Battle-seeking commanders in the later Middle Ages: Phases of Generalship in the War of the Two Pedros
By Donald J. Kagay
Albany State University Working Paper (2010)
Introduction: Thanks to the influence of the imperial military writer, Vegetius, it has long been understood that in the Middle Ages defense operations were much preferred to those of an offensive nature. In the Iberian Peninsula with long stretches of extremely fertile coastline divided from the interior by bleak grasslands and harsh uplands marked by the absence of readily accessible water, the maxim of holding one’s fire and waiting the enemy to make a mistake seemed a prudent one. Because the Iberian landscape was even further dominated by strategically placed fortresses, all warfare in the region, no matter who engaged in it, was normally of a much reduced scale. The principal combat technique was the “lightning raid” (algara, aciefa, cabalgada), unleashing on the landscape what one modern military historian has called a “war of erosion.”
This regime of raiding normally existed without pitched battles, but instead put a force of under 1000 horsemen in enemy territory for under a week. The aim of such operations was to produce maximum damage with minimum risk. This was done by having the raiding force constantly on the move while dealing heavy blows to enemy territory by damaging settlements, destroying crops, rustling livestock, and taking numerous prisoners. One fifteenth-century observer aptly described the effect of such raiding in the following terms: “we destroyed and burnt wherever we went, so that nothing was left behind us, for all was devastated.”
Even when larger armies took to the field, the same geographical determinants clearly affected the way in which they were maneuvered. As in the Latin East, campaigns were conducted “without battles,” centering, instead, on castles and fortified urban sites. Even these kind of expeditions, however, involved unforeseen risk, such as the demise of Alfonso XI of Castile (r.1312-1350) at the siege of Gibraltar, not from a battlefield wound, but from a bubonic plague infection. Rather than putting oneself in such danger, most commanders took the safe course of defending their frontiers and avoiding battle unless absolutely necessary.
Unlike some of Christian Spain’s greatest reconquest figures such as Fernando III of Castile (r.1217-1252) and Jaume I of Aragon (r.1214-1276) who looked on the conflict with Muslim Hispania as a “war fought in partnership with God” by combatants willing to die “in God’s service,” most Iberian commanders would wait out an adversary, even one who had crossed his border and did damage to his realm. Though opposed to modern views of chivalry in the Middle Ages, this cautious course was very much in line with such medieval Spanish political and military theorists as Juan Manuel (1282-1348) who counseled intelligent caution above vainglorious rashness for all who engaged in the unpredictable venture of war.