Knights, castles, serfs, etc… the typical trappings of any image of the middle ages or as those in the history biz refer to it (okay not that often) the Medieval Millennium. This image is ironclad. Existing up until the point it just didn’t. The transition between knights and shining armor and the age of the musketeer is a brutal transition in the sense that it seems to come out of nowhere for those not versed in the history of the subject. However, as with most things, this was anything but abrupt, with many kicks and fits along the way.
What we are speaking of is of course the move from knights and castles to musketeers and ever-larger armies. The European kingdoms of this period were highly decentralized. Each king relied on his vassal to raise troops and taxes for him, and those vassals in turn relied on their vassals to do the same for them. This was of course only the case if said vassals decided to fulfill that obligation to their lord. Widely called Feudalism in the modern-day, this system of vassalage and liege-lordship was never a cogent or established idea during this period. The reason for the above-mentioned decentralization can be rather simply attributed to a couple of things. First, being the weakness of the ‘king’ who oftentimes possessed no army of his own and secondly, to the inability to effectively raise taxes, control resources, trade, etc… which leads us back to the first problem. Lastly, the extreme ruralization that resulted in the collapse of the Roman Empire meant that most wealth was located in wealth garnered by agriculture. This proved to be a huge limiter militarily for rulers.
The limitation was of course the fact that rulers relied on their vassals for manpower, having little of their own. This produced a system where the nobility of each kingdom would be in a near-constant state of a power struggle with the ruler and each other. This did not provide a very stable system of governance for Europe, to say the least.
This system solidified a class of individuals we broadly refer to as the knightly class. This category encompassed everyone in the nobility. They ruled because they fought and protected the land from others who fought, which in turn allowed for the peasants to work and the monks to pray. This tripartite view of ‘class’ was how the medieval person would understand the world around them. These knights were trained from childhood in the art of war and existed to fight; usually one another and fought primarily from horseback, making for a, for the time, incredibly mobile fighter. Combine this mobility with the epitomes castle, and you get a potent and grinding form of warfare.
The castle was a symbol of power and defiance for the nobility and a symbol of ineffectiveness and powerlessness on the part of the rulers who could not prevent their building. The castle of the Middle Ages had always existed in some form or rather since the time humans began living in cities. But after the First Crusade in the 11th century, the returning nobility perfected their methods of castle building to create the structures we think of today.
The strategy of all fortifications is to allow for a base of defense and offense for the defender. This is where the knight came in. Being highly mobile meant that a small number of knights could reside in and defend a castle and then when need be, ride out to face the enemy. This allowed for a wide zone of control on the part of owners of these castles.
Warfare in this period can be described as a grueling venture of trying to take castles without a. Starving or b. Getting attacked by another enemy force. Thus, the value and power of a castle. With it, a small number of men could gain a wide zone of control for the castle’s owner. And make life hell for any invader entering said zone of control. Countless examples exist of an invading force being unable to establish control over an area because of their inability to take a castle in a timely manner. Combine this with the cost of maintaining an army in the field then you have a very short window to take a castle or fortress town.
However, several advances in military equipment and subsequently tactics would once again shape the face of warfare. The first was the downgrading of the knight by the introduction of several of what had once upon a time been, inferior troops. The mounted knight had always fought alongside infantry or rather men-at-arms who were usually levies meant to bolster the cavalry, as well as by archers. However, the English during their 100-year war with France brought to the field the English Longbow and Longbowmen. The English Longbow, although its range has been exaggerated, was powerful enough to stop a mounted knight in his tracks. This resulted in bloody victories by the English over their French opponents in such disastrous battles as Poitiers, Crecy, and Agincourt, where, again and again, a mixture of bad tactics and the longbow brought the flower of French nobility down to their bloody knees.
Now it should be noted that the actual effects of the longbow are debated. That whether or not it had the force necessary to penetrate medieval armor. However, the sources remain clear that it was because of these bows that French suffered these defeats. But the debate remains. The introduction of the longbow by the English forced the French knightly class to adapt or die. And they did. They soon donned heavier plate armor which stopped arrows from a longbow but no longer allowed them to engage on horseback. The medieval knight had been brought back down to earth, literally.
However, for invaders like the English, there was still the age-old problem of the castle. You could win all the major battles you wanted, which the English did, but until you can take those nearby castles, which they didn’t, you could not effectively secure a territory. This was of course until Henry V came to shore with a new toy. This was of course the cannon, which King Henry and his men used to astounding success to batter down the walls of French castles and fortress towns. The age of the castle was all too quickly coming to an end.
The final changes in medieval warfare came after the Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th century. Wiping out a third of the population in most parts of Europe, this apocalyptic plague produced a manpower shortage that would bring feudalism to its knees. This included your not-so-friendly neighborhood knight. Knights, due to their armor, training, and steed, were incredibly expensive. After the Black Death rulers had to be smarter about their money, so they began to hire mercenaries. The Swiss pikeman, the German Landsknecht, and the Italian Condotierre are three of the best-known examples of this new class of fighting man. It was not just peasants or freedmen who took part in this mercenary work. Knights and nobles who could no longer make a living at home would join in on the action and the fortunes to be had hacking people to pieces.
Pikemen in particular proved to be incredibly lethal towards both cavalry, as was proved by a Flemish “rabble” at the Battle of Courtrai where French mounted nobility were brought down. The same thing occurred at the Battle of Bannockburn where the Scots were able to defeat
an English force. The Swiss would gain their infamy during the Battle of Morgarten, during which the Swiss defeated Hapsburg forces as they attempted to ascert their control over the Swiss trade routs.
Other advancements that contributed to this military revolution of the late Middle Ages included the use of primitive firearms, which were more than capable of going through heavy armor, and the rise of the crossbow.
Firearms specifically allowed for more punching power from their shots, which allowed for greater armor penetration. As is evidenced by the image above. While primitive firearms proved incredibly inaccurate and often dangerous to the user, the firearm would come into vogue as an excellent anti-armor weapon.
What all of these weapons allowed for was the effective democratization of warfare. You no longer needed to be a hardened household warrior or a noble knight, who spent all his time training and preparing for war. You could now spend a couple of years as a mercenary if you wanted. A peasant could escape his life in say Bavaria and join up with the Landsknecht’s. It was common for young Englishmen during the Hundred Year’s War with France to establish a good nest-egg for themselves financially by hiring themselves out as mercenaries.
The military progress and changes that occurred over the Medieval Millenia were one of the driving forces behind European development. These changes can be seen in the government structure, with the early and middle-Middle Ages being characterized by a military aristocracy that maintained its power through military dominance and the control of resources (agriculture). However, this also meant that you had a decentralized, constantly warring Europe. As the military advances came quick and fast in the late Middle Ages, the military hegemony of the nobility came crumbling down as the introduction of longbows, crossbows, cannons, firearms, and ever more abundant mercenary companies democratized military engagement. No longer could the noble hide in his castle.