“Be peaceful, therefore, in your warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against and bring them into the prosperity of peace.” -St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 426AD
“The horror – the horror!” –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1899AD
On a frigid October morning in 1415, a young English king found himself and his battered army of about 6,000 in a desperate fight for survival against a French army that outnumbered them by almost five to one in a lonely field near the small hamlet of Azincourt-en-Ponthieu. The details of the now legendary Battle of Agincourt are well known to most in the English-speaking world – how King Henry and his valiant “band of brothers” stubbornly held their ground against wave after wave of French armored charges. However, in the heat of the melee, a small squad of local cavalry swept down into the unguarded English camp, killing the handful of young pages left there and making off with what loot they could carry. Although the objective of these raiders was nothing more than simple thievery, King Henry mistook it for a French attack to his rear. The English king, believing his small force to be in the gravest of all battlefield crises, issued a grim order to his men – that all but the most noble of French prisoners taken so far (a considerable number at that stage) be executed to prevent them from rising up and taking arms again. Although his knights and nobles refused the order as unchivalrous, Henry’s common troops and archers enthusiastically complied. After the battle, Henry received no condemnation for his decision – not even from French chroniclers of the time. It was a desperate call made due to the most desperate of circumstances by a leader renowned for his chivalrous conduct in all other aspects of warfare and rule.
Outright condemnation wouldn’t be leveraged until, curiously, almost 600 years later in 2010 by a panel of American justices, headed by US Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who assembled for a mock trial sponsored by the Shakespearean Theatre Society in Washington D.C. According to the final decision (after a closely contested debate), King Harry was declared a war criminal for his execution of French POWs on the grounds of “evolving standards of civilization.”
“Evolving standards of civilization …” curious choice of words for a man who has lived through an era that brought forth some of the most horrific tactics in the history of human warfare. High altitude strategic bombing of civilian population centers, nuclear weaponry, decades-long military occupations and endless counter-insurgencies that seem to accomplish no real objective other than laying waste to the lands that host them – all these have been practiced by a time whose representatives see themselves fit to condemn a King from 600 years ago, a man who was not just content to order others into the killing fields but joined them there himself, of failing to abide by “evolving standards of civilization.” Even as this verdict was passed, the Modern world was at that moment conducting itself militarily in a way that would have mystified the average Medieval. Swarms of unmanned drones strike down upon combatant and innocent alike in the valleys of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, non-combatants arbitrarily imprisoned in the heady fog that is counter-insurgency became sterilized with terms like “detainee,” and torture has been rechristened as “enhanced interrogation methods."
Overall, there has been a consistent trend to portray the Medieval Era as one vastly inferior to our own in almost every way – culturally, intellectually, socially, and even morally. However, any honest investigation into the facts, as with many things, will often dispel contemporary thinking and reveal a vastly different world than what we were told about ... one that might even hold a few lessons for our own times. With this idea, I intend to present a case study comparison of the ways of war espoused by the Medieval West and those of our own Modern nation-states.
The Nature of War
It is difficult for us, living in the era of industrial and mechanized warfare to even begin to envision the concept of limited warfare. But that is precisely what war in the Medieval period (and all periods before that) was. To truly grasp how limited it was, one must look at the societies and the culture from whence it arose. In the Medieval period, real power came from land – or, rather, the ownership of it. The close-knit, tribal societies that sprang from the ashes of the Western Roman Empire were essentially agrarian in nature and everything came from the land to whoever physically owned it. Wealth, power, and the resources necessary to wage war all came to him who held the soil in his hand. This is in stark contrast to the Modern Era – an era defined by legalistic notions of “national sovereignty” and the “nation-state” - as John France writes:
“Landed property was seen in a very absolute sense and its very concrete nature tended to overshadow sovereignty, for power first sprang from possession of land. To be a king was of necessity to be the first landlord of the realm, a position which merged into that of other landlords and blurred the distinction between the king and others, and that between sovereignty and ownership.”
In the early period of the Medieval Era, this notion of landed power over national power was almost taken to an extreme – the 11th Century is often characterized as an age of princes instead of kings. Across Provence, Lorraine, Anjou, Maine, Gascony, Alsace, Sicily, and Southern Italy, vast territories were ruled with assurance not by the kings and emperors that claimed them, but by the rough-riding nobles and barons – men often mistakenly bestowed with the prefix of “robber” by modern scholars terrified by such non-national warriors – who built the castles and personally raised (and led) the knights and levies from the soil they themselves had fought and killed for. Throughout the entire period, the assertion of royal power over over their kingdoms and empires was a full-time occupation for the Medieval sovereign - one that some succeeded in and others that dismally failed. Overall, the idea of landed power was never lost until the collapse of the old agrarian order in the West and the birth of the industrial nation-state. Hence why the young King Henry chose – against the advice of his war council – to march his ragged army in 1415AD almost 200 miles across French lands to the far port city of Calais instead of return directly to England to refit. He wished to demonstrate – to France and to all Christendom – that he owned that land and could do as he pleased upon it, even in the face of massive opposition.
However, because the power to wage war was so inextricably tied to the land – it was also extremely limited by it. Unlike industrialized warfare fueled by national resources and fashioned by the efforts of a socio-political collective, a Medieval commander could only wage war as far as the limitations of the land – his land – would allow him. Medieval supply and logistics was an incredibly delicate affair and usually consisted of foraging off the land that served as the theatre of operations. This oftentimes presented the Medieval commander with the conundrum of ravaging the countryside to deprive his enemy of its resources or preserving it that it may produce its fruits for his own realm. Oftentimes during the Hundred Years War, English commanders in France had to issue draconian guidelines concerning pillage to their own troops in order to minimize sentiments of hostility among the local French inhabitants who would eventually become subjects (and producers) for England.
As such, the social, agricultural, and fiscal expense to raise and maintain armies that were essentially comprised of those who, in peacetime, were preoccupied with pulling and crafting that landed wealth from the soil, was immense for the average Medieval society. The heavy armored cavalry of the Knightly class alone - long the set-piece of military endeavors of the period - required entrusting vast amounts of land to the men who would comprise it and forever maintaining the intricate and delicate feudal relationships to ensure their loyalty. And, as was often seen over and again in the Middle Ages, all this was still never a guarantee of their military availability to a sovereign. Because of this and, contrary to extremely popular misconception, pitched battle in the Medieval Era was usually avoided and never lightly entered into. The risks, even to victors, could potentially ruin those conducting the war. The reason names of great battles carried such social gravitas in their times and long afterward was because they were moments of extreme risk that dramatically punctuated vast periods of what we would classify today as “asymmetrical warfare.” The average Medieval military campaign was primarily a drawn out series of raids and counter-raids across large swaths of territory. The purpose was ideally two-fold - first, to deprive the enemy of the supply and comfort offered by the land and, second, to hopefully win the allegiance of the native inhabitants through show of force. Large-scale pitched battle was usually only entered upon when either side could no longer avoid one another. Then, and only then, would either commander risk their troops and resources in the furious melee of the battlefield. In siege warfare, these complications simply multiplied due to the stationary nature of a besieging army and only the most thoroughly prepared and well-supplied commander could even hope to successfully invest a fortified city or stronghold - as the Hohenstaufen Emperors often discovered to their dismay and frustration in their attempts to subdue the Italian city-states in the 12th and 13th Centuries.
Finally, one comes to the aspect of distance, or, for the Medieval period, the lack thereof. During the raid/counter-raid phase of the campaign, great distances were often involved as speed and maneuver was the key to success - tactics that were ideally suited for the bands of mounted knights that usually conducted it. However, when battle finally was joined, the theatre of military operations dramatically shrank to encompass small fields of just a few miles. The battle of Hastings in 1066AD - that served as the defining battle of its generation until being supplanted by the titanic campaign of the First Crusade nearly half a century later - involved tens of thousands of warriors clashing together on a patch of hillside in Sussex less than one square mile in size. War was conducted at the distance provided by the strength of the human arm - as far as an arrow could fly at the farthest and, at the closest, as far as a sword-arm could swing. A Medieval battle was an incredibly intimate affair, one that was almost ritualistic - indeed, as will be covered later, the moral influence of the Church and the rise of the social phenomenon known as chivalry would indeed create a ritualistic set of rules that all Medieval combatants would be expected to abide by.
Now contrast this to the concept of “total war” that has defined modern war since the Industrial Revolution. With the rise of the modern nation-state, vast clashes of armies across sweeping fronts and theatres became the norm for Western conflict. From Clausewitz to von Moltke the Elder, from Jomni to Rommel, from the Somme to The Push through to Baghdad, war between nation-states became an all-encompassing, multi-dimensional struggle that brought forth the most terrifying weaponry and tactics seen by man - weapons that often can strike their targets from hundreds, even thousands of miles away. A mere 23 miles south of the little plowed field where King Henry fought in 1415AD, another battle was fought five centuries and one year later in the Somme River Valley that would rage for almost half a year and leave over a million men slain on a front over 30 miles long. Contemporary warfare, involving inter-continental weaponry and intricate air-ground combined arms tactics, is now conducted within "theatres" that encompass entire countries and military operations can be successfully concluded (within limits) without a single infantryman needing to set his boots upon the soil.
These changes also reflect the dramatic differences in resources and equipment brought to bear by Modernity. What was once produced over generations across wide agricultural regions could now be produced en masse in the factory and the assembly line. So long as the nation-state possessed the means to produce death, death was to be threatened and inflicted upon any and all opponents – no matter how great the scale. As the 20th Century would show, this scale would escalate to a point at which even self-preservation was potentially placed upon the altar of the never-ending arms-race and nuclear victory. Though we have since attempted to rationally step back from the horror of mutually assured destruction, weapons that could possibly annihilate all life indiscriminately remain an available strategic option for heads of state to the present day. In a form of reaction, extra-national factions dissatisfied with the apparent absolute rule by modern nation-states have tried their hand at tactics like terrorism and insurgency – tactics that have accomplished nothing but a blurring of the lines supposedly dividing military and civilian affairs and the creation of a disturbing number of “police powers” monopolized by the nation-state. According to many currently in the Pentagon, we are entering into an era of “warfare without battle lines” – wars that could encompass every clime, city, neighborhood, home, and individual … essentially, war without any limits whatsoever. This is a far cry from a time when the most famous clashes of armies occurred for a few hours on fields that could have easily fit within the bounds of an average sports stadium.
Stay tuned for the next installment ...