Historical References on Medieval Europe
Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989
Most of the material presented by Contamine is based on later medieval warfare and should be taken as the apogee of medieval tactics towards the end
of the period and not as how they stood throughout the period.
Return to top of page
"Medieval warfare included a relatively limited number of pitched battles. Sovereigns and war leaders sometimes formally instructed their
armies to refuse all engagements."
"Siege warfare (la guerre obsessive — attack or defense of strongholds), guerre gerroyante, chevauchées (large
and small), raids and adventures monopolized much more time and effort."
"All accounts of pitched battles should avoid two pitfalls: dramatization and rationalization, that is to say reconstruction after the event of
a tactic or a directing schema which was perhaps never applied or even though of."
"Simplifying to extremes, three types of troop arrangement can be discerned: mounted cavalry, dismounted cavalry and infantry."
- Mounted Cavalry:
"In the first case, the troops drew themselves up into continuous shallow line (probably some three or four ranks), with the result
that a battlefield 1 km wide (a frequent occurrence) might see the deployment of 1,500 to 2,000 horsemen. This group formed a 'battle', and
to constitute it a certain number of elementary tactical units called 'banners' (bannières) or conrois were drawn
up. These were usually recruited through a family, lineage or feudal relationship, and were supposed to stay grouped around a flag or a
leader or were united by a common war-cry. A compact order was, in fact, necessary… This line of battle was rarely engaged at a single
clash, but section by section, often beginning from the right. Each sector could correspond to a unit called an échelle, or,
later, company or squadron. The groups of horsemen began to move slowly at a given signal (lente aleüre, gradatim, paulatim, gradu
lento), taking care to keep in line; then speed picked up until the moment of contact, at which it should have reached its
"The cavalry force (la bataille de cheval) should charge its enemies and do this with fury, but they should watch to see that
they have room and that they can continue beyond, because to form a heap (faire une pointe) and to turn around is to lose the
"When cavalry found foot soldiers facing it, the aim was to get them to lose their coherence, to isolate them in small groups, to
expose (desclore) them, to cause disarray (desroier) or disarrange (desrengier) them, or to break up their units
(mettre hors d'ordonanse). It was the same even when the enemy were on horseback: in this case, the aim was to reach the horses and
thus unseat their riders. Then the esquires, foot soldiers and valets could intervene and finish things off as necessary."
"When a charge miscarried, the knights retraced their steps and reformed, while the neighboring units took up the fight; then the first
again returned to the attack."
"However, if the number of troops was too large for them to be grouped into one line of battle, a reserve force might be formed or
other 'battles' might be drawn up some distance to the rear to reinforce the line. In addition, wings to the left and right were often
formed in order to guard the flanks or to turn the enemy's position, with the result that at the end of the Middle Ages, at least, an army
might be divided into five corps; two wings to cover the rights and left, a vanguard, a principal 'battle' and a rearguard."
- Dismounted Cavalry:
"Contrary to what has sometimes been thought, this tactic does not date from the Hundred Years War nor from the intervention of English
archers on continental battlefields. If the French, properly speaking, were ignorant of it for a long time, in contrast it has been used
fairly often in the Empire… Once they had dismounted, men-at-arms obviously lost a great part of their mobility, and the recommended
tactic, at least at the end of the Middle Ages, was to wait in position until the enemy committed the imprudence of advancing and attacking.
Jean de Bueil noted this: 'Everywhere and all occasions that foot soldiers march against their enemy face to face, those who march loose and
those who remain standing still and holding firm win.' According to him, it was thus necessary to arrange for sufficient supplies to be
available so that they could wait patiently. 'The biggest crown of soldiers' was to be placed centrally with the standard of the commander
in chief, then the archers, on either side; and finally on the two ends of the line of battle two 'trooplets' (troupelets) of
men-at arms. As for pages and horses, they were to be kept together safely to the rear."
"Finally there was the proper infantry. Its battle formations varied according to traditions but also according to the available
troops, the enemy and the nature of the terrain. One might list:"
"An arrangement in the form of a wall, fairly extended, only a few ranks deep."
"Drawn up in a circle or crescent, a custom with the Swiss, Flemings or Scots (schiltrons). An example was seen at
Bouvines when, after each charge, the count of Boulogne sought refuge and regrouped with his cavalry behind a double line of
Brabantine pikemen arranged in a circle."
"A massive disposition in depth where there was no hollow in the center of the formation, like the solid 'triangular battle' of
the infantry of Liège, where the point of the triangle facing the enemy was composed of the most resolute men."
Other elements could be added to these combinations of mounted and dismounted cavalry and infantry, particularly archers… Since the
same army in the field might include troops on foot and on horseback, one could finish with relatively complex, subtle or elaborate orders