempt from taxation. Indeed there seems to have been a separation into ‘barbarian’ soldiers and ‘Roman’ taxpayers that perpetuated the Roman situation. How this situation evolved from the one I just described is not difficult to understand in the political situation of the fifth century wherein different regional factions competed for authority but rarely controlled enough territory to be able to raise large sums in tax or recruit large armies, and thus relied ever more on recruits drawn from ‘barbarian’ groups – although it is worth remembering that most of these barbarians had been born and had grown up inside the Roman Empire. Talking about all this as an issue of Roman continuity or new barbarian methods entirely – as I see it – misses the point. This was neither the take-over of western Europe by immigrant barbarian military societies with new social and military practices and nor was it – evidently – a simple continuation of the Roman regular army. It was an evolution that took place within the particular, distinct circumstances of the fifth and sixth centuries.

This general point, about seeing early medieval warfare in its own terms, applies to another common view of the period, which would understands it by extending the observed features of central and later medieval warfare backwards into our era. Thus it is sometimes said that battles were rare in this period. They were risky and therefore they were not generally sought. Instead sieges were the most important feature of warfare. This is, as far as I can see, a reasonable description of warfare in the age of castles and knights, from the eleventh century, perhaps the tenth, through to the end of the Middle Ages, but, as I will argue later, it is quite mistaken for the period between the sixth century and the ninth.

The final historical trend that I want to mention is that which sees the early medieval; ‘barbarian west’ as an ‘heroic age’. In Britain this is a notion most famously associated with Hector Munro Chadwick. Based on certain written sources like the poetry, it is claimed that this era had important things in common with Homeric Greece. To my mind, this misunderstands the nature of these heavily stereotypical sources, which in many cases appear to be harking back to an earlier ‘golden age’ that had in fact never existed, or which created a personalised depiction of warfare from a very impersonal means of fighting. Again, I will return to this point later on.

Role in society and politics
Warfare manifested its social importance particularly strongly in the sphere of kingship. This was not new. Third- and fourth-century Roman emperors had been expected to be competent war-leaders, especially against barbarians. There may have been some input from barbaricum. However, as far as we can detect them, by the end of the fourth century barbarian ideas of rule and power were so saturated with Roman influences that it is impossible to find any distinctive features in the evidence we have, without going back to the writings of Caesar and Tacitus. Barbarian society had, however, changed considerably between the time when they wrote and the late imperial period. The distinctive features of early medieval kingship should be understood, again, as new developments rather than hammered into the categories of either ‘Roman’ or ‘barbarian’. That said, it was very often the case that success or failure in warfare was even more crucial in the early medieval period than during the late Roman Empire. In the history of the Iberian Peninsula, a couple of sixth-century examples will illustrate the point. King Theudis was assassinated after a defeat during an invasion of Byzantine North Africa. King Agila was faced by rebellion and usurpation after an attempt to impose a more effective rule over Cordoba resulted in a defeat for his army. Very often it was a matter of contemporaries’ perception of success and the ability to enact the ideals of kingship that counted, rather than actual military performance as it can be analysed by modern historians. So the military policies of the emperor Charles III, Charles ‘the Fat’, in the ninth century can be seen today as simply continuing the general lines of Carolingian policy towards the Vikings, without very much of a decline in their fortunes. However, Charles failed to live up to what was expected of him, especially in the political circumstances of his reign. This can be seen in the sources for his reign, which are very hostile towards him. At the same time, the count of Paris, Odo, was leading what some contemporaries regarded as an heroic defence of the city against a Viking siege which Charles spectacularly failed to raise. Odo could therefore be presented as doing what a king should have been doing, and Charles as derelict in his royal duty. Within a year or so, as a result, Charles was indeed deposed. The list of early medieval rulers whose power fragmented, often fatally, as a result of defeat in battle is a very long one.

The principal exception to this is the Merovingian dynasty at the height of its power in the second half of the sixth century. Although kings did lead armies on occasion and had frequently served as commanders for their fathers, which might have served to establish their military credentials, reigning monarchs very rarely put themselves at the head of their armed forces. Such was their power and dominance of Frankish politics that they were able to appropriate the credit from the successes of their generals and on the whole avoid the fall-out from their armies’ defeats, which were quite frequent, especially in attempts to invade Visigothic and Lombard territory. This changed at the very end of the sixth century, when Merovingian monarchs began once again to lead their armies in person.

One reason why this might have been the case concerns the relationships between the Merovingian kings and their aristocracy. In the decades around 600 the Frankish aristocracy in the north of Gaul appears to have consolidated and strengthened its local power in ways that made it much less dependent upon royal favour and patronage, making it less of a service aristocracy. One outcome of this, and something I will be talking more about tomorrow, was that the army appears to have started to be much more of a conglomeration of aristocratic revenues than a force raised on royal orders by royal officers. In this context it is perhaps to be expected that Frankish kings needed once again to demonstrate their military credentials.

This raises the point that military service had become essential for involvement in politics. One of the Frankish kings who led his armies personally in this period – indeed he even seems to have accompanied his army on a campaign to Italy when he was thirteen – was Childebert II of Austrasia. Childebert issued three edicts during his reign, or at least three that survive. All are dated on 1 March. That was the date of the Marchfield, the annual assembly of the army – in itself a sort of continuation of the Roman campus martius. It was not the only time that Frankish armies were called out or assembled – far from it – but it does seem to have acquired a particular political importance. In the sixth century, assemblies like this were used by kings, not just in Francia, to bestow gifts, reward and recognise good service, punish bad service, redistribute their patronage and expose their troops to royal ideology. What Childebert’s decrees make clear is that these assemblies were used for the promulgation of laws, and the perhaps merely ritual obtaining of the consensus of the powerful magnates of the realm. We can trace this right across the early medieval world. When the Lombard kings – in my reading at any rate – established a more effective royal control over their kingdom at the end of the seventh century and in the early eighth, they too issued their laws on 1 March at assemblies of their magnates and freemen – whom, significantly, they called arimanni or exercitales – ‘army-men’.

By the Carolingian period, the idea of the ruler obtaining the consent of his magnates had become even more important and many royal decisions, grants, laws were issued in the presence of the kingdom’s nobility. A charter of the Anglo-Saxon king Ecgberht, although of dubious authenticity, claims to have been issued when the king marched against the Britons, in 825. An Italian law of 863 specifies the duties of all free men as military service, maintenance of bridges and attendance at the law-courts. The connection between armed service and the law is often made clear in Italy, where a piece of Lombard legislation requires the freemen who come to court to attend with spear, shield and horse.

With all this said, it should not be surprising that the principal characteristic of the early medieval secular aristocrat were, from the seventh century onwards, almost exclusively military. In the Roma period, of course, there had been different forms of service, civic and military. In the early Empire, civil servants could hold military command, as when provincial governors led the troops within their jurisdictions, so the two forms of service could be fused. From the fourth century onwards, though the process doubtless began under the less well documented third-century emperors, the two forms of imperial service began to be clearly distinguished. Certain levels of Roman aristocratic society were banned from military command, civic administrative units became separate from military ones – often the two did not directly overlap. I have already mentioned that one outcome of this was the concentration of traditional ideas of Roman civic masculinity within the civil bureaucracy whereas the army adopted its own consciously non-Roman identities. Nonetheless the two career paths shared many things in common and both had the same, parallel levels of reward in prestige and privilege. It was during the fifth and sixth centuries that the martial model, the one associated with barbarian identity, came to be dominant so that aristocrats with the martial, barbarian ethnicity were, in Frankish Gaul, valued at twice the wergild as their civic ‘Roman’ counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, by the seventh century, the martial model had come to dominate the situation completely. Generally, civic forms of service had disappeared or the military officials had come to take over formerly civic responsibilities within their jurisdictions. The principal, soon the only, exception to this, was the Church, which perhaps not coincidentally, became the repository of many of the Roman ideas of civic virtue, such as moderation, the control of the emotions and so on. And yet it is clear that some, perhaps many, Churchmen in the early part of my period found this exclusion from military activity something of a problem. By the eighth and ninth century, as is well-known, churchmen were regularly to be found within the armies of Carolingian kings and their contemporaries, leading contingents raised from their estates and often armed and participating in battles. Lupus of Ferrères, a ninth-century abbot, complained that he wasn’t very good with sword and shield, but it seems clear that he was nevertheless expected to be able to wield them if need be.

The right to participate in warfare was very important in defining a number of social identities in the early medieval West – not just royal and aristocratic. One reason for this was that warfare was a very specific form of violence and weapon-bearing. Anecdotal evidence from the early medieval West suggests that all sorts of people could or, in practice, did take part in low levels of violence – kidnappings, attacks, revenge-killings and so on. When weaponry was used as a symbol of identity, therefore, it is not simply the right to carry weapons that is at stake. It is the right to bear weapons in a particular context, that of warfare and the army. This was possible because the raising of armies was a deliberate and formal process, with clear points at which the selection of who could and who could not attend the muster. This remained true throughout the period, whether one is discussing the levying of all the Franks within a Gallic civitas in the sixth century, or the raising of land-owners according to the system of adiutorium in the ninth. The right to fight (and therefore to take part in high politics) was always a highly regulated process, and it is this, rather than their cost in labour and materials, that probably explains why weapons are so valuable in sources like the seventh-century Lex Ribvaria.

Several other dimensions of identity were linked to this deliberate process of selection. The first - ethnicity - has been touched upon already. In the fifth and sixth centuries, as I have mentioned, one of the means by which one proclaimed and maintained a claimed ‘barbarian identity – Frankish in Gaul, Gothic in Italy or Spain, probably Lombard in Italy – was through performance of military service in the army. One process that went hand in hand with the spread of this politico-military ethnicity was the gradual disappearance of a high-status civic aristocracy, and the reduction in many parts of Europe, of ‘Romans’ to a level of semi-free second-class citizens. By the seventh century the secular aristocracy, and indeed the bulk of the free population, in northern Gaul were all ‘Franks’, just as they had become Goths in Spain, Lombards in Italy and, for the most part, Angles or Saxons in lowland Britain.

Probably the most significant areas where this general rule was not the case was in the south-west of Gaul, in Aquitaine, where actual Frankish settlement was limited and where a high-status, prestigious Roman identity remained, even though this had become as martial as aristocratic identity anywhere else. In this part of the world it seems that military service was related to land-holding from an early date. What is interesting, and perhaps especially to an audience in Vittoria, is that in the later seventh century the ties which bound Frankish polity loosened importantly so that the south, like some other parts of Merovingian hegemony, became semi-detached from the northern core of the realm. It acquired its own line of dukes, well known from the history of the eighth century, and these ended up involved in a long armed struggle against the northern Pippinid or Carolingian mayors of the Palace, eventually kings of the Franks. It is in the course of this struggle that one sees the spread of the term Vasconia eventually to become Gascony – the land of the Vascones or Basques – to describe Aquitaine, not just the land south of the Garonne. In my interpretation, what this means is a process similar to that which had happened in the north a couple of centuries previously. Military conflicts between the Merovingians and the Basques of the Pyrenees are attested in the sixth century and of course these remained fairly common right through the period that concerns me, up to the second great Frankish defeat at Roncesvalles in the 820s. In the late seventh and eighth centuries, rather than an actual spread of settlement and political domination in those terms, what seems to me to have been the case was that the Basques had come to form the most valuable elements, the cutting edge, of Aquitanian armies. As a result of that a Basque identity became important in politics, just as Frankish identity had done in the sixth-century north. In the wars against Charles Martel and his successors, this Basque identity was especially important in providing an alternative to the Frankishness of the northerners. Had Eudo and Waifar won their wars perhaps the south-west of France would permanently have become Vasconia - ‘Basque-land’ - into the late Middle Ages and beyond. As it was, the victory of the Franks ended this development, and the Carolingians promoted a regional Aquitanian identity instead.

Masculinity itself to some extent was bound up with military service, at least among certain groups, be these defined by wealth and/or birth, such as the aristocracy or groups based on ethnic identity. The masculine symbols par excellence in many of the furnished cemeteries of the early part of my period are weapons, as will be discussed in other lectures this week. It’s worth stating that these weapons are not mere symbols. Although they are full of symbolism, that symbolism is linked to a very direct and contemporary military resonance. As I have said, more than once, the sword worn by an early medieval aristocrat, depicted on wall-paintings, placed in burials and so on, is not the ceremonial sword of the British Knights of the Garter – a symbol of status and of a past history – but much more like the AK47 brandished by the rebel or the warlord in all troubled parts of the world. These were efficient killing instruments in which was invested a great deal of wealth and technology. In the secular world, as I have mentioned, such was the dominance of the martial model that not bearing weapons seems to have posed problems for other groups in society. In the early part of my period, the church repeatedly had to legislate against clerics bearing weapons. Presumably such individuals, churchmen or not, celibate or not, regarded themselves as somehow lesser men if they could not carry a sword. And, again as mentioned, by the eighth century, ecclesiastics had made their way into the ranks of the warriors.

The last identity that I want to discuss that is related to the performance of military service – again it cross-cuts those I have already mentioned (masculinity, class and ethnicity) – is that of age. One of the more interesting revelations of the study of sixth-century furnished cemeteries over the last couple of decades has been the ways in which age plays a role in determining the grave-goods placed with the dead. This varies greatly from region to region. In Frankish northern Gaul male children and adolescents were very rarely buried with weapons. The only exceptions to this rule are prestigious burials, whether on a local level or a national one, as with the famous ‘prince’ from Cologne. Only at the age of about twenty are males generally buried with weapons. This is interesting as superficially it contradicts the written evidence, which seems to refer to adolescents involved in violent and even military activities, and, on the other hand, marriage took place later for men. What might be at stake is a point at which a fully gendered identity is acquired – perhaps a full ethnic identity – after some years of apprenticeship. It might be that married heads of households were those buried with the fullest sets of weapons. This is certainly the case amongst the Alamans of south-western Germany. Differences can be noticed among the Anglo-Saxons, where male children are buried with spears, but there shields are also only acquired at about twenty and full weapon sets seem to gravitate towards mature adult males. This suggests interesting possibilities about how military service was moderated by age as well as the other dimensions of social organisation.

Strategy and Tactics
The more practical elements of military history – strategy and tactics – were heavily influenced by the social and political factors just discussed. Here we can return to one of the points I made at the start, that early medieval warfare must be understood in its own terms. It cannot be understood by assuming that the features of warfare that we can see when we start to get detailed information on the subject in the central middle ages also applied earlier on. Differences in the survival of evidence are often themselves brought about by changes in society and politics or by changes in mentalities. They cannot be explained entirely by chance. This makes it questionable to assume that a standard medieval set of characteristics defined warfare between the end of the western Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance.

Something which has been argued to define medieval warfare is a lack of battles and a plethora of sieges. Battles were risky, as early medieval people knew. That much is true. In the central and later Middle Ages we can see that battles were not risked very often. Knights often took themselves to their castles, where they might withstand a siege. This, however, does not seem to have been the early medieval pattern, up to around the end of the ninth century at least. Examination of historical sources reveals that battles were relatively frequent. Seventh-century English history, for example, is littered with battles. No fewer than twenty-two are named in the sources. And, however big or small they were by comparison with warfare in other times and places, these were politically important events. Twelve of them are mentioned as producing the death of at least one king or other important leader.

Why did early medieval commanders commit themselves and their armies to the lottery of battle so frequently? Partly the answer lies in the broader social and economic context of the period. By comparison with the Roman period, or the central and later Middle Ages, much of the early medieval era in western Europe was not a time of economic prosperity. This is especially true of the fifth and sixth centuries in the northern half of the area under study, whereas economic decline set in slightly later in southern Gaul, Spain and Italy, during the seventh century. Even when the economy began to expand, as it did in the north from the end of the sixth or start of the seventh century, trade was conducted on a smaller scale than in the ancient period and towns, such as there were, were small. Study of the economy and the settlement pattern does not suggest that great amounts of booty were to be had through the sacking or plundering of regions, even in the economically most prosperous regions. This might be one region why fortification and siege warfare remained fairly undeveloped during most of my period. There was, simply enough, little to be defended and little to be gained through costly assaults. By contrast, it is clear that especially in the earlier parts of the era that interests me, people wore their wealth. Swords, scabbards, armour and helmets were ornately gilded and decorated. The Staffordshire Hoard, unearthed in the UK about two years ago, has recently shown this especially clearly. Warriors’ clothing, too, one imagines, demonstrated their wealth and prestige. The horses on which more or less all early medieval armies travelled, and from which most could fight too, at least on occasion, were expensive items as well. Across the period between the fifth century and the ninth, the price of horses remained fairly stable at about ten solidi, though sometimes the best steeds fetched twice this amount, or more. What this really meant is difficult to judge, given that the solidus was usually a unit of account rather than an actual coin, but people exchanged reasonably-sized parcels of land for horses. In addition, kings went on campaign with their treasuries, expensive tents and so on. Thus the best way to acquire the treasure that was essential to oil the cogs of early medieval politics was to find and defeat the enemy army in open battle. The relative wealth of settlements and of warriors, and the level of fortification of the former, is obviously the opposite of that which existed from the ninth century, and especially from the tenth century, onwards. Thus, I would argue, it is not very surprising that the relative importance of battle and sieges was the reverse too.

The other reason for the frequency of battle is to be found in the importance that warfare had in the establishment and maintenance of social and political identities, discussed in my previous section. With warfare the underpinning of so many important dimensions of social organisation, from kingship down, not simply the assembly of the army and departure on campaign but actual fighting. The way in which these things weighed heavily on early medieval commanders can be demonstrated by an early eighth-century Italian example. A Lombard army was confronted by a Slavic army which had fortified its camp at the top of a steep hill. A conversation between two of the Lombard leaders led to one accusing the other of cowardice. The offended aristocrat responded by charging up the hill towards the Slavs and challenging the other leader to accompany him, which he did. The rest of the army then followed their squabbling leaders because, in the words of Paul the Deacon, ‘they considered it shameful not to’. The result, predictably enough, was a catastrophic defeat for the Lombards. The duke of Friuli had to establish a charity home to bring up all the children orphaned in the disaster. Other examples can be added, including Frankish defeats at the hands of the Saxons in the 780s and by the Slaves in the 850s. In both cases needless battles were brought about by petty rivalries and jealousy within the Frankish command.

In terms of actual tactical practice, the main point that I would like to stress is flexibility. An early medieval warrior was expected to master a wide range of military skills. He was supposed to be able to fight on horseback and on foot; he was expected to be able to shoot a bow accurately or throw a javelin as well as be able to fight with spear, sword and shield in hand-to-hand fighting. With this in mind it is not surprising that formal divisions into cavalry and infantry and into skirmishers and line of battle troops are difficult to pin down, and have become the subject of unprofitable debates. The crucial part of most battles was the clash of closely-packed blocks of warriors, whether on horseback or on foot, and the side that lost would suffer badly in the ensuing rout. This characterises the warfare of Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Vikings and many other peoples, as far as we can tell. It was not the only way of fighting, however. The Basques, for example, at least when fighting in their own country, employed a more open, skirmishing style of fighting, with hit and run attacks. The Franks not regard this as a fair way to fight, especially when explaining their defeats at the hands of a people whom they did not really regard as a fully-fledged enemy. A similar fighting style seems to have been employed by the Bretons, often with similar success. One imagines that it was the normal means of fighting in the west and north of Britain and in Ireland.
Continuity and change
My last major section concerns the issue of continuity and change. In a brief lecture like this one can give the impression that warfare in the early medieval West was something static and unchanging. Indeed, there are some areas, such as battlefield tactics, where, to judge from the evidence we have, this might indeed have been the case. But it is indeed always difficult to tell whether or not the impression of stasis results from actual long-term continuity of practice or whether it stems instead from the highly standardised and formulaic descriptions of warfare that have come down to us. This is a problem that often besets the early medieval historian, whose sources are very often governed by the demands of genre and the influence of accepted models. Yet it is particularly acute for the study of warfare. Our sources are remarkably tacit on the subject of warfare, how it was waged, and what it was like. It is quite the opposite of the situation in classical Greece, for example, where a wide range of sources, of very varied type, describe all the most intimate and earthy details of warfare at all its levels. It is very difficult to know why early medieval sources are so reticent about discussing warfare, but the fact is that they are, and this can make it very hard to explore the conduct of wars in detail, especially in looking at areas of change.

Significant change certainly did not take place in military technology between the fifth and ninth centuries. At the end of the period that concerns me, a warrior would have been armed and armoured in much the same way as at the start. Developments in the production of swords, increases in the size and specialisation of war-horses, the introduction of specialised tactics for charging with the lance and new weaponry like the crossbow: all these took place after the end of my period.

The introduction of the stirrup has been the subject of much debate. Ninth-century illustrations continue to depict warriors who are not using stirrups, suggesting that the stirrup cannot have revolutionised warfare. We can no longer accept that the introduction of the stirrup led to an increase in the importance of cavalry. Mounted warriors possibly became more numerically important through time but, as I have just said, the formal distinction into infantry and cavalry is anachronistic for this period. There were warriors who were wealthy enough to own horses and there were warriors who were not. The former group would fight on foot if the occasion required. It was proposed that the stirrup permitted a swift cavalry charge, smashing through the enemy line, but this does not seem to be the case. The true, knightly charge seems to have been developed much later, in the eleventh century, and appears to have followed the development of a high saddle that could keep the knight fixed securely on his mount. This is not, however, to deny that the stirrup was important in early medieval warfare, but that its importance lies within the styles of fighting I have outlined. Stirrups enable easier mounting and dismounting, something that mattered in a style of fighting where warriors might dismount and fight on foot in the middle of a battle, as Byzantine tactical manuals complained in the sixth century and as Louis III’s troops did at the battle of Saucourt in the ninth. The stirrup also makes long periods of riding less tiring. Finally, although the charge may not have been made more effective, stirrups do allow a mounted warrior to strike downwards and to his sides more easily. Throwing spears from horseback might also have been made easier. All of these factors mattered in the sort of raiding warfare that dominated the early Middle Ages.

Traditionally, it has been argued that the Arab invasions and conquest of Spain in the eighth century brought about a major change in western warfare. The argument was that the Arabs introduced fast-moving mounted warfare that compelled the Franks to find means of furnishing large numbers of mounted warriors to counter these attacks. The Arabs were thought to have used mounted archery and other skirmishing tactics that required new responses. None of this seems to have been the case. Some of it stems from taking imagery from the later Crusades and applying it to the eighth and ninth centuries. Arab armies were composed of large numbers of dismounted warriors and their cavalry did not use generally bows from horseback. Furthermore, no such dramatic change in the numbers of horse-borne warriors can be seen in the eighth century. If the relative numbers of warriors with horses ever increased significantly then this took place long before the Arabs’ arrival in Spain. Overall, though, warfare against the Arab forces in Spain and elsewhere was not very different from that which took place around and across the frontiers between early medieval kingdoms across western Europe.

Mention of a possible increase in the numbers of horse-borne warriors leads me to discuss one period where significant change did take place. This will be the subject, in greater detail, of my lecture tomorrow, and it is the period around 600AD. I must be brief but in the period covering the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh a significant shift in the way that armies were raised appears to have taken place. It was in this period that the post-imperial form of army that I described earlier – that is to say armies raised from landowners claiming a particular ethnic identity, with particular tax-exemptions, and raised from the kingdom’s administrative districts by royally-appointed officers – was replaced by armies raised essentially down chains of lordship and dependence. This of course remained the basic template for the raising of armies through the rest of the Middle Ages until the gradual introduction of regular royal standing armies at the very end of that period. There were exceptions of course, such as the Caliphate of Cordoba but armies that were agglomerations of the retinues of the king and his aristocrats were the norm and this form of army first developed in the early seventh century. At the same time, there were changes in the weapons used, at least in some areas. In Britain and the areas of Merovingian hegemony, weapons like the heavy javelin (ango) and the throwing axe (francisca) drop out of the archaeological record, as do some forms of light throwing spear in England. Spears became heavier and shields larger. The scramasax, a heavy, one-edged machete, became more common. The one-handed axe disappears from the warriors’ array of weaponry until the Viking Age, probably replaced by the scramasax. It is possible, although this cannot be proven, that armour and horses became more common too. Overall a change in the style of fighting seems to have taken place, although how this related to the changes in the way armies were raised is difficult to establish.

I have said very little about the most famous warriors of the early Middle Ages, the Vikings. This is partly because in their appearance, the raising of their armies and the general aims of their warfare, they did not differ much from their enemies. However, it does seem that the Vikings were an important catalyst in the nature of warfare. In that, from the 850s, their armies often campaigned all-year round, they changed the nature of campaigning. In the fact that they could be bought off, or hired, they reintroduced the concept of the mercenary, and indeed the commoditisation of the professional warrior and of violence, that had been largely absent in the West since the fifth century. Their fortification of their bases and their speed of movement led to a new phase of royal fortifications and to new means of attempting to harness military manpower to the service of the king – most successful in Anglo-Saxon England. It may well be that their tactics, adopted to negate their enemies’ superior cavalry, also led to an increase in the importance of dismounted warfare, the ‘shield-wall’ warfare that is familiar from Old English and Scandinavian poetry.

The last period of change that concerns me comes at the very end of my period and in many regards runs on from the changes introduced by the Vikings. Marc Bloch said long ago that one result of the Viking raids was the growth in the importance of local defence, and this still seems to be correct. In England this took the form of a network of royal fortresses, which became the hubs of increased royal power and a return to something like the sixth-century means of raising an army as an effective royal force. In mainland Europe, however, such defences became smaller and – to be crude – eventually private works, castles. This and other developments adverted to earlier make tenth-century warfare significantly different from that of the ninth century and earlier. We enter the more immediately recognisable world of ‘medieval’ warfare with its knights and castles.

Today I have sketched some of what seem to me to be the more important aspects to emerge from recent research on warfare in western Europe between the fifth and the ninth centuries. Many areas of this subject cannot be examined in any detail because of the nature of the written data. Nevertheless close, sophisticated study of that evidence has, as well as revealing why it cannot be used in the old ways, allowed new, more subtle ways into exploring the issues. Early medieval archaeology, in particular, has permitted us to open up the study of warfare, its role in social organisation and its effects. Although this has included much new descriptive data, above all the input of archaeology underlines that the best way of looking at warfare and society in the early medieval west is to start from the areas which we do know about, which is to say the wider social and economic context, and moving from there to make more informed hypotheses about the areas which we cannot know much about. By following this approach, there remains much to be done in furthering our knowledge of warfare and society in western Europe in the Early Middle Ages.

1 comment:

  1. The more Anglo-Saxon archaeological material I read, the more I am struck by the occasional, but persistent, burial of not just young males but apparently-wealthy females with spearheads. Never with swords, obviously, but just one or two, here and there--Swallowcliffe Down, a bed burial, is the one I can straightaway remember--messing with the gender expectations I started off with when I first read anything this period many years ago. I don't yet have a sense of how this maps over space or time, and how evenly spread it is in either context (maybe you do!) but, presumably, it has nothing to do with military service. Can you anyway fit it into the kind of mentalities you've expounded so clearly here or should we think about this practice as meaning something else?


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