Arthurian Boot Camp: Military Training in the Dark Ages

Aside from frequent detours for various reasons, each of my blog posts about The Arthurian Age have roughly followed subjects as they come up in each chapter of The Retreat to Avalon. Today we’re up to chapter four. Nearly the entire chapter is about the military training of Gawain and his combrogi (Brittonic word roughly meaning “fellow-countrymen”, and vaguely equivalent to the extended families and clans of the pre-feudal Britons).

Chapter four was fun to write, partly because I was able to include some aspects of personal experience into it. My time in the military taught me many things that are surprisingly relevant to what Gawain experienced. Does that seem unlikely, 1,500 years later? Read on and see what you think.

One of my goals for writing The Arthurian Age was to provide a window to a historical era that few know much about. The “Dark Ages” is a fascinating era. More so by far, I think, than the later Medieval era because so much is going on. Upheaval, migration, war, diplomacy, old empires falling, new nations emerging. Part of the reason this era receives so little attention, however, is because so much of the written record, especially in Britain, was lost. It’s much easier to write about later events, where we have more evidence.

But there is evidence available, in documents, art, and even folk tales. In addition, if we look to the time periods bookmarking the Dark Ages, namely the Late Roman and early to middle Medieval periods, we can infer a great deal. Beyond this, we can also glean clues by looking even further back. Part of my research for The Retreat to Avalon was to study Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army by D.W. Engels. 700 years separate Alexander the Great and King Arthur. What could one have to do with the other?

A lot has changed in the 700 years leading to today, but the differences in warfare between the fourth century BC and the fifth century, AD, is pretty miniscule. Commanders still needed to procure and transport supplies in roughly the same manner, by human, beast or boat. A century before Alexander, the Greek general and historian, Xenophon, wrote treatises on horsemanship and cavalry command that were still referenced into the Renaissance period. The realities of close-combat primarily involving hand-held pointy things were pretty much unchanged until the advent of gunpowder.

Greek Hoplites

Ancient societies, like the Greeks (the Spartans were particularly infamous for their systematic, brutal training regimes), Celtic Britons and the Germanic Saxons, maintained warrior cultures that expected martial prowess from every male above a certain age. We don’t know much about how they trained their young warriors, but it would be a mistake to consider their techniques primitive. They may not have had written military manuals, but they would have thousands of years of experience passed down through generations.

To prevent rebellion, the Roman Empire suppressed warrior cultures in the lands they conquered, and barred most people from having weapons or training for combat unless they were in the Roman army. By the time the Empire abandoned Britain in the 5th Century AD, some fifteen generations of Roman rule had left the vast majority of Britons unprepared to defend themselves from raids and invasions by Irish, Pictish, and Germanic tribes who had maintained their warrior cultures.

According to Gildas, when the Romans departed, they left behind training manuals to help their former subjects develop their own defenses and military. Some remnant of the Roman military must have remained behind as well. Perhaps small units in remote locations, but at least there would have been some grizzled old vets, retired, but able to lend their experience to helping revive the warrior culture of the Britons.

The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.

Gildas, recounting “The Groans of the Britons“.

They needed any help they could get. When appealing to the Romans failed, they tried hiring Saxon mercenaries. This became a disaster for the Britons that eventually resulted in the countries we know today as England, Scotland, and Wales. But there was a brief time when the Britons recovered, fought back and halted the Anglo-Saxon advance. This is where Arthur fits, in the mid to late fifth century. The Britons recovered their strength to the point that they were able to send a remarkably large army, 12,000 strong according to Continental sources, to aid the failing Roman Empire in Gaul. This is the story behind The Retreat to Avalon.

It is no easy task to mobilize, equip, move and lead so large an army. Commanders would have needed more than the ability to “wing it”. Arthur and his peers would have grown up in a culture that had living memory of the Roman occupation, and Roman methods. As a young noble, Arthur was likely trained by some of those old veterans. He may even have spent time on the continent among soldiers still within the Roman system. All of the nobility would have trained for either war or the clergy, sometimes both, though the level of training would vary with the resources and local culture. In most cases, low-level chieftains and warlords, like Gawain and his family, would have small warbands and train these men for small-scale conflicts, especially raiding.

Chapter Four, however, is about the soldiers who must enact the designs of the army’s commanders. Were the common soldiers just a rabble of barely trained peasants? That is the impression most get from medieval depictions. But the High Middle Ages had a much different culture after several centuries had passed from Arthur’s era. In some ways, it might be seen as a decline as more centralized feudal systems took more control of society.

The Britons quickly reverted to much of their pre-Roman culture, including a very de-centralized economic and governmental system. The upper levels of society were made up of the nobility (landholders, warlords, etc.), clergy, and craftsmen. The commoners: farmers, laborers and the like, were the majority of people, by far. Their status appears to have been variable, depending on their location and local culture. They would consider themselves “freemen”, even if from a region that treated them more like later feudal serfs. All would have been above the status of slaves, who were usually taken in raids, or being punished for crimes or debt.

The commoners would not typically be involved in the regional squabbles and raids that their local warlords engaged in, except as victims. Their homes would be burned. The produce of their work in the fields and the animals they tended would be stolen. Their children taken as slaves. So it was in their interests to know how to handle weapons and defend themselves. Something that would be considered a right.

In this pre-feudal society, all male “freemen” would have been responsible for being prepared to defend their homes and families, as well as their extended community under the command of a local warlord or village council (more common among the Romano-Britons in the south). They would likely have had some form of combat training as they grew up, usually from extended family members, with group drills seasonally as a militia. This group training would allow them to practice working together to defend their communities from larger threats. It would also provide a warlord with a pool of reasonably well trained fighters to augment his warband in the event that a major war broke out.

The Roman army was very professional for its time. Recruits trained for four months before going to their units. Marching skills were the first thing taught, before a recruit was given a weapon, because an undisciplined gaggle on the move was ripe for ambush. Today we teach soldiers complicated marching maneuvers, not because they need to maintain a tight shield wall, or fire muskets in volleys just to be effective, but rather to instill discipline and teach individuals to work as a team.

Training soldiers has changed a lot over the centuries, but there are certain things that are universal. First, individuals must learn to work as a team. Second, they must be conditioned to follow orders. There are many ways to do this, and shared misery and group punishment are old methods. The scorn of close peers will help keep individuals in line. And peers are best able to monitor and support each other. In the Roman army, the worst punishment was decimation. A 10-man squad would draw straws and the man who drew the short straw would have to be beaten to death by his nine comrades. Thankfully, when I was in the Army, the worst group punishments we faced were loss of privileges, extra work, or long, intense, physically exhausting exercises.

Yours truly, center, 1987

In chapter four, Gawain and his fellows go through a variety of training maneuvers, some that I gleaned from research, others that I experienced in some form, myself. I learned some universal concepts about training and leading soldiers from my time in the military. While it was tough, one of the biggest lessons was that we are all capable of far more than we think.

Thanks for stopping by and I look forward to hearing from you!

Coming Soon!

2 thoughts on “Arthurian Boot Camp: Military Training in the Dark Ages”

  1. I shall reference this from the Fb Dark AgeCornwall because the training and logistics of the time intrigue me. Later levies were required to turn up with enough food for themselves. For forty days was the aim but three days on the person and fifteen days somehow carried by the village group is more likely. Was it Clausewitz who said that after fifteen days an army begins to starve? Food is of course related to training and operations because the group, the team, the section messing together is the basis of training, performance and esprit de corps.

    I think it is accepted that the band of eight or so men is our human, even pre-human practical unit in hunting and war.


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