Expulsion of the Cathars from Carcassonne in 1209 (Source: Wikipedia)
I have been writing about warfare in the Middle Ages recently because I am back playing Medieval II Total War now that it is on Mac. A few years ago I was fighting my way through a campaign on my PC when Windows started playing up and finally my laptop gave up even though it was not that old. As part of this interest in the age of knights I have been reading a series of random articles that I came across during a search through my library's online journal subscriptions. The most recent article that I read was by Laurence Marvin who has written a very interesting article about the Albigensian Crusade of the early 13th century, War in the South: A First Look at Siege Warfare in the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1218. By itself it stands as a detailed introduction to the fighting that characterised so much of the fighting in that very unholy war. Beyond the details it provides about the military techniques of that conflict it also contributes to the historiographical debate about whether war in the medieval era was characterised by open battles with charging knights or were sieges the most common form of fighting.
The article opens with a discussion about this debate over siege versus open battle fighting and how the paradigm on viewing medieval warfare shifted to siege warfare being the most common form of the knightly clash of arms. Ironically, the besieged often had the advantage during a siege before gunpowder cannons became common place with medieval armies.
Laurence Marvin writes about the period of 1209 to 1218 when there were 45 sieges compared to only four field battles out in the open, with 10 of the sieges bing able to be classified as major sieges. 39 sieges were instigated by the crusaders against the Cathars and most of the sieges were resolved by negotiation rather than assault. Siege weapons were not always vital although their presence did assist even they were only used as a threat. The article contains a very useful table that lists the key sieges with their outcomes. He sees the four basic grouping for the topographical problems faced by the crusaders: large cities, fortified middle-sized villages, nominally fortified or unfortified villages and obscure mountain fortresses of little strategic value. He then describes a number of these of sieges to give the reader context for the points that Marvin is writing about. These sieges include:
- Beziers - July 1209
- Carcassonne - August 1209
- Minerve - 1210
- Lavaur - March to May 1211
- Montgey - May 1211
- St Antonin Noble-Val - 1212
Most of these sieges were conducted by Simon de Montfort. I found Beziers to be a very unique siege because it was all over in one day, rather uncommon for a siege given that sieges conjure up in the popular impression an activity that lasts a long time. The city of Beziers with its mighty walls was enveloped by the crusaders on 21 July 1209. The next day the citizens of the besieged city abused and harassed the army camped outside their walls. The citizens of Beziers felt safe behind their walls so were happy to antagonise their enemy with words and weapons. The common soldiers and camp followers in the crusading army grew increasingly angry about these taunts and attacks until they spontaneously surged forward, crossed the dry moat, smashed down a gate and rampaged through the city. The defending militia were not prepared as they thought that the besieging force would settle in for a lengthy siege.
The article does include details of some of the atrocities that were conducted during the crusade. By way off example after taking Lavaur in early May 1211 Montfort decided to hang the town's lord and the 80 remaining knights who defended the castle. They were to be hanged but the gallows broke so they were put to the sword. (Marvin does not write if anybody considered the failure of the gallows as a divine indication of displeasure about the fate of the defenders.) The lord's sister, the lady of the village, was thrown down a well and then followed by stones to cover her while 400 Cathars were burnt to death. In this war chivalry was often forgotten and the usual ransoming of prisoners was not common.
Being a defender had an advantage but it did nor guarantee victory for the besieged. Montfort was often outnumbered and hence why sieges were preferable where could isolate an enemy force in a castle rather than allow a combined force of the heretics and their supporters to meet his inferior numbers in an open battle. Although Montfort was helped by siege weapons but his victories were a combination of reasons summed up by Marvin as "luck, resolve, aggressiveness and Montfort's military reputation..." If you want to know more about the Albigensian Crusade then I recommend the podcast on the History of the Crusades that is just completing a series on this European-based crusade that starts at episode 109 in the podcast back catalogue, or you could just listen from the start of this fascinating podcast.