Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300

By John France | Go to book overview

Chapter Twelve

Campaign, battle and tactics

Battle, it is often said, was relatively rare in medieval warfare. This statement requires some modification: we discount many incidents because by our standards they appear to be minor, and our sources tend to emphasize the great events. But this is war seen through a distorting mirror, and we need to be aware of this. The actual experience of battle, of close-quarter fighting in small units, must have been common amongst the arms-bearers of medieval society.

Every commander, every notable who aspired to influence in his theatre of power, had to contemplate battle. Without the will to battle, all other military activity was bluff, for in the end it was the ultimate hazard. And it seemed to offer the hope of decision, which was alluring. In 1044, Geoffrey Martel was besieging Tours when the Blésois advanced to relieve it. His Seneschal, Lisoius, advised him: “Leave the city which you are besieging. Summon your men from the fortifications, and you will be stronger to defend yourself. I shall hasten to you when you want to fight a battle. It is certainly better for us to fight together than to fight separately and get beaten. Battles are short but the victor's prize is enormous. Sieges waste time, and the town is rarely taken. Battles overcome nations and fortified towns, and an enemy beaten in battle vanishes like smoke. Once the battle is over, and the enemy beaten, there is a great domain waiting for you around Tours.” 1

This pursuit of decision explains why battle was so often contemplated and the merits of taking this course vigorously debated. Baldwin V of Hainaut considered and rejected it in 1184. Saladin's attack on Tiberias in 1187 precipitated a bitter debate, and both sides discussed the matter before Bouvines on 27 July 1214. In fact, commanders were well aware that battle was easy to lose and might sometimes have limited results, but it offered the exciting lure of decision, the opportunity to put one's case to the trial

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