Warfare and Society in the Carolingian Ostmark

Warfare and Society in the Carolingian Ostmark

By Charles R. Bowlus

Austrian History Yearbook, vol.14 (1978)

Introduction: The relationship between military and social organization has long been a topic of major concern and debate among scholars specializing in the history of the European Middle Ages. It is a topic of importance, for, as we who live in the modern world are aware, the ways in which any government organizes its people for warfare have many implications that go well beyond the strategy of a particular campaign or the tactics employed at a decisive battle. The rudimentary nature of the economies and governments in medieval Europe probably made the relationship between military and social organization more direct and, hence, more obvious than it is today. Peasants may have been illiterate, but they were cognizant of their obligation to serve in local levies and to provide food, fodder, and transport facilities for armies on campaign. Magnates who kept a retinue with them at all times and who garrisoned private fortresses were dependent on surpluses produced by the peasantry for the maintenance of these forces.

Many historians have regarded the eighth and ninth centuries as the formative period in defining relationships between military and social organization during the entire Middle Ages. It has been asserted that during this era European society came under the domination of a new class of warriors that consisted exclusively of men killed in the difficult art of mounted shock combat, who, firmly anchored in the saddle with stirrups and holding their lances at rest, urged their mighty warhorses into battle, scattering helpless infantry in their wake. The contention is that mounted shock combat gave birth to the feudal aristocracy. According to this theory, Merovingian armies had largely been made up of infantry, consisting of free Frankish peasants, who enjoyed a secure social position under royal protection. Following the Battle of Poitiers, however, mounted shock combat, which “joined man and steed into a fighting organism,” became the decisive tactical element in warfare. Years of specialized training were required before a man could master this kind of combat, and horses were costly to buy and keep. As a result, warfare became the exclusive monopoly of the leisured rich and of those few fortunate enough to hold fiefs from the Frankish monarchs. Thus a feudal aristocracy emerged while the free Frankish peasant, having lost his usefulness in battle, his raison d’etre, sank into serfdom. New military circumstances forced Carolingian rulers to rely more heavily on cavalry than on infantry. Although they tried for a while to protect the status of free peasants as a counterweight to mounted elites who were self-centered and rebellious, “these attempts proved illusory.”

This explanation of the rise of the feudal aristocracy in Europe still seems to be the prevailing one.  It rests, however, upon oversimplified assumptions concerning the nature of Carolingian warfare and the social organization that supported it. As Bernard Bachrach, who has examined Merovingian and Carolingian military organization, has pointed out, “the decisive arm of the military forces of Charles Martel and his sons was not cavalry.”  Donald Bullough, a British authority, has come to similar conclusions.  Central to Bachrach’s and Bullough’s arguments is the observation that mounted shock combat would simply have been impractical in many circumstances, particularly those involving sieges of fortifications or military operations in marshy areas along rivers. After pointing out that most early Carolingian campaigns involved sieges, Bachrach wrote, “If any elements of the armies of Charles [Martel], Pepin, and Carloman may be considered to have been the decisive ones, they surely were the `artillery’ which bombarded the walls of the fortified positions and the men on foot who stormed them.”

Although Bachrach does not address the social and economic ramifications of the military operations he describes, certain questions emerge from his studies. If mounted shock warriors were not the most important tactical element in Carolingian warfare, can we be certain that this period witnessed a decline in the usefulness of the free peasant soldier? Impressed labor may have built fortifications, but did only aristocrats maintain and garrison them? Royal vassals commanded sieges, to be sure, but surely such instruments of destruction as battering rams and catapults were not drawn up to the battlements and manned by a narrow elite!

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