Home Forums Medieval How often did melee troops actually close to melee?

This topic contains 9 replies, has 5 voices, and was last updated by Ruarigh Ruarigh 1 month, 1 week ago.

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  • #88226
    Ivan Sorensen
    Ivan Sorensen
    Moderator

    One of the things I see very commonly in black powder era texts is that there’s a lot of “charging” but not very much “hitting each other with sticks”: Usually one side or the other gives way first.

    In medieval era warfare, if you had to hazard a guess, how often would one side give way versus how often did two infantry formations crash into each other and fight it out?

    I should clarify I am thinking primarily of infantry vs infantry here, not horse.

    Any notable examples?
    Medievals is totally outside my normal sphere of reading, so any book recommendations are quite welcome too.

    • This topic was modified 1 month, 2 weeks ago by Ivan Sorensen Ivan Sorensen.

    Nordic Weasel Games
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    #88235
    Thaddeus Blanchette
    Thaddeus Blanchette
    Participant

    Human nature being what it is, I’d say not that often, actually.

    We get slapped around, but we have a good time!

    #88236
    Not Connard Sage
    Not Connard Sage
    Participant

    Human nature being what it is, I’d say not that often, actually.

     

    Battlefield archaeology across Europe being what it is, I’d say quite often, actually.

    http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/916452.Skeletons_of_bloodiest_day_/

    How the bones of 1185 soldiers became part of the largest battlefield skeletal collection

     

     

    "I go online sometimes, but everyone's spelling is really bad. It's... depressing."

    #88255
    Ruarigh
    Ruarigh
    Participant

    It would be interesting to know how much time was spent hitting each other versus standing just out of reach and yelling insults, given that battles like Towton are supposed to have lasted all day. Also, how many of the wounds were to the front versus how many inflicted as the losers fled? That might go some way to answering the question about how often they closed with the enemy.

    Never argue with an idiot. They'll only drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

    https://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/whats-on/vikings.html
    #88256
    Not Connard Sage
    Not Connard Sage
    Participant

    It would be interesting to know how much time was spent hitting each other versus standing just out of reach and yelling insults, given that battles like Towton are supposed to have lasted all day. Also, how many of the wounds were to the front versus how many inflicted as the losers fled? That might go some way to answering the question about how often they closed with the enemy.

    It takes a lot of time to kill a lot of people with hand weapons.  All that stabbing, hacking and slashing is quite tiring. I speak from second, or possibly third, hand experience from my time practising kendo.

    For the other, it’s entirely possible that someon has analysed the archaeological record. Perhaps in this.

    http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/books/b9789004306455_003

    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ha-8CgAAQBAJ&pg=PA204&lpg=PA204&dq=Battle+Trauma+in+Medieval+Warfare:+Wounds,+Weapons+and+Armor&source=bl&ots=eGEtzZ90gC&sig=XNaNT_rHYU9miKG68-EbmTesz0A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjd3O-UgajaAhUqJsAKHcLkDOgQ6AEIejAP#v=onepage&q=Battle%20Trauma%20in%20Medieval%20Warfare%3A%20Wounds%2C%20Weapons%20and%20Armor&f=false

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK332959/

     

    Of course, it must be borne in mind that in the melee the enemy isn’t necessarily standing obligingly in front of you. If someone unsportingly hits you from behind while you’re trying to kill his mate you’re just as dead, but the nasty gaping hole in the back of your skull might suggest to the 21st century doubter that you were legging it.

    This may be a rather facile example, but if the bloke in the middle gets it wrong he’s going to get a deeper parting in his hair than he expected.

     

     

    More archeological evidence

    http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/military-history/pre-20th-century-conflict/art356828

    https://www.economist.com/node/17722650

    Trauma, warfare and violent death at the Black Friary

     

     

     

     

    "I go online sometimes, but everyone's spelling is really bad. It's... depressing."

    #88268
    Ruarigh
    Ruarigh
    Participant

    Cool. Thanks for the links. That gives me more reading to do if I can find an accessible copy of the book. Sadly it’s not in our library here. I’ll have to see if I can get it by ILL.

    With regard to your comment about getting hit from behind, I wonder how unstructured and freewheeling melees really were. If a bloke gets behind you while you are trying to kill his mate, what were your mates doing letting him get there? If he’s there on his own, then how long will he last among your second and third rank mates? Also, if the lines have broken up that much, does it mean that the battle has reached a crisis point? I’m fairly sure that the sort of freewheeling melees we see in Vikings or The Last Kingdom are not even close to the reality of battles in this period.

    On your comment about killing people taking time and being tiring, that’s why I wonder if there were not significant pauses in battles. I’m really only thinking about medieval battles, where there do not seem to have been systems in place for relieving the lines, and where breaking through the enemy line probably signalled the start of the end of the battle.

    Never argue with an idiot. They'll only drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

    https://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/whats-on/vikings.html
    #88269
    Thaddeus Blanchette
    Thaddeus Blanchette
    Participant

    It would be interesting to know how much time was spent hitting each other versus standing just out of reach and yelling insults, given that battles like Towton are supposed to have lasted all day. Also, how many of the wounds were to the front versus how many inflicted as the losers fled? That might go some way to answering the question about how often they closed with the enemy.

    Exactly. Grave evidence is difficult to use in this case as, by definition, it involves people who were actually killed in something resembling hand to hand combat.

    But most deaths probably took place after one side had lost and was running away.

    I think a lot of posturing, pushing and shoving took place and, certainly, plenty of missile fire  was probably exchanged. But actual melee, understood as people whacking at each other with handheld weapons in (to use a dictionary definition) “a confused fight, skirmish, or scuffle”? I bet that was rather rare. I bet that, as in later days, most combats were resolved one way or another before the groups actually engaged. If they weren’t, the two lines probably stood around tossing insults at each other and occaisionally pushing at each other with their shields (and maybe spears) until they got exhausted or until the morale of one of the groups broke.

    This seems to be what happened at the Battle of Towton, from which a lot of the evidence cited by Conrad Sage, above, is drawn. The slaughter really didn’t start until the Lancastrians routed. That’s where most of those bodies in those graves were produced, I gather.

     

    We get slapped around, but we have a good time!

    #88305
    Patrice
    Patrice
    Participant

    There certainly was posturing at the beginning of battles; and most causalties happened when one side ran away and was then slaughtered by its opponents; but in most cases the infantry (the warriors on foot) actually met and fought at close quarters. Almost all mentions of important battles include this.

    (um, yes, perhaps when one side ran away before the battle we have no mention of it at all; but in many cases we roughly know what happened).

    “Infantry formations” often also included nobility. And although it’s possible to run away while wearing full armour, it’s quickly exhausting, and it brings shame, they were not educated to do it.

    There was even some people mad enough to fight to death for fun when they were bored by garrison life, as in the Combat des Trente in 1351
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combat_of_the_Thirty

    As for books, Ian Heath (Armies of the Dark Ages, Armies of the Middle Ages) is one of the “wargamers bibles” I cannot do without. it includes description of tactics, soldiers, heraldry, and of many battles of these periods.

    http://www.argad-bzh.fr/argad/en.html
    http://argad.forumculture.net/

    #88924
    Ruarigh
    Ruarigh
    Participant

    Perhaps in this. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/books/b9789004306455_003

    I’ve read through this book now. Sadly, it does not answer the question I posed. Still, it was interesting. The main point I picked up was that analysing battlefield injuries from the archaeological record is complicated, and that many researchers have been over-imaginative in their interpretation of what the injuries mean in terms of the progress of the fight. A secondary point, which I have always thought but is nice to have some evidence for now, is that the majority of injuries are to the head and limbs. Armour protects the body, and one does not simply drive a sword through a coat of mail, despite Hollywood depictions to the contrary. This gives greater weight to the argument that descriptions of armpit and groin wounds in the Icelandic sagas represent a very real fear of being struck in these vulnerable areas.

    In terms of swirling melees, there was nothing in there about infantry fights that suggests they broke up in the way that they do on Vikings or The Last Kingdom. However, one of the articles did reference late medieval descriptions of a cavalry charge that broke up into a lot of individual fights. So there’s that.

    A third thing I took away from this book was how well people survived grievous injuries. So many really bad wounds had healed or partially healed. Many more than I would have thought possible. Oh, and honey. Honey seems to work as an antiseptic and was used to treat wounds. I never knew that.

    Finally, I am particularly intrigued by the various comments about how facial scars might reduce one’s social status rather than being seen as heroic. I need to do more reading on that.

    Never argue with an idiot. They'll only drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

    https://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/whats-on/vikings.html
    #88954
    Ruarigh
    Ruarigh
    Participant

    It’s been a long time since I read The Face of Battle. Maybe time for a re-read unless there is newer scholarship on this.

    Never argue with an idiot. They'll only drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

    https://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/whats-on/vikings.html
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