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R. Robert Palmer




Location: U.S.A.
Joined: 27 Jan 2010

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PostPosted: Fri 29 Jan, 2010 8:39 pm    Post subject: Marching in the Middle Ages         Reply with quote

Hi All,

I am new to this forum and in many respects, to the history of Medieval armor and weapons. This is a wonderful website an forum and I look forward to learning from the people here.

My questions concern the soldiers and mercenaries from 1050 to 1490's in Western Europe and England.

1. Did the Western soldiers march in step as soldiers from more modern times?

2. If so, where might I find detailed information about marching in step?

Any information would be appreciated.

Best Regards,

R. Robert Palmer
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Jean Thibodeau




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PostPosted: Fri 29 Jan, 2010 9:04 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I could be wrong but I think marching in step is more a 17th or 18th century thing where it makes a lot of practical sense as well as psychological impact in intimidating and opponent and giving one's troops a sense of mutual support.

In mediaeval times I really don't know if it was a normal practice or something that some armies might have used.

I tend to " assume " that the Romans, Greeks, Macedonians, Chinese, Persians or any ancient armies using complex manoeuvres and formations might have used marching in step ...... but I really also don't know for sure: So I'm looking forward to getting answers from those who might know with documented sources: Good Topic question. Big Grin Cool

( Oh, and welcome to the site. Cool ).

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Sean Manning




Location: Austria
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PostPosted: Sat 30 Jan, 2010 1:07 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There is a debate (link) whether Roman soldiers marched in step, although its pretty clear that they did so sometimes. You might try asking on the RomanArmyTalk forums for more information. We know that Romans (and many other ancient soldiers) could do sophisticated maneuvers on the battlefield or the parade ground, but there's room for debate on how they achieved this.

I don't know of any evidence of medieval infantry marching in step, except for the Swiss at the very end of the middle ages. There isn't a lot of evidence for medieval armies drilling in large groups, but the armies of some towns had some kind of regular training. Late medieval infantry were often used to hold ground on the battlefield, where drill wasn't as necessary.
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James Head





Joined: 09 Mar 2008

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PostPosted: Sat 30 Jan, 2010 1:56 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sean Manning wrote:


I don't know of any evidence of medieval infantry marching in step, except for the Swiss at the very end of the middle ages. There isn't a lot of evidence for medieval armies drilling in large groups, but the armies of some towns had some kind of regular training. Late medieval infantry were often used to hold ground on the battlefield, where drill wasn't as necessary.


I think you hit on a very important point concerning the Swiss. One of the reasons they were so effective was because of their discipline and formation. So it makes sense that other contemporary military systems were not very organized.

As you mentioned, the Swiss pike blocks did start to happen during that grey area between the Medieval and Renaissance eras. For me, the big defining feature of the Medieval era was the Feudal system. In this system a local land Lord was responsible for gathering troops from the people of his region to serve the King in battle if requested. So although the Lord might have implemented a localized system to train his subjects on how to form up into a block of Billhooks, or gather into a Schiltrom, or how to shoot the Longbow skillfully; this does not mean that they would have been able to synchronize with all of the other groups of regional footmen once the King had gathered all of his army together.

I'm sure there are probably many other books out there that would be better, but I recently read Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England by Juliet Barker. She goes through the whole process of how the armies were organized and all of the complicated logistics involved. After a while you began to understand that large medieval armies formed slowly, moved slowly, often didn't know where they were, hardly every knew where the enemy was, and were limited to only a handful of reliable tactics once battle presented itself...


Mass of armored Men at Arms and Knights on foot
Mass of hewing pole weapons like Billhooks and Halberds
Heavy cavalry charge
Balls of defensive pike formations like Schiltroms
Groups of Archers defended by spikes in the ground.

It seems doubtful that there was a lot of drilled marching happening here. Rather it seems that most of the large battles during the medieval era became a deadly game of Rock, Paper Scissors. If you picked the correct combination of massed soldiers to throw against your opponent's force you could break his own formations and win the day.
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Benjamin H. Abbott




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PostPosted: Sat 30 Jan, 2010 3:11 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The traditional narrative of iron classical discipline brought back by the Swiss in the Renaissance falls apart when you read J. E. Lendon's Soldiers and Ghosts. The Romans weren't robots, but fiercely competitive warriors who fought to win individual honor. And of course Roman armies varied dramatically. I'm deeply skeptical of assigning drill and order superiority to an entire period. Both medieval and classical times include examples that span the spectrum.
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Jean Thibodeau




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PostPosted: Sat 30 Jan, 2010 10:46 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Is marching in step really indispensable to keep order when doing complex manoeuvres ?

Fashion in military discipline or useful way to keep a line of infantry moving together without one side of a line getting ahead of the other side or have the front of a column and the rear of a column move together simultaneously at the same speed instead of having the first line move, then the second then the third etc .... each line with a small delay meaning that a formation gets stretched out or everyone bumping into each other if the first line suddenly stop.

Coordinated to music or drums or visual commands ( or a combination of all of these ) a large formation can move as one man.

So I think that any army using large units that must move with precision in coordination with other formations would have discovered the usefulness of marching in step.

Psychologically seeing an enemy force form up and march on your position would have great impact as it give an impression of professionalism and competence and quite frankly must have been " scary " to face.

In contrast a shambling disorganized mob might be lest than impressive.

A well drilled force would also be less likely to charge without orders or get suckered in by a false rout.

Just as an example from the movies: Do you all remember the scene in Spartacus ( The version with Kirk Douglas ) where the slave army watches the Romans form up in squares and instantly changes formation ? This scene is very powerful because as the audience in sympathy with the slave army we get that " sinking feeling " of " WE ARE IN TROUBLE NOW " !

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Paul Hansen




Location: The Netherlands
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PostPosted: Sun 31 Jan, 2010 3:42 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Jean Thibodeau wrote:
Is marching in step really indispensable to keep order when doing complex manoeuvres ?
I can imagine that it is, because if the length of a step is fixed, and the number of steps is fixed (e.g. by a drum or audible command) the formation must automatically keep in the same line.

Jean Thibodeau wrote:

Psychologically seeing an enemy force form up and march on your position would have great impact as it give an impression of professionalism and competence and quite frankly must have been " scary " to face.

In contrast a shambling disorganized mob might be lest than impressive.


On the other hand, the Romans seemed to have feared the "barbaric" Germanics and Gauls more than their more organised enemies.

I guess that if you are faced by a very agressive and eager-to-fight mob, that holds a certain scare factor as well.
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James Head





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PostPosted: Sun 31 Jan, 2010 10:24 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I just wanted to add something to my previous post. I'm not suggesting that there wasn't any discipline present in medieval warfare, but it was on a much smaller level.

This might not be considered marching in step, but a column of mounted knights could arrange themselves in several different formations to prepare for a charge. I think one of the coolest skills they had was the ability to 'wheel' the whole column around to face their target. This is a complicated maneuver that requires great riding skill from each horseman involved and well disciplined steeds.
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R. Robert Palmer




Location: U.S.A.
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PostPosted: Sun 31 Jan, 2010 10:25 am    Post subject: Marching in the Middle Ages         Reply with quote

HI All,

I want to thank all of you for the information, I had checked a lot of sources and was unable to find any mention of marching in step by medieval soldiers. One would think that if the soldiers of that period did march in step, there would be some mention of it.

I'm wondering if the evolution of marching in step (post Medieval period) came about through the use of polearms and spears and then to firearms. It would seem the natural progression of things.

Again, thank for the discussion and answers!

R. Robert

"A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read." - Mark Twain
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Sean Manning




Location: Austria
Joined: 23 Mar 2008

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PostPosted: Sun 31 Jan, 2010 10:37 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Benjamin H. Abbott wrote:
The traditional narrative of iron classical discipline brought back by the Swiss in the Renaissance falls apart when you read J. E. Lendon's Soldiers and Ghosts. The Romans weren't robots, but fiercely competitive warriors who fought to win individual honor. And of course Roman armies varied dramatically. I'm deeply skeptical of assigning drill and order superiority to an entire period. Both medieval and classical times include examples that span the spectrum.

Hi Benjamin,

Drill and discipline are not the same thing. Its a fact that the better sort of Greek, Roman, and Macedonian infantry drilled in wheels, countermarches, expanding and contracting the line, expanding and contracting the space between two files, and so on (we have half a dozen ancient books listing orders and the corresponding actions, and other evidence confirming that this drill was routine in some armies). Before the Swiss, I don't know of any medieval Latin infantry which did the same. Not all ancient infantry did this much drill (most Greek infantry were just about able to line up in ranks and files and advance a few hundred yards straight forwards in reasonable order), but some whole armies did.
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David Teague




Location: Anchorage, Alaska
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PostPosted: Sun 31 Jan, 2010 11:24 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The Scots of the 14th century were known as "trained infantry" thanks to the Scottish Wars of Independence and employed as mercenaries across parts of Europe.

I'm under the impression they might have done "marching" as the weapon of choice was the 14 ft "Scottish" pike. if you ever tried to walk with a bunch of guys packing pikes without "marching" the pike clack and get in the way.

There's reasons I suspect this...


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Sander Marechal




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PostPosted: Tue 02 Feb, 2010 2:39 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Sean Manning wrote:
There is a debate (link) whether Roman soldiers marched in step, although its pretty clear that they did so sometimes.


My WMA group had a big training weekend last weekend. One of the things we did was line and formation fighting.

One of the things we did was a boar's head (also known as flying wedge formation). It's perfectly possible to do this without a marching step, even though it's a closely packed formation. Simply push the guys in front of you forwards with your shield. We also did the roman tortoise formation (testudo). It's very, very hard to move around in a testudo formation without using a marching step and keep formation. Shields start banging and pushing, causing gaps. Using a marching step makes it much easier.

We also did line and shield wall formations. They don't require a marching step to function, but in a shield wall a marching step does make it easier that the shields stay overlapped correctly. Moving a shield wall without a matching step caused gaps in our wall.

Anyway, these are just some experiences from last weekend, not sourced in any historical records (as far as I know).
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Tue 02 Feb, 2010 2:54 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

You could get any group of people and tell them all to stay togther and walk in the same direction. After a while most of them will be walking in step whether they intended to or not.
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R. Robert Palmer




Location: U.S.A.
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PostPosted: Tue 02 Feb, 2010 5:24 am    Post subject: Marching in the Middle Ages         Reply with quote

Hi All,

I've never tried Medieval or Ancient Re-enacting but It makes sense that a group of men, carrying polearms, in a formation would naturally tend to move in step. It may also have evolved in part, if a group used drums or other musical instruments to advance with.

I'm new to the detailed study of the Medieval soldier. I have noticed that even though the weapons were simple compared to modern weapons, the life of the soldier has remained similar in many ways.

My area of interest is the life, times and events of the soldiers and mercenaries in Western Europe and England. I've collected quite a few books on the period but if anyone has recommendations please feel free to point me in the right direction.

Thank you, and Best Regards,
R. Robert Palmer

"A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read." - Mark Twain
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Scott Hrouda




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PostPosted: Tue 02 Feb, 2010 5:32 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

R. Robert Palmer wrote:
I've collected quite a few books on the period but if anyone has recommendations please feel free to point me in the right direction.

A bit off topic, but you must check out the bookstore feature that is back on line. You will be amazed at the quantity and quality of works found there.
<edit>
Using the bookstore search feature, I was able to find a few books that may help with the question of marching. You may want to check them out.

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