Carolingian Military Machine

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Carolingian Military Machine


Legacy of Charlemagne. Charlemagne (Charles the Great) ruled the Carolingian kingdom from 768 to 814. By the end of his life that kingdom had taken on a completely different shape, having more than doubled in size. At that time it encompassed modern France, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, most of Germany, and a large part of Italy, northern Spain, and Austria. The reason for this growth was simple: of all medieval leaders none was so militarily successful as Charlemagne. He summoned his armies to fight in nearly every one of his forty-six years on the Frankish throne. All of these campaigns were used to extend the borders of the Carolingian kingdom, and, because each campaign was against a non-Catholic foe, all of his wars were waged with the blessing and for the benefit of the Church. As such, Charlemagne defeated the Avars in the East, the Lombards in Italy, the Saxons (several times) in the northeast, and the Muslims in northern Spain. In fact, on only one occasion was even a small part of his army defeated, when his booty-laden rearguard led by Roland was ambushed coming out of Spain at Roncesvalles in 778.

Professional Army. The Carolingian army led by Charlemagne and his successors was a diverse, professional force equipped with expensive arms and armor. Many of these soldiers also had to be mounted on equally expensive warhorses. Because such a force needed to be quite large, the Carolingian kings required all the property holders of the realm to participate in military service, either with their own service in the army or by their outfitting and paying for a suitable replacement. The nature of this obligation is laid out in a law (known as a capitulary) dated 808:

Every free man who has four mansi (a measurement of land) of his own property, or as a benefice from anyone, shall equip himself and go to the army, either with his lord, if the lord goes, or with his count. He who has three mansi shall be joined to a man who has one mansus, and shall aid him so that he may serve for both. He who has only two mansi of his own property shall be joined to another who likewise has two mansi, and one of them, with the aid of the other, shall go to the army. He who has only one mansi of his own shall be joined to an o ther who have the same and shall aid him, the latter shall go alone; the three who have aided him shall stay home.

Even subject peoples were required to fill the ranks of the Carolingian army. However, they were always commanded by Frankish nobles.

Horsemen. The cavalry was supplied by the more wealthy noble class, who could afford the expensive armaments and horses. They were required to muster for any long campaign and lost their lands and titles if they failed to come in support of the king. When not required to fight in a campaign, they were put in command of a garrison along the borders of Spain or Saxony.

Oath of Fealty. All soldiers were required to take an oath of fealty or allegiance to the king. This was the first time since the Fall of Rome that such an oath was required. In doing so, the Carolingian kings secured a viable, legal means from which military service could be obtained from men who were previously not required to serve them. The kings also guaranteed a loyalty that earlier leaders had not been able to realize.

Weapons. All soldiers had to be well armed and protected. The cavalry was to be equipped with a lance, a shield, a long sword, and a short sword. They were also required to be outfitted with a bow and arrows. The infantry was also well equipped, either with a bow (complete with two bowstrings and twelve arrows) or a spear. Most cavalry and infantry soldiers had a chain-mail coat, a shield, and a helmet for protection. These Carolingian mail coats were so important that one of Charlemagne’s capitularies forbade the sale of any mail coat to a non-Frank or even to a merchant; the punishment for doing so was death. The cost of this

equipment was to be shouldered by the property owners themselves or, if a soldier served in a noble’s retinue, by those nobles under whom he served.

Invincibility. Once in battle the Carolingian army was almost invulnerable. Its overwhelming power was wisely utilized by a tactical system of advances that allowed the heavy cavalry troops to be used to the extent of their capability, even against lighter, swifter armies. Sieges were also well planned and executed. At the sieges of Pavia in 773 and Barcelona in 802, Charlemagne’s army was provided with heavy siege equipment and massive baggage trains for supplies.

Fortified Positions. However, the Carolingians also knew the value of a wise defense. They built several large fortifications along the borders of their kingdoms and established a good signaling system to call for reinforcements anywhere in the large empire. They also bribed certain enemy chieftains, most notably the Danes, to remain at peace with the empire. The Danes themselves seem to have feared the Carolingians, as they constructed their own large and extensive fortification, the Danewerk, to wall off their kingdoms from that of Charlemagne.


Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire: The Age of Charlemagne, translated by Peter Munz (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963).

François Louis Ganshof, Frankish Institutions Under Charlemagne, translated by Bryce and Mary Lyon (Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1968).

Rosamund McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London & New York: Longman, 1983).

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Carolingian Military Machine

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