Hastings, Bouvines, Agincourt – the Middle Ages seem to be replete with renowned battles; in fact, for a long time, the medieval war has been studied almost exclusively through the shocks recorded at the time. However, it is relatively rare to find battles in the full sense of the word: what predominates are mainly campaigns and sieges, since this is the type of actions that define the war in this period. The fact is that the number of skirmishes, singular battles, and major military clashes far exceeds that of events such as Battles of Hastings and Agincourt in the medieval world.
The paradox of medieval battles lies in the fact that they were at one time superlatively risky and very little decisive. Consequently, and despite the fact that some generals were actively pursuing a battle-after-battle strategy, most commanders opted for a contrary policy, trying to avoid clashes and only reacting in campaigns and sieges to the weight of victory. When a battle was fought, and once violence had broken out, the military chief had a very limited control over his forces.
Although on the battlefield the troops were grouped into tactical units provided with banners and heraldic emblems to facilitate the reconnaissance of the bands, the clash and the confusion of the combat, the extension of the terrain that ended up occupying the confrontations, the difficulties of communication, the emergence of exigencies and unexpected events, as well as the tactics that could take by surprise the enemy, all this generated a great disorder, which explains how much the result of the clash depended on the preparation, experience and good judgment of the chief of the soldiers and the initiative of his captains. And when the dust set by the fight settled, it remained difficult to discern what had actually happened on the battlefield.
The outcome of the battle was almost always uncertain. Despite this, many generals tried to influence the outcome and play the fate of the war in a great offensive. When William the Conqueror arrived with his army on the coasts of England in 1066 his purpose was to urge the English to fight: and after defeating Harold and the bulk of his troops at Hastings – better still, having killed the king in battle – the kingdom proved easier to subdue. The chronicler Guillermo de Poitiers pointed out that the Duke of Normandy had indeed conquered the whole of England in a single day.
Haroldo also wanted a decisive battle, and in this, he adhered to a very Anglo-Saxon strategy: the absence of large fortifications in England before the conquest, determined that these were battles, rather than sieges, that decided the outcome of confrontations.
The chronicler Orderico Vitalis offers a succinct analysis of the conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy: “The fortifications which the French call ‘castles’ were very rare in the English regions and consequently, although the English were bellicose and bold, were in a position of greater weakness to resist their enemies. ” At the end of the Middle Ages, the English generals returned to find themselves in similar military situation: the long periods of peace had made that the fortifications fell into disuse and caused that it was, therefore, stopped to attend to its repair, which forced the armies to fight on the ground instead of in siege situation.
In some of the campaigns that took place on the continent, one can observe the implementation of strategies focused on the search for the direct clash: this is the case, for example, in the little-known wars that confronted the Salian Franks with the Saxons in late Germany of the XI century and principles of the XII.
Simon de Monfort’s success in the Albigensian Crusade was due in no small part to the fact that he was determined to precipitate events on the battlefield. In 1211 he concentrated his small army in the weakened fortifications of Castelnaudary, located south-west of Tolosa, in southern France, and was soon besieged by his adversary, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. Monfort’s men took the initiative, making exits to meet the enemy and inflict an overwhelming defeat. Monfort would reiterate this same tactic in 1213, in the nearby town of Muret, and reap an even greater success. The strategy was risky, but fortune often smiles at the brave.