Thursday, 15 October 2020

What Did Medieval Battles Look Like, Really?

Today marks the something-and-somethingth anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. No, before you start, I don't have the date memorised as the point at which England began its long slide to the dogs; wikipedia told me - and in any case, England only started going to the dogs in 1832. 

Anyway, according to wikipedia, about 6,000 men are thought to have been killed in the battle - roughly 2,000 Normans and 4,000 Anglo-Saxons. That took place between 9am and 'dusk', which in Kent at this time of year must be, what, about 6pm? Let's say 9 hours of fighting, then. That's 540 minutes. Assuming the 6,000 deaths figure is accurate, 11 people were therefore killed each minute on average during the battle. Not a great deal, when you think about it - certainly nothing like what a Hollywood depiction of a battle tends to look like. 

Now, obviously, this didn't all happen at a continual rate from start to finish. We can assume most of the deaths, certainly on the Angle-Saxon side, took place in the final crescendo. Since the deaths almost all presumably happened in relatively condensed clumps, it's probably the case that an awful lot of time was spent just waiting around, jostling, manoeuvring, hurling insults, ineffectually taking potshots, the odd tussle between particularly aggressive individuals (maybe even conversations), and so on. 

You can get a bit of a sense of this from watching footage of two rival sets of football hooligans getting ready for a brawl. There is a huge amount of bluster, chanting and histrionics (not really much different to what you get to see at the chimpanzee enclosure on a visit to the zoo), and not a great deal of fighting; the kind of thing my dad, who had been to many an Old Firm game in his time, used to call "handbags at 12 paces" or "handbags at dawn". Gradually, the tension builds and builds, though, throughout the course of the day, as more and more alcohol is consumed (how many of the combatants at the Battle of Hastings were off their tits on mead?), and then, at a certain indefinable point there might be the noise of something snapping and you can sometimes get actual violence.



This is all mostly harmless hijinks for a lot of football fans, and probably almost nothing like what a medieval battle was like (as it has none of the discipline, none of the real threat of death, none of the unbelievable adrenaline rush that it must have been for the men involved), but is maybe the closest we can get to at least imagining something of the atmosphere surrounding one before it, so to speak, kicked off. It is also, not incidentally, the closest we can get to understanding how hard it must have been to train men to stand firm when charged by a large group of cavalry. 

14 comments:

  1. One of my favorite period battles on film is on Kurosawa's Yojimbo when the town's two gangs are facing each other on the street, weapons ready...but both sides are too scared to actually engage because they know they're likely to get killed. So it's back and forth taunting, a few pushes that then pull back, etc. And when a few people finally do charge, and some people get killed, both sides realize that they don't really want a part of it!

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    1. I love that scene as well, although as I remember it none of them get killed at all - just as they're about to come to blows, some official shows up in town and they all have to suddenly pretend to be normal 'civilians'.

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  2. Relatively relevant :
    https://acoup.blog/2019/10/18/collections-the-battlefield-after-the-battle/ (that blog is a gold mine methinks)

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    1. Yeah, Bret Devereaux's blog is fantastic.

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    2. Very interesting, yes. I like the point about mud. That surely comes from a kind of folk-memory of WWI that just gets reinforced in Hollywood movies.

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  3. I remember there was a period when I was reading a lot about Roman military history, especially during the republic. I recall reading that a lot of the time during a "battle" was actually spent maneuvering for an advantageous position, and that when it came to it, one of the challenges faced by both sides was forcing your soldiers to overcome their fear and actually engage with the enemy.

    Modern warfare is different, because you are more or less always in range of somebody: its one thing to shoot at someone at who can probably shoot at you if he sees you, when you are already in danger; is entirely another to march to within range of your enemy's sword or spear, when a few steps farther away is much safer. The veterans were put in the back row more or less to keep the less experienced soldiers from running away.

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    1. Yeah, that's an interesting thought. Although I have just finished reading a first-hand account of the opening months of WWI, and it seemed warfare then wasn't that much different - commanders were constantly telling their troops they would be shot (by their own side) if they wavered.

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  4. You might find Randall Collins' "Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory" interesting. I think he would agree with your conclusions.

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    1. Well, I always like people who agree with my conclusions!

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  5. I think the difference between hooligan fights and real medieval battles is less about what happens during the fight, than what happens *after*. In the medieval battle the wounded weren't patched up in an NHS hospital, if losing side they were bumped off by the victors. Even winners might well die of infection.

    6,000 dead at Hastings seems rather implausibly high to me; wouldn't that be about half the men who fought? About half those numbers seems likelier; a thousand Norman dead still seems very high though & with wounded would have badly affected William's future campaigning. I don't think it was such a Pyrrhic victory. 500 to 1500-2000 seems likelier from the accounts. Or maybe the 2000-4000 includes wounded; but I doubt 2/3 of the Saxons or 1/3 of the Normans were seriously wounded.

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    1. This is my argument with WMA. I applaud the skill and knowledge that has been developed, but I still do not think it is realistic - because in the end it is still not an actual fight to the death on the terms which originally would have applied to that kind of fighting. (I have the same problem with MMA, actually; I enjoy watching it but the fanboy obsession with its 'realism' does not persuade me; rolling about on the floor doing jiu-jitsu in the hexagon is not the same as doing it in a pub fight on broken glass against an opponent willing to bite you in the face).

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    2. Re HEMA, I think the best they can hope for is to replicate the medieval+ training practices in the manuals. You can never replicate a real lethal fight in training.

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  6. Another point Bret Devereaux makes on his excellent blog is that we find very very little evidence of post-war PTSD in ancient sources. While of course lots of people died the experience was very different than the never-ending meatgrinder of modern industrialized warfare and the actual amount of time spent in immediate physical danger was pretty low, much like what you're talking about here.

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  7. Not that it's realistic, but the fact that they actually fight in a formation in The Last Kingdom blew my mind. I've been used to movies like 300 and Braveheart where they march to battle in formation but then everyone runs around individually knocking into each other like it's a mosh pit.

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