The Art of War in the Middle Ages A.D. 378-1515

The Art of War in the Middle Ages A.D. 378-1515

Charles Oman
Charles Oman

Author: Oman, Charles, 1860-1946
Military history
Military art and science — History — Medieval
The Art of War in the Middle Ages A.D. 378-1515
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Lothian Prize Essay



A.D. 378–1515
C. W. C. OMAN, B.A.
[All rights reserved]

The Author desires to acknowledge much kind help received in the revision and correction of this Essay from the Rev. H. B. George, of New College, and Mr. F. York Powell, of Christ Church.


Introduction 1
The Transition from Roman to Mediæval forms in War (A.D. 378–582).
Disappearance of the Legion.​–​Constantine’s reorganization.​–​The German tribes.​–​Battle of Adrianople.​–​Theodosius accepts its teaching.​–​Vegetius and the army at the end of the fourth century.​–​The Goths and the Huns.​–​Army of the Eastern Empire.​–​Cavalry all-important 3–14
The Early Middle Ages (A.D. 476–1066).
Paucity of Data for the period.​–​The Franks in the sixth century.​–​Battle of Tours.​–​Armies of Charles the Great.​–​The Franks become horsemen.​–​The Northman and the Magyar.​–​Rise of Feudalism.​–​The Anglo-Saxons and their wars.​–​The Danes and the Fyrd.​–​Military importance of the Thegnhood.​–​The House-Carles.​–​Battle of Hastings.​–​Battle of Durazzo 15–27
The Byzantines and their Enemies (A.D. 582–1071).
§ 1. Character of Byzantine Strategy.
Excellence of the Byzantine Army.​–​Scientific study of the art of war.​–​Leo’s ‘Tactica.’​–​Wars with the Frank.​–​With the Turk.​–​With the Slav.​–​With the Saracen.​–​Border warfare of Christendom and Islam.​–​Defence of the Anatolic Themes.​–​Cavalry as a defensive force.​–​Professional and unchivalrous character of Byzantine officers 28–38
§ 2. Arms, Organization, and Tactics of the Byzantines.
Reorganization of the Army of the Eastern Empire by Maurice.​–​Its composition.​–​Armament of the Horseman, A.D. 600–1000.​–​Armament of the Infantry.​–​Military Train and Engineers.​–​The Officers.​–​Cavalry tactics.​–​Leo’s ideal line of battle.​–​Military Machines and their importance 38–48
The Supremacy of Feudal Cavalry (A.D. 1066–1346).
Unscientific nature of feudal warfare.​–​Consequences of headlong charges.​–​Tactical arrangements.​–​Their primitive nature.​–​Non-existence of strategy.​–​Weakness of Infantry.​–​Attempts to introduce discipline.​–​Rise of Mercenaries.​–​Supreme importance of fortified places.​–​Ascendency of the defensive.​–​The Mediæval siege.​–​Improvement of the Arts of Attack and Defence of fortified places.​–​General character of Campaigns.​–​The Crusades 49–61
The Swiss (A.D. 1315–1515).
§ 1. Their Character, Arms, and Organization.
The Swiss and the Ancient Romans.​–​Excellence of system more important than excellence of generals.​–​The column of pikemen.​–​The halberdier.​–​Rapidity of the movements of the Swiss.​–​Defensive armour.​–​Character of Swiss armies 62–69
§ 2. Tactics and Strategy.
The ‘Captains’ of the Confederates.​–​The Echelon of three columns.​–​The ‘Wedge’ and the ‘Hedgehog’ formations 70–73
§ 3. Development of Swiss Military Supremacy.
Battle of Morgarten.​–​Battle of Laupen.​–​Battle of Sempach.​–​Battle of Arbedo.​–​Moral ascendency of the Swiss.​–​Battle of Granson.​–​Battle of Morat.​–​Wars of the last years of the fifteenth century 73–87
§ 4. Causes of the Decline of Swiss Ascendency.
The tactics of the Swiss become stereotyped.​–​The Landsknechts and their rivalry with the Swiss.​–​The Spanish Infantry and the short sword.​–​Battle of Ravenna.​–​Fortified Positions.​–​Battle of Bicocca.​–​Increased use of Artillery.​–​Battle of Marignano.​–​Decay of discipline in the Swiss Armies and its consequences 87–95
The English and their Enemies (A.D. 1272–1485).
The Long-bow and its origin, Welsh rather than Norman.​–​Its rivalry with the Cross-bow.​–​Edward I and the Battle of Falkirk.​–​The bow and the pike.​–​Battle of Bannockburn and its lessons.​–​The French Knighthood and the English Archery.​–​Battle of Cressy.​–​Battle of Poictiers.​–​Du Guesclin and the English reverses.​–​Battle of Agincourt.​–​The French wars, 1415–1453.​–​Battle of Formigny.​–​Wars of the Roses.​–​King Edward IV and his generalship.​–​Barnet and Tewkesbury.​–​Towton and Ferrybridge 96–123
Zisca and the Hussites.​–​The Waggon-fortress and the tactics depending on it.​–​Ascendency and decline of the Hussites.​–​Battle of Lipan.​–​The Ottomans.​–​Organization and equipment of the Janissaries.​–​The Timariot cavalry.​–​The other nations of Europe.​–​Concluding remarks 124–134


The Art of War has been very simply defined as ‘the art which enables any commander to worst the forces opposed to him.’ It is therefore conversant with an enormous variety of subjects: Strategy and Tactics are but two of the more important of its branches. Besides dealing with discipline, organization, and armament, it is bound to investigate every means which can be adapted to increase the physical or moral efficiency of an army. The author who opened his work with a dissertation on ‘the age which is preferable in a generalissimo,’ or ‘the average height which the infantry soldier should attain1,’ was dealing with the Art of War, no less than he who confined himself to purely tactical speculations.
The complicated nature of the subject being taken into consideration, it is evident that a complete sketch, of the social and political history of any period would be necessary to account fully for the state of the ‘Art of War’ at the time. That art has existed, in a rudimentary form, ever since the day on which two bodies of men first met in anger to settle a dispute by the arbitrament of force. At some epochs, however, military and social history have been far more closely bound up than at others. In the present century wars are but episodes in a people’s existence: there have, however, been times when the whole national organization was founded on the supposition of a normal state of strife. In such cases the history of the race and of its ‘art of war’ are one and the same. To detail the constitution of Sparta, or of Ancient Germany, is to give little more than a list of military institutions. Conversely, to speak of the characteristics of their military science involves the mention of many of their political institutions.
At no time was this interpenetration more complete than in the age which forms the central part of our period. Feudalism, in its origin and development, had a military as well as a social side, and its decline is by no means unaffected by military considerations. There is a point of view from which its history could be described as ‘the rise, supremacy, and decline of heavy cavalry as the chief power in war.’ To a certain extent the tracing out of this thesis will form the subject of our researches. It is here that we find the thread which links the history of the military art in the middle ages into a connected whole. Between Adrianople, the first, and Marignano, the last, of the triumphs of the mediæval horseman, lie the chapters in the scientific history of war which we are about to investigate.

The Transition from Roman to Mediæval Forms in War.
A.D. 378–582.

[From the battle of Adrianople to the Accession of Maurice.]
Between the middle of the fourth and the end of the sixth century lies a period of transition in military history, an epoch of transformations as strange and as complete as those contemporary changes which turned into a new channel the course of political history and civilisation in Europe. In war, as in all else, the institutions of the ancient world are seen to pass away, and a new order of things develops itself.
Numerous and striking as are the symptoms of that period of transition, none is more characteristic than the gradual disuse of the honoured name of ‘Legion,’ the title intimately bound up with all the ages of Roman greatness. Surviving in a very limited acceptance in the time of Justinian2, it had fifty years later become obsolete. It represented a form of military efficiency which had now completely vanished. That wonderful combination of strength and flexibility, so solid and yet so agile and easy to handle, had ceased to correspond to the needs of the time. The day of the sword and pilum had given place to that of the lance and bow. The typical Roman soldier was no longer the iron legionary, who, with shield fitted close to his left shoulder and sword-hilt sunk low, cut his way through the thickest hedge of pikes, and stood firm before the wildest onset of Celt or German3. The organization of Augustus and Trajan was swept away by Constantine, and the legions which for three hundred years had preserved their identity, their proud titles of honour, and their ésprit de corps, knew themselves no longer4.
Constantine, when he cut down the numbers of the military unit to a quarter of its former strength, and created many scores of new corps5, was acting from motives of political and not military expediency6. The armament and general character of the troops survived their organization, and the infantry, the ‘robur peditum,’ still remained the most important and numerous part of the army. At the same time, however, a tendency to strengthen the cavalry made itself felt, and the proportion of that arm to the whole number of the military establishment continued steadily to increase throughout the fourth century. Constantine himself, by depriving the legion of its complementary ‘turmae,’ and uniting the horsemen into larger independent bodies, bore witness to their growing importance. It would seem that the Empire​–​having finally abandoned the offensive in war, and having resolved to confine itself to the protection of its own provinces​–​found that there was an increasing need for troops who could transfer themselves with rapidity from one menaced point on the frontier to another. The Germans could easily distance the legion, burdened by the care of its military machines and impedimenta. Hence cavalry in larger numbers was required to intercept their raids.
But it would appear that another reason for the increase of the horsemen was even more powerful. The ascendancy of the Roman infantry over its enemies was no longer so marked as in earlier ages, and it therefore required to be more strongly supported by cavalry than had been previously necessary. The Franks, Burgundians, and Allemanni of the days of Constantine were no longer the half-armed savages of the first century, who, ‘without helm or mail, with weak shields of wicker-work, and armed only with the javelin7,’ tried to face the embattled front of the cohort. They had now the iron-bound buckler, the pike, and the short stabbing sword (‘scramasax’), as well as the long cutting sword (‘spatha’), and the deadly ‘francisca’ or battle-axe, which, whether thrown or wielded, would penetrate Roman armour and split the Roman shield. As weapons for hand to hand combat these so far surpassed the old ‘framea,’ that the imperial infantry found it no light matter to defeat a German tribe. At the same time, the morale of the Roman army was no longer what it had once been: the corps were no longer homogeneous, and the insufficient supply of recruits was eked out by enlisting slaves and barbarians in the legions themselves, and not only among the auxiliary cohorts8. Though seldom wanting in courage, the troops of the fourth century had lost the self-reliance and cohesion of the old Roman infantry, and required far more careful handling on the part of the general. Few facts show this more forcibly than the proposal of the tactician Urbicius to furnish the legionaries with a large supply of portable beams and stakes, to be carried by pack-mules attached to each cohort. These were to be planted on the flanks and in the front of the legion, when there was a probability of its being attacked by hostile cavalry: behind them the Romans were to await the enemy’s onset, without any attempt to assume the offensive9. This proposition marks a great decay in the efficiency of the imperial foot-soldier: the troops of a previous generation would have scorned such a device, accustomed as they were to drive back with ease the assaults of the Parthian and Sarmatian ‘cataphracti.’
This tendency to deterioration on the part of the Roman infantry, and the consequent neglect of that arm by the generals of the time, were brought to a head by a disaster. The battle of Adrianople was the most fearful defeat suffered by a Roman army since Cannæ; a slaughter to which it is aptly compared by the military author Ammianus Marcellinus. The Emperor Valens, all his chief officers10, and forty thousand men were left upon the field; indeed the army of the East was almost annihilated, and was never reorganized upon the same lines as had previously served for it.
The military importance of Adrianople was unmistakable; it was a victory of cavalry over infantry. The imperial army had developed its attack on the position of the Goths, and the two forces were hotly engaged, when suddenly a great body of horsemen charged in upon the Roman flank. It was the main strength of the Gothic cavalry, which had been foraging at a distance; receiving news of the fight it had ridden straight for the battlefield. Two of Valens’ squadrons, which covered the flank of his array, threw themselves in the way of the oncoming mass, and were ridden down and trampled under foot. Then the Goths swept down on the infantry of the left wing, rolled it up, and drove it in upon the centre. So tremendous was their impact that the legions and cohorts were pushed together in helpless confusion. Every attempt to stand firm failed, and in a few minutes left, centre, and reserve were one undistinguishable mass. Imperial guards, light troops, lancers, foederati and infantry of the line were wedged together in a press that grew closer every moment. The Roman cavalry saw that the day was lost, and rode off without another effort. Then the abandoned infantry realised the horror of their position: equally unable to deploy or to fly, they had to stand to be cut down. It was a sight such as had been seen once before at Cannæ, and was to be seen once after at Rosbecque. Men could not raise their arms to strike a blow, so closely were they packed; spears snapped right and left, their bearers being unable to lift them to a vertical position: many soldiers were stifled in the press. Into this quivering mass the Goths rode, plying lance and sword against the helpless enemy. It was not till two-thirds of the Roman army had fallen that the thinning of the ranks enabled a few thousand men to break out11, and follow their right wing and cavalry in a headlong flight.
Such was the battle of Adrianople, the first great victory gained by that heavy cavalry which had now shown its ability to supplant the heavy infantry of Rome as the ruling power of war. During their sojourn in the steppes of South Russia the Goths, first of all Teutonic races, had become a nation of horsemen. Dwelling in the Ukraine, they had felt the influence of that land, ever the nurse of cavalry, from the day of the Scythian to that of the Tartar and Cossack. They had come to ‘consider it more honourable to fight on horse than on foot12,’ and every chief was followed by his war-band of mounted men. Driven against their will into conflict with the empire, they found themselves face to face with the army that had so long held the world in fear. The shock came, and, probably to his own surprise, the Goth found that his stout lance and good steed would carry him through the serried ranks of the legion. He had become the arbiter of war, the lineal ancestor of all the knights of the middle ages, the inaugurator of that ascendancy of the horseman which was to endure for a thousand years.
Theodosius, on whom devolved the task of reorganizing the troops of the Eastern empire, appears to have appreciated to its fullest extent the military meaning of the fight of Adrianople. Abandoning the old Roman theory of war, he decided that the cavalry must in future compose the most important part of the imperial army. To provide himself with a sufficient force of horsemen, he was driven to a measure destined to sever all continuity between the military organization of the fourth and that of the fifth century. He did not, like Constantine, raise new corps, but began to enlist wholesale every Teutonic chief whom he could bribe to enter his service. The war-bands which followed these princes were not incorporated with the national troops; they obeyed their immediate commanders alone, and were strangers to the discipline of the Roman army. Yet to them was practically entrusted the fate of

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