The Writer’s Guide to Medieval Army Logistics

Raising an army and learning how to deploy it tactically will only get your protagonist so far. To keep your army in the fight, he or she will have to supply it. This can be a challenge, especially in a pre-industrial world without automobiles, trains, or airplanes. History again can provide us with a wealth of inspiration.

As always, magic is the exception to the rule. Because magic.

Equipping an Army

For an army to be effective, it must be equipped with weapons and armor. All modern standing armies provide their soldiers with everything, including weapons, equipment, and clothing. But throughout most of the ancient and medieval periods, soldiers were required to provide their own clothing, weapons, armor, and even food. The Romans were a notable exception. Under the Visigoth legal code (circa 680), soldiers were expected to bring their own armor and shields. In a letter, Charlemagne recorded that horsemen must provide “a shield, lance, sword, dagger, bow, and quivers with arrows.” [1] A law passed in 1252 required all Englishmen aged 15 to 60 to own a bow and arrows. It was mandatory for knights going on crusade to bring a string of horses.

Soldiers could also buy what they needed from merchants and craftsmen along the way or at their destination. [2] Goods and services included shoeing for their horses and metal, wood, and leather goods. During the First War of Scottish Independence, which began in 1296, sheriffs in Scotland and Wales would forcefully buy food, horses, and carts from merchants, paying low prices. The goods were transported to the border where English conscripts could purchase them. In the early 1300s, the English had a system where merchants were asked to meet the army. However, the merchants often used this an opportunity to charge outrageous prices. [3]

Of course, looting and pillaging were another way for soldiers to acquire goods. It was common during the Middle Ages for armies to loot villages and cities they captured and to pillage the countryside while they were on the march.

A 14th century depiction of soldiers looting a house. Image source.

Feeding an Army

As the saying goes, “an army marches on its stomach.” Yet most ancient and medieval armies required their soldiers to feed themselves. For example, the Carolingians in the 8th century required their soldiers to bring enough food for three months. If they still needed them after their food ran out, they would provide it for free. Other countries would provide food, but it was instead of wages. [4] Saxon soldiers during the German civil war in the 1070s were required to bring enough supplies for the entire campaign. [5] Food was commonly transported in carts or on pack animals. Herds of cattle were also used to provide fresh meat. According to Bernard Bachrach in “Military Logistics: Carrying Food Supplies,” a herd of 1,000 cattle could feed an army of 14,000 for roughly ten days. [6]

Food could also be bought from local merchants or farmers, or foraged or looted from the countryside.

Napoleon eating soldier’s rations. Image source.

The Baggage Train

The baggage train was a civilian contingent that transported the supplies that the soldiers were not carrying themselves. Members of the train could also provide goods and services to the army, including blacksmiths, cobblers, laundresses, and prostitutes. Often medical personnel traveled with the baggage train as well as the wives and children of the soldiers. The train was often vulnerable, such as when the French attacked the English baggage train at the battle of Agincourt.

A baggage train on the Bayeux Tapestry transporting weapons, chainmail, and wine. Image source.

Campaign Season

Although modern armies fight year-round, ancient and medieval armies only fought during the campaign season, which started in spring and ended in autumn. This ensured that the fields would still be planted and harvested, preventing starvation. It provided logistical challenges since armies had to be transported to the battlefield in the spring and home again in the autumn. This was especially challenging if it involved distance or an ocean journey, such as crossing the English Channel to fight in France. It was also a challenge to commanders when all their soldiers decided they had to go home to harvest the crops.

Even if an army stayed together through the winter, it was unlikely they would do any fighting unless they were in a warm climate. For areas that experienced snow and inclement weather, the army would be idle and had to be housed, warmed, and fed. Unless a reliable supply line existed or the army was camped in an area with plentiful resources, this situation often resulted in a hungry, miserable winter. General George Washington’s winter camp at Valley Forge is a good example.

The battle of Towton, which was fought in a March snowstorm, one of the few medieval battles fought in winter. Image source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: Charlemagne: Summons to Army c.804-11”. sourcebooks.fordham.edu. Retrieved 2020-11-12.
[2] Bachrach, Bernard S.; Bachrach, David S. (2017). “Military Logistics: Arms and Equipment”. Warfare in Medieval Europe c.400-c.1453. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. ISBN 9781138887664.
[3] Abels, Richard. “War in the Middle Ages: Medieval Logistics – English Experience”. United States Naval Academy. Archived from the original on 13 April 2016. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
[4] Abels, Richard. "War in the Middle Ages: Medieval Logistics – English Experience". United States Naval Academy. Archived from the original on 13 April 2016. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
[5] Bachrach, Bernard S.; Bachrach, David S. (2017). "Military Logistics: Supplies Carried by Militia Troops". Warfare in Medieval Europe c.400-c.1453. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. ISBN 9781138887664.
[6] Bachrach, Bernard S.; Bachrach, David S. (2017). "Military Logistics: Carrying Food Supplies". Warfare in Medieval Europe c.400-c.1453. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. ISBN 9781138887664.

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