The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: The Feudal System in the Middle Ages

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

Castles, such as the Alcázar of Segovia, were key to the feudal system. Photo by Ángel Sanz de Andrés and shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

Organising and running a large state in pre-modern times wasn’t easy. Literacy skills were often low, communication was slow, and organising tax gathering could be complicated. Training up administrators in the central region and sending them out to administer the provinces was one solution. These administrators could be civic elites seeking power and influence, or educated priests co-opted from a religious hierarchy.

Another response, vassalage, was more typical in the Middle Ages. A king with a large amount of territory – possibly recently acquired from conquest – needed to extract revenue from it. Rather than the expense of an extensive body of literate bureaucrats, the task could be sub-contracted to military retainers as fiefdoms.

This achieves several things. Firstly, it rewards the King’s retainers and thus buys their loyalty. Secondly, the retainers swear homage to support the King during war. Thirdly, the land is fragmented into smaller chunks that are easier and cheaper to administer. What is more, the cost of administer these smaller fiefdoms is borne by the retainer, not by the king.

The chosen vassals may decide to subdivide their new-gained land, further fragmenting the administration of the system.

Thus the king has vassals – lords and barons. These serve the king, and generally do so for as long as the king shows that he is fair to them. Oaths and loyalty work both ways. The apparatus of the state is very limited. Power essentially comes via personal relationships; a vassal fights for his liege because he has a personal relationship; a liege helps a vassal resolve any problems. Oaths are almost invariably involved, the vassal pledging to fight for his liege on request and the liege pledging to reward and keep faith with his vassal.

That’s the first rule of being a king in the period. Keep the people whose support you rely on happy. History is replete with examples where this doesn’t happen. It usually involves regime change or attempted regime change. In the UK alone, one has the Anarchy (1135-1154), the Peasant’s Revolt (1381), and the War of the Roses (1455-1487).

There is a game-changing technology that impacts all of the European feudal structures of the period. Castles. Prior to the development of cannons capable of pounding walls down, sieges were complicated affairs, and castles provided a significant force multiplier for defence. I’ll be going into details of siege warfare later but, for now, all we need to know is that taking a castle isn’t easy.

Which means that power is shifted downwards, because vassals can, if they choose, resist their lieges more effectively. This may or may not be through open rebellion, but could just as easily involve a refusal to go on campaign with their liege.

Attacking a defended castle involves many laborious steps. Each step introduces what Clausewitz calls “friction”, the potential for things to go wrong. A liege who spends his time fighting his own vassals to bring them into line is a liege who will soon be known by the title: “The Former ...”

The result is that the liege is as much dependent on the goodwill of the vassal as the vassal is on that of the liege. History is replete with examples of what happens when the liege angers their vassals, and it never ends well for the liege.

The ideal wasn’t always achieved. Treachery and betrayal were common enough in the period. However, while oath-breaking was not unknown and could bring short-term advantage, it was also very damaging in the long-term. People quite literally lived on died on their reputation.

The Battle of Bosworth, and hence the Wars of the Roses, was won and lost on which nobles fought, which stayed out of the battle, and which switched sides. Henry Tudor retained the support of more of the nobility than Richard III did. As a result, Henry Tudor became Henry VII and Richard III became foundations in a car park.

Historical fiction, be it based on real history or fictional history, should take into account the importance of reputation during this period. An example of how it doesn’t work can be seen in Cersei in Game of Thrones. She revels in betrayal and treachery to the extent that the family reputation would – realistically – be in the toilet. Her vassals would leave her, the family influence would fall apart, tax collection would plummet, farmers would leave, starvation would run through the places under the family control, and the family lands would be torn apart by disgruntled vassals long before dragons get involved.

Another aspect that needs to be emphasised is that the needs of ensuring a good reputation combines with the need of society to be able to continue. As a general rule, warfare was between nobles, and the peasants were the prize. Without peasants, conquered land is essentially without value. While it was frequently ignored and massacres took place, there was a general sense that civilians were “loot” rather than “enemies”. When massacres took place, it was generally during a religious war (such as the First Crusade) or following a siege, where retribution against the civilian population was recognised as a threat to persuade the defending garrison to surrender.

There was a sense that civilians were not valid military targets. This was very different to the Roman way of way, in which they would talk about being at war with entire peoples (Carthago delenda est). The entire people of the enemy country became considered to be valid military targets. It was the Roman custom to sack a city, killing or enslaving all within.

There are two other societal elements that had significant military influence. One is the Church, through such organisations as the Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar. The other are the large bands of mercenaries that formed, great companies. Indeed, the coins used to pay these mercenaries were called solidi, which gave rise to the word: “soldier”.

I’ll be going into more detail later on these Free Companies which devastated Europe during the period of the Hundred Years War. Suffice it to say that these were a powerful force, and one not easily controlled.

The Military structure of Middle Ages Europe

The king starts with a core of troops from his household, his personal knights. He can call upon the peasants from the lands he rules directly, most of whom will have limited experience of war. He can also call upon the middle-class freemen, who will be better equipped, and he can hire specialist mercenaries.

To add to this, he can call for support from his vassals, who will come along (or not, depending on how they feel about providing support – see my earlier comments about maintaining a good reputation) with their freemen and peasants.

In appearance, this is very similar to the Saxon situation described above. However, there is an important difference. The Saxon society was based on local groups supporting the local leaders to defend their region. Their loyalty, their cohesion, was founded on their homes and on the institutions.

By contrast, the Feudal system is based squarely on personal relationships to an individual, not a position. As a result, forces are more akin to a collection of warbands, each loyal to its own leader, and the cohesion of the whole depends on the loyalty of the vassal to their liege.

Consequently, much of the preparations and deployment for battle involve the liege placing each group in a position suitable for the perceived loyalty of each vassal.

He has to avoid placing an unreliable vassal in a position where changing sides would be catastrophic; he has to keep unreliable vassals from “clumping” together, where they are more likely to encourage each other to change sides; that his reliable vassals are in strong positions, and won’t take too many losses – or else his strength after the battle will be reduced. He’s also got to try and weigh up the weak points in the enemy forces, which vassals there are reliable or unreliable, and try and attack the weak points.

The forces of each of his vassals is a separate entity, and he doesn’t have the option of combining elements of each together.

Add in the difficulties of communication and control, and it’s not surprising that battles in the period tended to lack subtlety.

Warfare in Middle Age Europe was, for the most part, conducted on a small scale. While the major battles could see armies numbering in the tens of thousands, most conflicts were small, between local lords. Armies may be only a few hundred large, sometimes only dozens. For example, Hugh V of Lusignan was constantly at war with his neighbours, but the scale of these wars were tiny. Once he took 43 horsemen to try and capture a castle. Yet this was a large enough force that his Lord, the Count of Aquitaine, ordered him to give it back.

Large-scale conflict can and did take place, but the ability to control and command such forces was modest, and they were generally smaller than some of the battles of Antiquity.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.