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Forum Index > Off-topic Talk > How common were swords in an army during the middle ages? Reply to topic
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Matthew Amt




Location: Laurel, MD, USA
Joined: 17 Sep 2003

Posts: 1,378

PostPosted: Sun 01 Jun, 2008 1:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

England had a sophisticated militia system long before the Norman conquest. Every 5 hides of land (one hide being enough land to support one family) was responsible for equipping one man for the fyrd. There was a Select Fyrd and a Greater Fyrd. Since England didn't have much in the way of cavalry at the time, these were hardly considered contemptible troops. Even after the Conquest, the Normans kept the fyrd system in place and used it several times, eventually replacing it with the Assize of Arms.

Of course, some of this is bantering what is meant by "early" and "late"! I've heard it said that some people thing the middle ages started in 1066, while others think they ENDED then!

Valete,

Matthew
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D. Nogueira




Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Joined: 26 Aug 2006

Posts: 42

PostPosted: Sun 01 Jun, 2008 3:08 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Justin King wrote:

Sometimes I think these topics are so subjective because of one's particular areas of interest, depending on what regions/time periods one has focused thier studies on, perspectives can vary wildly and generalizations (including my own), while often a convenient answer, need to be taken with a grain of salt and a shovel-full of context.


Hi Justin,

Well... I am responsible for this, since I knew my original question had no simple answer.
Everyone reading this post will naturally realize that there is no "universal" answer capable of covering every culture or every period inside the medieval era as a whole.

But I wanted to have a "general" idea about the real presence of the swords on the medieval battlefields.
I also wanted to gather specific examples from different times and places, to know some "exceptions to the rule" of this "general idea".
The truth is that I don't still have much knowledge on any specific particular period or culture as to be more precise on my queries.

In fact, many valuable posts here, yours among them, gave me a different view towards the general use and predominance of the sword.
I had the idea that the sword (On its different forms) was much less present on the battlefield than it seemed to really have been, according to many opinions.
This, remember, is of course generally speaking.

Maybe I was mislead because I thought that swords were much much harder to obtain (Due to cost, or availability throughout the period) than they really were?
Or maybe because I thought that the number of real swords surviving, is rather small compared to various staff weapons surviving rests?
I don't know, but I wanted to thank the many helpful and thorough posts here that are providing me a better insight!
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Doug Lester




Location: Decatur, IL
Joined: 12 Dec 2007

Posts: 167

PostPosted: Sun 01 Jun, 2008 3:51 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It would be difficult to estimate the presence of swords on the battlefields based on examples of surviving specimens. There are many pictures and accounts from the Middle Ages dispicting the use of single edges swords but almost none survive. There may be more surviving examples of the langseax from the early Middle Ages than falchions from the late Middle Ages even though representation of the latter abound in works of art. We also have a few mustering lists and ordinances regarding what certain classes of people were supposed to show up with but little account of who all showed up and how they were armed. A great deal gets lumped together under the heading of "and various others" and some may have no mention at all. All that uncertainty is compounded inaccuracies produced by the reporters of the events. At best all we can make is an educated guess.
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Lafayette C Curtis




Location: Indonesia
Joined: 29 Nov 2006
Reading list: 7 books

Posts: 2,689

PostPosted: Fri 06 Jun, 2008 1:05 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

D. Nogueira wrote:
Of course peasants were not always the most numerous guys on every medieval army...


In fact, you could count on them to be a fairly insignificant presence in most medieval armies! True enough, many of them contained fairly large numbers of servants and laborers and the like, but these weren't exactly combat personnel--and as for the peasants themselves, they generally seem to have been levied only in cases of the greatest emergencies. That's if we're talking about untrained peasants, however. Somewhat richer people of the urban and rural middle classes habitually formed the primary component of militia groups throughout the Middle Ages and these generally had some training and decent equipment, which made them a whole world better than the rarely(-if-ever)-used ad hoc levies of untrained men even if not quite up to the level of professional soldiery. These middle-class men could be very decently equipped indeed; contemporary illustrations of the Battle of Courtrai/Kortrijk show the Flemish militiamen in mail hauberks, and many of them had swords on their hips.


Justin King wrote:
I was given to understand that in England at least, all able bodied men could be called upon to defend against invasion in the name of the king or at his direct command. Also a levied landowner may be required to bring a stipulated number retainers, spearmen, bowmen, etc. in addition to himself as part of his service whether as part of a conscripted army or as part of his annual obligation. Some landowners would have professional warriors, others would have brought ordinary tenants, i.e. commoners.


I don't really seem to recall any documents allowing landowners to bring untrained people to fill up their quota of levied warriors, though. Somehow, I suspect that a lord bringing in his common tenants into battle was actually bringing a cadre of his tenants/serfs, already selected for physical and mental suitability and provided with a modicum of training.


Quote:
Although this was not always the case, it was not unusual for non-professional warriors to make up a sizeable portion of at least one side in a battle.


However, "non-professional" doesn't have to mean untrained peasants. In the same way that the modern USA has a well-trained militia in the form of the National Guard, medieval polities were quite serious in providing their part-time warriors with at least some training and equipment--even if we count the Middle Ages as starting at the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the "barbarian" principalities that took over generally tried as best as they could to maintain and incorporate the formerly Roman urban militias into their force structures.


Quote:
I may have forgotten to make one intended point in my last post, that class distinction did not always define whether one was a professional fighter or not, the Hundred Years War in particular saw many "common" professional fighting forces who would certainly have carried swords.


True, and not only for the Hundred Years' War. The knight was originally not a nobleman--there are actually some accounts of early kings and noblemen in the Middle Ages warning their sons against being a knight because it would actually lower their social status.

Of course, we shouldn't forget people like the archers William the Bastard (later the Conqueror) brought along in his campaign to conquer England, or the crossbowmen (frequently professional commoners) who were such an ubiquitous fixture in medieval European warfare from the 12th century onwards...


Doug Lester wrote:
Then we have the effect of time. Early in the Middle Ages the common soldier was held in little reguard. They were support troops only. The main fighting was done by knights, squires, and seargents. The common soldier was there out of obligation that he owed his baron and was not payed. As little reguard was given to his arming as his welfare.


Seriously? While it's true that the footmen's duty was mostly that of supporting the men-at-arms, the organizers of medieval armies took them seriously right from the start. The example of the fyrd has been mentioned before. Then there's the fairly well-equipped leidang levies of early medieval Scandinavia--the most warlike part of which was skimmed off to become the Viking raiders. And there are the Frankish capitularies that detailed how each fighting man was to be armed, down to the commoners in the levy, and clearly these men were expected to maintain some sort of standard in terms of equipment and performance.


Matthew Amt wrote:
There was a Select Fyrd and a Greater Fyrd.


Was there ever really a Great Fyrd? I recall reading somewhere that this is a myth perpetuated by Victorian scholars, and that the fyrd was entirely composed of an already-selected body of semi-professional warriors (in other words, the select fyrd was the fyrd).


Quote:
Since England didn't have much in the way of cavalry at the time, these were hardly considered contemptible troops.


Quite true--they were far from contemptible. About cavalry, though...there was an interesting incident where a Norman commanding a pre-Conquest English force (or an English commander under the influence of a Norman advisor) tried to mount his fyrdsmen and employ them as horsemen against a Danish(?) invasion. Of course this experiment ended quite disastorusly.


Quote:
Even after the Conquest, the Normans kept the fyrd system in place and used it several times, eventually replacing it with the Assize of Arms.


Similarly, there are doubts that the Assize of Arms was an actual military ordinance. But it's true that the fyrd continued under the Normans and perhaps even formed the basis of later medieval town militias in England.


Quote:
Of course, some of this is bantering what is meant by "early" and "late"! I've heard it said that some people thing the middle ages started in 1066, while others think they ENDED then!


Absolutely the best point made throughout the whole discussion! Wink


D. Nogueira wrote:
But I wanted to have a "general" idea about the real presence of the swords on the medieval battlefields.
I also wanted to gather specific examples from different times and places, to know some "exceptions to the rule" of this "general idea".
The truth is that I don't still have much knowledge on any specific particular period or culture as to be more precise on my queries.


Well, if you want a general idea, I think it'd be safe to say that the sword was the mark of professional soldiery in the Middle Ages. If you were a professional soldier, you could be expected to have one. Of course the definition of "professional" is a bit fuzzy, but in this sense I'd include semi-professionals like the "select" fyrd and the permanently-constituted militia within the "professional" category since they could be expected to have some degree of training and some wealth with which to procure good equipment (including swords) or some sort of subsidy that would allow them to buy or borrow said equipment even if they might not be able to personally afford it (say, an urban armory stocked with swords and one-size-fits-none hauberks). Another thing to take into account is that the category tended to broaden further and further as the Middle Ages went on, so more and more soldiers could be relied upon to have swords or at least long daggers that were as good as swords.


Quote:
In fact, many valuable posts here, yours among them, gave me a different view towards the general use and predominance of the sword.
I had the idea that the sword (On its different forms) was much less present on the battlefield than it seemed to really have been, according to many opinions.

Maybe I was mislead because I thought that swords were much much harder to obtain (Due to cost, or availability throughout the period) than they really were?
Or maybe because I thought that the number of real swords surviving, is rather small compared to various staff weapons surviving rests?
I don't know, but I wanted to thank the many helpful and thorough posts here that are providing me a better insight!


Well, it depends on what opinion you were using as a reference. Hollywood, as well as fantasy games and movies, tend to show swords as being rather more prevalent than they really were--almost as if every peasant had an old sword stored in his attic. The other extreme--which is just as wrong--sees swords as being restricted to the royalty and nobility, and that it would have been rare among medieval armies. As you probably can guess already, the truth lies between these two extremes.
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Matthew Amt




Location: Laurel, MD, USA
Joined: 17 Sep 2003

Posts: 1,378

PostPosted: Fri 06 Jun, 2008 7:25 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Lafayette C Curtis wrote:
Matthew Amt wrote:
There was a Select Fyrd and a Greater Fyrd.


Was there ever really a Great Fyrd? I recall reading somewhere that this is a myth perpetuated by Victorian scholars, and that the fyrd was entirely composed of an already-selected body of semi-professional warriors (in other words, the select fyrd was the fyrd).


OH! You could be entirely correct. I'm just working from memory of things I "learned" many years ago, and I'm not sure where I learned it all. Not the best documentation, ha! Yeah, that would certainly fit in with the Victorian love of the concept of hordes of stupid inept peasants in rags armed with pitchforks....

Thanks for all the great information, by the way!

Matthew
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