Military history



WARFARE was perhaps the most dominant concern of the political elites of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Other medieval social orders have been described as ‘a society organized for war’: Carolingian and Ottonian societies were largely organized by war. The political community, when it came together, was often called ‘the army’ even when it was not functioning as one. And usually it did come together in order to function as one. Massive coercive force was repeatedly deployed against subordinate peoples on the frontiers, with considerable success. It was also deployed, with less consistent success, against invading predators—Northmen (Vikings) along the Atlantic and North Sea coastlines from the early ninth century, Muslims along the Mediterranean coastline from the last years of the eighth century, Magyars from the Danube valley from the last years of the ninth century. And of course it was deployed against rivals within the Frankish world, by both rulers and magnates. Its deployment required substantial investment in organization (taxation and other forms of funding, transport, command structures), physical resources (food, water, equipment), and manpower (conscripted and ‘voluntary’). Increasingly also investment in defensive fortifications was required. Success in warfare brought prestige, authority, and power beyond the immediate results of the campaigning itself; failure similarly risked a crisis in the legitimacy and stability of political authority.

The significance of warfare becomes obvious as soon as we examine the course of late Frankish and post-Frankish history. The eighth century saw an almost unchecked sequence of Frankish military successes under the leadership of what was to become the Carolingian family, acting first as mayors of the palace under the titular rulership of the last members of the Merovingian dynasty, from 751 onwards as kings, then finally, after Charles the Great’s coronation by the pope in 800, as emperors, with a Roman resonance to their title and dominion. Looking back from the early ninth century, the Carolingians saw their own rise as dating from the battle of Tetry in 687, when Pippin II and the eastern Franks had defeated the western Franks. Much of the military activity of the period up to the death of Charles Martel in 741 was devoted to internal consolidation: eliminating the ‘tyrants’ within the kingdom, as Charles the Great’s biographer Einhard put it. But there were other campaigns: campaigns to re-establish authority over the formerly dependent peoples in Alamannia and Bavaria; a major war of conquest taking Frankish control down through Burgundy and the Rhône valley to the Mediterranean coast; successful battles against Islamic invading forces in 732/3 and in 737 which ended the possibility of Islamic expansion beyond the Pyrenees.

The two generations which followed saw the final subjugation of Alamannia and Bavaria as well as of the remainder of southern France, the conquest of the Lombard kingdom of Italy in a lightning campaign in 774, and the conquest and Christianization of the Saxons in a series of campaigns between 772 and 785, 792–3, and 798–803. In the 790s, the major potential rival to Frankish hegemony in Continental Europe, the Balkan empire of the Avars, was crushed in a few brief campaigns, and the wealth accumulated by the Avars in more than two centuries of plundering raids and tribute-taking was carted off to Francia, where Charlemagne distributed it to churches and to his military following.

By the early ninth century, the Franks and their rulers had largely run out of opponents against whom they could profitably campaign. The maximum extent of earlier Frankish domination in the late sixth and early seventh century had been re-established and put on a quite different footing. The Celtic and Slav peripheries along the Breton and east Frankish frontiers offered only meagre opportunities. Neither the Danes to the north of Saxony, nor the Byzantine outposts and Lombard principalities to the south of central Italy, nor the emergent Muslim powers in Spain were attractive targets: wealth was there, but not for the taking. The Franks never campaigned in the Danish peninsula, nor, after the first decade of the ninth century, against the Byzantines in Italy. The territorial gains made by the Franks in what was to become Catalonia were made, after Louis the Pious’s campaigns in 801–2 and 810, by local forces rather than by the Frankish kings themselves.

Yet the apparatus of military power built up in the course of eighth-century expansion still needed maintaining. Increasingly, the Frankish elite turned in on itself. Between 830 and the end of the century, a substantial proportion of all campaigns fought by Frankish forces were fought against other Frankish forces. In the early 830s and early 840s two extensive civil wars turned on the succession to Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son and successor: these culminated in the partition of the Frankish empire into three at the treaty of Verdun (843); Charles the Bald, Louis’s youngest son, became king of west Francia (what would become France); Louis became king of the eastern Franks (what would become Germany), and Lothar, the eldest, ruler of a corridor of lands stretching between these two kingdoms down to Italy, the ‘middle kingdom’. Further partitions followed, and further disputes: the attempts in 857–8, 876, and 879–80 by the rulers of east or west Francia to take control of the other’s kingdom; the series of campaigns between 861 and 880 to decide the distribution of the middle kingdom; and the fighting between 888 and 895–6 to settle the nature and extent of the hegemony to be exercised by Arnulf, king of east Francia, over the remaining Frankish kingdoms.



Increasingly also, the Franks and their rulers were themselves threatened militarily. It was probably news of their own successes and the wealth they had accumulated which attracted predators: attacks by Islamic pirates on the Mediterranean coastline of the Frankish empire are recorded from the late eighth century, becoming frequent from the middle of the ninth century, especially on the southern French coast and in southern Italy. At about the same time, slightly after their first recorded appearances in the British Isles, Viking incursions began along the Channel and Atlantic coasts. These too increased sharply from the 840s onwards, with brief remissions in the 870s and 890s. Finally, two decades later, the east Frankish lands began to suffer from the incursions of the Magyars, a horsed confederation originating from the Russian steppes with a formidable capacity for swift movement and effective deployment of archery and cavalry, for scattering to ravage over a wide area and for reconcentrating their forces with unexpected speed when opposed.



The patterns established in the later ninth century—warfare against invaders or rivals—continued to hold good in the tenth century in the western and southern parts of the Carolingian empire, west Francia, and Italy. Raids on west Francia declined, without ever entirely ceasing; warfare against rivals increased to compensate, and, in an anticipation of the world of the high middle ages, moved down a level from wars between kings to wars between princes and magnates. In Italy Carolingian-style disputes over kingship continued until the mid-96os, and predatory Muslim raiding along the coast and in the south was a problem for even longer.

In east Francia, however, events took a rather different turn. Under the leadership of the Liudolfing frontier dukes of Saxony, the kingdom was reshaped and reforged in the first half of the tenth century. In some ways this remaking resembled that carried out by the early Carolingian leaders in Francia two centuries earlier, and it too culminated in an imperial coronation, that of Otto I in 962. Carolingian success against Islamic invaders was mirrored by Ottoman success against Magyar horsemen, at Riade (933) and on the Lechfeld, south of Augsburg (955). But there were also significant differences. Carolingian imperialism had brought about major disturbances in the patterns of landholding and power within the Frankish lands. The Liudolfing/Ottonian reconstruction was a more peaceful affair; there were few battles and campaigns, not many magnates lost power. Ottoman hegemony was based on the acknowledgement of military success by the political community of tenth-century east Francia, not on the reshaping of that community.

Although the Ottonians campaigned successfully beyond their frontiers, as the Carolingians had done in their heyday, the campaigns of expansion on the eastern frontier were in general much more local affairs. Charles the Great had been able to raise large armies from most of his kingdom to campaign against the Saxons, and even in the era of Carolingian decline a Charles III or an Arnulf could still mount large-scale campaigns against the Vikings with forces drawn from a number of regions. By contrast, the campaigning on the eastern frontier in the tenth and early eleventh century was much less large-scale. Very occasionally, as in some of the campaigns against the Magyars (notably those leading to the Magyar defeats at Riade and on the Lechfeld), or in some of the campaigns on the north-eastern frontier under Otto III and Henry II, rulers drew on forces from most or the whole of their kingdom, but many expeditions were local, Saxon affairs; even the rulers themselves did not always participate. Large-scale forces were assembled for the asserting of hegemony within the former Frankish world; for the Ottonian invasions of west Francia in 946 and 978, and for the Italian expeditions from 950 onwards.

It is easy enough to give a summary account of the importance of war in this period, but as soon as we start to go beyond this we find that there are great gaps in our knowledge and understanding. Perhaps the most striking are those in our knowledge of the practical conduct of war itself. There is no shortage of warfare in the narrative sources for the period. The major works of semiofficial Carolingian historical writing—the continuators of Fredegar in the eighth century, the authors of the Royal Frankish Annalsand their continuators in ninth-century east and west Francia—as well as many more ‘private’ accounts, like the so-called Annals of Xanten and Annals of Saint-Vaast, give much attention to campaigning. The great tenth- and early eleventh-century histories devote much of their pages to warfare: Regino of Prüm, looking back on Carolingian decline since Fontenoy from his early tenth-century Lotharingian exile; Widukind of Corvey, charting the course of the Saxons’ rise to empire; Liudprand of Cremona, an Italian follower of Otto I to whom we owe much of our knowledge of Italian warfare between the late ninth and the mid-tenth century; Flodoard and Richer of Rheims, describing west Frankish warfare in the tenth century, the one in a dry bare-bones narrative, the other with Sallustian brilliance; Thietmar of Merseburg, an east Saxon bishop who had campaign experience and came from a great warrior family.

Yet the ‘face of battle’, in John Keegan’s memorable phrase, generally eludes us when we read these works. Even the very rare eyewitness accounts do not help. On 25 June 841 the followers of Louis and Charles, rulers in east and west Francia, fought a major battle at Fontenoy against the followers of Lothar, emperor and ruler of Italy, which was to determine the outcome of the succession crisis created by the death of Louis the Pious in 840. One of the participants, Nithard, like the leaders a descendant of Charles the Great, has left a description of the battle:

After the negotiations had failed, Charles and Louis rose in the dawn light and occupied a hill close to Lothar’s camp; there they awaited his arrival at the second hour of daylight according to the oath their representatives had sworn, with about a third of their forces. When both sides were present, they joined battle at the stream of the Burgundiones with hard fighting. Louis and Lothar fought hard at the place called Brittas, where Lothar, being overcome, turned tail. The part of the army which Charles had led to the place called Fagit in the common tongue fled; the part which had thrown itself against Adelhard and the others and to which I gave not a little assistance with God’s help, also fought hard; each side seemed at times to have the upper hand, but in the end all on Lothar’s side fled.

The most striking thing about this narrative is its brevity. Nithard, who was to die in battle not long after he wrote these words, was an experienced warrior, but he evidently did not see the actual practice of war as something which needed lengthy description. The excerpt just translated takes up less than an eighth of the chapter in which Nithard describes the Fontenoy campaign; most of it is devoted to showing how Lothar delayed battle by spinning out negotiations until his ally Pippin had had time to join forces with him.

Warfare may have been the dominant concern of early medieval elites, but neither those who practised it, like Nithard, nor those who merely recorded it (often at some distance of either space or time or both) normally felt the need to articulate its meaning and the working assumptions with which they approached it. It was a practical, not a theoretical art. It is not only the direct experience of war itself which eludes us; contemporaries’ assumptions about strategy and tactics were hardly ever articulated in forms which have come down to us. Occasionally we get a comment which shows that they could and did reflect on the practice of warfare. An account in the revised version of the Royal Frankish Annals of a battle between Franks and Saxons in 782 criticizes the defeated Franks for advancing at a gallop as if they were pursuing a defeated enemy rather than in line at a measured pace; Regino of Prüm describes a battle against the Northmen in Brittany in 890, in which the initially victorious Duke Vidicheil ignored the basic principle that one should not push a defeated enemy too far, to be annihilated when his opponents turned at bay and counter-attacked.

Yet such moments of explicit reflection are rare. Military treatises, like those which have survived in some numbers from ninth- and tenth-century Byzantium, are absent from the West in this period. The classical treatises of antiquity, by Vegetius and Frontinus, were indeed known and copied: Hrabanus Maurus, a mid-ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, produced a revised version of Vegetius’ treatise with additions intended to adapt it to Frankish warfare; Bishop Frechulf of Lisieux produced a copy for the library of Charles the Bald. But the impulse behind this was perhaps as much antiquarian as practical: neither work circulated extensively in manuscript in the Carolingian Opposing forces of cavalry meet in battle. The pictorial strategy is unclear: have the forces on the right been penetrated by their opponents, or are they turning and fleeing? All warriors here use lances (brandished overhead, not couched, as they have no stirrups), though the siege from the same artist (seep. 29) shows the use of long-swords on horseback.


Facing: together with mailed byrnies (see p. 22) it was expensive layered long-swords like this which gave Frankish military forces their technological edge. Such swords, often with an inscription (probably the manufacturer’s, not the owner’s, as here) on the blade, have survived in small numbers from the ninth and tenth centuries in church treasuries and in larger numbers as casual finds. period. The literature of antiquity served as a source of phrases and vocabulary rather than ideas for ninth- and tenth-century writers: Livy’s account of early Roman history was plundered at will by the authors of the Royal Frankish Annals for their descriptions of campaigns. This absence of reflection creates two opposing dangers for the historian. The first is mistakenly to deduce from the fact thatcontemporaries did not record their thoughts on warfare that they had none, which gives us the notion of Carolingian and Ottonian armies as an undisciplined rabble. The second is to assume that we can fill out the silences in the record of their thinking with the timeless principles of warfare enunciated by the great modern military theorists from Clausewitz onwards, which gives us Carolingian and Ottonian campaigns as yet another illustration of staff college manuals.


The gaps in our knowledge are not confined to the consciousness which lies behind action. Though the material remains of warfare have survived quite extensively from this period, they are not usually easy to date or interpret with confidence. A few manuscript illuminations show warriors and their arms, but since the artists frequently worked from earlier exemplars and the traditions of their own schools their work cannot always be taken as depicting the state of affairs current at the time they were working. Some arms and armour have survived, most notably swords and helmets, but since high-quality specimens (which are the most likely to have survived in a recognizable state) might be used and reused for a long period after their manufacture, they rarely come with the archaeological context which might allow us to interpret them more securely. We can list the weapons and armour in most frequent use—long-sword, short axe, bows, helmets, byrnies (leather jackets with armour plating, probably in this period taking the form of scales rather than of ring-mail), without having much certainty about how widespread their use was. We know, though, that superior military technology was vital. Carolingian rulers sought to prohibit the export of byrnies in particular, while themselves trying to ensure that members of their armies met basic standards of equipment—at least a bow, not merely a wooden stave. The ‘unarmed’ commoners whom Viking armies occasionally met and slaughtered in the ninth century have sometimes been taken by historians to have been inexperienced in fighting; but it is at least as likely that they were simply not professionally equipped. As late as 990 a Slav prince could be advised not to risk battle against an invading Saxon force because ‘although it is small it is composed of excellent warriors, and all in iron’.


A good illustration of a mounted Frankish warrior from an early ninth-century psalter. It is the defensive armour which made warriors like this the equivalent of the tank in the ninth and tenth centuries: bossed shield and helmet, possibly leg-coverings, and abruniaor byrnie, a leather jacket with ‘fishscale’ metal plates for protection against arrows and cutting weapons.

Much has not survived; we know virtually nothing about the physical appearance of Frankish shipping and Frankish siege machinery, for example, but we know that both existed, and indeed the expansion of the eighth century owed much to the Franks’ ability to move heavy equipment against their opponents over long distances and deploy it effectively. The most spectacular example of military engineering was the failed attempt in 793 by Charles the Great to link Main and Danube with a canal, whose remains are still visible today. Fortified sites are better preserved, though here too there are problems. There are often disparities between what we know from written sources and the sites which survive on the ground and can be dated with confidence to within our period; and survival (or at least identified survival) is much more common in some areas than others: a number of English burhs survive in identifiable form from the campaigns of Alfred and his descendants against the Northmen, for example, but the archaeological record on the Continent is much less satisfactory. Thus, though we know that fortified bridges were very important in checking Viking incursions into west Francia in the 860s and 870s, there is little to show on the ground for these. King Henry I of east Francia is said to have instituted a series of large-scale fortifications, with groups of settler-warriors responsible for their upkeep and defence, as part of his strategy for ending the threat from Magyar raiders in the period 924–933. But although this sounds very like the West Saxon burhs,there are no equivalents of Wallingford in east Saxony or elsewhere in the east Frankish kingdom and indeed there is no site which all agree to have been one of Henry’s fortifications.

It is therefore not easy to visualize warfare in this period, either from written descriptions or from its material remains. There is rather more evidence for its organization. This is particularly true of the Carolingian era. Here rulers like Charlemagne not only sought to ensure the preservation of older ‘tribal’ law-codes in writing, they also—especially in the period between about 780 and about 830, and in west Francia and Italy beyond that almost to the end of the ninth century—issued so-called ‘capitularies’, mixtures of admonitions, instructions, and regulations, many of which refer to such things as military obligation or the regulation of arms exports. From these, from scattered references in other sources to money taxes (especially heribannum, ‘army-tax’) and services (provision of carts and other transport; bridge- and fortress-work) imposed on the dependent population, and from the narrative sources, we can get a picture of Carolingian warfare in its heyday. Campaigns were prepared for at assemblies, often in late spring or early summer, at which rulers won agreement and support for them. Carolingians could campaign at any time of the year, but the preferred period was August to October, after the new harvest and before the onset of winter. Campaigning took the form of assembling massive forces, which for the most important campaigns might be divided, perhaps as much because of the difficulties of feeding large bodies of troops as for any strategic considerations. These were deployed slowly and thoroughly in short campaigns, whose main aim was to lay waste opponents’ strongholds and economic resources rather than crush opponents in battle. Such armies were vulnerable to guerilla attacks (as for example at Roncevaux in 778, where the Frankish rearguard was annihilated in a Basque ambush), or to bad weather, or to diseases amongst the horses or cattle they needed for transport. They were also inflexible: opponents capable of much faster movement (Magyars and Saracens), or movement over difficult terrain (Vikings) were hard for them to deal with.

Bowmen played a significant role in Frankish warfare, though unlike Magyars Frankish archers usually fought on foot. Written references suggest that bowmen were of lesser standing than mounted warriors, but this early ninth-century psalter shows the same body armour found on the mounted warrior, and a cloak and brooch denoting high social status.


Already by the later ninth century this kind of warfare was no longer the norm (except along stretches of the eastern frontier of the east Frankish kingdom), and by the Ottonian period the picture has become much less clear. Capitularies and other forms of legislation and regulation had by this time disappeared throughout the regions of the former Frankish empire. Taxes such as the heribannum continued to exist in name, but probably no longer had any serious connection with raising or supporting armies. Occasional survivals of documentary evidence have thus had to bear more weight than they probably can. For example, much discussion of Ottonian warfare has turned round the indiculus loricatorum (‘list of armed warriors’), a document listing the military contingents to be provided from east Francia for a campaign in Italy. Internal evidence shows that it must have been used in connection with Otto II’s Italian campaign of 980–3, but it is still unclear whether it refers to the initial contingent raised for his expedition or to reinforcements summoned later. Most of our information about tenth-century warfare comes from incidental details in narrative accounts.

Yet pessimism can be taken too far. However difficult it is to answer many of the traditional questions of military history, we still have enough evidence left to tackle the most fundamental ones: how armies were raised, and what purpose warfare served. How were armies raised? This is not easy to answer, and the numerous (and widely varying) solutions which have been offered in the course of a century and a half of the professional study of medieval history in many ways cloud the picture more than they paint it. Rather than take the reader through a lengthy account of the historiography, it seems more helpful to begin by discussing the different possible categories and the different types of warfare, for defence against incursions had quite different requirements from the armies raised to attack internal enemies or campaign beyond frontiers. From the point of view of a ruler, we can identify four main categories of fighting-men in this period: bodyguards and other household warriors; magnates (who might themselves bring other magnates and would certainly have had their own bodyguards and household warriors); conscript forces; and auxiliaries from outside the kingdom.

Like late Anglo-Saxon rulers, Carolingian and Ottonian rulers undoubtedly had a personal bodyguard which could also function at need as a rapid response force, a scara (meaning a squadron or troop; compare the modern German Schar). Such warriors are much less visible in the sources than were the housecarls of eleventh-century England, but they were certainly there: Carolingian rulers gave them gifts on regular occasions, and they were no less important in the tenth century. It was Otto I’s bodyguards who foiled an attack on his life at the Easter celebrations of 941, and a Slav bodyguard who saved Otto II’s life after the disastrous outcome of the battle of Cotrone against the Sicilian Muslims. There was certainly a tendency to use ‘foreigners’ for such purposes, as seen elsewhere in Europe at this time: the Anglo-Saxon rulers’ housecarls, the Varangian guard of the eleventh-century Byzantine rulers (mainly Franks and Scandinavians), or the elite troops of the tenth-century Caliphs of Cordoba (mainly Slavs imported from the Frankish eastern frontier as slaves) are all examples of the technique. The well-born or the lucky might graduate from such permanent military duties to modest wealth in the form of an estate.

The personal bodyguards of rulers probably differed in size rather than composition from those of the magnates who turned out in Carolingian and Ottoman armies, though these will have drawn less on foreigners and more on their own followers, perhaps also on outlaws and possibly slaves, for such contingents. ‘Magnates’ is a catch-all term: it includes great secular officials like counts, great ecclesiastics like bishops and the abbots of royal abbeys (although prelates were not supposed to fight in person, they were expected to lead contingents of troops). It also includes wealthy nobles who did not hold secular or ecclesiastical office. Such men undoubtedly acted as leaders, as Nithard’s account of Fontenoy shows, and where narrative accounts mention casualties it is men of this type that they name. Their importance for the cohesion of armies cannot be overestimated; the numerical contribution they and their own followings made to armies is, as we shall see, more difficult to assess.

Conscript forces are referred to more frequently in the first half of our period (down to the mid-ninth century) than in the second. There was a clear obligation on all free men to turn out and fight in case of invasion. Many historians have also thought that there was a general obligation in the Frankish world on all free men to fight on campaigns beyond the frontiers. It cannot be shown definitively that there was no such obligation, but it does seem unlikely, for a number of reasons. First, campaigning, especially in the eighth and again in the mid-tenth century, was often an annual affair. It is hard to see how this could have been a general obligation unless there was some kind of selection mechanism; had there not been, small freeholders would have been bankrupted by less than a generation of annual campaigning. Indeed, if such an obligation did exist there must have been a selection mechanism in any case, since even quite moderate assumptions about the total population of the Frankish empire and the proportion of free men of weapon-bearing age within that population suggest that a complete call-up on such a basis would have produced an army of at least 100,000, an absurdly high figure. We do indeed begin to hear about selection mechanisms in the early years of the ninth century, but that was at a point at which warfare had become very largely defensive. Second, it is difficult to see how ‘ordinary freemen’ could have achieved the degree of professional fighting ability which would have made it useful for rulers to call on their services on a large scale: even in the eighth century, warfare was a matter of quality (siege specialists and well-armed warriors) more than of quantity.

Auxiliary forces made a significant contribution to many Carolingian and Ottonian campaigns. Recently subjugated or tributary peoples on the Frankish periphery—Frisians, Saxons, Carinthians, Bavarians—acted as auxiliaries in Frankish armies, much as their counterparts in imperial Roman armies had done, and with the same general characteristics: fast moving, lightly armed irregular troops. As late as the battle on the Lechfeld, both Magyar and east Frankish forces had Slav auxiliaries with them, and Henry II campaigned against the Christian dukes of Poland with support from the pagan Slav Liutizi, who marched under their own heathen banners, much to the scandal of Saxon churchmen like Brun of Querfurt and Thietmar of Merseburg. In general, though, this form of troop-raising seems to have become less important in the course of our period, though it survived on the European periphery rather longer: as late as 1063 the Welsh promised to serve Edward the Confessor ‘by land and by sea’.

A rather different kind of auxiliary force from that provided by subject peoples along the borders was the use of peoples who normally acted as predatory invaders as allies or mercenaries (the word is used here in a loose sense; we are not usually told much if anything about the means of payment). Almost the earliest appearance of Magyars in Western sources, for example, was their participation in Arnulf’s campaign of 892 against the Moravians, and they were used in this way in the complex politics of the Italian kingdom in the early tenth century on a number of occasions. Long before that, disaffected Franks had occasionally allied themselves with Viking bands, as for example did Charles the Bald’s son Pippin in the 86os or Hugo of Lotharingia with the Northmen leader Gottfried in 883–5.

Gottfried himself was an example of a third kind of auxiliary: the predatory invader given land and a frontier command in the hope that he would provide an effective defence against other invaders of the same kind. Most examples of this type are of Viking leaders: Gottfried himself, and Herold and Roric, who were given frontier commands in Frisia by Louis the Pious and Lothar I, and of course most famously of all Rollo, whose invasion of northern France in the early tenth century was legitimized by the west Frankish ruler Charles the Simple at Saint-Claire-sur-Epte in 911 and whose descendants (though they long maintained Scandinavian links and alliances) created the duchy of Normandy out of this initial frontier command. Like the use of subject peoples, this was a technique which became less common in the course of the tenth century, though the early dukes of Poland took on some of the appearance of marcher counts on the Saxon frontier.

It is easier to analyse these different components of military forces qualitatively than it is to do so quantitatively. Narrative sources normally simply tell us that an army was raised; they do not say how, or what it consisted of. Sometimes (in the east Frankish/German kingdom usually) they mention the ethnic components of armies (‘an army of Franks and Saxons’ or ‘of Bavarians and Slavs’), but this probably tells us more about how armies were organized once raised than it does about how they were raised in the first place. Many historians have thought nevertheless that there are good grounds for supposing that Carolingian and Ottonian armies were made up of warriors in the second category of those just analysed: magnates and their followings. They have in many cases further argued that these magnates served rulers (and were served in their turn by their own followings) because of a legal duty to do so arising out of a double relationship: followers commended themselves (became the ‘men’ of) leaders, who in turn rewarded them with gifts of land to be held as long as they served and were faithful. In a word, Carolingian and Ottonian armies were ‘feudal’. To offer such a view of the world, however, is to simplify a much more complex picture. It is far from clear that magnates served (and were served in their turn) because of legally defined obligations arising out of a single relationship. Indeed, it may not be particularly helpful to conceive such obligations in terms of lawful expectations on either side: the ability of rulers (whether kings or at regional level dukes and counts) to command support was much more a matter of charisma, military reputation, and ability to reward service than of claiming what all sides acknowledged was due. In any case, for most campaigns in this period the truth is that we simply do not know who made up the armies and in what proportions.

The question of how large armies were or could be, whatever their composition, has also much exercised historians, and has proved no easier to answer definitively. The numbers given not infrequently by narrative sources are generally agreed to be unreliable: suspiciously often, they are round numbers, frequently multiples of 600 like 30,000 or 6,000, and such figures were probably not intended to be taken literally but rather to signify considerable size. They may be more reliable as guides to the relative strengths of forces, but even this is uncertain. An alternative is to work from estimates of the possible numbers of troops who might be called upon, but this too has led to widely divergent results. Whereas the French medievalist Ferdinand Lot suggested a maximum size of 5,000 for armies of the Carolingian period, the German Karl-Ferdinand Werner argued a generation later for a maximum of 15,000–20,000, drawn from a reservoir at least twice that size. Whatever one thinks of these estimates, they provide a theoretical maximum rather than an average likely to have been encountered in practice.

One possible clue lies in the numbers of casualties. We have a list of those who fell in Saxony in a battle against an invading band of Northmen in 880: two dukes, two bishops, and eighteen royal vassals. We are not told that the army was annihilated (though it was evidently a crushing defeat); nevertheless, it hardly seems likely on these figures that the total strength of the Saxon army exceeded a few hundred. The casualties reported for the battle of Firenzuola in Italy in 921 again amount to a mere fifty. Even Fontenoy, where there was everything to play for and the two sides will each have put much of their strength into the field, does not seem to have brought about extensive casualties, even though the disaster remained in Frankish memories for generations and Regino of Prüm saw it as the point at which so many irreplaceable Frankish warriors were killed that from that point on the power of the Franks began to decline.

On the whole it seems most likely that armies did not normally exceed two thousand fighting men, the figure implied, incidentally, by the indiculus loricatorum, though possibly some of the largest campaigns, with divided armies, may have been conducted with larger forces. Armies of this size would, of course, have been much larger in total because of the accompanying servants and specialists. Even if we take into account the existence of royal roads with royal estates which could permit the provisioning of armies en route, it still seems doubtful that armies much larger than 2,000–3,000 could have survived for any length of time before inflicting starvation both on themselves and on the surrounding countryside, not at least unless they were accompanied by carts with food for the men and fodder for the animals, and by cattle and sheep on the hoof; here a point must quite soon have been reached at which the whole operation would have ground to a halt under its own weight. Even the largest towns of northern Europe probably did not exceed a population of 15,000–20,000 in this period, and most were far smaller, yet even these fixed and predictable locations needed a highly developed infrastructure to survive.

Facing: this highly stylized depiction of a siege gives a good idea of a troop of Frankish mounted warriors in action, using lances, a longsword of the Ingelri type (see above) and unusually, the bow. The troop-leader bears a pennant as distinguishing-mark and rallying-point.


It is even more difficult to decide on the relative proportions of cavalry and infantry in Carolingian and Ottonian armies than to determine their overall size. It is clear that small army groups (scarae) could move very fast and probably were mounted, and it is also clear that the Franks attached much importance to the ability to ride: young aristocrats spent much time learning to do so. By the time of the battle of the Dyle in 891, at which Arnulf defeated a force of Vikings by ordering his followers to advance slowly on foot, it appears that Frankish forces were unaccustomed to fighting dismounted. But there were special circumstances of terrain and fortification here, and there are good reasons for thinking that the role of cavalry, especially heavily armed cavalry, in this period has probably been overestimated. Neither in siege warfare, nor in the steam-roller-like campaigns of devastation on the frontiers, was there normally much place for such forces. Fighting from horseback was reserved for the much rarer moments of actual battle; campaigning on horseback was probably as much a matter of social status and prestige as of military necessity.

On the whole, historians have concentrated much more on the how than on the why of warfare in this period, probably because they have taken its practice for granted rather than because they have preferred to abstain from enquiry in the face of the lack of direct evidence mentioned at the opening of this chapter. Yet the reasons for warfare are not self-evident, even when invasion threatened. Invaders did not have to be fought; they could be (and were) bought off, and although the Northmen did not hold themselves much bound by such payments, the Magyars, so far as we can tell, kept strictly to the terms of paid truces. In any case, although the histories of west Francia in the later ninth century and of east Francia in the early tenth century might suggest otherwise, a great deal of warfare in this period was not directed against threats from outside the system, as we have seen. Campaigns were mostly fought either against settled opponents beyond the frontier or against rivals within, whether we are talking about the level of the kingdom, the principality, or the local region.

There would appear to have been two main reasons for conducting warfare: to acquire wealth and to translate claimed authority into real power. The two were seldom mutually incompatible, and could be happily pursued side by side, but they need to be examined separately. The pursuit of wealth was inherent in a world in which warfare was not yet the crippling expense that it was to become for all European governments from the twelfth century onwards and at the same time offered opportunities for rapid enrichment nowhere else to be found, certainly not in the more peaceful activities of government or estate management. To make war was to plunder; to threaten to make war was to force your opponents to plunder themselves by paying you tribute (or Danegeld and ransoms when Carolingian and Ottonian elites were on the receiving end of these tactics). Even from opponents with little by way of treasures of real value, slaves might still be taken. It has been plausibly conjectured that the revival of Carolingian-style imperialism under the east Frankish rulers Henry I and Otto I was fuelled by profits from the slave-trade with Islamic Spain: the very word ‘slave’, which starts to displace the classical servus around this time, is cognate with Slav. At the very least, warriors on campaign could earn their own keep rather than eating their heads off at home.

Alongside the acquisition of movable wealth lay the use of force to compel others to acknowledge authority. Carolingian and Ottonian narrative sources often imply that campaigns against frontier peoples, whether Slav, Breton, or Beneventan, were responses to disobedience or disrespect of a kind which needed no further specifying: clearly such things as withholding tribute payments or border raiding would qualify, but sometimes one has the impression that the ‘disrespectful’ actions which provoked Carolingian or Ottonian response were more ambiguous than this. The ponderous nature of ‘official’ war-making was well suited to disciplinary purposes: Frankish and Saxon armies faced down militarily inferior opponents, daring them to risk battle while destroying their infrastructure, much like the forces of the Raj on the north-west frontier and in Afghanistan. Acknowledging authority took the form not only of paying tribute and other symbolic forms of submission but also of fighting: subject peoples, as we have seen, played a significant part in ninth- and tenth-century warfare.

Within the political community the methods used might be slightly more tempered, but only slightly. Henry I consolidated his position within east Francia by concluding agreements of ‘friendship’ with the other dukes of the kingdom, but it was the application of military force which made such agreements acceptable. His west Frankish contemporaries were rarely able to summon up enough force to give conviction to the demands they made of people whom they thought subject to their authority, hence the narrative of political indecision and confusion offered by Flodoard. When what was at stake was who was to exercise authority, the game was played with rather different rules. Ravaging might alienate support; what was most important was to give the impression of such overwhelming military power that your opponent’s support simply melted away, as Bernard of Italy’s did in 817 against Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald’s did in 858 against Louis the German (though not for long). If this could not be achieved, either by a show of force or by soliciting and seducing the opposing following, then battle was the most likely outcome, and it might be a very bloody one. There were a handful of really crushing defeats of Frankish forces by invading predators (especially Vikings and Magyars) in this period, but the list of battles with major losses, at least before about 950, is largely made up from the encounters in the course of disputed kingships, starting with the battles of the 830s, then Fontenoy (841), Andernach (876), Firenzuola (921), Soissons (923), Birten and Andernach (939).


Siege, Liber Maccabaeorum. Manuscripts of biblical books provide most of the rare depictions of warfare in the ninth and tenth centuries. Illustrated manuscripts of Macchabees are rare, but the work itself was an important source of literary imagery for those who wrote about war. The siege depicted here shows the attackers using cavalry and archery but not siege-machines.

Success in warfare against internal opponents consolidated power and authority; but success externally consolidated reputation as nothing else could do in this period; even the saintly were described in military metaphors (which go back beyond this period but were used more and more frequently during it) as battling against the forces of evil. The legend of Charlemagne the warrior was not created by the romances of the high middle ages; it was already being formed in the ninth century. Swords with magical inscriptions proclaimed the decline since his time; treasured anecdotes showed him embodying warrior virtues even after power, fame, and affluence might have been expected to soften him. Later in the ninth century, the deeds of prominent military leaders like Robert the Strong, the ancestor of the later French Capetian kings, or the east Frankish warleader Henry were celebrated by contemporary narrators, and their deaths mourned; their fame transmitted itself to their descendants. Successful non-royal war-leaders of the early tenth century—Arnulf of Bavaria, Otto of Saxony, Alan of Brittany—came near to establishing kingship on the strength of military success. The victories of Henry I and Otto I over the Magyars were the making of the Ottomans and their dynasty, and the justification for Otto’s imperial coronation. Militarily successful rulers were the leaders of God’s people; they were, to use an image frequently invoked in the ninth and tenth centuries, the new *Maccabees.

Comparisons of this kind bring us once again to contemporaries’ attitudes to warfare. If its practice was unarticulated by warriors and commanders, though not necessarily incoherent, its morality and justification were explicitly addressed by ecclesiastics, though the results were not coherent. It was clerics who depicted successful warriors as Maccabees, and urged kings at their coronations to defend the church and the defenceless against not only pagans but also ‘bad Christians’. But it was also clerics who insisted with increasing frequency that they themselves should not participate in warfare (though many of them did: there is a long list of ninth- and tenth-century bishops and abbots killed and wounded in battle). Their counsels to the laity were divided. On the one hand, they continued to argue that killing in warfare was a sin, for which penance had to be done. This was not merely a theoretical norm found in church legislation and the collections of legal material compiled by church lawyers; we know that such penances were actually imposed after the battles of Fontenoy (841) and Soissons (923). On the other hand, ecclesiastics acted as if the ability to bear arms was a condition of full membership both of the church and of civil society, at least for male members of the political elite. Those who had had penances imposed for any grave sin were expected to renounce the cingulum militare, the soldier’s belt, for the duration of their penance (which in theory might be lifelong). Moreover, the ninth century saw the beginnings of what would later become a full-fledged clerical justification of warfare: the help of God and the saints was invoked against the pagan enemies of Christian rulers and their followers in the form of masses and benedictions. Even penitents who had renounced their soldier’s belt were expected to take up arms against pagan incursions.

The paradox of praising warriors for their defence of Christianity and the church while treating them as murderers for doing so outlived the period treated in this chapter, but a more morally coherent attitude to warfare and its morality was slowly emerging in the ninth and tenth centuries. One way of achieving this was to reconceptualize society as consisting of ‘those who pray, those who fight and those who work (on the land)’. This division, wherever it is found, is never a mere division; it carries with it the implication that each of the groups has its own proper and legitimate sphere of action, and that each needs the other two to be able to fulfil its function. It is first found hinted at in the works of Carolingian intellectuals of the school of Auxerre in the mid-ninth century and then articulated by King Alfred of Wessex at the end of it, to be taken up with increasing frequency by clerical thinkers in France and England from the late tenth century onwards. It is a model to think with rather than to impose thought: it could be used to legitimize royal authority as well as the practice of arms, but as a view of Christian society it clearly had implications for all warriors. The process, by which the ritual of conferring arms on young males when they reached adulthood (originally a quite secular affair) became the clericalized ritual of becoming a knight, has a chronology which is still much disputed; but it is clear that the clerical elements were already more explicit and more fully articulated by the early eleventh century than they had been in the ninth.

It is yet another paradox that this development took place during a period when warfare was directed less and less against the pagan Other beyond the frontier and more and more against members of the same universal community, that of Christianity. The period from the eighth to the tenth century in Continental Western Europe saw a slow evolution away from large-scale imperial structures sustained by the massive exercise of military power. By the year 1000 such ‘states’, and the kind of warfare which had gone with them, were becoming archaic, at least in what had been the Frankish empire: the dominion of English rulers over their Celtic peripheries, and indeed the more fragile and short-lived empires of Boleslas Chrobry of Poland, and of Scandinavian war-kings like Cnut and Olaf, showed that as late as the eleventh century such things were still possible on the European periphery. But the future would belong to more expensive and intensive forms of warfare, based on stone fortifications and on armies where not only the leaders but all the followers were fully armed: at least in its early stages, such warfare was less likely to result in substantial losses, and it is perhaps significant that there were few engagements in post-Frankish Europe with really heavy casualties between 950 and 1050. The old forms of warfare could still be found in wars of expansion, but where this happened (in Spain, southern Italy, the near East, and on the Celtic and Slavic peripheries) it was now territorial rather than tributary expansion. In any case, the main thrust of European warfare in the high middle ages was against neighbours and within kingdoms themselves. War was as endemic as it had ever been, but it came to be marked by increasing costs, and by a rate of return which rarely covered them: the need for those who waged it to tax ever more heavily to pay for it was visible on the horizon.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!