Saturday 28 August 2021

Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades

 As the title suggests, I have been reading again, in the general area of the central medieval period, in this case, 1000 – 1300:

France, J. (1999). Western warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300. Ithaca: Cornell University.

I have read this book before, but I recall very little about it except for the account of Bouvines (1214), at which King John managed to lose Normandy without even being there. Still, there is a lot more to it and if I had the time I would be following up some of the references.

Interesting stuff is to be found on most of the pages. Obviously, as a wargamer, I am drawn to the brief accounts of many different battles, most of which I have not heard of (or do not remember hearing of) before, especially those in Italy in the period. Interesting stuff.

One of the things that France wants to do in the book is dispel the idea that there were no battles in the period. He points out that, depending on what you mean by a battle, there were lots of them. If by ‘battle’ you mean ‘large scale decisive action be\tween big armies’ then there were, admittedly, few. But there was a lot of combat and a lot of intricate maneuvering. As a lot of the military activity was raiding and ravaging, a lot of combat involved small groups of soldiers clashing.

This is even more so when the interaction between castles and field armies is considered. In general, the defensive had the advantage of the offensive in terms of siege. Even a small castle could seriously impede the progress of an invasion, even though castles were not generally built as networks to do so. Given the fact that most castles were built by the landowners to their specifications and requirements, they may well be at strategic locations but not necessarily so. Thus an invader might find themselves bogged down by castles, but not seriously hampered.

The main issue was, of course, the relief of the besieged. The besieged, in order to hold out, needed to know that relief was going to come, otherwise, there was no point in hanging on. Thus their side needed a field army. This had two effects: firstly, the attackers needed to split their forces to both besiege and cover the siege, and secondly, the field army of the besieged side could seriously impair the foraging of the besiegers. Without the field army, the besieged had no chance. This is why most rebellions failed: the rebels locked themselves in castles and hoped for the best. The best was usually the arrival of the King’s army and no hope of relief. The best possible outcome was then a negotiated settlement.

The other thing an extant field army could do was shadow the enemy, picking off their raiding and foraging parties. This had the effect of preserving the invaded land better (more or less, depending of the defender’s state of supply) as the ravaging was much less effective and it should not be too long before the invader’s state of supply was sufficiently poor for them to decide to go home.

A lot depended on the commander. Some Kings’ who were the ultimate commanders, were very good: Richard I, for example. His brother, John, was in the ‘not so good’ category. But commanding was an odd combination of personal example, decisiveness, and consultation. Kings were expected to take counsel from their major allies and vassals; not doing so could be construed as an insult, and if it went wrong, would heap opprobrium on the king’s head, not a happy place for a medieval monarch.

On the other hand, kings had to act decisively and honourably, as well as chivalrously and bravely. Richard I died of a crossbow bolt wound after doing exactly that. It was the only way to gain and retain the respect of the nobility and barons who supplied most of the men.

The other point that France wants to make is about the myth of cavalry superiority in the period. The case dates back more or less to Oman, for whom Hastings was the start of it in the medieval period (although it does go back to the Goths, for example). The fact is that cavalry, on their own, could and did lose in Western Europe. The terrain, for example, was against them. Hastings showed the effect of combined arms, not cavalry superiority. Cavalry were more mobile, of course, and thus in the raid and counter-raid warfare of the time had advantages, at least until they were ambushed.

This appearance of superiority is compounded by the chronicles, which were written by and had an intended audience of the nobility and barons, who formed the cavalry, and were the commanders. Thus a lot of the things we know about campaigns and battles focusses on the cavalry. The fact that infantry was important has to be inferred from the accounts (except for something like Courtrai, (1302) for example, where their victory was a shock), from the fact that there were more sieges than battles at which cavalry was fairly useless, and from the few accounts which mention them.

France also discusses Western warfare in the Near East, particularly with respect to Hattin (1187). The problems were various, and he suggests that King Guy simply had to respond to a vassal in trouble, which caused the disastrous march into the desert. He also notes that the results of the battle were predictable, as it was the only army that Outremer could raise. The loss of the field army meant that Saladin could pick off the fortresses at leisure. The fact that the Crusaders clung on to the coastal towns was largely a result of naval superiority: the Muslim states had few forests and thus no fleets, so they could not even really contest control of the sea. On the other hand, the Kingdoms were a long and difficult journey away from their resource base, and most crusaders arrived, did a bit, and went home.

A very interesting book and it does inch me a little along the road of central medieval armies but, as I have read it before, I have been here before and resisted.

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