University of Cambridge > > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > Unconquerable Strongholds? An Alternative View on Medieval Siege Warfare

Unconquerable Strongholds? An Alternative View on Medieval Siege Warfare

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Since the rise of professional military history in the nineteenth century, it has been the firm belief of almost all scholars that medieval warfare was dominated to a large extent by the siege of fortified places, and that in medieval siege warfare, the defence had a great superiority over the offence. It has been customarily argued that even small castles could often successfully withstand a siege lasting for weeks and months by a vastly superior field army.

This view had far reaching influences outside the limited field of medieval military history. Medieval political and social historians frequently argued that the great superiority of defence over offence in siege warfare was a cornerstone of the feudal system and a key cause for the political fragmentation that characterised medieval polities. Even a minor nobleman could hope to defy the greatest king from behind the safety of his battlements. This firmly entrenched view was based on what were often impressionistic surveys of medieval siege operations, which tended to focus on the most famous and dramatic sieges of the era.

The paper reports of a study which re-examines this view by relying on a statistical survey of siege operations conducted in Normandy and Northern France in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. A statistical database was created by taking two of the most important chronicles of the era, Orderic Vitalis’ Ecclesiastic History and Egguerand de Monstrelet’s Chronique, surveying all the siege operations they mentioned, a grand total of about 700 cases.

An analysis of the resulting database produced a number of surprising conclusions that differed from the accepted understanding of medieval siege warfare. Firstly, the great majority of strongholds that were attacked, fell to the attackers. Secondly, most of the stronghold that fell to their attackers, fell within less than two weeks, often within less than 24 hours. Finally, it was found that the most important siege methods involved the use of stratagems, surprise attacks and treachery rather than the more famous siege engines and complex engineering schemes. Obviously, these results need additional verification by a far more detailed and reliable statistical survey. However, even now they question the received wisdom of medieval military history, and make it clear that conducting a more massive statistical study of medieval siege warfare is a worthwhile and needed project that can change our understanding of medieval politics and war.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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