Sunday, March 16, 2014

Medieval Battle vs. Modern Warfare - A Case Study Part 3



The Conduct of Arms:

With the strict application of both material and moral limitations, the conduct of warfare in the Middle Ages took on an incredibly unique form - one that would influence Western culture long after the actual era had passed away.  I refer of course to the phenomenon of the Chivalric Code.  Sadly, many moderns tend to confuse Chivalry with another uniquely Medieval social institution  - that of "courtly love."  In reality, the two had very little to do with one another.  The chivalric way of war arose from a method of warfighting that possessed distinct cultural, ethnic, and geographical roots in its origins - a method that defies the Clauswitzian concept of warfare that has dominated the Modern era.

Far back, in the shadowy millennia prior to the rise of recorded civilization, the ancient societies that clawed their way out of the hunter-gatherer era branched into two distinct cultural paths.  In the first were the tight-knit villages of farmers, huddled closely to the water sources and floodplains that allowed them to reap the produce of their fields.  It was these cultures that put down permanent roots around the great walled cities of Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, the Indus, Asia Minor, and Hellas.  It was from here that the idea of war for the sake of the community, the walled city, the polis, would be birthed and established classes of citizen warriors (of varying degrees) would muster to settle disputes between cities on small pre-determined fields with ritualistic clashes between rigid unit formations like the phalanx and syntagma.  This culture dominated the Mediterranean world and would climax with the formation of the Roman Empire that would rule unchallenged by the might of her legions for centuries.

Beyond the fertile valleys and their walled cities lay the inhospitable stretches of untamed forests, endless deserts, and immeasurable steppes.  However, none were impossible to survive and the hardy folk that dwelt here gave rise to the other cultural tradition - a tradition of nomads who accustomed themselves to an existence of constant migration and movement; a tradition where the adventurer, warlord, and bard commanded the highest social respect.  To these societies, existence was more fluid and decentralized - war had a plethora of motivations not simply limited to the material and battle was more a mass of individual contests between individual warriors.  Mobility was prized and, in those regions that had access to breed stocks and pastures, the horse became the set-piece of war.  Cavalry societies dominated the steppe cultures of Scythia, Sarmatia, the Huns, Vandals, and Goths.  Those that couldn't raise horses in significant numbers developed into societies that placed immense value on individual warriors and their heroic deeds in battle.  The Celts, Germans, and Scandinavians displayed this trait and used war at times to pursue totally immaterial goals - the avenging of an insult or the settling of a blood feud were absolutely acceptable motives for war.  These cultures would forever find it difficult to coexist with those of the agrarian walled cities and most interaction consisted of incessant conflict with varying results.  The notion of the "barbarian hordes" arose from this clash between the nomads and city-dwellers and, for a time, those hordes were kept beyond the limes of Imperial Rome.  However, such a status quo couldn't last forever, and the sphere of civilization upheld by the Western Roman Empire gave way to the mass migrations of dozens of these warrior-adventurer tribes.

As Rome in the West hurtled headlong into collapse, these differing military traditions would clash on a spectacular scale.  However, in the midst of this clash, they would also intermingle.  Though not immediately, this mingling would ultimately lay the foundation for an entirely new social tradition of warfare.  While mounted mobility was still highly prized, it was quickly married to the Greco-Roman emphasis on regimented formations and face-to-face clashes due to the incompatibility of the free-ranging steppe lifestyle within the confined spaces of western Europe.  Also, the traditions of military obligation and allegiance to ones lord were retained from the ancient Celtic/German "warbands" along with the additional requirement of obedience to the Church - the one institution that survived the Empire's collapse and who upheld the notion of service (in every sense) to a cause higher than any earthly concerns.  Beginning with the Carolingian scara of the Frankish Empire, the West saw the rise of an elite class of oath-bound, heavily armored calvalrymen whose sole occupation was warfare and who dominated (and often determined) its conduct.  In short, the Knight came into being.

To simply label the Medieval knight as a "professional soldier" would be to vastly oversimplify his societal role.  While battle was his sole profession, he was also a member of an exclusive societal class of fellow warriors, who - regardless of which lord or king held their oaths of feudal obligation - shared the same loyalty to a universal, but unwritten, code of conduct.  This code, infused with the imposing gravitas of moral mandate by a Church very much invested in keeping warfare amongst Christians as humane and limited as possible, became the single-most identifying mark of the Medieval knightly class and set them apart from all other classes of combatants with its unique set of mandates and obligations that were to be strictly observed regardless of which side its followers fought for.  These mandates were mostly concerned with the overall conduct of individual knights on the field of battle - proper placement amongst the ranks (always at the front), guidelines for the highly ritualized single combats between individual knights, treatment of non-combatants, and the complex relationship between captor and prisoner were all within the jurisdiction of Chivalry and helped create perhaps the most glaring of differences between war in the the Medieval period and in the Modern.

To demonstrate what I mean, Medieval battles were far from being the furious orgies of unmitigated violence portrayed by Hollywood (whose filmmakers seem utterly incapable of portraying any period of pre-Modern history without viewing them through the secular blinders of their own time).  In fact, most battles of the early and High Medieval periods in which knights performed the primary roles on the field were concluded with shockingly few casualties.  The chronicler Orderic Vitalis captured this phenomenon in action when he described the Battle of Bremule, fought in 1119AD between knights of King Henry I of England and Louis VI of France:

"Near to the hill named Verclives is an open field and a wide plain called Bremule by the local people. Henry, king of England, came down into it with five hundred knights, armed himself for battle as a warlike lord, and wisely disposed the mailed ranks of warriors ... When King Louis saw the opportunity he had desired so long, he summoned four hundred knights who were ready for immediate action and commanded them to go into battle courageously for the honour of knighthood and the freedom of the kingdom, so that the glory of the French might not be dimmed by their cowardice ... I have been told that in the battle of the two kings, in which about nine hundred knights were engaged, only three were killed.  They were all clad in mail and spared each other on both sides, out of fear of God and fellowship in arms; they were more concerned to capture than to kill the fugitives. As Christian soldiers they did not thirst for the blood of their brothers, but rejoiced in a just victory given by God, for the good of holy Church and the peace of the faithful."

For such an important battle to end in the actual deaths of only three knights shows an astonishing degree of restraint that would be unheard of in the mercilessly detachment of modern mechanized warfare.  This is not to say that large casualty figures were absent from this period - often when different military traditions clashed (as happened with William's invasion of Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman expeditions against the Byzantine Empire) or when the battles were dominated primarily by commoner troops unbound by chivalric restrictions (the Guelph-Ghibelline Wars in Italy and the French campaigns against Flanders were prime examples) were significant body-counts indeed inflicted.  But amongst the knightly warrior class, there was an outright established reluctance to spill each other's blood.  This could most apparently be observed in the highly ritualized relationships that existed between a captor and his prisoner.  When a knight became unhorsed or realized he could not further resist without the cost of his own life, he would typically submit to his opponent (so long as he too was a knight) and offer himself as a captive.  Once this submission occurred, the captor was now obliged to provide protection, care, and any other amenities that were rated by the social rank of his captive.  In return, the captive would abide by his obligation as a prisoner, forsaking all further conflict or aggression against his captor until he had met the demands of ransom.  This relationship was typically formalized through a series of oaths taken by both parties and all, including their feudal overlords, were expected to respect this new and (hopefully) temporary bond.  In further contrast to our own times, once the captor/captive bond was created and formalized, there were usually no coercive restraints placed upon the captive.  It was not uncommon for lower ranking captives to be allowed to return home once their ransom amount was decided upon.  More valuable prisoners, like King Jean II of France who was taken captive by the Black Prince at Poitiers in 1356AD, were typically brought back to the land of their captors, but were nevertheless granted reasonable freedom of movement and a comfortable life - sometimes, they even befriended their captors.  A prisoner who reneged on his obligations as a captive was often as frowned upon as a captor who mistreated his charges.  Severe condemnation was reserved for anyone who executed a captive - Jean le Bel records how the French nobility almost revolted against King Philip VI when he executed Sir Oliver de Clisson who, by right of capture, was still a prisoner of King Edward III of England.  In this case, the bond of captor and captive was seen to even supersede that of vassal and lord.

This restraint was also displayed in the overall treatment of non-combatants.  There is a common trend among Modern scholars of the Middle Ages to explain away the low casualty numbers with the claim that Medieval chroniclers were only concerned with exclusively recording the details of the aristocratic classes only.  While some of the great chroniclers did focus much of their attention to the deeds and happenings of kings, knights, and nobles, very few allowed such class-consciousness to eclipse any high casualty event, regardless of their relationship to the perpetrator.  The aforementioned le Bel details, without reservation or excuse, the violence (severe by the standard of his day) inflicted upon the Franco-Norman populace by the chevauch√©es of his patron, King Edward III, in the opening phases of the Hundred Years War.  Any catastrophic violence or disturbance inflicted on the civil population was socially frowned upon throughout the entire Medieval period - often backed with the very credible threat of Ecclesiastic disapproval.  As mentioned earlier in this series, much of the Modern view towards topics like pillage comes from fundamental mistransliterations of Medieval practices with Modern concepts.  Pillage was simply the Medieval solution to the challenge of pre-industrial logistics - sustaining one's force off the land in which the campaign took place - and was governed by a strict set of guidelines that ultimately sought to protect the rights of non-combatants.  Although one can never claim that Medieval war was unmarred by the perennial suffering brought by on by the very nature of war itself, there was a much more deeply rooted regard for the moral obligations required of all combatant parties.

While a few relics of this code of conduct still managed to survive into the era of the automatic weapon, strategic bombing, and the nuclear bomb, they have long since been overshadowed in reality by the terrifying edifice that is Modern warfare.  However, while most scholars attribute the end of chivalric military conduct to the rise of the nation-state and the industrial revolution, I would beg to differ that it began to pass away far earlier - in fact, before the Medieval period even came to a close.  As early as the beginning of the 14th Century AD, the first buds of a more egalitarian military revolution began to bloom in regions where knightly cavalrymen were in short supply.  There were the Flemish citizen-soldiers that decimated the flower of French chivalry at the Battle of Courtrai in 1302AD, Scottish schiltrons that badly mauled the English heavy cavalry at Bannockburn in 1314AD, and 1,500 Swiss pikemen who defied over twice as many Hapsburg knights at Morgarten in 1315AD.  Additionally, the Italian City States - eternally in a state of war with one another, but lacking any real tradition of aristocratic nobility - had long since established the tradition of citizen militias boosted by mercenary companies for their military needs, all handily financed by their impressive mercantile revenue.  However, these were still localized affairs and, in most of the major powers within Christendom, the knightly aristocrat on horseback, with his tactic of regimented and mobile armored shock-power, reigned as the supreme set-piece of Medieval battle.  Until, that is, a world war erupted.

In 1337AD, King Edward III of England formally pressed his right to the throne of France and touched off what would later be known to history as the Hundred Years War between the two realms.  While not a "world war" in the contemporary sense of the term, the conflict drew belligerents from nearly every major power in Christendom at the time and raged for 116 years.  At the start of this war, knightly cavalry was the deciding factor on the battlefield - by its end in 1453AD, the armored mounted aristocrat had all but vanished in favor of vast armies primarily composed of professionally trained commoners.  What happened in that 116-year period that initiated such a dramatic transformation?  England, realizing early on that they could not dream of matching the sheer number of mounted knights that France could produce, instead relied on their citizenry to make up the difference utilizing a devastating weapon initially developed by their Welsh neighbors - the warbow.  Hearkening back to the pre-Norman fyrd system of Anglo-Saxon days, England of the Hundred Years War spent the rest of the 14th Century fine-tuning a military tradition of professionally trained commoners who could (given the right conditions) successfully stand toe-to-toe with the armored chivalry on the Continent.  From the start, the system was a success and their smashing victories over the flower of French nobility at Crecy, Poitiers, and Azincourt, sent shock waves throughout Christendom.  The phenomenon spread even further as many English archers, attracted to the wealth and adventure that their skills could earn for them, formed mercenary Free Companies and won renown with their lethal professionalism in places as exotic as Rhodes, Iberia, Tuscany, and Lithuania.  By the mid-15th Century, all of Christendom was gradually retiring their mounted aristocracies as they realized that, given the right weapons, training, and leadership, armies of professional commoners could be just as effective in battle - if not more so.

Seen in this light, the introduction of gunpowder was simply a technical improvement on an already existing tradition, not the actual catalyst of change it is claimed to be by most scholars.  However, if the firearm didn't initiate the revolution against the chivalric way of war, it most certainly finished it.  By the time gunpowder became the primary weapon of war, knightly armored cavalry and their ritualistic monopoly on the conduct of war had disappeared.  All that remained were ceremonial vestiges, upheld by the "Enlightened Despots" of Europe who were not quite ready to surrender their claims to social and cultural elitism - a claim that had lost much of its moral strength since the source of Medieval moral authority, the Catholic Church, had long before been nullified by the tumult of the Reformation.  These vestiges would at last be swept away by the violent egalitarianism of the French Revolution and the birth of the Modern Era as we know it today.
While its impact was most definitely felt beyond mere warfare, the post-Jacobin West forever transformed battle as it had been known before.  With its dual emphasis on secularism and social egalitarianism, Revolutionary France discarded any notion of a military class that waged limited wars for limited objectives.  When war was declared (as it often was in the aftermath of 1798), the entire nation went to war - every man, woman, every citizen contributed to the conduct of battle in whatever manner they could.  It was the birth of what Clausewitz - very much a product of this era - would term the "nation-in-arms" and would, by consequence lead to formulation of the ideal of Total War.  Later, as the conduct of Modern War would show, if everyone serves the nation-state in war equally, so they can also be slaughtered equally.  In the blood-soaked wars of the 20th Century, the concept of Clauswitzian Total War would be responsible for the annihilation of entire generations and the horrors of "terror tactics" against civilian populations that, under the nation-in-arms concept, would be viewed as legitimate military targets.  The madness would climax as nation threatened nation with weapons that could evaporate entire populations in the first blinding milliseconds of an atomic detonation, a threat who's shadow still looms over us as we speak today.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I can't help but wonder just how preferable the "primitive" way of war that existed in the Medieval West would be when compared to the mutually-destructive madness we have learned to justify in our own time.  While it may have been brutal in its actual conduct, pre-Modern war was - above all else - limited war in almost every sense of the word.  As John Keegan observes:

"Warrior peoples might have made every man a soldier, but they had taken care to fight only on terms that avoided direct or sustained conflict with the enemy, admitted disengagement and retreat as permissible and reasonable responses to determined resistance, made no fetish of hopeless courage, and took careful material measure of the utility of violence.  The Greeks had shown a bolder front; but, while inventing the institution of face-to-face battle, they had not pushed their ethic of warmaking to the point of demanding Clauswitzian overthrow as its necessary outcome ... In none of these contests, moreover,  had the combatants yielded to the delusion that the whole male population must be mobilized to prosecute the quarrel.  Even had that been materially possible, which the labor-intensiveness of agriculture ... disallowed, no pre-1789 society considered soldiering a calling for any except those bred to it by social position or driven to enlist by lack of any social position whatsoever ..."

As stated before, the problem with the Modern Era's post-Jacobin fetish with egalitarianism is that if everyone should wage war equally, everyone can be slaughtered equally.  We see the culmination of this thought in the mutually-destructive madness of weapons of mass destruction - whether mankind will collectively step away from such apocalyptic insanity remains to be seen.  Overall, in contrast to the judgement of Modernity as voiced by the American Supreme Court Justices Ginsberg and Alito against King Henry at Azincourt, I would almost prefer a return to a military tradition in which a few thousand men, governed by a code of conduct backed by a universal Moral authority, met for a day of bloody contest face-to-face in the middle of a field.  Instead, we must live in a world where warfare can easily escalate to a suicidal race towards extinction.  Our only real hope now is that history, forever shifting towards the unexpected path, will steer us away from such madness and back towards an era of war waged with limits and conscience.  Our very survival may depend on it.





Sources referenced in this series:

St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologi√¶, 1265-1274AD.
St Augustine of Hippo, De Civitate Dei, 426AD.
Jean le Bel, The True Chronicles, 1357-1360AD.
St Bernard of Clairvaux, Liber Ad Milites Templi: De Laude Novae Militae, 1128-1131AD.
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 1832AD.
John France, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300, 1999AD.
Fulcher of Chartres, taken from The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials 2d Ed., 1998AD.
LtCol David Grossman, On Killing, 2009AD.
John Keegan, A History of Warfare, 1993AD.
Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, 1142AD.