What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier

Trista - January 1, 2019

Life in the Middle Ages was brutal and dirty. If you were a soldier, it was even rougher than you can probably imagine. Soldiers faced the prospect of being struck down by many crude weapons. If you didn’t perish immediately, you risked being carried off as a prisoner of war. If someone didn’t ransom you, you were as good as gone. You can forget Hollywood’s glamorous portrayals of honor and glory in movies like Braveheart because life as a soldier was hard.

For those who weren’t soldiers, there was always the risk of an invading army besieging the town and starving out the population. The fact is that soldiers often brought their families along for the ride, so wives, children, and even the elderly often faced the same hardships as the soldiers.

However, life as a soldier wasn’t all bad. You could use some pretty cool weapons that were downright Medieval, things like the holy water sprinkler, which was actually a mace that could take someone’s head off, or a battle ax. If you worked the trebuchet, you could launch a cow into an enemy’s castle, a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Also, if your side won a battle, you got to loot and pillage the surrounding villages in exchange for your services. Keep reading to learn more about life as a soldier in the Middle Ages, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright awesome.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
A 13th-century woodcut of Charlemagne riding into battle. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

16. There Was No Formal Military Training

Nowadays, entering the military is often the choice of people who have no training and no opportunity to attend school or find any formal training in life and employment skills. They obtain the skills that they need once they enter the military and complete processes like basic training and other specialized training. However, soldiers hundreds of years ago, during the Middle Ages, rarely received formal training. In fact, Crusading armies going from Europe to the Holy Land were often ragtag bunches of peasants and farmers who may have not even had a military leader to guide them.

Most soldiers during the Middle Ages already had the necessary skills before being called to battle. Through hunting, they learned how to use weapons and ride a horse. Through tournaments and games, such as jousting, they learned more of the skills and competed with other people. None of that is to say that these ventures were safe; people were frequently thrown from their horses or died in hunting accidents. In 1194, Duke Leopold V of Austria was killed in a jousting tournament. One might say that training for battle was a way of life rather than a specialization reserved for a few.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Peter the Hermit, miniature from Egerton Manuscript 1500, folio 45 verso, France, circa 1325-1350. Egerton ms. 1500 fol. 45v/Wikimedia Commons.

15. War Was a Family Affair

Soldiers who were called upon to travel long distances for battles frequently brought their wives, children, and other family members with them. It was not uncommon for the entire family to pick up and leave, particularly during the Crusades. Ekkehard of Aurach wrote that during the First Crusade, men set “forth with wife and child and laden with their entire household equipment.” Of course, this practice meant that everyone faced the hardships of war, not only the soldiers. Sometimes, the elderly and children made long, arduous, and dangerous journeys to the battlefront rather than stay at home to take care of the farm.

During the Crusades, it was not at all uncommon for the entire family to join the soldiers. Peter the Hermit was a monk who led a campaign to the Holy Land via Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. While there, a group of Turks reportedly were “going within the tents, they destroyed with the sword whoever they found, the weak and the feeble, clerics, monks, old women, nursing children.” There was also the consideration that sometimes soldiers married while they were far away. If they died in battle, their wives and children, having never been to the soldier’s homeland, had a hard time trying to claim any inheritance.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Illustration from a Speculum Virginum (“Mirror of Virgins”) from ca 1200. Bibliotheca Augustana/Wikimedia Commons.

14. Injuries Often Proved Fatal

Imagine that someone slings a mace at your head. You certainly get knocked out, and if you wake up, you have a massive headache. Don’t expect to wake up from such an injury, but if you do, you will probably have some severe brain damage. Skeletons that researchers have excavated reveal just how horrific and gory the wounds that people who died in battle actually were. One skeleton that was discovered near Stirling Castle showed repeated blows to the head that left 44 skull fractures, as well as upwards of 60 strikes across the rest of the body.

Those who did not die in battle but received wounds probably died shortly after that. Without modern medical care, they could bleed out over the following days and weeks or find their wounds festering with an infection. They were often left to die on the battlefield because the chances of survival were so low and the risk of spreading disease was high. The soldiers who were able to return home usually carried scars that would be visible for the rest of their lives. Battle scars became a symbol of prestige, as those who survived the wounds that they received certainly earned bragging rights.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Bataille woodcut. BNF (Gallica) : Roman de Thèbes, France, Paris – Cote : Français 60 , Fol. 1/Wikimedia Commons.

13. You Would Fight at Certain Times of the Year

From the fall of the Roman Empire through the Medieval era, there were very few standing armies in which career soldiers fought year-round (an exception is the Knights Templar). Many soldiers were first and foremost farmers and peasants, especially foot soldiers who had no horses. They had to carry out their duties in the fields, or else they and everyone else in the village would starve. As such, there were certain seasons in which lords and kings would call upon their people to go into battle or embark on some other military campaign. Charlemagne was known to urge people to arms during the spring, once they had completed planting for the year.

Campaign season was usually between planting and harvest, often during the summer months. Soldiers preferred not to have to march into battle during the cold winter months, especially not when wearing over a hundred pounds of armor and chain mail. None of that is to say that fighting only occurred during the summer. Sieges could often last for weeks and extend well into the winter. These sieges were particularly destructive, as they often prohibited people from being able to harvest the year’s food and therefore led to mass starvation.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Christian heroes and martyrs from 1895 by Foster, William A. Contributing Library: The Library of Congress/christianheroesm00fost/Wikimedia Commons.

12. Looting Was Your Pay

Today, career soldiers receive a salary, along with benefits that include college and training. The benefits often extend to their wives and children, especially if they were ever called to active duty or saw battle. Looting or in any way taking advantage of a population that they battle against is strictly prohibited and can be prosecuted as a war crime. However, things were different during the Middle Ages. There was no salary for soldiers. If they won, they got to loot the enemy as pay for their services. If they lost, well, they usually died.

Soldiers who fought on the winning side and managed to survive the battle pillaged the fallen for things like their weaponry, armor, and especially gold and anything of value. Sometimes, they looted the surrounding town or village, both for supplies and food as well as for booty after a well-fought battle. There was no Geneva Convention to prevent them from finding a high-ranking person, even a king, and holding him for ransom. Later on in the Middle Ages, a bit of order prevailed as military leaders distributed the booty equally among the soldiers as their pay for services in battle.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Der Stricker. Karl St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Ms. Vad. 302 II, fol. 35v, 13th century manuscript (ca. 1300)/Wikimedia Commons.

11. You Provided Your Own Food and Clothes

Standing armies usually provide their soldiers with uniforms, food, weapons, and other necessities for keeping men and women happy and fit for battle. Greek, Persian, and Roman armies along with many other ancient military forces, equipped soldiers with uniforms so that they could more easily identify who the enemy was (and also scare the enemy with the enormity of their ranks). In the Middle Ages, though, the only standing army was the Knights Templar. Armies were compiled of farmers who dropped their farming implements in favor of swords and other fun toys that they could play within battle.

As such, the leaders didn’t have the resources (or time or patience) to clad their soldiers in uniforms. They didn’t even provide them with food or weapons. All of those things were the responsibility of the soldier. If someone wanted the prestige of fighting in a battle, that person had to bring his or her equipment. Soldiers often fought in the regular tunics that they used while farming. Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the eighth century, specified what soldiers were to bring when they showed up:

“Each horseman shall have a shield, lance, sword, dagger, bow, and quivers with arrows; and in your carts utensils of various kinds, that is, axes, planes, augers, boards, spades, iron shovels, and other utensils which are necessary in an army. In the carts also supplies of food for three months, dating from the time of the assembly, arms, and clothing for a half-year.”

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Bayeux Tapestry Scene 44. Ulrich Harsh/Wikimedia Commons.

10. Your Fellow Soldiers Might Be Clergy

Today, militaries frequently employ chaplains to provide emotional and spiritual support to soldiers on the battlefield. However, chaplains as a rule generally do not carry arms, especially in the United States military. The case was entirely different during the Medieval era though. Consider the Knights Templar, warrior monks who were the Delta Force of the Crusades. Whether or not they carried out religious services for their fellow soldiers, they were fully armed and extremely dangerous to any enemy. They were the best-trained soldiers and the first standing army since the fall of the Roman Empire, and they were also extremely wealthy.

The Knights Templar, who were monks of the Benedictine order, were not the only clergy who rode into battle. Men of the cloth, aka bishops, priests, and cardinals, frequently fought alongside ordinary soldiers. They didn’t just provide moral support to other soldiers, as chaplains do today. They carried their own weapons and fought just as fiercely as any other soldier. During the Battle of Hastings, the bishop of Bayeux, Odo, fought alongside his half-brother, William the Conqueror. Following a victorious battle, they would also join in the looting and pillaging of both the battle fallen and the nearby towns and villages.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Siege of Acre related to the siege of 1189-1191. Circa 1280. Biblotheque Municipale de Lyon, Ms 828 f33r/Wikimedia Commons.

9. Sieges Could Last for Months

Siege warfare was one of the most effective techniques during the Medieval era. An invading army would surround a town, village, or castle, cutting off any supplies or food for weeks, even months. They would build trebuchets and catapults and, once the defending force was weakened from lack of food and decreased morale, they would begin the attack on the castle walls. The goal of a siege was not to destroy everything, although that frequently did happen. The goal was to demoralize, terrorize, and intimidate the people into complete submission. Once they surrendered, the invading army could carry them off as slaves and loot the castle.

One of the greatest sieges of the Middle Ages was when Henry III of England besieged Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. He had been on the throne for five decades, and nobles there wanted to reduce his power. The defenders stockpiled enough food and supplies to last for months. During the siege, Henry gathered as many as 60,000 crossbows and nine siege engines, including trebuchets and catapults. The attack lasted for 172 days before the final holdouts inside the castle capitulated, having been subject to starvation and disease for six months. By the time they surrendered, they only had two days’ worth of food left.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
The garrison of Cherbourg defeats that of Montbourg circa 1410. Virgil Master (illuminator)/Wikimedia Commons.

8. Communication Was of the Utmost Importance

Think about how important communication is today. If you don’t hear from somebody via text or social media for a few days, you may start to panic and wonder why. Did the person die? Does he or she hate me? What did I do? Imagine being on a Medieval battlefield, when the means of communication are severely limited, and chaos surrounded, but the leaders have to find a way to give out orders to their troops. If the wrong information got out or a rumor started on the battlefield, panic would ensue, often with disastrous results.

Add to the confusion the fact that foot soldiers were commonly farmers and peasants who frequently were not interested in the battle that was being fought, nor did they understand the reasons for opposing it. During the Battle of Hastings in 1066, a rumor began to circulate the William of Hastings had died. His troops began to flee until the still-alive William removed his helmet and declared, “Look at me, I’m alive, and with the aid of God I will gain the victory!” Only then did his soldiers return to the battlefield, determined to fight to the death rather than flee like a coward.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Bataille de Poitiers (1356), l’arrestation du roi Jean le Bon. Collection bibliothèque municipale de Besançon. Source/Photographer Illustration extraite des Chroniques de Jean Froissart, ms 864, fol. 172/Wikimedia Commons.

7. You Might Be Captured For Ransom

Keep in mind that military leaders did not equip their soldiers, nor did they pay them for their efforts. Their pay came in the form of looting, which often included taking people prisoner and holding them for ransom. In 1415 following his victory at Agincourt, the armies of the English king, Henry V, accidentally took so many prisoners that he could not provide food or prison cells for all of them. To solve the problem, he ordered that all of them be executed; the total number of prisoners of war that he ordered killed is unclear.

Your fortunes might be a bit better if you were a knight or some other nobleman, as you could be held prisoner with a ransom held over your head. If someone could pay your ransom, you could be returned home. However, your captors would probably take your armor and horse as part of their booty. During the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, taking prisoners for ransom became so commonplace that an entire marketplace developed. Prisoners of specific rankings were held for certain amounts and could be exchanged for each other. There were even rules for payment, agreed upon by both sides.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Rudolf von Ems: Weltchronik. Böhmen (Prag), 3. Viertel 14. Jahrhundert. Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda, Aa 88. Bildbeschreibung nach Martin Roland/Wikimedia Commons.

6. You Fought For God, As Did Your Enemies

When Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue back in 1492, he claimed to be doing so for gold, God, and glory. The idea of fighting on behalf of God was nothing new, in any case. All through the Middle Ages, people had used religion as a justification for war. The Battle of Tours, fought in 732 in France, was against invading Muslim armies from Spain and Morocco. Charles Martel, the leader of the European forces, saw his victory in battle as a victory for Christendom over the Muslims. Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the eighth century, followed in Martel’s footsteps by claiming to fight for not only his power but also for Christianity.

And of course, there were the crusades. When Pope Urban called for the Crusades in 1095, he declared them to be a holy war against the Muslims who were living in the Holy Lands. The response was that God willed the people to fight in His cause. The victories that the Christian armies gained during the First Crusade were viewed as victories for God and Christendom. The ensuing losses that led to the loss of Jerusalem and Christian control of the Holy Lands were not only a political but also a religious defeat with huge theological implications.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Viking Ships besieging Paris. Der Spiegel Geschichte (6/2010): Die Wikinger – Krieger mit Kultur: Das Leben der Nordmänner. Spiegel-Verlag Rudolf Augstein GmbH & Co. KG, Hamburg 2010, p.33/Wikimedia Commons.

5. If Your Leader Didn’t Give a Motivational Speech, A Medieval Chronicler Made One Up

Hollywood likes to portray Medieval military leaders as bold, inspiring figures who rallied their troops before a battle by giving a motivational speech. Consider the words allegedly spoken by William Wallace before leading his troops into action in the blockbuster Braveheart: They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom! Every year, fans of the movie make trips to Scotland to try to discover for themselves what Wallace was talking about in the film. However, Wallace probably never said those words, and we don’t actually know how he or other Medieval military leaders inspired their troops before a battle.

What we do know is that for a soldier to be willing to fight to the death, he had to believe in a cause that was greater than himself. The king or whoever was leading the charge had to inspire the troops. However, many of the “speeches” that leaders supposedly gave before a battle were probably invented by historians or other literary figures. One was William Shakespeare, who put the following words into the mouth of Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt:

If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honor.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Dead animals were often used as agents of biological warfare as shown in this scene of Monty Python. PB Works.

4. You Probably Brought Diseases Home With You, If You Returned

Possibly the most dangerous element in Medieval warfare was the danger of disease. People were already aware of biological warfare and frequently employed it by doing things like using catapults and trebuchets to hoist dead animal carcasses inside a castle’s walls. They might even find a way to get a sick person behind enemy lines, to infect the entire opposing army. Also, then there was the reality of the injuries that a soldier could receive becoming a breeding ground for germs, and the person then transporting them back to his or her home.

Many Crusader soldiers who returned from the Holy Lands carried back with them diseases that they had picked up. Even if they did not suffer from the conditions, they could transport them as carriers and thereby infect communities all along the route heading back home. Couple these realities with the fact that Medieval hygiene was abysmal and sewage often ran through city streets, and you have the stage set for large-scale infections. The people probably had some level of immunity to the diseases that were common to their areas, but when soldiers returned from faraway lands and brought new illnesses, they were utterly helpless.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Morning star, which is also known as a holy water sprinkler. Blogspot.

3. You Fought With Some Seriously Destructive Weaponry

Gunpowder already existed in China during the Middle Ages, but it had yet to make its way to Europe. In the meantime, Medieval soldiers had their own slew of weaponry that they could use in fighting against their enemies. In many ways, their weapons had the power and destructive abilities of later gunpowder-based weaponry but relied on manpower for energy. Crossbows instead of guns, trebuchets, and catapults instead of canons, but the Medieval versions could be far more accurate than their successors.

The morning star, sometimes referred to as the “holy water sprinkler,” was a clubbed ball attached to a wooden pole with a chain. It looked like something ninjas would use. Trebuchets were super-powered catapults that could launch loads over half a mile and decimate a castle’s defenses. People frequently loaded them with the carcasses of dead animals to spread disease inside the castle walls. It was a Medieval form of biological warfare. And don’t forget the crossbow, which could shoot its lethal ammunition a quarter of a mile with high accuracy. You didn’t stand a chance if you were hit with any of this stuff.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
German foot soldier with crossbow and scale armor at the siege of the Wartburg in Thuringia. Picture of the Codex Manesse, fol. 229v, Der Düring (1305-1340). Picture from the University Library Heidelberg/Wikimedia Commons.

2. You Wanted to be an Archer

Medieval armies were more than just men wearing hundreds of pounds of armor riding in on horses. Sure there were cavalrymen, most of whom had to bring their armor and horses. There were also foot soldiers and a line of archers. The sequence of archers was what people had to watch out for because they could shoot deadly arrows long distances and begin to kill soldiers on the other side long before the foot soldiers and the cavalry had made their way down to the battlefield. Archers were also frequently positioned along the castle walls and could pick off invaders.

Short bows were probably the weakest of an archer’s weapons, and they could shoot with accuracy as far as 100 yards. They were frequently used in the earlier Medieval Ages, such as in defending against Viking raids up through the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Later on, longbows could shoot arrows over 300 yards. The crossbow, though, was the most dreaded of all: it could send an arrow a quarter of a mile with incredible accuracy. Arrows shot with a crossbow could easily pierce through metal armor, but the real danger was when the tips were on fire.

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
Battle of Agincourt, 15th-century miniature. Lambeth Palace Library, London, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library/Isis/Wikimedia Commons.

1. You Would Destroy Your Own Land to Discourage the Enemy

When an army was approaching, the leader would often send out an emissary to try to get the opposing force to surrender. Moreover, considering how large these armies were when they were traveling, usually on foot, through long stretches of countryside, there was no hiding when an enemy army was approaching. As such, opposing forces knew when they needed to prepare. They would often burn the surrounding countryside so that the approaching army would have no food. This was only the first step of many that they would take to prepare.

With a siege on the horizon, soldiers would stockpile food and supplies inside the castle so that they could hopefully outlast the surrounding army. They would also dig ditches that they could use to defend their territory, as well as set up pikes and fighting platforms. With the Vikings, however, the game changed. No one knew when a Viking raid was coming, as they came by water and were thereby able to launch surprise attacks. Standing defenses became a way of life to protect against Viking raids. And when they didn’t work, paying bribe money to make the Vikings go away was rarely considered to be beneath the defending army.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Medieval Warfare: Theory and Practice in Europe, 300-1500, by Helen Nicholson. Red Globe Press, 2003.

“Ekkehard of Aurach: On the Opening of the First Crusade.” Fordham University.

“25 Most Insane Medieval Weapons,” by List25 Team. List 25 History. May 14, 2007.

“Disease in the Middle Ages,” by Ellen Castelow. Historic UK.

“The Bow in Medieval Warfare.” Encyclopedia.com

“Medieval Warfare: How to Capture a Castle with Siegecraft.” Historynet. June 12, 2006.

“Five Fun Facts About Medieval Archery”. Medievalists.net.

“Stirling Castle skeletons reveal the brutal reality of medieval warfare say experts,” by Richard Moss. Culture 24. May 27, 2011.

“Medieval Sourcebook: Charlemagne: Summons to Army c. 804-11.” Fordham University.

Inscribing the Hundred Years’ War in French and English Cultures, ed. Denise Baker. State University of New York Press. 2000.

“The military activities of bishops, abbots and other clergy in England c.900-1200,” by Daniel Gerrard. University of Glasgow. 2011.

“The Longest Siege in Medieval English History.” English Heritage. June 16, 2016.

“1066,” by Dr. Mike Ibeji. BBC. February 17, 2011.

“Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War, by Remy Ambuhl”. Cambridge University Press. 2013.

“20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages”. History Collection.

“Facts from the Middle Ages that Are Full of Surprises”. History Collection.