Feudalism arose as the military organization of a harassed agricultural society; its virtues were martial rather than economic; its vassals and lords were expected to train themselves for war, and be ready at any moment to leave the plowshare for the sword.
The feudal army was the feudal hierarchy organized by ties of feudal allegiance, and strictly stratified according to grades of nobility. Princes, dukes, marquises, counts, and archbishops were generals; barons, seigneurs, bishops, and abbots were captains; knights or chevaliers were cavalrymen; squires were servitors to barons or knights; “men-at-arms”—the militia of communes or villages—fought as infantry. Behind the feudal army, as we see it in the Crusades, a crowd of “varlets” followed on foot, without officers or discipline; they helped to despoil the conquered, and eased the suffering of fallen and wounded enemies by despatching them with battle-axes or clubs.59But essentially the feudal army was the man on horseback multiplied. Infantry, insufficiently mobile, had lost its pre-eminence since Hadrianople (378), and would not regain it till the fourteenth century. Cavalry was the battle arm of chivalry; they and the cavalier, the chevalier, and the caballero took their names from the horse.
The feudal warrior used lance and sword or bow and arrow. The knight enlarged his ego to include his sword, and gave it an affectionate name; though doubtless it was the trouvères who called Charlemagne’s sword Joyeuse, Roland’s Durandel, and Arthur’sExcalibur. The bow had many forms: it might be a simple short bow, drawn at the breast; or a longbow aimed from the eye and ear; or a crossbow, in which the cord, drawn taut in the groove of a stock, was suddenly released, sometimes by a trigger, and propelled a missile of iron or stone. The crossbow was old; the longbow was first prominently used by Edward I (1272-1307) in his wars with the Welsh. In England archery was the main element in military training, and a leading element in sport. The development of the bow began the military debacle of feudalism; the knight scorned to fight on foot, but the archers killed his horse, and forced him to uncongenial ground. The final blow to feudal military power would come in the fourteenth century with gunpowder and cannon, which, from a safe distance, killed the armored knight and shattered his castle.
Having a horse to carry him, the feudal warrior could afford to burden himself with armor. In the twelfth century the fully accoutered knight covered his body from neck to knees with a hauberk—a coat of chain mail with sleeves for the arms—and an iron hood that covered all the head except eyes, nose, and mouth; his legs and feet were housed in greaves of mail. In combat he further capped himself with a steel helmet whose “nasal”—a projecting iron blade—guarded the nose. The visored casque and armor of metal plates appeared in the fourteenth century as defense against the long- or crossbow, and continued till the seventeenth; then nearly all armor was abandoned for the advantages of mobility. As a shield the knight suspended from his neck, and grasped by inner straps with his left hand, a buckler made of wood, leather, and iron bands, and adorned at the center with a buckle of gilded iron. The medieval knight was a mobile fort.
Fortification was the chief and usually adequate defense in feudal war. An army defeated in the field might find refuge within manor walls, and a last stand could be made in the donjon tower. The science of siege declined in the Middle Ages; the complex organization and equipment for battering down enemy walls proved too costly or laborious for dignified knights; but the art of the sapper or military miner held its own. Navies, too, were reduced in a world whose will to war outran its means. War galleys remained like those of the ancients—armed with battle towers on the decks, and propelled by freemen or galley slaves. What was lacking in power was made up in ornament, on the ship as on the man. Over a coat of pitch that preserved the wood of the vessel from water and air, medieval shipwrights and artists painted brilliant colors mixed with wax—white, vermilion, ultramarine blue; they gilded the prow and rails, and sculptured figures of men, beasts, and gods on prow and stern. Sails were gaily tinted, some in purple, some in gold; and a seigneur’s ship was emblazoned with his coat of arms.
Feudal war differed from both ancient and modern war in greater frequency and less mortality and cost. Every baron claimed the right of private war against any man not bound to him by feudal ties, and every king was free to embark at any time upon honorable robbery of another ruler’s lands. When king or baron went to war, all his vassals and relatives to the seventh degree were pledged to follow and fight for him for forty days. There was scarce a day in the twelfth century when some part of what is now France was not at war. To be a good warrior was the crown of a knight’s development; he was expected to give or take hard blows with relish or fortitude; his last ambition was a warrior’s death on “the field of honor,” not a “cow’s death” in bed.60 Berthold of Ratisbon complained that “so few great lords reach their right age or die a right death”;61 but Berthold was a monk.
The game was not too dangerous. Ordericus Vitalis, describing the battle of Brémule (1119), reports that “of the 900 knights who fought, only three were killed.”62 At the battle of Tinchebrai (1106), where Henry I of England won all Normandy, 400 knights were captured, but not one of Henry’s knights was slain. At Bouvines (1214), one of the most bloody and decisive battles of the Middle Ages, 170 of 1500 knights engaged lost their lives.63Armor and fortress gave advantage to the defense; a fully armored man could hardly be killed except by cutting his throat as he lay on the ground; and this was discountenanced by chivalry. Moreover it was wiser to capture a knight and accept ransom for him than to slay him and invite feud revenge. Froissart mourned the slaughter, at one battle, of “as many good prisoners as would well have brought 400,000 francs.”64 Knightly rules and reciprocal prudence counseled courtesy to prisoners, and moderation in ransoms asked. Usually a prisoner was released on his word of honor to return with his ransom by a given date, and rare was the knight who broke such a pledge.65 It was the peasantry that suffered most from feudal wars. In France, Germany, and Italy each army raided the lands and pillaged the houses of the vassals and serfs of the enemy, and captured or killed all cattle not gathered within defensive walls. After such a war many peasants drew their own plows, and many starved to death for lack of grain.
Kings and princes strove to maintain some interludes of internal peace. The Norman dukes succeeded in Normandy, England, and Sicily; the count of Flanders in his realm, the count of Barcelona in Catalonia, Henry III for a generation in Germany. For the rest it was the Church that led in limiting war. From 989 to 1050 various Church councils in France decreed a Pax Dei, or Peace of God, and promised excommunication to all who should use violence upon noncombatants in war. The French Church organized a peace movement in various centers, and persuaded many nobles not only to forgo private war but to join in outlawing it. Bishop Fulbert of Chartres (960?-1028), in a famous hymn, gave thanks to God for the unaccustomed peace. The movement was enthusiastically acclaimed by the common people, and good souls prophesied that within five years the peace program would be accepted by all Christendom.66 French Church councils, from 1027 on, proclaimed the Treuga Dei, or Truce of God, perhaps recalling the Moslem prohibition of war in time of pilgrimage: all were to abstain from violence during Lent, in season of harvest or vintage (August 15 to November 11), on specified holydays, and for a part of each week—usually from Wednesday evening to Monday morning; in its final form the Truce allowed eighty days in the year for private or feudal war. These appeals and fulminations helped; private war was gradually ended by the co-operation of the Church, the growing strength of the monarchies, the rise of the towns andbourgeoisie, and the absorption of martial energies in the Crusades. In the twelfth century the Truce of God became part of civil, as well as of canon, law in western Europe. The Second Lateran Council (1139) forbade the use of military engines against men.67 In 1190 Gerhoh of Reichersburg proposed that the pope should forbid all wars among Christians, and that all disputes among Christian rulers should be submitted to papal arbitration.68 The kings thought this a bit too advanced; they waged international wars more abundantly as private wars decreased; and in the thirteenth century the popes themselves, playing the royal game of power with human pawns, used war as an instrument of policy.