Battle Tactics: How Fantasy Elements Can Change Medieval Warfare

I have a similar post on Classical Warfare: LINK

I am not the biggest fan of the middle-ages these days. I love that that fantasy fiction is branching out into other periods. As a kid I was all about Knights, Crusades, and Castles but these days I realize that the Medieval period was a pretty tough time for Western Civilization; the rest of the world had much more interesting time of things; Islamic Civilizations were flourishing, the Mongols and Vikings were making an impact, China was lofty and mighty, and Japan was getting very interesting. Nonetheless, no matter how much I try to distance myself from that period, there is an undeniable appeal to the middles ages. I enjoy a wondrous tale with Castles and Knights as much as any other form, but I do grow tired of the elementary mistakes that some authors make when they add Fantasy elements into their battle scenes.

Take fortifications as an example. The castles of the middle ages were made to ward off assault by anything and everything that could be brought against them. However, Fantasy elements change the field dramatically. What if necromancy is commonly used in warfare in your world? A castle will have to change to ward off ghosts and attack by incorporeal entities. Perhaps the walls are lined with lead, have a prayer sealed in each stone, or runes written on the bricks to keep them out. The graveyards and refuse pits will look very different if your enemy can raise the dead to fight for them (just ask any Dwarf Fortress player). A moat is not much of an obstacle to some kids of zombie attack. I like it when an author put some effort into considering the effects of the more common Fantasy elements on their world. Castles were ubiquitous because they were pretty damned effective.

I’ll start off by detailing the more common features and tactics of Medieval warfare. This is very, very general and covers a big period of time.

The Knights

Knights are a staple of Fantasy. Trained from a young age to fight on foot and from horseback they are the pinnacle of combat at the time.

  • Cavalry Warfare dominated the middle ages. Many tacticians at the time felt that the Knight’s charge was an unbeatable tactic (not true. really, but it was the dominant tactic).
  • Knights wore expensive custom fitted armour that gave them a huge advantage over the majority of soldiers of the day. Even early Chain Hauberks provided superb protection and later suits of armour were almost impenetrable. Scholars still argue about how good plate armour was, but even those arguments range from really effective to crazy effective. All you need to know is that it could stop a lance strike and most arrows would deflect right off a cunningly angled suit.  However, the weight of the armour meant that all but the hardiest of wearers would tire quickly if they had to fight on foot.
  • A Knight’s Horses are of singular importance. A good horse had to be well-trained, since being thrown in the middle of a battle could be very bad. As the weight of armour grew, bigger horses were needed. Eventually even the horses were heavily armoured.  At the height of the middle ages there were many different breeds and types of horse, all used for different purposes. Feed for horses was a logistical concern as well.
  • Due to the expense of the armour, horses, and proper weapons Knights were relatively rare. Battle descriptions at the time listed them separately from soldiers.
  • Knights were an aristocratic warrior class, much like modern view of the Spartans or the Samurai. We often look down on them these days, but a properly trained Knight would have been fighting since a young age and expert in the use of horse, armour (yes, using armour is a skill), and multiple weapons. They were pretty serious business.

Swordproof. Imagine how modern warfare would change if soldiers were as bullet resistant as armoured vehicles.

Castles

Castles are another staple of the middle ages. Many of the most impressive of them were nearly impregnable, vulnerable mostly to treachery or starvation. At the time secular power was far more based around force and loyalty, which made control of territory based around what you could hold through strength of arms (big generalization). Castles and strongholds were the focal point of this system. They required that an invader stop and attack them, or risk having their supply lines attacked if they bypassed the castle. Attacking the castle took time, which would allow the defending power to muster a force to counter the invader.

  • The science of fortification advanced throughout the middle ages and even beyond (I’ll talk about Vauban and the Star Forts when I cover later periods)
  • They were often built in places where building siege engines was impractical, and nobody likes dragging a trebuchet around or trying to find ammo for the things. Even if an enemy did manage to get one in place, rubble filled walls and sally ports could frustrate their use.
  • Gate mazes, Barbicans, Moats, Murder Holes, and Machicolations are just some of the crazy defences that made attacking a well stocked castle a tough proposition.
  • Castles were bloody expensive (including maintenance), and took a long time to build. Many were improved over lifetimes. The inheritance of a strong castle was an issue of tremendous importance.
  • Castles also acted as the muster point for footmen.

Krak de Chevaliers. You won’t have fun storming this castle…

Footmen, Archers, Mercenaries, and others forces

Professional Armies, like the Legions were a thing of the past during most of the middle ages. The Dark Ages had resulted in a serious decentralization of power, at least secular power. Each lord was responsible for bringing his own troops to battle. Some free yeomen had to be able to equip themselves and fight, but this was rarer. Archers were somewhat useful for breaking up a charge and more useful for hurting enemy footmen, but it was cannons and the centralization of power not the Welsh Longbow or the Crossbow that ended Knighthood.

  • Footmen were armed and armoured according to the standards of their lord. Polearms and spears were common since they helped unhorse a knight or opposing Cavalry. Despite this the battle between Knight and footmen was extremely unequal at the best of times. 
  • Levies were often little more than fodder who would try to finish off/capture unhorsed knights.
  • Archers were mostly useless against a well equipped Knight on the field. Specialty archers/crossbowmen found some success, but these were rarer (It is also a matter of great debate). Archers were always vital to siege warfare.
  • Professional footmen and specialist troops found in mercenary companies, papal armies, and fighting for rich lords were much more effective. Some of these could even stand up to a charge when in proper formation. Later in the period centralization of power would put these footmen would put these footmen on a more even footing with Knights with better equipment and training.
  • Skirmishers still acted as an excellent screen, when used.
  • Cavalry units other than knights were less common, but still used.

Tactics in the Medieval Period

Tactics in the medieval period were a bloody mess. The decentralized nature of power meant that drill and training were reserved for the Knights and those who could afford mercenaries, veteran footmen, and the very very wealthy lords who could field sizable forces. This bring your own approach made for a rather chaotic battlefield.

  • In open battle one could expect a charge by knights, sometimes supported by heavy cavalry. The real danger would be opposing knights for the most part. Being unhorsed left a knight in a bad position due to the weight of armour. They weren’t helpless, just actually vulnerable to mass attack by footmen or any attack by another knight. The charge would mow down any footmen it encountered, unless they were well trained and equipped. Archers might give one side an advantage here by breaking formations or maybe downing a few knights. 
  • More intelligent commanders often held the Knights in reserve instead of opening with them. Hitting an opposing group of knights while they were bogged down with footmen was a favoured tactic.
  • Battles tended to take place in the open. Knights kinda sucked in forests.
  • Siege Warfare was an entirely different matter. Knights were far more vulnerable. Archers were more effective. Often the attacker just starved the defender out, but if a tough castle needed to be taken and treachery was not an option it got real ugly real fast.
  • Borders were much more fluid, and front-lines were almost unheard of.
  • Being able to cut an enemy armies supply train could lead to their defeat before the battle even started. Foraging was possible, but living off the land was not the best option unless there was a town that could be plundered.

There is a great deal more complexity to it than that, and a fair bit of academic controversy over how effective certain tactics and arms really were, but it gives a decent overview of the nature of warfare in this period. Enough at any rate to see what the introduction of some fantasy elements will do to a medieval world.

Mounts, Magical Equipment, and the Knight

Knights were outfitted with the best arms and armour. Period.. The more powerful the knight, the better their equipment. Can’t afford the gear? You might be out of the club. In a Fantasy setting this gets very interesting.

  • If enchantment is possible, Knights will enchant weapons and armour. Depending on the rarity of magical arms this might further stratify the Knightly caste with those who are able to afford enchantments or have access to an enchanter having an advantage over their peers. 
  • If armour can be enchanted or made from materials that can resist more advanced missile weapons it could extend the age of chivalry significantly.
  • Just like armour and weapons Knights will have the best mounts they can get. Different mounts can change the face of medieval warfare. If your Knights ride Griffons a fall will be more lethal and castle defences will have to incorporate some war of repelling/resisting aerial assaults. Unusual mounts require different foods and thus change the nature of the society that provides their needs. Dragons might be brilliant mounts with the fire-breathing and the flying, but all that meat has to come from somewhere… and what if they are particular to say, people?
  •  The nature of Knightly power rested in being the best. Once other forms of combatants could challenge them, they vanished from the field.
  • Knights with magic or personal enchantments become very interesting. David Farland’s Runelords series has a great take on a knightly system where the dominant class borrows the strength of others, creating super-human knights. Increased strength allows a knight to wear more armour and carry heavier weapons.

Opposing Tactics

  • Armoured Giants or trained ogre footmen could put an end to the knightly order (or create a new one I suppose) if used frequently. If Knights aren’t the pinnacle combatant on the field they become too expensive to be useful.
  • Fantasy Horde tactics are not that effective against Knights. (The Mongols were a horde, but they used very intelligent tactics) Poorly equipped and trained orcs would not fare that much better against Knights even with their superior strength and toughness. They would need to be able to form up and use pikes to stand against a charge or use some of the tactics that the Scots used against the English armies. Tolkien is quite right to have the Rohirim run roughshod over the Orcs on the plains before Minas Tirith.
  • Orcish knights on the other hand…
  • Terrain plays a big factor in Knightly Dominance. Knights are less effective in forests, swamps, and cities.

Magic and the Nature of Feudal Power

  • Wizards change medieval warfare. If wizards can use spells that can get through armour at a rance and are common enough to be used in warfare, the age of Knighthood is likely over (unless your knights have some form of defence against magic). 
  • Fortifications become less useful if they can’t stop a wizard.
  • If magic is hereditary and powerful then wizards will likely replace Knights at the top of the feudal food chain. This is something that annoys me to no end in Fantasy fiction. Feudalism is based on inheritance of power. In theory the aristocrats were a finer breed, but in truth their power was in wealth, weapons, training, and castles. If magic is hereditary and powerful then it becomes the new basis for feudalism, unless some other factor prevents it (and don’t say religion, or I’ll say divine kingship). The same is true for any form of hereditary magic power such as a mystic birthright that makes a family stronger. Unless the Knights have some sort of trump card they become a lesser order that is too expensive to maintain. I have serious problem with Fantasy novels that portrays magic as both powerful and hereditary, and still have non-magical knights ruling over society. Unless something is limiting the wizards their power would dictate that they become the centre of the feudal structure or at least a competing power.

There are a host of other Fantasy elements that change the structure of Medieval Warfare, the best approach is to sit down and consider what impacts a new element will have on the dominant assets (knights and castles) and tactics of the day. Often these details can make for exciting battles in your game or novel that will resonate with readers, and perhaps even lead to some truly interesting world building.

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One comment on “Battle Tactics: How Fantasy Elements Can Change Medieval Warfare

  1. […] the classical battlefield or the wars of the middle-ages pretty easily (if you don’t read this and this). Fireballs could blast formations to pieces and hereditary magic could bump the knightly […]

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