2-1. War

Hello and Welcome back to the Dark Ages Podcast. Today’s episode: War.

Listen to the episode:

How is everyone? How did these last six weeks go for you? Were you utterly bereft as I was? Flipping through the calendar, looking at that deadline marked there in red? Wanting so badly to listen again to that nerd in his basement that you could barely find the strength to face the long days ahead? Or did you forget about it entirely until this episode appeared in your feed, at which you shrugged and said, huh, I remember that guy, guess he’s finally back, before tapping play and getting on with your commute? Either way, I am happy to have you back. Or to welcome you for the first time. 

If you are new to the show, again, welcome. You should be fine starting from this point and going forward without listening to season one, if you want to do it that way, though you may find a little more depth and continuity if you go back.

Let’s take care of some business in the front, so we can party in the back. I’ve made a few changes to the way we do things around here. Transcripts of episodes will be posted on the website, darkagespod.com, as before, but I am making a concerted effort to add some value to those pages, so you will find more links within the text to various relevant, helpful, or amusing things that I find online. In episodes that demand a more visual component, I’ll put images along with the transcripts as well, I’ll continue to post those to instagram and twitter as before, but there will usually be more on the website. On the more stuffy academic side, I’ll be putting my references for specific episodes at the end of transcripts, rather than having all my sources in a big ugly mishmash that I continually forget to update – there will be a master list of sources available too, though. Facebook and Instagram continue to be a thing that you can join and interact with, and I am also on twitter, @darkagespod is what you’re looking for in most social media cases, or you can use chicklets on the website, which is again, darkagespod.com.

Lastly, I have also set up a ko-fi page. Ko-fi is a way you can, if you choose, buy me a coffee, it is in other words an online tip-jar. The goal is to defray a bit the costs of hosting as well as support my slightly alarming used-book habit – the online gambling habit can only do so much. To find my page and donate, go to https://ko-fi.com/darkagespod, or click the link that I’ll put in the notes for this episode. Absolutely no pressure, of course, I will love you all no matter what, but much appreciation if you do. 

If you are new to the show, now seems as good a place as any to insert a note about the show’s title. If you’ve heard this before, just zone out for a sec. The Dark Ages is, as a term, extremely unfashionable among academic types, not just on the usual basis that breaking history into distinctive and defined chunks is unrealistic and artificial. The phrase can carry negative connotations, judgment on the past, if you will, and that certainly is how it was meant by the Enlightenment historians who came up with it in the first place. The way I mean it, though, is in the sense of darkness making it difficult to see. There are fewer sources for the time between 450 and say 900 than there are for the periods either before or after; so they are dark to us. So that’s why I used the phrase as a title. Also, because I thought you’d be more likely to click play than if it was called the Early Middle Ages Podcast. Professional historians, by and large, are terrible at marketing.

Enough blibber and too much blabber, it’s time to get into this thing. 

I have two goals for this episode. One: to introduce my plan for this so-called season two, and B, to talk about warfare in the early middle ages, so as we move forward and I start talking about various armies knocking the stuffing out of each other, you can have some kind of picture in your mind of what that would look like. I have to admit that I have shown extremely poor discipline and very little self-control in the writing of this episode. There is talk about swords, listeners, swords and shields and spears, and on the website there will be pictures of the same; I was, for an hour at least as I wrote this, once again twelve years old, and had to go outside and wave a stick around for a while before I could come inside and return to serious history-ing. So I hope you will indulge me in my incontinence.

How does that sound? Okay? No that sounded awful, I mean the plan for the episode, does that sound okay?

I take your silence for enthusiastic consent.

The problem is and always has been that once the Roman empire went the way of the dodo, the narrative becomes fractured. There is no longer a history of the Roman empire, there’s a history of the Franks and a history of Britain and a history of north africa, and so on and so forth. Trying to do all of them at once, in parallel to each other, one episode here, next episode over there, obviously isn’t the best option, and indeed makes me question the wisdom of starting this podcast in the first place. Too late now!

So my plan is to do a series of episodes focusing on one place/people, and take the story through from 476 to some spot around 540-50, or some date close to that that makes sense. Then will move back and do another series on a different country or people, for roughly the same period. Hopefully that will keep narrative threads from getting too muddled, and we can build up a picture of Europe as it transitioned to a post-roman reality as we go. I’ve decided, after long debates and conversations with myself in the shower and while lying in bed, to begin in the center, with Italy, and then move on to what will be France, and then see where the wind takes us, though we could very easily sink into the marshes of France and never be seen again. 

In between these series I’ll insert some thematic rather than narrative episodes as interludes. The bulk of this episode is one of those. I also know that I want to do one on the papacy, one about the Germanic tradition of heroic legends, etc. Clear? Maybe? Anyway, that’s the plan. Oh and if you have ideas about the kind of topics you’d like to hear about in this longitudinal way, please let me know, I will almost certainly run out of ideas… I basically already have.

And now, the time has come to talk of other things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and if we have time, maybe even cabbages and kings.

The rest of this episode will be about what it said on the title, the domain of Mars, Tyr, and Perun , the greatest evil, God help us how we love it, War and the making of it.

The thematic approach means that we’ll be casting a wide temporal net, from the end of Roman rule in the west to roughly the reign of Charlemagne in the eighth and ninth centuries, because the general principles of warfare didn’t change too terribly much across the time. The fundamentals, really, would hold true for later centuries too, despite changes to armor technology and increasing sophistication in the raising of armies. at its most basic, until the arrival of firearms, warfare involved men sticking sharp pieces of metal into other men at uncomfortably close range.

The people who wrote down capital H history in the early Middle Ages mostly concerned themselves with what we would call political history. The deeds of kings and chieftains, the movement of peoples. While these things necessarily involve the waging of wars, and indeed large swathes of text are devoted to the movement and clash of armies, details are just about always lacking. If you’ve listened from the beginning, you’ll remember the description of the battle of the Catalaunian Fields, by Jordanes. He recorded the names and positions of commanders, a general sense of the to-ing and fro-ing, and a wholly invented speech by Atilla that I think I cut out at the time. Very stirring and all, but nothing for a military historian to hang his tweed coat with elbow patches on. How many of the combatants were cavalry, and how many were foot? How had they been recruited? Who trained them? What kind of weapons did they carry and what tactics did they use? The chroniclers have little to tell about these things, because that wasn’t their goal. 

We’ve talked about this before; classical historians approached history as an art, a literary endeavor. As the classical world transitioned into the medieval, it also took on a moral dimension, history became a tool of moral instruction. Either way, the day-to-day social history, the grubby and often unedifying mechanics of it, even the very kingly arts of administration and logistics, were way down on the historians’ list of priorities.

Clearly we have to look elsewhere for the kind of information we’re looking for. Archeology is one place, incidental information can be found in other literature, and probably most exciting are military manuals. The eastern half of the empire carried on, and in the sixth century, the emperor Maurice compiled a book called the Strategikon, which contained plenty of information about Byzantine organization and tactics, and most interestingly for us, discussions of various other peoples’ military characteristics and how to fight them. In the west, the classic Latin military manual was De re militaris by Vegetius, which was mainly theoretical and was obsolete by the fall of the empire. Its shortcomings were recognized by its audience, judging by the repeated revisions made to it as it was recopied. Low literacy levels among the warrior classes meant that Vegetius only became widely known later in the middle ages, but its preservation demonstrated the intelligentsia’s (ie the church) drive to maintain the traditions of the lost empire.

By and large the armies of the states that succeeded the Roman Empire were a continuation of the empire’s military forces, not their replacement. Because of the progressive barbarization of the army that had been ongoing for the last century and that we’ve talked about extensively, the Roman army was composed almost entirely of peoples whose heritage lay beyond the frontiers. We haven’t talked much about why that had happened, and only very briefly about what those armies looked like. So even though we killed off the Roman Empire at the end of last season, let’s talk a little bit more about it now. This is going to keep happening, by the way, like a Marvel hero, the Roman way of doing things was too valuable to ever actually kill off.

There is an old strand of historiography that puts out the idea that the inflow of Germanic and other foreign soldiers to the Roman army was due to a population problem, that there just weren’t enough Romans around to keep the muster rolls up to needed levels. That theory is, to use a technical term, complete woo. Even the larger estimates for the total manpower of the Roman military at its height rarely crack one million, and the safer bet is between 500 and 700 thousand. In the later empire after the reforms of Constantine, that includes both stationary garrison troops and the mobile field armies. With estimates for the empire’s total population in the area of 60 to 80 million, no more than 5% at the most of the able bodied male population would have been under arms at any given time. The army’s personnel issues weren’t a supply problem, they were a motivational problem. The reluctance of the Italian population to serve was noted and commented on in the late republican period, and it became ever more pronounced as time went on. The army operated where it was needed, so along the fortified and volatile limes, the frontiers, especially the Rhine and Danube, and along the ever shifting Persian frontier in the far east. The empire thus gradually settled, like sediment, into a militarized shell surrounding an almost entirely de-militarized core. Recruiting efforts at the core were notoriously difficult, most peasants would run away and hide when the recruiters came around, and their bosses, the landlords, helped them do it, hiding workers and lying to officials about the populations of their estates to avoid losing workers and productivity. So internal recruitment came almost exclusively from the provinces that lay in the semi-permanent warzones, like Britannia and Illyricum. 

Now there was a supply problem, since that seriously reduced the size of the recruiting pool.  And so the generals and officers turned to the tribes beyond the borders to fill their quotas. Among most of those tribes, the bearing of arms brought prestige, and leaders were able to buy Roman support for their own maneuvers against their rivals at the cost of a few cohorts of hardy fighters. It became a cycle, as these units were brought in, sometimes given land or a share of tax revenue directly, and became self-perpetuating settlements, with most of the male population focused on fighting. The gulf between military and civilian culture widened rapidly, and it didn’t take too long for the fighting men to regard those that did not take up arms as second-rate.

How armies were supported and paid for at the end of empire and in the time immediately after is a subject of considerable debate among historians, and the absence of source material means that it probably always will be. The most complete information comes from Italy, perhaps unsurprisingly. There, the army was allotted a third of the estates to support themselves. But what does that mean? Was one third of the land commandeered by the state to hand out to individual army officers? That doesn’t seem like a situation likely to produce peace and harmony. Another possibility is that one third of the tax revenue was allocated to the military, so the landowner would pay two thirds of what they normally would to the government, the remaining third directly to the army.  Possible, seems cumbersome, but possible. The third option is that the fighting men in question were billeted on the landowner, and entitled to one third of the tax revenue going toward maintaining those guests. We just don’t know. 

When the western imperium disappeared or was withdrawn, it took basically no serious effort for the militarized barbarian leaders to assert their control over the empire’s territories, given that they basically had that control anyway, and in most cases the Roman aristocracy was happy to work with the new bosses. Doing so kept them safe, kept their peasants on their lands where they belonged, and often meant a considerably lower tax burden than had previously been the case. 

Whatever the original arrangement, gradually the military men either bought, inherited, or half-inched land for themselves into direct ownership. Soon these warriors, who already felt a sense of difference and superiority due to their fighting position, could add landowning to their status. To me, we’re seeing the birth of the particularly medieval idiom of nobility, for whom war and land were the most important, and for many the only important aspect of their lives, and what set them apart and above the rest of the population. They would gather around them other fighting men who would serve as the professional core of his army. The system grew and transformed over time. These men were professionals, though in the largely money-less economy of the time, their payment took the form of rights to gather taxes from particular lands, or title to the land itself, and might also include gifts of weapons, clothing, or room and board. These kinds of arrangements led to a much more intimate relationship than a simple employer-employee relationship, and loyalty was very important to the honor of both parties. 

The old Roman nobility, meanwhile, was not necessarily boxed out, though many probably were. Others adapted. Names began to change, in the writings of Gregory of Tours it’s extremely common for one brother of a pair to have a Latin name, the other to have a clearly Germanic one. Usually the former would seek a clerical career, the latter would go to serve in the military. You could become a Frank or a Goth. Ethnicity was functional more than genetic.

The largely barbarian heritage of the imperial army meant that at least initially, most units across western Europe ran along similar lines, and ethnic variations in administration were less important than we might imagine. Each had its own different traditions and styles of fighting, and there were different degrees of development, but the western European framework was pretty well established from the beginning. The Franks in particular would be the trendsetters throughout most of the early middle ages.

So how big were these post Roman armies? I know it’s slightly tiresome hearing me say this over and over, but there is considerable debate. We can’t trust written sources, who a) weren’t conducting archival research and usually weren’t witnesses to the events they described; b) often provide round numbers with biblical or classical symbolism center stage (lots of 3s, 4s, and 12s); and c) probably would have been ill-equipped to provide a count even if they had been present. 

I feel that last point bears expansion, and I swear this is not just an excuse for personal rambling. It’s a little bit of an excuse for personal rambling. I go to two or three Brewers games every baseball season, and in the eighth inning there is a quiz on the Jumbotron to guess the day’s attendance. (I know that that is not a Brewers-only tradition, but this is a personal anecdote, so that’s what I’m going with). Even when I’m sitting in the cheap seats, with a view of almost all of the ballpark, I get this question wrong every single time, usually by several thousand. My point is it is difficult to estimate the size of large gatherings. How much harder would it be for someone who spent most of their lives in a community of at most a couple of hundred in the case of a king’s or  major lord’s household, and considerably less for the vast majority of the population. For a major campaign, it’s unlikely that anyone really knew exactly how many men mustered, including their commanders.

Most of the organized violence of the early middle ages was not in large international campaigns though. Border raiding and vendetta-wars probably made up the vast majority of armed conflict. It was on a much smaller scale but much greater frequency than broader international conflicts. The Anglo-Saxon law code of Ine defines an army as any assemblage of more than 36 fighting men, which seems tiny to us, but probably reflected the lived reality far more closely than the writings of clerics far from the action and with ideological axes to grind. Violence was more common in the daily run of things than the chroniclers tell us, and it’s not like they are a list of tea parties and folk music festivals.

Rulers did their best to use the law to regulate blood feud and reduce the frequency of private wars, but in reality an element of blood-feud ran through even the highest politics. The most common form of warfare was probably raiding, which then provoked counter-raiding, and could easily snowball into much larger problems in a very brief time.

Raiding was motivated by the desire for plunder (I find it very hard to say booty without giggling). The plunder would take various forms, very rarely money. Cattle, food, any kind of luxury goods raiders could get their hands on, and people, either for ransom or as slaves. This wasn’t just shallow greed. Plunder was shared out among commanders, who then distributed the wealth down through their own followers. This largesse bound the leaders and their men together in a chain of loyalty that could run very deep, but keeping up the flow of goodies was essential. A lord maintained his position through the distribution of patronage.

The men who took part in these raids would have started young, in their mid-teens. By their mid twenties, most would be well acquainted with the experience of combat and capable of leading others into it. Imagine your high school’s varsity football team, but with edged weapons. And probably a similar sense of entitlement.

The dynamics within the warrior cadre were volatile and carried the potential for violence at all times. At every level, men fought jockeyed for recognition and preferment from those above them, and fierce rivalry was the norm. The Germanic tradition of succession, where any suitable male from the royal family could potentially inherit, meant there was very little sentimentality among noble siblings. Between these rivalries, the generally high concentration of testosterone, and the logistical problem of feeding large gatherings of people, it behooved a commander to get his army moving and out of his territory as soon as possible after a muster. Better to let them use all that energy against the enemy than each other. Or, just as bad, start talking among themselves about who might be more worthy of their loyalty.

Speaking of edged weapons, how would all these teenagers have been equipped? Personally, a fascination with weaponry is what got me into medieval history in the first place. I also know, from my experiences in the comments section of youtube, that there is nothing that nerds on the internet will argue about more ferociously. I’m not an expert, keep that in mind before shouting at me for disappointing you. Also, as we move into this, you’re going to want pictures, so I refer you again to the website www.darkagespod.com, where you will find images carefully selected for your edification.

The most common weapon in the early medieval arsenal was absolutely and definitely not the sword, no matter how iconic and romantic they may be. I’ll come back to swords, but the most common weapon, by a wide margin, was the spear. Spears appear in early medieval literature as a metonym for war itself, as they do going all the way back to Homer. Spear points are the most common weapon found in graves of the time, and come in a wide range of shapes and functions. Light spears of various lengths were for throwing. Lances were for the mounted warrior, which would be used couched, the way we think of the mounted knight, but also underhand to the side, or overhand in a downward stabbing motion. Some shorter spears had long, robust heads which might have been used to both stab and slash, similar to the polearms of later eras. As the early middle ages progressed, lugs began to appear on the sockets of many spears. For a very long time these have been interpreted as devices to prevent the spear from getting stuck in a target, or in hunting to keep a boar from running up the shaft and killing the spear’s bearer. The more recent scholarship doubts that interpretation. For one thing, these lugs are so far down the shaft that the spear would be nearly through an enemy’s body before meeting them, which makes the prevention of stuck spears argument unlikely, plus they’re often no wider than the blade they’re associated with, sometimes less. Given that the spear was used as a melee weapon, these lugs may have been defensive, designed to catch and deflect opponents’ weapons, like the cross guard on a sword. It’s also possible that they’re simply decorative.

Angon, a Merovingian javelin derived from the Roman pilum.

While we’re discussing themes that will get me in trouble with people in trench coats, let’s move on to axes. Because surely if we imagine the warrior of the dark ages, we imagine the bearded Viking with his battle ax. The good news is that yes, the Vikings were enthusiastic users of the battle ax. The bad news is that we won’t be talking about Vikings on this podcast for a good long while yet, they’re 300 years in the future for us, and the evidence for widespread use of the ax in warfare in the rest of Europe is scant indeed. The axes that were used were single handed so they could be used with a shield, and that limited their reach. We already talked about an earlier episode about the Francisca, the Franks’ signature throwing ax. Those are found in Frankish territories fairly frequently, but are not nearly as ubiquitous as might be expected. But you may find it gratifying to know that the ones that are found are usually found with the top point broken off from use. But the Francisca being a close-range single-use projectile, could never have been a primary weapon. And just to close the hatch on axes, no double headed ax from the early Middle Ages has ever been found in western or Northern Europe. Sorry.

More basic than the ax and probably the oldest human weapon of war, the club, along with its marginally more evolved cousin the mace, remained an option, even for the proudest of warriors. A big heavy stick, you may remember way back, was the weapon favored by the Goths for destroying the Roman legions at Adrianople, and its obvious utility kept in circulation all the way up to the Norman invasion of England and beyond. The Bayeux tapestry depicts the most reverend and holy Bishop Odo of Bayeux with a big honking stick at the battle of Hastings. His half-brother, the conqueror himself, also wields one.

Everyone’s favorite weapon, of course, the one that gets all the press, is the sword. Swords of our period seem mainly to have been modeled on the roman cavalry sword, the spatha. Long, straight, and double edged, swords in this form were designed for slashing, and required a fair amount of room to use. The gladius, the short sword of the legions, had fallen out of favor during the third century, as it was adapted primarily to close-order fighting, and the tight legionary formations had become obsolete as the Romans turned their attention to more mobile cavalry armies. The early-medieval evolution of the spatha combined it with Germanic patterns through distinct stages, passing through swords of the migration period, to those made by Merovingian smiths in the eighth century, to culminate in what is usually called a “Viking” sword. More properly it should be called the Carolingian pattern, as the shape was well established in the Frankish empire by the time the Norse adopted it and made it their own. Straight with a mostly rounded tip, these blades were all primarily slashing weapons. Early versions were smooth-bladed, but as time went on smiths incorporated fullers in the blade to reduce weight and improve strength. Grips were generally short, in the neighborhood of four inches, so single-hand use only. The cross guard was one of the innovations from the spatha, and were usually straight in the earlier part of our period, though a fashion for curved guards would develop in Britain and Scandinavia later on. Pommels show the most variation between periods and places. Earliest swords commonly sport flattened pyramid-like pommels, later to be joined by simple discs, the brazil nut oblong shape, and the three or five lobes of the classic “viking sword”. The giving and receiving of swords was a highly significant ritual, and a special class of early swords, called ring-swords, give historians something to puzzle about. These particular swords have holes in their pommels with a ring passed through them, they are usually high quality, but they are found in multiple contexts and cultures, and their significance remains uncertain.

The most significant thing about the sword, though, was its cost. Fair warning, I’m about to spend some time talking about metalworking in some detail, so if that kind of thing isn’t your bag, just skip ahead about three minutes or so, or think of this as training for a time when I inevitably ramble on about textile manufacture in some later episode. 

A spatha, 6th century, the ancestor of medieval swords.
Merovingian Sword with scabbard, 6th or 7th century. Clearly a high-status weapon, with jeweled hilt.
Carolingian sword, 8th or 9th century.
Viking sword, 9th or 10th century.

The furnaces that were used to produce iron from ore in our period are called bloomeries, and they don’t get hot enough to truly melt the iron. Instead, the gasses produced by burning charcoal reduce the iron molecules and separate them from its ore. These iron particles fall to the bottom of the furnace to collect along with melted slag to form the bloom – or sponge iron.  That sponge iron then was collected and beaten while hot with very large hammers to drive out the melted slag and produce forgeable iron ingots or bars. European bloomeries in the post roman period could produce somewhere between 5 and 20 kilograms of iron at a time, which doesn’t sound like a lot, because it isn’t. Much later the adoption of the waterwheel to run bellows would increase the capacity of bloomeries until they were replaced by blast furnaces, but that would be a 13th century development, very far in the future for us. 

Once the iron was produced, smiths would set about building a sword, and I use the word building deliberately. The quality of the iron was such that it could not simply be pounded into a flat blade shape, at least not if you wanted to last more than a few minutes in combat. In order to achieve the necessary toughness along with flexibility, sword blades were pattern welded. Specific techniques varied from place to place, but let’s take the Frankish process as an example. The smith would take two or three rods of iron and twist them together into a larger rod. He would repeat that two more times, so he has three twisted rods. He would then lay them together with untwisted rods on the outside, so plain, three twists, plain, and forge-weld all five of them together. Forge-welding is exactly what you think it is, separate pieces are heated and then hammered together. Once the bars were welded, the whole thing could be flattened to the desired thickness and shape and then polished and sharpened. Some smiths also folded the blade and hammered it flat a few times to produce more layers, sometimes over a thousand. These layers produced wavy patterns on the blade, hence pattern welding.

As an aside, these kinds of patterned blades are sometimes called Damascus steel, but that’s incorrect. There are superficial similarities, but true Damascus steel was made from much higher quality crucible steel made in India and Sri Lanka and then imported to the Middle east where it was made into blades. It could also refer to a Chicago improv troupe from the early 2010s – how’s that for a niche reference?

The blades manufactured by our blacksmith would have a narrow tang at the end of it, where the grip of wood or sometimes bone would be fitted, along with the cross guard and pommel. This was obviously a time consuming process requiring considerable skill, and so swords were ferociously expensive. Hand forged ones still are of course, but they were even more so in the middle ages. The Romans had maintained factories that produced weapons for the armies, but as these became less and less viable, production efficiency declined and costs rose. The expense meant that they were the weapon of the nobility, available only to the upper echelons, and came to be associated with nobility in itself. That association took time, though, and only really became clear from the sixth century onward.

So much for offense, what about defense? Shields were almost universally round, sometimes oval, and made of wood. At the center of the circle would be a hole, with a grip placed across it, then covered with a metal dome called a boss. The shield bosses in most of our time period were conical in shape, many with a peened rod or button projecting at the center, designed to catch enemy weapons, it also could be used to punch. In spite of what you may have in mind, most shields were not edged in iron banding, though they may have been bound with leather. Shields were brightly painted, but ultimately disposable, the shattering of shields, or the gradual whittling down of them in long flights is a common theme in descriptions of battles.

Armor was mainly mail or lamelar. I assume most of you know what chain mail is, lamellar armor consists of small square or rectangular plates of metal sewn together at the edges with wire or leather. It was easier to produce than mail and therefore cheaper, but less versatile. Helmets appear to have been fairly common and descended from the late-roman ridge helmet. These were called spangenhelms, strap helmets in German, because of their construction. Three to six plates were riveted to metal straps to produce a cone shape, usually with a nose guard, sometimes including cheek or ear flaps and a mail aventail in the back. Some later helmets add the distinctive Viking “goggles” around the eyes. The added protection these provided was minimal, but it did make the wearer more intimidating, which was probably the point.  Toward the end of our period, as metalworking skill increased, the spangenhelm was replaced by a similarly shaped helmet made from a single piece of steel, which eliminated the weak points of the riveted construction.

All of this talk of armor applies to the specialists, the full-time warriors who will evolve into knights and nobles. If the local militia levies had to be called out, they would be in much worse shape, protection wise, maybe quilted leather or canvas if they were lucky. 

And that’s the thing about these armies. There was a vast gulf in equipment and especially training between the professional warrior class and the general population. Judging by chroniclers comments, when the militia was called out they could often be more a danger to themselves than to any enemy. The warriors’ specialized role and a lifetime spent at arms and exposure to carnage made them pretty much unbeatable by peasants in anything other than overwhelming numbers, and it would remain that way into the high Middle Ages, around the 14th century.

The actual details of the training of fighting men are very hard to come by indeed. Young men, boys really, sought service in the household of some local strongman. While in that house, he would train with other men in a wide range of martial skills, and would have been comfortable with just about any weapon he laid his hands on, including the bow. There was at this stage, no snobbery around archery as a tactic, and everyone could shoot. The most important and most loved component of military training was, say it with me, the hunt.

Absolutely willing (eager, even) and able to disembowel you.

The hunt brought together so many elements that would be important on the battlefield, it’s no wonder that it would be the noble pastime par excellence throughout the Middle Ages. While hunting, a young warrior would learn to make decisions under pressure, spend long days in the saddle and handle a horse with confidence and grace, most important he would learn to work and communicate well with the other men in the household. He would handle spears, bows, and swords, and blood them, and he could and did face danger head on. This wasn’t sitting in a tree with a rifle, The European boar was an adversary fully capable of maiming or killing its pursuers, as were the bears and wolves that sometimes were the target. Even deer Can be dangerous, especially when wounded. You may have noticed, a lot of them have spiky things on their heads, and hooves are sharp and can be well aimed. There were also the more mundane dangers of the chase, chief among them falls and kicks from horses and the friendly fire of one’s companions. It was a fellow-huntsman’s arrow that killed William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, in 1100, and he’s just the most famous example.

Training and hunting prepared a warrior for battle, but there was no substitute for experience, and well-seasoned fighting men were highly valued. The chaos of the early medieval battle is captured thoroughly in an Anglo-Saxon poem of the tenth century, called The Battle of Maldon. The poem records a real battle between Vikings and the army of an Anglo-Saxon earl named Byrhtnoth in the summer of 991. The poem tells of the Anglo-Saxons’ defeat in stirring and heroic terms – the English have always been good at that. I toyed with the idea of learning to read part of it in old English, but chickened out. So I will link to someone competent reading it, and instead here’s an excerpt from a translation by Johnathan Glenn, with some light editing by me for readability. Couple of vocabulary notes: the fyrð is the Anglo-Saxon army, made up of free men or paid fighters, a byrnie is a short mail shirt with short sleeves.  

Then the sea-warrior hurled a southern spear so that the warrior’s lord was wounded.

He shoved then with shield so the shaft burst – the spear broke and sprang back.

Enraged was that warrior: with spear he stung the proud Viking who gave him the wound.

Wise was that fyrð-warrior: he let his spear wade through the youth’s neck, his hand guided it, so that it reached life in the ravager.

Then he another speedily shot so that the byrnie burst; he was wounded in breast through the ring-locked mail; in him at heart stood poisoned point. 

The earl was the blither: the brave man laughed then, said thanks to fate [metod] for the day-work God gave him.

Then a certain warrior let a hand-dart fly, so that it went forth through that noble, Æthelred’s thegn.

By his side stood an ungrown youth, a lad in the battle, Wulfstan’s son, Wulfmaer the Young, who full valiantly drew from the man the bloody spear.

He let tempered shaft fare back again: the point sank in so he on earth lay who had his lord so grievously reached.

An armed man then went to the earl: he wished to fetch the wealth of that warrior – spoil and rings and adorned sword.

Regardless of what we may think of the early medieval warrior’s outlook, his disdain for the peasantry, or his casual violence, we have to admit and admire at least a little, his personal bravery. The death he faced whenever he took the field would be painful, ugly, and could arrive in an instant. From an early age fighters would have become used to witnessing a range of mutilations and death personally and regularly. The wounds found in battlefield graveyards bear grim witness to the carnage. 

Warning – incoming descriptions of carnage. I won’t linger, skip ahead about a minute if you want to.

The massacre at Visby left one such mass burial in Sweden. From 1361, it’s obviously later than our period, but the manner of death was the same. One skull has a deep gash below the eyes, cheek bones broken and crushed and the nose neatly bisected. Another skull, from the battle of Towton, was slashed left to right from temple to palate, and was nearly split in half. Horrifying as those deaths might have been to witness, they were at least probably quick. The man whose abdomen was punctured by an arrow or sword point would most likely linger in agony for days until sepsis finished him off. 

What the psychological effects of such things, witnessing them, being threatened with them, inflicting them on others, we can only guess at. Responses to trauma are to some degree mediated by culture, and it’s possible, even probable, that the men of Euric or Charlemagne’s courts slept like babies. Lord knows they were getting enough exercise. 

The warrior’s reputation, which was his greatest personal asset, was based on that bravery. It was more broadly important than just individual pride or renown. The stress of battle was such that once panic set in in one part of an army, it would quickly spread, and fleeing armies would quickly become massacred armies. The ability to stoutly hold one’s place in line while carnage unfolded around one was essential not only for the survival of the individual but potentially the survival of the entire unit. Vegetius noted in de re militari that “troops that have never been in action or have not been for some time used to such spectacles, are greatly shocked at the sight of the wounded and dying; and the impressions of fear they receive dispose them rather to fly than to fight.”

That was probably the biggest reason militia levies were so unreliable and so generally despised, they simply weren’t used to the scale of the bloodshed and so were understandably much more likely to flee and so endanger the entire army.

We can’t really blame those levies, fighting wasn’t in their job description. The whole purpose of a full-time fighting class was to protect non-combatants, the farmers (“feh”) and the church (the amount of “feh” directed that way would vary on an individual basis). Unfortunately that basic structure led, logically, to the most common strategy in large-scale warfare, and what was probably the most generally experienced facet of war by the populace: wasting.

Suppose you’re a local lord, a strongman. You have your warband around you, a few dozen men full time, and can put out word for another couple hundred when needs be. You’ve gotten into a debate with your neighboring lord, and the utensils have come out. That neighboring lord, rather than attack you directly, will gather his men and start moving through your territory, sacking each and every village along the way. If this was a raid, he would take what he wanted and drive off the animals, but this is more serious. His men don’t drive the animals off, they slaughter them and leave them to rot, they burn the crops, and the villages, torture, murder, and rape anyone who withholds information, or really whoever they feel like. You, as the overlord, have a responsibility to these people – it’s a reciprocal relationship, no matter how little you think of them, you need them to keep you and your men fed. If an enemy can burn and murder his way across your territory without challenge, what good are you? The peasantry – and more catastrophically for one’s reputation, the abbeys – might very well decide to switch sides, at least it would make the burning stop. As always, it was the common people who suffered most when princes went to war. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Wasting was a direct outgrowth of the social structure, and would remain more or less standard practice well into the modern age. The goal in the middle ages was either to force defection, or if you were confident, to provoke the opponent to battle. Battles were risky, but more common in the dark ages than they would be in later medieval eras, as castles developed and the arts of siege warfare were refined.

I feel that I could talk much more about all of this, and probably will. There are still the logistical problems of an army, feeding them, moving them, maintaining morale. But I think that’s enough for today. It will probably come up in the course of later episodes, so just be prepared for those digressions. 

Next time, we’ll be back to the story, right where we left off, with the German mercenary commander Odoacer in control of Italy. Whatever will he do with it?

Thank you all for listening. Don’t forget to check the website www.darkagespod.com for transcripts of episodes as well as images and helpful links. I’ll put some pictures up on Instagram @darkagespod, but the larger galleries will be here on the website. Also if you are feeling froggy (I don’t know where I picked that phrase up, but I like it) and would like to make a donation toward the continued existence of the Dark Ages Podcast, you can do so at ko-fi.com/darkagespod, or click the link in the episode description. Not expected, always appreciated.

That’s all for now. Until next time, take care.


Crossley-Holland, Kevin, ed. 2009. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland. N.p.: OUP Oxford.

Delbruck, Hans. 1980. The Barbarian Invasions. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books.

Frassetto, Michael. 2003. Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe: Society in Transformation. N.p.: ABC-CLIO.

Halsall, Guy. 2003. Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900. N.p.: Routledge.

Shaw, Brent D. 1999. “War and Violence.” In Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, edited by Professor Emeritus of Ancient History G W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Peter Robert L. Brown, Oleg Grabar, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Art and Architecture O. Grabar, and Glen W. Bowersock, 130-169. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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