Saturday, July 05, 2008

Medieval Castles and the Operational Art

I've been doing a some supplemental reading to build up a little knowledge on medieval siege warfare after having recently finished Runciman's three-volume history of the Crusades.

I've been trying to understand what castles are for.

I understand that castles are tactically strong fortifications in the context of the weapons technology of the pre-gunpowder era, just as the artillery fortification was tactically strong after gunpowder weapons were disseminated among western armies. But just as the individual “Vauban” fortress was only one element in a larger strategic system, then so also was the castle.

The Western-European style of warfare in the Middle Ages consisted largely of sieges – the taking and holding of fortified places, including towns and castles.

Holding ground was the means by which wars were won rather than by fighting battles. Fighting battles was a risky business that, were it to go ill for you, could lose you your field army. So siege warfare was the primary means of prosecuting a war, with raiding and devastation a secondary strategy that was practiced upon your enemies' territories as a kind of economic warfare.

Your own priority was to limit the damage raiders could do you and to attack their supply-lines. Additionally you might take your army to attack the raiders whilst they were dispersed.

The Role of Castles

*Firstly we could say that they were springboards to extend one's domination beyond the limits of one's own territory.
*To jeopardize an enemy's communications or economic arteries should you have a stronghold close enough by.
*To support an advance.
*Blockade an enemy position. Counter-castles could be built to invest or baffle an enemy fortified place.
*Castles could act as store-houses for both the garrison and even to support a field army operating in the area. They might serve as an armory or mobilization store for equipping the militia.
*Defensively castles served as refuges. A defeated army might shelter in one. Local peasants and their livestock might shelter there from raiders. If relief seemed unlikely, a garrison was likely to become demoralised. Think of the collapse of virtually the whole of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the defeat at Hattin

5 comments:

Grimsby Mariner said...

They were also the seat of power for the noble holding the castle and thus gave him money & men from the fellons under his juristiction. In the feudal system the number and quality of holdings defined your power and ability to influence the world in which you functioned. It was somewhat different in Outremer where the feudal system never took hold, largely down to the sheer number of factions involved.

Stokes Schwartz said...

Hi Greg,

An interesting post! Might at least some of the points you make about castles also be applicable to walled towns and cities in an 18th century context?

On another note, I'm currently enjoying many or your older posts from 2005 and 2006. Great stuff!

Best Regards,

Stokes

Bloggerator said...

Hi Stokes,

My reading of van Creveld leads me to believe that fortresses have always fulfilled similar functions. What changed with time was the technology for their attack and defense.

When were fortifications last used? WW2? If we count field fortifications, then they are in use to this very day, although they don't have the logistical role the once did (ie, as magazine) - modern logistic means have superseeded the magazine, I think.

Grimsby, it's Outremer that interests me very much at the moment. I suppose i was thinking also that castles there were a response to the cronic manpower shortages of the Franks. I was also very interested in Reynald de Chatillon's schemes involving using his powerbase in Oultrejourdain to interdict the Hadj route in the Hijaz.

All the best,

Greg

Bloggerator said...

Stokes - I'm glad you're enjoying the older material. I really ought to read it over agin myself.

What's floating your boat?

Regards,

Greg

Stokes Schwartz said...

Hi Greg,

I think what grabs me most about your earlier posts is your discussion of your painting/unit building with all of those great RSM95, Willie, etc. figures. I also like your construction of fortress sections from a couple of years ago too. I'll probably borrow your ideas there, since I recently aquired a considerable amount of foam packing material, which I hung onto, much to Sonja's chagrin! I'm not normally too much of a packrat, but there was simply too much good stuff to throw away (flat sheets for hills and blocks for redoubts, fortress sections, etc.). Of course, finding the time to do all that I envision is another question entirely!

Best Regards,

Stokes