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Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West

A book from 2003 by Guy Halsall

People studying the first half of antiquity, with free cities and omens and cuneiform, don’t always pay attention to the very end, with kingdoms and Christians and clumsy Latin. But the people studying the end of antiquity have some exciting stories to tell, and they face some of the same problems as people studying Early Greece.

Written by Sean Manning on

About 15 years ago, a textbook was published which offered a carefully-thought-through perspective on a period of ancient warfare which earlier books covered in a lazy, naive way.

It asks questions like what fraction of the free male population served as warriors, whether much later written sources can be used to understand a period from which little writing on warfare survives, and how to relate literature, documents, art, and artifacts. However, the textbook has not received the recognition it deserves. I am obviously writing about Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West (2003); but it is useful to compare it to Hans van Wees’s Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004).

Writing a book about early medieval warfare is difficult because early medieval writers talk about war in vague and stylized ways. Most writers simply state that in thus-and-such a year there was a battle at a certain named place, involving some eminent warriors, and God granted one side victory to the sorrow of many women and children and the joy of the dogs and birds. The few texts which give more detail, like Procopius’ Wars or Abbo’s War of the City of the Parisians, are more interested in showing off their authors’ knowledge of rhetoric and old words than in plainly describing what warriors did.

Early medieval art is just as hard to interpret, and finds of weapons or traces of sieges are common in some places and times, but rare in others. Halsall chooses to start each section with a discussion of problems, such as that the weapons deposited in graves are not always the exact same weapons that the deceased carried to war, and then giving his best guess at what an aspect of early medieval warfare was like. He keeps the main text focused on sources and ways to interpret them, and keeps the names of scholars he agrees and disagrees with in the endnotes. The bibliography points readers to translations and online editions of texts and explains its system of abbreviations.

Monolithic reconstructions

Because there is not a lot of clear evidence for warfare in this period, scholars often gather as many sources from all over western Europe as they can find and assemble them into a single picture of early medieval warfare.

Halsall is not impressed with this way of thinking (p. 9):

Often the study of early medieval warfare, even when not espousing “inherent military probability” or strategic principles from other periods, has treated the entire period as a uniform whole. (…) Warfare is assumed to be unchanging between the fifth and the ninth, tenth or (especially in the study of Anglo-Saxon England) even the eleventh centuries. Various justifications for this are put forward: a supposedly unifying “Germanic” ethos, a shared Roman heritage, the common values of a “heroic society”, the apparent lack of technological development in warfare in the period, or even a “statistical” argument, stemming from the shortage of evidence described above, and endeavouring to put together a “significant” body of data.

That was how scholars thought about early Greek warfare in 1990: most books assumed that the kind of warfare in Thucydides and Xenophon must have been invented long in the past and rooted in timeless “Greek” or “Western” cultural norms, and then complained that the warfare in Thucydides and Xenophon was a lot uglier and messier than the norms they had reconstructed.

And when the idea of a hoplite revolution came under attack, some traditionalists argued that the small changes in arms and armour between 700 and 300 BC implied small changes in warfare. But we have evidence that other aspects of Greek society changed quite a bit in the same period, and if the first evidence for something dates to the fifth century BC, we can’t just declare that it was really much older.

Hans van Wees was arguing with a “California school” (J.K. Anderson, W.K. Pritchett, Josiah Ober, and Victor Davis Hanson) and their fellow travellers in Oxford and Cambridge who made ideas from nineteenth century Europe palatable for twentieth-century Americans. Hallsal takes aim at three approaches to early medieval warfare.

On one hand, he disagrees with the numerous works of Bernard Bachrach, whose medieval warriors look a lot like the Roman army and think more about numbers than about how to balance their duty of vengeance with a poorly-worded oath of loyalty. Bachrach focuses on warfare after the year AD 1000 and on a few powerful rulers like Charlemagne and Alfred the Great; Halsall emphasizes that earlier in the middle ages and away from these few energetic kings, western Europe was just too poor and too rural to support the same kind of warfare that a Trajan or Julian waged. He puts the most trust in archaeological evidence, whereas Bachrach prefers written sources and calculations based on rules of thumb.

On the other hand, Halsall does not like the people who see timeless Germanic customs behind early medieval sources. Halsall’s barbarians grow out of warbands drawn from many nations that borrowed useful ideas from Roman soldiers and officials.

On the gripping hand, he dislikes books for soldiers and wargamers. The endnotes to chapter 1 are brutal:

The oeuvre of [British historian] Janet Nelson is of greater value to the subject of early medieval warfare in theory and practice than almost anything written by a specialist military historian. Similarly, in six beautifully concise and well-informed pages of E. Christiansen’s The Norsemen in the Viking Age (Oxford, 2002), one may find more good sense on the subject of Viking battle than in the entire corpus of early medieval military history in the strict sense.

Halsall does not engage with the ideas of this third group as much as with the first two kinds of research, so without seeing their arguments I do not know whether this is fair.

In his book, Hans van Wees also does not engage with one important point of view. If a late text like the Aristotelean Constitution of Athens reports a “law of Solon” passed 250 years earlier, he tends to believe it and not cite the people who are worried that all kinds of things were attributed to Solon or that it could have changed in the telling (Van Wees 2004, pp. 55-56 and note 28; the article by Vicent Gabrielsen below has some pointed responses).

Eastern parallels

I was stuck by the similarities to warfare in ancient Mesopotamia. This goes beyond scholars who were more concerned with the arrangement of forces in heaven than troops on the battlefield, and kings who felt obliged to march to distant lands, fight their unruly inhabitants, and bring back exotic treasures and stories about how the people had submitted to their yoke. In ninth-century Italy, the three duties of free men were to serve in the army, maintain bridges, and attend law courts (p. 31).

In Assyria and Babylonia, from the first administrative texts to the centuries after Alexander, the kings expected subjects to serve in the army and maintain canals, while the citizens were very keen on their right to assemble and decide. Idrimi of Alalakh boasted that when he invaded Hatti-land, the people of the land did not assemble and face him: 2200 years later, Charles the Bald ordered that when his kingdom was invaded, all free men should gather and confront the intruders (p. 99).

In post-imperial Gaul, most bridges seem to have been pontoons (p. 219, 220): the only permanent bridge over a major body of water in the Achaemenid empire that we know about was at Babylon, and even there the decking could be removed in times of high water.

One significant difference is that in Mesopotamia, sources on warfare tend to stop being written whenever a powerful king lost control. In early medieval Europe, the church always existed and supported a few poets and chroniclers who recorded the deeds of petty rulers. Some early medieval writers kept up the Roman tradition of commenting explicitly on their own society, whereas Assyrians and Babylonians rarely explain how something in their society is done.

Another diference is that in Europe north of the Alps, there were few significant towns in this period. Halsall suspects that this tilted early medieval warfare towards battles where the victors could kill the enemy leaders and take their fast horses and bright broaches, and away from the sieges which were so important in later medieval – and earlier Near Eastern – warfare (pp. 160-162).

Tactical flexibility

Halsall sees high-status early medieval warriors as able to fight on foot and on horseback, with bows, throwing spears, or swords, in skirmishes and open battles (p. 166):

Sometimes the capitulary evidence, which requires Frankish nobles to appear at military musters with the usual heavy cavalry equipment and a bow and quiver of arrows, has been assumed to mean that the cavalryman brought along a bow-armed dismounted retainer. However, this assumption stems from modern ideas about rigid functional distinctions between “cavalry” and “infantry”, “light infantry” and main line-of-battle troops. The trained early medieval warrior was expected to be a master of numerous skills, including mounted and dismounted, distant and close-quarters fighting.

Warriors may have mounted and dismounted over the course of a battle depending on the tactical situation, like the Frankish and Lombard horsemen in the Strategikon of emperor Maurice. This reminds me of the Late Bronze Age chariot warriors with their modular armour and rack of swords, darts, and axes next to the quivers on their chariots, but the Achaeans in the Iliad are expected to know how to row a galley just as much as drive a chariot, and lay an ambush or rustle some cattle just as much as wave their swords amongst the front-fighters.

Halsall blames modern military theory and tables of organization for giving researchers the idea that warriors must be either infantry or mounted infantry or cavalry, and either close-fighters or shooters-from-a-distance (p. 180, 181). I would trace this back to the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Archaic Greece (and its surprising that someone who has strong opinions on who read Vegetius in the Middle Ages does not cite the “light” and “heavy” infantry in Vegetius, de Re Militari ii.15!), but I like the idea of armies divided between a highly skilled social elite with access to horses and a mass which had to fight on foot and lacked the leisure to master so many different ways of fighting.

Sources on warfare in early medieval Europe, like warfare in archaic and classical Greece, are in tension between an idea of a warrior as a free landowner with bow and arrows or spear or shield (representing, say, one third of the adult male population) and the idea of a warrior as a leisured landlord with a horse and a sword (representing, say, one tenth of the adult male population). Halsall thinks that the second kind of warrior was more important, especially after the year 600, but in some places admits that the evidence is very limited.

One of the problems was that allowing more men to fight in a prestigious way had political implications. Farmers in early medieval Gaul did their best to become Franks because being a warrior who spoke in the assembly was better than being a peasant who paid taxes and deferred to his betters (p. 47). Carolingian landlords who slaughtered farmers who were organizing to fight the Vikings (pp. 32, 117) did so because if the farmers were successful, they might ask why they were paying for the magnates’ halls and horses.

Given the limited evidence for the demographics of archaic Greece or early medieval Europe, thinking about the tension between these two groups of potential warriors might be a way out of endless tendentious arguments that armies consisted of either one or the other.

A world of further possibilities

Like any other one-volume study by a single author, this book has limits. It keeps its focus on warriors who spoke Germanic or Romance languages (and has less to say about Arabs, Slavs, Wends, Magyars, or East Romans). The plan was for readers interested in other cultures to study volumes in the same series on the Vikings, the armies of the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates, and east Roman armies (pp. 12-14), but of course wars and warriors cheerfully crossed these cultural boundaries.

In the study of archaic and classical Greece, as scholars realized that not everything Greeks wrote about foreigners could be trusted, they sometimes stopped saying anything about foreigners at all and created the impression that “Greeks”, “Thracians”, and “Lydians” existed in different worlds rather than feasting, fighting, farming, and fornicating side by side.

I would like to see a book which builds on this series and talks more about the Franks in their Eurasian context, or a book on warfare in early medieval northern Europe which centres the archaeological evidence and does not worry too much what language the people buried in a cemetery spoke or what modern state claims their bones. This book has little on ships, boats, and related matters. The early medieval period saw some impressive maritime expeditions, both in the Mediterranean and the northern seas, even if they were mostly carried out by the nations which are not the focus of this textbook.

There are no illustrations except a few charts and a handful of maps stuck at the beginning and never referenced again. Halsall is hard on “antiquarianism” and “picture-books” (pp. 10, 14), but weapons and paintings are just as much primary sources as annals and epic poems, and to understand medieval warfare you have to understand medieval geography as well as medieval mentalities. Unfortunately, acquiring rights to photos and designing maps take a great deal of time and money, and authors have to divide their time between writing the book and planning the maps, drawings, and photos.

Finally, one or two arguments in this book are not thought through. Page 173 tells us that “almost everywhere from Scandinavia and Scotland down to the Mediterranean coasts, most early medieval warriors at least campaigned on horseback. Whether or not, or in what circumstances, they dismounted to fight, the bulk of post-Roman armies travelled by horse.” An end-note refers us to pages 185 and 186 which list texts which mention armies of foot and horse, texts which describe lords and their retinues fighting on horseback, and very rich graves which contain horses, saddles, and tack.

This section concludes that “it is clear that warriors from across Europe were usually horsed”; that is not at all clear to me, because I know that “some hens are red” does not imply “most hens are red.” Elsewhere he hints that over time the lords and their households elbowed the people-in-arms off the battlefield, and I think that is a much more fair interpretation of the evidence he provides us. In other respects this is a logical, empirically grounded book.

Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West is clearly written, gives its best guess at questions which it can’t answer on the basis of early medieval sources alone, and addresses themes and methodological problems which historians studying other aspects of early warfare are interested in. It speaks to people who are most interested in the middle ages, and to people who are interested in how to build models from written and archaeological evidence. If you are interested in the horse-fighters and King’s Troops of the first millennium BC, this book is worth reading.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • John Darnell and Colleen Manassa, Tutankhamun’s Armies: Battle and Conquest During Ancient Egypt’s Late Eighteenth Dynasty (2007).
  • Tamás Dezső, The Assyrian Army I. The Structure of the Neo-Assyrian Army (2012).
  • Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC (1993).
  • Vincent Gabrielsen, “The impact of armed force on government and politics in Archaic and Classical Greek poleis: a response to Hans van Wees”, in: Angelos Chaniotis and Pierre Ducrey (eds.), Army and Power in the Ancient World (2002) pp. 83-98.
  • William J. Hamblin, Warfare in the Ancient Near East: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History (2006).
  • Walter, Mayer, Politik und Kriegskunst der Assyrier (1995).
  • Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004).
  • Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands (1963).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.