There are a lot of wrong perceptions of how Medieval battles worked. One part of these wrong perceptions can be contributed to Hollywood which loves to show movies where giant armies charge each other without any kind of order or self-preservation. The other part can be attributed to how modern warfare works. Behavior that is totally rational in today`s combat – like using trenches as protection against bullets or artillery – does unconsciously rub off into our beliefs about medieval combat and how medieval armies must have also sought cover from the deadly hails of arrows or the projectiles of throwing machines.
In the following, I would like to present how Medieval battles actually worked while simultaneously addressing a few common misconceptions about medieval warfare.
Medieval soldiers took positions outside the range of the hostile bows where they formed tightly packed formations that were several men deep and briskly advanced (but not ran) towards the enemy. The formation would stop several times so that the ranks could be reorganized. When the formation was close to the enemy it would stop and close its ranks for one last time before charging the enemy. The goal was that the formation hit the hostile formation as united and with as much force as possible. If neither side fleed then the two formations clashed and the men started stabbing at each other in more or less even lines.
Let`s have a more detailed look.
Preliminary remarks: range weapons, field artillery, and army size during the Middle Ages
Even though firearms would appear during the end of the Middle Ages these early firearms and canons were to unprecise and were not really used in field battles but rather in sieges.
Here you can find out more about how sieges worked during the Middle Ages.
But the medieval ranges weapons like bows or crossbows did usually also not play a decisive role during field battles. Even when the use of longbows as the most effective medieval long-ranged weapons spread during the 14th century a shield still offered decent protection against arrows shot from a distance of more than 200 meters (= 218 yds).
And before the use of longbows spread during the 14th century the effective reach of bows hardly surpassed 100 meters (= 109 yds).
Throwing machines like catapults or onagers as well as canons did also not play a significant role during medieval field battles since their rate of fire was pretty low and these machines were also extremely ponderous.
These machines were however used during sieges where their main disadvantages like a slow rate of fire and their ponderousness didn`t really matter. You can find out more about how medieval sieges worked in my article here.
So when we look at medieval battles we have to recognize two things:
Not only did artillery not play a role on medieval battlefields, but the bombardment with arrows or crossbow bolts could also hardly drive a somewhat well-trained army from the battlefields before the use of longbows spread during the 14th century. So a battle had to be decided by the infantry and/or the cavalry.
And that brings us directly to the main topic of this article. How were infantry and cavalry used during a medieval field battle?
But there is still one more thing to consider before we start with the use of infantry in medieval field battles.
While mounted fighters were much more effective than a similar number of infantrymen the costs of maintaining one cavalryman were also much higher than maintaining one infantryman. That is one of the reasons why the bulk of most medieval armies consisted of infantry.
Please check out my article here for more information on the size of a medieval army.
But let`s now look at how Infantry was used in medieval field battles!
The use of infantry in medieval field battles
First things first. As already stated during the introduction to this article. The unorganized charging at an enemy that is presented in most movies is not historically accurate. And the argument that medieval warriors had to charge at the enemy to quickly get through the hail of arrows shot at them has already been debunked by pointing out the relatively low range of not even 100 meters (=109 yd) that bows had until the 14th century.
But which tactics did medieval infantry use during field battles?
The tactics of medieval infantry in field battles
Well, first we have to look at what had to be prevented. The worst case in a medieval field battle was that the own soldiers had sprinted at an enemy who had just stood his ground. That would have meant that your own troops would have wasted a lot of their energy putting them at a disadvantage against a rested enemy.
The goal of a medieval commander was that his troops reached the hostile formation as tightly packed as possible without having wasted a lot of energy during its advance.
Especially the idea of medieval infantry operating in tight formations might surprise you since that is pretty much the opposite of what is shown in most movies. But it makes sense. A tightly packed formation offered protection to the individual soldier and prevented him from having to fear that an enemy would show up on his side or in his back.
So the goal of meeting the hostile formation in an organized and not overly exhausted way shaped all the events leading up to the actual fighting (and also the fighting itself).
Usually, the infantry that would fight in a medieval field battle would take positions outside of the range of the enemies’ bows. There the men would form a tightly packed formation that was several men deep. Then the soldiers would briskly advance (but not run) while maintaining an organized formation. They would stop several times during their advance to reorganize the formation so that potential gaps that had opened during the advance could be closed.
When they came close to the enemy`s formation the soldiers would stop one last time and the ranks would be closed once more. After that, the men would charge the hostile formation while shouting their battle cries.
Fight or flight – two potential outcomes of formations advancing against each other
At that point two things could happen:
Either both formations that were advancing against each other stood their ground. In that case, the formations would meet and the men would start stabbing at each other in more or less even lines. The other option was that one of the formations broke due to the psychological impact an advancing, tightly packed, and screaming formation of armed men had on them. In that case, the battle could end without the two infantry formations actively engaging each other.
Both options were quite common since the psychological stress of such a situation must not be underestimated! Especially considering the fact that most soldiers in a medieval army were not professional soldiers, more on the organization and composition of medieval armies in my article here.
In the case that both armies stood their ground and started fighting the battle could go on until nightfall or until one of the sides was losing. Here you can find out more about medieval battles lasted.
But it didn`t mean that no bloodshed happened when one formation broke and fleed before engaging. The real bloodshed during both ancient and medieval battles happened when one of the armies fleed the battlefield and was pursued by the victorious side. In that case, the loss of the formation that offered protection to the individual soldier and the chaos that followed hindered an orderly retreat and offered the victorious infantry but also the cavalry a good chance to attack the unprotected fleeing soldiers.
Here you can find out more about the pursuit of the fleeing army and what happened after a medieval battle. But back to the pursuit of the fleeing enemy.
That leads us to the question of how cavalry was used during the Middle Ages.
The use of cavalry in medieval battles
The use of cavalry in medieval field battles was generally similar to the tactics that medieval infantry used. Only the fact that horses are escape animals complicated the use of cavalry.
To get a horse to charge a formation of infantry or cavalry a lot of training is necessary. To be able to train the mounted man had to be wealthy enough to be able to afford to invest that time into training instead of making a living. That is one of the reasons why even during the Early Middle Ages these men who fought on horseback had vast possessions of land, more on that here. That also explains why the art of fighting on horseback would later mostly be performed by knights, a social class of landowning warriors.
The tactics of medieval cavalry in field battles
The general tactics that medieval cavalry used during field battles were quite similar to the tactics used by infantry.
The knights would form a tight formation outside of the range of the enemy’s bows. Then the formation of horses would trot towards the enemy until it was close enough while maintaining the close formation. As soon as the formation was close enough the horses started galloping so that the hostile formation was hit as united and with as much force as possible. To deliver the most damage possible the knights couched their lances under their arms, a tactic that came up in the 11th century and that made the charge of a formation of knights extremely effective.
Speaking of the distance at which formations of medieval knights switched from trotting to galloping. While no sources on that have survived there are some modern regulations of the British military from the 20th century regarding when a cavalry charge should speed up into galloping. I think that regulation (that by the way was maintained even in an age when machine guns were already commonly used) should give us some insight into when medieval knights would increase their riding speed from trot to gallop.
British regulations that were still in place during the early 20th-century demanded that a cavalry charge should only increase its speed from trot to gallop at a distance of 50 yards (= 45 meters) to the hostile formation. That number of 50 yards can also be applied to the distance at which medieval knights would increase the speed of their horses to gallop to charge into the hostile formation with as much force as possible.
Here you can find out more about how effective the charge of a group of knights was and also what made that charge so effective aside from the armor and the life-long training of the knights. And here you can find my article with more information on the use of the under-arm couched lance that made the knight so effective but also made training (the original purpose of the tourament) necassary.
But cavalry and infantry did not only act completely separated from each other. There was obviously cooperation between cavalry and infantry during a battle.
Cooperation between Infantry and Cavalry during medieval battles
Even during the Early Middle Ages the training of the mounted men allowed complex maneuvers like flank attacks during a field battle or raids, especially during the time leading up to the battle.
Especially attacks on the enemy’s camp or his supply train could be extremely valuable. But to successfully perform these raids you needed a highly mobile force. Or in other words, that was the perfect job for men fighting on horseback!
But in order to achieve the level of training that fighting on horseback and in tights formations needed a class of professional warriors was necessary. And that professionalization of fighting can already be seen during the Early Middle Ages, for example in the Household militaries of both secular and ecclesiastical magnates. But that is a story for another time.
If you want to find out more about medieval warfare then I would like to recommend you my article here where I present the important, but often overseen, logistics of medieval warfare.
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).