The recruitment of armies in the early middle ages: what can we know?

The recruitment of armies in the early middle ages: what can we know?

By Timothy Reuter

Military Aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective, Ad 1-1300: Papers from an International Research Seminar at the Danish Museum, Copenhagen, 2-4 May 1996, edited by Anne Norgard Jorgensen and Birthe L. Clausen (Copenhagen, 1997)

Introduction: The study of medieval warfare has probably both benefitted and suffered from the lengthy peace which the OECD countries at least have enjoyed since the second world war. Historians of my generation have not only rarely heard a shot fired in anger, they have seldom had contact with those who have. This may perhaps have freed them from certain kinds of subject-specific concerns: just as historians of monasticism from within the monastic orders are inclined to posit a set of timeless monastic values with which all true monasticism of whatever period conforms, so military historians are prey to the assumption that there is a certain timelessness to warfare. But the price of freedom fro such preconceptions has undoubtedly been that most medievalists — and I include myself here — no longer have the practical experience which might on occasion save them from talking nonsense about military matters.

Discussions of recruitment and the composition of armies have been affected not so much by developments in military history as by a different set of prevailing trends in medievalists’ interests: ‘constitutional history’, which two generations ago lay at the core of our subject as most of us conceived it, is no longer studied so intensively as it once was. The recruitment and composition of armies has traditionally been at least as much a concern of constitutional as of military historians, because of its links with things like ‘feudalism’ and the powers of rulers over their ‘subjects’. This should be borne in mind when considering what follows. What I intend to do is to look at the different ways in which armed forces could be put together in Europe in the late Merovingian, Carolingian and post-Carolingian eras, and then to go on to the much trickier question of how far we can tell how any particular army was put together on specific occasions. As you will see, I shall be arguing that we know quite a bit about how armies could be assembled, but that we need to show a considerable degree of scepticism when considering how any specific army was assembled. The potential sources of military manpower fall into four main categories: households, mercenaries, followings, and conscripts. They overlap in practice, but the categories are convenient nevertheless. In the first part of my paper I propose to discuss these four groups in turn; in the second, I shall turn to the question of numbers and relative importance, and their implications for the composition of armies. I shall not be talking about fortifications and garrisons, for reasons of time.

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