While many movies love to show long (and historically not really accurate) battles the things that happened after a battle had ended are not really shown and are as such pretty unknown to the public.
In the following, I would like to present what happened after a medieval battle.
After a medieval battle, the victorious army would briefly pursue the fleeing enemy but would soon return to the battlefield. There the victorious army would regather and stay for a while to plunder the dead and wounded enemies as well as their camp. But it would also take care of their own dead and wounded, perform worship, and have a victory celebration.
Let`s find out more.
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- 1 What happened after a medieval battle
- 2 A brief pursuit of the fleeing enemy is followed by a quick return to the battlefield
- 3 Looting the bodies of the fallen enemies, their camp, and their supply train
- 4 What happened to the wounded after a medieval battle?
- 5 What happened to the dead after a medieval battle?
- 6 Worship & victory celebrations after a battle
- 7 Sources
What happened after a medieval battle
While more modern military doctrines, for example from the 19th century, demanded that a defeated army had to be pursued and that that pursuit was the culmination of a victory that was not the case for medieval warfare.
Let`s now look at what medieval armies did instead of pursuing the defeated enemy over long distances. For that, we will have to start at the end of a battle. But if you want to find out more about how medieval battles actually worked you might want to check out my article here.
Contrary to the depiction in movies, medieval armies would actually not fight until the last man but would retreat in case their formation got destroyed. That retreat was also the bloodiest part of the battle since a fleeing enemy, especially footsoldiers, could easily be hunted down by the victorious army.
But while these pursuits of fleeing armies could last over many hours during the 19th century the pursuit of a fleeing medieval army was usually rather brief.
A brief pursuit of the fleeing enemy is followed by a quick return to the battlefield
Normally medieval field battles (more on how long these battles could last here) did not end with the total annihilation of the defeated army but the soldiers would rather flee.
While the defeated army fleed from the battlefield the victorious army would usually pursue them over a small distance but would eventually break off the hunt and return to the battlefield.
That had multiple reasons.
First of all, in an age without modern telecommunication returning to the battlefield was the safest way to make sure that the army would come together at the same place after the pursuit had ended. Another reason was that both the wounded and dead had to be taken care of by their own comrades. And plundering the bodies of the fallen enemies could also be a lucrative reason to quickly return to the battlefield instead of pursuing an already defeated enemy.
But there was one more reason why pursuing a fleeing enemy could be risky.
As mentioned, most battles did not end with the total annihilation of the hostile army. If a victorious army pursued the defeated enemy for too long it ran into the risk of losing the connection between its units. And in case the (supposedly) defeated enemy managed to reorganize his fleeing troops that would have opened these spread out (previously victorious) units up to counterattacks or flank attacks.
The risk of flank attacks was especially high if an army was invading the land of the defeated army. In that case, the defeated army usually had fortifications in the area from which the pursuing troops could be outflanked.
But even without that risk, it was way more lucrative to return to the battlefield than to pursue an already defeated enemy.
Looting the bodies of the fallen enemies, their camp, and their supply train
When we look at the composition of medieval armies, more on that in my article here, then we have to realize that the majority of such an army was made up of men on foot who could use some extra cash.
Returning to the battlefield offered the opportunity to plunder the bodies of the fallen enemies, their camp, and ideally also their supply train.
A good example of how profitable plundering the enemy’s camp could be can be found in a source written by chronicler Bruno of Merseburg during the 11th century. In his book, „Historia de Bello Saxonico“* the chronicler Bruno of Merseburg not only tries to justify a Saxonian rebellion but also describes the treasures that the Saxons found in the camp of the defeated army after the battle of the Elster in 1080.
According to him, the Saxons not only found horses, golden and silver tableware, gold and silver in the shape of bars but also stamped into coins, as well as different weapons, and precious tents.
If you are curious about how Bruno described the battle of the Elster in the 11th century then you can find a translated version of his book here* on Amazon.
But there were also two other tasks waiting on the battlefield. And that was taking care of the wounded and of the dead.
What happened to the wounded after a medieval battle?
The dead and wounded on the battlefield were the other reason why a medieval army would not pursue their fleeing enemy for too long.
Since there was no such thing as combat medics, organized field hospitals, or funeral associations the care for the dead and wounded of a medieval army was the duty of their unhurt comrades. That dependence on each other increased the cohesion of these units.
But the survivors did not only have to take care of the wounded but also of the dead. By the way, taking care of the dead and wounded primarily means taking care of one’s own dead and wounded. Sometimes victorious medieval armies allowed the families and friends of dead or wounded members of the defeated army to enter the battlefield and take care of their loved ones. But allowing that kind of behavior was up to the victor and not an official law or regulation.
What happened to the dead after a medieval battle?
As mentioned, unlike the Roman army but also Roman Gladiators the medieval armies did not have funeral associations. So burying the dead was the duty of the survivors of a battle.
The way the dead of a medieval battle were buried depended on their social status. While regular soldiers were buried in mass graves on the battlefields, the bodies of high-ranking fallen members of medieval society like counts or bishops were transported home by their followers or other high-ranking men where they were buried in churches.
Taking the bodies of these high-ranking men home was usually done by their followers or other men of their social status since bringing the body home was seen as a noble gesture.
By the way. The presence of men like bishops among the fallen of a medieval battle is the result of how medieval armies were organized, more on that in my article here.
The different treatment of fallen soldiers depending on their social status can also be seen in medieval art. Usually, you have the body of a high-ranking man, maybe a count, with men grieving over him in the center of the picture while the severity of the battle is illustrated by a pile of bodies of regular soldiers in the background.
But there were two more reasons why a victorious medieval army would usually stay on the battlefield for some time.
Worship & victory celebrations after a battle
Apart from plundering and taking care of the wounded a medieval army also celebrated worship and a victory celebration on the battlefield. And sometimes the battlefields would eventually become the place where a monastery was founded to secure salvation for the souls of the fallen.
A few years after his victory at the battle of Hastings in 1066, Wilhelm the Conquerer founded a monastery on the battlefield of Hastings to secure salvation for the men who died during the battle. He actually insisted on placing the high altar of the abbey church at the exact place where the banner of his enemy Harald had fallen.
So there we have the answer to the question of what happened after a medieval battle. Here you can find more information on how medieval battles worked. And here you can find more information on the size of medieval armies.
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).