Six Things I Learned Today about Medieval Warfare - Day 1 at the International Medieval Congress

The International Medieval Congress is held each year at the University of Leeds. Over 2200 scholars have come this week to give papers and discuss the Middle Ages. Medieval military history is a topic that often comes up, and here some of the interesting observations I heard on the first day of the congress:

1) Someone needs to research War and Famine

One of the keynote speakers, Pere Benito i Monclus of the University of Lleida, spoke on the historiography regarding famine. European medievalists fall into two viewpoints in how famines are caused - some believe that environmental factors were largely responsible for these shortages, while other find that food crises were essentially distribution crises and were largely man-made. Monclus suggests that one unexplored area of research is how much did warfare during the period, and the needs of armies, drive up prices for supplies? How much of a factor would this have been in creating short-term food crises?

2) Justifying War

In his paper ‘Violence, Vengeance and the Classification of Political Conflicts in Post-Conquest England to 1215’, Stephen D. White explains how civil wars, local conflicts, and even feuds were termed as wars in much of the literature from this period. In going to war, everyone seemingly had some legal claims for attacking their enemies. White notes there were three typical justifications:

  1. Defending the land
  2. Seeking to recover lands or a lost inheritance
  3. Avenge the wrongs, injuries and shame their enemies previously inflicted on them, their kin, or their followers.

3) The Importance of Slaves to the Carolingians

When the Vikings began raiding into Carolingian lands in the ninth-century it was often reported they took captives who would be enslaved. According to Matthew Delvaux this threatened the authority of Carolingian rulers because they were viewed by their subjects as the ones who enslaved other peoples. The Viking attacks exposed their inability to manage their system of slavery as well as failing to protect the freedom of their own men and women.

4) The Use of Captives in Denmark

Slavery was also a topic for Michael Kræmmer. He focused on Denmark between the years 1160 and 1240, when the country was involved in extensive military actions against non-Christian groups in the Baltics. Dozens of raids were carried out by the Danes, which led to large numbers of men, women and children being taken prisoner. These people would be taken back to Denmark, where as slaves they would be used to cultivate new farmland.

5) The Woman Warrior in the Medieval Context

Jaclyn Carter of the University of Calgary spoke about the ways female literary characters from the Middle Ages contributed to warfare in unexpected and unorthodox ways. From Guinevere to Grendel’s Mother, these women could be the causes of war or warriors in their own right.

6) The Cornish Military Contribution

Medieval Cornwall might have its own sense of distinctiveness, but they were also part of the English realm. Samuel Drake, a post-graduate student at Royal Holloway, examined how the region participated in the English wars of the 14th and 15th centuries, providing men who took part in military campaigns in France, Portugal and Brittany, as well as naval help to defend the sea. Drake also notes that Cornwall was often used as a staging post, where thousands of English soldiers would go to before boarding ships to sail overseas.

Look for most posts as the International Medieval Congress continues until Thursday.

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