Wild Reddit Question Appears!
I’m your average medieval citizen. My city is under siege; they’re starving us out over months but we’re fine for now. What is my daily life like? Is my coin still worth something? Do people trade or is the guard distributing rations? Do we still have fun to pass the time?
Just trying to get an idea for life during the long months of a siege.
Obviously once food starts getting low and people start getting desperate things change, but to start with, is life relatively normal?
The following answer mostly applies for 14th and 15th century western warfare 😉
The Medieval Town
It must first be understood that medieval cities were not “whole”. The total control of a medieval town required a lot of conniving and plot. The bigger the city, the more factions it had. A “standard” town would have at least two seats of power: the bishopric and the city hall. A representative of the king, like the ‘bailly’ in France could be another player. Whoever wished to take Paris had to get the university on their side, too.
I observed that when Amiens was taken back by the Burgundians in 1435 (read Monstrelet’s Chronicle), the ‘city’ (where the bishop ruled) was left untouched. Rebels from the ‘town’ (under the jurisdiction of the city hall and the guilds) actually tried to take refuge with the bishop but he simply sent them on their way and the new bailly took over unchallenged.
Those types of situations gave way to funny happenstances. A medieval town could be taken and re-taken in a very short amount of time if leaders of opposing factions were living in the same city. Funnier were the cases of city defenders having lost their town but kept the control of one or two towers among the city walls.
When the crusaders took Antioch during the first crusade they found themselves in a very difficult situation. They had gained control of the city but not of the fortress. However, a new army was coming to reinforce the defending army. The crusaders were therefore besieged within the city they had just taken yet didn’t totally control. We can find many examples of the like in later centuries.
>>> When you say the bishop turned people away, how much of the city did he control? Was he refusing to open the doors of the cathedral? The gates of a walled compound? A large section of the city which just happened to be walled and under his control? Are there any good maps to illustrate how cities were divided in this period?
When I said a bishop turned away people, I made a mistake. The details of the story got fuzzy in my memory and I oversimplified. As it so happened during the 1435 Amiens revolt, the good people of Amiens had gathered behind a captain of their choosing, Honoré Coquin. The city belonged to the royal demesne since 1185 and the king of France was count of Amiens. However, because of the 1435 treaty of Arras, Charles VII gave control of the city to the Duke of Burgundy as part of their pact of alliance. Philip the Good refused to lower the taxes and the townpeople were pretty upset about it. They’d been taxed for many years because of the war and they wished for it to stop. The Duke of Burgundy was no one to be trifled with though. He sent his new appointed bailly to deal with the situation. Honoré Coquin pleaded to the Burgundians military leaders but to no effect. They entered the city and took control of the market square. That’s when one of the leaders of the revolt flead to a nearby church in which a priest was actually officing the mass. Nevertheless he was caught and done for. What amazes me in that story is that a mass was celebrated when a skirmish was about to happen on the market square! I studied the city history a few years back, I checked my notes and I found it very interesting that the town (ruled by the king and the city council) passed on different deals with enemy military companies than the city (ruled by the bishop and the religious congregations). As a matter of fact, the people ruled by the bishop were exempt from the tax that the other townpeople had to pay. It’s as if you had two towns in a single city and everybody knew about it and behaved, even on a military standpoint, accordingly.
Medieval City Maps
Amiens is an old medieval town and I was lucky to find a pretty good enough map about its medieval layout (see below). It shows city walls from the 12th and the 14-15th centuries. Within the old 12th century walls, we find both seats of power of the town and the city: the beffroi (number 8) and the episcopal palace (number 4). Next to the beffroi is a place called the “Malemaison”. It was traditionnaly the place were the mayor and the town council would gather. The market place is marked by a black triangle. The church in which the fleeing rebel leader tried to find refuge is marked by the number 11 on the map. The town and the city seems to fit into two opposing neighbourhoods within the old city walls but the positioning of this church and the central location of the market place shows that it was more mixed up than what we can think firsthand.
The city of Laon had a more clearcut layout. Look at the following map from the 17th century. Laon hasn’t changed much through time and this layout, because of how high the hills are, is still what we find today (careful, the North is upside down!). Instead of mills at the eastern end of the city, we find a large clinic centre there nowadays but the cathedral hasn’t moved one bit. When I visited the city with my former research centre, we observed how the streets near the cathedral still showed how they were inhabited by clerics for how straight and square they were. It really looked like an easily fortified neighbourhood. Right behind the cathedral was the citadel: seat of power to the king. The other side of town shows a less organized pattern. It was known as the ‘bourg’. Funnily enough the city and the ‘bourg’ or town would each have streets dedicated to a specific professional association before it was all more or less centralized and the whole town became a one and single urbanistic unit.
Brussels today still has streets that bear the name of former guilds and corporations: rue des bouchers, rue des teinturiers, rue des frippiers… Craftmen didn’t spread out. They united and lived by the same rules according to a royal granted chart. They fixed the prices and sticked together. It showed in the urban pattern. However, there were not always clearcut boundaries from one neighbourhood to another which part of the city obeyed to the king’s justice, the bishop’s, or else. You had to live there and know it. It was pretty much on a case to case basis.
Who’s Who In A Medieval City?
>>> I was wondering more specifically about the thing you mentioned with Paris. What were the factions in Paris at this time period, why was the university so important, and how did the university work as a “political player” so to speak at this juncture?
A Short Class On Urban Social Stratification
Everyone had a place to be in a medieval town. Nevertheless people of all background were scattered all over the place more often than not. Medieval cities didn’t follow rationalized patterns. They were not built like ancient greek colonies.
There were other ways to differenciate the people within a town though. Mostly through clothing. Nevermind that, the urban social stratification started to form around the 11th century with the communal movement. Townpeople made more money and were taxed accordingly. In response they fought back to get priviledges. Those very first priviledges created the ‘bourgeoisie’ which was nothing like what it grew to become by the 18th century. Being a bourgeois only meant you had judicial priviledges from being a city-dweller. They could assemble and vote for a mayor who’d represent them to the lord. Craftmen who moved in city walls eventually got their own mayors but they were mostly suppressed in the 14th century in favor of guild associations defined by charts. The lord of a city, either the king or someone else, often had a representative of his own: a prevot, a bailly or a senechal in France. Such a man was in charge of military and police matters. He’d often have a lieutenant too.
A city could also be home to various religious congregations, especially once the mendicant orders were formed. Those congregations didn’t always answer to the bishop. Sometimes they only answered to the pope if they got their priviledges right like the Templars or the Teutonic Knights. They could also answer to their monastic order. Some religious congregations were more like laymen guilds, united under a holy patron. The bishop himself presided a chapter of canons who elected him. Also the bishop had lands of his own and though he was a spiritual lord, he also had temporal power. He couldn’t exercice his temporal power by himself most of the time though, that’s why he had a representative to do so, like a vidame.
Everyone had a specific status within a medieval town, from lord to beggar. There were priviledges and duties for each member of the society. The townwatch was split between the bourgeois and the craftmen. The former would have sitting watch duties, the latter walking watch duties. Boulevards and city walls were built, cared by and watched over by city-dwellers who could gather as militia in times of need under the lawful authority of the prevot, the bailly or the senechal. When the city had a proper fortress it would more likely be guarded by proper men-at-arms or knights under the command of a noble lord.
Political Players Within A City
Governing a medieval city was not an easy task. There were so many centres of power and money that political players only multiplied until the Early Modern Era when the centralization state building process really hit western societes. It was an administrative nightmare too in order to know who you could tax and what?
Which brings us to the university of Paris. The word ‘universitas’ used to design a guild or professional association of people sharing the same priviledges. As a matter of facts, students and teachers at the university of Paris benefited from the same rights. They were equals in the eye of the law and could only be judged by the bishop of Paris. Also, they benefited from several tax exemptions. From the 12th to the 14th century, the university was not properly installed in any buildings. Lectures were given wherever it could. It meant that if university members were unhappy with the way they were treated they could simply scatter through the winds for a few months. Now, since they made up for a lot of the economical vitality of the French capital, the authorities prefered to treat them right. Then Charles VI rose to power and his council saw it a good idea to rationalize the royal treasure and the taxation system. The duke of Orléans was all in on those new reforms when he managed the realm for his brother once Charles VI fell into dementia. Hell! The university and the good people of Paris were not happy. They felt their priviledges were undermined and threatened. That’s when the duke of Burgundy showed up and insured he would protect ans safeguard them. The university heavily turned to John the Fearless for guidance and support. In exchange, the best intellectual of the realm provided the intellectual backbone to legitimize the assassination of the duke of Orléans, who died in Paris in 1407 at the hand of Burgundians hired thugs. What a messy affair…
Locking all the seats of power in a medieval city was a much arduous endeavour. When cities got nearly as big as Paris it was practically impossible to achieve. The merchants, the craftmen, the noblemen, the clergymen, everybody fought for their own tiny bit of power.
To Siege Or Not To Siege
Besieging a city was a very expensive and risky venture. Elite knights and men-at-arms were few. Most battles were fought among a few hundreds of “soldiers”. How can you take over a city where several thousands can show up to defend the walls? You needed to rally the ‘communes’ or the ‘common people’ so to speak to manage an effective siege. Then you’d get along the tens of thousands of men on the battlefield. Commoners lacked the knightly culture though and they were quite unpredictable. That’s why most cities were taken by surprise thanks to some commando type of missions.
Since medieval towns had rivaling political players within their walls, a big part of taking a city over was to seduce those party leaders and grant them satisfaction. Jean de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who managed to take Paris not only once, but twice, first in 1418 then back in 1436, only achieved it because he was good friend with the butcher guild and the university. When Joan of Arc attacked the city in September 1429, there was no friends within the walls to help take over the capital.
Another problem was that towns were very difficult to surround properly. Even when he arrived with something like twenty thousand flemish militia to attack Calais in 1436, Philip the Good couldn’t strangle the city completely. The people of Calais were still going out with their cattle, for example, which gave way to epic or ridiculours skirmishes. It is very rare that we find a siege like the one of Melun, in 1420, when the French starved so close to death that they had to kill and eat their own horses.
The Siege of Rouen, 1418-1419
>>> What are some of the more extreme cases of a city being starved of?
The best example that comes to mind is the 1418-1419 siege of Rouen by Henry V of England. He was not messing around. He had an impressive army of 7,000 men (mostly war professionals, the English didn’t rely on the commoners too much and that really helped them win the war until the Siege of Orléans, where most of their veteran troops were slaughtered at Patay). Rouen had a population of about 20,000 people with 4,000 garrisoned soldiers*. Henry couldn’t take the city by force but he had the authority and the means to starve it to death. His plan followed the three following steps.
Step 1: Surround The City
Rouen ranked among the largest city of France by the beginning of the 15th century. It’s position on the Seine made it a most valuable link between Paris and the English Channel. Nevertheless Henry V had his army build fortified places all over the town (I’ll put a picture on my blog later on when I publish my answers over there). Not only that, he also chained the river to make sure no food would come to relieve the city during the siege AND he sent his guerilla-minded Irish soldiers in the nearby smaller towns to gather all the food there was and keep the population in check.
The French tried to gather some troops to help Rouen but they were much too busy fighting each other. Paris had just been taken by the Burgundians (see above, when Jean de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam took it back in 1418 with the help of the butcher guild). It led to a proper massacre and it overthrew the Armagnac government. The Dauphin, who would later on be known as Charles VII, barely made it with his life and had to exile the Parliament to Poitiers. He couldn’t make peace with the Duke of Burgundy and the latter couldn’t also come in terms with the Duke of Britanny. It was an overall mess and Henry just had to wait. And see.
Step 2: Do Not Bombard The City
Rouen was heavily fortified. It would have taken a lot of artillery power to take it down. It would have been a useless expense however since Henry V hoped to take the city whole and make it his own fortress. He wanted it intact! Had he read Sun Tzu’s art of war? Maybe not. But he was surely following his principles.
Step 3: Wait It Out And Show Mercy
When it became sure the French couldn’t send reinforcement nor food to the besieged city, the townpeople of Rouen received a message from the Duke of Burgundy to deal with Henry V. Eventually, they asked for the women, the children, the priests, the poor and the elderly to be granted a safe passage. Henry sure complied and even more, he gave food to the escapees! They actually started to sing his praise and cursed their French allies who had abandonned them.
Monstrelet writes in his chronicle that most of the food was sold overpiced on the black market around Christmas. Henry V had started to besiege the city in July 1418. The city surrendered completely by January 1419. From that point onward he could easily take Pontoise and threaten Paris which not only survived a massacre but also a good old plague epidemic the same year. In the meantime, the French were no where close to conclude their own civil unrest and Henry V remained unchallenged.
This is really a classic case of siege by starvation. It led to an utter victory but it can’t be taken out of context. Henry V played it very smart in a context in which his enemies were paralysed and militarily powerless to face him.
* According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010).
>>> Didn’t Henry refuse to let the people leave the city, leaving them to starve in a ditch between the city walls and his siege lines?
A Short Study Of Historical Method
Could you be able to source that information? I wrote this short answer after The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology.
What I gather from Monstrelet is that after the townpeople of Rouen learned they had to deal with the king of England themselves, he had a first surrender treaty rejected by the Archbishop of Canterbury. To which the townpeople came up with the plan to run for their lives by breaching their own walls and give it a last desperate go. Monstrelet’s narrative may be incomplete though.
In Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation. England 1360-1461. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005 (The New Oxford History of England), p. 548, I find the following statement though: “The siege, prolonged by the intense cold of mid-winter, became a test of endurance for the English. But the defenders were in a worse plight: as the influx of refugees reduced the inhabitants to starbation, it was decided to expel the non-combatants, wome, childrend, and the old being forced into the town ditches between the walls and the English lines. Refused food by the English, they perished in large numbers.”
The Oxford Encyclopedia states only that food was given to the expelled townpeople by Henry V at Christmas: “At Chrismas, Henry had food brought to them in the ditches. They, according to Page, responded with a hymn of praise for Henry ‘who has more compassion than has our own nation’.”
The encyclopedia entry is written by Anne Curry, who’s a recognized expert of the period. I’d conclude therefore that indeed the expelled townpeople were denied food but were still given some at Christmas by Henry V. Nuance is everything in this case. We could go further and question Page’s account of the event but I don’t have the time (nor the energy) to go that far 🙂
>>> So they had around 6 months worth of food. Was this typical for a city of its size? Was food storage mostly by household or centralized under one or more powers?
This question requires a kind of research that I haven’t conducted. Nor do I know if it has been. Maybe? I couldn’t say without diving deep into my bibliographies. I read recently that it took 10 months for the Normans to take Palermo through a siege of starvation, in the years 1071-1072. The city also resigned in the early winter.
Refugees would flock to the city by the hundreds when a siege of that magnitude was a-coming. On the long run it would not help with the stocks. However, conducting a statistic analysis of such events would prove very, very difficult. We don’t have enough data to define any normalcy in those matters, I’d say.
As for the second part of your follow-up question, chronicles clearly show that the food was not centralized. It was sold on markets and speculation in times of war ran wild. It meant that the poor would starve first if they couldn’t find a patron or didn’t belong to some kind of association (like a guild, a university or the clerical members of a congregation). I hope it gives some kind of answer to your follow-up question 🙂 I’m sorry I can’t give a more conclusive answer at the moment.
Medieval Siege Engines
>>> Were actual battles to take the castle common or do continuous flinging of trebuchet or catapults common?
Is The Trebuchet The Superior Siege Engine?
To give an idea, a single trebuchet required around 60-100 specialized and trained personel to keep it firing 1 to 2 projectiles a hour*. That’s people that you need to feed, pay wages, and everything. Artilery was very expensive and it was especially difficult to move around from one town to the other from siege to siege.
Contrarily to what the trebuchet subreddit advertises, the projectiles weighed around 140 kg (306.7 pounds) and had a range of 220 meters (240.6 yards)*. It was specifically designed to hit weak spots within a city wall in order to open a breach. The solution was to reinforce the weak spot with palissades and earth behind it to absorb the hit. However, the single sight of a trebuchet could incite a fortified place to just give up and surrender directly.
* Renaud Beffeyte, L’art de la guerre au Moyen Age. Rennes: Ouest France, 2010. With a preface by Philippe Contamine, p. 80-81.
“Come In Like A Wreeecking Ball!”
Orléans was bombarded quite continuously by the English in 1428-1429 but it had little meaningful results, especially since the city could bombard back! Jean de Lorraine was the French artillary specialist. More than once he pretended to be dead, was carried back to Orléans, only to return to the battlefield and handle his cannons against the English to their outmost dread and distate. Firing a canon was an art but not everybody mastered it. More often than not it resulted in accidental results. The Earl of Salisbury, who was leading the siege for the English at Orléans, died only a few days after a canonball crashed in the window he was looking through. Similarly, the Earl of Arundel, hit by a canonball (in the leg, I think) at the battle of Gerberoy in 1435, also died but only a few days after the battle from his injury. The uneffectiveness of such canonballs may be explained by the fact that many of them were made out of stone instead of metal.
Canons didn’t have the firepower that they would have later on. And pretty much like trebuchets, they required a lot of trained personel. The people who made church bells were those who forged canons. It is reported that one bombard canon required no less than 20 horses to be dragged across the countryside during the 14th century*. Fire artilery became lighter and more effective during the 15th century, but it couldn’t guarantee a victory yet. Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, learned it the hard way when he died at the battle of Nancy (1467). As a conclusion, artilery fire was certainly used for very strategic or psychological purposes, but it couldn’t make up for armed men climbing ladders and siege towers to conquer city walls the “old fashion way”.
* Valérie Toureille (ed.), Guerre et Société. 1270-1480. Paris: Atlante, 2013, p. 161.
>>> How did the besieger Earl of Salisbury die? How does an accident cause a canonball to boomerang back to allied lines 😛
Haha! I love the idea but the reality is more prosaic.
A Shot In The Dark
The canonball was shot from Orléans. No one really knows where from. At that moment, Salisbury was looking through a window from the Tourelles fortress, at the end of the southern bridge linking Orléans to the western bench of the river Loire. Bad luck made it that the canonball hit the window Salisbury was looking through. He didn’t die on the impact but he passed away a few days later from his injuries.
Since he was the master-mind behind the overall English strategy since Agincourt and had pushed himself to besiege Orléans when the Duke of Bedford thought that it was a bad idea, there was little morale left in the English camp after his death. Many men actually thought themselves freed from their military duties since they belonged to Salisbury’s retinue and they left the siege. Once the Burgundians left too, the English were scattered really thin around Orléans and that’s when Joan of Arc arrived with heavy reinforcements from Blois (though most of the French army turned back to Blois… and left the people of Orléans on their own with Joan and about the craftiest captains who were serving Charles VII at the time).
Philip the Good also almost got hit by a canonball when he besieged Calais. As he rode down on the beach with a small party of men, a canonball hit the ground not too far from him. Such events are easily recorded when they concern distinguished aristocrats. The Duke of Burgundy and the Earl of Salisbury were not “nobodies”. However there is a good chance that collateral casualties from such artilary fire were more common than we think. The lack of narrative on the matter only probably relates to the social status of the people casted in the Chronicles of the time. To be counted as a casualty, you had to have a “name”.
>>> When you say that how do you mean? Am I supposed to imagine a handful of knights crossing the mote in the cover of dark, to open the Door for the rest? Or was it more like smuggling a diplomat into the walls to get him to the [faction] and promise them [something worth promising].
The covert and sneaky operations that led to the taking of a castle, a town or any fortress were very imaginative!
A Timeless Classic: Bertrand Du Guesclin Desguised As A Lumberjack (1340)
The English were holding the castle of Fougeray, near Rennes (France). Robert Pembrough, a renowned captain, was commanding the troops. Bertrand Du Guesclin wished to take it back. He was not yet the mighty connétable, supreme leader of the French army, second only to the king, but this little aventure made him quite a name for himself.
A man of his came up with the crazy idea to dress as lumberjacks and approach the castle under that desguise. They were to pretend that they were coming to work for the castle with a cart full of lumber and wood fagot. Du Guesclin selected a few daring souls to accompany him and risked himself in this crazy venture. The chronicles give quite a vivid sdepiction of the story and the battle that followed.
Du Guesclin made it to the castle. His cart blocked the drawbridge. The men in desguised were close to flee for their lives. They had weapons under their funny clothes but no armour to defend themselves and they risked being made any minute. However, that’s when Du Guesclin called it. He started the fight and called the rest of his men, a whole lot of 60 men-at-arms at most, to join him in the fight.
The battle was nasty and bloody. However, Du Guesclin took the place and his trick became so famous that castles would build TWO drawbridges to protect their entry: one that only a single man could walk through, to check up the upcoming carts, and a second, for the said carts.
It is said that some of the soldiers accompanying Du Guesclin in disguise pushed it as far as to dress as “lumberjills”.
La Hire: Who Takes One, Loses One
La Hire was quite familiar with “commando operations”. That’s how he took Louviers (located between Paris and Rouen, on the river Seine) when Joan of Arc was busy attacking Paris. Under the cover of night, approaching the fortified city with a boat, he took it by climbing a ladder thrown over the city walls. Yet he had a limp! As soon as the English heard the bad news, they sent troops to retake the city. La Hire defended it until he tried to make it out of the town to go fetch reinforcements himself (as mentioned elsewhere in this thread). Meanwhile, Charles VII did grant new privileges to the townpeople to gain their loyalty. La Hire knew! He’d been betrayed by the good people of Château-Thierry, in Picardy, a decade earlier.
Also, having an inside man is often key in taking or losing a city. That’s how he chanced to take back Rouen, in 1436. He had a few friends within the city walls but the English caught them and then came down running at La Hire and his companions to chase them away from Normandy. It was a debacle so funny that Monstrelet tells it three separate times in his Chronicles.
The taking of Marchenoir, in 1427, on the other hand, was a real “coup de maître” orchestrated by La Hire’s proud pupil: Jean de Bueil. The latter came up with a crazy idea. See? A very large pile of manure was abutted the city walls. Jean de Bueil thought that a few men could hide in that pile of manure overnight. Then, during the day, a small group of men-at-arms would ride by the city and lure the garrison outside the city walls. It worked! As soon as it happened, the men-at-arms hidden in the manure got out of it, stormed the gates and helped to take over the city. The lured garrison met its end when the luring party rejoined the bulk of the military company. Because who would hide in a pile of manure? Seriously?! Nothing but highly motivated men.
John Talbot: A Crafty Devil
John Talbot became the most feared of the English captains. La Hire himself would run away whenever learning Talbot was coming after him if he hadn’t had the time to properly fortify his positions. Tablot was cruel, crafty and relentless. As the mightily fortified city of Pontoise was kept by an old friend and former ally of his, Jean de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, he chose to take it back. The Burgundians had recently decided to leave the Lancastrian alliance and fight again alongside Charles VII of Valois. Only a few months ago were Talbot and L’Isle-Adam fighting next to each other! Now they were enemies.
The moat of Pontoise had frozen with the winter and no one had thought to break the ice. I mentioned this case in my main answer. Talbot took an opportunity where he found one. A few number of men crawled under the cover of night and beneath a white blanket (!!!) to reach the fortress of Pontoise. No one saw them coming. They were camouflaged as snow! They threw ladders or ropes over the walls, climbed them and took the fortress in the dead of the night. L’Isle-Adam barely had the time to flee and his noble name was certainly ternished by the venture.
A Charming Bastard: Villars’ Shame And The Loss Of Montargis
Villars, who was put in charge with defending Montargis, had a barber. His barber was taking care of a young woman who was neither his wife nor his daughter. At the same time, Villars was himself married. His brother-in-law was an enemy of his, the Bastard of Jardes. Indeed, the Bastard of Jardes was serving under the command of L’Aragonais, a faithful captain of the English party despite his Spanish nickname. This makes up for quite a complicated story but as Berry tells the tale, the Bastard of Jardes seduced the barber’s ward. He promised to marry her if she would help him take over the city. As part of the ruse, she seduced the barber who was taking care of her, beguiling him with a large promise of reward by the English.
Sex and money make up for an ugly combo… The barber and his ward helped the Bastard of Jardes to climb over the city walls. He could come and go within the city as he pleased him since his sister was the governor’s wife. Getting his men inside was another matter. It happened that a house from the suburbs was abutted to the walls (more often than not those houses were destroyed when a city was besieged). From the top of that house, the Bastard climbed over the walls with his men thanks to the barber and his ward. From then on he took over the city, chased away his brother-in-law and didn’t respect any of the promises he made towards the young woman or the barber.
I hope you like this little set of anecdotes? Really, it shows that taking a city through a “commando operation” required a lot of imagination and dedication. It was not as simple as moving under the cover of the night. Men-at-arms had to be creative. However, luring an enemy garrison outside of their walls with a small party only to surprise them with an ambush and take the city gates at the meantime was quite a common tactic. So was getting inside help. I even read a story of maids distracting men-at-arms with pastry! It’s much more entertaining than anything found in fantasy novels in my opinion.
The City And Its Countryside
The question arises: why take a city when you can plunder the countryside? Well, for one, there might be castles and garisoned troops all over the place to prevent such acts of aggression. Jean de Luxembourg, lord of Beaurevoir, had such a system in place to defend the Eastern part of Picardy. However he was a well-respected, renowned and mostly feared overlord with close connections to the Burgundian court. Once the political chessboard was overturned, though, even the Duke of Burgundy thought twice and eventually didn’t risk to mount an army against him. The king did, but that’s another story. (Jean de Luxembourg died before the king’s army reached his lands and his heir and nephew settled the matter by acknowledging the king’s authority.)
Most of the territory wasn’t safeguarded by some Jean de Luxembourg, though. It was quite easy to tear the countryside apart. The English did it several times during the first half of the Hundred Years’ War. They would do it to provoke the French into an open-field battle. Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) were the results of such provocations. Charles V said no more and chose for a war of attrition: no more open-field battles, only skirmishes and surprise city take-overs. It really changed the face of the war.
Pillaging and plundering a countryside was nevertheless a fine way to bring a city to its knees. Medieval cities were directly co-dependant from their neighbouring countryside. If an army were to threaten it then a city would easily pay up in order to safeguard it. Sure, the city was well-defended enough that it couldn’t be taken. But could the citizens chase away a company of men-at-arms without a proper company of their own sent over by their lord? They couldn’t.
Rural Communities Sticking Together
>>> Would it be common to ask the bishop of your church to petition the new lord for repayment for a house burnt by his men. Or a stonemason asking his guild-master to try and find his daughter taken by mercenaries during a sacking of the town. Etc. It’s just hard to imagine that people would be willing to accept that you had no way to protect yourself and your family from roaming armies that survived by “living off the land”. Or were peasant rebellions more common against such occurrences?
Is Charity The Best Insurance Policy?
I’ve read a few medieval accounting records. They are just fascinating because they’re full of little anecdotes! Each expense or income is justified by a short story. Some of them are quite dry. A few of them are full of details! As it happens, you sometimes have the story of people who received compensation money for services given. Like a man climbed a ladder to extinguish the fire which started a-top a Burgundian palace and he was granted a few francs for his bravery. A knight came in, only had to show up and received much more money. I don’t remember the numbers nor exactly where I read it, it was years ago in class, you’ll have to forgive me.
Money as well as judicial pardons were also given to people who suffered in the service of a lord. Now say your house was destroyed because of an enemy military company. Who could help you out? What could you do? You could at first rely on your community. Are you part of a guild? Of a religious congregation? Did you have an extensive family? Joan of Arc had countless godfathers and godmothers. The social ties were really strongs within medieval communites. You could rely on your “people” to help you out, get you some resources, help you rebuild your house, etc. Though private properties were a real thing, communal areas were also very common. Enclosure was not a thing yet. Especially in the countryside, the forest–depending a few strict regulations–was a free source of wood, pasture, hunt and resources for everybody. You could get a fine if your pigs roamed through it too wildly though.
Someone could ask pitty money to a lay or ecclesiastic lord, too. They could expect to get it freely by waiting outside a church on big Christian celebration days, but they mostly ever got anything if they could legitimize it if they officially asked for it. Then it mostly depended on the will of the lord. Some saw charity as a great mean to control the population (like the Duke of Burgundy, from Philip the Bold to Philip the Good). Others rather indulged into extortion and saw their lordship as a mean to get as rich as possible as fast as possible (like the Duke of Berry, John the Magnificent). There was no instituted way for anyone to recover from a war related destruction of property. You had to play creative, rely on your social network and hope for the best.
Law And Order: Medieval Edition
It was the social expected duty of rulers to put pressure on bandits, unruly rogue military companies, and make safeguard the peace in the realm. It was difficult to insure when the centralized power showed weakness. When Charles VI descended into madness and the high princes of the land started a civil war, inviting the English to fight as mercenaries (around 1410-1412) it quickly led to devasted countrysides. It got so bad that countrymen took refuge into the woods and created military companies of their own. Those bandits really posed a threat to the moving of troops on the military chess. They would keep on fighting from 1411 to 1418!
Self-defence often became a necessity to rural communities. During the Écorcherie crisis of 1438-1439 a city closed its door to a military company that was actually charged with chasing down a rogue military company. They eventually let the men-at-arms go through in very little numbers because they mistrusted them so much. The Écorcheurs, or skinners, allegedly commited some of the worst war crimes of the Hundred Years’ War. They destroyed things for fun or so it seems. Their numbers grew exponentially because their ranks swelled with newcomers who wished to avoid plunder and to join in on the loot. Military companies were very exotic things back then: men-at-arms had armed and non-armed servants. Even old women could be part of a company and could serve as support or spy. It saved the French captains trapped at Gerberoy in 1435 to know more about the enemy surrounding them! It would take the 1445 military reform to really define who could or couldn’t join the army or be part of a military company.
The most famous peasant who took up arms to defend his people was certainly Grand Ferré, who fought in the year 1359. He supposedly killed 60 Englishmen by himself with an axe when they attacked his company of two hundred patriots at the Longueil-Sainte-Marie manor, near Compiègne (France). He even resisted an assassination attempt but eventually died from his injuries. His venture had been authorized by proper political leaders! When the “Great Companies” stormed all over France in the year 1360’s and brought havoc with their rogue military depredation, however, such peasant heroes would act more autonomously. Their ventures would more often than not be shortlived.
The real hope for rural population against rogue military companies were to get their ‘bailly’ or any military representative of the king or their lord to muster his troops and chase them down. Sometimes a lord could also call his people to arms and lead them to a cleansing expedition of epic disproportions. Again, however, nothing was systematic and it mostly depended on the people in charge. Who were they? How did they conceive their role? Could they perform their duties effectively? Etc. Peasants rebellions were quite common in the end and often bound to happen in such circumstances.
The Daily Duties Of A City-Dweller
Though city-dwellers were “free men and women” they still had to accomplish many tasks. One of them was the town-watch. It was up to city-dwellers to make the rounds on the walls, to break the ice of the moat around the city (to make sure no one would cross it and make their way to the walls too easily–which happened!), etc. They had to provide material support in times of war, women too, by bringing water, boiling oil, and many other things to the “frontline”.
The roads were guarded by “boulevards”, or road-block fortifications, and they prevented enemy troops to get too close from a city. Besieging a city therefore often began miles away from the city walls. It guaranteed the safekeeping of pastures, agricultural fields and suburbs around the town. Such boulevards had to be built by city-dwellers themselves. Even besieged, a city could keep some kind of normal life unless the situation became too dire. Since a city was not often properly surrounded, exterior communication was not so difficult and food could easily be brought in.
Some people speculated and made a fortune during times of war by raising the price on crops, for example. It was a criminal offense but many got away with it… Money often became an issue for besieged populations and they hoped to rely on the church or their lord to get by. Having a rich protector, serving in a mighty house, was certainly a way to stay on safe side of things. Anyway, it took quite some time for the situation to be really desperate unless the enemy army was actually overwhelming.
When Boulevards Were Medieval Fortifications
>>> About boulevards: how did it help? If we’re talking about a siege done by hundreds or many thousands of armed people, why would something on a road stop enemy so far from the city? I realise it’s not that easy but… why not walk around something that isn’t a single piece of wall?
Is This A Tower? Is This A Fortress? It’s A Boulevard!
When fire artillery started to spread by the end of the 14th century, most fortifications were not ready to endure a copious bombarding. Putting bombards or cannons a-top of city walls was also very difficult to do. The rare case of Beauvais providing its walls with ramps to help push the canons at the top of them, by the first half of the 15th century, shows that it was a very expensive type of construction to undertake.
The ‘boulevard’ was made up in the Burgundian Low Countries to answer the need to protect old fortifications against bombard showers and to provide the town with actual counter-canons. Boulevard were originally made out of wood and filled-in with earth to absorb the shock of canonballs. They looked like hillside slopes that stopped on a sharp cliff and they were put in front of fortification weak spots such as city gates or others. Eventually they were built out of stone and gained massive dimensions! They could spread as wide as 15 to 45 meters (16.4 to 42.2 yards) on each of their sides, pretty much like squares, and be elevated up to 10 meters high (10.9 yards)*! It was quite a bad place to find yourself on if you had the fear of heights. As to how many people it could hold, I’d say as much as they could depending on their dimensions. You needed personel to fire the canons but also a few men-at-arms and archers to defend the place.
*A. Salamagne, Les villes fortes au Moyen Âge. Paris: Jean-Paul Gisserot, 2002.
“Up And Down The Boulevard”
I would invite you to look at the following maps of Orléans during the 1428-1429 siege 😉
As you can see, the walled city is surrounded by a large suburb area. Everywhere you see the letter ‘B’ (first map) also means there was a barrier or fortification of some kind. Getting close to the city implied a prolonged guerilla type of warfare. Neighbourhoods were to be taken one by one.
Then, if you spot the number 37 on the bridge (first map), the “Boulevart de la belle Croix”, you’ll see that there isn’t getting around that specific boulevard unless you dive down for a swim (look at map 2 for a detailed plan of the area).
Roads and paths around a city were not as wide or clear as one might think. Paris in particular had two lines of moat in addition to its fortified walls surrounding the city. When Joan attacked it, one was dry but the other was still filled in with water. The only way to go around a boulevard defending the entrance of a city door was to somehow fill in the moat with wood fagot in order to cross it eventually.
Indeed–I wasn’t clear and I’m sorry–boulevards were mostly built in front of city doors to prevent enemies to knock it down. The boulevards were moreover protected by the higher city walls behind it. Also they were firing canonballs so it proved quite difficult to get close to it safely.
The Art Of Surrounding A City
>>> “Since a city was not often properly surrounded, exterior communication was not so difficult and food could easily be brought in.” Couldn’t that be solved by making a few bands of “raiders” out of soldiers?
When Henry V of England besieged Rouen in 1418-1419 (see my addition somewhere else on the thread on that matter), he made sure to dig trenches all around the city to connect his network of fortified places. His band of Irish soldier policing the neighbouring towns and chaining the river Seine were not enough.
At Orléans, where the English attempted a remake of the siege of Rouen, they didn’t dig trenches and they didn’t chain the river Loire. As a matter of fact, Joan of Arc got around them by crossing the river East and just passing near the Bastille of St Loup (that you can also see on the map). A little band of soldier made it out of Orléans as a distraction and she reached the eastern gate with reinforcement and food for the city without too much problems.
Therefore raiding was not enough to insure the total paralysis of a besieged city. When he was defending Louviers in 1431, La Hire tried to make it out of the city by himself in order to get reinforcements at La Ferté-Bernard. He’s spotted by Burgundians soldiers and captured. The sole fact that he tried though, as experienced as he was, meant that there he had a chance!
About Boiling Oil
>>> Do you have a source for this? I thought that boiling oil was a bit of a common misconception given the cost of pouring boiling oil on attackers was much much more expensive than just pouring boiling water on them
I wrote about the boiling oils by following the subsequent passage from the Journal of Orléans*, which praise how townwomen came to the rescue by providing those who defended a boulevard with many useful things:
“Pareillement y feirent grant secours les femmes d’Orléans ; car elles ne cessoient de porter très diligemment à ceulx qui deffendoient le boulevert, plusieurs choses nécessaires, comme eaues, huilles, gresses bouillans*, chaux, cendres et chaussetrape.*”
Technically, it doesn’t say boiling oil but boiling grease (and oils are mentioned) which is pretty much the same I’d say? I perused my copy of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology and I couldn’t find anything about boiling oil as a myth. It deserves more research certainly.
*Paul Charpentier & Charles Cuissard (ed.), Journal du Siège d’Orléans, 1428-1429. Orléans: Herluison, 1896, p. 7
A Short Reading List
>>> May I have your sources you used for the section “The Daily Duties Of A City-Dweller” ?
Here’s a short list of references (almost exclusively in French, sorry…) that talk about townwatch and other duties expected from city-dwellers:
- Primary source (a total must read!): Janet Shirley (ed.), A Parisian Journal. 1405-1449. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968 (read especially the narrative of the year 1418).
- Secondary literature:
- Guilhem Ferrand, “Les Murs, le guet et la communauté : la construction d’un système défensif”, Archéologie du Midi Médiéval, 25 (2007), p. 141-155; URL: https://www.persee.fr/doc/amime_0758-7708_2007_num_25_1_1642
- Gustave Fagniez, “Essai sur l’organisation de l’industrie à Paris aux XIIIe et XIVe siècles (deuxième article)”, Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes, 30 (1869), p. 80-105, in particular pp. 98-103; URL: https://www.persee.fr/doc/bec_0373-6237_1869_num_30_1_446253
- A.-M. Hayez, “Travaux à l’enceinte d’Avignon sous les pontificats d’Urbain V et de Grégoire IX”, La Guerre et la paix au Moyen Âge. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale, 1978, p. 119-223.
- R. Cazelle, Paris, de Philippe Auguste à Charles V. Paris: Hachette, 1994.
- N. Savy, Les villes du Quercy en guerre : la défense des villes et des bourges du Haut-Quercy pendant la guerre de Cent Ans. Pradines: Savy A.E., 2009.
There must be articles or monographs in English dealing with such a topic but I can’t find them right off the bat without going into a university library or diving too far in additional research.
From Skirmishes To Victory Or Surrender
If a city was besieged and couldn’t be taken over “Rambo style” with a clever, daring an deceitful tactic, it would first open on several weeks of skirmishes around the boulevards and the countryside. Nearby smaller towns would also serve as battlefields. People often found refuge in stone built churches: they were torn apart or put on fire.
Delay was the key words for the defenders. The name of the game was to hold as long as possible for ally troops to find their way to the siege and help. Montargis waited and waited until La Hire arrived and saved the day, in 1427. It is an interesting case, however, because La Hire and his friends wouldn’t help Montargis unless they got paid. Indeed, if besieging a city was a most expensive affair, so was defending it!
Larger cities would hold much longer. They often had pastures and fields within their walls that belonged to this or that abbey. You’d have cattle within the city walls too: cow, pigs, sheep… Not enough to feed the entire population for a prolonged time, but just enough to help the city hold against the enemy.
Renowned knights would then square things off in many skirmishes until one or the other party gathered enough money to push the siege forward or to break it off. Journals and chronicles of the time often mention who fought bravely during the first hours/days/weeks of a siege.
The surrender would always come into the form of a peace treaty between the military leaders of both parties. Often the defender would ask for his people to get a safe-passage accross the enemy territory to get back to an allied city. The military leader of a city was not always taking the city-dwellers into consideration, or just couldn’t protect them, and more often than not he allowed his enemy to pillage and plunder the taken city. That’s why, among so many other reasons, city-dwellers didn’t have men-at-arms to heart and often mistrusted them. There are cases of city-dwellers that actually denied entry to supposedly allied men-at-arms when the countryside was torn apart by roaming rogue companies. Hell, the Duke of Burgundy found himself trapped inside the city of Brugge and had to fight his way out!