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Garrett Hazen




Location: California
Joined: 30 Aug 2006

Posts: 57

PostPosted: Sat 28 Jun, 2008 5:22 pm    Post subject: the average soldier of old         Reply with quote

I've discussed many things among my friends, one including how an average soldier would never have had a complete suit of armour, because if he did, he wouldn't have been just any average soldier. He would have been some insanely wealthy lord of considerable reputation, right? Wouldn't a suit of chain mail have been extremely expensive?
As I have thought about it, I can't think of any average soldier of old that would have had more than some protective garment and a crappy sword and helm provided him by, well whoever provides all the armour.
I live my life in a constant longing for quests of glory, awesome battle garments and armour and weapons, and have not even got close. If all of us were soldiers of old, we would most likely be hand me down nothings, only surviving on our thirst for glory, and maybe we might even get lucky.
I'm not sure what I'm getting at here, but what exactly would an average soldier be like? all of this full armoured contact seems like it only would have occurred between nobles. Would they have had awesome swords like provided by Albion, or could they have even afforded a decent one at all?
To me it seems likely they would have not. But I'd like to here what anyone has to say.

Learn to obey before you command--Solon of Athens
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Simon G.




Location: Lyons, France
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PostPosted: Sat 28 Jun, 2008 5:57 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It really depends on the period. And on the context. And, especially, on what exactly you call an "average soldier".

You have to be careful with the use of the term "soldier". I mean that in the sense that the word "soldier" comes from the salary that the Roman legionaries were getting. So a "soldier" is, normally, a paid professional. Now, salaries did exist in the Middle Ages, and not only towards the end - there are cases of "salaried" men-at-arms known as soon as the XIth century. However, these salaried men-at-arms were always something of an elite - they were not just a peasant pressed into military service by some recruiting sergeant, as would happen later.

This elite, however, was not always nobility. And it could vary very much in status. The first knights were not really "noblemen" - they were wealthy landowners that, because they had the money for it, could (or were forced to) give a military service to their lord. Or they gave that service in exchange of a landholding (a fief) - but these were not given to mere serfs, only to trusted, already quite privileged freemen. This feudal system dates back to about the VIIIth century (with evolutions, of course, those being subject to heated debates). It is only later that things that constitute today the picture of the "noble knight" appeared - a chivalric code, a knighting ceremony, etc. And even then there were some "elite" soldiers not concerned with that - mercenaries, or paid professionals like English longbowmen.

But to answer your question - or at least begin to, since it's a very general one - you have to keep in mind that a medieval soldier, on the average, be he knight or footman, was not your typical adventurer going happy-go-lucky to war with what he could find. There was always a strong link between "who can afford fighting gear" and "who fights", as pointed out above when speaking about wealthy landowners. To oversimplify, in the beginning, a knight was someone who could afford armour, horse, and weapons - there was no question of "can a knight afford these". If, for some reason, he or his heirs could no longer afford them (or no longer cared to), well, they would cease being knights (it was not uncommon, and not limited to being stripped of knightly status for some offense - for instance in XIIIth century England there were many people who could have been knights, thanks to their income, but did not really want to as it was a time- and money-consuming thing). The best proof of the link between "income" and "military status" are the "distraints of knighthood" issued by Edward I (and others) : it would force someone holding £20 of land to become a knight (and serve as one).

Which brings us to a second point... Normally, you do not go to war if you do not have the toys to play. If you're a knight, and your lord calls you for the service of the king, well, he won't just say "come with whatever you'll find and let's all go to war in pajamas", he will say "come with this armour, and these weapons, and that many horses, and that many men, else the king won't be pleased". There were obligations about how you would serve. These could be feudal or more "contractual" (to our eyes), as when someone signed a contract with another to serve him for n days with x men, y horses, equipped that way, in exchange for z coins a day, etc. This applies to everyone - knight or footman. Normally, a footman does not come alone, he comes under someone, be he a feudal lord or a mercenary captain. That someone cannot come before his own lord/employer with scantily clad footmen. Of course, every single archer will not have a full plate harness (and they do not need one). But everyone will have to have the tools of his trade, be it full armour, light armour, spear, horse, bow... Else, there will be complaints*.

Of course there are exceptions, like risings, where people would go to war with makeshift gear. However, these are very rare. Even in events we see as "people's war", such as the wars of the Flemish against Philippe le Bel (Phillip II of France), the elites were involved - the nobility, the bourgeoisie from the towns... Even town militia was not made up with scantily clad beggars. It was staffed by the bourgeoisie, the well-to-do urbans, and, if they could surely have money limits, and not enough cash to buy a king's armour, they would not come to the battlefield in street clothing, because, again, that just would not do for the one that had summoned them (often the king) nor for their own survival.

There were most certainly cases of poor equipment, and people that could not afford more than "munitions-grade" gear. But keep in mind that, most of the time, mediaeval warfare was not a mass warfare. It did not involve huge crowds of poorly-equipped peasants. It would involve professionals, people that made a living through war, and had (to more or less an extant) the means to do so. These people were not "average" in social terms. But they were "average soldiers" because, in the end (and again, oversimplifying the whole matter) they were those that you would meet, most of the time, where the fighting was (battlefield but also, more often, ambush, raid, siege, etc.). Those that were "average" in social terms did not normally fight.

Hope I gave some elements to answer your question (forgive me for being that much general, but it's not a question that can be precisely answered, not without a more precise context given - as for the general context I have attempted to sum it up).

* P.S. : to further underscore what I've said about the unlikeliness of scantily-clad men-at-arms being the norm, there are cases where an employer/lord (often the king) complains about the poor service he gets, particularly, but not exclusively, about the poor equipment, and hence the poor fighting value, of the troops supplied. Then, we know that for various reasons, sincere financial difficulties but also unwillingness to pay for good gear, it did exist. But it was not considered a "norm" - since it was complained about and could lead to measures being taken. Of course, the likeliness of it happening would vary with the people recruited - for instance, in England, if the king only summoned knights (possibly through distraints of knighthood) he could expect good gear, as he summoned the wealthy. If, as was done through various institutions (fyrd, town militias, or, in our case, array) he summoned less privileged classes, then he could not expect as much (especially, not horses, as it was a very costly thing to own, one that you forgot to mention). However, we know of cases where such measures provided kings with a numerous and acceptably well-equipped army (something only needed, and summoned, exceptionally). Even cases where there were so much people coming to the summons that a selection was done (for supply reasons) and the least-well equipped sent home...

Again it's all about context, but "well-equipped" seemed to be the general norm, only to be parted of in times of dire need. These being excepted, nobody had much use for under-equipped soldiers.
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Garrett Hazen




Location: California
Joined: 30 Aug 2006

Posts: 57

PostPosted: Sat 28 Jun, 2008 7:21 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Well thank you very much for that- your "general" answer was about all I needed. Obviously, I am not very well educated on the subject but you answered me very well, and I feel that much more educated already.
If all of these men were paid professionals, which now seems obvious as nobody is going to be sent to war with no knowledge of it, and in modern terms, just setting out to get owned, then it seems like most battles would only consist of small groups of people. How many elites can they possibly rake in? I don't know that much, but i think I have taken a "fantasiacal" approach on it all- you can go watch lord of the rings and see armies of tens of thousands- and for some reason it seems to me it seems like you would need a lot of men for advantage over your enemy. Wouldn't it be kind of an overload for a king to have that many elites trained- there would definitely need to be a balance.
So being uneducated, perhaps I should just go educate myself. Do you suggest that most battles were fought out in small groups normally, and then ended up adding on in greater glory depending on the winning situation?

Learn to obey before you command--Solon of Athens
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Simon G.




Location: Lyons, France
Joined: 02 Jun 2008

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PostPosted: Sat 28 Jun, 2008 7:57 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Quote:
Well thank you very much for that- your "general" answer was about all I needed. Obviously, I am not very well educated on the subject but you answered me very well, and I feel that much more educated already.
If all of these men were paid professionals, which now seems obvious as nobody is going to be sent to war with no knowledge of it, and in modern terms, just setting out to get owned, then it seems like most battles would only consist of small groups of people. How many elites can they possibly rake in? I don't know that much, but i think I have taken a "fantasiacal" approach on it all- you can go watch lord of the rings and see armies of tens of thousands- and for some reason it seems to me it seems like you would need a lot of men for advantage over your enemy. Wouldn't it be kind of an overload for a king to have that many elites trained- there would definitely need to be a balance.
So being uneducated, perhaps I should just go educate myself. Do you suggest that most battles were fought out in small groups normally, and then ended up adding on in greater glory depending on the winning situation?


Recent research, notably (as for here in France) by Prof. Dominique Barthélémy, has shown that mediaeval warfare was first and foremost about small groups fighting. Of course, the big, spectacular battles are what chroniclers, poets etc. would write about, and what would be remembered for many generations, what would be then picked up by romantic historians of the XIXth century to be praised again, etc. But the reality (some would say "grim", or "sad", but I do not feel it is) is that it was mainly about small, unsung encounters between small groups, numbering in dozens not in hundreds, and often in non-battlefield situations (ambush, siege, raid...).

Compare, if you will, with wars closer from us and you will see that this is not only a result of careful research, but something that's quite logical. Let's take World War Two. Everybody will have heard about Omaha Beach, or Stalingrad, or Kursk, or Mt. Suribachi, and the like ; the "great battles" of World War Two. Yet, as anyone will understand when thinking about it a bit, military activity cannot be summed up by those. In fact, what the average WWII soldier knew most of the time was sparse fighting between small groups of men all along the frontline, not big battles involving thousands of men at one point in time and space.

To get back to the Middle Ages, there were surely no frontlines at the time, but the above observation was made even truer by the context of the period. There were severe limitations to the numbers that could be mustered ; to name a few, in complete disorder :
- war, at this time, was far from being the monopoly of big states ; every petty lord could do it for his own reasons ; in that context he would "go to war" with his own dozen retainers (maybe several dozens if he was an important lord) against the neighbour's dozen retainers.
- even when kings, not petty lords, went to war, their mustering ability was nowhere near that of WWII-era states. Of course, there were organized systems of muster ; the Middle Ages were NOT all about chaos. But their efficiency varied widely. If the king was powerful, kept his main vassals in check, and was popular, he could, if needed, get thousands of men (some did - which is why there WERE some big battles in the Middle Ages). If he was weak, if his main vassals did not like him, if he was not popular and called for muster when everyone felt it was not necessary, then he would not get much men and would be forced to cancel the invasion or whatever it was that he had planned, as many a king had to.
- as told before, the king (or anyone else) would not, like WWII-era states, enlist anyone, issue them with equipment and send them to war. Issuing recruits with equipment only appeared along with well-organised, centralised states in the Modern Era (XVIIth century). He would call for people that were, more or less, socially privileged, since they could afford fighting gear (be it good or not so good).
- feudal military service was typically limited to 40 days ; after that a vassal was not forced to stay and, if he did, had to be paid, something that his lord/king was most of the time unwilling to do unless he really had to. This limited the range of operations and tended to transform many a war into a quick affair when one would try and raid the other, quickly take one castle or two (preferably by surprise, or by a quick siege) to make his statement (namely "owned !") and then settle for a bit. There are numerous examples of that kind of "border warfare" ; it actually makes up most of mediaeval fighting activity (if not for the best known and most spectacular part).
- more generally, financial and/or political reasons (as already mentioned) could prevent a lord or king to muster a big army (which is very costly to upkeep).
- there is also the fact that "total wars" like these of the XXth century did not occur in mediaeval times. They were not interested in completely wiping out the enemy ; they were interested, most of the time, in obtaining limited, short-term advantages without having to fork over too much efforts/money (something they often simply could not do). Then, even if they could muster an army in the hundred of thousands (which would imply a big administration, railways, arsenals, etc. etc.) they would have no use for it.

That said, there were big battles for sure, with armies numbering in the thousands, tens of thousands and sometimes close to 100,000 for huge expeditions. But these were exceptional. They also included not only "elites", but far less fighting-orientated people, for other tasks, since that kind of expeditions had more complex objectives than just "go there, meet them, beat the hell out of them". For instance, Edward I mustered tens of thousands for a big expedition he made to "pacify" Wales. But these included men to build fortifications - as he planned to use the latter to hold conquered ground. Therefore, thousands of people in that army were actually shovel-men, not swordsmen. Just as today's armies include in fact much non-fighting personnel...

What I just said is, again, very general and would need adding to to be exhaustive. Also, I must point out that there were evolutions towards the end of the period (a good example being the Hundred Years War) : armies and warfare changed. But these changes, while paving the way for the eventual Modern Era armies, did not occur suddenly. What I described gives a sketchy idea of High Middle Ages (XIth-XIIth) century, but these traits maintain a heavy influence well into the XVth century.

Hope that helps answering your question...
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Doug Lester




Location: Decatur, IL
Joined: 12 Dec 2007

Posts: 166

PostPosted: Sat 28 Jun, 2008 10:09 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As pointed out above, if you were a person who owed military service as a primary or secondary obligation for the use of "your" land or for other reasons of law and custom, you would show up armed and armoured as best you could and this would be no last minute thing. You would have known that you had that obligation and had planned accordingly because you would have know that to not show up adequately equipted might mean the loss of your livelihood or other penalty. That said, there are other types of armour besides full plate or mail. The simplest might be a shirt or jacket of many layers of cloth. There are jackets of heavy leather, possibly boiled leather. These forms of armour could have been reinforced with plates of metal or horn. I know that wearing a shirt made up of fifteen, sixteen, or so layers of good strong linen might not sound like much but I have read claims that such garments had been know to stop arrows. As with anything dealing with history, the exact details would depend on time and place.
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Steven H




Location: Boston
Joined: 10 May 2006

Posts: 545

PostPosted: Sun 29 Jun, 2008 11:33 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Some relevant numbers:

Estimated population of England at the time of the Battle of Crecy: 2.5 million
Estimated size of army: 16,000
Percent of population: 0.64%

Estimated population of France at the time of the Battle of Crecy: 20 million
Estimated size of army: 80,000
Percent of populaation: 0.4%

This battle featured armies that were considered enormous for their time, but only involved a fraction of a percent of the total population. There was simply no need to take the poorly equipped, untrained peasant. It is has been estimated that around 10% of the population of Europe in this era is freemen. Therefore restricting recruitment to freemen still means only taking less than a tenth of the 'available' population. It is therefore easy to make sure that the army is well-equipped.

Cheers,
Steven

Kunstbruder - Boston area Historical Combat Study
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Garrett Hazen




Location: California
Joined: 30 Aug 2006

Posts: 57

PostPosted: Sun 29 Jun, 2008 12:31 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Hope that helps answering your question...[/quote]

Thanks for that- you answered my question as full as I could have asked for.

Learn to obey before you command--Solon of Athens
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