What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier
What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier

What Life Was Like As A Medieval Soldier

Trista - January 1, 2019

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.