Focus on Tactics: “The One-Eyed General and the Development of Wagenburg Tactics”  

During the Hussite Crusades (1420-1434) the brilliant Czech general Jan Žižka (“the One-Eyed”, 1360-1424) introduced an innovative tactic to late medieval warfare, the Wagenburg, that witnessed horse-drawn war wagons moving on campaign in columns, then quickly forming up in a defensive wagon laager to create a mobile fortress to protect their troops. Wagenburg tactics showcased tried-and-true and new technologies side-by-side in a combined-arms synthesis, with Hussite soldiers using the gunpowder artillery, crossbows, and a variety of handheld weapons in concert to defend the wagons, while providing well-placed gaps between carriages for well-timed cavalry and infantry counterattacks against their Roman Catholic foes. Named after their martyred leader Jan Hus (1369-1415) the Hussites rebelled against their German overlords throughout Bohemia and Moravia seeking the right to worship their own version of Christianity. Led by the experienced Žižka, the Hussite army was known for using…

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Focus on Cavalry: “’Rise of the Magnus Equus: Medieval Horse Breeding and Procurement”

The most identifiable symbol of warfare in the European Middle Ages (c.500-c.1500 CE) is that of the mounted knight, and the foundation of that medieval heavy cavalry was the warhorse itself. The horse had to be a warrior in its own right, capable of entering the chaos of battle at a charge without panicking at the sounds and smells of warfare.  It needed to be strong enough to carry a fully armored man into the fray and fierce enough to take an aggressive part in the battle. Such horses were difficult to find, and they did not occur naturally, but from a process of selective breeding and training that developed over hundreds of years and was informed by many cultures in Europe, North Africa, and Asia, eventually resulting in the famous and relatively rare destrier or magnus equus (“great horse”) ridden by heavily armored knights at tournament and in war.  During the Classical Period (c.1000 BCE-c.500 CE), Greek and Roman horse breeders specially bred horses for entertainment and…

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Focus on Espionage: “The Rise and Fall of the Nizari Ismaili Assassins” 

The infamous Nizari Ismaili Assassins were a Shia religious sect created by a missionary named Hassan as-Sabbah (c.1034-1134) in the late eleventh century. With religious origins dating to the time of the prophet Muhammad (c.570-632), the sect of Ismailism grew in influence during the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt (909-1171), with the Nizari sect eventually splitting off in the late eleventh century and as-Sabbah setting up a training facility at Alamut Castle in the heart of the rugged Alborz Mountains in northern Persia.  Over time, additional Assassin strongholds would be built near in the rough terrain near Alamut and further west in Syria (Masyaf and Qadmus). The term “assassin” comes from these well-trained killers, being derived from an Arabic word for hashish, a drug supposedly used by the sect, though its usage is absent from the primary sources. However, a more appropriate term would be fida’i for “one who risks his life voluntarily” or sometimes “redeemer,” from the Arabic…

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Focus on Cavalry: “Masters of Mounted Warfare: The Seljuk Turks”

Before the Mongols struck out across most of Asia as the premier mounted warriors of their day, the Seljuk Turks carved an impressive empire stretching from their homeland in Central Asia, across Persia and Mesopotamia to the Levant and finally Anatolia (modern day Türkiye). The Seljuk Turks were a nomadic people from Central Asia who had converted to Sunni Islam. After defeating their Turkish rivals Ghaznavids for control of Khorasan at the battle of Dandanaqan in 1040, the Seljuks moved gradually into the heart of Persia and Armenia, growing in size in the eleventh century and taking over the Eastern provinces of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258). In 1055, the Abbasid capital of Baghdad was seized by Toghril Beg (r.1055-1063), forcing the caliph into a purely figurehead role. Toghril became the de facto ruler of Islamic Persia and Mesopotamia and forged a new Near Eastern imperium. Known as the Great Seljuk Empire (1037-1194), it encompassed 1.5 million square miles and quickly…

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Focus on the “Art” of War: “The Bayeux Tapestry as Military Art and Primary Source”

Located today at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Normandy, France, the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned in 1077 by Bishop Odo of Bayeux to commemorate William of Normandy’s victory at the battle of Hastings in 1066, an event usually referred to as the Norman Conquest of England. The entire year of 1066 is illustrated in fifty panels or scenes and is a propaganda piece portraying William’s rightful claim to the throne of England, Harold Godwinson as an oath-breaker and usurper, and the Norman victory at Hastings as God’s will. The misnamed tapestry (it is actually a woolen embroidery) is 230 feet long and twenty inches wide and is made using ten colors of yarn on a linen lining. Two main stitches were used in creating the tapestry. An outline stitch was used to outline the figures and then a laid-and-couch stitch was used for filling in the outlines with color. This particular type of couch stitch is referred to as the Bayeux stitch as it is unique to this tapestry. The…

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Focus on Naval Warfare: “Viking Ship-to-Ship Combat: The Battles of Svold and Nisa”

The medieval naval battles of Svold (c.1000) and Nisa (1062) between two rival Viking fleets demonstrates the flexibility of Scandinavian tactics, essentially bringing land tactics to naval battles as a form of medieval marine warfare. These tactics married the Norse warriors’ proficiency in hand-to-hand combat with their love of maritime technology, most notably their trademark warship, the longship.  This vessel was their primary instrument of overseas aggression during the Viking Age (793-1066). Long, narrow-keeled, and relatively flat-bottomed vessels with beautifully carved arched prows, the first longships carried around thirty-five sailors who also did double duty as warriors (whereas in contemporary Mediterranean galleys, the crew consisted of rowers and a separate deck crew with officers, and sometimes with a separate contingent of marines). They were made of oak using clinker construction (overlapping planks held together with clinch bolts) with a mast amidships and one bank…

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Focus on Command: “'In the service of the Emperor': Harald Hardrada and the Varangian Guard”

Right: Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the 11th century Skylitzes Chronicle. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or fewer. Source: Wikipedia. In the Public Domain, click to enlarge. Throughout the eleventh century the Varangian Guard’s reputation of being exceptionally well-compensated soldiers drew new recruits from throughout the Viking world seeking fortune and fame. One of these new recruits was a man of royal birth, Harald III Sigurdsson, later known to history as the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (“Hard-ruler” or “Stern-ruler,” r.1046-1066 CE). Exiled from his homeland after his countrymen’s defeat at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Harald joined other Viking refugees and travelled east to the land of the Rus in 1031.  There, these men found immediate employment as mercenaries with Jaroslav “the Wise” (r.1016-1054), son of Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir I…

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Focus on Elite Forces: “Terrible of Aspect and Huge of Body”: Byzantium’s Varangian Guard”

In the eleven-hundred-year history of the Byzantine Empire (337-1453) arguably the most well-known and celebrated military unit in the Byzantine army was the Varangian Guard. Referred to by Greek sources as “axe-bearing barbarians” for wielding their signature long-hafted battle axes, this multinational imperial unit was comprised primarily of Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon warriors and was active from 988 until the mid-fourteenth century, serving Byzantine emperors both as an imperial bodyguard in the great capital of Constantinople and as formidable troops on campaign. Indeed, through their numerous exploits and long term of service, the Varangian Guard is remembered as one of the most famous corps of mercenaries in military history, with a well-deserved reputation in Christian Europe and the Islamic Near East as elite soldiers, faithful bodyguards, imperial enforcers, and sometimes “emperor-makers.” The Varangian Guard took its namesake from the Varangians, Swedo-Slavic adventurers…

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Focus on Tactics: “From Raiding to Invasion: The Evolution of Viking Tactics”

By far the most devastating and widespread attacks in Europe during the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries came from the Vikings of Scandinavia, with their military tactics evolving from raiding proficiency at set-piece battles and sieges. The Vikings were a Germanic people based in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and their movements constitute the final wave of Indo-European migration and what historians refer to as the Viking Age (793-1066), using Anglo-centric dating bookends beginning with the Scandinavian raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne Monastery and ending with the battle of Stanford Bridge. Warriors, traders, superb shipbuilders and sailors, the Vikings pushed south from their homeland in their trademark longships and attacked the whole of Europe. Norwegian Vikings moved into Ireland and western England, while the Danes attacked eastern England, Frisia, and the Rhineland and navigated rivers to enter western Carolingian territories. Swedish Vikings controlled the Baltic Sea…

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Focus on Strategy: “Forging the Original Holy Roman Empire: Charlemagne’s Grand Strategy”

Charlemagne (r.768-814 CE) undertook an unprecedented fifty-four military campaigns during his forty-six-year reign, greatly expanding the territory of the Frankish kingdom he inherited into the Carolingian Empire through the use of an adroit grand strategy. His impressive military and political achievements even won him the title of “emperor of the Holy Romans” from the papacy on Christmas Day, 800 CE, the first of its kind in Western Europe since the fall of Rome three hundred years earlier. Even during his lifetime, he was referred to as “Rex, pater Europa” or “King, father of Europe” based on the large territory brought under his imperium, an area roughly corresponding to modern France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and parts of Austria, Spain, and Italy. But Charlemagne stood on the shoulders of other great Frankish kings and commanders, who created the foundations of a Frankish kingdom from the ruins of Roman Gaul.  Only one of the Germanic kingdoms on the…

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