From the late 5th century to the 15th century, Europe was in the grip of the Middle Ages. Technological progress was stagnant, the Church dominated day-to-day life, and brutal conflicts were rampant. These conflicts were not, however, the boring, unchanging slog that is sometimes portrayed in history books. In fact, there may be no period in European history so poorly understood as the Middle Ages. Myths abound, from the notion that people never bathed to the idea that everyone thought the world was flat - neither of which is true.
This is especially true in discussions of warfare in the Middle Ages. The hundreds of brutal conflicts fought during this period have often been twisted by Hollywood to create spectacular events that never would have occurred in real life. From fanciful stories of courtly knights to dramatic scenes of troops charging at one other after a passionate speech, dozens of medieval warfare myths and clichés simply do not hold up under historical research.
So, what was warfare in the Middle Ages actually like? It was brutal, chaotic, and often disgusting. Warriors struck opportunistically and used whatever tools they could find. Some of the most remarkable stories about medieval combat are true - like troops flinging the remains of their enemies into besieged cities with catapults - but others are simply long-held misconceptions.
The Reality: The classic image of a medieval stone castle was only popularized in continental Europe after the 11th century. A wide variety of fortifications were used throughout the Middle Ages, included fortresses built into caves, clay fortresses in Spain, and brick castles in Eastern Europe.
Why the Myth: Medieval writers used many different words to refer to structures, many of which were translated as "castle." More than likely, some of the castles medieval writers referred to were simply small towns with clay or brick walls. One of the most commonly used terms was "chastel," which could mean either a single fortified building or a walled-in town.
The Reality: Heavy cavalry such as knights were a key component of any medieval fighting force; however, no rules prohibited foot soldiers from wearing armor. Indeed, troops were responsible for acquiring their own armor, so any man with the means likely had at least a helmet or a chainmail shirt. Wealthier warriors - such as men of the new and rising middle class - could outfit themselves however they liked, although a full suit of armor would have been difficult to maintain for an infantryman.
Why the Myth: In part, this myth originates from Hollywood. However, the original notion is also based on misconceptions about class in the medieval world. A commonly held myth is that people were either lords, knights, or peasants. All infantrymen were thought to be peasants who couldn't afford armor, which gave rise to the myth.
The Reality: Mercy in armed engagements during the Middle Ages was largely subject to the character of the victorious leader. However, many recorded incidences of merciful conduct, particularly between Christian forces, exist from the time. Orderic Vitalis, a chronicler and monk, wrote of an engagement between the English and the French:
They were all clad in mail and spared each other on both sides, out of fear of God and fellowship in arms... they were more concerned to capture than [vanquish] the fugitives. As Christian [men], they did not thirst for the blood of their brothers, but rejoiced in a just victory given by God for the good of Holy Church and the peace of the faithful.
Why the Myth: This is another example of sensationalism in historical writing. The most gripping moments in medieval conflicts tend to be the most brutal, and so bloody fights like the Crusader attack on Jerusalem or the Battle of Hastings are remembered most prominently. However, that doesn't mean that vicious, merciless battles were commonplace. Most battles were smaller and low-stakes, which made mercy more probable.
The Reality: In the 12th century, a Muslim writer named Usama ibn Munqidh wrote, "Of all men, the Franks are most cautious in warfare." While it's true that certain moments during the Crusades were mass eliminations, such as the sack of Constantinople, much of the era's conflict was very cautious. Both Muslim and European forces avoided open conflict instead of focusing on raiding towns or capturing cities and fortresses.
Why the Myth: Certain moments in the Crusades are often emphasized because they are especially salacious or brutal. The sack of Constantinople and the storming of Jerusalem are certainly exciting moments soaked in blood, but they aren't representative of the day-to-day conflicts that ultimately decided the outcome of the various Crusades.