The Military Laws of Medieval Denmark

Medieval societies needed to be organized for war - to have the manpower and resources to fight against their enemies. Issues such as who had to serve in the military and how much they should contribute were very important for every state in the Middle Ages, including Denmark. In this post, we take a look at some of the laws regarding military service in that country.

The recently published book The Danish Medieval Laws offers translations of four sets of laws that were created in that country during the Middle Ages. The laws cover a wide variety of topics, from crime, to treatment of slaves, to how inheritances were to be divided up. One set of regulations, known as the Laws of Jutland, included several sections that dealt with military service.

Depiction of an 11th century ship - from BNF MS, NAL 1390 f. 7

These laws, which were given by King Valdemar II in March 1241, explain that the country was divided into halve, or recruiting units, with each unit valued at three marks of gold, or twenty-four marks of silver. Those who lived in a halve were required to pay a tax to the king depending on how wealthy they were:

A householder who has a mark of gold’s worth of land or more shall pay the third due as military tax, because the third for military tax shall not be due from less than one mark of gold. From four marks of silver a sixth, and from two marks of silver a twelfth; from less than two marks of silver no military service is due.

The laws go into more detail to make sure there were no loopholes to avoid paying taxes - for example, monks were not allowed to buy land from which military taxes were owed, and even those who rented the land had to contribute their share.

Besides paying this tax, every householder also belonged to a ship-soke, which was responsible for building and maintaining a warship. Each ship-soke had a steersman, who was in charge of the process.

The ship and ship equipment and shields should be bought by all men who are in the ship-soke. And the steersman is obligated to build a ship for as much money as the ship-soke will pay. But if he will not settle for what they have offered, then the men of the ship can build a ship for themselves; however they must not undercut him by one or two marks. When the ship has been built, then all the men of the ship, on that day that has been set, shall launch the ship and pull it ashore when it returns, and he who does not come for this shall pay so much as penalty as it is fixed and the men of the ship agree to.

All households had to contribute a person for military service, and men were mandated to serve on a warship for one year. Men who were too old or too young did not have to serve, nor did women or ‘learned men’, but they had to find suitable replacements. Those replacements could not be slaves or hired servants - if caught, the hired servant would “lose his skin” - which means he would be whipped, while a slave would automatically become the property of the king.

A householder also had to supply arms and armor for their man - the laws state they “shall have a shield and three folk weapons: sword, helm and spear.” The steersman would also be equipped by the ship-soke:

Each steersman shall have a full man’s weapons and, furthermore, a crossbow and three dozen arrows and one man who can shoot with it if he cannot shoot.

While the Laws of Jutland offer little about what was expected of the men once they went to war, there is an interesting section dealing with stealing while aboard a ship:

If a man is accused of theft during military duty by the steersmen or by someone on the ship, and he is not taken with anything in his hands, then he shall defend himself with two men who are closest to him on the thwart on the side where he is and six others of the ship, whoever he can get. But if there are not that many, then he shall defend himself with those there are, except those who accuse him. If they convict him for half a mark of goods or more, then they shall do with him as with other thieves, and he has forfeited both the goods he has there and his capital lot at home. But if he comes home unaccused, or he promised to give oath while on military duty and did not give it before he came home, then he can defend himself with an oath of twelve.

The book The Danish Medieval Laws: The laws of Scania, Zealand and Jutland, is edited and translated by Ditlev Tamm and Helle Vogt. It is published by Routledge.

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