Quality of Feudal Arms

Nov 2013
676
Texas
#1
My impression of medieval western armies is that they were generally:

A: Not very Big
B: Not very good

C: Or maybe B is off. Feudal armies (such as the Normans, Crusaders, Spanish, Portuguese) could be surprisingly competent.

If Feudal armies were any efficacy in terms of quality, then why would that have been the case? Barracks? Orders of knights? Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.
 
Jan 2015
2,813
MD, USA
#2
Medieval armies were not very big when they didn't need to be--most warfare was small-scale stuff between neighboring nobles, raids and such. When whole nations went to war, the armies were perfectly big.

What gave you the idea that they weren't very *good*? We know other cultures found Western cavalry to be shockingly effective, and we know Western infantry could stand up to them. Tactics were often simple because that was enough for the circumstances, but we know that more sophisticated tactics and strategems were used sometimes, and that many soldiers were quite professional.

European noblemen trained for warfare pretty much from birth. It's what they did. They were the core of most armies. The infantry and other cavalry that complemented them were sometimes levied, but often trained professionals. All were well-armed. What they lacked was the cohesion of a standing army that trained together regularly, which would limit their tactics to some extent. But there was always a system for raising an army, and it got a lot of use and was generally pretty reliable. So I'm not sure how you got those impressions!

Matthew
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
8,318
#3
Problems with western European feudal armies.

The Divided and often undisciplined nature of their leadership, not always, but political and military power were intertwined. The Lord's authority depended on his abiliaty to enforce it.

The Poor financial / administrative support, undicplined armies when not paid or food often fade away very quickly, or even worse become a rogue element. See later hundred years war, most French/English armies of this period would disperse before actually doing any fighting as the money had run out. Freebooters , independent rouge vassals.
 
Mar 2018
521
UK
#4
Medieval armies were not very big when they didn't need to be--most warfare was small-scale stuff between neighboring nobles, raids and such. When whole nations went to war, the armies were perfectly big.

What gave you the idea that they weren't very *good*? We know other cultures found Western cavalry to be shockingly effective, and we know Western infantry could stand up to them. Tactics were often simple because that was enough for the circumstances, but we know that more sophisticated tactics and strategems were used sometimes, and that many soldiers were quite professional.

European noblemen trained for warfare pretty much from birth. It's what they did. They were the core of most armies. The infantry and other cavalry that complemented them were sometimes levied, but often trained professionals. All were well-armed. What they lacked was the cohesion of a standing army that trained together regularly, which would limit their tactics to some extent. But there was always a system for raising an army, and it got a lot of use and was generally pretty reliable. So I'm not sure how you got those impressions!

Matthew
I'm loathe to disagree with someone so much more knowledgeable than myself, but I don't buy the "they were good enough" argument.

An army is not good enough unless it wins every battle and war with ease. Clearly that wasn't the case with European armies fighting each other (that would be logically impossible), and it wasn't the case when they fought outsiders (be it in the Crusades or against the Mongols). Even a small scale raiding band of 100 men would improve their arms/tactics/training if they could. Why would you not if your life depends on it? The first instance I can think of European armies definitely being close to good enough is in the conquest of the new world.

If the British could have had a better army in the 100 years war, they would have done. I doubt Henry VI wouldn't have improved his army if he could have done, or if he would have refused a band of mercenaries fighting for free without conditions on his side (clearly an impossible situation, but the thought experiment remains). I can see a few reasons why he didn't improve his army:
1) He couldn't afford larger armies, or more professional soldiers. Decentralisation inherent in Feudalism makes it hard for the King to raise funds.
2) He couldn't risk political instability from demanding too large feudal levies for too long, or from leaving home completely undefended against potential rebel lords
3) Lack of knowledge/expertise in how to maintain logistics to feed a larger army for long periods of time
4) Lack of knowledge/expertise in anything but the simplest tactics and stratagems
5) Religious morals and chivalrous thinking set against waging total war

Note that 1) and 2) mean that the army was "good enough for its cost", which is a fair alternative interpretation of good enough. But the others essentially say that he didn't know how to improve it, or couldn't think in the right way to improve it.
 
Jun 2016
1,662
England, 200 yards from Wales
#5
I'm loathe to disagree with someone so much more knowledgeable than myself, but I don't buy the "they were good enough" argument.

An army is not good enough unless it wins every battle and war with ease. Clearly that wasn't the case with European armies fighting each other (that would be logically impossible), and it wasn't the case when they fought outsiders (be it in the Crusades or against the Mongols). Even a small scale raiding band of 100 men would improve their arms/tactics/training if they could. Why would you not if your life depends on it? The first instance I can think of European armies definitely being close to good enough is in the conquest of the new world.

If the British could have had a better army in the 100 years war, they would have done. I doubt Henry VI wouldn't have improved his army if he could have done, or if he would have refused a band of mercenaries fighting for free without conditions on his side (clearly an impossible situation, but the thought experiment remains). I can see a few reasons why he didn't improve his army:
1) He couldn't afford larger armies, or more professional soldiers. Decentralisation inherent in Feudalism makes it hard for the King to raise funds.
2) He couldn't risk political instability from demanding too large feudal levies for too long, or from leaving home completely undefended against potential rebel lords
3) Lack of knowledge/expertise in how to maintain logistics to feed a larger army for long periods of time
4) Lack of knowledge/expertise in anything but the simplest tactics and stratagems
5) Religious morals and chivalrous thinking set against waging total war

Note that 1) and 2) mean that the army was "good enough for its cost", which is a fair alternative interpretation of good enough. But the others essentially say that he didn't know how to improve it, or couldn't think in the right way to improve it.
Some fair points, though I suspect the question of quality is sometimes obscured by other things, such as numbers. For instance crusader armies could beat the opposition, even when considerably outnumbered, as at Montgisard in 1177, but, in the end, numbers told, once the neighbouring Muslim states were united under Saladin the resources were just too unbalanced.
Also with the Hundred Years War, France always had greater numbers and resources, but was divided in the earlier 15th century - once united under a reasonably effective ruler the end was nigh - so I suspect your reasons 1 & 2 are important.
 
Nov 2013
676
Texas
#6
What gave you the idea that they weren't very *good*? We know other cultures found Western cavalry to be shockingly effective, and we know Western infantry could stand up to them. Tactics were often simple because that was enough for the circumstances, but we know that more sophisticated tactics and strategems were used sometimes, and that many soldiers were quite professional.

European noblemen trained for warfare pretty much from birth. It's what they did. They were the core of most armies. The infantry and other cavalry that complemented them were sometimes levied, but often trained professionals. All were well-armed. What they lacked was the cohesion of a standing army that trained together regularly, which would limit their tactics to some extent. But there was always a system for raising an army, and it got a lot of use and was generally pretty reliable. So I'm not sure how you got those impressions!

Matthew
Put simply, feudal armies weren't very large

I doubt they were particularly fast

As curiously competent as feudal armies were, there was a reason they tended to either lose (Crusaders loss of Jerusalem), fade (Normans) or at least be better more for border disputes than anything else (as opposed to conquering a huge empire like Pre-Islamic Persia did.)

Although Feudal armies coudl be curiously competent (Normans for example) , they usually weren't up against world class armies (like pagan Greco-Roman armies, or the Chinese) usually they fought well because they were

A: Against a society in a state of martial or political decay (like the Islamic taifas after the fall of the Cordoba Caliphate.) That was even true of fights against the Arabs (strictly speaking the west seldom fought Arabs whose first wave of expansion was largely done after their botch at Constantinople in 717)

B: Revisionist insistience (like revisionist insisitng that feudal armies did a better job of fighting the Mongol Empire than it actually did; even though even if that were the case it may have had more to do with a defensive advantage, or some other factor than the quality or quantity of the feudal arms)

C: Involved in Border disputes (as opposed to an intercontinental dominant empire like the Romans)

D: Were not up against world class armies (like the CHinese or the pagan greco-romans.......though the 10th crusade did fight well against the Egyptian Mameluks). Lost against the Timurids (Well, that wasn't western Europe.....) , lost against the MOngol empire (despite amateur insistence otherwise), lost against Baibers (though the 10th crusade did fight well against the Egyptian Mameluks.
 
Last edited:

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,475
Dispargum
#7
Part of the answer depends on circumstances. There were some Medieval armies that consisted mostly or entirely of untrained, undisciplined rabble. Other armies at other times and places consisted entirely of knights - professional soldiers trained from childhood with the very best weapons and equipment. Be careful about making apples and oranges comparisons.
 
Jan 2015
2,813
MD, USA
#8
An army is not good enough unless it wins every battle and war with ease.
WHAT??? THAT's your definition?? Good grief, there is no army that has ever existed that even comes close to that! But I guess if you're going to set impossibly high criteria by which to judge, yeah, even the best medieval army was pretty pathetic! Even the modern US military fails miserably, really.

Clearly that wasn't the case with European armies fighting each other (that would be logically impossible), and it wasn't the case when they fought outsiders (be it in the Crusades or against the Mongols).
Europeans did beat Mongols sometimes, and Crusaders had a number of notable victories. They were clearly "good enough" to achieve their desired goals. They had no concept of easy world conquest and no desire to try. Why should they?

Even a small scale raiding band of 100 men would improve their arms/tactics/training if they could. Why would you not if your life depends on it?
Um, because raiders only needed to be strong enough to grab the loot they wanted, then flee the scene before the locals could muster a counterforce? Certainly there were clever tactics used sometimes--Viking ships spring to mind. Those allowed the Vikings to strike where they wanted, which was usually where the defenders were NOT. Because they knew they didn't want to fight if they didn't have to, even if they they had a chance of winning. If your life depends on not getting an arrow through you, the obvious best defense is to not be around when the archer arrives, eh? Who needs training and top-notch state-of-the-art arms and armor for that? Do modern street gangs invest heavily in body armor, disciplined tactical training, and constant target practice?

The first instance I can think of European armies definitely being close to good enough is in the conquest of the new world.
Ha, those "conquerors" were hardly the cream of the crop! And their numbers were shockingly few, as well. They won (and NOT always easily) because of their enormous technological superiority, and by being backed by overwhelming numbers of immigrants.

If the British could have had a better army in the 100 years war, they would have done. I doubt Henry VI wouldn't have improved his army if he could have done, or if he would have refused a band of mercenaries fighting for free without conditions on his side (clearly an impossible situation, but the thought experiment remains). I can see a few reasons why he didn't improve his army:
1) He couldn't afford larger armies, or more professional soldiers. Decentralisation inherent in Feudalism makes it hard for the King to raise funds.
2) He couldn't risk political instability from demanding too large feudal levies for too long, or from leaving home completely undefended against potential rebel lords
3) Lack of knowledge/expertise in how to maintain logistics to feed a larger army for long periods of time
4) Lack of knowledge/expertise in anything but the simplest tactics and stratagems
5) Religious morals and chivalrous thinking set against waging total war

Note that 1) and 2) mean that the army was "good enough for its cost", which is a fair alternative interpretation of good enough. But the others essentially say that he didn't know how to improve it, or couldn't think in the right way to improve it.
Well, I think you're blaming the people of the past for not being modern. They knew the limitations of their military and social systems far better than we ever can! It's what they had to work with, and it's clear from the historical record that many of them were perfectly competent and accomplished their goals. *Most* people would call that "good enough". Henry VI would have been baffled by the idea of sweeping over the rest of Europe with ease, let alone China and Africa.

Do we maintain that a minivan is worthless because it can't win the Datona 500 every time? Or that a stock car is no good because it can't haul enough cargo?

Matthew
 
Likes: Murffy
Jan 2015
2,813
MD, USA
#9
Put simply, feudal armies weren't very large
They weren't supposed to be! The whole system was designed so that each nobleman contributed a share of military power to his liege. That share might just be himself, a couple squires, and a half-dozen infantry, but that was the deal. If a lord's "army" of 50 cavalry and 300 foot, that was plenty to deal with the usual squabbles against his neighbors, none of whom had much more than that. All of those neighbors would band together under the leadership of a noble of higher rank when required, making a bigger army for a bigger job. It was a perfectly good system, and it worked. It also kept military power distributed, because none of those nobles wanted all the power under permanent control of any one man or faction. They did not *want* a large centralized army!

I doubt they were particularly fast
So? The whole world moved at the speed of an ox cart. We can send a plane or missile around the planet in hours, but it takes weeks or months to move an actual modern army any distance.

As curiously competent as feudal armies were, there was a reason they tended to either lose (Crusaders loss of Jerusalem), fade (Normans) or at least be better more for border disputes than anything else (as opposed to conquering a huge empire like Pre-Islamic Persia did.)
So, you're calling Crusader armies incompetent after they marched a couple thousand miles with minimal support and set up a pretty durable set of kingdoms in the middle of enemy territory, surrounded and vastly outnumbered by the locals? Huh.
And the Normans "faded"? You mean, like their descendants don't still live in Normandy, or rule England? I'm a little puzzled by that one. Changes in terminology are hardly a reason for dismissing their martial prowess.

Armies that were good at border disputes were DESIGNED for border disputes! Why blame them for not being perfect at something they were never intended to do, nor even wanted to do? Modern police forces rarely have tank divisions or heavy bomber forces, but we don't scoff at their inadequacy because of that.

Although Feudal armies coudl be curiously competent (Normans for example) , they usually weren't up against world class armies (like pagan Greco-Roman armies, or the Chinese) usually they fought well because they were

A: Against a society in a state of martial or political decay (like the Islamic taifas after the fall of the Cordoba Caliphate.) That was even true of fights against the Arabs (strictly speaking the west seldom fought Arabs whose first wave of expansion was largely done after their botch at Constantinople in 717)

B: Revisionist insistience (like revisionist insisitng that feudal armies did a better job of fighting the Mongol Empire than it actually did; even though even if that were the case it may have had more to do with a defensive advantage, or some other factor than the quality or quantity of the feudal arms)

C: Involved in Border disputes (as opposed to an intercontinental dominant empire like the Romans)

D: Were not up against world class armies (like the CHinese or the pagan greco-romans.......though the 10th crusade did fight well against the Egyptian Mameluks). Lost against the Timurids (Well, that wasn't western Europe.....) , lost against the MOngol empire (despite amateur insistence otherwise), lost against Baibers (though the 10th crusade did fight well against the Egyptian Mameluks.
Sorry, but for starters I have to laugh at the term "Greco-Roman"--to me, Greek and Roman military systems were vastly different things for vastly different purposes. And yes, things changed over time and no one is trying to say that a medieval army can match the Roman army in terms of overall size, cohesiveness, and organization. But practically no medieval army ever needed to! Besides, didn't the Normans do all right against the Byzantine (Roman!) army at some point? One might also point out that tribal Iron Age Celtic/Germanic people were no more united than feudal Europe, but the "world class" Roman army never just swept over them with ease. And after the end of the Roman Empire, Europe remained unconquered by Byzantines, Mongols, Muslims, or Persians. Or even the dreaded Chinese!

Military systems developed and evolved to meet their immediate requirements. Any culture which fails to do so will disappear as soon as the neighbors arrive. VERY few were concerned with dealing with radically different cultures, because there really weren't any. The conquest of the New World is a pretty radical example, because the ocean and distance allowed a huge difference in technology between cultures.

Again, you're blaming people of the past for not measuring up to your personal impossible standards. Not sure I see the point.

Matthew
 
Likes: Todd Feinman
Jan 2015
2,813
MD, USA
#10
...There were some Medieval armies that consisted mostly or entirely of untrained, undisciplined rabble...
But there really weren't any armies like that, were there? There are certainly accounts of undisciplined contingents, all through history, but even the Romans had problems with that now and then. Medieval militia forces were hardly crack troops, by any standards, but there were *always* laws and regulations regarding equipment and at least minimal training. No one ever seriously tried to field a force of clueless farmers with pitchforks, it just didn't happen. Not when they knew very well that some basic equipment and a few hours of drill each week or month would make all the difference in the world on the battlefield.

VERY much agreed that there was wild variation in troops reliability and circumstances!

Matthew
 

Similar History Discussions