In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval French Warfare

  • Introduction
  • General Histories of France
  • Sources and Source Studies
  • General Histories of Medieval Warfare
  • Warfare in France in the Tenth and Early Eleventh Centuries
  • Great Controversy: The Feudal Transformation?
  • The French Army: The Limits of Glory
  • Gunpowder
  • France and the Crusades
  • French Chivalry
  • The French and Maritime Power

Military History Medieval French Warfare
John France
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0246


The primary problem of this subject is when to start. It cannot be denied that the origins of France lie in the people called the Franks, whose dominion had, since the sixth century, covered much of what is now France and western Germany. This vast Frankland was not often a political unity, because Merovingian kings divided it amongst their sons, often resulting in eastern (Austrasian) and western (Neustrian) kingdoms with each commonly having a share of Aquitaine. But historians are convinced that the Franks, to an unusual degree, had a sense of unity. In 800, Charlemagne, after a career of conquest, welded all Frankland into an empire whose power extended over many of the other peoples of Europe. But in the 840s that empire became divided under his grandchildren, and its western component, under Charles the Bald, bears a considerable resemblance to what we know as France. But it was no natural unity: there was no single language, the lands south of the Loire had a different agriculture and orientations toward Spain or the Mediterranean, or both. By contrast, Rheims and the northeast were subject to the pull of the German Empire, and many of the borderlands like Flanders and Hainaut would be vassals of the emperors and of the French king. Normandy, whose border was only a hundred miles from Paris, would for long form part of an Anglo-Norman realm after 1066. So when and why did the western part emerge as a distinct political unity whose military history can be recounted? Historians have differed, and classic works like Flach 1886–1917 and Lot 1948 (see General Histories of France) tended to see France as an inevitable evolution. In fact, almost all scholars have seen the origins of France in the period after Charlemagne and arising from dynastic quarrels. To fix upon a starting point, it is necessary to look at general histories and to make a judgment as to when we can start the history of France. In this case, the date of 885 has been selected.

General Histories of France

The very title of Geary 1988 proclaims the scholarly consensus that for the origins of France we must look beyond the Merovingian period. There has been a strong tendency to regard the accession of the Capetian kings in 987 as marking the emergence of France, as is implicit in the title of James 1982, but even the fine work Hallam and Everard 2001 recognizes that this is open to strong objections. Dunbabin 1985 is not alone in seeing France as arising from the events of the 840s, and there can be little doubt that France had its origins in dynastic divisions. The starting point adopted here is 885, when the powers of the western kingdom became immersed in the politics of a great dynastic struggle. The near-extinction of the Carolingian kings led, in 888, to the accession of the Robertian king Odo I (888–898). This began a period of intense dynastic struggle which drew in almost all the great lords of the area. Chance and some shrewd political judgments enabled Odo’s descendant, Hugh Capet, to seize the throne in 987, but monarchy was reduced to a heartland we call the Île France and its immediate surroundings, and the great lords to north and south paid little heed to kings, except to admit that they had a final and legitimizing authority whose seal of approval gave respectability to what any one of them had achieved by main force and cunning. In this sense, France 2022 (cited under General Histories of Medieval Warfare) argues that a land of France had emerged from its roots in the late ninth century. Moreover, in the tenth and eleventh centuries German kings sought to assert their position in Italy by claiming to be emperors and looked to an imperial past, leaving the Frankish inheritance to the western kingdom, and with it the title of France. As a wide general account of French history, the volumes Lebecq 2023, Theis 2023, Barthélemy 1990, Bourin 2023, and Demurger 2023 in the Nouvelle Histoire de la France médiévale represent valuable summaries of the periods they cover.

  • Barthélemy, Dominique. L’Ordre seigneurial: XIe-XIIe siècle. Paris: Seuil, 1990.

    This author sees an essential continuity between the Carolingian age and the world of the High Middle Ages, and this has particular interest for military history (on which see Great Controversy: The Feudal Transformation?).

  • Bourin, Monique. Temps d’équilibres, temps de ruptures: xiiie siècle. Paris: Seuil, 2023.

    Bourin has a special interest in peasant communities and the life of the French countryside which marks all her work.

  • Demurger, Alain. Temps de crises, temps d’espoir: xive-xve siècle. Paris: Seuil, 2023.

    A very interesting examination of the course of French history during what is usually known as the “Hundred Years’ War” (see Anglo-French War (Called the “Hundred Years’ War”)) by a historian well known for his interest in the Crusades.

  • Dunbabin, Jean. France in the Making 843–1180. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    Dunbabin argues forcibly for her date of 843, the year of the Treaty of Verdun, by which the three grandsons of Charlemagne divided his empire between them. Charles the Bald received something like France, but in theory the empire continued to be one, and Charles himself later became emperor. It is difficult to see in his realm a unity with a real life of its own apart from the quarrels of a great family.

  • Flach, Jacques. Les Origines de l’ancienne France. 4 vols. Paris: Larose and Forcel, 1886–1917.

    Although it is old this learned work still commands respect. It bears the imprint of 19th-century ideas about the nation-state and applauds monarchic centralization. It portrays the emergence of France in the context of Europe after the fall of the western Roman Empire and presents a picture of the inevitable emergence of France.

  • Geary, Patrick J. Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    This is a book about Merovingian France from the fifth to the early eighth century, but, quite apart from other merits, its title represents a learned consensus that while the kingdoms of the Franks were undoubtedly the root, we cannot see France in this period and must look to later ages.

  • Hallam, Elizabeth M., and Judith Everard. Capetian France 987–1328. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2001.

    This provides excellent context for the study of the background to the wars of the Capetian period.

  • James, Edward. The Origins of France: From Clovis to the Capetians 500–1000. London: Macmillan, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-16954-2

    James does not see the emergence of the Capetians as a new start, but merely a convenient stopping point for a work which truly considers the complexity of early medieval history. But many others have, at least implicitly, seen the new dynasty as the start of France, something which James, for all his title, never says.

  • Lebecq, Stéphane. Les origines franques ve-ixe siècle. Paris: Seuil, 2023.

    As with Geary, this is about the Franks, not France.

  • Lot, Ferdinand. La Naissance de la France. Paris: Fayard, 1948.

    Lot saw little that was positive in the tenth century and declared “The Tenth century is truly sterile” and hastened to better times under the Capetians.

  • Theis, Laurent. L’héritage de Charles: De la mort de Charlemagne aux environs de l’an mil. Paris: Seuil, 2023.

    Sees the heritage of Charlemagne as being transformed in the centuries which followed (on which see Great Controversy: The Feudal Transformation?).

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