How Did Medieval Civilians Become Soldiers?

Though it’s not as true today, we’ve traditionally looked to Medieval Europe to inspire our fantasy settings. And our fantasy settings tend to include a lot of war – because otherwise they wouldn’t be very interesting, would they?

However, we don’t put much thought into how war and armies worked in Medieval Europe. So I’m going to shed some light on this for you. It might inspire some cool stories!

If you want a comprehensive source, check out The Organization of War Under Edward III by H. J. Hewitt. It covers everything you could possibly want to know about how Medieval societies turned civilians into soldiers and got them to battlefields, as well as what they did on campaign – which I’m not covering here.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, a time when soldiers were recruited in a completely different way to how I’m describing here – but the image is cool. (source: news.sky.com)

Contracted Soldiers

In the early Middle Ages, the vast majority of military service was fulfilled through the feudal system. In theory, this meant that every lord who swore fealty to the king had to be able to raise a small army to fight for the king when needed. These men were usually equipped at the lord’s expense.

But by Edward III’s reign in the 1300s, it was becoming more common to hire soldiers directly. The nobility, who had primarily served as cavalry before, were becoming recruitment agents. In these circumstances, the king (or an agent working on his behalf) would tell the noble how many soldiers of each rank to hire, for how many days, and for how much pay. In many cases, they raised the exact number requested. Pay for all ranks of soldier was decent, the same – or even more – than the wage of a skilled labourer.

There were other incentives too: pardons for criminals, as well as the promise of paid-for equipment and the chance to loot dead enemies or even whole settlements. Of course, for some, just the thrill of war and the promise of accommodation and food was enough.

Drafted Soldiers

There were still people who were recruited because they had an ‘obligation’ to serve. To raise these men, the king would issue a commission of array. This designated a series of officers or nobles as arrayers, making them responsible for raising soldiers. Most of the time, the king would send the arrayers a message telling them how many men to raise, where to recruit them, what to do with them and where to send them.

The arrayer and his officials nearly always operated in their own county: they’d go from hundred to hundred (a Medieval English local division) picking out the able-bodied men and recruiting them. We aren’t sure exactly how the recruitment worked, and it may have varied between counties – or even individual arrayers.

In some cases, it appears that individuals could refuse to serve as long as they paid a ‘reasonable fine’, but often these problems don’t emerge – it’s possible they received more than enough volunteers, since those who joined could expect to be free of their usual toil for a while and go and see new places. We have many instances of raised soldiers being sent back home because they weren’t fit enough, suggesting either some arrayers weren’t thorough in their picking or some men were willing to lie about their health in order to serve.

Some may have been forced to serve.

Once recruited, it was the arrayer’s job to arm, clothe and feed the recruits, and either hold them until given further instructions or send them to a muster point chosen by the king and his officials.

Payment of these drafted men was often disputed. They were considered to have an ancient obligation to military service in their home county, so they weren’t paid while there. The end compromise seems to have been that their county would pay their wages once they left the county boundary and would continue to do so until their reached the muster point, usually a port, at which point the king himself would pay their wages.

The March

Once they’d signed up, the new soldiers had to go to their muster point. When we factor in inevitable delays and changes of strategy, some men could go months marching from one place to another. In Hewitt’s book there’s an account of some soldiers from North Wales who marched to Ipswich – the far east side of England – then to Portsmouth and Southampton, on England’s southern coast, and finally to Plymouth in the west, almost doing a whole circuit of southern England along the way.

It’s easy to imagine that signing up and knowing you were going on an adventure with good pay, fresh clothes, food and shelter would be exciting. However, the reality of the situation would no doubt hit home as you endured the vigorous march and found yourself further and further from home, possibly dreading the fighting that lay ahead. Though accounts are rare, we do see that some soldiers got into trouble on the march, harrassing locals and the like. Some deserted, taking their pay and disappearing. Such accounts are not numerous but they did happen.

In those times when people travelled much less than they do today, bringing men together from different parts of the country could cause tension: Hewitt details an account where a man from London and a man from Devon had their ears cut off by local mariners when waiting in Portsmouth.

Once at their muster point, they would be organised into smaller units and put under the charge of a captain or noble, who would have with him their payroll and wages. Larger units, usually led by the nobility, would then go off on campaign.

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8 thoughts on “How Did Medieval Civilians Become Soldiers?”

  1. So cool! I’ve read quite a bit about medieval warfare, but not so much about this aspect. Now I really want to buy the book you mention (but it doesn’t seem to be on kindle, so it might have to wait).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s quite often forgotten about, I think. And it is a great book! Recommended to me by my great uni lecturer, it’s a very informative book but very dry, as lots of pre-2000 academic history is 😶

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, really informative! Thanks for this, it’s helped me to organise the military in my fictional world. Couple of questions if you’ll indulge me:
    1. Were contracted soldiers soldiers by profession? If so, what would they have done when not at war?
    2. Where would the term men-at-arms fit into all this? I’ve never quite understood what they specifically were. Is it a catch all term or very specific?
    Thanks! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, now that’s a (pair of) question(s), haha.

      There was some mercenary action in the early middle ages, largely from mid 1100s to early 1200s. They caused a lot of problems for local people (for obvious reasons) and were very disliked: In England, King John used them relatively often, which only further damaged his reputation. The Magna Carta of 1215 tried to banish mercenary use.

      Then you have another ‘golden age’ of the Medieval mercenary: the Hundred Years’ War. England had money, and often exerted some control over Gascony and Aquitaine, whose populations saw themselves as distinct from the French, who lived in the north. For the English it was often easier for them to hire companies of Gascons and Aquitainians to fight in France for them, largely because it was ruddy hard to get all these soldiers in one place and then over the sea /and then/ have to conduct a military campaign. Plus, they didn’t care if the mercenaries trashed French villages. These mercenaries were called routiers at the time, from the French routes, meaning bands or groups of men. Most of these companies were led by local Gascon and Aquitainian officers, so they were effectively foreign soldiers receiving pay from the English crown to fight in foreign lands. It was predominantly the English hiring them, since they were fighting the offensive campaign.

      The folks being hired in England as contracted soldiers were less likely to be mercenaries, and more likely to be normal people who had been given a more secure contract than they might have expected in previous ages because the idea of contract law and individual rights had advanced.

      Man-at-arms is a dangerous term that means different things to different people. Most commonly, though, it seems to have been used from 1300 onwards and was a direct Anglicisation of the term homme d’armes or gent d’armes. It was necessary because, in the early middle ages, knights were the only ones who fought from horseback. But as time went on, more and more people who did not hold the social rank of knight were able to equip themselves as knights on the battlefield. So the term emerged as a way of defining the cavalry that existed, without having to refer to the social class of the people who made up that group. effectively, a man-at-arms was a mounted, heavily armoured soldier who performed the role of heavy cavalry on the battlefield, but he didn’t have to be a knight. Many were esquires, men of noble families who were not themselves knighted.

      In Hewitt’s book, he quotes the make-up of some of the units recruited by English noblemen in 1341. The largest he quotes is the retinue of the Earl of Northampton, which contained 7 bannerets (knights who had the extra right to display their colours and banner at war, and would therefore be rallying points for the units), 74 knights and 199 men-at-arms, who would all have fought as men-at-arms on the battlefield. Accompanying them were 200 ‘armed men’ (presumably light foot infantry) and 250 archers. The smallest was the unit of Robert de Ferrers, who had 1 banneret (himself?), 10 knights and 40 men-at-arms, along with 30 armed men and 100 archers. If I’m not mistaken, these units were referred to as ‘lances’ at the time, and a single ‘lance’ was expected to be self-sufficient, ie, to have light infantry, ranged capability and cavalry.

      Phew. I might have to copy this up into a post of its own! Hope it helps 😀

      Liked by 2 people

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