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Historical army organisations (slightly off topic)

Started by jone, July 27, 2004, 09:53:00 PM

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I have tried to find information about medieval armies from many sources.. and since I still don't have a clear picture, I decided to post here in the forum.

So, what I'm trying to find out is:

What was the army organisation like in about 1200-1500?

To be more specific:

What kind of units/platoons/troops were there? Divisions? Battallions? Companions? Platoons? Squads?

And about how many men were in each? What would be the smallest "group" into which men are divided? As nowadays it is just a few soldiers (squad), it must have been a lot more back in 1200-1500?

What roles did corporals, sergeants, liutenant, captains play (and were there more ranks)?

And in big wars, how many of the fighting men were just mobs without training, and how many professional soldiers?

Ok, I know these thing vary a lot according to the country and time, but I'd just like to get some guide lines. In my campaign there's a huge war raging (as one country is invading another) and I'd really like to get some advice...

Or does someone happen to know some good website regarding to this subject? I haven't found one yet.

There was a lot of questions, but I'd happy with some simple generic answers too (to take them as guide lines) :-)



Your best source of information on this subject are historical chronicles and books on the art of war.  Most modern books on this subject were written with an extreme victorian bias on pre-renaissance military tactics, giving the impression of braveheart/king arthur (the movie) type junk.
   In that time period, the traditional largest tactical organization was the battle.  There were traditionally 3 battles (imagine large rectangle formations).  They traveled in a row, and spread into 3 battles facing the enemy when arrayed for battle (given no other tactical factors).  There was a different amount of honor considered for being able to be a part of or in charge of each battle.
These were further broken into squadrons, companies and lances, etc.
   The lance was the smallest unit in a medieval army, consisting of a knight or similarly equipped man at arms and his retainers.
   A sergeant wasn't so much a rank as an experienced and well equipped man at arms or infantryman.
   Ranged weapons units operated differently from the previous formations.
   The least disciplined group would of course be peasant levies.  They may have good individual training if required by law, but only minimal orders and drills otherwise.  They would have an experienced captain placed in charge of them, with other experienced leaders delegated among them, but they were not a common part of an army really.
   You could also call the occasional overzealous knight or free company eager to charge into glory before proper orders arrived undisciplined to a degree, even if highly skilled.

That's all very minimal information, but I hope it gives you a start.


The armies of the middle ages and renaissance were quite carefully organized and planned out.

Each country had a basic idea and it tended to run along political lines. Companies and platoons were formed into regimented bodies or escouardes. The current German or British or French military organization is pretty much based upon what we see going back to the beginnings of the professional armies in the early 1500's with tweeking to allow for changes in the nature of warfare. It is a recorded fact that there were commanders of 300 man columns in Spanish armies under Emperor Charles V as far back as 1530. They translated into the contemporary rank of Colonel.

We tend to forget that the people of the middle ages and renaissance were part of an early or proto industrialized society with mass production and trade agreements. They had many of the ideas and concepts we have today, helll, they invented many of them!

An example is sword production. As early as the 1400's we see production centres such as Augsburg and Sollingen producing sword blades and shipping them off by the wagon load in barrels of oil to the local centres where the cutlers would fit them with furniture as per the customer. Kinda like a car dealership... You pick the model and the bells and whistles and then you wait for your order to arrive...

So why would their military organization be any different, even as early as the midle ages we see the seeds of platoons, companies and regiments. However, by different names...
"Don't fight your opponent's sword, fight your opponent. For as you fight my sword, I shall fight you. My sword shall be nicked, your body shall be peirced through and I shall have a new sword".


There's an Osprey book on the Burgundian armies which goes into quite a bit of detail. On top of that, I have a few printouts from military history academic journals. However, I don't have the time to read up on the stuff right now.

There are a couple of good modern books written by current scholars. In general, the newer a product is, the more trust I'd put into it. Verbruggen for example is relatively decent for SOME Questions, though I think he had little information on the topics you ask for, and what he has is questionable by today's knowledge. Plus, he is still locked into the knight-mode a bit. Newer works have finally done away with the myth of the dominance of heavy cavalry. Verbruggen's book also has the disadvantage as far as your question is concerned that his survey of medieval warfare ends in 1340. However, Verbruggen was one of the first to do away with the legend that medieval armies were totally untrained mobs.

You might also want to check the website of the De Re Militari society, They have a couple of articles as well as original texts available on their website even for nonmembers.

The best recommendation I have is, if a university is within reach for you, to try and loot the history section, copy some publications out of journals or maybe see if they offer public online access to the electronic form of the journals. I found many an article reasonably understandable even for me as a natural scientist, and what I may have missed I'd guess is negligible for most lay purposes such as wargaming or RPGs.

DON'T use Oman, Delbruck and all the other 'standards' some SCA or reenactment folks recommend as "standards", for the reasons Caz pointed out. One prominent current researcher in the field is Kelly De Vries, you might want to try and check "Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century : Discipline, Tactics, and Technology (Warfare in History)"  or "The Military Campaigns of the Hundred Years War" both by DeVries.

For earlier periods, try some works by Bernard S. Bachrach, such as
"Warfare and Military Organization in Pre-Crusade Europe (Variorum Collected Studies Series, 720) " "Merovingian military organization, 481-751 "

NOTE: Some of these books are QUITE expensive, (about 111 USD) being academic publications. Your best bet is to see if a local library has them.

Also see if you can get your hand, as described previously, on the Journal of Medieval Military History, where both of the above and others have published extensively.