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Questions about medieval warfare

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Questions about medieval warfare

Postby SSchmidt » Sat May 24, 2014 6:11 pm

I was thinking about this today, and it made me really curious. I know sometimes we see these great battle scenes in movies with soldiers hacking and slashing away for long periods of time, 15 to 20 minutes even!

I am quite ignorant with medieval warfare, but I have a few questions that come to mind that I would love for someone to offer me some input.


1.) How long did the typical medieval battle last? (I realize this varies case by case, but were the battles longer, or shorter?)

2.) How long could a typical medieval soldier fight before getting tired? It seems like swinging a sword or polearm around for a few minutes would get tiring really quick, especially in a large helm, or heavy armor, or with cumbersome shields.

3.) How many enemy soldiers would a knight face in battle? You have two opposing forces on the field. A knight from force A kills someone from force B. Then he goes to face someone else in that force, right? How many soldiers would he end up facing before the battle was over? How long did each of these sparring matches between individual knights last? Is there a thought, like, "the average medival one-on-one fight lasted X amount of seconds." Obviously, most of these questions don't have a distinct answer, but I am interested nonetheless.

I have been thinking about medieval warfare a lot lately, and lots of questions have come to mind (with relatively no answers!).
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Re: Questions about medieval warfare

Postby Sir Erathor » Sun May 25, 2014 5:03 pm

I won't pretend to be an expert on this, but I know you wouldn't ever survive long if you were right in the thick of it. Battles between infantry usually took place in two long, opposing lines, with those who fell at the front quickly replaced by someone from behind. The film Troy is quite a good example of this.
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Re: Questions about medieval warfare

Postby Brickninja » Mon May 26, 2014 3:30 pm

I imagine in reality it wasn't quite such a clump, being a lot more spread out with "mini-battles" emerging across the field. I also think if there was a charge a lot of riders would go down to archers.
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Re: Questions about medieval warfare

Postby GyustSil » Mon May 26, 2014 9:52 pm

I'm no expert, but I agree with Brickninja. After the main forces clashes, the army and the battle would get messy, and, as Brickninja said, small battles would emerge inside the greater one.
About the battle time, I think it depends of which battle you're fighting. A siege could be held for months. but I think a normal field battle would take something from 3 hours to one day, depending on how large the armed forces are.
I think the soldiers wouldn't have to worry about getting tired, especially if he was an infatryman, as he would probably get killed after facing 2 or 3 enemies.
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Re: Questions about medieval warfare

Postby Maedhros » Tue May 27, 2014 6:29 am

I'm no expert at military history but I suppose I could say something. One of the important things to bear in mind is that most soldiers wouldn't die on the field of battle (most such accounts from medieval historians tend to be quite propagandistic), but from sickness and famine on the way and after battles. As for what the battles looked like I wouldn't really know, but the epic and violent pitched battles with two big lines bravely charging into each other that we see in movies were probably not that common. In any case the main business of most warriors was staying alive, and if you could knock somebody out while doing that, that's great of course, but all the reckless ninja moves that we see in movies are most likely quite uncommon. You'd rather stay back, stay in formation, keep out of harm's reach and lash out if you got the opportunity. When it comes to how long a battle could last it could take days (I just did a study of medieval Hungary involving a disastrous three-day battle in the forests of present-day Romania), which of course didn't mean that you had thousands of men hacking away madly at each other for some three days, but that there would be skirmishes, ambushes, attacks and retreats, smaller companies engaging each other at times and so on.

So, when it comes to the original questions.

1. Could be almost anything, but often longer rather than shorter.

2. Yes, it does seem tiring, but most often you wouldn't swing it about intensely for minutes at a time. You'd rather stay alert and do some swinging every now and then. Also it could be noted that the suits of armour weren't as cumbersome as you'll sometimes hear (that would hardly be very practical).

3. No idea really, but one-on-one sparring between individual warriors is probably not quite what a battle looked like most of the time. Fighting battles was more of a collective activity after all, and getting out of line to get into a duel with an enemy would most likely get you killed.
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Re: Questions about medieval warfare

Postby SSchmidt » Sat May 31, 2014 2:24 am

Thanks, all of you, for your responses.

Maedhros I really appreciate it, you helped clear up a lot of confusion on what I had thought. Hollywood paints a picture of something and most often it is not the true story. This has been a great interest of mine lately, as I have been trying to figure out how I should properly place my LEGO minifigures when they are on the field of battle.

I would love to hear input from others as well, or reputable sources worth reading.
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Re: Questions about medieval warfare

Postby NJC » Wed Jun 18, 2014 3:06 am

Hey all - sorry if I'm reviving an old thread, but I have some tentative answers. Unfortunately, the honest answer for all would be "we don't know," primarily because surviving primary sources for medieval warfare tend to be inadequate (few men who were actually at battles actually wrote about them, and if they did, they likely had a limited scope of the battle).

1 - for how long, yes, it depended on the particular battle. Medieval armies tended to avoid battle if possible, but if they did fight, the battles would tend to be short skirmishes. Rarely would they last a whole day (such as the battle of Hastings), and even more rarely were there battles that lasted more than a day (like Bannockburn)

2 - for how long they fight, as you surmise, probably not for long stretches at a time. In the case of Hastings, the fighting was intermittent, not continuous. We even have examples of battles where the two sides would agree to rest for a short period and then continue fighting (which one can do in the age of chivalry!)

3 - again, no clear answer because it's not really written. Firstly though, the knights would rarely kill their defeated enemies, but take them captive for ransom. Even then, most captives were taken after one side's moral was broken and they began to flee the battle field. More likely, knights would fight and unarm several opponents before one side would break and run away. In later periods (say the Hundred Years War), casualties would be a little more common because the King would forbid taking ransoms, and also the proliferation of the longbow. Individual battles between knights could potentially last a while, as the armor was usually sufficient to provide an adequate defense.

Hope that helps a little! Again, the lack of answers can be frustrating, but it's a matter of the lack of sources!
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Re: Questions about medieval warfare

Postby Frank_Lloyd_Knight » Sun Jul 27, 2014 11:18 pm

For what it's worth, there's a book I could recommend which discusses in quite a bit of depth exactly these sort of questions in medieval warfare. The book is called Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World: Equipment, Combat, Skills, and Tactics by Matthew Bennett and others. It discusses how warfare changed through the medieval period. It examines the equipment used and the fighting techniques of the soldiers, and it goes through lots of specific battles (with plenty of map illustrations), taking them step by step discussing what the opposing armies' strategies were and what caused them to win or lose.

http://www.amazon.com/Fighting-Techniques-Medieval-World-Equipment/dp/0312348207/
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Re: Questions about medieval warfare

Postby richardanthonyc » Mon Jul 28, 2014 3:46 pm

This question quite simply is not answerable to any sort of average degree. Tactics, terrain, time periods and place of battle etc are all factors that are pivotal to this discussion. Here is an example (not medieval though)

Battle of Cannae.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/c ... attack.gif

Your average knight would not be involved in most skirmishes unless needed
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