Techniques of seigneurial war in the fourteenth century
By Justine Firnhaber-Baker
Journal of Medieval History, Vol.36:1 (2010)
Abstract: Despite the many studies devoted to medieval military history, most work has concentrated on royal wars, neglecting the petty seigneurial wars that made up most of the large-scale, organised violence of the middle ages. This article, based on judicial records for dozens of seigneurial wars waged in fourteenth-century southern France, shows that lords’ tactics were not keeping up with those of royal commanders. Although royal wars increasingly involved large numbers of foot soldiers, large siege engines, and artillery, local lords’ bureaucratic and financial limitations restricted their adoption of new techniques. As had been the case for centuries, most lords’ wars were focused on causing economic damage and affective trauma through raiding. After the first phase of the Hundred Years War, local lords began to employ significant numbers of mercenaries, allowing them to wage war more frequently and perhaps making their wars more violent, a development which partly reflects the economic pressures of the period.
Introduction: The mechanics and strategies of medieval warfare have been the subject of study for two centuries or more, but nearly all work has concentrated on the wars of great princes and kings. The Hundred Years War, for example, has generated exemplary studies like Philippe Contamine’s Guerre, État, et société à la fin du moyen âge and the essays edited by Anne Curry and Michael Hughes in Arms, armies, and fortifications in the Hundred Years War. Yet, most of the large-scale, organised violence that took place in the middle ages did not happen under a royal or national aegis, but was instead committed by lords in the innumerable ‘private wars’ that they fought against one another. As Contamine himself observed, we know almost nothing about how these wars were waged. The lack of information about such local conflicts has left scholars simply to assume that they were like royal wars but on a smaller scale. This may have in fact been true for much of the middle ages, especially on the continent after ad 1000, when many lords were quasi-independent, as their bureaucratic, financial, and diplomatic needs and capabilities differed little from those of the atrophied monarchies. By the fourteenth century, though, the paths of lords and kings had begun to diverge as the latter gained complex administrative and fiscal capabilities.
A regional study of southern France based on about 500 documents from court cases involving seigneurial war gives valuable insight into the mechanics of this widespread practice and the relationship of its methods to those of royal warfare. These records — drawn mostly from the royal court known as the Parlement of Paris and lettres de rémission (royal letters of pardon) — show that southern lords waged somewhere been 59 and 72 wars between 1300 and 1400. The sources usually use the same word for seigneurial wars that they do for royal wars: guerrae. These wars, fought by the hereditary nobility, ecclesiastical lords, and even municipalities, generally arose over claims to lordship: conflicts over inheritance, over the possession of a castle, over the marriage of an heiress, over the right to execute justice or to collect taxes, and so forth. They were not ‘feuds’ in the sense of cyclical, vindicatory violence waged by kin groups, but rather political struggles pursued through military means. Vengeance entered the picture in that one had to preserve one’s rights and save face if attacked, and no doubt there was emotional satisfaction in defeating one’s opponent and getting one’s way. As I will discuss later in this article, the public performances of dominance and submission that warfare entailed were also a powerful impetus for violence. But the ultimate cause of these conflicts was not wounded honour or anger, but land, money, and power. In this they were similar to the wars of kings and princes, which had profoundly important affective dimensions but which were primarily fought over territorial and political claims.