An episode all about Charlemagne's military.
For the past three episodes we’ve watched the mighty King Charles conquer western and central Europe. So far we’ve looked at the major conflicts across Francia’s borders but today we’re going to look at the Frankish military itself.
The Franks had been a warlike people since the late Roman Empire and probably earlier. They came into contact with Rome by fighting against it and later migrating into it. Over two centuries the Franks adopted Roman military organization, tactics and weapons. After Rome fell the Franks adapted and improved upon Roman weapons. Their sheer numbers, martial culture and superior steel-forging made them the most powerful post-Roman realm west of Byzantium. As is often the case, when one group of people dominates they often stagnate, and under the Merovingians the Frankish military changed very slowly. This meant that after a century powerful confederations of tribes led by shrewd leaders could threaten the Franks, as when Dagobert I’s armies were defeated by Samo’s Slavs. The fragmentation of Francia after Dagobert I’s death ushered in a relatively dark period in Frankish history, which ended when Charles Martel reunited the kingdoms. The astute military leader developed the army’s administration, equipment and tactics to crush his noble rivals. Martel ordered standardized equipment within the army. Sponsorship of weapons manufacturing meant that swords and spears became universal, while axes fell out of use. Archers began replacing stone slingers. Large-scale arms production meant the quality of weapons and armor also improved. By the time Charles Martel died, he had reinvigorated the Frankish military so that his troops could contend with Muslim invaders to the south and eastern tribes across Germania. Martel’s grandson King Charles built upon these innovations as he laid the foundation for military organization, administration and equipment for the Middle Ages.
Let’s start by talking about weapons. The toys that Frankish soldiers used varied based on their wealth. Every landowner in the empire had to equip themselves with weapons depending on how much land they owned; if they failed to properly arm themselves and fight the state confiscated their lands. Those who owned one division of land known as a ‘manse’ served as the infantry, while those with four or more mansi were the cavalry. Infantrymen had to maintain a shield, spear, bow and arrows. Spears were the most common weapon of the early medieval period as they were simple to make, required relatively few resources and were incredibly effective. All one needed was a long wooden shaft and a bit of sharpened steel at the end and voila, a perfect stabby-stick. Moreover, when numerous infantry arranged together in a phalanx and pointed their spears forward they created a moving wall of death. The early medieval period didn’t have the “knights in shining armor,” who were outfitted from head to toe in steel so mounted cavalry couldn’t break through infantry lines as easily.
Shields were the universal armament carried by all soldiers regardless of rank. Frankish shields were circular and large enough to cover a man’s torso. A shield’s core was wood. Leather covered the front and back of the shield and was attached by iron rivets. This leather covering softened blows from enemies, as it distributed the force across the whole shield, instead of all pressure hitting at one point.
Aside from melee weapons, infantry carried bows and arrows. In the chaos before Charles Martel there were few archers since producing bows and numerous arrows for practicing was expensive. Instead, Franks relied on stone-slingers or javelin throwers. Training with either of these was easy since stones were everywhere and with javelins you could just throw it, then pick it up and throw it again, assuming you didn’t accidentally throw it into a river or off a cliff like a colossal moron, at which point you became known as the village idiot. When Charles Martel reunited Francia, his effective, centralized state mass-produced weapons. At first, these were shields, spears and swords. His grandson Charles increased weapons manufacturing to include bows and arrows which meant Franks could practice archery. This greatly boosted the army since archers had greater range and accuracy than javelin-throwers and stone-slingers. Charles even tried to create a corps of horse-mounted archers, probably in emulation of the Huns, though this never took off.
Now let’s talk about Frankish cavalry. Wealthier aristocrats had to maintain a shield, spear bow and arrows just like their poorer infantry. In addition, they had to have a longsword, seax, horse and armor. If the spear was the standard weapon for the infantry, the longsword was the standard for the cavalry. The swords had a pommel and hilt, which usually contained a guard for the wrist. The blade extended from the hilt and grew thinner until it reached its point. This tapering off made the swords lighter and easier to wield. It also gave swords good balance. If you want to judge the quality of a sword, put your index and middle finger just past the hilt and try to balance it. If the hilt and pommel weigh roughly the same as the blade, it’s a good sword. That balance between the pommel to hilt and the blade is crucial since if both parts have equal weight you can wield it naturally like an extension of your own arm. If either side weighs more then swinging it feels unnatural and clunky.
A big misconception Hollywood gives people about swords is that blades should be stiff. If you only watch modern-day movies, you’d think that swords were reliable and could be passed down from great knights to chosen heroes in perpetuity. In actuality, swords regularly broke as soldiers repeatedly bashed them against foes in the midst of battle. Yet, superior forging techniques meant that Frankish swords were incredibly durable. Good swords were sharp enough to penetrate flesh and some armor, while flexible enough to bend if they hit a shield or other hard object, otherwise a swordsman would be left in the midst of battle with a broken weapon. Frankish swords were so flexible that some poets proclaimed they could bend the point all the way back to touch the hilt, which is definitely an exaggeration, but betokens the quality of the steel. Finally, these swords were also double-edged, meaning the swordsman could slash opponents in addition to stabbing them.
Frankish swords were among the most prized weapons in all of Europe for their quality, durability, flexibility, lightness, and beauty. The reason we know Frankish swords were so valuable was because smiths started putting inscriptions along the length of the blades. The most famous blades from this period are the Ulfberht swords. Ulfbehrt was probably a master-smith from Austrasia, the heart of Francia and the Carolingian Empire. Ulfbehrt forged swords for King Charles or his successors and inscribed his name on the blades. After his death, his apprentices probably continued the process and still wrote Ulfberht into the swords as a trademark. The Ulfbehrt swords must have been legendary all across medieval Europe. So far, 170 of them have been found, as far away as Iceland, Norway, Finland, Russia and Bulgaria. Ulfbehrt and his contemporaries started the trend of inscribing blades, which became popular during the period of high chivalry in the later 12th century, wherein so many songs and legends tell of enchanted blades with their names emblazoned on their sides.
During the 9th century cavalry did not use heavy lances because the stirrup was not widespread. The Huns introduced the stirrup to Europe and King Charles promoted its use, but the Franks adopted stirrups slowly. Without stirrups, cavalry couldn’t effectively use lances or spears as piercing weapons due to the overwhelming force from impact. Put simply, if a knight from the 12th century held a lance under his arm, charged at his opponent at full speed and hit him in the chest, his legs would brace against the stirrups and his whole body would take the impact of the blow, meaning he could probably remain on his horse and the man he just hit would be dead with a collapsed chest. If a 9th century knight tried to do the same thing without stirrups, then his upper body would receive the full force of contact and he’d be thrown off his horse. Without stirrups, heavy cavalry couldn’t use lances and had to rely on swords. Moreover, 9th century armor wasn’t as protective as in later centuries. For these reasons, the Carolingians used heavy cavalry sparingly. Instead, cavalry served as mobile troops rapidly deploying to one trouble spot or another, serving as reconnaissance, or fighting small bands of enemies.
If a cavalryman’s sword broke they pulled out a seax, which is an Old English word meaning ‘knife.’ Seax were widespread among Germanic peoples and incredibly varied. There were long-seax, short-seax, some had pommels that were as long as the blade, some were basically smaller versions of the Roman gladius. In every case, seax were shorter than swords and primarily used to stab opponents in close quarters. They were always a backup weapon, and if a cavalryman had to draw it, it meant he was caught in a desperate situation.
Now let’s talk about armor. The core body armor was chainmail. Chainmail was a tunic-like covering made from hundreds to thousands of tiny metallic rings interlinking together to form a mesh. This design allowed wearers to move easily in combat, while the hard steel protected against piercing weapons. Soldiers usually wore leather covering over the mail as an extra layer protecting against heavy blows. Wealthy Franks wore a cuirass, a type of breastplate made up of multiple pieces that covered the chest and back from the collarbone down to the hips. Thigh-plates protected the part of the leg above the knee, while greaves covered the knee down to the ankle. Finally, gloves protected the hands. Carolingian leg guards and gloves were almost certainly leather, unlike the 12th century knight who wore steel from head to pointed toe. Franks wore a type of helmet known as a spangenhelm. The simplest spangenhelms were rounded steel cones, often with hanging leather or metal flaps on the sides. Additionally, wealthier soldiers wore an aventail, a short sheet of chainmail attached to the base of the helmet that draped over the neck.
King Charles mandated that all cavalry maintain armor, though he did not require infantry to do so. That doesn’t mean poorer soldiers ran into battle with no protection. While Charles expected all soldiers to furnish armor he didn’t make it law because his kingdom wasn’t wealthy enough to ensure standardized quality for everyone. All infantry would have helmets and some protective gear for the torso. At least, if they wanted to survive to tell about it.
Now that we’ve covered Frankish weapons and armor let’s talk about military administration. Charles ordered that every imperial district had a shield manufacturer and sponsored weapons producers across the country. Those weapons went to monasteries and other royal holdings where landholders could buy them. This was a win-win for the central Frankish state since it armed his people with high quality, standardized weapons and it raised funds from selling them. Charles also forbid anyone from exporting weapons to foreigners. Anyone selling hauberks to non-Franks immediately lost their property. Selling swords to foreigners was punishable with execution.
Charles developed a substantial bureaucracy which surveyed landholdings for taxation and military service. People with 1 to 4 mansi had to furnish different levels of weapons, while nobles with 12 mansi or more had to serve and support other troops. Furthermore, wealthy Franks had to seek royal permission before forming military units, limiting their ability to rise up against him. It wasn’t just nobles who raised soldiers; cities and monasteries had to levy soldiers as well depending on how much land they held.
The most important single military unit was the royal household, which was comprised of aristocratic officers from court and Charles’ personal knights. The royal entourage must have been a sight to behold: palace soldiers had shiny white clothes made from bleached linen or woolen cloth. Their britches were made of linen dyed scarlet and embroidered. From the knee to the ankle soldiers wore scarlet linen wraps or puttees. Soldiers had leather boots that were gilded on the outside with long laces that wrapped around the puttee. The pallum, their signature woolen cloak, was dyed blue or bleached white and went down to the ankles in front and back. Officers wore horse-tails on their helmets or different colored crests. Even non-military members of Charles’ household staff wore uniforms denoting their rank. The royal household was easily the most distinct of all military units, but regional lords provided uniforms for their soldiers, leading to unique insignia and colorful clothing across Francia.
The royal military household was an extension of court as noble soldiers lived together, ate together and developed customs of politeness that may have been the precursor to chivalry. They even organized friendly competitions such as swimming races, though they always let the king win. Nobles were trained to become officers, and young aristocrats grew up with a martial spirit.
Soldiers across Francia organized into units that became fraternal communities. Most men came from the same area, were often neighbors and even related through marriage and kinship. Many units organized along ethnic lines and their members saw themselves as proudly defending their people from foreign threats. These corps developed a family-like spirit due to communal training and bonding. Soldiers engaged in competitions for who could be the best among them. Warriors raised from monasteries and churches saw themselves as men of certain saints and performed due diligence to them, such as prayers before battle.
Soldiers regularly trained with wicker shields and clubs. Their clubs were heavier than swords so that when they did have to fight they could wield a sword more easily. Officers taught their units to move in formation against a series of posts. The soldiers struck at the face, then the stomach, then the knees. They were taught to jump in, jump back and duck to the side. They were taught to jab, not slash, since slashing against armor was ineffective. In order to maintain cohesion during long trips soldiers sang while marching in formation. One chronicler records that soldiers chanted songs by the great Merovingian poet Venantius Fortunatus. This informs us that even high art made its way down the ranks as officers taught some classic poetry to their soldiers.
The Carolingians united the various peoples of their empire through religion, and likewise remade the military into a religiously-charged organization. Charles Martel, Pepin and Charles probably had a standard-bearer carry a giant cross into battle. Chaplains marched with the army to hear soldiers’ confessions. These men held small handbooks to help them with simple lists of sins and probably sped through many confessions every day. Bishops preached to the gathered host and led the assembled in communal prayer. They also instructed the men to war for Christ and the well-being of the church, rather than for worldly purposes. Men sang hymns and lauds. After battle priests led ceremonies giving God credit for victory.
Charles maintained military preparedness and cohesion by calling his army every year, even when he didn’t campaign. Charles’ professional army was in the tens of thousands, more than any other power in Europe, while his total levied forces numbered over 100,000. By gathering his soldiers he impressed upon them just how powerful he was. This was a particularly important ceremony for subjugated peoples. When the Saxon contingencies assembled at Paderborn they must have marveled at the host and realized that rebellion was futile.
The Frankish military wasn’t just large, it was also incredibly mobile. The Franks were expert horsemen and under Charles cavalry became even more important as they crisscrossed the empire putting down revolts or just travelling through territories as a show of force. King Charles was an avid student of Roman warfare and he employed military engineers in his war machine. These mathematicians had wagons to carry supplies, many with animal skins to make pontoon bridges and they could make wagons water-tight when they needed to cross a river. Charles sponsored canal-building as waterways were speedy ways to transport troops. He even tried to make a canal between the Rhine and the Danube, though this wasn’t completed in his lifetime.
Charles had towers built across his empire which could send signal fires to warn of revolts. If you’ve ever watched the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King you might recall the “lighting of the beacons” scene, where Pippin lights a bonfire on Minas Tirith’s highest tower, and then someone in a nearby mountain lights their own bonfire, then someone on another mountain lights theirs, in a sequence which sends a message across hundreds of miles. Tolkien actually got that idea from the Byzantine Empire, which had a system of fire-signaling across the Anatolian mountains to warn of Arab attacks. Since the Franks often emulated Byzantine military tactics, it’s likely that Charles got the idea from them and set up a system of beacons in conquered territories and along the border. Of course, you could only tell so much through smoke, and messengers on horseback delivered more complex information.
Under Charles the Franks developed the most impressive martial force west of Byzantium. But Charles’ greatest use of the military was as a mechanism for his empire, rather than as a weapon of war. Charles may have only been present at three battles during his 46-year reign! What made his military so successful was that it served to organize and administer his realm. The regular surveys of landholdings benefited military strategists and tax collectors alike as the former catalogued how many troops each area could furnish while the latter raised funds from the same area. Arms production and forced sales boosted state revenues and modernized army equipment. The regular assembling of the army at Paderborn impressed Charles’ power upon his subjects. Drilling and army life created a sense of unity among cohorts. Officers depended on the King for their position and so advancing in the military reinforced their loyalty to him. Priests who accompanied the armies preached Christianity and obedience to Charles’ state to soldiers, many of whom were from recently-Christianized areas. Army engineers developed roads, canals and signal towers to better administrate the empire. Finally, the creation of new forts in conquered areas developed into towns and cities run by handpicked Frankish lords. Thus, Charles’ military apparatus maintained the Frankish Empire even when it wasn’t fighting.
Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire, 2001.
Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B. Allfree, John Cairns, Warfare in the Medieval World, 2006.
Kelly DeVries and Robert D. Smith, Weapons and Warfare: An Illustrated History of their Impact, 2007.