Medieval Warfare and Tactics Introduction

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Medieval Warfare and Tactics


“To war!” War was everywhere in the middle ages. From the Crusades to the Hundred Years’ War, battle and chaos reigned over Europe. Due to this omnipresence of war, many great strategies and tactics were created to use in a fight, but this also required a componential system of soldiers, weapons, armor, and communications. It also took a lot of skill to defend or capture a fortress. Medieval warfare and tactics were very intelligent, complex, and unique to this time period.


There were four types of soldiers in medieval times: infantry, knights, mercenaries, and cavalry. Some of the infantrymen only joined their kingdom’s army by a system called drafting. Draft is a system of selecting men for required military service, and is also known as conscription or national service (“Draft, Military” para.1). A nation’s needs determine how long conscript must serve and in what branch (“Draft, Military” para.1). For most countries (or should I say kingdoms), drafting is a system that forces you to join your military or it is considered breaking the law. However, bearing arms was considered a privilege of nobility, and ordinary men with little or no training were not drafted unless there was an extreme emergency (“Draft, Military” para.3).

The infantry were the most numerous type of soldier class during the middle ages because they were made up of the vast majority, the average people. The infantry were made up of draft and volunteers that were lower rank and considered expendable; these included archers, swordsmen, and occasionally spearmen (“Military” para.8)

Spearmen and swordsmen were on the front lines to charge the defending enemy or withstand the attacking enemy. This was based on what weapon the certain person specialized with. If the person specialized with no weapon, then they usually either trained them with the sword or bow and arrow. Infantrymen were the Marines of the time and became more important as medieval times progressed (“Military” para.9).

Knights were also extremely important to armies in the middle ages. They were originally French mounted soldiers who came to England after the Norman conquest of 1066 and were simply warriors equipped and trained to fight on horseback (“Knights and Knighthood” para.1). Originally knighthood had no social distinction and mostly lords had knights who preformed household duties in peace and fought in war (“Knights and Knighthood” para.1). The lord provided the armor and horses for his knights.

Between 1100 and 1300, knights became servants to their lord and received some land, but the cost of armor and warhorses increased, meaning only wealthy men could be knights, so knighthood became a social class (“Knights and Knighthood” para.2).

Knights trained from an early age to develop their skills and resourcefulness (“Knights and Knighthood” para.4). They had a strong faith in Christianity and were the most valued soldier of the time.

Mercenaries were people call “guns for hire” and didn’t necessarily have a side because they worked for whoever paid the most. They were usually highly skilled but could sometimes be amateur.

Cavalry were a unit of soldiers who fought on horseback and used screening tactics to take down their enemy and were swift, very important soldiers to armies of the time. They were most often reinforcements but sometimes carried messages, provided armed escort for generals, or scouted enemy positions (“Cavalry” para.2).


There were two different types of armor during medieval times: chainmail and plate armor (“Armor” para.1). Chainmail consists of small, metal, interlocking rings that form a mesh (“Armor” para.1). It was effective because it is very difficult to cut through and was lighter than plate armor.

Plate armor was made of plates of metal or iron shaped into a suit of armor (“Armor” para.2). This armor weighed sixty pounds and took thirty minutes to put on but was effective because the outside was slick, making blades slide off (Harrell pg.13). It also covered the whole body for maximum protection and was cheaper and easier to make (“Armor” para.2).

Chainmail was worn by cavalry units due to their need for speed. Plate Armor was usually worn by knights who often had a custom set. Infantrymen almost always had no armor except for a helmet. Mercenaries had their own armor, so the type depended on the person. A knight’s horse would sometimes have its own chainmail armor, too.


Important weapons of medieval times include the sword, dagger, longbow, crossbow, axe, and spear. The sword was the most common and probably most valuable weapon of the time period and was used for either cutting, thrusting, or both, but mainly cutting (Byam pg.16). What the sword is used for determines whether the blade is single edged or double edged (Byam pg.16). It also controls whether the tip is rounded or pointed (Byam pg.16). During the 1400’s huge and heavy swords were created for the strongest of men that could cut, stab, or even crush the enemy (Byam pg.16).

The dagger was a soldier’s secondary weapon that was double edged and used for thrusting and was mostly used for emergencies (Byam pg.22). They were usually about a foot or two long and were very effective at really close range due to their light weight and maneuverability.

The axe was used as either a secondary instead of the dagger or there were large battle axes which were used for a primary. They were single edged and were used for penetrating armor due to its wedged form. It was great for hacking away at the enemy. They had spikes for additional protection and could also be used to throw along with smaller knives (Byam pg.22).

The crossbow was used for battle as well as hunting and combined archery with simple machinery to create a deadly and accurate weapon (Byam pg.18). The crossbow was more expensive and had a slower rate of fire than the longbow but required less effort and had a greater range (Byam pg.18).

The long bow was basically the improved version of the ordinary bow (Byam pg.18). It was deadly up to 100 yards and had steel-tipped arrows (Byam pg.18). Long bowmen and crossbowmen were mostly placed in turrets for castle or city defense, but were sometimes in the very front and back of attacking armies for cutting down enemy lines or as a form of artillery (Byam pg.18).

Lances and other spears were used by knights and cavalry on horseback to stab or throw at enemies while passing by (“Spear” para.3). Infantrymen also used spears in the front line to charge at enemies (“Spear” para.2).

Military Communications

Battlefield communications consisted of musical signals (drums and horns), audible commands, mounted messengers, and visual signals such as flags (“Communications” para.1). Drum beats and horn calls could signal what kingdom an army belonged to or tell an army to attack or retreat. Every soldier made sure to learn what each tune meant.

Fire beacons were also used in many places where there was a network of towers, castles, or other beacons visible from one another (“Communication” para.2). They were often used to signal approaching armies or to call for aid from another kingdom (for more info. see Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).

Some kingdoms also used specially trained carrier pidgeons to carry messages from distances of up to 160 kilometers round trip (“Communications” para.3). If acquired they provided great advantage to their army.

Castle Siege Warfare

Siege engines of the middle ages include scaling ladders, battering rams, siege towers, and catapults (“Siege” para.1). Scaling ladders were long ladders thrust onto the city or castle walls where the attackers would then try to breach (“Siege” para.5).Siege towers were tall, wooden towers with wheels that were rolled to the defenders walls where a ramp would release and a handful of attackers would try to breach (“Siege” para.5).Battering rams were huge objects like tree trunks that the attackers would repeatedly thrust at the castle or city walls to try and break in (“Siege” para.5). Catapults were used to throw large stones, a barrage of arrows and/or darts, or diseased animal corpses at the attackers, their walls, and in their city (“Siege” para.5). There were some cases where the arrows and darts were poisoned or on fire, or where the defenders’ soldiers’ bodies or decapitated heads were thrown at the defending soldiers and their citizens to epically decrease moral and terrify the defenders.

Alternate methods include tunneling under walls or blocking of all roads and access points to and from a castle or city to starve the enemy (“Siege” para.6).Misconceptions include people mistaking castles being towns when castles were usually within fortified towns and acted as a citadel (“Siege” para.6).

Castle Defense Warfare

A fortified city or castle had many defenses. Turrets were towers built into the walls of a city or castle that had an excellent vantage point for archers. Arrow slits were slits shape like crosses built into the turrets to maximize protection for the defending archers (“Siege” para.2). Murder holes were funnel-like holes in the floor of the lining of the defenders’ wall used to pour incendiary substances on enemies from above (“Siege” para.2). Concealed doors along castle walls or nearby places were used for sallies (handful of soldiers used for swift attack and retreat) were used for this purpose or for scouting (“Siege” para.2).Very deep wells and great food supplies within a fortified castle or town allowed defenders to go for weeks without suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, or starvation (“Siege” para.2).Drawbridges were also used to cut off enemies from entering the castle. Under these draw bridges were sometimes six to even twelve foot moats used to halt enemy advancement. Moats were deep ditches filled with water used sometimes as a place for drinking water but mostly for a dual system used for a sewage system and also for a defense method (“Siege” para.3). They often contained extremely polluted water and sometimes alligators or crocodiles (“Siege” para.3). Catapults within the city of the defenders were also used as a means of a counter assault (“Siege” para.4).

In some amazing stories of excellent defense, when a defending army had the foresight of an eminent attack, they would beforehand fill an entire valley with flammable substances and wait for the attackers to come. When the enemy is sighted in the valley and within range, a lone archer would fire a single flaming arrow on the valley and instantly capture the entire army on fire. The defenders would then run out and quickly contain the fire. They would win the battle without losing a single man. This goes to show how a great strategy beats the strongest of armies any time.


In conclusion to the previously stated, medieval warfare and tactics were intelligent in more ways than one, from the design of armor, to communications between command posts. It is also very complex with the many types of soldiers and the amazing weapons of the time. But finally, there is no other type of warfare or tactics than the ones used in medieval times. The time when most men fought hand to hand, where it took years and years of training to become a great swordsmen, the time when men fought some of the bloodiest battles in all of history. These were medieval times.

Works Cited

Byam, Michele. Arms & Armor. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Goering, Joseph. "Spear." World Book Student. World Book, 2011. Cope. 13 Mar. 2011.

Harrell, Liz. "How a knight got his shiny shell." Appleseeds Sept. 2010: 13+. General OneFile. Cope. 13 March 2011.

Mackey, Robert R. "Draft, Military." World Book Student. World Book, 2011. Cope. 13 Mar. 2011.

Medieval Military Communications. 2 March 2010. Medieval Warfare Resources. 13 March 2011.

Medieval Military Organization. 2 March 2010. Medieval Warfare Resources. 13 March 2011. <>

Medieval Siege Warfare. 2 March 2010. Medieval Warfare Resources. 13 March 2011.

Medieval Weapons and Armor. 2 March 2010. Medieval Warfare Resources. 13 March 2011.

Rosenthal, Joel T. "Knights and knighthood." World Book Student. World Book, 2011. Cope. 13 Mar. 2011.

Utley, Robert M. "Cavalry." World Book Student. World Book, 2011. Cope. 13 Mar. 2011.

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