Mustering for the conquest – arrows cost less than knights.

A typical 28mm medieval mustering field.

I’m taking my Normans to the fields of the upcoming SAGA tournament in early April, this means that I have to assemble and paint some fresh serfs to expand my warband from 4 to 6 points. Since I only use Perry minis in my warband I chose the unarmored archers from their Crusader-line. These bowmen fit perfect in terms of equipment, style and overall look, although I’d wished for some of the archers to wear a helmet and perhaps maille (usually referred to as ‘chainmail’) in between the usual straw hats and plain coats. Whether drafting, or conscripting, peasants in medieval Europe was a widespread phenomenon or not can be a tricky question, and the answer depends on which part of the continent (and at what time) we look at. This blog is not the right medium for a debate so I won’t go down that lane, but there are some circumstances to consider when using the term “peasant” to describe your levies and their role on a medieval battlefield. Most medeival levies would in fact just be low and poor nobility rather than what we perceive as simple farming serfs.


The complex way of organizing power in terms of political, economical, and social structures in high medieval society, is usually referred to as feudalism (I avoid the term “states” as our notion of an early nation-state is a much later conception). In it’s broadest description, feudalism means that power is based on the ownage and distribution of land by and in between the warrior nobility of a society. A lord would grant pieces of his land (a fief) to vassals, who in turn lent pieces of farmland to peasant families in order for them to cultivate it. Although the legal and social rights were unequal, farming land in return for protection and rule of law can be seen as a form of mutual relationship between the peasantry and nobility in the absence of strong central statehood. For the landowning warrior nobility, being the only ones with the time and money to have their offspring indulge the arts of war, arming or even allowing peasants to own weapons could be begging for trouble and serious power struggles for obvious reasons. There are examples of dire times when the need for extra bodies would allow exceptions to the rule though, in such cases families were forced to send a male member on military campaign under the warrior aristocracy – usually bringing hunting weapons like bows and spears. But the notion that peasants made out large proportions of national armies is a “strange delusion dreamt up by antiquarians in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries to justify universal military conscription”, to use the words of historian David Sturdy.

Some archers from the Perry Crusader-line.

In this aspect Sweden is an exception among other medieval societies, since we had a relatively large and free landowning peasant populace. This was mainly due to the lack of high noblemen and the fact that many peasants had owned their own farmland since early medieval times. The crown compensated it’s lack of a warrior nobility by enforcing special laws, called landskaps– and ledungslagar, which stated that peasant families were to present arms and form the army (known as Ledungen) and heed the call to go man-ur-huse (“man-out of-house”) in times of war. Further arguing against the use of drawing upon the peasantry when settling squabbles among the nobility, peasant levies had to be sent home in time for them to tend their crops or animals and complete the harvest during most seasons of the year in order for them to sustain society. Which is also why most of Sweden’s medieval wars were fought during winter times.

In other parts of Europe, forcing peasants on campaign and perhaps having them killed off could mean some serious trouble once the nobility returned home – and there ain’t no nobleman who’d pick up a till or plow I tell you.

Meet Onfroi, his task is to cheer the other men and signal when to run from the field if things turn bad for the knights. This little boy will be used to fill out the ranks of my levies.

William the tactician, conqueror, bastard, and mainly, the unforgiving neckbeard from Normandy – some tactical uses and thoughts.
In order to take my army up to six points I’m not only bolstering the force using levies, but also by trying to make use out of William the conqueror, as Heroes of the viking age are permitted. Here’s what my army setup looks like:

William, Duke of Normandy – 1pt
4 Knights – mounted hearthguard -1pt
4 Knights – mounted hearthguard -1pt
8 Sergeants – mounted warriors – 1pt
8 Sergeants – crossbows – 1pt
12 Levies – bows – 1pt

Norman archers, probably made out of both peasants and lower nobility, peppering the Saxon lines at Hastings. Note the maille-clad archer and the presence of helmets.

The reason for fielding William is mainly due to his ability to activate multiple units using We obey! and the fact that ranged units are allowed to shoot when activated this way. William also generates an additional SAGA dice (3 instead of 2) so my command pool won’t get hurt by not taking another unit of warriors or hearthguard. During the ten-ish games I’ve played so far it always strikes me how expensive the abilities for a successful cavalry charge are on the Norman battleboard. The most usefull actions cost one or two uncommon and rare dice in different combinations to pull off, which leaves little room to activate multiple units let alone spend dice on shooting or manouvering the mid game. I usually tend to shoot my crossbows once or twice only to then leave them with a couple of fatigue markers in the woods which to me seems like a waste of bodies. With William on the field I can activate both a cavalry unit to manouvre, while at the same time making use of my unit of archers. Given that I get at least one common dice I can also double the range of their bows for one turn, meaning that I should be able to put some pressure on the enemy lines from the start. Depending on what I’m facing I can keep correcting my deployment and unit match-ups while showering enemies in arrows for the use of one or two dice a turn – shooting twice for the cost of one fatigue should hurt even the toughest hearthguard target! If  I face an agressive opponent a counter-charge from a combined eight-man mounted hearthguard or a volley of crossbow bolts will surely turn unsupported units into a feast for the crows.

Playtesting is underway and hopefully I’ll have myfirst battlereport in about a weeks time. Do you have any experience using or facing William the Bastard? How do you usually play your levies? And what other examples of medieval conscription do you know of?
Until next time, take care and paint on!



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