This blog will focus on historical accuracy and reconstructionism but also on the contemporary religion and sometimes wander into other heathenry, like Anglo - Saxon faith, Odinism, Theodism and so on.
There will however never be any bigotry, homophobia, anti Semitism or stupid ideas of a "pure" Germanic race.
During the 11th century Normandy operated under the medieval form of government known as feudalism, or enfeoffment in exchange for obligation. Within this system a knight would be given a grant of land in exchange for service to his overlord. In the strict military sense, which is our focus here, the knight would be granted a fief, or fee, in return for a specified length of military service per year. From a military standpoint this system of government has received far more attention than it deserves. Exactly how much did this feudal system contribute to the Norman capability to wage war? Were these feudal vassals the true backbone of the Norman military machine? In his study of the knight’s fee historian J.H. Round could only find three instances where the feudal host was summoned to full service. The payment of scutage, or money in place of physical service, seems to have been more common. From this we can see that, while feudalism did indeed play an important role in administration and government, it was not a significant factor in Norman military operations. Like most societies during the medieval period Normandy was a society organized for war. Most grievances would have been resolved through military means, even if this only meant intimidation through the physical presence of an army rather than actual combat. A strong and capable military structure was needed because of this ‘negotiation through force’ approach. If the feudal host did not serve as the backbone of Norman military operations what did?
The true core of the Norman army was the familia regis, or kings military household. The troops of thefamilia were professional mercenary troops who were paid for full-time military service. It must be understood that, during the 11th century, the term ‘mercenary’ did not carry the negative baggage it does today. The modern image of the mercenary is that of an untrustworthy and unscrupulous killer for hire. In contrast the paid members of the familia often showed intense loyalty towards their lord and their lord to them. The loyalty displayed by the familia was often far stronger than that shown to a lord by his feudal subjects. Even when mercenary troops were not officially part of a lord’s familia they often displayed a sense of professionalism and loyalty far greater than their feudal counterparts. During the siege of Bridgnorth in 1102 Robert of Belleme’s garrison was made up of a combination of mercenary and feudal troops. Unknown to either Robert or his mercenaries, the feudal members of the garrison cut a deal with the besieging army and surrendered the castle, much to the dismay of the mercenaries and surely to Robert himself. William FitzOzbern, one of the closest confidants of William I, was well known for bestowing lavish gifts upon the members of his familia, in spite of incurring the king’s displeasure over what he saw as excess. Upon his deathbed Henry I, the Conqueror’s son, professed concern about the welfare and care of his familia troops. Such was the bond of loyalty that one of Henry’s last thoughts concerned these comrades in arms. The combination of money and shared loyalty created a strong bond between a Norman lord and his personal troops. A lord’s feudal subjects often expressed contempt for these paid soldiers, since they saw them as inferior and of base station. Apparently thefamilia often showed equal contempt for the lord’s ‘noble’ subjects, who they saw as dishonest and without honor. This could undoubtedly lead to friction within an army and it would take a leader as strong as many of these Norman lords to maintain control. To place the familia in a modern context we may view them as the professional active-duty arm of the Norman army, with the feudal host as a form of reserve that would be called into service in time of greater need. The presence of familia troops in post-conquest England doesn’t seem to have been as great as in continental Normandy. The size of a Norman army was limited due to issues of transport and supply, as such the Saxon fyrd continued to supplement Norman troops in England after 1066. A soldier of the Norman familia shared much in common with the Saxon housecarl. The principals of service and loyalty were much the same. Perhaps this similarity is due to their common roots in the Nordic and Germanic areas of northern Europe. As such, the professional soldiers of the familia formed the truly effective arm of Norman military might.
I have tried to avoid using the term ‘knight’ and will continue to do so. In later centuries the scope and basis of knighthood would change considerably, using it as a descriptor here may lead to a false impression of who the Norman warrior really was. The Norman soldier took two basic forms: the militeand the pedite. In their strictest interpretations these are translated into ‘soldier’ and ‘infantry’ respectively. The term equites can be translated into ‘cavalry’, although milite seems to have served this definition in the broader sense. In Stephen’s reign a miles was defined as one who held a knights fee, hence the use of miles as a descriptor for ‘knight’. Consequently, we will define the miles, or milite, as a mounted soldier and the pedite as an infantryman. During the 11th century these terms do not seem to have been used exclusively to describe those of noble birth, as we would come to expect from later definitions of knighthood. A man’s equipment seems to have been the defining factor. If a man possessed the required equipment of mail hauberk, helm, sword and horse he could be considered amilite. In an age where the horse was a main symbol of wealth and status, undoubtedly most of the feudal nobility would have occupied this role. Still, a professional soldier of the familia may not have been of noble birth but if his success allowed him to possess the required equipment he could also fill the role of the miles. Likewise, a senior infantryman might possess helm, hauberk, etc. yet still play the part of a pedite. The fact that Norman milites often dismounted and fought as pedites, or organized infantry, further muddies the waters between these two definitions. Siege warfare was a far more common event than large set-piece battles like Hastings, which tended to be very costly affairs in both men and material. Consequently, the Norman miles spent quite a bit of his time fighting on foot. Henry I made good use of dismounted troops at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. Henry was besieging the castle when his brother Robert arrived with an opposing relief force. Henry dismounted a large number of his milites and used them to support the infantry, to good effect. The common perception of the medieval infantryman as a simple peasant with a spear is a long standing fallacy. While it is true that they were generally less well-equipped than their mounted counterparts, they still played a crucial role on the battlefield. Infantry could, and often did, play a significant role in combat. William I knew the value of infantry and recruited large numbers of them for the invasion of England. If these professional mercenarypedites had not been present at Hastings the battle would have gone quite badly for the Norman cavalry. The Norman’s willingness to adapt to the tactical needs of the situation, as well as having the capability of fielding a cohesive and professional military force, cannot be overemphasized. The fact that Norman leaders were able to consistently command their mounted troops to dismount and fight among the infantry is also an indicator of their typically strong leadership. A man on horseback would have been seen as having the greater chance at fame and reward, as well as being able to retreat if the battle went badly. Only a leader with full command and control of his army could have accomplished this on such a routine basis.
Evidently the familia member was responsible for initially supplying his own equipment, with lost or damaged items being replaced by his lord as part of the service agreement. A prosperous and successful familia soldier, or feudal noble, would have possessed a mail hauberk consisting of many thousands of interlinking, riveted, iron rings. Mail was very time consuming to make and consequently quite expensive. Given its cost, the percentage of soldiers actually possessing mail at any given time is open to debate. While much of the surviving period artwork depicts large numbers of mail-clad warriors, its use undoubtedly varied with individuals as well as within familia units. Still, possessing a mail hauberk was one of the requirements for service as a miles, so when medieval muster rolls list large numbers of these troops we might assume that its use was fairly widespread. Whether or not a padded garment (gambeson, aketon, etc.) was worn beneath armor during the 11th century is a hotly debated subject within historical circles. There is no evidence for this until well into the 12th century. However, the effectiveness of a defensive system utilizing mail is much increased if padded underclothing is worn. An iron helmet, consisting of a conical skull and a simple nasal guard, would have supplemented the hauberk, although quite a few examples of period artwork show helms without nasal guards being used. In spite of its obvious popularity very few examples of this type of helmet survive. Nevertheless we can extrapolate from the surviving specimens that the helm took two basic forms: a segmented type in which individual plates were riveted together to form the skull, known by historians as the spagen form of construction, and the more expensive variety in which the helm’s skull was raised from a single piece of iron. The nasal guard itself could either be integral to the helm or riveted in place. Through period artwork it is obvious this seemingly simple helmet was quite popular for several centuries. It provided good protection for the wearer as well as good visibility and no hindrance to breathing. If contemporary sources like the Bayeux Tapestry are any indication this type of helm was the standard of the period. The soldier’s final piece of defensive equipment was the shield. The preferred shield for Norman use seems to have been the so-called ‘kite’, or teardrop, shaped shield, although the earlier round variety did remain in use. Made of wood and covered with cloth or perhaps leather, this design offered increased protection for the user’s legs, both mounted and dismounted, and by the late 11th century it seems to have become the preferred type.
The pattern-welded swords of the migration era and early Viking age had now given way to improved methods of manufacture. Smelting techniques had improved to the point where homogenous steel blades were now easier to produce, with no loss in function, and by the 11th century the more complicated manufacturing process had been replaced. The sword was still of a cutting dedicated design, with a broad, flat blade. However, as the period progressed longer blades with an increased profile taper began to be introduced. By the 11th century swords had become something of a general-issue item, no longer strictly the province of high born warriors of note. This last point may be reflected in the more austere appearance of many surviving specimens from the 11th century, although the Normans themselves seem to have been more reserved in their general tastes, so this may only be an aesthetic issue. The horse was the most expensive piece of equipment owned by the miles. As with modern work animals, such as the law enforcement canine, only certain specimens were suitable for use. A certain type of spirit and temperament was needed for a war mount, not every horse possessed such traits. Once the horse was selected for these duties, like its rider, it would undergo extensive training to make it suitable for the task. The miles would then ride this fully trained mount using a saddle with fully extended stirrup leathers that left the rider literally standing in the saddle, as well as a high front and rear cantle that did a good job of locking the rider in place. The end result was the melding of horse and rider into a stable, secure, and lethal weapons platform.
How the Norman soldier trained to use this equipment is itself cause for much debate. There is the long held opinion that medieval weapons were crude and brutish affairs that relied on brute strength and bludgeoning power for their effectiveness, this viewpoint is incorrect. Norman equipment was anything but crude and barbaric. While the various items of a Norman soldier’s kit may look uncomplicated to the modern eye, much time and effort was spent in their design and manufacture and every item was well suited for its intended purpose. The sword itself was a subtly complex killing instrument that, when properly made, possessed dynamic handling qualities perfectly suited to the required task. Surviving manuscripts from the later medieval period illustrate complex and dynamic methods of use. There is no reason to believe the training methods of earlier centuries were any less-complex. Likewise, modern medieval historians have found that training a horse to perform the task of running a tilt is a complex and time consuming affair. We can assume that training a horse to operate in tight formation, as well as performing in the confusion of the battlefield, would be even more so. While these men were professional soldiers, and in spite of the aforementioned complexities of their profession, it is unlikely that they attended any kind of formalized school as we define it today. From a very young age, men of medieval society were trained in the methods of warfare. Training with weapons began as soon as the individual was old enough, likewise with horsemanship. Norman cavalry operated in groups of 25 to 50 men known as conrois. Unity and timing would have been essential when working in a closely packed cavalry formation. Therefore, it is logical to assume that, in order for these skills to be properly developed, training was conducted in a similar group fashion. Young men may have been trained in the martial methods by assigned members of their lord’s garrison or court, perhaps a designated master of arms or castellan. The popular sport of hunting from horseback was itself a means of military training used to hone the warrior’s equestrian skills. Medieval societies were communities organized for war and life itself was their training ground. By the time a man reached adulthood the use of his mount and weapons must have been second nature.
While Norman military equipment was state-of-the-art for its time, it was not significantly different than that used by other European countries, nor was there a huge difference when compared to that used by their Moslem adversaries in the Italian campaign. The Bayeux Tapestry itself shows little difference in Norman and Saxon equipment. The Normans surely made the most of cavalry warfare. However, it would seem they simply adopted the small-unit cavalry tactics used by 10th century Byzantine armies. How then were the Normans so successful in their conquests?
One classic theory of Norman superiority relies on the invention of the stirrup. The main problem with this theory is that it cannot explain why infantry returned to dominate the field later in the fifteenth century. Why were formations of Swiss and German pikemen able to handedly defeat the best of European chivalry if cavalry was inherently superior? The earliest date considered for the stirrup’s invention is around 500 AD. By the 11thcentury the Normans were not the only people using the stirrup so this cannot be seen as any kind of special advantage. Also, if cavalry was the ultimate medieval weapon why did Norman troops routinely dismount and fight on foot? In reality cavalry is effective against other cavalry or disorganized infantry. In ages of cohesive infantry tactics, such as those of Greece and Rome, cavalry served mainly in a supporting role, this had little to do with a lack of stirrups. The battle of Hastings itself, as already mentioned, shows that massed infantry formations are quite capable of standing against cavalry attacks for extended periods of time. Therefore the use of things like the stirrup, couched lance and massed cavalry tactics cannot be seen as any kind of Norman secret weapon.
To what then can we attribute their success? As we have seen, the core of any Norman army consisted of a professional military arm. Yet it would be rather narrow-minded for us to assume they were they only ones who possessed such a force. We have already seen that the Saxon army itself was built around a similar group, so the Normans were not totally unique in this aspect. Norman society was built around the concept of warfare and their elite saw themselves as a warrior society. Still, the medieval world in general was a violent and war-strewn place and many of their enemies also possessed cultures with a warrior ethos. In areas like Sicily we may attribute Norman success to the political division and disunity that existed within the local populace. However, as with the conquest of England, the Normans sometimes faced a united enemy so this aspect cannot be seen as a catch-all solution. In my opinion Norman success can be attributed to two things that are far less tangible: leadership and luck. Throughout the 11th century Norman leaders showed themselves to be aggressive and capable. Nearly all of them, from the cruelly charismatic Robert Guiscard to the iron-fisted William of Normandy, possessed a dynamic and forceful personality that allowed them to maintain complete control of their troops in the field. Not only do they seem to have led from the front but they also believed in amply rewarding their men for loyal service, this practice can only have served to strengthen the motivation of their troops. When they did face rebellion it often came from their troublesome feudal subjects and relatives, whereas the troops of their familia seem to have been consistently loyal. In the modern world we tend to see law and religion as things which restrain us and govern our behavior. The Normans were big proponents of law and religion. However, they seem to have viewed these things as tools that could be bent to their personal use, not as legal or moral shackles. When Norman leaders decided to exercise their ambition they did so with an unwavering determination that was unsurpassed by any other people in the 11th century. They were also lucky. In spite of their military and political abilities, all too often they were outnumbered and isolated from support. In many instances where logic should have dictated a loss the Normans were victorious. Most capable military commanders have given luck at least partial credit for their success and the Normans seemed to have had more than their fare share. If there is any motto that could apply to them it is the old Latin phrase “Carpe Diem”. Throughout the 11thcentury the Norman people did indeed seize the day and in doing so made it their own.