Medieval Militias: a Brief History of England and Europe’s Primary Defense Forces

This article published on June 21st, 2012 was originally written in response to the raging gun control debate exploding at the time.  In that debate, I kept hearing ardent defenses of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution which states in full, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Being a history person, I therefore took the time to look into the history of militias in hoping of shedding light onto the context behind these most controversial words in the US Constitution.

 

Medieval Militias: a Brief History of England and Europe’s Primary Defense Forces

When most people hear the word “militia,” Colonial America minutemen probably come to mind. Others may remember that it was the Massachusetts militia that Congress adopted and assigned to George Washington in 1775 in order to free Boston from occupying Crown forces. To this Massachusetts colonial militia, Congress merged the colonial militias of the other twelve colonies, forming what became the “Continental Army.”

But this new Continental Army was not an army in the modern sense nor did it form in a historical vacuum. Instead, the American militias that became George Washington’s forces all evolved out of a much older tradition that goes back more than one thousand years before the Founding Fathers and Founding Mother’s time.

It all began in antiquity, as most things ultimately do. Celtic and Germanic peoples competed for resources across Europe, each with very distinct war traditions. Medieval England would take most of their traditions from the Germanic tribes.

Ancient Germanic cultures maintained a tradition of calling forth every able bodied man to fight in times of crisis; professional soldiers were not part of this equation. This tradition became part ofEnglish Common Law even as a more codified feudal system emerged. These first militias were the backbone of defense across Europe; mercenaries were hired sometimes but were so expensive that they were particularly rare in the first millennium of the Common Era. Starting in the eleventh century, the numbers of professional, mercenary soldiers grew thanks to the evolution of a new practice called “scutage.” In scutage, a vassal pays money to his liege lord in exchange for being excused from personally providing military service. With this money, kings and nobles bought more mercenaries than they ever could before. As with most things, Europe’s transition from barter to money-based economics facilitated that shift. Soon it became common for the wealthiest to pay their way out of putting their own necks on the line on the field of battle, increasing the number of mercenaries a king or noble could employ.

But mercenaries were no solution to the problem of how to defend a nation. In England, non-feudal militias were encouraged through laws requiring every able bodied man to keep weapons and train with them. The Welsh longbow became the natural weapon of choice; they were relatively inexpensive and could be owned by even the poorest Englishman. Laws were passed to encourage proficiency with bows. By the Hundred Years War, the result of generations of encouraged archery proficiency rang clear with English victories against the French rooted in the skill of English bowmen – nearly all of these longbow men serving in the militia. As mercenaries became more ruthless in their treatment of civilians, resentment against professional soldiers grew; only the militia made up of their peers could be trusted.

This belief that militia, not professional soldiers, could be trusted stayed with English society through the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming part of colonial American attitudes towards professional verses non-professional soldiers and, ultimately made its way into the United States Constitution through the Second Amendment guaranteeing, just as 13th century English law, the rights of ordinary citizens to defend the country instead of a professional army.

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4 thoughts on “Medieval Militias: a Brief History of England and Europe’s Primary Defense Forces

  1. Nice recap of the history of militias.
    I was wondering if your research covered how the militia was normally activated in times of trouble?

    Was it always a “top down” call for assembly or did the local units respond to problems, alerting the chain of command up the line? Or some combination (as I assume) of the two.

    Bob S.

  2. It’s been a couple of years since i did this research. I think the answer to that has to factor in time and place. Ancient Celtic and Germanic communities were much more egalitarian than their Romanized counterparts. Romanization — either through direct Roman conquest or through the Roman Catholic church — introduced complex hierarchies. Once these became embedded into the system, everything became top-down as communities and local leaders lost power in favor of barons, earls, kings, popes, and so forth.

    Does that make any sense?

    • Thank you, it does make sense.

      It also corresponds with practices that were common in the colonies to an extent if I remember correctly. Areas with strong hierarchical government would be more controlling but areas with less; the ‘frontiers’ would have more local activation in response to raids and such.

  3. Pingback: The US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment: Police, Not Guns in Every Home | Laurel A. Rockefeller Books

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