Battles in movies are usually making up a large part of the movie and they also happen all the time. But how long did real medieval battles last? And how long could sieges last during the Middle Ages?
Usually, nightfall meant the end of a battle. So some battles during the Middle Ages could last an entire day while others, like the battle of Lechfeld in 955, only lasted for a few hours. In case a battle was not decided at nightfall, fighting could continue the next morning. Sieges could last from only a few days (the siege of Paris in 845 lasted one day) to months (the siege of Antioch during the first crusade lasted 8 months) or even years.
Since landbased warfare during the Middle Ages can roughly be divided into Skirmishes, field battles, and sieges I would like to talk about these three categories separately (although we will see that there were overlaps between them)
Let`s take a closer look.
How long did Skirmishes last during the Middle Ages
One good example of a skirmish can be found briefly before the battle of Lechfeld in 955. Otto, the king of the Holy Roman Empire, had to move his army through a forest to meet his Hungarian enemy that was besieging the city of Augsburg.
While moving through the forest the supply train of Otto’s army was ambushed and a skirmish between his rear guard and mounted Hungarian warriors started. The Hungarians were quickly able to defeat Otto’s rear guard and get the supply train under their control (which they would soon lose during another skirmish with reinforcements sent by Otto). Here you can find out more about the logistics of medieval warfare.
Now, why do I tell you that? Well, because while skirmishes themselves were usually rather short engagements of smaller units they could escalate to larger battles in case both sides got reinforcements that actively engaged in the fighting.
But that is not what happened briefly before the battle of Lechfeld. Only the rear guard of king Otto had received reinforcements, the Hungarian riders hadn`t and had to give up the captured baggage train after being pushed back.
And that brings us to the second type of engagement during the Middle Ages, the field battle.
How long did Medieval field battles last
While medieval skirmishes were usually a rather short occurrence that can not be said of battles. Some battles, like the already mentioned battle of Lechfeld in 955 lasted for hours. You can find out more about how battles were fought during the Middle Ages in my article here.
While we don`t have a medieval source that tells us about the exact length of the battle of Lechfeld we still have some information that gives us a pretty good idea of how long these battles could last.
Since it was impossible to differentiate friend and foe in darkness the last possible end of the battle was nightfall. And since the rear guard of king Otto was attacked before the battle while approaching the battlefield we also know that the battle did not start until noon. So the battle of Lechfeld did only last a few hours.
However, the sources indicate that the fighting did not stop after the battle of Lechfeld ended but smaller skirmishes continued not only away from the battlefield but also for several days. So while the actual battle of Lechfeld in 955 only lasted a few hours, smaller skirmishes would occur over the next few days.
One reason why the defeated army was able to fight these skirmishes was that during the middle Ages armies would usually not hunt their fleeing enemies down but would rather quickly return to the battlefield after a short pursuit. More on what happened after a medieval battle and who took care of the dead and wounded (and what difference was made between the corpses of regular and high-ranking soldiers) in my article here.
That picture that the fighting does not stop when the main battle ends can also be seen in countless other battles, for example, the battle of Hattin in 1187.
Here the Muslim army used measures of psychological warfare to wear down the army of the crusaders during the night before the battle. The Muslim soldiers had not only positioned themselves between the Christian army and the only water source (Lake Tiberias) but would also beat their drums during the night to stop the tired and thirsty Christian soldiers from resting.
Additionally, the Muslim army also burned down the dry grass so that the smoke and the dry air increased the thirst of their enemies. That had the side effect that when the main battle started in the morning the smoke disorientated the Christian soldiers and made them easy targets for the Muslim archers.
But let`s now leave the field battles behind and turn towards the sieges.
How long did sieges last during the Middle Ages
Just like with skirmishes and field battles the answer is once more „it depends“.
Some medieval sieges, for example, the Viking siege of Paris, only lasted one day (from march 28th to march 29th 845) before the besiegers won. Other sieges lasted for months. The siege of Antioch lasted for 8 months from October of 1097 to June of 1098.
And the siege of Constantinople in 1453 that would mark the final end of the Roman Empire lasted for 53 days before the city fell.
You can find more information on how medieval sieges worked in my article here. But ideally, a long and costly siege could be avoided by taking the object of desire by surprise.
That by the way is of the reasons why medieval fortifications have several door houses, gates, and sometimes also a drop bridge. Yes, a small force of resolute men might be able to take one or even two gates by surprise. But the noise that was made would have woken up the sleepiest of guards. So having multiple gates was a good way to protect a fortification from being captured by surprise.
In case such a surprise attack did not result in the capture of the fortification a siege had to be performed. And that was costly, not only because a large army (more on the size of medieval armies here) was needed for potentially months but also because the siege equipment was not cheap.
But that is a story for another time. You can find out more about how sieges worked in my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
David S. Bachrach: Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Karl Heinz Zuber, Hans Holzbauer (Hrsg.): bsv Geschichte 2. Vom frühen Mittelalter bis zum Westfälischen Frieden (München 1983).