Study Guide by Swansea University Historians

In the period between 1000 and 1300, an era often termed the ‘Central’ or ‘High’ Middle Ages, warfare was one of the defining features of society in Western Europe. The prevalence of martial conflict was a fact of which observers at the time were aware. From around 1000, contemporaries began to formulate a view of society which divided its members into three groups, according to the functions that they performed in society. These three groups – or ‘Orders’, as they were known – consisted of: those who worked, those who prayed, and those who fought. It was the last of these – the warriors – who attracted much attention from contemporary chroniclers and historians.

To understand how Western Europeans conducted warfare in the Central Middle Ages, it is important to have a sense of some of the key features of politics and culture in this period. The most essential fact to bear in mind is that the key to Western European society in the Central Middle Ages was land, or, more specifically, the ownership of land. As a result, the interests of landowners often shaped warfare; military activity was invariably conducted by the ruling elite in order to protect their own land, or with the aim to capture new territory from a rival. While there was a degree of development in the technology of weapons and armour over the period, there was no great transformative revolution; throughout these centuries, warfare remained largely dictated by the length that an archer could shoot an arrow, and by the strength of the arms that wielded swords and spears.  

The historical context

The period 1000 to 1300 is worth considering in its own right, separately from the era that went before and that which come after. The beginning of the Central Middle Ages witnessed a significant change in the course of Western European history, and the overall character of the wars that its inhabitants generally fought. In the centuries down to about 1100, Western Europeans fought significant defensive wars against Vikings from Scandinavia, against Magyars from Eastern Europe (the area that is now Hungary), and against Muslim forces which exerted pressure northwards from the Mediterranean. Around 1100, the danger of external attacks diminished, and Western Europe went on the offensive. In the centuries that followed, bands of acquisitive armsbearers such as Normans, famous then as now for their aggressive character and lust for adventure, captured a range of territories in different parts of Europe and beyond. Most famously, an army of Normans captured England in 1066, before they and their successors turned their attention to the surrounding lands of Wales, Ireland and Scotland in the years and decades that followed. Major conquests by potentates from Germany conquered the territories east of the River Elbe (territory in what is today Poland and the lands surrounding the Baltic Sea). Many armsbearers flocked to Iberia to take part in the wars aimed at taking the peninsula from the Muslim powers who had conquered it in the eighth century. In the Central Middle Ages, Western European armsbearers also waged war under the banner of the cross, in expeditions known as the crusades. These campaigns, called for and supported by the Church, and targeted against groups held up as the enemies of Christendom, were conducted to various theatres within Europe as well as to northern Africa and, perhaps most significantly, the Near East (the location of the Holy City of Jerusalem). A number of factors which shaped Western European history after 1300, including profound economic changes, the repercussions of the Black Death, and, perhaps most significantly, the invention of gunpowder, meant that from the fourteenth century, warfare began to take on a distinct and new character.

The legacy of medieval warfare

The physical remains of the warfare fought during the Middle Ages are still evident today, perhaps most obviously in the form of mighty castles. Many of these structures still dominate the landscape of various regions of Western Europe, standing as monuments to the centrality of warfare in the medieval age. In some regions, such as Wales - which by the middle of the thirteenth century was perhaps the most heavily militarised region of Europe – this built evidence is more apparent than elsewhere. Yet, it is easy to overlook the fact that the consequences of medieval warfare on the course of European history and development can be seen today in other ways. To a significant degree, the military activity of the Middle Ages played a significant role in shaping the cultural, linguistic and political boundaries of modern Europe. France represents a good example which can illustrate this point. At the start of our period, the authority of the king of France extended not much further than Paris and its immediate surroundings. By the end of this period, the French monarchy had, through conquests, political manoeuvring and alliances, extended its interests far beyond that to attain at least theoretical authority over a space that looks not unlike the country we can see on maps today. While we should be wary of accepting simple models of continuity, it is not misleading to suggest that the foundations of modern France were laid by the wars of the French kings during the Middle Ages.

Raising forces

In the period between 1000 and 1300, armies were raised by several means. Chiefly, troops were recruited as one dynamic the system of land-holding that dominated much of Europe. A lord (and this included kings) would dole out parcels of land to his followers, in the expectation that they would provide military service when called upon to do so. Mercenaries – men who fought in return for pay rather than through any obligation owed to their commander – became more prominent over the course of the period. One central problem that confronts modern historians of medieval warfare is that contemporary chroniclers generally provide unreliable figures for the numbers of troops who took part in a given action. It is not uncommon for chroniclers to assert that armies consisted of forces that numbered in the millions, far beyond the realms of what rulers could realistically put into the field. The best solution for dealing with this is often to accept these figures as conveying an order of magnitude. Hence, an army of ‘six million’ might be interpreted as meaning ‘a very large army indeed’.

The troops raised by commanders in this period consisted of infantry, missilemen (archers and crossbowmen) and the mounted, armoured warriors known to history as ‘knights’. The image of the knight has in many ways come symbolically to represent the Middle Ages as a whole. They are as familiar to us as they were to medieval observers, depicted as they are in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in the carved statues installed on Chartres Cathedral and other churches around Europe in this period. In 1100 a ‘knight’ was simply a warrior who fought on horseback who had no particular standing, but over the course of the twelfth century, knights gradually came to acquire an enhanced social status. By the end of the thirteenth century, the knighthood and nobility of Western Europe had essentially fused; after this point, to be a knight, one needed to be a noble (and vice versa). A principal catalyst for the fusion of the nobility and the knighthood was the emergence of the warrior ethos known as chivalry. Chivalry was a constantly changing and evolving phenomenon. It meant different things to different people at different times. Most significantly, ‘chivalry’ has been understood in different ways by successive generations since 1300, and we must be wary of imposing later understandings of chivalry back onto the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In brief, around 1200, chivalry consisted of set of principles which set out the ideal conduct of a knight on the battlefield, and how the knight was expected to treat those enemies whom he had defeated. Some of the most famous works to survive from the Middle Ages (such as the Chanson de Roland (‘Song of Roland’), whose earliest form dates to about 1100), are devoted to exploring the issues that could arise as knights sought to uphold the ideals of chivalry.


Major pitched battles – like that fought near Hastings on 14 October 1066 – dominate perceptions of the period. Yet, in fact, major battles were the exception rather than the norm in this period. Warfare was an expensive endeavour, and many lords did not wish to gamble everything on one encounter, whose outcome was very often difficult if not impossible fully to control. This is not, however, to suggest that substantial military activity did not take place in the Central Middle Ages; it certainly did. That activity, though, more often than not took place on the level of raids and skirmishes. Commanders would generally target an enemy’s lands, terrorising or capturing the people who lived on it and destroying crops, livestock and buildings. Yet, even if battle itself was rare, the prospect of fighting a major battle remained a decisive feature in how warfare was conducted. This was because every commander had to at least contemplate giving battle if the situation demanded it. If they did not, then all other military activity was bluff. Moreover, it is the case that in some instances, commanders did actively seek battle, no doubt because battles offered the prospect of a quick and decisive outcome, which raid and sieges did not. William the Conqueror certainly sought battle in 1066, and provoked King Harold into taking the bait and committing to a major set piece encounter. Behind this is another important point; for a battle to take place in this era, most of the time both sides needed to be willing to fight. A commander who did not wish to give battle could generally avoid doing so, until it was necessary or desirable.

Much attention – both medieval and modern – has centred upon the role of the mounted warrior -the knight - in battle. A number of contemporary sources draw attention to the the impact that a group if knights, charging in a line in unison with their lances fixed ahead, could have on enemy lines. Descriptions of this manoeuvre, known by the French word chevauchée, dominate many accounts of battles fought in this era. But we should be wary of taking those sources at face value; many chroniclers wrote with an audience of knightly nobles in mind, and so we can perhaps expect them to place a particular emphasis on the importance of knights in battle, rather than on, say, the more mundane actions carried out by infantry and archers.

Castles and sieges

Throughout history, armies have constructed fortified places as a normal part of warfare, and this was certainly the case in the Central Middle Ages. The ruling elite who owned land generally travelled around their various estates, in order to consume the foodstuffs produced by each parcel of land belonging to them. In order to do this, they needed comfortable accommodation, which could withstand a reasonable level of enemy attack. They needed, in other words, castles. At their most essential function, castles were the residences of the ruling elite. They also acted as centres for administration and rulership.  In other words, castles were one of the instruments of power wielded by the ruling elite. While castles were often primarily defensive – oftentimes they acted simply as a refuge into which a commander could lead his troops to evade raids conducted by an enemy – they also could serve to menace and threaten opponents.

At the very outset of our period, many castles in Western Europe were wooden structures (one might think here in terms of the Motte and Bailey structure). But the eleventh and especially the twelfth centuries witnessed a significant upsurge in the construction of new fortifications made out of stone. From the early eleventh century, contemporaries report the spread of fortifications, and some historians have linked this to wider political processes which served to diminish the central power of kings. The earliest stone structures were simple; they often were little more than box-shaped towers, known as donjons. Examples of this type of building are provide the White Tower, the kernel of the Tower of London (on which construction began in the reign of William the Conqueror), and fortifications at Colchester (Essex) and at Rouen (in Normandy). Over time, the designs of stone castles became more and more complex. We see the emergence of what historians call concentric castles. In simple terms, these were castles built like Russian dolls; they had two lines of walls, with the inner wall being defensible against the outer line fell to the enemy. Richard I of England was immensely proud of his Château Gaillard (which we might translate from the French into English as ‘saucy castle), a concentric castle he had built at the end of the twelfth century on the border between his duchy of Normandy and the lands of the king of France. In some respects, the zenith of castle building can be seen in the structures erected in Wales at the behest of Edward I after his conquest of 1282-3. The vast castle at Beaumaris, on the isle of Anglesey, is one of the most well-known realisations of the concentric approach to castle building.

These developments in castle-building were accompanied by linked developments in the art of siege warfare. There was something of an arms race, as siege craft evolved to keep up with the ever more imperious castles being constructed around Europe. Sieges far outnumbered all other types of warfare in this period, including pitched battles. They can be boiled down to a very simple dynamic. For besieging armies, the aim was to starve the enemy of all the resources they had stored in their castle. On the other hand, the aim of forces contained within a besieged castle was to hold out, either until the besieging army used up all its resources, or a friendly army came to attack the enemy forces set up around the castle. The best-constructed and supplied castles could hold out for many months against a besieging force. A number of different siege engines could be employed, including throwing machines (mangonels, catapults and trebuchets) as well as devices intended to provide shelter to attacking troops as they closed on the city walls. During the siege of Jerusalem in July 1099, the armies of the First Crusade constructed siege towers three storeys high, which they placed on wheels so that they could be rolled up to the city walls and protect the warriors stationed within.