‘Vegetius’ – How to win a Medieval War by Toni Mount

Posted By on June 18, 2021

Thank you to author and historian Toni Mount for visiting the Anne Boleyn Files as part of the celebrations for her forthcoming book How to Survive in Medieval England.

Over to Toni…

My new book, How to Survive in Medieval England, published by Pen & Sword, is a guide to travelling in history: what to expect, how to dress, how to stay safe and what to look for on the menu – all a visitor needs to know in order to blend in with the locals. Trust me, blending in is a good idea because any odd behaviour, unusual clothing or strange accent could land you in trouble. Medieval folk are wary of in-comers and inclined to accuse them of any crime committed or blame them for causing a horse to become lame or a house to catch fire.

If you were able to go back in time to medieval England, so much would be very different and many things missing – technology, from engines to the Internet. Medical care would be primitive and public transport non-existent. All work would be manual; warfare would mean face-to-face combat and be very bloody. So if you are a young man destined to go into battle, how would you make the best of it? Perhaps it would be wise to study the art of war.

If you’re serious about getting involved, I advise you to read the popular instruction book of the day: Vegetius’ hand book for soldiers, De re militari, [On Military Things]. Surprisingly, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus had written his book way back in the fourth century AD and no one had bettered it since. Vegetius wasn’t even a soldier but more of a financial manager to the Roman emperor, so perhaps his idea was that the emperor should know how best to spend his money on military matters and not waste it. What he wrote became the most influential military treatise in the Western world, affecting European battle tactics, methods of warfare and military training right through the medieval period and beyond.

The opening page of Richard III’s English translation of Vegetius’ De re militari
[British Library MS Royal 18A xii, f.1]

Since everyone who is anyone (those likely to wage war across Europe, at least) has probably read Vegetius, you’ll be at a disadvantage if you don’t. We know King Richard III had a copy that was probably commissioned for his son, Edward, Prince of Wales. It was reckoned a vital subject for a young nobleman to study and an essential teaching aid.

Luckily, in 1408, Thomas, Lord Berkeley, translated the Latin version of Vegetius’ book into English and at some point the text was updated to include the more modern weaponry becoming available, such as longbows and cannon. De re militari is divided into four sections. The first is about selecting and training your men, the necessity of daily exercise to keep them fit: running and jumping, marching and even swimming. How to handle swords, shields and other hand weapons is included with instructions for leaping on and off a horse with a sword in your hand. There are details on setting up and fortifying a camp depending on whether it’s a hasty affair with the enemy close, or a leisurely construction with time to spend on making it more defensible and comfortable. The second book tells of the structure of Roman legions in Vegetius’ day, which is interesting but not so relevant, but also includes a list of ‘engines of war’, added to by later writers to include new technology, like gunpowder.

Book three is most useful and well used, setting out the general rules of warfare and basic military theory, including strategy, maintaining supply lines, tactics and – most important – how to keep your army healthy and battle-ready. Here are a few vital points from Vegetius:

  1. He who wants peace should prepare war.
  2. The best plans are those of which the enemy knows nothing until they happen.
  3. Every army should be kept busy and so remain sharp; idleness makes them dull.
  4. Exercise and weapons practice keeps men more healthy than doctors and medicines.
  5. Good commanders never fight openly in the field unless forced to do so by circumstance or unexpected happenings.

Battle of Crecy 1346 from Jean Froissart’s Chronicle

Vegetius must have thought in depth about what an army commander needs to know and he provides invaluable instructions on how to prevent a mutiny, how to manage inexperienced troops, the most effective positions for battle and where to position your captains to maintain communications between you and them and them and their men as they go into action.

The final Book Four deals with the detailed construction of fortifications and, therefore, the best ways to undermine and bring them down. There is also a section on naval warfare, ship-building and how best to foretell and cope with bad weather at sea.

If you don’t have your own army to command, having studied Vegetius, at least you’ll know what your leaders are doing wrong. However, don’t be too free with your superior knowledge and excellent military advice; it could be dangerous. Kings, princes, dukes and lords always think they know best and, of course, God is on their side. Telling them they’re making a big mistake could be your biggest mistake: they won’t appreciate it and the consequences for you could be unpleasant, though whether any worse than defeat, is hard to reckon beforehand. Perhaps you could just leave your copy of Vegetius lying around where they’re certain to see it, book-marked to the relevant pages. If they do lose the battle but you both survive, it’s best not to say, ‘I told you so’.

Vegetius’ book was still the go-to handbook on warfare into the eighteenth century but some of his instructions would have been difficult to comply with at any time during its thousand year plus history. For example, he advises that tall recruits make better soldiers to intimidate the enemy and have longer reach with a weapon so you should choose men at least 5 feet 10 inches tall in Roman measurement [172 cms]. Since the average height of adult males in Roman Italy [168 cms] was at least 2 inches below his ideal – and remained so into the nineteenth century – you may be unable to follow this stipulation. But my best advice is: leave warfare to those who are trained for it from childhood, if you possibly can. It’s a noisy, bloody, dirty business.

Jousting knights during the reign of Henry VI
[British Library MS Harley 4205, ff. 19v-20]

Readers can find out far more about medieval lives, meet some of the characters involved and get a ‘taste’ of the food of the time in How to Survive in Medieval England, my new book from Pen & Sword, published on 30th June 2021 and available for pre-order now on Amazon – click here.

Blurb:

Imagine you were transported back in time to Medieval England and had to start a new life there. Without mobile phones, ipads, internet and social media networks, when transport means walking or, if you’re fortunate, horse-back, how will you know where you are or what to do? Where will you live? What is there to eat? What shall you wear? How can you communicate when nobody speaks as you do and what about money? Who can you go to if you fall ill or are mugged in the street? However can you fit into and thrive in this strange environment full of odd people who seem so different from you?

All these questions and many more are answered in this new guide book for time-travellers: How to Survive in Medieval England. A handy self-help guide with tips and suggestions to make your visit to the Middle Ages much more fun, this lively and engaging book will help the reader deal with the new experiences they may encounter and the problems that might occur. Know the laws so you don’t get into trouble or show your ignorance in an embarrassing faux pas. Enjoy interviews with the celebrities of the day, from a business woman and a condemned felon, to a royal cook and King Richard III himself. Have a go at preparing medieval dishes and learn some new words to set the mood for your time-travelling adventure. Have an exciting visit but be sure to keep this book to hand.

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.
Web: http://www.tonimount.com
Social:
https://www.facebook.com/toni.mount.10/
https://twitter.com/tonihistorian
https://www.instagram.com/toni.mount.10/

You can catch Toni at the other stops on her blog tour (click to enlarge):

3 thoughts on “‘Vegetius’ – How to win a Medieval War by Toni Mount”

  1. Banditqueen says:

    I must admit even though its a society which I doubt I would last five minutes in, I would definitely love to just pop back in the Tardis and see Medieval England. For one thing, the skies were clearer and I am keen on astronomy. On the flip side there were too many hazards, the law favoured the rich and powerful and without antibiotics you could die of anything. Imagine Covid without a vaccine. The Black Death took up to 50% of the population, Covid could have been the same today without our knowledge, the NHS and vaccinations. We are as defenceless without those as Medieval people were against the plague. A lot of other things killed as well and battles were fought face to face, in chaos and you could suffer terrible injuries or death and yes, you might be patched up, but you may die of infection. Yet battle tactics were part of growing up for many young boys, especially the knights class upwards. Even farm labourers, however, had to practice archery, instead of football and be ready if called to war. All you had was a bill and some light armour, although some kit was supplied but it was still a very dangerous life. Then there is a problem of not fitting in with the ideas of the day. For example I am very outspoken so its the ducking stool for me lol. The ways of the social order, the place expected of women, the controversial conflicts between heresy and orthodox religion and political ideals would be difficult for modern people. Technology loss would certainly be impossible. Most people can’t cope without a smartphone. What if you fancy a burger and coke at midnight? Most people can’t entertain themselves either. You would have to back then. You would have to be up very early as well and work would be demanding and last most of the day. You needed to be strong and you needed to work with your hands. Life was burdensome.

    There was the round of religious celebrations which I think I would enjoy and food had to be prepared from scratch, something else ironically I would probably enjoy, even though it was hard work. I would love to see the Churches all decorated and all colours and the monasteries as they should be. I would love to see Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the Castles of Edward I as they were, white and gleaming. If I could just pop in and out of time and places in my Tardis, it would be wonderful, but I would probably interfere with something and end up stuck there.

  2. Christine says:

    I remember seeing a programme about life in medieval / Tudor England and how young women of the servant class found work in the wealthy households, they were scrutinised by the mistress of the house to see if they looked physically strong enough to carry the pails of water on their shoulders, no good for those of small height and slender build, and the poor had to work long hours to, there were no contracts no workers rights and you could be sacked on the spot for the slightest misdemeanour, there were large families and they shared tiny dwellings and slept several to a bed in mattresses of straw that were hosts to human and pet fleas, this is how the Black Death spread so rapidly, food consisted of pottage, a kind of stew made more vegetables many grew their own vegetables and kept hens, disease was rife as Bq said, no medicine was available only cures from the wise woman, there was no proper sewage system and people threw their slops out from the window, for the poor life was grim, the rich fared better but they to were at risk from disease, they ate better a variety of meat and game and fish, and could afford to live in larger more comfortable houses which they kept heated in the winter, fresh reeds were put down daily as they carried dirt and animal droppings, they had servants and their mortality rate was lower than their poorer counterparts but the young men of the household were trained in the expectancy of going to war, the bow and arrow that wonderful war machine which the English put to such good use in Du Crecy and Agincourt, was used by very young boys in the hope they would become seasoned archers, the entire country would have looked and smelt so much different, and although there would be no traffic as we know it, no blaring of horns, no loud music blaring out from ghetto blasters, it would have been noisy but with a different kind of noise, the clatter of horses and mules hooves on the cobbled lanes, animal noises the chatter of people and tradesman shouting their wares, I would find it a whole new world and although fascinating very scary to, the smells would have been very pungent there were no roads only muddy dirt tracks although in the city lanes that wound and twisted, the fear of disease would have been rife as people knew once ill, there was a chance they would not survive, the plague arrived in Britain in the fourteenth century and killed thousands, their suffering would have been great, the wounds inflicted on the men in battle would have eventually killed them if they survived the conflict, we are lucky that we live in an age where we enjoy huge medical advancements, and the luxuries we enjoy today have in a sense made us soft, Bq says most cannot cope without a smart phone, I am one of those I also could not do without the internet, texting can be sent across the world within seconds, letters are slowly becoming a thing of the past, back then in the early days messages were carried on foot and by horse for longer journeys, household gadgets have made life very simple for us, the washing machine is a godsend to modern women today, but back then washing was done by hand, physical work made people use their muscles more and so they were fitter, but how arduous it seems washing by hand, then clothes had to be wrung out, poorer families would have had their daughters to help them, and as for the cooking, today we have food mixers and blenders, there are even devices such as apple peelers, for the wealthy again their servants would have seen to all that, imagine the scenery in those days, yes the earth was cleaner, no pollution marred the air, there were no aircraft and only birds would been spotted in the skies, London was a walled city with the Tower as its main fortification, clusters of little houses were dotted around and the larger taller dwellings of the more wealthy and notable, the Thames was dotted with ships from abroad and the surrounding areas was made up of fields, cattle grazed and deer wandered amongst the thickets, I too would love to go back in time but I know I would find it a huge shock even though we have knowledge of what England looked like back then, but what we perceive in our minds eye is totally different to the reality, it certainly would be an experience and a half.

  3. Christine says:

    I too would love the celebrations – the May Day festivals, where a young girl was crowned queen for the day, and of course the Christmas celebrations especially in the wealthy households where the Lord of Misrule was king and everyone did his bidding, during the season the wassail bowl filled with punch would be passed around from household to household and people took the religious festival very seriously, today celebrations like Easter are associated with bank holidays and chocolate eggs, only the religious take it seriously, Pentecost and lent are still upheld by the church but they mean little these days except to the few, they are merely dates on the calendar, Christmas is associated to children anyway, with lovely presents and for adults a chance to party and a holiday from work, times have changed a good deal, no one really abstains from meat at lent anymore and a lot of religious ceremonies have died out, imagine being a witness if you lived in London to see the king and queen ride past on horseback, it would be thrilling to see them in their sumptuous clothes and jewels and their glittering retinue of lords and ladies, the horses too in their colourful trappings a treat for the poor, it would I admit be interesting to see the old city, some place names are very old, Ludgate Hill for example, named after an ancient king who died on that spot, Smithfield’s London’s oldest meat market and Billingsgate fish market, said to be named after the ancient god Belin, Spitalfield’s and Shoreditch, said to be named after Edwards 1V’ mistress Jane but her real name was Elizabeth? And as Bq mentions old St Paul’s who was destroyed in the fire but was rebuilt by Wren and is as we know it today, it was said after the great fire the old Roman walls of the city could be seen for the first time in centuries, and London like the Phoenix slowly rose from the flames and was fitted with proper sewage systems in place, old timbered buildings had been destroyed, some belonging to wealthy merchants which were very beautiful and new buildings were constructed on their sites, old London had been gutted but it was seen as a chance to better the city, new roads were built and thankfully, very few citizens lost their lives, the poor had fled to the country but when they returned all they had known had gone, one author had spent ten years writing his biography on King Charles 1st, yet the flames had reduced his work to ashes in seconds, the great fire was a disaster coming so soon after the Black Death which had killed thousands the year before, Londoners must have thought their sins were great for god to punish them in such a way, but London survived as do many other cities, those wrecked in the Second World War, Coventry that suffered greatly during the bombing, as well as London, Liverpool as I’m sure Lynn Marie will attest suffered greatly, and yet life endures it is infinite.

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