“Of Arms and Men”: Siege and Battle Tactics in the Catalan Grand Chronicles (1208-1387)

“Of Arms and Men”: Siege and Battle Tactics in the Catalan Grand Chronicles (1208-1387)

By Paul Douglas Humphries

Military Affairs, Vol. 49, No. 4 (1985)

Introduction: Mention of warfare in 13th- and 14th-century Europe immediately conjures visions of crusaders, Mongols on horseback, and longbowmen in Lincoln green; rarely are areas outside the conventional examinations of northern and eastern Europe considered. It was during this time, however, on the significant southern frontier of Latin Christendom, that a strong and dynamic power was rising to predominance in the Iberian peninsula and to a commanding position in the Western Mediterranean, through the abilities, accomplishments, and aggressive use of its arms. This state was the vigorous and expanding realms of Aragon – a congeries of principalities and counties, notably Aragon and Catalonia, along the Mediterranean coast of southern France and Spain, with overseas conquests.

Any questions pertinent to the whole of European land warfare at the time would be valid for the Aragonese as well, but may not necessarily yield the same answers. What was the nature of combat as then practiced by the Aragonese? Who and what was involved? How were the practicalities of battle realized on the field? And if the answers to these questions are different for Aragon than for the rest of Europe, what is the significance?

Any examination that seeks to answer these questions must be firmly rooted in factual source material of the age and area, a bill that is neatly filled by what are known as the Catalan Grand Chronicles. Of course, other sources and works besides the chronicles certainly exist, but the information contained in these four memoirs is more than enough to provide an incisive, not to mention first hand, view of Aragonese warfare.

Of these works, the autobiographies of James I and Ramon Muntaner are of most use in military matters. James, named “the Conqueror,” personally commanded armies in the campaigns which added Majorca, Valencia, and Murcia to his crown and seems almost to delight in explaining many of the intricacies of his military operations. Muntaner served as a knight and quartermaster in the famous Catalan Grand Company and therefore brings a special insight not only to actions in which he himself fought, but also to a wide range of combat operations in his chronicle that spans the years 1208 to 1327, the period of six Aragonese kings. Regrettably, the chronicle of Bernard Desclot is both less militarily focused than those of James and Muntaner and covers only the relatively short reign of Peter III of Aragon (1276-1285). The last of the chronicles, that of Peter III of Catalonia (Peter IV of Aragon), is only a bit more useful than Desclot’s; though spanning a later time frame, it actually adds little to what James and Muntaner have to say about Aragonese warfare.

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