Häufig gestellte Fragen zur Geschichte

Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion
History GuideBy: GurraJG
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Copyright January 17, 2004 by Gustav "GurraJG" Gullberg

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This is a guide which compiles all of the text from the History section of The
Age of Empires II: The Conquerors Expansion. NOTE: THE FOLLOWING TEXT IS _NOT_


The Aztecs (1325 to 1521)

Political control of the populous and agriculturally rich central valley of
Mexico fell into confusion after 1100. Gradually assuming ever-greater power
were the Aztecs, probably a northern tribe that had migrated to the valley
and occupied a minor town on the shore of the great central lake. They were a
society that valued the skills of warriors above all others, and this
emphasis gave them an advantage against rival tribes in the region. By the
end of the 15th century, the Aztecs controlled all of central Mexico as a
military empire that collected tribute from rivals.

The Aztec culture drew upon the experience of those that came before it and
invented little that was new. They had an advanced agriculture that supported
a very large population. They built immense buildings of grand design and
flourished in many arts. They were adept metal workers, but had no iron.
Lacking any suitable draft animal, they made no motive use of the wheel.

One of the distinctive features of the Aztec culture was its penchant for
sacrifice. Aztec myths dictated that human blood be fed to the Sun to give it
the strength to rise each day. Human sacrifices were conducted on a grand
scale; several thousand in a single day were not uncommon. Victims were often
decapitated or flayed, and hearts were cut from living victims. Sacrifices
were conducted at the top of tall pyramids to be close to the sun and blood
flowed down the steps. Although the Aztec economy was based primarily on corn
(or maize), the people believed that crops depended on the regular provision
of sacrificial blood.

The incessant demand for sacrificial victims meant that the Aztecs tolerated
loose control over satellite cities because frequent revolts offered
opportunities for capturing new victims. During times of peace, "garland
wars" were arranged strictly as contests of courage and warrior skill, and
for the purpose of capturing victims. They fought with wooden clubs to maim
and stun, rather than kill. When fighting to kill, the clubs were studded
with obsidian blades.

Despite their great agriculture and arts, the Aztecs appear in retrospect to
have been a waning society. They passed on no significant technology or ideas
of religion or political theory. Their civilization was brought to an abrupt
end by the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century. Already
devastated by European disease passed by early traders, they fell to a small
Spanish army armed with steel weapons, firearms, and riding a few horses. The
cruelty of the Aztecs contributed to their downfall by making it easy for the
Spanish to enlist allies among the non-Aztecs in Mexico.

The Britons (500 On)

Following the withdrawal of the Roman legions to Gaul (modern France) around
400, the British Isles fell into a very dark period of several centuries from
which almost no written records survive. The Romano-British culture that had
existed under 400 years of Roman rule disappeared under relentless invasion
and migration by barbarians. Celts came over from Ireland (a tribe called the
Scotti gave their name to the northern part of the main island, Scotland).
Saxons and Angles came from Germany, Frisians from modern Holland, and Jutes
from modern Denmark. By 600, the Angles and Saxons controlled most of modern
England. By 800, only modern Wales, Scotland, and West Cornwall remained in
largely Celtic hands.

The new inhabitants were called Anglo-Saxons (from the Angles and Saxons).
The Angles gave their name to the new culture (England from Angle-land), and
the Germanic language they brought with them, English, replaced the native
Celtic and previously imported Latin. Despite further invasions and even a
complete military conquest at a later date, the southern and eastern parts of
the largest British Isle have been called England (and its people and
language English) ever since.

In 865 the relative peace of England was shattered by a new invasion. Danish
Vikings who had been raiding France and Germany formed a great army and
turned their attention on the English. Within 10 years, most of the Anglo-
Saxon kingdoms had fallen or surrendered. Only the West Saxons (modern
Wessex) held out under Alfred, the only English ruler to be called "the

England was divided among the Vikings, the West Saxons, and a few other
English kingdoms for nearly 200 years. The Viking half was called the Danelaw
("under Danish law"). The Vikings collected a large payment, called the
Danegeld ("the Dane's gold"), to be peaceful. The Danes became Christians and
gradually became more settled. In time the English turned on the Danes, and
in 954 the last Viking king of York was killed. England was united for the
first time under an English king from Wessex.

In 1066 the Witan ("king's council") offered the crown to Harold, son of the
Earl of Wessex. Two others claimed the throne: Harald Hardrada (meaning "the
hard ruler"), King of Norway, and Duke William of Normandy. The Norwegian
landed first, near York, but was defeated by Harold at the battle of Stamford
Bridge. Immediately after the victory, Harold force-marched his army south to
meet William at Hastings. The battle seesawed back and forth all day, but
near dusk Harold was mortally wounded by an arrow in the eye. Over the next
two years, William, now "the Conqueror," solidified his conquest of England.

During the remainder of the Middle Ages, the successors of William largely
exhausted themselves and their country in a series of confrontations and wars
attempting to expand or defend land holdings in France. The Hundred Years War
between England and France was an on-and-off conflict that stretched from
1337 to 1453. It was triggered by an English king's claim to the throne of
France, thanks to family intermarriages. The war was also fought over control
of the lucrative wool trade and French support for Scotland's independence.
The early part of the war featured a string of improbable, yet complete,
English victories, thanks usually to English longbowmen mowing down hordes of
ornately armored French knights from long range.

The English could not bring the war to closure, however, and the French
rallied. Inspired by Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who professed divine
guidance, the French fought back, ending the war with the capture of Bordeaux
in 1453. The English were left holding only Calais on the mainland (and not
for long).

The Byzantines (476 to 1453)

The Byzantines took their name from Byzantium, an ancient city on the
Bosphorus, the strategic waterway linking the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea.
The Roman Emperor Constantine had renamed this city Constantinople in the
fourth century and made it a sister capital of his empire. This eastern
partition of the Roman Empire outlived its western counterpart by a thousand
years, defending Europe against invasions from the east by Persians, Arabs,
and Turks. The Byzantines persevered because Constantinople was well defended
by walls and the city could be supplied by sea. At their zenith in the sixth
century, the Byzantines covered much of the territories of the original Roman
Empire, lacking only the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), Gaul
(modern France), and Britain. The Byzantines also held Syria, Egypt, and
Palestine, but by the middle of the seventh century they had lost them to the
Arabs. From then on their empire consisted mainly of the Balkans and modern

The first great Byzantine emperor was Justinian I (482 to 565). His ambition
was to restore the old Roman Empire and he nearly succeeded. His instrument
was the greatest general of the age, Belisarius, who crisscrossed the empire
defeating Persians to the East, Vandals in North Africa, Ostrogoths in Italy,
and Bulgars and Slavs in the Balkans. In addition to military campaigns,
Justinian laid the foundation for the future by establishing a strong legal
and administrative system and by defending the Christian Church.

The Byzantine economy was the richest in Europe for many centuries because
Constantinople was ideally sited on trade routes between Asia, Europe, the
Black Sea, and the Aegean Sea. It was an important destination point for the
Silk Road from China. The nomisma, the principal Byzantine gold coin, was the
standard for money throughout the Mediterranean for 800 years.
Constantinople's strategic position eventually attracted the envy and
animosity of the Italian city-states.

A key strength of the Byzantine Empire was its generally superior army that
drew on the best elements of the Roman, Greek, Gothic, and Middle Eastern
experience in war. The core of the army was a shock force of heavy cavalry
supported by both light infantry (archers) and heavy infantry (armored
swordsmen). The army was organized into units and drilled in tactics and
maneuvers. Officers received an education in military history and theory.
Although outnumbered usually by masses of untrained warriors, it prevailed
thanks to intelligent tactics and good discipline. The army was backed by a
network of spies and secret agents that provided information about enemy
plans and could be used to bribe or otherwise deflect aggressors.

The Byzantine navy kept the sea-lanes open for trade and kept supply lines
free so the city could not be starved into submission when besieged. In the
eighth century, a land and sea attack by Arabs was defeated largely by a
secret weapon, Greek fire. This chemical weapon, its composition now unknown,
was a sort of liquid napalm that could be sprayed from a hose. The Arab navy
was devastated at sea by Greek fire.

In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs overran Egypt, the Middle
East, North Africa, and Spain, removing these areas permanently from
Byzantine control. A Turkish victory at Manzikert in 1071 led to the
devastation of Asia Minor, the empire's most important source of grain,
cattle, horses, and soldiers. In 1204 Crusaders led by the Doge of Venice
used treachery to sack and occupy Constantinople.

In the fourteenth century, the Turks invaded Europe, capturing Adrianople and
bypassing Constantinople. They settled the Balkans in large numbers and
defeated a large crusader army at Nicopolis in 1396. In May 1453, Turkish
sultan Mehmet II captured a weakly defended Constantinople with the aid of
heavy cannon. The fall of the city brought the Byzantine Empire to an end.

The Celts (500 to 1500)

The Celts (pronounced "kelts") were the ancient inhabitants of Northern
Europe and the builders of Stonehenge 5000 years ago. Julius Caesar had
battled them during his conquest of Gaul. The Romans eventually took most of
Britain and the Iberian Peninsula from them as well. At the end of the
ancient Roman Empire, the Celts occupied only parts of northwestern France,
Ireland, Wales, and parts of Scotland. During the course of the Middle Ages,
they strengthened their hold on Scotland and made several attempts to take
more of England.

The Irish remained in small bands during the early Middle Ages. By 800 the
four provinces of Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster had risen to power
under "high kings." Viking raids began in 795 and then Viking settlements
were established in the middle ninth century. The most important of these was
at Dublin. Brian Boru became the first high king of all Ireland around 1000.
In 1014 the Irish defeated the Danes of Dublin at Clontarf, although Brian
Boru was killed.

An Irish tribe called the Scotti invaded what is now southern Scotland during
the early Middle Ages, settling permanently and giving the land its name.
They pushed back and absorbed the native Picts who had harassed the Romans to
the south. The Scottish kingdom took its present shape during the eleventh
century but attracted English interference. The Scots responded with
the "auld (old) alliance" with France, which became the foundation of their
diplomacy for centuries to come. Edward I of England (Longshanks, or "hammer
of the Scots") annexed Scotland in 1296.

William Wallace (Braveheart) led a revolt of Scotland, winning virtual
independence at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Defeated the next year
at Falkirk, Wallace waged a guerrilla war until he was betrayed, captured,
and executed in 1305. Robert the Bruce declared himself king of Scotland
after murdering his main rival. He drove out the English, winning the battle
of Bannockburn in 1314. Edward III of England recognized Scotland's
independence in 1328, but war between the Scots and English carried on for
several centuries. The crowns of the two countries were united in 1603, long
after the Middle Ages were over.

No prince in Wales proved strong enough to unite the country. In the late
thirteenth century, Edward I took over the government of Gwynedd, one of the
strongest Welsh principalities in Wales. He proceeded to build five great
castles in Wales, effectively placing the country under English rule.

The Chinese (581 to 1644)

China was reunited in 581 AD after a long period of internal war by the
founders of the Sui dynasty. For most of the 1000 years that followed, China
was one of the largest and most advanced civilization in the world. Because
of its geographic isolation from the West, it was able to develop and
maintain a unique culture that spread its influence over much of Asia.

An emperor generally held supreme power as the son of heaven. Natural
disasters or other calamities were taken as proof that the mandate of heaven
had been withdrawn, however, and could justify revolt. Mandarins were
conservative civil servants who operated most of the government at the local,
province, and imperial level. Mandarins earned their positions by passing
detailed civil service examinations based mainly on the works of Confucius.

The T'ang dynasty ruled China from 618 to 907. China under the T'ang was
large, wealthy, and powerful. There was extensive foreign trade and interest
in the arts among the upper class. Printing and gunpowder were invented. The
last 100 years of T'ang rule witnessed tumultuous peasant revolts, however,
and wars between local military rulers that the imperial court could not end.
The years from 907 to 960 were known as the Five Dynasties period. Northern
China was held by barbarians, and southern China split into 10 rival states.
From one of these, an army general named Zhao Kuang-ying seized power and
unified the southern states, founding the Song dynasty. His descendants
reunited China within 20 years.

The Song dynasty ruled at least part of China until 1279. This was another
period of cultural brilliance, and it was considered the great age of Chinese
landscape painting. There was a dramatic improvement in economic activity,
including a large overseas trade. Population and cities grew, food production
grew faster than population, a money economy developed, and industrial output
increased. No city in Europe could approach the populations of Chang An,
Beijing, and Guang Zhou, all with more than 2 million inhabitants.

The wealth of China attracted enemies, however, and the Mongols began attacks
in 1206. By 1279 they had completed the conquest of Song China and moved the
capital to Beijing. The dramatic economic improvement of the Song dynasty
ended with the Mongol conquests and the estimated 30 million deaths that they
caused. The Mongol Yuan dynasty reunited China and reestablished it as a
great military and world power. Chinese influence was spread into Asia. Hanoi
was captured three times and tribute was extracted from Burma. Trade with
India, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf was developed. Marco Polo visited China
during this period.

Natural disasters and higher taxes in the fourteenth century caused rural
rebellions. A Buddhist monk rose to be one of the leaders of the Red Turbans,
a secret society opposed to the emperor in Beijing. The rebels seized Nanjing
in 1356 and drove the Mongols from Beijing 12 years later, establishing the
Ming dynasty. The Ming presided over another cultural flowering and
established a political unity that outlasted the Ming and continued into the
twentieth century. The Ming clamped down a strict conservatism and isolation,
however, discouraging change and innovation, banning foreign travel, and
closing the Silk Road.

Some of the most noteworthy aspects of medieval China are the technologies
that were invented there, usually many centuries before a similar technology
was invented in, or transmitted to, the West. Important Chinese inventions
included the compass, the wheelbarrow, the abacus, the horse harness, the
stirrup, the clock, iron-casting, steel, paper, moveable type (printing),
paper money, gunpowder, and the stern-post rudder.

The Franks (509 On)

The Franks were one of the Germanic barbarian tribes known to the Romans. In
the early part of the fifth century, they began expanding south from their
homeland along the Rhine River into Roman-controlled Gaul (modern France).
Unlike other Germanic tribes, however, they did not move out of their
homelands but, rather, added to them. Clovis, a Frankish chieftan, defeated
the last Roman armies in Gaul and united the Franks by 509, becoming the
ruler of much of western Europe. During the next 1000 years, this Frankish
kingdom gradually became the modern nation of France.

The kingdom of Clovis was divided after his death among his four sons,
according to custom. This led to several centuries of civil warfare and
struggle between successive claimants to the throne. By the end of the
seventh century, the Merovingian kings (descendants of Clovis) were rulers in
name only. In the early eighth century, Charles Martel became mayor of the
palace, the ruler behind the throne. He converted the Franks into a cavalry
force and fought so well that his enemies gave him the name of Charles the
Hammer. In 732 the Frankish cavalry defeated Muslim invaders moving north
from Spain at the Battle of Poitiers, stopping forever the advance of Islam
from the southwest.

Charles Martel's son, Pepin, was made king of the Franks by the pope in
return for helping to defend Italy from the Lombards. Pepin founded the
dynasty of the Carolingians, and the greatest of these rulers was Charles the
Great, or Charlemagne, who ruled from 768 to 814. He expanded the Frankish
kingdom into an empire and was responsible for a rebirth of culture and
learning in the West. Charlemagne's empire was divided among his grandsons
and thereafter coalesced into two major parts. The western part became the
kingdom of France. Later kings gradually lost political control of France,
however. Central authority broke down under the pressure of civil wars,
border clashes, and Viking raids. Money and soldiers could be raised only by
making concessions to landholders. Fiefs became hereditary and fief holders
became feudal lords over their own vassals. By the tenth century, France had
been broken into feudal domains that acted as independent states.

In 987 the French nobility elected Hugh Capet their king, mainly because his
fief centered on Paris was weak and he was thought to pose no threat. He
founded the Capetian line of kings, who worked slowly for two centuries
regaining the power by making royal roads safe, adding land to their domain,
encouraging trade, and granting royal charters for new towns and fiefs in
vacant lands. By allying themselves with the church, the Capetians took a
strong moral position and benefited from the church's cultural, political,
and social influence. Royal administrators were made loyal to the king and
more efficient by eliminating the inheritance of government offices.

Beginning with Philip II in 1180, three superior rulers established France as
one of the most important nations in Europe. They improved the working of the
government, encouraged a booming trade, collected fees efficiently, and
strengthened their position atop the feudal hierarchy. Although a national
assembly called the Estates General was established, it held no real power
and was successfully ignored.

From 1337 to 1453 France and England fought the long conflict called the
Hundred Years War to decide ownership of lands in France that had been
inherited by English kings. The eventual French victory confirmed the king as
the most powerful political force in France.

The Goths (200 to 714)

The Goths were a Germanic tribe on the Danube River frontier known to the
Romans from the first century AD. Pressured and then displaced when the Huns
moved west out of Central Asia, the Goths moved west into Europe and over the
Danube River to escape the oncoming hordes. After taking part in the fall of
Rome, they vied with other barbarians for the leavings of the Western Roman
Empire during the Early Middle Ages.

The Goths originated on the island of Gotland in the Baltic, to the best of
our knowledge, and split into two groups as they migrated south across
Central Europe. The Visigoths, or West Goths, settled in modern Romania
during the second century. The Ostrogoths, or East Goths, settled farther to
the east on the northwest coast of the Black Sea. In 376 AD the Visigoths
were driven from modern Romania by the Huns and moved south across the
Danube. Their strength was estimated at 60,000 men, women, and children. They
defeated a Roman army from Constantinople, settled briefly south of the
Danube, and then pushed into Italy. In 409 they sacked Rome under their king
Alaric and then moved north into Gaul. The Romans gave them southwestern
Gaul. From there they eventually extended their rule into all of modern Spain
and Portugal.

The Ostrogoths broke away from Hunnish rule and followed their cousins into
Italy late in the fifth century. They were encouraged to invade by the
Eastern emperor, who wanted deposed the barbarian then ruling as viceroy.
Under Theodric, king of modern Switzerland and the Balkans already, the Goths
entered Italy in 488, completing its conquest in 493.

Theodric's kingdom did not last long following his death in 526. Using a
struggle for succession as an excuse, the Byzantines sent an army to Italy in
536 led by their great general Belisarius. The Byzantines hoped to regain
Italy and restore the old Roman Empire in the West. The war dragged on,
devastating the countryside in conjunction with plague and famine. In 552 the
Ostrogoths were finally defeated in Italy. They ceased to exist as a separate
group by the late sixth century when northern Italy was invaded by a new
group of barbarians called the Lombards.

The Visigoth kingdom lasted somewhat longer. In the late fifth century Clovis
of the Franks pushed the Visigoths out of France and over the Pyrenees
Mountains. Following the death of Clovis his kingdom fragmented and the
Visigoths were temporarily left alone. In 711 a new threat appeared from the
south. Islamic armies crossed over from North Africa and destroyed the last
Gothic kingdom in four years.

The Goths are remembered for being the first to sack Rome and thereby
beginning the final collapse of the ancient world order in Europe. Their
admiration for Rome and attempts to preserve it, however, allowed much of the
Roman culture to survive. For example, the modern languages of Italy, France,
Spain, Portugal, and Romania are derived from Latin influenced by later
settlers. They are not variations of German, as was the case in England.

The Huns (408 to 453)

The Huns were a nomadic people from around Mongolia in Central Asia that
began migrating toward the west in the third century, probably due to
climatic change. They were a horse people and very adept at mounted warfare,
both with spears and bows. Moving with their families and great herds of
horses and domesticated animals they migrated in search of new grasslands to
settle. Due to their military prowess and discipline, they proved
unstoppable, displacing all in their path. They set in motion a tide of
migration before them as other peoples moved to get out of their way. This
domino effect of large populations passed around the hard nut of
Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire to spill over the Danube and
Rhine Rivers, and ultimately overwhelm the Western Roman Empire by 476.

Finding lands to their liking, the Huns settled on the Hungarian plain in
Eastern Europe, making their headquarters at the city of Szeged on the Tisza
River. They needed large expanses of grasslands to provide forage for their
horses and other animals. From this area of plains the Huns controlled
through alliance or conquest an empire eventually stretching from the Ural
Mountains in Russia to the Rh¿ne River in France.

The Huns were superb horsemen, trained from childhood, and some believe they
invented the stirrup, critical for increasing the fighting power of a mounted
man charging with a couched lance. They inspired terror in enemies due to the
speed at which they could move, changing ponies several times a day to
maintain their advance. A second advantage was their recurved composite bow,
far superior to anything used in the West. Standing in their stirrups, they
could fire forward, to the sides, and to the rear. Their tactics featured
surprise, lightning attacks, and the ensuing terror. They were an army of
light cavalry and their political structure required a strong leader to hold
them to a purpose.

The peak of Hun power came during the rule of Attila, who became a leader of
the Huns in 433 and began a series of raids into south Russia and Persia. He
then turned his attention to the Balkans, causing sufficient terror and havoc
on two major raids to be bribed to leave. In 450 he turned to the Western
Empire, crossing the Rhine north of Mainz with perhaps 100,000 warriors.
Advancing on a front of 100 miles, he sacked most of the towns in what is now
northern France. The Roman general Aetius raised a Gallo-Roman army and
advanced against Attila, who was besieging the city of Orleans. At the major
battle of Chal¿ns, Attila was defeated, though not destroyed.

The defeat at Chal¿ns is considered one of the decisive battles of history,
one that could have meant collapse of the Christian religion in Western
Europe and perhaps domination of the area by Asian peoples.

Attila then invaded Italy, seeking new plunder. As he passed into Italy,
refugees escaped to the islands off the coast, founding, according to
tradition, the city of Venice. Though Roman forces were depleted and their
main army still in Gaul, the Huns were weak as well, depleted by incessant
campaigns, disease, and famine in Italy. At a momentous meeting with Pope Leo
I, Attila agreed to withdraw.

The Hun empire disintegrated following the death of Attila in 453 with no
strong leader of his ability to hold it together. Subject peoples revolted
and factions within their group fought each other for dominance. They
eventually disappeared under a tide of new invaders, such as the Avars, and
disappeared from history.

The Japanese (500 to 1340)

Located 100 miles off the mainland of Asia, at its closest point, Japan was a
land of mystery at the edge of civilization. Isolated at first by geography
and later by choice, the Japanese developed a distinctive culture that drew
very little from the outside world. At the beginning of what were the Middle
Ages in Europe, the advanced culture of Japan was centered at the north end
of the Inland Sea on the main island of Honshu. Across the Hakone Mountains
to the east lay the Kanto, an alluvial plain that was the single largest rice-
growing area on the islands. To the north and east of the Kanto was the
frontier, beyond which lived aboriginal Japanese who had occupied the islands
since Neolithic times.

Some believe that by the fifth century AD the Yamato court had become largely
ceremonial. Independent clans, known as uji, held the real power behind
the throne. Clan leaders formed a sort of aristocracy and vied with each
other for effective control of land and the throne.

In 536 the Soga clan became predominant and produced the first great
historical statesman, Prince Shotoku, who instituted reforms that laid the
foundation of Japanese culture for generations to come. In 645, power shifted
from the Soga clan to the Fujiwara clan. The Fujiwara presided over most of
the Heian period (794 to 1185). The new leadership imposed the Taika Reform
of 645, which attempted to redistribute the rice-growing land, establish a
tax on agricultural production, and divide the country into provinces. Too
much of the country remained outside imperial influence and control, however.
Real power shifted to great families that rose to prominence in the rice-
growing lands. Conflict among these families led to civil war and the rise of
the warrior class.

Similar to the experience of medieval western Europe, the breakdown of
central authority in Japan, the rise of powerful local nobles, and conflict
with barbarians at the frontier combined to create a culture dominated by a
warrior elite. These warriors became known as Samurai, ("those who serve"),
who were roughly equivalent to the European knight. A military government
replaced the nobility as the power behind the throne at the end of the
twelfth century. The head of the military government was the Shogun.

Samurai lived by a code of the warrior, something like the European code of
chivalry. The foundation of the warrior code was loyalty to the lord. The
warrior expected leadership and protection. In return he obeyed his lord's
commands without question and stood ready to die on his lord's behalf. A
Samurai placed great emphasis on his ancestry and strove to carry on family
traditions. He behaved so as to earn praise. He was to be firm and show no
cowardice. Warriors went into battle expecting and looking to die. It was
felt that a warrior hoping to live would fight poorly.

The Kamakura period (1185 to 1333) was named after a region of Japan
dominated by a new ruling clan that took power after civil war. The Mongols
attempted to invade Japan twice, in 1274 and 1281, but were repulsed both
times. A fortuitous storm caused great loss to the second Mongol invasion

The Koreans (314 - 1598)

When Europe fell into its Dark Age, Korea had been divided into three
competing kingdoms: Koguryo to the north, Paekche to the southwest, and
Shilla to the southeast. In alliance with China, Shilla conquered the other
two kingdoms in the 7th century and then expelled their erstwhile Chinese
ally. The central authority of Shilla disintegrated in the 8th-9th centuries,
however, under pressure from local lords. Korea was unified once again as
Koryo in the 10th century and after that, recovered territory reaching up to
the Amnok River border with China in 993. The civilian nobility was thrown
out of power by a military coup in 1170 and military rule then lasted for
sixty years.

The Mongols invaded in 1231, initiating a 30-year struggle. The Mongols were
often distracted by their wars in China and elsewhere but eventually brought
enough power to bear that Koryo made peace with the invaders in 1258. Under
the Mongols the Koryo maintained their distinct culture and were inspired to
demonstrate their superiority to their conquerors through a burst of artistic

Land reform, the rise of a new bureaucracy, the diminishment of Buddhism, and
the rise of Confucianism around 1400 were part of the creation of a new
kingdom, the Choson, that would rule Korea until the 20th century. China
heavily influenced the Choson politically and culturally. Korea became an
important center of learning, aided by the invention of movable type and the
woodblock technique of publishing around 1234.

The greatest test of the Choson dynasty was invasion by samurai armies from
Japan in 1592 that ostensibly planned to conquer China. Although seven years
of fighting left much of the Korean peninsula devastated, the Japanese were
forced to withdraw because their fleets could not keep open sea lines of
supply and reinforcement back to Japan. The great Korean admiral Yi Sun-Shin
defeated the Japanese at sea. One key to the Korean naval victories was their
innovative turtle ships, the first cannon-bearing armored ships in history.
The Japanese had no answer for these slow but powerful weapons.

The Mayans (250 to 1546)

The Mayans occupied the Yucatan peninsula, modern Honduras, and modern
Guatemala. They date back perhaps to the second millennium BC, but peaked
between 600 and 900 AD. Though they lived on lands of marginal agricultural
value, they created monuments and ceremonial centers nearly as impressive as
those in Egypt. The extent of the ceremonial building is surprising because
their religion was relatively simple. Their architecture was also less
developed, though undeniably impressive, compared to contemporary advances
made elsewhere in the world. They invented a unique written language that is
only being deciphered today. Three Mayan books survive to the present, the
remnants of a much larger number destroyed by Europeans who feared they
contained heresy.

The Mayans were very proficient in mathematics and astronomy. The
understanding and predictability of star and planet movements was critical to
the calculation of their calendar and the dating of important ceremonies.
They lived in small hamlets that have not survived but congregated at their
centers for important events. Noble warriors and priests controlled their

The Mayans went into decline in the tenth century, perhaps due to earthquake
or volcanic eruption. Many of their important ceremonial sites were
thereafter abandoned. Warriors from central Mexico then invaded their
territory and they broke into small town groupings in the rain forest. The
last Mayan center was captured by the Spanish in the 17th century, but as
many as two million people of Mayan descent reside in the Yucatan today.

The Mongols (1206 to 1405)

The Mongols were nomads from the steppes of Central Asia. They were fierce
warriors who fought each other over pasturelands and raided developed
civilizations to the east and south. At the beginning of the thirteenth
century, the Mongol clans united and began a campaign of foreign conquest.
Following in the hoofprints of the Huns, their predecessors by a thousand
years, they carved out one of the largest empires the world has yet seen.

The Mongols inhabited the plains south of Lake Baikal in modern Mongolia. At
its maximum, their empire stretched from Korea, across Asia, and into
European Russia to the Baltic Sea coast. They held most of Asia Minor, modern
Iraq, modern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, parts of India, parts of
Burma, all of China, and parts of Vietnam.

The Mongol clans were united by Temuchin, called Genghis Khan ("mighty
ruler"), in the early thirteenth century. His ambition was to rule all lands
between the oceans (Pacific and Atlantic) and he nearly did so. Beginning
with only an estimated 25,000 warriors, he added strength by subjugating
other nomads and attacked northern China in 1211. He took Beijing in 1215
after a campaign that may have cost 30 million Chinese lives. The Mongols
then turned west, capturing the great trading city Bukhara on the Silk Road
in 1220. The city was burned to the ground and the inhabitants murdered.

Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, his son Ogedei completed the conquest
of northern China and advanced into Europe. He destroyed Kiev in 1240 and
advanced into Hungary. When Ogedei died on campaign in 1241, the entire army
fell back to settle the question of succession. Europe was spared as Mongol
rulers concentrated their efforts against the Middle East and southern China.
Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis, exterminated the Muslim "Assassins" and then
took the Muslim capital of Baghdad in 1258. Most of the city's 100,000
inhabitants were murdered. In 1260 a Muslim army of Egyptian Mamelukes
(warrior slaves of high status) defeated the Mongols in present-day Israel,
ending the Mongol threat to Islam and its holy cities.

Kublai Khan, another grandson of Genghis, completed the conquest of China in
1279, establishing the Yuan dynasty. Attempted invasions of Japan were thrown
back with heavy loss in 1274 and 1281. In 1294 Kublai Khan died in China, and
Mongol power began to decline in Asia and elsewhere. In 1368 the Yuan dynasty
in China was overthrown in favor of the Ming.

In the 1370's a Turkish-Mongol warrior claiming descent from Genghis Khan
fought his way to leadership of the Mongol states of Central Asia and set out
to restore the Mongol Empire. His name was Timur Leng (Timur, "the Lame," or
Tamerlane to Europeans and the Prince of Destruction to Asians). With another
army of 100,000 or so horsemen, he swept into Russia and Persia, fighting
mainly other Muslims. In 1398 he sacked Delhi, murdering 100,000 inhabitants.
He rushed west defeating an Egyptian Mameluke army in Syria. In 1402 he
defeated a large Ottoman Turk army near modern Ankara. On the verge of
destroying the Ottoman Empire, he turned again suddenly. He died in 1405
while marching for China. He preferred capturing wealth and engaged in
wholesale slaughter, without pausing to install stable governments in his
wake. Because of this, the huge realm inherited by his sons fell apart
quickly after his death.

The Persians (220 to 651)

The Persian Empire had existed for many centuries when the Middle Ages began.
It had been reassembled following the conquest by Alexander in the fourth
century BC and the subsequent breakup of his empire in later centuries. The
Persians had been fighting the Romans since the third century AD.

The Persian Empire stretched from Mesopotamia to India and from the Caspian
Sea to the Persian Gulf, encompassing the modern nations of Iraq, Iran, and
Afghanistan. They fought the Romans, and later the Byzantines, for control of
modern Syria, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and Arabia. The capital of
the Persian Empire was Ctesiphon, called Baghdad today.

During the third and fourth centuries, the Romans made several attempts to
subdue the Persians. In 364 a peace treaty was signed between the two that
allowed the Persians to consolidate their power to the east and north.
Beginning with the sixth century, the Persians began attacking the Byzantine
Empire in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and modern Turkey. The war between the two
powers went back and forth. In 626 the Persians besieged Byzantium itself
without success, and the Byzantines were able to invade Persia the following
year. Peace was made between the two exhausted empires in 628.

The Persians were unprepared for the fury of the Islamic Arabs in the seventh
century. The Sassanid dynasty of Persia ended in battle in 636. The Persians
did not have a capital with defenses comparable to those of Constantinople.
Muslim conquest of Persia was complete by 651.

The Saracens (613 On)

The name Saracen applied originally to nomadic desert peoples from the area
stretching from modern Syria to Saudi Arabia. In broader usage the name
applied to all Arabs of the Middle Ages. These desert nomads erupted suddenly
in the seventh century and established a far-reaching empire within a century
and a half. Their conquest was fueled by faith and high morale. Following the
teachings of the prophet Mohammed, their intent was to change the religious
and political landscape of the entire planet.

By 613 the prophet Mohammed was preaching a new religion he called Islam.
Largely ignored in his home city of Mecca, he withdrew to Medina, built up a
strong following there, and returned to attack and capture Mecca. Following
his death in 632, his teachings were collected to form the Koran, the Islamic
holy book. In 634 his followers began their jihad, or holy war. Within five
years they had overrun Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Their tolerance of Jews
and Christians eased their conquest because these people had been suffering
some persecution under the Byzantines.

In the next 60 years, both North Africa to the west and Persia to the east
fell to Islam. In the early eighth century, Saracens from Tangiers invaded
the Iberian Peninsula and conquered the Visigoth kingdom established there
after the fall of Rome. In Asia they took Asia Minor from the Byzantines and
attempted to capture Constantinople with a combined attack from land and sea.
The great walls of the city frustrated the land attack and the Saracen fleet
was defeated at sea. In the west, Charles Martel of the Franks stopped a
Saracen invasion of modern France in 732 at Poitiers.

Frustrated in the west, the forces of Islam turned east. By 750 they had
conquered to the Indus River and north over India into Central Asia to the
borders of China.

In 656 the Muslim world fell into civil war between two factions, the
Sunnites and the Shiites. They differed on several points, including who
should be caliph and interpretation of the Koran. The result of the 60-year
war was that the Islamic state broke into pieces, some governed by Sunnites
(the Iberian Peninsula) and others by Shiites (Egypt and modern Iraq). The
new Islamic states acted independently, thereafter.

Muslim Spain developed into one of the great states of Europe during the
early Middle Ages. Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in relative
harmony, and a rich culture rose out of these multiple influences. There was
a flowering of the arts, architecture, and learning. By 1000, however, Muslim
Spain had divided into warring factions. This civil war facilitated the slow
reconquest of the peninsula (the Reconquista) by the emerging states of
Castile and Aragon, completed finally in 1492.

Asia Minor and the Middle East were conquered by Muslim Turks in the early
eleventh century. In response to a call for aid from the Byzantines, a series
of Crusades was launched from Europe to regain Palestine from the Turks. The
independent Muslim states in the area lost Palestine and the Eastern
Mediterranean coast to the First Crusade. In the last part of the twelfth
century, the great Saracen leader Saladin succeeded in uniting Egypt, Syria,
and smaller states, and he retook Jerusalem.

The Muslim states remained independent long after the Middle Ages and
eventually developed into the modern Arab nations of the Middle East and
North Africa. They went into economic decline, however, when the European
nations opened trade routes of their own to Asia in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries.

The Spanish (712 On)

The history of Spain in the Middle Ages is written in three principal
chapters: the creation of Visigothic Spain, then Muslim Spain, and then
Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain by Christians.

The Iberian peninsula was an appendage of the Roman Empire that was discarded
as the empire disintegrated because it could not be defended in the face of
barbarian invasions that brought devastation to the streets of Rome itself.
The peninsula was occupied in large part by one of the migrating barbarian
groups, the Visigoths, who had come most recently from the southwestern
plains of modern Russia, displaced by the Huns. The Visigoths became
Christian and occupied the center of the peninsula for several centuries.

When one of the Visigoth lords appealed to Muslims in North Africa in the 8th
century for aid against the king, the door was opened for Muslim expansion
across the Straits of Gibraltar. Within 50 years the Muslims had taken most
of the peninsula, leaving only small areas in the mountains and to the north
outside their control. Muslim, or Moorish, Spain quickly developed into one
of the most advanced European civilizations of the Middle Ages. It prospered
in relative peace thanks to good agriculture, trade, coinage, and industry.
It benefited from the spread of learning throughout the Muslim world. Cordoba
became the largest and most sophisticated city in Europe after
Constantinople, featuring a population of over 500,000, wonderful
architecture, great works of art, a fabulous library, and important centers
of learning.

Peace and prosperity were disrupted by internal disruption, however, as
important local rulers competed for overall power, and by external attack,
both from the Christian north and Muslim North Africa. By the middle of the
13th century, Muslim Spain was reduced to a single kingdom centered on
Granada. The Christian kingdoms of the north gradually ate away at Muslim
power, though their effort was often dispersed when they fought with each
other. Portugal split off and created a separate kingdom. Muslim Granada
survived for several centuries thanks to liberal tribute paid to the
Christians to its north and to clever diplomacy that played their enemies
against each other. In 1469, however, Isabel I of Castile married Fernando II
of Aragon, uniting the two competing Christian kingdoms and foreshadowing the
end of Muslim Spain.

Spain of the Middle Ages was a world of contrasts. It featured the great
advantages of a multi-ethnic society, merging Latin, Jewish, Christian, Arab,
and Muslim influences into a unique and rich culture. At the same time,
however, many of these same cultural forces clashed violently. When two
different cultures clash, the result is often grim. The reconquest dragged on
for eight centuries, mirroring the Crusades in the holy land and creating an
atmosphere that became increasingly pitiless and intolerant. The Christian
warriors who eventually expelled the Muslims earned a reputation for being
among the best fighters in Europe.

Granada fell to the forces of Aragon and Castile at the start of 1492, a
momentous year, as under the patronage of Queen Isabel, Christopher Columbus
subsequently discovered for Europeans the great continents of the New World
and their native populations.

The Teutons (919 to 1250)

The origin of Germany traces back to the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy
Roman Emperor in 800. Upon his death the empire was split into three parts
that gradually coalesced into two: the western Frankish kingdom that became
France and the eastern kingdom that became Germany. The title of Holy Roman
Emperor remained in Charlemagne's family until the tenth century when they
died out. In 919 Henry, Duke of Saxony, was elected king of Germany by his
fellow dukes. His son Otto became emperor in 962.

The Holy Roman Empire that Otto I controlled extended over the German plain
north to the Baltic, eastward into parts of modern Poland, and southward
through modern Switzerland, modern Austria, and northern Italy. From the
outset, the emperors had a difficult problem keeping control of two disparate
regions-Germany and Italy-that were separated by the Alps.

The Holy Roman Empire was successful at first because it benefited the
principal members, Germany and Italy. The Germans were not far removed from
the barbarian condition. They had been conquered by Charlemagne only a
century earlier. They benefited greatly from Italian culture, technology, and
trade. The Italians welcomed the relative peace and stability the empire
ensured. Italy had been invaded time and again for the previous 500 years.
The protection of the empire defended the papacy and allowed the city-states
of Italy to begin their growth.

The imperial armies were manned partially by tenants of church lands who owed
service to the emperor. A second important contingent were the ministriales,
a corps of serfs who received the best training and equipment as knights but
who were not free men. These armies were used to put down revolts or
interference by local nobles and peasants or to defend against raids by
Vikings from the north and Magyars from the east.

Because Germany remained a collection of independent principalities in
competition, German warriors became very skilled. The most renowned German
soldiers were the Teutonic Knights, a religious order of warriors inspired by
the Crusades. The Teutonic Knights spread Christianity into the Baltic region
by conquest but were eventually halted by Alexander Nevsky at the battle on
frozen Lake Peipus.

A confrontation between the emperors and the church over investiture of
bishops weakened the emperors in both Germany and Italy. During periods of
temporary excommunication of the emperor and outright war against Rome,
imperial authority lapsed. The local German princes solidified their holdings
or fought off the Vikings with no interference or help from the emperor. In
Italy, the rising city-states combined to form the Lombard League and refused
to recognize the emperor.

Political power in both Germany and Italy shifted from the emperor to the
local princes and cities. The ministriales rebelled, taking control of the
cities and castles they garrisoned and declaring themselves free. During
desperate attempts to regain Italy, more concessions were given to the local
princes in Germany. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the Holy Roman
Empire existed in name only. The throne remained empty for 20 years. The
German princes cared only about their own holdings. The Italian city-states
did not want a German ruler and were strong enough to defend themselves.

Future emperors in the Middle Ages were elected by the German princes but
they ruled in name only, controlling little more than their own family
estates. Germany remained a minor power in Europe for centuries to come.

The Turks (1030 On)

The name Turk refers to two different Muslim groups of the Middle East-first
the Seljuks and then the Ottomans. The Seljuks, nomads from the steppes near
the Caspian Sea, converted to Islam around the tenth century. Approximately
70,000 Seljuks started as mercenaries to fill the ranks of the Islamic army
of the caliph of Baghdad. These mercenaries converted to the Sunni branch of
Islam. In 1055 they became the real power behind the caliph in Baghdad and
began extending their rule. Their leaders took the title sultan,
meaning "holders of power." By 1100 they controlled most of Anatolia (taken
from the Byzantines), Palestine, the lands surrounding the Persian Gulf, the
holy cities of Arabia, and as far east as Samarkand.

In 1071 the Seljuks achieved a stunning victory over a Byzantine army at
Malazgirt in modern Turkey, which led to Turkish occupation of most of
Anatolia. At nearly the same time, they successfully captured Jerusalem from
its Egyptian Muslim rulers. These two events shocked the Byzantines, the
papacy, and the Christian Europeans. The result was the Crusades, which
carried on for the next 200 years.

The Seljuk Turks were worn down by the recurring wars with the Crusaders,
even though they were successful ultimately in regaining control of
Palestine. They were threatened simultaneously by the activities of the
Assassins, a heretical sect of Islam. Internally, Islam entered a period of
introspection because of the popularity of Sufi mysticism. During this period
of exhaustion and weakness, they were attacked suddenly by the Mongols and
collapsed. Baghdad fell to the invaders in 1258 and the Seljuk Empire

Islamic peoples from Anatolia (modern Turkey in Asia Minor) were unified in
the early fourteenth century under Sultan Osman I and took the name Osmanli,
or Ottomans, in his honor. The Ottomans swore a jihad against the crumbling
Byzantine Empire and took their campaign around Constantinople into the
Balkans. In 1389 the Serbs were defeated. In 1396 a "crusader" army from
Hungary was defeated. Ottoman successes were temporarily halted by the
Mongols under Tamerlane, but he moved on with his army and the Ottomans

Sultan Mehmed II ("the Conqueror") at last captured Constantinople on May 29,
1453. The great walls of Constantinople were battered by 70 guns for eight
weeks and then 15,000 Janissaries led the successful assault.

The Ottomans pushed on into Europe following the capture of Constantinople
and threatened a sort of reverse Crusade. They were stopped by a Hungarian
army at Belgrade in 1456, however. Attacks on Vienna were repulsed in 1529
and again in 1683. At its peak in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire
reached up into Europe to Budapest and Odessa and included all of Greece and
the Balkans, the lands surrounding the Black Sea, Asia Minor, the Levant,
Arabia, Egypt, and most of North Africa. The Ottoman Empire remained a
significant world power until World War I in the twentieth century.

The Vikings (500 to 1100)

The Vikings (meaning "northmen") were the last of the barbarian tribes called
Germans by the Romans to terrorize Europe. Spreading out from their homelands
in Scandinavia, they struck suddenly across the seas from their dragon boats
(called such because of the dragon heads carved on the bow and stern). They
began by raiding, pillaging, and withdrawing before any serious armed
resistance could be mounted, but they gradually grew more bold. Eventually
they occupied and settled significant parts of Europe.

Being pagan, they did not hesitate to kill churchmen and loot church
holdings, and they were feared for their ruthlessness and ferocity. At the
same time, they were remarkable craftsmen, sailors, explorers, and traders.

The Viking homelands were Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They and their
descendants controlled, at least temporarily, most of the Baltic Coast, much
of inland Russia, Normandy in France, England, Sicily, southern Italy, and
parts of Palestine. They discovered Iceland in 825 (Irish monks were there
already) and settled there in 875. They colonized Greenland in 985. Some
people think that the Vikings reached Newfoundland and explored part of North
America 500 years before the voyage of Columbus.

Vikings began raiding and then settling along the eastern Baltic Sea in the
sixth and seventh centuries. At the end of the eighth century, they were
making long raids down the rivers of modern Russia and setting up forts along
the way for defense. In the ninth century, they were ruling Kiev and in 907 a
force of 2000 ships and 80,000 men attacked Constantinople. They were bought
off by the emperor of Byzantium with very favorable terms of trade.

Vikings struck first in the West in the late eighth century. Danes attacked
and looted the famous island monastery at Lindisfarne on the northeast coast
of England, beginning a trend. The size and frequency of raids against
England, France, and Germany increased to the point of becoming invasions.
Settlements were established as bases for further raids. Viking settlements
in northwestern France came to be known as Normandy ("from the northmen"),
and the residents were called Normans.

In 865 a large Danish army invaded England, and they went on to hold much of
England for the next two centuries. One of the last kings of all England
before 1066 was Canute, who ruled Denmark and Norway simultaneously. In 871
another large fleet sailed up the Seine River to attack Paris. They besieged
the city for two years before being bought off with a large cash payment and
permission to loot part of western France unimpeded.

In 911 the French king made the Viking chief of Normandy a duke in return for
converting to Christianity and ceasing to raid. From the Duchy of Normandy
came a remarkable series of warriors, including William I, who conquered
England in 1066, Robert Guiscard and his family, who took Sicily from the
Arabs between 1060 and 1091, and Baldwin I, king of the crusader kingdom of

Viking raids stopped at the end of the tenth century. Denmark, Sweden, and
Norway had become kingdoms, and much of their king's energy was devoted to
running their lands. The spread of Christianity weakened the old pagan
warrior values, which died out. The Norse were also absorbed by the cultures
into which they had intruded. The occupiers and conquerors of England became
English, the Normans became French, and the Rus became Russians.


Warfare in the Middle Ages

The traditional and popular understanding of European warfare in the Middle
Ages held that mounted knights dominated European battlefields during the
years 800 to 1400. Knights were encased in plate armor and charged with
lances, scattering, skewering, and riding down any foot troops in the way as
they closed with each other to decide the battle. The era of the knight came
to an end when infantry reestablished a prominent battlefield role with new
weapons (firearms) and revived skills (formations of massed pikeman). This
view was fostered by the art and limited accounts of the era that featured
the mounted nobility while ignoring the commoners and peasants who fought on
foot. The perception that knights dominated and that warfare consisted mainly
of cavalry charges is false.

Foot troops were an important component of all armies in the Middle Ages.
They fought in hand-to-hand m¿l¿es and as missile troops (bows of various
types and later handguns). Foot soldiers were critical for both sides in
sieges against castles and fortified towns.

Warfare in the Middle Ages was dominated actually by sieges of one sort or
another. Battles on open ground between armies were infrequent. Armies played
a sort of chess match, maneuvering to take important castles and towns, while
avoiding engagements where a large and expensive force might be lost.

On those occasions where pitched battles did occur, knights could be
devastating. A determined charge by armored knights was a powerful force. It
was more likely, however, that victory went to the side making best use of
the three major army components together-m¿l¿e infantry, missile troops, and
cavalry. Also important were the factors that have always influenced battle,
such as intelligent use of terrain, troop morale, leadership, discipline, and

Armies of the Dark Ages

The Germanic tribes that overran the Roman Empire at the start of the Middle
Ages fought primarily on foot with axes and swords, while wearing little
armor other than perhaps helmets and shields. They were organized into war
bands under the leadership of a chief. They were fierce warriors but fought
in undisciplined mobs. The disciplined Roman legions had great success
against the Germanic tribes for centuries, in part because emotional armies
are usually very fragile. When the Roman legions declined in quality at the
empire's end, however, the Germanic tribes were able to push across the

Not all Germanic tribes fought on foot. Exceptions were the Goths, who had
adapted to horses when they settled previously north of the Black Sea. Both
the Visigoths and Ostrogoths learned about cavalry by being in contact with
the Eastern Roman Empire south of the Danube and barbarian horsemen from
Asia. The Eastern Roman armies put a greater emphasis on cavalry because of
their conflicts with mounted barbarians, the Parthians, and the Persians.

Following the fall of Rome, most fighting in Europe for the next few
centuries involved clashes of foot soldiers. One exception might have been
the battles of Britain's Arthur against the invading Saxons, although we have
no evidence that his success was due to using cavalry. Arthur may have halted
Saxon progress in Britain for 50 years, perhaps because of cavalry or the use
of disciplined troops. Another exception was the Byzantine army that
recaptured North Africa from the Vandals and almost restored Italy to Eastern
Roman control in the sixth century. The strength of the Byzantine army of
this period was cavalry. The Byzantines benefited also from both superior
leadership and an understanding of tactics that the barbarians lacked.

Fighting in these first centuries rarely involved groups that could be
described as armies. They were the same war bands as before, small by
Byzantine or Asian standards and employing limited tactics or strategy. The
main military activities were raids to obtain loot in the form of food,
livestock, weapons, and slaves. Aggressive tribes expanded by devastating the
food production of enemies, starving them out, and enslaving the survivors.
Battles were mainly clashes of war bands, fighting hand to hand with axes and
swords. They fought as mobs, not the disciplined formations typical of the
Romans. They used shields and helmets and wore some armor. Leather armor was
common; only chieftains and elites wore chain mail.

In the early eighth century, Visgothic Spain fell to the warriors of Islam,
many of whom fought as light cavalry. At the same time, nomadic Magyars from
the Hungarian plains increased their mounted raids on western Europe. In 732
a Frankish infantry army was able to defeat a Muslim cavalry raid near
Poitiers, ending Muslim northward expansion. Charles Martel, warlord of the
Franks, was impressed by the Moorish cavalry and began mounting part of his
army. This conversion continued later in the century under the great king of
the Franks, Charlemagne. Frankish heavy cavalry was the genesis of the
mounted knight that came to typify medieval warfare.

Annually for 30 years, Charlemagne conducted military campaigns that extended
the size of his empire. The Frankish army consisted of both infantry and
armored cavalry, but the cavalry was his most valuable force and the part
that got the most notice. It could move quickly and strike hard against foes
fighting mainly on foot. Charlemagne's campaigns were economic raids,
burning, looting, and devastating enemies into submission. He fought very few
battles against organized opposition.

The Vikings fought exclusively on foot, except that it was their habit to
gather horses upon landing and use them to raid farther inland. Their raids
began in the late eighth century and ended in the eleventh century. The
descendants of Viking raiders that became the Normans of northwestern France
adapted quickly to the use of horses and became some of the most successful
warriors of the late Middle Ages.

In the early tenth century, the Germans began developing the use of cavalry
under Otto I, both as a rapid response force against Viking raids and to
repel mounted barbarian raids from the East.

By the end of the tenth century, heavy cavalry was an important component of
most European armies except in Anglo-Saxon England, Celtic lands (Ireland,
Wales, and Scotland), and Scandinavia.

The Rise of Knights

By the time of Charlemagne, mounted warriors had become the elite military
units of the Franks and this innovation spread across Europe. Fighting from a
horse was most glorious because the mounted man rode into battle, moved
quickly, and trampled down lower-class enemies on foot. When cavalry faced
cavalry, the charge at speed and resulting violent contact was exhilarating.
Fighting while mounted was most prestigious because of the high cost of
horses, weapons, and armor. Only wealthy individuals, or the retainers of the
wealthy, could fight mounted.

Kings of the late Dark Ages had little money with which to pay for large
contingents of expensive cavalry. Warriors were made vassals and given fiefs
of land. They were expected to use their profits from the land to pay for
horses and equipment. In most cases, vassals also supported groups of
professional soldiers. At a time when central authority was weak and
communications poor, the vassal, aided by his retainers, was responsible for
law and order within the fief. In return for his fief, the vassal agreed to
provide military service to his lord. In this way, high lords and kings were
able to raise armies when desired. The elites of these armies were the
mounted vassals.

As the Middle Ages progressed, the elite mounted warriors of western Europe
became known as knights. A code of behavior evolved, called chivalry, which
detailed how they should conduct themselves. They were obsessed with honor,
both at war and at peace, although mainly when dealing with their peers, not
the commoners and peasants who constituted the bulk of the population.
Knights became the ruling class, controlling the land from which all wealth
derived. The aristocrats were noble originally because of their status and
prestige as the supreme warriors in a violent world. Later their status and
prestige were based mainly on heredity, and the importance of being a warrior


When first used, the term "chivalry" meant horsemanship. The warrior elite of
the Middle Ages distinguished themselves from the peasants and clergy and
each other by their skill as horsemen and warriors. Fast and strong horses,
beautiful and efficient weapons, and well-made armor were the status symbols
of the day.

By the twelfth century, chivalry had come to mean an entire way of life. The
basic rules of the chivalric code were the following:

* Protect women and the weak.
* Champion justice against injustice and evil.
* Love the homeland.
* Defend the Church, even at the risk of death.

In practice, knights and aristocrats ignored the code of chivalry when it
suited them. Feuds between nobles and fights over land took precedent over
any code. The Germanic tribal custom that called for a chieftain's property
to be split among his sons, rather than pass to the eldest, often triggered
wars among brothers for the spoils. An example of this was the conflict
between Charlemagne's grandsons. The Middle Ages were plagued with such civil
wars in which the big losers were usually the peasants.

In the late Middle Ages, kings created orders of chivalry, which were
exclusive organizations of high-ranking knights that swore allegiance to
their king and each other. Becoming a member of chivalric order was extremely
prestigious, marking a man as one of the most important of the realm. In 1347
during the Hundred Years War, Edward III of England founded the Order of the
Garter, still in existence today. This order consisted of the 25 highest-
ranking knights of England and was founded to ensure their loyalty to the
king and dedication to victory in the war.

The Order of the Golden Fleece was established by Philip the Good of Burgundy
in 1430 and became the richest and most powerful order in Europe. Louis XI of
France established the Order of St. Michael to control his most important
nobles. The Orders of Calatrava, Santiago, and Alcantara were founded to
drive the Moors out of Spain. They were united under Ferdinand of Aragon,
whose marriage to Isabella of Castile set the foundation for a single Spanish
kingdom. He eventually became master of the three orders, although they
remained separate.

Becoming a Knight

At the age of 7 or 8, boys of the noble class were sent to live with a great
lord as a page. Pages learned basic social skills from the women of the
lord's household and began basic training in the use of weapons and
horsemanship. Around the age of 14 the youth became a squire, a knight in
training. Squires were assigned to a knight who continued the youth's
education. The squire was a general companion and servant to the knight. The
duties of the squire included polishing armor and weapons (prone to rust),
helping his knight dress and undress, looking after his belongings, and even
sleeping across his doorway as a guard.

At tournaments and in battle, the squire assisted his knight as needed. He
brought up replacement weapons and horses, treated wounds, brought a wounded
knight out of danger, or made sure of a decent burial if needed. In many
cases the squire went into battle with his knight and fought at his side. A
knight avoided fighting a squire on the other side, if possible, seeking
instead a knight of rank similar to or higher than his own. Squires, on the
other hand, sought to engage enemy knights, seeking to gain glory by killing
or capturing an enemy knight of high rank.

In addition to martial training, squires built up their strength through
games, learned to at least read, if not write, and studied music, dancing,
and singing.

By the age of 21, a squire was eligible to become a knight. Suitable
candidates were "knighted" by a lord or other knight of high standing. The
ceremony for becoming a knight was simple at first, usually being "dubbed" on
the shoulder with a sword and then buckling on a sword belt. The ceremony
grew more elaborate and the Church added to the rite. Candidates bathed, cut
their hair close, and stayed up all night in a vigil of prayer. In the
morning the candidate received the sword and spurs of a knight.

Knighthood was usually attainable only for those who possessed the land or
income necessary to meet the responsibilities of the rank. Important lords
and bishops could support a sizable contingent of knights, however, and many
found employment in these circumstances. Squires who fought particularly well
might also gain the recognition of a great lord during battle and be knighted
on the field.


Mock battles between knights, called tournaments, began in the tenth century
and were immediately condemned by the second Council of Letr¿n, under Pope
Innocentius II, and the kings of Europe who objected to the injuries and
deaths of knights in what they considered frivolous activity. Tournaments
flourished, however, and became an integral part of a knight's life.

Tournaments began as simple contests between individual knights but grew more
elaborate through the centuries. They became important social events that
would attract patrons and contestants from great distances. Special lists
(tournament grounds) were erected with stands for spectators and pavilions
for combatants. Knights continued to compete as individuals but also in
teams. They dueled against each other using a variety of weapons and held
mock m¿l¿e battles with many knights on a side. Jousts, or tilts, involving
two charging knights fighting with lances, became the premier event. Knights
competed like modern-day athletes for prizes, prestige, and the eyes of the
ladies who filled the stands.

So many men were being killed in tournaments by the thirteenth century, that
leaders, including the pope, became alarmed. Sixty knights died in a 1240
tournament held in Cologne, for example. The pope wanted as many knights as
possible to fight on the Crusades in the Holy Land, rather than be killed in
tournaments. Weapons were blunted and rules attempted to reduce the incidence
of injury, but serious and fatal injuries occurred. Henry II of France was
mortally wounded, for example, in a joust at a tournament held to celebrate
his daughter's wedding.

Challenges were usually issued for a friendly contest, but grudges between
two enemies might be settled in a fight to the death. Tournament losers were
captured and paid a ransom to the victors in horses, weapons, and armor to
obtain their release. Heralds kept track of tournament records, like modern
baseball box scores. A low-ranking knight could amass wealth through prizes
and attract a wealthy wife.

Military Orders

During the Crusades military orders of knights were created to support the
Christian goals of the movement. They became the fiercest of the Crusaders
and the most hated enemies of the Arabs. These orders carried on after the
Crusades in Palestine ended in failure.

The first of these orders were the Knights of the Temple, or the Templars,
founded in 1108 to protect the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The Templars wore
a white surcoat supplanted with a red cross and took the same vows as a
Benedictine monk-poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Templars were among
the bravest defenders of the Holy Land. They were the last Crusaders to leave
the Holy Land. In the following years they grew wealthy from donations and by
lending money at interest, attracting the envy and distrust of kings. In 1307
King Philip IV of France accused them of many crimes, including heresy,
arrested them, and confiscated their lands. Other European leaders followed
his lead and the Templars were destroyed.

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Hospitallers, were set up
originally to tend to sick and poor pilgrims visiting the Holy Sepulcher.
They converted shortly into a military order. They wore a red surcoat with a
white cross and also took the vows of St. Benedict. The Hospitallers set a
high standard and did not allow their order to become rich and indolent. When
forced out of the Holy Land following the surrender of their great castle,
the Krak des Chevaliers, they retreated to the island of Rhodes, which they
defended for many years. Driven from Rhodes by the Turks they took up
residence on Malta.

The third great military order was the Teutonic Knights, founded in 1190 to
protect German pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. Before the end of the
Crusades they had turned their efforts toward converting the heathens in
Prussia and in the Baltic States.


To distinguish knights on the battlefield, a system of badges called heraldry
was developed. A special badge was designed for each nobleman to be shown on
his shield, surcoat, flags, and seal. A surcoat decorated with a knight's
badge became known as a coat-of-arms and this term came to describe the
badges themselves. An independent organization known as the College of
Heralds designed the individual badges and ensured that each was unique.
Badges were recorded by the heralds in special books under their care.

Coats-of-arms were handed down from one generation to the next and would be
modified by marriage. Certain designs were reserved for royalty in different
countries. By the late Middle Ages towns, guilds, and even prominent nonnoble
townsmen were granted coats-of-arms.

On the battlefield, combatants used coats-of-arms to distinguish friend and
foe and to choose a worthy opponent in a m¿l¿e. Heralds made lists of knights
about to fight based on their badges. Heralds were also considered neutrals
and would act as intermediaries between two armies. In this manner they might
pass messages between the defenders of a castle or town and its besiegers.
After a battle, heralds identified the dead by their coats-of-arms.

Weapons of the Middle Ages

For most of the Middle Ages, the technology of weapons was little changed
from that of the ancient world, remaining primarily variants of the club,
knife, spear, axe, and arrow. An important innovation was the heavy mounted
horseman using the lance. The mounted knight was significantly more potent
than any cavalry of the ancient world. The closest ancient equivalent may
have been the Companion cavalry of Alexander the Great.

By the tenth century Europe had bypassed the ancients in most areas,
including weaponry. The evolution of the heavy horseman triggered
corresponding innovation to defend against him. This resulted in new pole
arms to ward off or engage knights.

The longbow and crossbow were innovations in the West. The crossbow was known
to the ancient Chinese, however.

The revolutionary technology of the Middle Ages was the development of
gunpowder weapons, both cannons and hand weapons, discussed later.

Cavalry Weapons and Equipment

Since the first appearance of cavalry around 1000 BC, mounted troops have
fulfilled several important roles in battle. They acted as scouts,
skirmishers, a shock force for m¿l¿e combat, a rear guard, and the pursuit of
a retreating enemy. Cavalry were divided into several different categories
depending on equipment and training, and some categories were better suited
for certain roles than others. Light cavalry wore little or no armor and was
best suited for scouting, skirmishing, and acting as a rear guard. Heavy
cavalry wore armor and was better suited for use as a shock force that
charged the enemy. All types of cavalry excelled at pursuit.

Knights of the Middle Ages were heavy cavalry, and the code of chivalry
emphasized their role as shock troops charging enemy cavalry and infantry.
From the thirteenth century on, the term man-at-arms was used to describe
armored warriors fighting on horse and on foot. The new term applied to
knights as well as squires, gentry, and professional soldiers.

The advantages of knights in battle were speed, intimidation, power, and
height. As the Middle Ages progressed, the equipment of knights improved to
enhance these advantages.


The spear, and later the larger lance, was the weapon with which cavalry
opened a battle. It was ideal for stabbing opponents on foot, especially
those in flight. The presentation of the spear in front of a mounted horseman
added greatly to the intimidation caused by an approaching charge. Much of
the force of the horse could be transmitted through the spear point at the
moment of impact. The charging knight became a thundering missile.

Historians disagree on the importance of the stirrup to the rise of knights.
The stirrup first appeared in Asia and reached Europe in the eighth century.
Some believe that it was critical to the rise of knights because it allowed
the rider to brace himself and his lance, thereby transmitting the entire
force of the charging horse through the lance point. No one argues with the
advantage of this force multiplication, but others suggest that the high
saddle developed in Roman times allowed riders to transmit this power before
the stirrup appeared. The Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts William's conquest
of England in 1066, shows the highly regarded Norman knights using their
spears mainly as overhand stabbing or throwing spears, not as couched lances.
By this time the stirrup had been known in Europe for at least two centuries.
For the remainder of the Middle Ages, the mounted charge by knights holding
couched lances was the epitome of combats for knights. It was not always the
correct tactic, however.

The initial charge by knights often resulted in the loss of spears or lances,
or the charge ended in a general m¿l¿e. In either case, knights switched to
another weapon. This was usually their sword. The cavalry sword evolved into
the saber, a wide, heavy blade that a man standing in his stirrups could
swing down with tremendous force on the head and upper body of opponents.
Swords were the weapons that knights prized most highly because they could be
carried on the person, prominently displayed, and personalized. They were the
most common weapons for hand-to-hand combat between knights. Good swords were
also expensive, so ownership was another distinction of the nobility.

Other choices of m¿l¿e weapon included the hammer and mace (evolutions of the
club), the axe, and the flail. Hammers and maces were popular with fighting
churchmen and warrior monks trying to obey the letter of the Bible's
admonition about shedding blood, which edged weapons were prone to do.

Under no circumstances did knights use missile weapons of any kind. Killing
an opponent at range with an arrow, bolt, or bullet was considered
dishonorable. Knights fought worthy foes of the same rank when possible and
killed face to face or not at all.


Chain mail armor was worn by the late Romans and by some of the invading
Germanic tribes, including the Goths. Chain mail remained popular with the
nobility of medieval Europe until more protective plate armor came into use
in the thirteenth century. The change was made in part because an arrow or
sharp sword point could pierce chain mail. A cloth tunic, called a surcoat,
was worn over the chain mail, especially during the Crusades to reflect the

Helmets also evolved from simple conical designs, to large metal buckets, to
large sculpted pieces designed to deflect arrows. Later, helmets could be
bolted to the armor worn on the body.

Full suits of armor weighing up to 60 pounds appeared in the fourteenth
century. Plate armor was well designed and knights retained a surprising
amount of agility. An armored knight on the ground was not helpless and could
easily stand up. There are accounts and depictions of armored men doing
handstands and other gymnastics in lighter moments. Later suits put increased
emphasis on deflecting missiles and reinforced areas most exposed to blows.
Elaborate full suits of engraved plate armor appeared late during the age and
were more ceremonial and prestigious than practical.

Armor was a large expense for a knight who equipped himself and a squire. An
important lord had to provide armor for many knights. The making of armor was
an important business, and a large market in used armor developed during the
Middle Ages. Common soldiers on the victorious side of a battle could make a
substantial sum by stripping dead knights of their armor and selling it.


Knights took special pride in their horses, which were bred for speed and
strength. They required extensive training, as well, to be manageable during
a charge and m¿l¿e. Horses were trained to charge with minimal guidance,
freeing the knight to hold his shield and lance. Historians disagree as to
whether the horses of knights were the heavy horse thought necessary to carry
the weight of a fully equipped knight or a smaller horse valued for its speed
and agility.

Horsemanship was another characteristic by which the elite knights
distinguished themselves from the commoners. It was practiced while hunting,
a popular leisure activity of the nobles that carries on today in the
traditional foxhunt.

Missile Weapons

Bows of one type or another played an important role in battle throughout the
Middle Ages. They were used as direct fire weapons against individual targets
on battlefields and during sieges. In some cases they were used as area fire

Missile fire allowed men to cause casualties at range. Archers were used as
light troops to cause casualties and weaken enemy morale due to losses before
m¿l¿e combat. If the enemy force could be weakened or shaken, the chances of
winning the m¿l¿e were enhanced.


Bows used during the Middle Ages were of various types, including the short
bow, the composite bow, and the longbow. The short bow was 3 to 4 feet long
and rather easy to make and use. It was employed widely and the most common
bow encountered. It had medium range, power, and accuracy and required
substantial experience and training for effective use.

The composite bow was of Asiatic origin. It was made from a composite of wood
or bone strips bonded together. The lamination created a more powerful bow,
but one that required more strength and training than the common bow. This
relatively short bow was the preferred weapon of horse archers, especially
the Mongols and other horse peoples from Asia. A variant of the composite bow
was curved forward at the tips during manufacture (by steaming and bending
the laminate). This recurved bow generated more power and required a high
degree of strength and skill.

The longbow originated in Wales and spread to England. It was a 6-foot bow
made from a single piece of wood, usually from the yew tree. The longbow shot
a 3-foot arrow (cloth yard). These were fitted with broad tips for use
against infantry (for piercing leather armor and causing lacerations) and
narrow tips for use against armored men (to pierce mail or plate armor).
Shooting the longbow required extensive training and practice; men
experienced with the weapon could get off six well-aimed shots in a minute.
Longbows had a long range and were quite powerful. Large contingents of
experienced longbowmen were a devastating force on many battlefields of the
Middle Ages. They could fire individually aimed shots or rain down a barrage
of arrows into an area.

The English encouraged the use of the longbow by sponsoring archery
tournaments throughout the land. All other sports were banned on Sundays.
This created a large pool of experienced bowmen from which they could
recruit. Each English shire was required by law to provide a number of bowmen
each year. There was usually no shortage of applicants because the pay of
soldiers was so good relative to other work.


The crossbow was known in ancient China but seems to have been reinvented in
Europe around 900. It had good range and was more powerful than most bows,
but it took much more time to load. An average crossbowman fired 2 shots per

The bow of the crossbow was held horizontally and fired with a trigger that
released the taut bowstring. To load, the front of the weapon was pointed to
the ground and held in place by foot. The bowstring was pulled up and back
with both hands or with the help of cranks. The crossbow fired a quarrel, or
bolt, which was much shorter than a typical arrow. The quarrel did have
flights (feathers) for stabilization in flight and had a sharpened metal

Crossbowmen often carried a pavise shield into battle to provide cover while
they loaded. This was a tall shield with wooden braces attached. A force of
crossbowmen set up a wall of such shields and bent down behind the wall to
load. When they shot, only the crossbows and their helmeted heads appeared
over the wall of shields. If forced to fight in the open against a comparable
force of longbowmen, they were usually forced to withdraw.

The crossbow was a deadly weapon and was very popular for the simple reason
that it took little training to operate. Relatively raw soldiers could become
proficient with a crossbow very quickly, and a well-aimed shot could kill a
knight in armor who had spent a lifetime in combat training. The crossbow was
considered unfair in some circles (those of the knights, primarily) because
it took so little skill. Richard I of England, the Lionheart, was wounded
twice by crossbow bolts. The second proved fatal. The idea of such great men
being killed easily by common soldiers or worse was appalling to the
nobility. In the twelfth century a pope tried to get the crossbow banned for
being inhumane.

Hand Weapons

Foot soldiers armed with hand weapons were the third principal component of
medieval armies, along with cavalry and missile troops. M¿l¿e infantry fought
hand to hand and were important both in pitched battles and during sieges.
Infantry consisted of peasants, common soldiers, and dismounted knights.

Hand Weapons

The Franks of the Dark Ages fought with a throwing axe called the francisca,
from which their tribe took its name. Their neighbors, the Saxons, fought
with a large, one-sided knife called a scramasax, from which they took their

With the development of the heavy cavalryman came the heavy sword, which was
used in hand-to-hand fighting on foot as well. Variants of the sword included
a two-handed version that required a lot of space to wield. Men-at-arms
employed a variety of weapons on foot, including axes (both one-handed and
two-handed), maces, flails, and hammers. A variant of the mace was a spiked
ball fastened to a shaft by a chain. As armor improved to reduce the effect
of sword blows, crushing and puncturing weapons became more favored.

Pole Arms

The basic spear was a useful weapon throughout the Middle Ages because it was
cheap to make and simple to use. Common foot soldiers and peasants could be
armed with it and pressed into battle service. In most cases such an
expedient was of little use, but with experience and some training large
bodies of spearmen could be effective.

Pole arms evolved through the medieval period and eventually reached a point
where formations of foot troops skilled in their use were extremely
effective. Advanced pole arms consisted of a spear point with one or more
weapon faces below the point. This additional weapon might be a large long
blade, an axe, a billhook, a hammer, or a spike.

Long pole arms evolved in response to the mounted knight and resulted in a
revival of a formation something like the ancient Greek phalanx. Horses would
not charge a disciplined formation of men that bristled with extended pole
weapons. A dense formation of pole arms held high also served as some
protection from arrows.

Foot soldiers first learned to stand behind wooden stakes set in the ground
to ward off cavalry. They then learned to deploy spears, pikes, and other
pole arms to ward off cavalry. This allowed the formation to move and take
its anti-cavalry stakes with it, in effect. In a m¿l¿e, the various
attachments at the end of the pole were used to pull horsemen off their
mounts, push them off, or cause wounds to the rider or horse. Although
armored men were not helpless when prone on the ground, as some have thought,
they were at a disadvantage, at least temporarily, to men wearing little or
no armor before they could rise.

As the towns grew in the second half of the Middle Ages, they built up their
own militias of troops for defense and for feudal military service. Pole arms
were popular weapons with the town militias because they were relatively
cheap to provide and effective for the cost. Town militias trained with these
weapons and developed useful battlefield tactics. In time, formations of pole-
armed men learned to be aggressive, not simply defensive. Massed formations
of pikeman could physically attack other infantry and even cavalry. The Swiss
lacked the pastureland to support horse armies but became famous as pikemen.
They often served as mercenaries in other continental armies. The lowland
cities of Flanders and the highlands of Scotland also fielded pike units that
were highly regarded.

Armies of the Middle Ages

The first medieval armies were tribal war bands carried over from ancient
times. These evolved into feudal armies made up of a lord's vassals and their
respective retainers. Fief holders were required to provide a period of
military service each year. This began as weeks or months of service by the
vassal accompanied by professional soldiers he retained personally. The
armies of later kings and wealthy lords consisted of a higher proportion of
professionals and mercenaries. Late in the period, vassals sent money instead
of actually serving in armies, and this "martial tax" helped kings to support
armies year-round.

Service in feudal armies was a matter of duty and honor for the knights. In a
warrior society, knights lived for the opportunity to fight. Success in
battle was the main path to recognition and wealth. For professional
soldiers, often the sons of the aristocracy left with little when the eldest
began inheriting everything, fighting was a job. It was duty for peasants
also, when they were called up, but certainly not an honor.

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many commoners joined the ranks
for pay that was often much better than that for more peaceful employment. A
strong attraction for a commoner to become a soldier was the prospect of
loot. Tribal warriors stayed loyal to their warrior chief and fought for him
so long as he provided them with a living and loot. These ideals of the war
band carried over into the feudal age. Low-ranking knights and professional
foot soldiers longed for the opportunity to take part in the assault against
a rich town or castle because strongholds that resisted were traditionally
looted. A soldier could gather up many times his year's pay during the sack
of a city. Pitched battles also offered opportunities for gain. The armor and
weapons of the dead could be sold and captured knights could be ransomed.


The organization of feudal armies was kept simple in comparison to the large
national armies of more modern time. There were no permanent regiments,
divisions, or corps until the very end of the age. When a feudal army was
summoned, each vassal traveled to the meeting point with any knights,
archers, and footmen that he was required to bring. At the meeting point, the
contingents would be reassembled by role. The knights and their squires kept
and marched together, as did the archers and footmen.

Special units, such as engineers and the operators of siege artillery, were
usually professionals hired for the campaign. Christian mercenaries, for
example, operated the artillery employed by the Turks against Constantinople.

Being a mercenary soldier was a respected profession in the late Middle Ages.
Warrior entrepreneurs formed mercenary companies that allowed a rich lord or
city to hire a ready-made competent fighting force. Mercenary companies
existed that were all of one skill. For example, 2000 Genoese crossbowmen
served in the French army at the Battle of Cr¿cy in 1346. Other mercenary
companies were mixed forces of all arms. These were often described in terms
of the number of lances they contained. Each lance represented a mounted man-
at-arms plus additional mounted, foot, and missile troops. A company of 100
lances represented several hundred fighting men. This system was the origin
of the word "freelance."

Command hierarchy within a feudal army was flat. Not much maneuvering was
anticipated so there was little provision of large staffs to support the
commander and pass orders.

In 1439 Charles VII of France raised Royal Ordinance Companies. These
companies were filled with either knights or infantry and were paid from tax
revenues. Each company had a fixed complement of men; their armor and weapons
were chosen by the king rather than left to personal choice. This was the
beginning of modern standing armies in the West.


There was little provision for food and medical supplies. Medieval armies
lived off the land, to the detriment of everyone residing in an area they
occupied or passed through. Having a friendly army march through was no
better than having the enemy pass. Medieval armies did not linger in one area
for long because local supplies of food and forage were quickly exhausted.
This was a particular problem during sieges. If an army laying siege did not
make arrangements to have food and supplies brought in, it might have to lift
its siege to avoid starvation long before the defenders had to surrender.

Sanitation was also a problem when an army stayed in one place. A medieval
army brought along many animals, in addition to the horses of the knights,
and sewage problems led to dysentery. Feudal armies tended to waste away to
disease and desertion. During his campaign in France, Henry V of England lost
an estimated 15 percent of his army to disease at the siege of Harfleur and
more on the march leading up to Agincourt. At the battle itself, he lost only
5 percent. Henry V died of disease related to poor sanitation at another

Deployment for Battle

Most battles were set-piece affairs where the two sides arranged themselves
before the fighting began. Campaigns of maneuver and meeting engagements were

Prior to battle, commanders divided their forces into contingents with
specific tasks in mind for each. The first separation might be into foot
soldiers, archers, and cavalry. These groups might be divided further into
groups to be given individual missions or to be held in reserve. A commander
might arrange several "battles" or "divisions" of knights, for example. These
could be launched individually as desired or held in reserve. Archers might
be deployed in front of the army with blocks of infantry in support. Once the
army had been arranged, the only major decisions were when to send in the
prearranged pieces. There was little provision for pulling back, reforming,
or rearranging once the fighting started. A force of knights, for example,
could rarely be used more than once. After they had been committed to action,
they were usually reinforced or withdrawn. A full charge by heavy cavalry
caused such disruption, lost equipment, and loss of horses that the force was
essentially spent. The Norman knights at Hastings were reformed for further
attacks, but they did not launch a full charge because they could not
penetrate the Saxon shield-wall.

Superior commanders made use of the terrain to their advantage and conducted
reconnaissance to evaluate the enemy's strength and weaknesses.


The ultimate rewards from successful battle included honors and grants of
fiefs. The proximate rewards included booty from looting bodies, ransacking
captured towns and castles, selling the armor and weapons of the dead, and
ransoming high-ranking prisoners. Knights were expected to pay ransoms to
save their lives. One of the highest recorded ransoms was more than US $20
million paid to a German prince for the release of Richard I of England,
captured during his return from the Crusades.

At Agincourt the English were holding a large group of French knights at the
rear for ransom. During the battle, a French contingent raided toward the
rear of the English and briefly panicked Henry V. He ordered the execution of
the held French knights to prevent their release, thereby forgoing a fortune
in ransoms.

The capture of knights was recorded by heralds who kept a tally of which
soldiers were responsible and thereby due the bulk of the ransom. The heralds
then notified the prisoner's family, arranged the ransom payment, and
obtained the prisoner's release.

The popularity of ransoms seems remarkably civil but masks a darker story.
Low-ranking prisoners of no value might be killed out-of-hand to eliminate
the problem of guarding and feeding them.


Medieval military strategy was concerned with control of the economic basis
for wealth and, thus, the ability to put armies in the field. At the start of
the era this meant primarily ravaging or defending the countryside because
all wealth originated in the fields and pastures. As the age progressed,
towns became important control points as centers of wealth from trade and

Holding and taking castles was a key element of war because they defended the
farmland. The warrior occupants of the castle controlled the neighborhood. As
towns grew they were fortified also. Defending and taking them gradually
became more important than fighting for castles.

Field armies maneuvered to take the key fortified points and ravage the
countryside, or to prevent the enemy from conducting such a campaign. Pitched
battles were fought to end the destruction of enemy invasions. The Battle of
Hastings in 1066, for example, was fought by the Anglo-Saxons to stop an
invasion by the Normans. The Anglo-Saxons lost and the Normans under William
spent the next several years establishing control of England in a campaign of
conquest. The Battle of Lechfield in 955 was fought between the Germans and
Magyar raiders from the East. The decisive victory of the Germans under Otto
I brought an end to further Magyar invasions. The defeat of the Moors in 732
by Charles Martel ended Muslim raids and expansion out of Spain.

The battles of Cr¿cy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, all fought during the Hundred
Years War between the English and French, were all attempts by the French to
stop English incursions. The French lost all three battles and the English
raids carried on. In this case, however, the raids did not establish
permanent control for the English and the French eventually won the war.

The Crusades were attempts to take and hold key strong points in the Holy
Land from which control of the area could be maintained. Battles in the
Crusades were fought to break the control of one side or the other. The
victory at Hattin in 1187 by the Saracens under Saladin made possible the
recapture of Jerusalem.

Battle Tactics

Medieval battles evolved slowly from clashes of poorly organized war bands
into battles where tactics and maneuvers were employed. Part of this
evolution was in response to the development of different types of soldiers
and weapons and learning how to use these. The early armies of the Dark Ages
were mobs of foot soldiers. With the rise of heavy cavalry, the best armies
became mobs of knights. Foot soldiers were brought along to devastate
farmlands and do the heavy work in sieges. In battle, however, foot soldiers
were at risk from both sides as the knights sought to engage their enemies in
single combat. This was mainly true of foot soldiers early in the period who
were feudal levies and untrained peasants. Archers were useful in sieges as
well, but also at risk of being rundown on the battlefield.

By the late 1400's commanders were making better progress in disciplining
their knights and getting their armies to work as a team. In the English
army, knights gave their grudging respect to the longbowmen after the archers
demonstrated their value on so many battlefields. Discipline improved also as
more and more knights fought for pay and less for honor and glory. Mercenary
soldiers in Italy became well known for long campaigns during which no
appreciable blood was spilt. By that time soldiers of all ranks were assets
not to be discarded lightly. Feudal armies seeking glory evolved into
professional armies more interested in living to spend their pay.

Cavalry Tactics

Cavalry was divided typically into three groups, or divisions, to be sent
into battle one after another. The first wave would either break through or
disrupt the enemy so that the second or third wave could break through. Once
the enemy was running, the real killing and capturing could take place.

In practice, knights followed personal agendas to the detriment of any
commander's plan. The knights were interested primarily in honor and glory
and jockeyed for positions in the first rank of the first division. Overall
victory on the field was a secondary concern to personal glory. In battle
after battle, the knights charged as soon as they saw the enemy, dissolving
any plan.

Commanders dismounted their knights on occasion as a way to better control
them. This was a popular option with the smaller army that had little hope in
a contest of charges. Dismounted knights bolstered the fighting power and
morale of common foot troops. The dismounted knights and other foot soldiers
fought from behind stakes or other battlefield constructions designed to
minimize the impact of cavalry charges.

An example of undisciplined behavior by knights was the Battle of Cr¿cy in
1346. The French army greatly outnumbered the English (40,000 to 10,000),
having many more mounted knights. The English divided into three groups of
longbowmen protected by stakes driven into the ground. Between the three
groups were two groups of dismounted knights. A third group of dismounted
knights was held in reserve. Genoese mercenary crossbowmen were sent out by
the French king to shoot into the dismounted English army while he tried to
organize his knights into three divisions. The crossbows had gotten wet,
however, and were ineffective. The French knights ignored their king's
efforts at organization as soon as they saw the enemy and worked themselves
into a frenzy, shouting, "Kill! Kill!" over and over. Impatient with the
Genoese, the French king ordered his knights forward and they trampled down
the crossbowmen in their way. Although the fighting went on all day, the
dismounted English knights and longbowmen (who had kept their bowstrings dry)
defeated the mounted French who fought as an undisciplined mob.

By the end of the Middle Ages, heavy cavalry had been reduced to roughly
equal value on the battlefield in comparison to missile and foot troops. By
this time, the futility of charging well-emplaced and disciplined infantry
was well understood. The rules had changed. Stakes, horse traps, and trenches
were routinely employed by armies to protect against cavalry charges. Charges
against massed ranks of pikemen and archers/gunners left only a pile of
broken horses and men. Knights were forced to fight on foot or wait for the
right opportunity to charge. Devastating charges were still possible, but
only when the enemy was in flight, disorganized, or out from behind his
temporary battlefield defenses.

Missile Troop Tactics

For most of this era missile troops were archers using one of several types
of bow. At first this was the short bow, then the crossbow and longbow.
Archers had the advantage of being able to kill and wound enemies at range
without joining in hand-to-hand combat. The value of these troops was well
known in ancient times, but the lessons were temporarily lost in the Dark
Ages. The land-controlling warrior knights were supreme in the early Middle
Ages and their code demanded hand-to-hand combat with a worthy enemy. Killing
with arrows at a distance was dishonorable to the knights so the ruling class
did little to develop this weapon and use it effectively.

It became apparent gradually, however, that archers were effective and very
useful, both in sieges and in battle. More and more armies made room for
them, if grudgingly. The decisive victory of William I at Hastings in 1066
may have been won by archery, although his knights traditionally get the most
credit. The Anglo-Saxons held a hillside and were so packed into their shield-
wall that the Norman knights had great difficulty penetrating. The fighting
flowed back and forth all day. The Anglo-Saxons ventured out of their shield-
wall, partly to get at the Norman archers. When the Anglo-Saxons came out,
they were easily run down. For some time it seemed that the Normans must
fail, but many believe that Norman archery was winning the battle. A lucky
shot mortally wounded Harold, the Anglo-Saxon king, and the battle ended soon

Foot archers fought in massed formations of hundreds or even thousands of
men. When within a hundred yards of the enemy, both crossbow and longbow
shots could penetrate armor. At this range, archers shot at individual
targets. It was maddening for the enemy to take this damage, especially if
they could not respond. In the ideal situation, the archers disrupted the
enemy formation by shooting into it for some time. The enemy might be safe
from cavalry behind stakes, but it could not block all the arrows or bolts
coming in. If the enemy left its protection and charged the archers, friendly
heavy cavalry would respond, hopefully in time to save the archers. If the
enemy formation just stood its ground, it might waver eventually to the point
that cavalry could charge effectively.

Archers were actively encouraged and subsidized in England because the
English were at a population disadvantage when waging war on the mainland.
When the English learned how to use large contingents of bowmen, they began
winning battles, even though they were usually outnumbered. The English
developed the arrow barrage, taking advantage of the range of the longbow.
Instead of firing at individual targets, the longbowmen fired into the area
occupied by the enemy. Firing up to 6 shots a minute, 3000 longbowmen could
put 18,000 arrows into a massed enemy formation. The effect of this barrage
upon horses and men was devastating. French knights in the Hundred Years War
spoke of the sky being black with arrows and of the noise of these missiles
in flight.

Crossbowmen became prominent in mainland armies, especially in the militia
and professional forces raised by towns. With a minimum of training, a
crossbowmen became an effective soldier.

By the fourteenth century the first primitive handguns were appearing on the
battlefield. When these worked, they were even more powerful than bows.

The difficulty in using archers was protecting them while they shot. To be
effective they had to be fairly close to the enemy. English longbowmen
carried stakes onto the battlefield that they pounded into the ground with
mallets in front of the spot from which they wished to shoot. These stakes
gave them some protection from enemy cavalry. They relied on their firepower
to fight off enemy archers. They were at a disadvantage if attacked by enemy
foot soldiers. Crossbowmen carried a large pavise shield into battle. This
came with supports and could be set up in walls, from behind which the men
could shoot.

By the end of the era, crossbowmen and pikemen were working together in
combined formations. The pikes kept enemy hand-to-hand troops away while the
missile troops (crossbowmen or handgunners) fired into the enemy formations.
These mixed formations learned how to move and actually attack. Enemy cavalry
had to withdraw in the face of a disciplined mixed force of pikemen and
crossbowmen/gunners. If the enemy could not respond with missiles and pikes
of their own, the battle was probably lost.

Infantry Tactics

The tactic of foot soldiers in the Dark Ages was simply to close with the
enemy and start chopping. The Franks threw their axes just before closing to
disrupt the enemy. Warriors relied on strength and ferocity to win.

The rise of knights put infantry into a temporary eclipse on the battlefield,
mainly because disciplined and well-trained infantry did not exist. The foot
soldiers of early medieval armies were mainly peasants who were poorly armed
and trained.

The Saxons and Vikings developed a defensive posture called the shield-wall.
The men stood adjacent and held their long shields together to form a
barrier. This helped to protect them from archers and cavalry, both of which
their armies lacked.

Infantry underwent a revival in those areas that did not have the resources
to field armies of heavy cavalry-hilly countries like Scotland and
Switzerland and in the rising towns. Out of necessity, these two sectors
found ways to field effective armies that contained little or no cavalry.
Both groups discovered that horses would not charge into a barrier of
bristling stakes or spear points. A disciplined force of spearmen could stop
the elite heavy cavalry of the richer nations and lords, for a fraction of
the cost of a heavy cavalry force.

The schiltron formation was a circle of spearmen that the Scots began using
during their wars for independence around the end of the thirteenth century
(featured in the motion picture Braveheart). They learned that the
schiltron was an effective defensive formation. Robert Bruce offered battle
to the English knights only in swampy terrain that greatly impeded the heavy
cavalry charge.

The Swiss became renowned for fighting with pikes. They essentially revived
the Greek phalanx and became very proficient at fighting with the long pole
arms. They formed a square of pikemen. The outer four ranks held their pikes
nearly level, pointing slightly down. This was an effective barrier against
cavalry. The rear ranks used bladed pole arms to attack enemies that closed
with the formation. The Swiss drilled to the point that they could move in
formation relatively quickly. They turned a defensive formation into an
effective attacking formation also.

The response to massed pikemen was artillery that plowed through the ranks of
dense formations. The Spanish appear to have first done this effectively. The
Spanish also fought the pikemen effectively with sword and buckler men. These
were lightly armed men who could get in among the pikes and fight effectively
with short swords. Their buckler was a small and handy shield. At the end of
the Middle Ages, the Spanish also first experimented with the combination of
pikemen, swordsmen, and handgunners in the same formation. This was an
effective force that could take on all arms in varying terrain, on both
defense and attack. At the end of this era the Spanish were the most
effective fighting force in Europe.

The Mongols

The nomadic horse peoples of Mongolia assembled the world's largest land
empire in a series of military conquests spread over a few generations,
beginning in the twelfth century. In the course of their conquests, the
Mongols fought most of the other world powers of medieval Asia and Europe,
winning in almost every case. Their empire was built entirely on military
conquest, thanks to an army that was unlike any other in the world. They were
thought invincible by most of their opponents. Their campaign into Europe
turned back only after a death in the ruling family. The possible claimants
to the throne headed home with their forces and never returned.

The Mongol Army

The Mongols were nomadic herders and hunters who spent their lives in the
saddles of their steppe ponies. They learned to ride and use weapons,
especially the composite bow, at an early age. For hunting and war, every
able-bodied male under the age of 60 years was expected to take part. The
armies of the united Mongol tribes consisted of the entire adult male

They fought under a strict code of discipline. Booty was held collectively.
The penalty was death for abandoning a comrade in battle. This discipline,
together with leadership, intelligence-gathering, and organization, raised
the Mongol force from a cavalry swarm into a true army.

The Mongol army was organized according to a decimal system, with units of
10, 100, 1000, and 10,000 men. These numbers for units were probably rarely
approached due to casualties and attrition. The 10,000-man unit was the major
fighting unit, like a modern division, capable of sustained fighting on its
own. Individual soldiers identified most with the 1000-man unit of which they
were a part, the equivalent of a modern regiment. Original Mongol tribes
fielded their own 1000-man units. Conquered peoples, such as the Tatars and
Merkits, were broken up and distributed among other units so that they could
pose no organized threat to the ruling family.

Genghis Khan created a personal guard unit of 10,000 men. This unit was
recruited across tribal boundaries and selection was a high honor. In its
early stages it served as a form of honorable hostage-holding. It grew into
the family household and the source of the growing empire's ruling class.

Mongol soldiers at first received no pay other than booty. Advancement was
based on merit. Once the rapid conquests slowed, a new system of pay was put
in place. Officers were later able to pass on their posts to heirs.

Each soldier went on campaign with approximately five horses, allowing quick
changes and rapid movements. No comparable armies moved as rapidly as the
Mongols until the mechanized armies of the twentieth century.

The Mongols fought mainly as light cavalry archers (unarmored), using the
compound bow. This was a compact weapon of impressive range and penetration
power. They employed Chinese and Middle Easterners as siege engineers.
Infantry, garrison troops, and heavy cavalry (wearing armor) that used lances
came from the armies of subjected peoples.

Mongol Tactics

The Mongol armies relied on firepower, the ability to move quickly, and a
reputation for ruthlessness that came to precede them. All of their opponents
moved much more slowly and deliberately. The Mongols looked for opportunities
to divide an enemy force and overwhelm the pieces with rapid bowshots. They
sought to surround or encircle enemies and achieve local superiority of
numbers. Horses of mounted enemies were wounded, dismounting the riders and
making them more vulnerable.

The Mongol light cavalry could not stand against a heavy cavalry charge, so
they feigned flight to draw the knights into exhaustive charges that left
them vulnerable. The fleeing Mongols turned rapidly and became the hunter.
They excelled in setting ambushes and surprise attacks. Mongol army leaders
made great use of scouts and synchronized force movements to catch the enemy
at a disadvantage.

The Mongols made extensive use of terror. If the population of one city was
massacred after capture, the next city was more likely to surrender without a
fight. This proved the case, as city after city surrendered upon the approach
of Mongol armies.


Fortifications and earthworks had been employed for defense since the Stone
Age. True castles did not appear in Europe until the ninth century, however,
partly in response to Viking raids and partly as a manifestation of
decentralized feudal political power. From the ninth through the fifteenth
century, thousands of castles were constructed throughout Europe. A 1905
census in France counted more than 10,000 castle remains in that nation alone.

During the feudal period, local nobles provided law and order, as well as
protection from marauders like the Vikings. Castles were built by the nobles
for protection and to provide a secure base from which local military forces
could operate. The obvious defensive value of a castle obscures the fact that
it was primarily an offensive instrument. It functioned as a base for
professional soldiers, mainly cavalry, which controlled the nearby
countryside. At a time when the centralized authority of kings was weak for a
number of reasons, a network of castles and the military forces they
supported provided relative political stability.

The Castellation of Europe

Beginning in the ninth century, local strongmen began dotting the landscape
of Europe with castles. These were first of simple design and construction
but evolved into stone strongholds. Many of these belonged to kings or the
vassals of kings, but the majority appear to have been built out of self-
interest by local nobles. They were justified by barbarian threats, but the
nobles employed them to establish local control. This was possible because
Europe had no strategic defenses and no strong central authorities at the

An example of the castellation of Europe was the Poitou region of France.
There were three castles there before Viking raids began in the ninth century
and 39 by the eleventh century. This pattern was repeated across Europe.
Castles could be built quickly. Until the appearance of cannon, castle
defenders had a great advantage over any attackers.

Widespread castle construction and the maintenance of large bodies of
soldiers for their defense resulted not in peace and mutual defense against
invaders but incessant warfare.

The Evolution of the Castle

The earliest castles were of a type called the "motte and bailey." The motte
was a broad, leveled mound of earth, typically 50 feet high. A large wooden
tower was built atop the motte. Below the motte was an enclosure within a
wooden palisade called the bailey. Here were placed storehouses, stock pens,
and huts. Both the motte and bailey were small islands surrounded by a water-
filled ditch, excavated to construct the motte. A bridge and steep narrow
path connected the two parts of the castle. At a time of danger, the
defensive forces withdrew into the tower if the bailey could not be held.

In the eleventh century, stone began replacing earth and wood in castle
construction. The wooden tower atop the motte was replaced with a round stone
fortification called a shell keep. This grew into a tower or keep. A curtain
wall of stone enclosed the old bailey and the keep, and was in turn
surrounded by a ditch or moat. A single fortified gate protected by a
drawbridge and portcullis led into the castle. The best-known example of a
basic keep-type castle is the original Tower of London, built by William the
Conqueror. This large square structure stood by itself at first and was
whitewashed to draw attention. Later kings improved this castle with the
curtain walls and other improvements seen today.

Castle design advanced when crusaders to the East returned with news of the
fortifications and siege engines they had encountered in their travels.
Concentric castles were designed that enclosed a central keep within two or
more rings of walls. Walls were strengthened first with square towers and
then with round towers. The angled corners on square towers were easy to
shear off, making the whole tower very vulnerable. Round towers were more
resistant to attack. Embattlements were added at the top of walls and towers
to make fighting from above more effective.

Cannon appeared in Europe in the early fourteenth century, but effective
siege artillery was not used until the middle fifteenth century. Castle
designs changed in response to the power of cannon. High perpendicular walls
were replaced by low sloping walls. By the middle of the fifteenth century
castles were in decline because of the rising power of kings. In the eleventh
century William the Conqueror claimed ownership of all castles in England to
get them out of the hands of nobles. By the thirteenth century it was
necessary to ask a king's permission to build a castle or strengthen an
existing one. Kings worked to demilitarize castles to minimize their
usefulness to potential rebels.

Castles were abandoned as living quarters for nobles and fell into ruin.
Fortified towns were increasingly important because the wealth of the land
had shifted to the cities.

Castle Construction

Construction of a castle might take less than a year or up to 20 years to
complete. For several centuries castle-building was an important industry.
Renowned master masons were in high demand and gangs of castle builders moved
from site to site. Towns wishing to build cathedrals had to compete for
skilled workers with lords wishing to build castles.

Construction of Beaumaris Castle in North Wales began in 1295. The design was
symmetrical, with no weak points. At the height of its building, it required
the effort of 30 blacksmiths, 400 masons, and 2000 laborers. Laborers did
most of the excavation, carrying, lifting, well-digging, and stone-breaking.
This particular castle was never completed. The massive castle at Conway,
built in Wales by Edward I of England, took 40 months to build.

Castle walls were masonry shells filled with stone rubble and flint mixed
with mortar. Wall width ranged from 6 to 16 feet.

Castle Defense

The basic principal of castle defense was to maximize the danger and exposure
of any attackers while minimizing the same for defenders. A well-designed
castle could be defended effectively by a small force and hold out for a long
period. A stout defense allowed well-supplied defenders to hold out until the
besiegers could be driven away by a relief force or until the attacker was
forced to fall back by lack of supplies, disease, or losses.


The keep was a small castle often found within a large castle complex. This
was a fortified building that often served as the castle lord's residence. If
the outer walls fell, the defenders could withdraw into the keep for a final
defense. In the case of many castles, the complex began with the keep, which
was the original fortification on the site. Over time, the complex might have
been expanded to include an outer wall and towers as a first line of defense
for the keep.


Stone walls were fireproof and protection against arrows and other missiles.
An enemy could not climb sheer walls without equipment such as ladders or
siege towers. Defenders on top of the walls could shoot down or throw objects
down against attackers. Attackers wholly exposed in the open and shooting up
were at a great disadvantage against defenders largely protected and shooting
down. The strength and protection value of castle walls was increased where
possible by building on cliffs or other elevations. Gates and doors in castle
walls were minimized and given heavy protection.


At the corners of and perhaps at intervals along a long wall, towers were
placed as strong points. Towers extended out beyond the vertical plane of the
wall face, allowing defenders in a tower to shoot along the face. From a
corner tower, defenders could shoot along two different wall faces. A gate
might be protected by towers on each side. Some castles began as simple
towers and evolved into a greater complex of walls, an inner keep, and
additional towers.


Walls and towers were often improved to provide greater protection for
defenders. A platform behind the top of the wall allowed defenders to stand
and fight. Gaps were built into the upper wall so defenders could shoot out
or fight while partially covered. These gaps might have wooden shutters for
additional protection. Thin firing slits might be placed in the upper walls
from which archers could shoot while almost completely protected.

During an assault, covered wooden platforms (called hourds) were extended out
from the top of the walls or from towers. These allowed defenders to shoot
directly down on enemies below the walls, or drop stones or boiling liquids
on them, while being protected. Hides on top of the hourds were kept wet to
prevent fire. Stone versions of hourds, called machicolations, might be built
over gates or other key points.

Ditches, Moats, and Drawbridges

To accentuate the height advantage of the walls, a ditch might be dug at
their base, completely around the castle. Where possible, this ditch was
filled with water to form a moat. Both ditches and moats made direct assaults
against walls more difficult. Armored men risked drowning if they fell into
even relatively shallow water. Moats made undermining a castle's walls
difficult because of the risk of the mine collapsing during construction and
drowning the miners. In some cases, attackers had to first drain the moat
before moving forward with an assault. Then the ditch had to be filled in
places to allow siege towers or ladders to go up against the wall.

Drawbridges across a moat or ditch allowed the castle occupants to come and
go when necessary. In time of danger, the drawbridge was raised,
reestablishing the ditch and sealing the walls. Bridges were raised by a
mechanism within the castle that was protected from the attackers.


A portcullis was a strong grating that slid down the walls of the castle gate
passageway to block the entrance. The gate of a castle was inside a
gatehouse, which was a strong point in the castle defense. The passageway of
the gate might be through a tunnel in the gatehouse. The tunnel was blocked
by one or more portcullises, in the middle or at the ends. The winding
mechanism that raised the portcullis was in the top of the gatehouse and
heavily guarded. The portcullis itself was usually a grating of heavy timbers
or iron. Defenders and attackers could both shoot or stab through the grating.


A strong castle had both an outer gate and inner gate. Between the two was an
open area called the barbican. This was surrounded by walls and designed to
be a trap for any attackers who got through the outside gate. Once inside the
barbican, attackers could only go back out the outer gate or fight their way
through the inner gate. In the meantime they would be targets for arrows and
other missiles in the open.


A relatively small number of men could guard a castle in peacetime. At night
any drawbridge was raised and the portcullis was lowered, effectively locking
the door. Under threat of an assault, a much larger force was needed to
defend a castle.

Competent archers and crossbowmen were needed to shoot from the walls and
towers at attackers making an assault or just preparing for one by attempting
to drain the moat or fill the ditch. Each attacking casualty lowered the
morale and fighting power of the attackers. Heavy losses from missile fire
could cause the attackers to break off.

If the attackers managed to actually close for hand-to-hand fighting, a
strong fighting force of swordsmen was needed to hold them off. Men were
needed to throw down rocks or pour hot liquids from the hourds. Men were
needed to make repairs to damaged wall sections or put out fires started by
flaming missiles. An aggressive defense looked for opportunities to sortie
out from the castle and raid the besieging army. A quick raid that burned a
siege tower or trebuchet under construction delayed an assault and lowered
the morale of the attackers.

In times of emergency, local peasants were enlisted to help with the defense.
Although untrained as soldiers and not skilled usually with the bow or sword,
they could help with many of the other tasks.

Capturing Castles

Capturing or defending strongholds was a common military activity during the
late Middle Ages because of the proliferation of castles and fortified towns
and their strategic importance. Although a small force could hold a castle,
it took a large force to take one. The attacker had to have a sufficiently
large army to control the countryside around a castle, fight off any
relieving force, and assault the stronghold directly or at least hold the
siege tight. This was an expensive proposition.

As an army approached the castle, the locals usually withdrew inside, taking
anything of value with them, especially food and weapons. If the siege was
expected to be a long one, however, peasants not capable of fighting might be
refused entrance to conserve food. There were many recorded instances of
people being thrown out of towns under siege to preserve food. When English
king Henry V besieged the city of Rouen, the defenders expelled the weak and
the poor to conserve food. The English refused to allow these unfortunates
through their lines. Old men, women, and children huddled between the city
and the English army for months, scrabbling for scraps and dying of
starvation, until surrender was negotiated.

As an army approached, the possibility of surrender and terms might be
negotiated immediately, especially if the castle or town was undermanned. The
attackers weighed carefully the chance of assaulting the stronghold if
negotiations failed. If a quick assault was thrown back or was judged too
risky, the attackers sealed off the castle and began a siege. Once siege
artillery had fired at the city, the siege was officially underway. To
withdraw without good reason was dishonorable and unacceptable in most cases.

A large siege was something like a social event. The fifteenth-century siege
of Neuss lasted only a few months, but the attackers built up a large camp
that included taverns and tennis courts. Nobles taking part in sieges made
themselves comfortable, often bringing along wives and their households.
Merchants and craftsmen from neighboring towns rushed forward to set up shop
and provide services.

Siege Formalities

The reality of warfare during this period was that castles and towns were
very rarely captured by assault. Assaults were usually an act of desperation
or made much easier by acts of treachery or stealth. Unless the garrison was
greatly under strength, it was just too costly in lives to assault. It was
much more typical to orchestrate a siege according to the prevailing rules of
warfare and honor and take the castle with relatively little loss. It would
be treason for the defenders to surrender without a fight so the siege was
maintained and the castle walls were battered. If the castle's owner was not
inside, his deputy in charge, called a castellan or constable, could
surrender the castle with honor after so many days if no relief force had
appeared. Castellans often requested a contract that specified exactly what
were their obligations and under what circumstances they would not be
punished for surrendering.

In those rare instances where surrender was not an option or an option
disdained, it was the accepted policy that little mercy was shown after a
successful assault. Common soldiers and even civilians inside might be
massacred and the castle or town was looted. Captured knights were kept
alive, usually, and held for ransom. All attackers received a share of the
spoils. Practical application of this policy was a further inducement for
defenders to negotiate surrender after a reasonable period of siege. King
Henry V of England took the city of Caen after a long siege in 1417. He then
allowed his army to sack the city from one end to the other in payment for
the defender's stout resistance. Every man in the city who was not a priest
was killed. At his next stop, the castle of Bonneville, the defenders agreed
to surrender the keys after seven days with no relief, even though both sides
understood there was no prospect for relief.

The Krak des Chevaliers was the most famous of the Crusader castles in the
Middle East and still stands impressively in modern Syria. It was defended by
the Knights Hospitaller during the era of the Crusades and withstood over a
dozen sieges and attacks over 130 years before falling finally to Egyptian
Arabs in 1271. The story of its capture was unusual but typical in the sense
that the defenders did not fight to the death.

The Arabs disdained an attack on the main gate of the Krak des Chevaliers
because breaking through there led into a series of deadly narrow passages
and on to a second, even stronger gate. They attacked the south wall instead
by undermining the great tower at the southwest corner. This got them inside
the outer curtain wall. Before attacking the even stronger central keep,
however, they tried a ruse. A carrier pigeon was sent into the castle with a
message from the Hospitaller's grand master, ordering the garrison to
surrender. Outnumbered and with no hope of relief, the defenders accepted the
command of the message, understanding it was a fake, and surrendered the
great castle with honor.


The key problem to taking a castle or fortified town was overcoming the walls
that prevented entry and protected the defenders. One solution to this
problem was undermining a section of the wall so that it collapsed. This was
only possible before castles had moats or after the moat had been drained. It
was not possible to undermine when the wall was built on solid stone.

The miners dug a tunnel up to the wall and then along it under its
foundation. The tunnel was supported by timber supports that gradually took
on the load of the wall overhead from the earth that was dug out and removed.
At a prearranged time, the timbers in the tunnel were set on fire. As the
timbers burned the support for the wall overhead disappeared gradually and a
section of the wall collapsed, if all went as planned. The collapsed wall
created an opening for a direct assault by soldiers into the castle.

Mines were laborious and time-consuming. Defenders who became aware of the
tunneling reinforced the threatened wall with a secondary wall so that the
collapse did not completely open the defenses. Defenders were also known to
countermine, digging their own tunnels under the walls trying to intercept
the enemy tunnel. When the tunnels encountered each other, actual fighting
broke out underground.


The besieging army set up positions around the castle to prevent escape or
sorties by the soldiers inside. The nearby farms and villages were taken over
by the besiegers. Patrols were set to bring notice of any relieving army
approaching and to forage for food. The leaders of the attackers examined the
situation and decided whether to simply besiege the castle or to actively
prepare to attack it. If the castle was to be simply starved into surrender,
the attackers concentrated on keeping the defenders caged in and preventing
any relief force from lifting the siege. Choosing how best to attack a castle
might involve any of the following options:

* Undermining a part of the wall.
* Selecting a wall section to breach by battering it
with hurled stones (or with cannons, although
these were not effective until around 1450,
near the end of this period).
* Selecting a part of the ditch (and moat, if
present) to fill.
* Building siege towers and ladders to scale the
* Choosing a gate or other section to batter with
a ram.

The speed of work on assault preparations was in proportion to the urgency
for taking the castle, the prospects of surrender, and the manpower
available. If the attackers had ample supplies of food, no relief was
expected, and the defenders were likely to surrender after their honor had
been satisfied, work on assault preparations might be little more than a
show. If the attacker's supplies were short, relief was expected any day, or
the defenders were obstinate, preparations might go forward day and night.

When preparations were complete, the defenders were given one last chance to
surrender before the assault.

Siege Equipment

Siege equipment was used to get past the walls and other defenses of the
castle so that the superior strength of the attacking army could be brought
to bear against the defenders at a minimum disadvantage. Most equipment was
designed to knock down or breach the walls. In addition to the simple scaling
ladder, siege equipment most commonly used during the Middle Ages included
the trebuchet, the mangonel, the siege tower, the battering ram, and the

Once a breach was made or a siege tower put in place, a volunteer force of
soldiers led the assault. This force came to be known as the "forlorn hope,"
because of the casualties they were expected to take. But the successful
survivors of this force were usually the most highly rewarded with promotion,
titles, and loot.

The trebuchet was a large catapult powered by a heavy counterweight, usually
a large box of rocks. The long throwing arm was pulled down against the mass
of the counterweight and a large stone was loaded. When the arm was released,
the heavy weight dropped down, pulling the throwing arm up, and flinging the
large stone missile in a high arcing trajectory. Missiles thrown by this
weapon plunged downward and were best used to smash the tops of towers,
embattlements, and hourds. It was difficult to damage sheer vertical walls
with the trebuchet unless the missiles came down right on top of the wall.
The trebuchet was assembled out of bow shot and defended against a possible
sortie by the defenders seeking to burn the weapon. The trebuchet was useful
for smashing wooden roofs and then setting the rubble on fire with incendiary

The mangonel was a different type of catapult powered by twisted ropes or
strips of hide. A ratchet gear twisted the ropes, building up tension. When
released, the ropes spun, flinging the throwing arm forward. When the arm hit
a heavy restraining bar, any missile in the basket at the end of the arm was
thrown forward. The restraining bar could be adjusted to change the
trajectory of the missile. Mangonels had a flat trajectory, in comparison to
the trebuchet, but could generate the same power. It could take a large
number of mangonel shots to do any appreciable damage to a wall. The thrown
missiles and pieces of the broken wall helped to fill in the ditch, however,
creating rubble pile which attackers could climb.

Siege towers were moved close to the walls and then a gangplank was dropped
from the tower to the top of the wall. Soldiers in the tower could then
advance across the gangplank and engage the defenders in hand-to-hand combat.
Such a tower was often huge. It had to be protected with wet hides to prevent
being burned. It was ponderous to move because of its weight. It had to be
either pushed forward or pulled forward against pulleys previously mounted on
stakes near the base of the castle wall. The ground had to be prepared ahead
of time, usually with a roadway of flat wooden planking on heavily packed
earth to ease the tower's movement. A fighting area on top of the tower let
archers shoot down into the castle as the tower approached. Soldiers mounted
the stairs inside the tower once it was close. Assaults from a siege tower
were never a surprise to the defender because so much preparation had to be
done. The defenders took steps to build up the threatened part of the wall or
prevent the gangplank from dropping. They attempted to grapple the tower as
it approached and pull it onto its side. Up to the last moment of the
assault, siege engines would fire on the target section of wall to disrupt
the defender's preparations to receive the assault. If the first group of
attackers from the tower got over, a steady stream of men would follow over
the gangplank to complete the capture of the castle.

A battering ram had a large pole with an iron head that was slung inside a
moveable housing and rolled up to a wall section or gate. Once up to the
wall, the pole was swung back and forth against the wall. The force of the
blows broke through the wooden planking of the door or stone wall, creating
an opening for attack. The roof of the ram was covered with wet hides to
prevent burning. Operating battering was dangerous work. Enemies above
dropped large rocks, boiling water, or burning fat on the ram, attempting to
destroy it or kill the men operating it. Even when a gate or drawbridge was
smashed, there were usually several portcullises and the gatehouse to be
fought through. At the siege of Tyre during the winter of 1111-1112, the
defending Arabs came up with an ingenious defense against the ram. They threw
down gappling hooks, grabbed the ram, and pulled it away from the wall. Time
after time they were able to disrupt the use of the ram.

Attacking archers and crossbowmen took shelter on the ground behind large
wooden shields called pavises. A narrow firing slit at the top of the pavise
allowed the man behind to shoot up at the defenders. England's King Richard
I, the Lionheart, received a mortal shoulder wound from a crossbow bolt when
looking around the side of a pavise.

The Advent of Gunpowder

The Chinese had gunpowder by the eleventh century and made some military use
of it to propel rockets. These were more weapons of terror than useful
missile weapons, however. The Chinese also experimented with fireworks. They
did not realize the potential of gunpowder as an explosive or propellant for
missile weapons.

Gunpowder gradually worked its way to the west where Europeans found much
more destructive uses for it. The oldest surviving artwork from Europe that
portrays a gunpowder weapon appeared in 1326. This primitive cannon was
loaded with a spear of some sort, not a cannonball. Europeans had been
experimenting with gunpowder for the previous half-century. The oldest
surviving description of the formula for gunpowder appeared in 1260 and was
attributed to an English friar named Roger Bacon. By 1340 cannonballs of
lead, iron, and stone were being used. The English had cannons on the
battlefield at Cr¿cy in 1346, but there is no mention in the battle accounts
of their usefulness.


It took several centuries of experimentation before gunpowder weapons became
truly useful. One difficulty was developing gunpowder that ignited quickly,
uniformly, and powerfully. Another was designing suitable cannons that would
not burst. Poor manufacturing techniques plagued early cannons, and it was
almost as dangerous to serve them as to be shot at by them. King James II of
Scotland, for example, was killed by an exploding cannon in 1460.

Cannon and gunpowder technologies were sufficiently advanced by the middle of
the fifteenth century that they were recognized as important weapons. This
was made clear in 1453 when huge siege bombards firing massive stone
cannonballs battered the walls of Constantinople. Although the proximate
cause of the fall of Constantinople was a small gate being left open, the
bombardment would have eventually made a direct assault possible.

Cannons of the Middle Ages were used in sieges to batter walls and on
battlefields to fire into massed ranks of the enemy. Their ability to batter
sheer vertical walls led to refinements in castle-building. Low sloping walls
replaced high vertical walls. The usefulness of cannon on the battlefield was
limited during this period because the cannons were so ponderous. It was
difficult to move them into new positions during the action.


Illustrations of various types of handguns appeared around 1350. These were
primitive weapons consisting of a hollow tube blocked at one end and a hole
in the side near the blocked end for igniting the powder. A slow match (a
slow-burning cord) was placed in the hole to ignite the powder and fire the
ball previously loaded down the barrel. There was little use in attempting to
aim the early handguns. They were effective only when fired in volleys by
many men at massed targets. By 1450 handguns were being used by most of the
advanced European armies. Bows and crossbows continued in use as infantry
missile weapons through the sixteenth century, however, because they were
still inexpensive and effective.

Naval Warfare

The need for warships in the Mediterranean Sea largely faded after the Romans
gained complete control of the surrounding lands. There was no other empire
with a navy to offer competition, and piracy was all but eliminated.
Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, new civilizations sprang
up from the ruins of the empire and piracy reappeared. Warships were needed
again to defend against invasion, project military power, and protect sea
trade routes.

Byzantine Ships

The Byzantines were the great Mediterranean naval power of the early Middle
Ages. Naval power was critical to their survival and to their extended
empire. The land defenses of Constantinople were excellent and made outright
assault of the city very difficult, but the city had to keep its sea supply
open to prevent a successful siege. So long as the navy could bring in
supplies, the city was assured of survival.

The main Byzantine warship of the early Middle Ages was the dromen, an
evolution of the ancient oared warships, such as the trireme. A typical
dromen was long and narrow for speed. Power was supplied by 50 to 200 rowers
and lateen sails. A mast was placed in the middle of the front half and rear
half of the ship. The dromen carried a beak at the bow for pinning enemy
vessels prior to boarding. Rams were rarely seen. Platforms were built in the
center, bow, and stern. From these platforms archers and catapults could fire
at enemy ships and crews. A typical battle involved attempts to ram or
disable enemy ships, then grappling and boarding by marines.

The Byzantines effectively used a secret weapon called Greek fire. This was a
mixture of chemicals that burned fiercely upon contact with air. It was
pumped out of hoses against enemy ships or thrown in bombs. It was a
devastating weapon against wooden ships and decisive for the Byzantines in
their naval battles against the Arabs. The secret of Greek fire was so
important and so closely guarded that it was eventually lost and we do not
know today exactly what it was.

Mediterranean Ships

Oar-powered warships, called galleys, remained the principal warships of the
Mediterranean beyond the end of the Middle Ages because the waters were
relatively protected from fierce gales. At the same time, the Italian city-
states of Genoa and Venice gradually became naval powers in proportion to the
increasing importance of their trade with the Levant. The Arabs also built
navies to influence trade and support their conflict with the Byzantines and
other Christians for control of the Mediterranean. The beginning of the
Crusades in the eleventh century brought ships from Northern Europe that had
evolved very different designs.

European Ships

The Germanic tribes that occupied Northern Europe around 500 developed
several new ship types. The typical trading ship was wide-bodied and of deep
draft. It mounted a single mast at first and later more as it grew in size.
The Norse called this type of ship a knarr. We know a lot about this ship
today because one was recovered from the bottom of a harbor in Denmark in the
1960s. Much of the trade and exploration of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings was
carried on in this type of ship. It evolved into the cog, the principal
merchant ship of the later Middle Ages. This deep-draft ship was designed for
easy sailing and high cargo capacity.

Ship fighting in northern Europe was mainly an extension of land combat.
Towers were built on the bow and stern of the cog for protection and as
firing platforms for archers. Crews fired at each other with arrows as they
closed, but the intent was only to disable enemy crewmen and soldiers. Ships
came together and attempted to capture each other in hand-to-hand combat.
Sailing ships in these waters had no ability to ram. There was no weapon with
which to do great structural damage to another ship or sink it until cannon
appeared in the fourteenth century. Some 400 English and French cog-type
warships carrying large contingents of archers and foot soldiers engaged in a
naval battle at Sluys in 1340 typical of the later Middle Ages. They simply
jammed together for archery fire and close combat.

The first cannon were mounted in the bow or stern of ships. Small cannon
mounted on the side rails were used against enemy crews. The English ship
Christopher of the Tower of 1406 was the first built purposely to carry guns.
Ships began to mount broadsides of cannon with the ability to puncture enemy
hulls only at the very end of the Middle Ages.

The Viking longship was more of a transport than a warship. Vikings rarely
fought from their longships. When they did, there are reports of boats being
lashed together to provide a platform for hand-to-hand fighting. The longship
was powered by oars until the eighth or ninth century when sails appear to
have been added. Although they looked fragile and unlikely vessels for ocean
travel, modern replicas proved to be very seaworthy. The additional range
provided by sails explains partially why the Vikings began reaching out to
raid in the ninth century.

The Irish curragh was a small boat used mainly for coastal trading and travel
but capable of deep ocean sailing also. This boat was built of animal hides
stretched over a wooden frame. The hide skin was sealed with pitch for
waterproofing. These incredibly light boats were powered with a small sail or
could be rowed. In rough weather the hide covering could be closed to make
the boat watertight and relatively unsinkable. Irish monks explored the North
Atlantic in these boats and reached Iceland long before the Vikings. There
are unsubstantiated tales that monks sailed to the New World as well.

The Crusades brought northern ships into the Mediterranean and contact
between the sailors and shipbuilders of north and south. The southerners
began adopting features of the cog, including its big hull and square sail.
The northerners learned about the compass, stern rudder, and lateen sail.

Chinese Ships

The greatest shipbuilders of the Middle Ages were probably the Chinese. The
familiar Chinese junk was a better ship than anything available in the West
for many centuries. It was an excellent combination of cargo space, sailing
ability, and seaworthiness. In 1405, Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho built a huge
navy manned by 25,000 men and explored much of the Southwest Pacific and
Indian Oceans. The rulers of China disdained this feat and its discoveries.
The greatest ships in the world at the time were beached and allowed to rot.


The Middle Ages

The expression "Middle Ages" has been employed by Western civilization to
define the 1000 years that span European history from roughly 500 to 1500 AD.
The beginning of the Middle Ages is marked by the fall of the Western Roman
Empire, the generally accepted end of classical ancient history. The end of
the Middle Ages is noted by the beginning of the Renaissance (the "rebirth"
of Europe). Events marking the end of the period include the fall of
Constantinople in 1453, the first use of the printing press in 1456, the
European discovery of the Americas in 1492, the Protestant Reformation,
triggered by Martin Luther in 1517, and the flowering of the arts in Italy.
The Middle Ages thus fall in the middle between ancient and modern history.

Historic periods in Asia and the Middle East do not fit easily into the
concept of a European Middle Age. China evolved gradually from prehistoric
times up to the advent of Western modern history without the great
disruptions that befell Europe. China passed under the control of several
dynasties and suffered from invasion, but the basic culture progressed
steadily. Japan progressed steadily, as well, and was left largely alone. The
history of the Middle East fits together more closely with the European
Middle Ages because these two regions were adjacent and shared many

Rome Before the Fall

The Roman Empire of the fourth century AD extended entirely around the basin
of the Mediterranean Sea, including modern Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and North
Africa. Modern France (called Gaul) and modern Spain and Portugal (Iberia)
were entirely Roman. Modern England was Roman, but modern Scotland and
Ireland were barbarian (non-Roman, or noncivilized). The northern borders of
the empire were the Rhine and Danube Rivers. The lands north of these rivers
were occupied by a variety of tribes of Scandinavian origin that the Romans
called the Germans.

Rome was engaged in border skirmishes with the tribes north of the great
European rivers. Strong emperors occasionally extended the empire over the
rivers while weak emperors tended to lose those lands. The largest organized
rival of the Romans was the Persian Empire to the east, occupying modern
Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Persians were the political
descendants of the Parthians who had revolted away from Greek rule following
Alexander's conquests and thereafter resisted successfully Roman invasions.

The Romans had existed as an important power for over 1000 years. They had
brought stability, prosperity, and order to the civilized West. Excellent
roads connected the far reaches of the empire with the capital at Rome. These
were built originally for military purposes but improved all communications
and trade. Roman law kept the internal peace and 20 to 30 Roman legions
defended the frontiers.

All was not perfect, however. Emperors held absolute authority. This worked
well with good emperors, but incompetent ones could do great harm. The rules
for succession to the throne were never clear, and debilitating civil wars
often resulted. The bureaucracy that managed the empire on a daily basis grew
more corrupt, increasing the dissatisfaction of the common citizen. The
wealth of the empire gradually concentrated in the hands of a minority while
a large slave population did most of the work. The borders of the empire were
immense and put a strain on military resources (500,000 soldiers defended a
frontier that required 3 million or more to be secure). Roman conquests had
ceased in the second century AD, bringing an end to massive inflows of
plunder and slaves. Taxes increased and production fell as the workforce
declined. A plague may have killed 20 percent of the empire's population in
the third and fourth centuries, further reducing trade and production.

In the late third century, the Roman Empire was split into eastern and
western halves in an attempt to make for easier rule and better control. In
323 Constantine became emperor after a civil war and established his eastern
capital at Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. During the next
century the eastern and western parts of the empire gradually established
separate identities, although nominally the same empire. These identities
were partially due to the different pressures brought to bear on them from
the outside and the local culture. The Western Empire was predominately
Latin; the Eastern Empire was predominately Greek (although they referred to
themselves as Romans). The Eastern Empire survived the cataclysm of the third
and fourth centuries because it had a larger population (70 percent of the
empire's total), better emperors, more money, and a far better army and navy.

Barbarian Invaders

Around the year 200 AD, nomadic tribes on the great grass steppes of Central
Asia began migrating toward China, India, Persia, and Europe. The reasons for
this migration are not fully understood. The largest group of nomads was the
Huns. Their small stature and small ponies belied a fierce and determined
ruthlessness. They terrified other tribes they encountered in their
migrations, causing something like a domino effect. Moving west, the Huns
displaced the Goths living northwest of the Black Sea, for example, who
pushed south over the Danube into the Balkans lands ruled by the Eastern
Roman Empire. More Huns moved toward the German plains, encouraging other
Germanic tribes to cross the Rhine.

The Western Roman Empire was already weakened by this time from sporadic
raids and invasions across the Rhine and Danube. Germanic tribes with growing
populations coveted the sparsely occupied lands in Gaul and the benefits of
being within the Roman Empire. By 400 the Roman army was already 30 to 50
percent German mercenaries. In desperation, some barbarian groups were
enlisted into the Roman army as entire units to help defend against other
groups. This was especially popular during civil wars of the fourth century,
when pretenders to the throne in Rome needed to raise armies quickly. These
barbarian units did not have the loyalty and discipline of the legions and
kept their own leaders. This stopgap measure backfired when whole barbarian
armies revolted. The Rhine and Danube frontiers dissolved and Germanic tribes
moved into Gaul, the Balkans, and even Italy itself. The fighting was nearly
incessant along the shrinking frontier and the number of loyal Roman troops
continually diminished.

The last legions in Britain were withdrawn for service in Gaul in 410,
abandoning that province forever. Saxon raids increased and became actual
invasions. The Jutes, Frisians, and Angles, other Germanic tribes from the
north German coast, joined the Saxons. Together they overwhelmed the Romano-
British culture and took possession of what is today England (Angle-land).

The Eastern Roman Empire suffered through the loss of most of the Balkans but
was able to deflect or bribe the barbarians before they could attack
Constantinople. The invaders in this area were the Goths, who had become much
more civilized through their contact with the Eastern Empire than had the
Germanic tribes along the Rhine. The Goths came as settlers primarily, not

During the fifth century Rome was sacked several times and the Western Empire
ceased to exist effectively. Italy was repeatedly invaded and ravaged. In 476
the last recognized Roman emperor was killed. Italy and the old Roman Empire
were now occupied by Germanic tribes. Despite a general wish by the
barbarians to preserve the stability and order of the past Roman
civilization, only vestiges of it survived the turmoil and devastation that
followed the invasions. Most of Europe fell back into a much more primitive
and barbaric period.

The Dark Ages

Following the fall of Rome, western Europe entered what has been called the
Dark Ages. This name was applied partially because so much of the Roman
civilization was destroyed and replaced by a more barbaric culture. The name
was used also because so little written history survived from the period that
shed light on the events that took place.

The New Political Landscape

The Roman government and courts were swept away with most of the Roman
culture. Tribal war bands were the new government. A strong leader surrounded
himself with loyal warriors that were paid with booty from raiding. Tribal
law, based on trial by combat or by the swearing of oaths, replaced Roman
law. Small kingdoms arose gradually based on tribal loyalties, but governing
was difficult because literate civil servants were scarce, communications
were poor, trade was at a standstill, and there was little or no money in
circulation. The people survived on a subsistence agriculture. Life at this
time was described as nasty, brutish, and short. The average life expectancy
was 30 years, skewed by a very low survival rate for children and a high
mortality of women in childbirth.

At the start of the Dark Ages, the list of European powers read as follows:

* Franks: much of modern France and parts of
Germany along the Rhine.
* Ostrogoths: northern Italy, Switzerland, and
the Balkans.
* Visigoths: Spain and Portugal.
* Vandals: Western North Africa, Sicily, and
southern Italy.
* Various Germanic tribes, including Saxons and
Lombards: Germany.
* Anglo-Saxons: England.
* Celts: Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany.
* Magyars: Hungary.
* Slavs: Poland and western Russia.
* Byzantines: Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and
much of the Balkans, including Greece.

In succeeding centuries, the list saw the following changes:

* Vandals: destroyed and replaced by the
* Visigoths: destroyed and replaced by Franks
in France and Muslims in Spain and Portugal.
* Ostrogoths: attacked and eventually absorbed by
the Lombards (Italy) and Byzantines

The Dark Ages are considered to cover the years from 500 to 1000. The three
most important forces that shaped this period and brought the relative
darkness to an end were the spread of new religions, the rise of the Frankish
Empire, and the predations of the Vikings.

Religion in the Dark Ages

Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the
fourth century and had begun spreading among the Germanic tribes before the
fall of Rome. The split of the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves
also resulted in a split within the Christian Church. The western part,
centered in Rome, became Catholic. The eastern part, centered in
Constantinople, became Orthodox. In the seventh century, one of the last of
the world's great religions, Islam, was founded in Arabia.


The spread of Christianity among the barbarians was a powerful civilizing
force and helped to ensure that some vestiges of Roman law and the Latin
language carried on in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Only in England
was Roman Christianity subsumed by pagan beliefs. The Franks became Catholic
under Clovis and thereafter spread Christianity to the Germans across the
Rhine. The Byzantines spread Orthodox Christianity among the Bulgars and

Christianity was brought to Ireland by St. Patrick in the early fifth century
and spread from there into Scotland and back into England from the north. In
the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great sent missionaries into England
from the south. Within a century, England was Christian once again.


During the turmoil of the Dark Ages, a few strongly committed Christians
withdrew from society to live as hermits, usually on the wild and forbidding
edge of civilization. Hermits in turn inspired more conventional priests to
pledge vows of poverty and service, harkening back to the teachings of Jesus

Many of these priests formed new communities of like believers called
monasteries. Pope Gregory encouraged the building of monasteries throughout
Christian Europe. In parts of Europe they became the only remaining centers
of learning. Irish monks, for example, are credited by some with preserving
civilization in their monasteries. Irish monks went out into other parts of
Europe to teach and revive an interest in learning. Monasteries were the main
source of educated men who could help administer government, and many became
important assistants to kings.

In time monasteries grew wealthy with donations of land, as did the Roman
church. Different monastic orders were founded with different goals. Some
kept entirely to themselves, some trained missionaries to be sent into the
wild, some advised the popes on church doctrine, and others provided
important community service such as care for the elderly, health care, and
emergency relief.


Islam was founded in Arabia in the seventh century by the prophet Mohammed.
It spread rapidly and inspired a great movement of conquest. The political
map of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia changed almost
overnight. All of North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle East, Asia
Minor, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, parts of India, Pakistan, and part of Russia
became Muslim. During the brief period that the Islamic Empire remained
united, it threatened to accomplish its goal of converting the entire world
to its beliefs. The stability and economic growth within the new Muslim world
brought peace and prosperity far in advance of that in western Europe of the
time. The Muslim culture surpassed even the Byzantines in art, science,
medicine, geography, trade, and philosophy.

Conflicts between the Muslims and Christians resulted in the Crusades, a
series of attempts by western Christians to regain the Holy Lands in


The Franks consolidated their kingdom in modern France under a series of
strong kings and warlords during the seventh and eighth centuries. In 732
they defeated a Muslim army invading France from the Iberian Peninsula.
Around 750, the Franks pushed into Italy to rescue Rome and the pope, who
were under attack by the Lombards. In 768 Charles the Great, or Charlemagne,
became king of the Franks and began his remarkable reign.

Charlemagne returned to Italy across the Alps in 774 and rescued the Pope
once again. He became king of both the Franks and Lombards and effective
ruler of Rome. He continued his conquests, simultaneously converting his
enemies to Christianity. He took southern France and northern parts of Spain.
He moved into western Germany, converting the Saxons and fighting off the
Magyars of Hungary. He established "marches" on his frontier, which were
buffer states between the Frankish Empire and barbarian tribes to the east.
On Christmas Day in 800, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the
pope (the title was a surprise and one he had not sought).

The importance of Charlemagne transcends the size and creation of the Holy
Roman Empire, which fell apart soon after his death anyway. He was a great
supporter and defender of the Catholic Church and used it to encourage
learning and the arts. He set up schools in association with cathedrals to
educate civil servants and nobles to improve government. He collected and
codified the laws, improving the system of justice. He invented feudalism as
a way of providing local order while retaining central authority.

The great promise of European revival radiating from the Frankish Empire was
stopped short, however. Following the death of Charlemagne's son, the empire
was split three ways among his grandsons. The western part evolved later into
modern France. The eastern part became Germany much later. The central part
was contested by the other two through succeeding generations into the
twentieth century. A more immediate problem was the sudden appearance of
Viking raiders from Scandinavia, who greatly disrupted northern Europe for
the next two centuries.

The Vikings

The inhabitants of Scandinavia had made their living by herding, farming, and
fishing for centuries. In the sixth and seventh centuries, they began trading
along the Baltic Sea and deep into Russia along its great rivers. For reasons
unknown, they began aggressively raiding the coasts of Europe suddenly in the
late eighth century. Perhaps they were amazed at the relative riches they had
encountered as traders, or they perceived a weakness among the civilizations
to the south, or new sailing and boat technologies gave them the power to
travel farther and more quickly. In 793 the pagan Vikings struck the great
monastery at Lindisfarne, established by the Irish off the northeast coast of

Fast, low-draft longboats allowed the Vikings to strike quickly from the sea
and up rivers. Because roads were so poor in the ninth century, the Vikings
could concentrate against a rich village or monastery, land quickly, drive
off any resistance, and carry off slaves and plunder before any organized
response could be mounted. People living along the coasts and rivers of
Germany, France, and Britain lived in fear of the raiders. The central
authorities of these lands fell into disfavor because they could do little to
defend against these hit-and-run attacks. The people turned to local nobles
who built castles for defense. This shift of power strengthened the local
nobles and weakened the kings.

The Vikings became bolder as the ninth century progressed. Larger Viking
groups combined to make actual invasions, not just raids. They sacked major
cities including Hamburg, Utrecht, and Rouen. They settled on islands off
Britain, in parts of Ireland (founding Dublin), Iceland, and Greenland. The
Danes captured and ruled the eastern half of England for a century. Another
force sailed up the Seine River and besieged Paris for two years before being
bought off with money and plunder. Another group ruled part of Russia from
Kiev and assaulted Constantinople from the Black Sea. They raided the Muslim
Iberian Peninsula and deep into the Mediterranean.

In the tenth century, the king of France bought peace with the Vikings by
ceding them part of his country (Normandy, "from the northmen," or Normans)
and making their ruler a French duke. As part of this agreement, the Normans
converted to Christianity. The Normans became one of the most remarkable
groups in the Middle Ages. Later they conquered England, establishing the
first great European kingdom. Other Normans conquered Sicily, half of Italy,
and established Crusader kingdoms in Palestine.

Viking raids stopped at the end of the tenth century, partly because they had
become Christians and no longer followed the warrior values of their past
pagan beliefs. Scandinavia divided into kingdoms, and the new rulers
concentrated on ruling what they owned. The Viking settlers in Russia,
France, and Britain were absorbed by the cultures that surrounded them. The
warrior cultures in Europe that had evolved in response to the Viking threat
soon had a new outlet for their aggression, however, in the Holy Land of the
Eastern Mediterranean.

The Crusades

Making pilgrimages to holy sites had been a popular activity for European
Christians for centuries. There were important religious centers in Europe
but the most important site was the Holy Land in Palestine. The rise of the
Seljuk Turks made travel to Jerusalem and other Middle Eastern locales
suddenly much more dangerous. The Turks had little use for non-Muslims and
ended the relatively peaceful relations between the Arabs and Christians. At
the same time, the Turks put tremendous pressure on the Byzantines by
capturing the valuable lands in Asia Minor. As a result, Pope Urban called
for a Crusade by Christian warriors to recapture Palestine from the Muslims.

The call for a Crusade electrified the knights of Europe. They were strong
believers, and the pope promised a heavenly reward for those who died in the
cause. Of equal or greater importance was the opportunity to grab land and
wealth abroad, rather than continuing to squabble with relatives and
neighbors at home.

By 1097, an army of 30,000, including many pilgrims and camp followers, had
crossed into Asia Minor from Constantinople. Despite feuding among the
leaders and broken promises between the Crusaders and their Byzantine
supporters, the Crusade stumbled forward. The Turks were just as
disorganized, or more so. The Frankish heavy knights and infantry had no
experience fighting the Arab light cavalry and archers, and vice versa. The
endurance and strength of the knights won the campaign over a series of often
very close victories. Antioch was captured through treachery in 1098 and
Jerusalem in 1099 by assault against a weak garrison. The Christians debased
themselves after both victories by slaughtering many of the residents
regardless of age, faith, or gender. Many of the Crusaders returned home, but
a hardy band remained to set up feudal kingdoms similar to those in Europe.

The Crusader rulers of Palestine were greatly outnumbered by the Muslim
population they attempted to control, so they built castles and hired
mercenary troops to hold them. The culture and religion of the Franks was too
alien to win over the residents of the area, however. From their secure
castle bases, the Crusaders struck out to intercept raiding Arabs. For about
a century the two sides engaged in a classic guerrilla war. The Frankish
knights were powerful but slow. The Arabs could not stand up to charges by
the heavy cavalry but could ride circles around them, hoping to disable their
units and catch them in ambushes in the desert. The Crusader kingdoms kept
mainly to the coast, from which they could get supplies and reinforcements,
but the constant raids and unhappy populace meant they were not an economic

Orders of Christian warrior monks were formed to fight for the Holy Lands.
The Knights Templar and Hospitillar were mainly Frankish. The Teutonic
Knights were German. These were the fiercest and most determined of the
Crusaders, but there were never enough of them to make the region secure.

The Crusader kingdoms survived for a while in part because they learned to
negotiate, compromise, and play the different Arab groups off against each
other. A great Arab leader appeared, however, who united the various Islamic
groups. Saladin became Sultan of Egypt and Syria in 1174. In 1187 he won a
great victory over the Crusaders in the desert and recaptured Jerusalem.

For another century the Europeans made several attempts to reassert control
over the Holy Land and Jerusalem, with only a rare temporary success. Eight
more Crusades followed and most failed to do more than get ashore and make
some progress inland before being pushed back. The Fourth Crusade did not
even reach Palestine. Under the guidance of the Doge of Venice, they sacked
Constantinople instead, a blow from which the Byzantines never recovered. One
of the worst Crusades was a Children's Crusade launched in 1212. Several
thousand European children got as far as Alexandria in Egypt, where they were
sold into slavery.

The legacy of the Crusades included a new hostility between Christians and
Muslims, a deterioration of the feudal system, and exposure to new cultures.
Feudalism declined because many lords went bankrupt, leaving their lands to
their kings. Many serfs became Crusaders and never returned. New words
entered the European languages, such as cotton, muslin, divan, and bazaar.
Europeans brought back new textiles, foods, and spices. Demand back home for
these new goods increased trade and contributed to the growth of the Italian
trading city-states, especially Genoa and Venice. This demand was also the
impetus for the great age of discovery that began in fourteenth century.
Treasure brought home increased the local money supplies, aiding economic


The predominant economic and political structure of the Middle Ages was
feudalism. This system evolved in response to a breakdown in central
authority and a rise in social chaos following the end of Roman rule. A
hierarchy of strongmen in allegiance replaced the Roman system of emperor,
senate, province, city, and town.

The Feudal Contract

Feudalism was an agreement between two nobles, one the lord and one the
vassal. The vassal pledged an oath of fealty (faithfulness) to the lord and
agreed to carry out duties in his behalf. The most important duties were
usually military service (normally limited to 40 days per year), providing
soldiers to the lord's army, and providing revenue to the lord. The lord
agreed to protect the vassal with the army at his command and to provide the
vassal with the means of making a living. The vassal was given control of a
fief that was usually a large holding of land, but he could also be assigned
the job of tax collector, coiner, customs agent, or some other responsibility
that created revenue. A lord with many vassals thus had steady sources of
revenue and an army. A feudal contract was made for life. A lord could take
back a fief if the vassal failed in his duties. It was much harder for a
vassal to leave a lord. During the early Middle Ages fiefs were not
inherited, which was to the advantage of the lord. The more fiefs he had to
give out, the harder his vassals would work to earn them. As the Middle Ages
progressed, vassals found opportunities to make their fiefs inheritable,
leaving the lords fewer fiefs to pass out as rewards.

Only nobles and knights were allowed to take the oath of fealty. In practice
most nobles were both vassals and lords, fitting in somewhere between the
king and the lowest knight of rank. Feudalism was never neatly organized,
however. Vassals might be more powerful than lords. The dukes of Normandy,
controlling much of France and all of England, were more powerful than the
kings of France who were their lords. Vassals might have several lords,
causing problems when different lords wanted the vassal to provide a service.
The senior lord, or liege lord, was usually given preference. Nobles also
discovered that if they were strong enough they could ignore the rules of
feudalism and attack neighbors to get what they wanted. Such private wars
were endemic throughout the late Middle Ages.

The Manor

The most common fief was a land holding called a manor. During the Middle
Ages nine families worked on a manor producing food to feed themselves and
provide food for a tenth family to do something else. (In the modern United
States, the relationship is perhaps 100 to 1 in the other direction.)

A typical manor was a great house or castle, surrounded by fields, cottages,
pastures, and woodlands. The manor was largely self-sufficient. Surpluses of
a few commodities were traded with other manors for commodities in shortage.
As the Middle Ages continued and the markets of towns grew, manors became
more specialized because they were more efficient at producing only a few
commodities. Some manors specialized in cheese, pigs, wine, grain, or
vegetables, for example.

The lord of the manor (landlord) occupied the manor house or castle with his
family, servants, and retainers. Retainers were usually knights and
professional soldiers on hand to provide defense and be ready to fulfill any
feudal military obligations to a senior lord. The larger the manor, the
greater the number of retainers.

The population of a manor consisted mainly of peasants (nonnoble and
nonprofessional). The farmhands were mostly serfs who spent up to half of
their week working the lord's lands in return for his protection. Each serf
family owned several rows in each of the manor's fields from which it
obtained a living. Serfs were not slaves, but they were not free either. They
could not marry, change jobs, or leave the manor without the lord's
permission. But a serf had some rights, unlike a slave. His position was
hereditary and passed down in his family. His land could not be taken so long
as he fulfilled his obligations. While the relationship between vassal and
lord seems comparable to serf and landlord, a clear distinction was made in
the Middle Ages between an honorable contract to provide military service
versus mere manual labor.

Farming technology gradually changed the lives of serfs as the Middle Ages
progressed. Food production increased and surpluses were sold, providing
serfs with the money to buy their freedom. By the end of the period, there
were few serfs in western Europe.

The Late Middle Ages

The Dark Ages witnessed widespread disruption throughout Europe and the
replacement of the previously predominant Roman culture with Germanic tribal
culture. For 500 years Europe had suffered repeatedly from invasion and war.
The life of the average peasant was rarely affected, however, and social
stability and culture gradually recovered, although in new formats. By
roughly the year 1000, Europeans were creating a new medieval civilization
that surpassed the ancients in almost every way.

Economic Revitalization

At the start of the Dark Ages, Northern Europe was deeply forested. By 1000
AD, much of the forest was gone and most of the rest was going, replaced by
farmland and pasture. The soil was generally excellent, a loess of finely
ground rock deposited during the last receding Ice Age. Two key inventions
accelerated the deforestation of Europe and led to increasing food
production. The first was the horse collar that originated in China and
gradually came west. The improved collar fit across a horse's breast, rather
than its windpipe, allowing it to pull much heavier loads without choking.
The second invention was the heavy wheeled plow, which was needed to cut into
the deep soils and extensive root systems of the old forests. Dramatic
increases in food production were the foundation of population growth and
economic revitalization in Europe.

Increasing population, no longer needed on the manors, migrated to the towns
that were already growing in response to the needs for larger markets. Food
surpluses and the products of new industries (cloth-making, shipbuilding, and
tool-making, for example) traded in the new markets and trade fairs. Kings
encouraged the growth of towns because residents were usually allied with the
central authority rather than local feudal lords. Citizens of towns paid
taxes, not feudal service. Within towns there appeared a new middle class
that supported itself by trade, industrial production, and lending money.
Merchants came to dominate the town governments, growing both rich and

Craftsmen and merchants organized themselves into associations that were
called guilds. These associations controlled prices and production, ensured a
high standard of service or manufacturing, and organized the training of
crafts through apprenticeships. These controls ensured both a high-quality
product and a high-quality of life for guild members. Guild members often
concentrated in one part of town, such as Threadneedle Street and Ironmongers
Lane in London. Guilds formed an important power block within the political
structure of the towns.

Increased trade led to a new boom in manufacturing. Both led to the rise of
banking, centered mostly in northern Italy in the thirteenth century.
Fledgling businesses needed money to get started and to function efficiently.
Money acted as a medium of exchange and standard of value and was necessary
for moving beyond an inefficient barter economy. Italy had cash surpluses
from its lucrative Mediterranean trade, especially with the Levant. The gold
florin of Florence became the most popular coin of the late Middle Ages.



Christians proved their faith by going on pilgrimages to Rome, Santiago de
Compostela, and even Jerusalem. Pilgrims who had visited Santiago de
Compostela wore cloth cockleshells on their clothing as a badge of


The prosperity of the twelfth century and later was increasingly expressed in
the arts, especially architecture. The enduring symbol of Middle Ages
architecture was the cathedral. Magnificent church buildings were erected in
thanks to God for the blessings bestowed on the people. Towns competed to
build the most glorious cathedral and the loftiest spire reaching toward
heaven. Cathedrals were the largest capital investments of the period, taking
as much as a century to build and costing a fortune.

The predominant building material for cathedrals was stone, which minimized
the hazard of fire. There was little steel at the time, and iron was too soft
to hold up the immense buildings of unprecedented height. Architects evolved
new solutions to old problems, devising the pointed arch and flying buttress
to spread the weight load from vaulted ceilings onto massive stone supports.
The new building technologies made possible great open cathedrals, large
windows (often of beautifully stained glass), and high spires. The French
pioneered the new cathedrals. Notre Dame of Paris was begun in 1163 and
finished 72 years later. The cathedral at Chartres was begun in 1120 and
completed in 1224 after burning twice during construction.

Cathedrals were a great source of civic pride and prestige. Pilgrims and new
churchgoers brought increased revenues to the cathedral town.


By the late Middle Ages, science in Europe had caught up with the ancients
and passed them by. The technology that interested the people was practical,
not theoretical. They sought better ways to do things, both to make life more
comfortable and to improve business. They were interested in understanding
the natural world because they had increasingly more leisure time for

The rudiments of mathematics and science were acquired from the Muslims of
the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily when Christians retook those areas. The
Muslims had been actively studying the ancients and new ideas from Asia since
the early Middle Ages. The Muslims passed on the Arabic numerals used today
and the concept of the zero, invented in India.

Practical research began challenging logic in the quest to understand the
laws of nature. The value of observation, experimentation, and empirical
(countable) evidence as support and proof of theory was recognized. This led
to the scientific method of the later Renaissance, which is the basis for all
modern scientific research. Ancient Greeks had suggested the scientific
method, but it fell out of favor and had been forgotten.

The Decline of Feudalism

Political Changes

By the beginning of the late Middle Ages, western Europe had been divided
into feudal holdings of various sizes. Kings atop feudal hierarchies did not
exercise a strong central authority and nations existed as cultural groups,
not political entities. By the end of the late Middle Ages, strong central
authority controlled England, Spain, Portugal, and France. Political power in
those areas had been wrested away from the local feudal lords.

William the Conqueror established the first of the strong European monarchies
after winning the throne of England in 1066. Following his victory at
Hastings and five more years of fighting to break remaining resistance, he
began taking steps to consolidate his power. He kept one-sixth of England as
royal land. Half of the rest was given as fiefs to Norman barons who were his
direct vassals. He gave one-quarter of the land to the Church and the
remainder was divided among the Anglo-Saxons. The entire feudal hierarchy was
forced to swear fealty to him as liege lord. He claimed ownership of all
castles, prohibited wars between lords, and made royal coinage the only legal
money. These were important first steps in the decline of feudalism, although
they could not always be enforced, especially by later kings of lesser
ability than William.

In the twelfth century, England's King Henry II created the chancery and
exchequer, the beginnings of a civil service. The chancery kept records of
laws and royal transactions; the exchequer was the treasury. Both offices
were not hereditary, making it easy to remove unwanted officials. The staffs
of the new civil service were paid a salary rather than given a fief, making
them dependent only on the king.

In 1215 the unpopular King John of England was forced to sign the Magna
Carta, a feudal document that made the king subject to the laws of the land
and required that the barons have a voice in the king's decision through a
Great Council. Wording of the Magna Carta led to important interpretations in
later centuries, including the concept of "no taxation without
representation." When a later English king ignored the Magna Carta, the
barons seized power in 1264 and ruled temporarily through an expanded Great
Council called the Parliament. The new Parliament included not only the
barons and high-ranking churchmen but also representatives from the large

Although this parliamentary government was short-lived (15 months),
Parliament itself could not be suppressed or ignored. From this period on,
only Parliament could repeal laws it had passed. No taxes could be imposed
without its approval. When kings needed money in the short term (during the
Hundred Years War, for example) they were often forced by Parliament to
concede more power in exchange. Parliament and the civil service continued to
grow in importance, and they proved capable of running the country,
regardless of the current king's ability or any temporary rebellion by the

While the king, civil service, and Parliament were pushing down on the power
of barons from above, pressure was also rising from the bottom of the feudal
hierarchy. Several factors worked toward freeing the serfs from their
contracts with the lords, including increasing town populations, cessation of
barbarian raids, and a fearful plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth

The Black Death

The plague that became known as the Black Death struck Europe suddenly and
with devastating effect in the middle fourteenth century. It moved west from
Central Asia, appearing in the Black Sea area in 1346. It spread southwest
into the Mediterranean and then up and around the North Atlantic Coast and
into the Baltic. By 1348 it was in Spain and Portugal, by 1349 in England and
Ireland, by 1351 in Sweden, and by 1353 in the Baltic States and Russia. Only
remote and sparsely populated areas were spared. Between a third and a half
of the population of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and India died,
based on modern estimates of the loss.

The Black Plague was probably a variety of the bubonic plague, a bacterial
infection still encountered today and still dangerous. The bacteria were
carried in the saliva of fleas that had sucked the blood of infected rats.
The fleas jumped to human hosts when infected rats died and the bacteria
spread rapidly in the human blood stream. The plague took its name from its
most hideous symptom-large black and painful swellings that oozed blood and
pus. Victims developed a high fever and became delirious. Most died within 48
hours, but a small minority were able to fight off the infection and survive.

Entire towns were depopulated and the social relation between serf and lord
fell apart. People who could farm or make things were valuable. The move to
cities accelerated once the plague had passed.

The Renaissance

Beginning in fourteenth-century Italy, Europe went through a transition over
400 years from medieval to modern times known today as the Renaissance,
meaning a "rebirth" or "revival." The Renaissance is a nebulous concept for
which there is no clear beginning or end. It does, however, usefully mark the
complete recovery from the barbarism of the Dark Ages to the new advancement
in all fields that transcended the achievements of the great ancient

Many different factors at work in the Middle Ages contributed to this revival
and new advancement. One was the renewed interest in learning. The first
college at Oxford University was founded in 1264. By 1400 there were more
than 50 universities in Europe. Education and debate were stimulated by
access to ancient texts preserved by the Arabs and freshly translated into
Latin. Europeans had made contact with the Arabs in the Holy Land, in Sicily,
and in Spain. The rediscovered works of the ancient Greek mathematician
Euclid, for example, became the standard for teaching mathematics into the
nineteenth century. The Arabs also transmitted a new system for numbers, the
concept of the decimal point, and the concept of zero, all invented in India.
The spread of learning accelerated rapidly following the invention of the
printing press around 1450.

A second factor was the rising standard of living, especially in the great
commercial cities of Italy. The Crusades had opened European eyes to the
wealth of the East, especially silks, spices, and cotton. The merchants of
Venice, Genoa, Florence, and other cities came to dominate the trade between
Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. With the excess wealth they accumulated
in business, these merchants began embellishing their homes and cities with
art. Sculpture, painting, architecture, music, poetry, and literature found
new expression, exhibiting an interest in subjects beyond the religious
themes that dominated previously in the Middle Ages. Popular depictions of
everyday life, romance, and adventure revealed that European culture was
becoming more humanistic and less focused on religion.

The revival was also due to technological progress that led to more efficient
production of goods and services. Manufacturing, farming, and trade all
improved past the abilities of the ancients. The drive for profits encouraged
inventiveness and exploration. A middle class of merchants and craftsmen
began grasping political power commensurate with their economic power, at the
expense of a declining nobility.

By roughly 1500 the nations of Europe were leading the world in many
important technologies. Energies unleashed by the exploration of the world,
the search for trade routes, the Protestant Reformation, and continued
political competition in Europe itself would make Europe the dominant region
of the world within a few centuries.

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