Sunday, January 1, 2017

Were medieval battles as brutal as in the movies?

Morgan Jones,  studied Medieval Warfare at University of Oregon

No they were not.
Soldiers fought in formation (instead of breaking off into a bunch of mindless solo melees where they were surrounded by enemies on all sides). They wore armor (which is much more protective than shown in the movies) and often had shields. The result basically meant it was much harder to kill people, if you got injured you could usually back out of the fight and let the men behind and to the side of you continue on in your stead, meaning that being on the front line wasn’t a death sentence. Battles were usually much longer more drawn out affairs, but eventually a line would cave in or moral would break and an army would flee. Almost all of the killing would actually happen after the battle was finished and the enemy army was on the run (no longer fighting back). It was rarely important to exterminate the enemy army - just defeat it, and after the initial route, any remaining enemy soldiers - particularly the nobility - would often be spared (though not always).
Soldiers were humans, and humans don’t like to die. Armed men would try everything they could to avoid fighting other armed men. There are many reports of soldiers refusing to fight each other, just standing at a safe distance trying to keep the other army at bay. Very rarely would soldiers actually meet each other in pitched battle. Most wars were fought by opposing forces who avoided each other at all costs, and pillaged the peasant population of either side instead. You could get a lot more resources by pillaging the working class, damage the economy of the country much more, and at significantly lower risk of your own life in the process. Field battles were extremely rare, and they are all so idolized in history because of how few there actually were. In order for 2 armies to meet in pitched battle, they would both have had to have seen each other and both decided that they had good odds of winning the fight. If one army had less men they would simply run away, only under specific circumstances (such as holding a chokepoint) would an army fight a seemingly losing battle. Siege battles were also very uncommon, usually the invading army would simply camp outside the fortress and raid the countryside for supplies while the resident force slowly starved. Eventually one side would out-resource the other and the losing side would give up.
That all said, when shit hit the fan and your life was on the line, you fought like hell and payed a bloody price, but as a whole hollywood vastly over-dramatizes and misrepresents the brutality of medieval warfare.
I would definitely recommend checking out Scholagladiatoria and Lindybeige, both excellent YouTube channels from creators who have a vast amount of knowledge on these subjects.