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The Carolingian Ost

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Carolingian horseman as depicted in the Utrecht PsalterCarolingian horseman as depicted in the Utrecht Psalter

Three centuries after they had settled in the Gauls, Franks had remained a people of warriors. It was about a will to show the Frankish power -even if one may also think that the perspective of booty and lands also participated into warfare. Fighting was a honor. The extension of the Frankish empire along with the predominance of cavalry changed the rules. 'Miles' ('soldier'), by the 9th century A.D. will only term a horseman as the ost has to wait May that grass be available to horses. There are two aspects to the ost. First it was originally the service due by freemen only. Second, those were added with vassals in a recommandation relationship with a superior. They knew then St. Augustine's theories that the war is inevitable as it always must be a right one. War is right when waged against a Christian people of which damages are endured. War is always right when waged against non-Christians or heretics because it aims to the good of them which are brought thus to the benefits of Church. The idea that warriors of the Christian ost are worth of spiritual merits was beginning is those times. The was the ost was constituted also brought clerics to fight. Despite the passage of troops going to the ost, Charlemagne's 46 years of reign were to have the territories of the Frankish kingdom then empire exempt of any invasions

The Carolingina army, or the 'Carolingian ost,' from the Latin 'hostis,' for 'army,' was the gathering of freemen and the extension of the annual Carolingian assembly as it was one of the most important ways of cohesion for the Frankish kingdom with all freemen keeping to serve within the military. The Carolingian ost was to characterized itself by a transformation of the art of war, which will pass from infantrymen to horsemen. By about 755 A.D., Pippin the Shord was to move the date of 'field of March' (that gathering of the ost by spring, the 'champ de Mars') to that of the 'field of May,' to take fodder for horses in account! The Frankish army was added with the freemen of conquered peoples which constituted as many 'national' contingents. The Carolingian ost also was working upon a proximity principle as they better called Neustrians for a campaign in Aquitaine or Burgundians for a one in Italy, for example. A list of people eligible was written down by counts of each pagi and sent to the Court, and the 'heriban,' the call to the ost was telling what pagi had to provide soldiers. The whole kingdom was called to the ost when needed only, when a campaign was of importance, which was a way to avoid depriving a whole region from its freemen or to impose the supplies burden to the countries where the ost would journey. Time passing, the Carolingian ost seemed to get professionalized with a elite solely, able to equip itself and to fight, and coming to participate into the ost. A horseman, complete with his equipment and weapons, and 3 months of provisions valued at 5 golden sous. That further matched the fact that numerous freemen, the basis to the Carolingian infrantry, were leaving their family and land farming with regret. There were 55 years of war in total for 46 years of reign under Charlemagne, which necessitated a long absence and costly journeys. People eligible to the ost went up to try to turn cleric -which was forbidden except a authorization- or even to sell themselves like a serf -as such a sale was canceled if passed in that view. Deserting was punished with death. Refusals of participating into the ost, which increased after 800 A.D., hold to that going the ost, finally, was almost entirely at the cost of the warrior and above all, maybe, to that the campaigns then, which especially were targeting the Slavs, brought few booty. Charlemagne took care, generally, not to call always the same regions to the ost as a principle of proximity could play. He also tried to limit in duration the time when warriors were in a campaign. Charlemagne eventually decided by 807 A.D. that landlords with 3 mansi were to be called to the ost only, and of 4 as soon as the following year. About 812 A.D., a freeman needed 4 tenures of land (or 'mansi') to serve in the ost and 12 to do with a complete armement, of which a 'brogne,' or haubergeon, the ancestor to medieval armour. Under 4 mansi, freemen must associate between themselves, one or more joining the army and the others paying for their military equipment. Some freemen may keep serving provided that their 'senior' armed them. As, in each pagus concerned, the missi parted soldiers into two bodies -the one really leaving for the campaign, the reserve one which was to serve like a local guard to the count- abuss occurred after the reign of Charlemagne with counts and missi agreeing to be bribed. Lay and ecclesiastical Greats generally paid their taxes, or the 'annual gift' they owed, in weapons and horses. Free tenures owed a set of taxes and services as those which had the official status of kingly 'vassals' were equiped by the Frankish king and the same for those serving like heavy horsemen. Should their horse be lost, it was freely replaced by the king. For infantrymen, their shield costed 2 solidi, a gold coin, their helmet 6, their sword 6 -and the leggings too- as the haubergeon valued at 12. As far as a heavy horseman was concerned, that fighter had to pay 7 solidi for a male horse (and 3 for a mare; according to some source, a horse was priced 40 solidi, or 18-20 cows) beyond the previous equipment which just has been described, which totaled at about 40 solidi -or the equivalent of about 20 cows. He also had to provide to the horses related used for fight andtransport

As far as the ost due by vassals is concerned, it was concerning those people who had linked themselves to a patron through the technique of the 'commendatio,' as they were termed the 'vassals' to a 'senior.' A ancient technique that turned official by the 8th century A.D. to the point that some could hope to evade the ost that way. Charlemagne ordered in 807 that any vassal to accompany his senior called to the ost. Such that supplementary military, on a other hand, was not under the command of the pagus' count as the whole of those linked like vassals constituted a separate body under the command of their seniors. That system applied also to vassals engaged to a cleric as, generally they were obliged to the ost whatever their wealth. The troops of bishops remained the last faithful to the declining Carolingians as half of the Church fortune is said to have been used to that ost. Vassality, on a other hand, swiftly expanded at the time, which brought seniors often to grant a benefit to a vassal for the military service. With the decline of Carolingians, that eventually brought to that what was, finally, a private military service to a senior as that became preponderant progressively in the 9th century and that the ost of freemen disappeared! That was heralding the feudal times

A young Frankish nobleman is training early against harshnesses as he will receive his sword from his father when pubescent. His sword will remain his companion as it will bear a name and the warrior will keep it until into his tomb. His horse is the nobleman's other companion. A warrrior's training consists into mastering horse riding and miscellaneous violent exercices like bow-shooting, the quintaines or fight-simulations. Even military games, with charges and retreats enactements performed by horsemen and infantry, were organized. Hunting, which was a dangerous sport, was also purveying for the training of Franks

A military campaign, in the Carolingian times, was lasting between 3 to 6 months. A campaign began with the gatherings of the whole ost a the location said in the heriban, where a readiness review called the 'Champ de mai' ('May Field') was performed. After the military operations, the ost was then disband during the winter time. Fighters were warned some weeks or even two to three months before the call, to allow to they get ready. The counts, the royal vasals, bishops and abbots are those who were liable for calling and then journeying fighters to the theater of operations. Each of the fighters was coming with supplies for 3 months and weapons and clothes for 6 months, which usually translated into twice that for campaigns occurring at important distances. By 811 Charles asked the warriors to come the ost with 3 months of provisions and 6 of clouds and weapons, that being counted from the Rhine when coming from the East or South of the Loire river, or from the Elbe river when campaigning against the Slavs). Supplies were also required from along the road, and paid as they also brought living supplies under the form of cattle. Grass for horses was always free as were water and wood for cooking. Ahead of the campaign, pastures were put on hold. Horses were provided by the Frankish domains as weapons were by the workshops of those. The journey to where the campaign was taking place was slow as cargo like supplies, tools and weapons were transported aboard heavy (1/2 ton) leather-protected (for easier river-crossing) two-wheeled chariots -or 'bastarnae'- which were powered through horses with a neck collar already, or most often, through two oxes. Machines and disassembly-able boats were allowing to cross rivers as sea boats might be used along the shores. All that was paid by the Frankish king too. Merchants also were following the ost. The ost in 778 A.D. thus took 2 months, from April to June, to travel from Poitiers to the Pyrénées mountains, which averages to about 4.4 miles a day as fighters by foot can theoretically walk 13 miles, or that the ox-powered chariots could allow 9.3 miles a day. By the 15th century A.D., once the shoulder collar adopted , the same distance could be performed in 15 days only. Blacksmiths and goldsmiths were the craftsmen who, beyond their usual production, were manufacturing swords of the time as they perpetuated the Germanic tradition of metallurgy. They knew how to yield damassed iron -which is a very thin steel- and a sword's soul was featuring sheet-layered metal with nitrated steel for the knit, as a golden or silvered damasquined metal was used for the cross and gild. Swords which were manufactured this way are the famed, legendary ones like Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne, Durandal, the one to Roland, or Hauteclaire, the one to Olivier. Joyeuse was considered invicible as Durandal was able to cut a rock

About 800 A.D., a total of 500 counts, 500 abbots and bishops were bringing about between 20 to 30 thousand men (some source are stating up to 100,000 and 3,600 horsemen) to the Carolingian ost. About 1,000 (1,800?) royal vassals with 10 men each were also present, and 2 to 3,000 heavy horsemen, which constituted a whole army of about 50,000 fighters. The ost, practically however, was most of the time constituted with 5, 10 or 15,000 men (for the massive campaign against the Avars) only, of them 2 to 3,000 heavy and light horsemen. 6,000 chariots were present thus as meadows to 12,000 oxes and 3,000 horses are needed each day. Thus they parted the ost between two or three groups to alleviate that contribution.A capitulary of 802-803 A.D. is ruling in a rational way, the weapons mandatory when joining the ost. A warrior must not come with a sole stick as, like a minimum, he had to possess a bow. Each one present at the assemblies convened in the perspective of the ost, had to come with a spear, a shield, a bow with 2 ropes and 12 arrows, a brogne and a helmet suited for summer. Vassals, both counts and clerics had to secure supplies and materials, like tools as two-third of grasslands in each county had to be reserved for the ost and they had also to secure bridges and ships. By 807, a horseman had to hold with him a shield, a spear, a long, and a short sword, a bow with its quiver and arrows

->A Other View of Weaponry
Two types of spears are extant. The long one, at 6.7 feet which likely was used with stirrups and the short one which was used like a javelin. Three kinds of spear can be spotted: the large double-knit spear (3-ft long, 2.4-inch large, with a light handle and guard), the short spear (1.3 to 1.7-ft long), and the one-knit spear, which better may be considered a sabre. The shields were round (2.7 to 3-ft in diameter, 2-centimeter thick) in shape or elliptical as made of leather-covered wooden slats; the metallic part at center, or the 'umbro,' served to make noices. Helmets could be either a mere boilded-leather skullcap, or in metal (with cloth inside). The 'bruina' or brogne -which was, finally, a armor- was first a leather jacket or a padded one with horse hair to which they added iron rings or sheets more or less in number according to the owner's wealth. It reached to above both knees, featured two short sleeves and might also a hood. Each horseman had to brought several horses with him. The stirrup likely was known at the time but he likely was used by some horsemen only, those who used the long spear they wedge under the armpit. The stirrup had been used since the 5th century A.D. in China, the 6th by the Byzantines, and then the Avars and Iran by the 8th century. Carolingien horsemen's helmet, technically, was termed a 'Spangenhelm,' which hints to a composite segmented combat helmet by eastern Germans. It was a conical helmet curved into a light spike as it was composed from iron or bronze strips linked between them by interlacing. The first origin of that type of helmet might be in the East as it was brought to the West by Russians and Ukrainians from the Iranian nomadic people of the Eurasian steppes like Scythians or Sarmatians. The helmet's basic shape and its few elevated cost made its diffusion easier and, by the 6th century A.D., that was the most common type of helmet in Europe or it was in popular use throughout the Middle East. It then disappeared by the 9th century to the benefit of Norman-type, or cylindrical helmets. By when the Spangenhelms were used, varieties also existed

It was the haubergeons and the Frankish weaponry which warranted the superiority of Franks as selling weapons and armours to ennemy peoples was embargoed. The Carolingian strategy was always up to the emperor's decision and function of circumstances. Charlemagne and his closer counselors were carefully preparing any campaign from spy reports or maps, for example. Charlemagne generally built upon swiftness, and the unforecast character of his campaigns. From a tactical point of view, the slowness of the supply chariots made that fighters possibly could walk ahead of those. Light cavalry was the preferred weapon of Charles. Like a weapon of escort, of surprise attacks and encircling moves, it was the cavalry he used for the favoured tactic on the battlefield, which was taking the ennemy army between two forces, and encircling it. Charlemagne's military genius was to have known adapting to a lack of battles in line. For example, during 33 years of campaigns against the Saxons, only two of them occurred. Charles looks like he had not read classics of military art like Vegecius or Frontinus as his favorite tactics was the pincers ones, coming unto the ennemy from two sides. He also based upon endurance, strength and obstinacy. No blitzkrieg thus as coups and surprise attacks by the 'scarae,' those elite units of the heavy cavalry were possible. Infrantrymen took the forts. Some cavalry charges only were enough to win over a ennemy troop as infantrymen then intervened with bows, swords and knifes. Routed ennemy was chased for a while only. Villages could be systematically destroyed and hostages and terror was the way to subdue a vainquished people. Prisoners were either turned slaves or massacred as wars occurred against non-Christians. The irony, as far as those facts are concerned, was that it was the fratricide battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, by 841 A.D., which was a battle between charging bodies. Some Carolingian defeats resulted, like in Roncesvalles or the Suntergebirge, of that they had overestimated the superiority of the heavy cavalry. The heavy cavalry however was the weapon used for the strong assaults and frontal attacks in line, and the campaigns in distant countries. A battle generally began with the alternate use of both the light and heavy cavalries, which alternated charges in compact line and breaks, with the spear used. The long sword would occasionally serve like a javelot when charges were over and even when a series of individual fights was needed in the case the ennemy line had not been broken. Horses of the heavy cavalry were not protected like the horsemen were and fight, after first encounters, mostly was continued by foot. Once the cavalry charges over, the infantrymen also came into play, with their spears and knives. Routed ennemy was pursued to avoid that it could reunite forces and booty allowed for personal increase in wealth or a resupply in weapons or food. The ost's infantry also was the weapon to consolidation, which allowed to win a fortress, garner a Frankish fort, or to pacify a country from a village to the other. Infantrymen also guarded supply chariots. It does not look like the Carolingian ost made use of siege machinery which, for example, had the siege of Pavia to last long during the Lombardic campaign. Some sources however are stating that sieges occurred with machines like rams, catapults, stone-throwers, towers and trebuchets as that might concern a later epoch like in the second halve of the 9th century A.D. The fact that the cavalry had become the Carolingians' weapon of choice since Charles the Hammer is also maybe a explanation. That maybe too always favoured offensive like a strategy. Borders of the Carolingian empire were displaying few defensive buildings as wooden posts with earthen ditches were used to pacify recently conquered countries only. It is under Charles the Bald, facing the Northmen, that a defensive strategy became of use

->Ancient Fencing, Reenactment, Etc.
Those interested into the Carolingian ost might want to know that miscellaneous hobbies and activities now are dedicated to the ancient ways of fight. Ancient military fencing (check, for example at that French-speaking website), historical reeneactment or some aspect of wargames are about the subject (with most hobbyists considering their hobby like a game and a minority however viewing it under a academic wiewpoint). Carolingian era however mostly is underrepresented

Victories were sung and celebrated according to Germanic customs and either in Latin or in vulgar languages. The victory of Pippin against the Avars or the one of Louis the Stammerer (termed the 'Ludwiglied'), for example, were celebrated that way or even the Roncesvalles one. All were to turn legendary. Campaigns theoretically were to be authorized by Church as they aimed to fight against pagans and the varied ennemies of Christendom. Kings came with army chaplains as the ost was preying, fasting or singing Church songs, which constitutes another recall of the Old Testament. The was was to be just and saint. Louis the Stammerer, on a other hand, is heralding the next Christian knights who were considered the vassals of God

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 6/29/2018. contact us at
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