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Myths About Medieval Warfare, Debunked

Updated October 18, 2019 11.1k votes 2.0k voters 337.7k views14 items

List RulesVote up the myths you always thought were facts about war in the Middle Ages.

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.

  • Photo: Antony McCallum / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    MYTH: Stone Castles Were Common Throughout The Middle Ages

    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.

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  • Photo: Francisco Pradilla Ortiz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    MYTH: There Was No Mercy

    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.

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  • Photo: Adam Stefanovic / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    MYTH: Full-Body Armor Was Reserved For The Wealthy

    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.

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  • Photo: Andrea del Castagno / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    MYTH: Knights Were Chivalrous By Nature

    The Reality: A knight was just an armored man with a blade. A code for knightly conduct was developed throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, specifically because knights were incredibly brutal and bowed to no laws. The Church attempted to curtail these tendencies after the attack on innocent civilians in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade - and this was far from the first time knights had committed such atrocities during the course of their campaigns.

    Why the Myth: In part, the "chivalric" code developed because the Church was trying to impose rules on wayward knights. The romantic literature of this era further developed the idea, giving rise to some of the notions about knightly conduct many people believe now. Unfortunately, romantic stories are often confused with knights' actual behavior.

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