Collections: Logistics, How Did They Do It, Part II: Foraging

This is the second part of a three part (I, II, III) look at some of the practical concerns of managing pre-industrial logistics. In our last post we outlined the members of our ‘campaign community,’ including soldiers but also non-combatants and animals (both war- and draft-); they required massive amounts of supplies, particularly food but also fodder (for animals), firewood (for heating and cooking) and water. That in turn brought us to the ‘tyranny of the wagon equation’ – without modern industrial transport (initially railroads), a pre-industrial army cannot meet these supply needs the way a modern army might, through supply lines reaching back to operational bases in the rear and from there to the productive heartland of the army itself. Instead, because everything available that can readily move food also eats food, armies are forced to gather food and other supplies locally. Because the army can only carry a couple of weeks of supplies with it, gathering new supplies becomes a continual task, a necessary concern that drives the general’s decisions.

And we’ve discussed, in rules of thumb and ‘limits of the plausible’ these sorts of concerns before. Doing so is common enough in military history literature; we use phrases like ‘foraged’ or ‘living off the land’ to describe an army’s supply actions, without ever really explaining what that means in practice. It is far rarer to discuss what the tasks involved actually look like, what the impact to the local populace might be and how an army might handle the foraged supplies. That’s what we’re going to do this week.

This is a long post (as you no doubt can already tell), but we’re going to move through the topic in four stages. First we’re going to talk about exactly the supplies an army needs need and how it can get them (mostly just to narrow down to the things an army actually forages for), then we’re going to look at ways of supplying an army on the move in friendly territory, then foraging in enemy territory and then finally examine foraging from the perspective of the foraged.

I should also note I am going to use a few chronological markers here and I want to be clear what I mean by them. ‘Antiquity’ really means the period from the emergence of writing (c. 3000 BC) to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West (c. 450 AD), but in practice the evidence for logistical practices really confines ‘ancient logistics’ as we know it to the period from the First Greco-Persian War (492) onward. After that the Middle Ages stretch from c. 450 to c. 1450 AD, after which is the early modern period running from c. 1450 to 1789. And I should note my focus here is on the broader Mediterranean in general and Europe in particular because that’s where I know the most; different baseline agricultural products (e.g. rice or maize instead of wheat) change many of these concerns in complicated ways though none of them obviate the tyranny of the wagon equation and thus foraging (or sharp limits on operational range) remains a factor for agrarian armies pretty much everywhere.

And before we head forward with that a content warning: foraging operations often involved a lot of violence directed against civilians, including sexual violence. This was a sadly common part of foraging operations which is often omitted from dry military accounts of pre-industrial campaigns, but which we will not omit here. I am also showing some period artwork which depicts violence and implies sexual violence because, again, this was a real part of historical warfare and thus a real part of history done properly. That said, reader discretion is advised and no one, least of all me, will think less of anyone who wants to skip this one.

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We should start with the sort of supplies our army is going to need. The Romans neatly divided these into four categories: food, fodder, firewood and water each with its own gathering activities (called by the Romans frumentatio, pabulatio, lignatio and aquatio respectively; on this note Roth op. cit. 118-140), though gathering food and fodder would be combined whenever possible. That’s a handy division and also a good reflection of the supply needs of armies well into the gunpowder era.1 We can start with the three relatively more simple supplies, all of which were daily concerns but also tended to be generally abundant in areas that armies were.

For most armies in most conditions, water was available in sufficient quantities along the direction of march via naturally occurring bodies of water (springs, rivers, creeks, etc.). Water could still be an important consideration even where there was enough to march through, particularly in determining the best spot for a camp or in denying an enemy access to local water supplies (such as, famously at the Battle of Hattin (1187)). And detailing parties of soldiers to replenish water supplies was a standard background activity of warfare; the Romans called this process aquatio and soldiers so detailed were aquatores (not a permanent job, to be clear, just regular soldiers for the moment sent to get water), though generally an army could simply refill its canteens as it passed naturally occurring watercourses. Well organized armies could also dig wells or use cisterns to pre-position water supplies, but this was rarely done because it was tremendously labor intensive; an army demanded so much water that many wells would be necessary to allow the army to water itself rapidly enough (the issue is throughput, not well capacity – you can only lift so many buckets of so much water in an hour in a single well).2 For the most part armies confined their movements to areas where water was naturally available, managing, at most, short hops through areas where it was scarce. If there was no readily available water in an area, agrarian armies simply couldn’t go there most of the time.

Like water, firewood was typically a daily concern. In the Roman army this meant parties of firewood forages (lignatores) were sent out regularly to whatever local timber was available. Fortunately, local firewood tended to be available in most areas because of the way the agrarian economy shaped the countryside, with stretches of forest separating settlements or tended trees for firewood near towns. Since an army isn’t trying to engage in sustainable arboriculture, it doesn’t usually need to worry about depleting local wood stocks. Moreover, for our pre-industrial army, they needn’t be picky about the timber for firewood (as opposed to timber for construction). Like water gathering, collecting firewood tends to crop up in our sources when conditions make it unusually difficult – such as if an army is forced to remain in one place (often for a siege) and consequently depletes the local supply (e.g. Liv. 36.22.10) or when the presence of enemies made getting firewood difficult without using escorts or larger parties (e.g. Ps.-Caes. BAfr. 10). Sieges could be especially tricky in this regard because they add a lot of additional timber demand for building siege engines and works; smart defenders might intentionally try to remove local timber or wood structures to deny an approaching army as part of a scorched earth strategy (e.g. Antioch in 1097). That said apart from sieges firewood availability, like water availability is mostly a question of where an army can go; generals simply avoid long stays in areas where gathering firewood would be impossible.

Then comes fodder for the animals. An army’s animals needed a mix of both green fodder (grass, hay) and dry fodder (barley, oats). Animals could meet their green fodder requirements by grazing at the cost of losing marching time, or the army could collect green fodder as it foraged for food and dry fodder. As you may recall, cut grain stalks can be used as green fodder and so even an army that cannot process grains in the fields can still quite easily use them to feed the animals, alongside barley and oats pillaged from farm storehouses. The Romans seem to have preferred gathering their fodder from the fields rather than requisitioning it from farmers directly (Caes. BG 7.14.4) but would do either in a pinch. What is clear is that much like gathering water or firewood this was a regular task a commander had to allot and also that it often had to be done under guard to secure against attacks from enemies (thus you need one group of soldiers foraging and another group in fighting trim ready to drive off an attack). Fodder could also be stockpiled when needed, which was normally for siege operations where an army’s vast stock of animals might deplete local grass stocks while the army remained encamped there. Crucially, unlike water and firewood, both forms of fodder were seasonal: green fodder came in with the grasses in early spring and dry fodder consists of agricultural products typically harvested in mid-summer (barley) or late spring (oats).

All of which at last brings us to the food, by which we mostly mean grains. Sources discussing army foraging tend to be heavily focused on food and we’ll quickly see why: it was the most difficult and complex part of foraging operations in most of the conditions an agrarian army would operate. The first factor that is going to shape foraging operations is grain processing. As noted last time, staple grains (especially wheat, barley and later rye) make up the vast bulk of the calories an army (and it attendant non-combatants) are eating on the march. But, as we’ve discussed in more detail already, grains don’t grow ‘ready to eat’ and require various stages of processing to render them edible. An army’s foraging strategy is going to be heavily impacted by just how much of that processing they are prepared to do internally.

This is one area where the Roman army does appear to have been quite unusual: Roman armies could and regularly did conduct the entire grain processing chain internally. This was relatively rare and required both a lot of coordination and a lot of materiel in the form of tools for each stage of processing. As a brief refresher, grains once ripe first have to be reaped (cut down from the stalks), then threshed (the stalks are beaten to shake out the seeds) and winnowed (the removal of non-edible portions), then potentially hulled (removing the inedible hull of the seed), then milled (ground into a powder, called flour, usually by the grinding actions of large stones), then at last baked into bread or a biscuit or what have you.

It is possible to roast unmilled grain seeds or to boil either those seeds or flour in water to make porridge in order to make them edible, but turning grain into bread (or biscuits or crackers) has significant nutritional advantages (it breaks down some of the plant compounds that human stomachs struggle to digest) and also renders the food a lot tastier, which is good for morale. Consequently, while armies will roast grains or just make lots of porridge in extremis, they want to be securing a consistent supply of bread. The result is that ideally an army wants to be foraging for grain products at a stage where it can manage most or all of the remaining steps to turn those grains into food, ideally into bread.

As mentioned, the Romans could manage the entire processing chain themselves. Roman soldiers had sickles (falces) as part of their standard equipment (Liv. 42.64.2; Josephus BJ 3.95) and so could be deployed directly into the fields (Caes. BG 4.32; Liv. 31.2.8, 34.26.8) to reap the grain themselves. It would then be transported into the fortified camp the Romans built every time the army stopped for the night and threshed by Roman soldiers in the safety of the camp (App. Mac. 27; Liv. 42.64.2) with tools that, again, were a standard part of Roman equipment. Roman soldiers were then issued threshed grains as part of their rations, which they milled themselves (or made into a porridge called puls) using ‘handmills.’ These were not small devices, but roughly 27kg (59.5lbs) hand-turned mills (Marcus Junkelmann reconstructed them quite ably); we generally assume that they were probably carried on the mules on the march, one for each contubernium (tent-group of 6-8; cf. Plut. Ant. 45.4). Getting soldiers to do their own milling was a feat of discipline – this is tough work to do by hand and milling a daily ration would take one of the soldiers of the group around two hours. Roman soldiers then baked their bread either in their own campfires (Hdn 4.7.4-6; Dio Cass. 62.5.5) though generals also sometimes prepared food supplies in advance of operations via what seem to be central bakeries. This level of centralization was part and parcel of the unusual sophistication of Roman logistics; it enabled a greater degree of flexibility for Roman armies.

Greek hoplite armies do not seem generally to have been able to reap, thresh or mill grain on the march (on this see J.W. Lee, op. cit.; there’s also a fantastic chapter on the organization of Greek military food supply by Matthew Sears forthcoming in a Brill Companion volume one of these years – don’t worry, when it appears, you will know!). Xenophon’s Ten Thousand are thus frequently forced to resort to making porridge or roast grains when they cannot forage supplies of already-milled-flour; they try hard to negotiate for markets on their route of march so they can just buy food. Famously the Spartan army, despoiling ripe Athenian fields runs out of supplies (Thuc. 2.23); it’s not clear what sort of supplies were lacking but food and fodder seems the obvious choice, suggesting that the Spartans could at best only incompletely utilize the Athenian grain. All of which contributed to the limited operational endurance of hoplite armies in the absence of friendly communities providing supplies.

Macedonian armies were in rather better shape. Alexander’s soldiers seem to have had handmills (note on this Engels, op. cit.) which already provides a huge advantage over earlier Greek armies. Grain is generally (as noted in our series on it) stored and transported after threshing and winnowing but before milling because this is the form in which has the best balance of longevity and compactness. That means that granaries and storehouses are mostly going to contain threshed and winnowed grains, not flour (nor freshly reaped stalks). An army which can mill can thus plunder central points of food storage and then transport all of that food as grain which is more portable and keeps better than flour or bread.

Early modern armies varied quite a lot in their logistical capabilities. There is a fair bit of evidence for cooking in the camp being done by the women of the campaign community in some armies, but also centralized kitchen messes for each company (Lynn op. cit. 124-126); the role of camp women in food production declines as a product of time but there is also evidence for soldiers being assigned to cooking duties in the 1600s. On the other hand, in the Army of Flanders3 seems to have relied primarily on external merchants (so sutlers, but also larger scale contractors) to supply the pan de munición ration-bread that the army needed, essentially contracting out the core of the food system. Parker (op. cit. 137) notes the Army of Flanders receiving some 39,000 loaves of bread per day from its contractors on average between April 1678 and February of 1679.

That created all sorts of problems. For one, the quality of the pan de munición was highly variable. Unlike soldiers cooking for themselves or their mess-mates, contractors had every incentive to cut corners and did so. Moreover, much of this contracting was done on credit and when Spanish royal credit failed (as it did in 1557, 1560, 1575, 1596, 1607, 1627, 1647 and 1653, Parker op. cit. 125-7) that could disrupt the entire supply system as contractors suddenly found the debts the crown had run up with them ‘restructured’ (via a ‘Decree of Bankruptcy’) to the benefit of Spain. And of course that might well lead to thousands of angry, hungry, unpaid men with weapons and military training which in turn led to disasters like the Sack of Antwerp (1576), because without those contractors the army could not handle its logistical needs on its own. It’s also hard not to conclude that this structure increased the overall cost of the Army of Flanders (which was astronomical) because it could never ‘make the war feed itself’ in the words of Cato the Elder (Liv 34.9.12; note that it was rare even for the Romans for a war to ‘feed itself’ entirely through forage, but one could at least defray some costs to the enemy during offensive operations). That said this contractor supplied bread also did not free the Army of Flanders from the need to forage (or even pillage) because – as noted last time – their rations were quite low, leading soldiers to ‘offset’ their low rations with purchase (often using money gained through pillage) or foraging.

Of course added to this are all sorts of food-stuffs that aren’t grain: meat, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, etc. Fortunately an army needs a lot less of these because grains make up the bulk of the calories eaten and even more fortunately these require less processing to be edible. But we should still note their importance because even an army with a secure stockpile of grain may want to forage the surrounding area to get supplies of more perishable foodstuffs to increase food variety and fill in the nutritional gaps of a pure-grain diet. The good news for our army is that the places they are likely to find food (small towns and rural villages) are also likely to be sources of these supplementary foods. By and large that is going to mean that armies on the march measure their supplies and their foraging in grain and then supplement that grain with whatever else they happen to have obtained in the process of getting that grain. Armies in peacetime or permanent bases may have a standard diet, but a wartime army on the march must make do with whatever is available locally.

So that’s what we need: water, fodder, firewood and food; the latter mostly grains with some supplements, but the grain itself probably needs to be in at least a partially processed form (threshed and sometimes also milled), in order to be useful to our army. And we need a lot of all of these things: tons daily. But – and this is important – notice how all of the goods we need (water, firewood, fodder, food) are things that agrarian small farmers also need. This is the crucial advantage of pre-industrial logistics; unlike a modern army which needs lots of things not normally produced or stockpiled by a civilian economy in quantity (artillery shells, high explosives, aviation fuel, etc.), everything our army needs is a staple product or resource of the agricultural economy.

Finally we need to note in addition to this that while we generally speak of ‘forage’ for supplies and ‘pillage’ or ‘plunder’ for armies making off with other valuables, these were almost always connected activities. Soldiers that were foraging would also look for valuables to pillage: someone stealing the bread a family needs to live is not going to think twice about also nicking their dinnerware. Sadly we must also note that very frequently the valuables that soldiers looted were people, either to be sold into slavery, held for ransom, pressed into work for the army, or – and as I said we’re going to be frank about this – abducted for the purpose of sexual assault (or some combination of the above).

Via Wikipedia, Plate 6 (‘The devastation of a monastery’) from Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre, a series of etchings by Jacques Callot (1592-1635), showing the merger of foraging and looting. In the foreground the soldier’s loot includes both religious objects but also a basket full of food and behind that sacks of what are likely grain. On the left two soldiers abduct distraught nuns on their horses; this is a normal artistic euphemism for women abducted for the purpose of rape.

And so a rural countryside, populated by farms and farmers is in essence a vast field of resources for an army. How they get them is going to depend on both the army’s organization and capabilities and the status of the local communities.

On Friendly Ground

Being on territory where the administrative apparatus is the army’s own or friendly to them can vastly simplify the logistics problems of moving through the territory. And we want to keep in mind throughout all of this that the army does not want to be stationary, it is trying to go places. Ideally, the army is attempting to move out of territory we control and into territory the enemy controls, or at least move away from our main administrative centers (cities, castles) to meet an approaching enemy army and by defeating it prohibit a siege. So our concern is not merely victualing4 our force but doing so while it is moving in a way that facilitates its rapid movement.

But first, we need to talk about the lay of the land. As we’ve discussed, the pre-industrial countryside is not just a uniform blanket of farms; instead settlements are ‘nucleated’ – farms cluster in villages and villages ‘orbit’ (in a sense) towns (which may ‘orbit’ yet larger towns), which usually administer those villages. The road and path system that the locals themselves have created will in turn connect fields to village centers, one village to the next and all of the villages to the town. This makes everything easier on our army which is also using those roads and paths to move – even if the paths are rudimentary, without modern location-finding data, armies use paths and settlements to know where they are. The main body of the army, with its large train of wagons, supplies and troops is going to generally move along major roads (which typically connect towns with other towns) but smaller detachments can move along the pathways between smaller settlements. That means what we have access to is not a vast field of possible maneuver but a spider’s web of pathways which meet and cross at settlements.

Wissembourg, 1550 from Sabastian Munster’s Cosmographiae Universalis (1598). Image via the Historic Cities Research Project. Notice how outside of the main city, there are many smaller settlements scattered over the landscape, connected to each other by roads and paths. These could be villages and hamlets but also small monasteries and other sorts of communities. All of which will have food supplies that an army can forage.

Moving through this pathway network, in friendly territory the army can lean on the likely compliance of the local population and the local administrative apparatus, which makes everything easier. Moreover, with control of the area, the army can send out messengers and riders who move faster than the army on its direction of march, making arrangements in advance for what the army needs, drawing supplies from the populace and (maybe) making arrangements to pay them either at the time or in the future. Doing so in hostile territory is much trickier as those messengers would be vulnerable and might reveal the army’s location and direction of march, things it might really rather want to conceal. So assuming the populace and local administration are ‘friendly,’ how do we manage the complexity of getting the food and other supplies they have into the hands of the army?

The simplest method was some form of ‘billeting,’ in use in various forms through antiquity to the early modern , though it seems particularly prominent in the Middle Ages and the first two centuries of the early modern period. Clifford Rogers (Soldiers’ Lives through History: The Middle Ages (2007), 76-78) provides a good ‘standard practices’ overview of the process for a medieval European army. Once drawn up the army was organized into smaller units (often called ‘banners’ because they marched behind a banner); we’ll come back to this again when we talk about marching speeds but it also matters here. Each banner would assign one of its horsemen as a ‘harbinger’ who would ride ahead of the army (supervised by the king or commander’s marshals), ideally a full day ahead. These harbingers (because there might be quite a few of these fellows) also acted as a limited cavalry screen. They would both designate where the army would camp next (with the marshals marking out specific encampments) and make arrangements for food and housing.

In practice ‘arrangements’ here meant frequently that the soldiers, when they arrived the following day were quartered in the homes of the local civilians, often densely packed into small towns or farming villages. If they had the means the locals might try to provide the army a market to buy food and supplies; more often the locals who had soldiers quartered on them were often expected to feed and resupply those soldiers. Notionally this was often supposed the be compensated and notionally kings issued dire warnings against soldiers taking more than they were allowed or abusing the locals. Rogers (op. cit.) is, I think, unusually sanguine in assuming these repeated regulations meant the knights and soldiers were often restrained; in an early modern or Roman context we tend to view the same sort of repeated promulgation of the same laws to mean that abuses were common despite repeated efforts by the central government to stamp them out. In practice reimbursements seem to have often been at best incomplete, where they happened at all and abuses were common.

Certainly as we see these practices more clearly in the early modern period, having soldiers quartered on your village could be economically devastating (see Parker, op. cit. 79-81); having to feed a half-dozen soldiers for a few days plus marching provisions could easily tip a small peasant household into shortage. And we should also be pretty clear-eyed here about what it would mean for a local population to have a large body of armed men (many in the hot-headed years of their youth) functionally turned loose on an unarmed civilian population and told that they could demand to be given whatever they needed; far more disciplined and better controlled armies still left a trail of theft and rape behind them as they moved. Nevertheless, this solution was simple and so for armies with very limited administrative capacity and rulers anxious to shift the burden of military activity away from their own coffers, billeting remained an attractive solution. It was still common enough in the 1700s to have been a major complaint by British colonists in North America, the bulk of whom upon achieving their independence promptly wrote an amendment in their constitution effectively banning the practice (the third amendment for the curious).

A better option for a town or city was instead to establish a market outside the town and arrange for the army to resupply and camp there and not in the town itself, with only small groups of soldiers permitted inside the walls at any given time. Needless to say, it is typically only fortified towns that really have the bargaining power to pull this off. The provision of a market for the gathering mass of crusaders outside of Constantinople in 1097 was a key diplomatic sticking point, with Alexios Komnenos I (the Byzantine Emperor) using his control over both the market and passage over the straits to Asia Minor as bargaining chips to get concessions out of the Crusaders.5 Likewise towns in Roman provinces seem to have fairly regularly paid exorbitant sums to avoid having armies quartered on them, as Cicero documents in his time in Cilicia (e.g. Cic. Ad Att. 5.21), sometimes in cash and other times in kind (e.g. Plut. Luc. 29.8). It speaks to how destructive billeted soldiers could be that towns that could went to extraordinary lengths to keep even friendly armies outside of the town walls.

Armies might also rely on local contractors to provide supplies, especially if they were going to operate in the region at some length. We’ve already mentioned the Army of Flander’s pan de munición, provided by contractors. There’s also some evidence for the use of private contractors in supporting Roman armies, though the trend in current scholarship (particularly Erdkamp but also Roth op. cit.) has tended to stress the limited and often marginal role of such contractors. Given the evidence I think Erdkamp has it right here; contractors for supplies existed in the Roman world, but were fairly small supplements to a system (detailed below) that mostly ran on taxation and requisition; most of what we see in the Roman world are just normal sutlers selling luxury foods to soldiers who want to spice up their rations.

As armies grow larger and more complex in the early modern period, we see an effort to move away from destructive ‘billeting,’ often hindered by the weak administrative apparatus of the state and limited financial resources; armies won’t move into permanent barracks on the regular in Europe until the early 1700s. One solution was to take those market towns and their lodgings and turn them from an ad hoc response to a permanent network, as Spain did along the ‘Spanish Road,’ a network of routes taken by Spanish troops traveling overland from the Mediterranean coast in Savoy to the Low Countries during the Eighty Years War.

The way this worked was To avoid having their reinforcements pillage their way across their own lands or alienate key friends on the way to the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) in the Low Countries, the Spanish government established a standard system for the supply of troops en route – key market towns were designated as étapes or ‘staples,’ standard stop-over and stockpile points. These tended to be key trade towns on the roads (indeed as I understand it étape in this sense originally meant ‘market town’) which already had some of the infrastructure required. These étapes would then be directed in advance of a movement of troops to stockpile provisions and prepare lodgings for a specific number of advancing soldiers and paid (in theory) in advance. Householders who incurred costs (typically lodgings, sometimes food) could present receipts (billets de logement) to their local tax collector which would count against future liability.

Yet the system here is incomplete and it is striking that when given the opportunity of setting up étapes in Spain itself the crown declined, citing the cost and administrative burden of organization. The greater diplomatic difficulties and consequent stronger bargaining position of communities on the Spanish Road may have a lot to do with the different decisions. The real impetus for the structure of the étapes on the Spanish road was diplomatic: the route was a patchwork, with some territories controlled by the Spanish crown, some by the friendly German Habsburgs and others by the various small statelets of the Holy Roman Empire, any of whom if sufficiently offended might refuse Spanish reinforcements transit (the Holy Roman Emperor could shut the whole route down himself). Consequently the disruption that Spanish troops caused on the route had to be limited for the route to be sustainable at all.

States with a bit more administrative capacity, on the other hand, generally tried to avoid billeting at all, even in regularized form. We’ll see this again when talking about army movement, but control is a key concern in campaigns. Soldiers, after all, are not automatons and so keeping an army together and moving towards a single objective is difficult. Soldiers get bored, wander off, decide to steal or break things (or people) and so on. It is easier to keep an eye on soldiers if they are all in a central camp or barracks and keeping an eye on everyone in turn makes it a lot easier to ensure that everyone shows up promptly to muster in the morning with the minimum of hassle. So if a general can, he really would want to keep everyone out of towns and villages and in a regular marching camp. Doing so demands yet more discipline because of course the soldiers would rather sleep in houses than in tents, but it has substantial advantages.

But an army that can lean on the local administrative capacity can simply demand that local administrative apparatus, whatever its form, coordinate the collection and transport of supplies (over short distances) to the army, enabling the army to camp out in a field and get its grain DoorDashed6 to it. Thus the Romans, when in friendly territory, for instance first identify the local government – usually a town but it could also be a tribal government in non-state regions – and then requisition food from that government, transmitting their demands in advance and letting that local administration figure out the details of getting the required food to the required place. That lets Roman armies camp in their fortified camps away from civilian centers, with attendant advantages for discipline; and indeed, Roman armies typically avoid permanent or even temporary bases in towns, instead using the threat of billeting to get the supplies they needed to stay in regular camps and later permanent forts.

Billeting? That is for wimpy non-Romans! We’ll just camp here.
Via Wikipedia, remains of one of the Roman forts used in the siege of Masada (72-3AD), still showing the distinctive playing-card shape of Roman marching and siege camps.

While the elites who run these local systems of government could provide such requisitions themselves (and might in extremis to avoid retaliation by their superiors; the Romans interpret failure to provide requested supplies as ‘rebellion’ and respond accordingly), in practice they’re going to pass along as much of the costs as they can to the little guy. In some cases, requisition demands are so intense we hear of towns having to buy or import grain to meet the demands of passing armies; Athens had to do this in 171 during the Third Macedonian War to avoid the wrath of Rome (Liv. 43.6.1-4). Caesar likewise relied heavily on food supplies contributed by either allied or recently defeated communities in Gaul (Caesar, BG 1.16, 1.23, 1.40, 1.37, 2.3, 3.7, 5.20, 6.44; he does this a lot) to supplement regular foraging operations. Those sources of supply in turn influence his campaigning, as Caesar is forced to move where the grain is in order to resupply (e.g. Caes. BG 1.23). And I want to be clear even these systems of requisition could mean real hardship on a population as a large army could easily eat all of the surplus grain in a province and then some.

The exact structure of that requisition could vary; in some cases it was a extraordinary tax (which is to say, it was just seized), but in many cases it was organized as a forced sale (often at below market prices) or even rebated against future tax obligations. In the Roman Empire we know that in many provinces, initially ad hoc systems of food requisition from conquered or ‘allied’ (read: subordinated) communities were first regularized so that the demands were set at a steady amount, then monetized as military operations moved further away, until eventually being formalized as a taxation system.7 Thus the primary Roman tax system of the imperial period grew not out of the tax system the Romans had in Italy (which was mostly dismantled in the second century as the tremendous wealth of the provinces made it unnecessary) but as a regularization of systems of requisition and extortion meant to support armies. The Romans also took advantage of the Mediterranean (where naval transport could break the tyranny of the wagon equation) to ship food from one theater to another (so long as operations were fairly close to coastal ports); this was in the Republic coordinated by the Senate which could direct Roman officials (typically governors of some sort) or non-Italian allies in one region to obtain supplies by whatever means and send them another active military theater (Plb. 1.52.5-8, Liv. 25.15.4-5, 27.3.9, 31.19.2-4, 32.27.2, 36.3-4), in some cases even establishing transit depots which could support operations in a large naval theater (e.g. Chios, Liv. 37.27.1). In particular, grain taxed in Sicily was frequently redirected to support Roman military operations across the Mediterranean.

All of this of course assumes that the army enjoys either the use of the local administrative system or the compliance of the local population. But of course in enemy territory – which is where your army wants to go – you cannot rely on that. What does the army do there?

Foraging the Enemy

This at last brings us to foraging. As noted, the goal of an army once formed up is usually to move into enemy territory either to meet an opposing army there or to deliver a siege to a fortified enemy settlement, like a castle or walled city. An army marching out of friendly territory, of course, would be wise to gather as much supplies (especially food) as possible on the way out, but once in enemy territory the tyranny of the wagon equation (and the general difficulty in guarding overlap supply lines) means the army will need to gather food locally from a populace that is at best in indifferent and likely actively hostile to the army.

The process of (usually violently) gathering food in hostile territory is referred to in a military context as ‘foraging,’ a fairly bloodless word for what could be a quite ugly process.

As we discussed in our series on farming, one of the structural problems farmers faced is that they eat every day but the harvest only comes in once a year. The obvious solution was stockpiling the results of the harvest to last through the year. As a result just before the harvest a farming village has a year’s worth of grain growing in its fields and just after the harvest a year’s worth of grain threshed, winnowed and sitting in its granaries, barns and farmhouses. That stock depletes over time (as the farmers eat it) hopefully never quite reaching zero before the next harvest comes in. The same cycle (on slightly different timing) goes for green fodder, with grasses ripening in the late spring and being most scarce in winter.

Most armies could do relatively little with grain in the fields, but by aiming to commence operations in late spring/early summer allows the army to arrive in enemy territory right as the winter wheat (the main European/Mediterranean wheat crop) has been stockpiled in the granaries having just been harvested (in early summer, the exact days vary by region). I should note that grain is not the only concern here; the availability of green fodder (read: grass) is also crucial; green fodder tends to come in somewhat earlier than grains and often marks the true beginning of the campaign season. Having readily available green fodder vastly reduces the logistics demands of horses and other work animals, making it much easier to keep the rest of the army supplied. Roman armies, for instance, were mobilized in March (Roman Martius, the month of Mars, because the Romans are not subtle) for this reason; the general rule of thumb is that the campaigning season in Europe began with the Spring Equinox in late March. But this timing means that by the time the army is mustered and moving into enemy territory, the harvest is close.

Meanwhile recall that the farms are not scattered randomly; they are clustered into small settlements, which connect to each other and larger settlements by roads and paths. Each small settlement (villages, hamlets, monasteries (in the post-antique); for simplicity’s sake I’m just going to say ‘village’) is essentially a food piñata for the army: full of food but some violence required for extraction. Thus as an army advanced it could break off smaller units to take side roads and paths to the villages of the countryside. The villagers generally would be no military obstacle: outnumbered, untrained, unarmed and often unaware there was an army coming (remember, this is a world where the fastest moving information is ‘man on horse’ so a foraging party could often outrace news of its coming) they had few options for direct resistance. The foraging party could then demand the villagers turn over their produce or, more often (since villagers tended to flee foraging parties and for good reason as we’ll see) simply break into houses, granaries and barns to seize it. They could also seize and lead off farm animals for meat. Thus the army could be supplied off of the produce of the enemy (or at least, the enemy’s poor rural population).

Via the British library an illustration of the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis (1270-1380) showing a medieval foraging party pillaging a farmhouse. Note that they look not only food and wine but also any valuables they can find, destroying what isn’t worth taking. Image also shown in Rogers (op. cit.), 86.

Now I said ‘smaller units’ but we should be clear here, ‘foraging parties’ tend to actually be quite large. The concern isn’t the villagers; a normal village typically has only around 5-20 households (so a few hundred people, roughly half of them adults) and isn’t configured for defense anyway.8 But you are in enemy territory and so while part of the party forages another part – large enough to defend itself from a significant enemy force – needs to be keeping guard. Rogers’ (op. cit., 77-8) notes that foraging parties could represent up to a third of a medieval European army’s total army’s strength, typically split between fast-moving outriders who surprised settlements and slower moving foragers who then caught up to loot them. The Rule of the Knights Templar, which included campaign regulations, specified that knights could not send out members of their retinue to forage or even fetch wood without permissions (Verbruggen, The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (1997), 78), essentially banning small-scale foraging in favor of larger parties. At Antioch in the winter of 1097/8, a crusader foraging party under the command of Bohemond of Taranto and Robert of Flanders slammed into an entire relief army under the command of Duqaq of Damascus and defeated it; the size of both forces is unclear but they were evidently not small. The standard Roman foraging party seems to have been an entire legion (remember that a Roman army is typically several legions; this would have been a quarter of a normal Roman field army) so roughly 5,000 men (e.g. Caes. BG 4.32; Plut. Luc. 17, Sert. 13.6; App. BCiv 4.122) though detachments for smaller armies could be smaller and larger foraging parties were sent out when enemies were considered close. I’ve had a harder time getting a sense of the standard foraging party for a early modern army but generally the units seem to either be hundreds or low thousands (which is to say anywhere from a company to something like a full tercio or regiment); part of the irregularity is that early modern units were rarely anywhere even close to their ‘paper’ strength.

To give a sense of the process over a large area, the Chanson des Lorrains (early 13th century, via Rogers, op. cit. 87) describes one such medieval army foraging its way through the countryside:

The march begins. Out in front are the scouts and incendiaries. After them come the foragers whose job it is to collect the spoils and carry them to the great baggage train. Soon all is tumult. The peasants, having just come out in the fields, turn back, uttering loud cries. The shepherds gather their flocks and drive them towards the neighboring woods in hope of saving them…the terrified inhabitants are either burned or led away with their hands tied to be held for ransom…money, cattle, mules and sheep are all seized. The smoke billows and spreads, flames crackle. Peasants and shepherds scatter in all directions.

Here the division is clear, with the armed ‘scouts and incendiaries’ moving first, dispersing (or capturing) the villagers and securing the area, with foragers (usually armed but in some cases these are non-combatants or momentarily unarmed combatants) coming up behind to actually grab the stuff. While the key thing here is the acquisition of supplies in practice under these conditions soldiers grab anything of value they can find. I should note with this quote that while foraging and agricultural devastation could be separate tasks, here they are joined (which was also very common): the army both loots and burns. Armies could forage with or without the intent to devastate (though foraging imposed its own costs) and could devastate with or without the intent to forage (foraging being more time consuming than just burning everything and moving on). Also note they are burning the houses and barns, not the grain; ripe grain doesn’t actually burn all that well under most conditions.

The non-combatants of the army were also likely to be a part of the foraging party, participating in both the ransacking of settlements and of course the carrying off of loot and supplies. Roman camp servants (generally enslaved persons), the calones we mentioned last time seem regularly to have been part of foraging parties and we know that they were at least sometimes armed. It is hard to see non-combatants in medieval sources but a knight’s retinue would include both lower-class combatants and servants; in some cases ‘forager’ was a specific position in such a retinue (Rogers, op. cit. 28) but we have to imagine in many cases servants whose job was ‘carry stuff’ would, of course be employed carrying looted supplies too. In early modern armies it is very clear that camp women were a regular part of foraging parties, connected to the role they had in managing the camp’s cooking and logistics. Early modern artwork showing scenes of forage or pillage regularly features camp women (see below) and sources repeatedly mention camp women involved in what Lynn (op. cit.) terms the ‘pillage economy’ as a joint venture with their husbands or other menfolk. It speaks to the normalization of this part of warfare that despite how stunningly violent foraging could be (as we’ll get to), common soldiers in early modern armies do not seem to have thought twice about bringing their wives along.

Via Wikipedia, Plate 7 (The Pillage and Burning of a Village) from Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre, a series of etchings by Jacques Callot (1592-1635) showing the horrors of the Thirty Years War. Note that you can both see men and women being carried off into captivity (lower center-left) but also on the right a camp woman loading loot into a large chest next to the cart. Just above the rear of that same cart a woman with a sack over her shoulder moving with the soldiers can be seen and to her left another woman atop a wagon helping to load it.

In terms of targets the Romans do stand out a bit; Roman foraging parties absolutely raided farms and storehouses, but Roman soldiers also carried sickles (falces) as part of their standard equipment (Liv. 42.64.2; Josephus BJ 3.95) and would not only mow their own green fodder but actually harvest grain directly from the fields of an enemy (Caes. BG 4.32; Liv. 31.2.8, 34.26.8). You can actually see Roman soldiers doing this on Trajan’s Column (below). Grain once reaped was transported back to the camp to be threshed in relative safety (Liv. 42.64.2; App. Mac. 27), presumably to avoid having the foraging party out in the open any longer than necessary. Roman soldiers, drawn from a large class of freeholding farmers, would have already had the necessary skills and a large foraging party could clear fields very quickly, essentially ‘cashing in’ on months of the farmer’s labor in just a few hours of reaping. As far as I can tell, this capability was unusual and seems to have facilitated a considerable degree of Roman logistical flexibility, especially with infantry-based foraging parties; peasants can potentially flee with or hide harvested grains, but they cannot hide their fields.

Photo by R.B. Ulrich, detail of scene CX where Roman soldiers harvest grain near a camp under construction. Interestingly the soldiers are shown doing this while wearing armor, but some of our other sources make clear that the troops actually doing the harvesting did so without armor or weapons, with detachments of other soldiers armed and ready to fight to protect them (Liv 31.2.8; Caes. BG 4.32.5; Sall. Iug. 54.10). Presumably the armor and equipment here is meant to show the viewer that these men are Roman soldiers and not civilians.

Now the peasantry in these situations cannot really fight back, but that doesn’t mean they have no options at all. Unlike the approaching army, the peasants know the local landscape and (if given enough warning) can easily vanish into it (like those shepherds vanishing into the forest). As Landers puts it, “armed men could usually rely on violence or the threat of it to take what they wanted, but they had to find it first” (op. cit. 215). Peasants were canny survivors who knew how to, for instance, quickly hide valuables or food or grab what they could and flee. A significant portion of their grain was kept back, for instance, as seed grain to plant for the following year; it didn’t need to be eaten and so the smart peasant might intentionally hide it if he thought there was risk of being foraged. A foraging army could try to defeat this resistance through terror: burning the farms of farmers who fled or holding captured farmers hostage against their hidden food and valuables. The value of getting to the peasants with enough speed to capture them before the melted away into the countryside made cavalry particularly valuable for an army foraging. Horsemen, moving fast could reach the village before they knew the attack was coming, preventing peasants from hiding grain or fleeing (so they could be forced to divulge the location of supplies or ransomed). At the same time, political authorities who suspected their region might come under attack may give orders to move all of the surplus food into the fortified settlements, dramatically reducing the forage available in the countryside.

How much food might be available in the best case? Well a fairly typical village might have a couple hundred people in it (something like a dozen households; peasant households tend to be large). Their grain for the whole year (so 365 days worth of grain) is going to be gathered in just a few weeks at the harvest in early summer or late spring. So a village, for instance, of around 200 people is going to have something like 70,000 man-days of grain on hand (plus or minus; some of those people don’t eat as much as an adult male soldier, but then there is also some surplus grain, feed for animals and other non-grain foodstuffs). If you could get all of that food (which the peasants are trying to prevent), you could fill the packs of an army of 10,000 to march for another week. Of course actual rural settlement is going vary a lot more than this (larger villages, smaller hamlets, small unwalled towns bigger than both, the occasional isolated homestead).

Now that ideal will rarely be achieved, especially over a large area. Military rules of thumb typically approach foraging from the standpoint of how much population density Y is required to support X number of troops under campaign conditions. But I want to ask the question a different way: an army with an active cavalry detachment could potentially forage a front around 20 miles wide (infantry might be half this). If the army moves at ten miles per day, that’s 200 square miles of terrain, which at agrarian, pre-industrial densities might have 5,000 people in it (25ish people per square mile; densities can be substantially higher than this but often wasn’t), so right after the harvest they’d have about 1.35 million people-days of food,9 which conveniently for us, we can say is roughly a kilogram of food (mostly grain) for each person-day. Recall our sample army from last time of 19,200 combat effectives (but also 4,000 non-combatants and 9,800 animals) needs around 61,850kg of food (including hard fodder but not green fodder) per day or about 5% of the total to survive.

The exact structure of foraging operations varies from one army to the next as well. Clifford Rogers describes a medieval army as “a solid mass of baggage and troops in formation, a loose perimeter of outriders miles out from the center, and in between a large cloud of men dispersed to conduct the heavily overlapping tasks of burning, plundering, ravaging and foraging” (Rogers, op. cit., 86). By contrast the Romans, whose process I am most familiar, clearly did not generally do this but rather sent out large foraging parties at regular intervals (connected, doubtless, to the army having standard days for the distribution of grain; Caes. BG 4.32.1, 6.36.2, BAfr 65; Plut. Sert 13.6); those large foraging parties would then ‘stock up’ the army’s camp, providing enough supplies for several more days of marching. That said having foragers out slowed down an army; foraging intensively slowed it down more. After all, if the main body of the army is moving around 8-12 miles per day, even mounted outriders that have to ride out from the army to outlying villages will only have a few hours at their ‘targets’ before they must ride back.

Consequently an army that wanted to move quickly would accept that it was going to miss quite a lot of the available forage in an area, either by doing a continuous but not very intensive ‘initial pass’ or by performing high intensity foraging operations only every few days. After all, the army’s ability to carry food is limited in any event. Moreover, remember that these armies often lack detailed maps and so many small settlements may escape being plundered by simply being missed; others by seeing smoke or other signs of an army with time to grab everything of value and hide or flee. Being careful and methodical could mean getting more food out of the countryside, but it would also be slower and our army does not want to slow down.

That means foraging does not hit every village in a region evenly: some villages may be extensively searched, with all of the hidden seed grain and valuables found, others may be given a quick once-over with just the storehouse looted, while others will be missed entirely. Our sample 200 square miles of daily foraging reach might have something like two dozen villages in it of varying sizes. Even within an area actively foraged, many small villages or more isolated homesteads might be simply missed by an army that doesn’t know the area very well. Combined with peasants trying to flee and survive, that drastically limits how much food the army can actually pull in within a foraging ‘zone’ perhaps 200 miles wide along its marching route; the rule of thumb estimates usually suggest an army can only actually pull in 5-15% of the available food in an area while still moving; doing more than this requires slowing down and also begins to depopulate the area which in turn creates logistical ‘dead zones.’ Large foraging parties in turn work because while the army is only extracting a small amount of the total food in the 200-mile wide radius around it, it is extracting a very large amount of the food in the specific villages it hits such that just a few villages thoroughly looted can supply an army for another set of marching days.10

Of course the season also matters here. So far we’ve been assuming the army hits a village more or less in June or July, immediately following the harvest. But as the months go by the amount of grain in those village storehouses is going to dwindle as it is eaten by the peasantry, meaning that the potential gains from foraging peak after the harvest and then decline over the year. A general planning the logistics of his army needs to be thinking about how he will feed his soldiers not just in June but also in October and potentially even in January or February. As noted by late fall the amount of food available in the countryside has declined by half; our sample 20,000 man army suddenly goes from being at a comfortable 5% of available forage (at that 25 per square mile density) to a far less comfortable 10% (at which point it would become pressingly necessary to keep moving to avoid exhausting local supplies). The campaign season (beginning in late March or early April) is thus neatly timed so that the army’s initial stockpiled supplies from friendly territory can carry it until the early summer harvest when forage suddenly becomes plentiful. But the risk then lay at the beginning of winter as forage started to dwindle again. One possible response was to only keep the army together during the ‘campaigning season’ and send everyone home for the winter, but having to restart the campaign every year could be a real problem if long sieges were required or if wars had to be fought at great distance.

Armies that stayed ‘in being’ over the winter tended to go into ‘winter quarters’ – a phrase that gets used in primary sources and also in a lot of campaign histories without generally being defined. The concern here is that both the bad weather of winter making campaigning hard but also the scarcity of forage would make offensive operations unsustainable, so the army ‘hunkers down’ for the winter. You can tell supplies are a key factor here because armies go into winter quarters even in regions that have very mild winters. The choice of location and its preparation were crucial. Roman armies were year-round campaigners even from a relatively early point and so the need to prepare winter quarters shows up repeatedly in the sources, with a variety of solutions to the problem of what to do with the army during winter. Commanders might, for instance, ‘winter’ their armies near controlled ports or rivers to enable resupply by sea (or by coastal depots carefully stocked up during the year) or near friendly communities which could supply them via taxation, requisition or markets. Alternately, a general might identify a particularly agriculturally rich region to ‘winter’ on, relying on the robust local supply (typically from a dense population in a rich agricultural area) to see the army through winter, often in addition to food stockpiles built up by foraging during the campaigning season (which of course have to be located in depots; as we’ve discussed the army cannot carry multiple months of food with it on the march).

Finally please note our calculations above assume that the army keeps moving continuously, but of course armies didn’t always keep moving every day. They stop to rest, or to conduct sieges; they double-back to maneuver for a favorable battlefield and so on. Our sample army of 19,200 troops and minimal non-combatants clears out 5% of the total food supply in its neighborhood per day. If the general plans to stay put for more than a few days (much less a month or two for a quick siege) he needs to keep moving and forage even more intensely in order to build up or maintain stockpiles. We’ll come back to this next time, but this is why the ‘upper limit’ of ancient, medieval and early modern field armies in the broader Mediterranean11 remains so stubborn: 20,000 is normal, 40,000 is big, 80,000 is unusually huge and more than 80,000 is unsustainable in almost all circumstances.

All of this goes to how a general is going to plan the march of an army: he needs to ensure his army moves slow enough to forage sufficient supplies but not so slow it ends up foraging the same people twice. He also needs to think about the size of his army: too big and local forage will be insufficient at any speed (and also large armies with lots of supplies are slow). And of course the route of march matters: large armies must stay in densely populated, easy to forage territory while smaller armies can subsist in areas with far fewer local farmers (and at substantially less damage to those local farmers). Our sample army of 19,200 soldiers, 4,000 non-combatants and 9,800 animals can go almost anywhere that isn’t desert in the broader Mediterranean world; double its size and it will be much more limited in where it can go (and much more damaging on the way there). It’s also not hard to see how an army loaded up with non-combatants – be they early modern camp women or medieval valets, servants and pages – can actively reduce the maneuver options of the army by raising the population density it needs (we’ll come back to this).

Impact on the Countryside

So that is foraging from the army’s perspective. What about from the peasant’s perspective? Well, from the peasant’s perspective, even a friendly army might fit somewhere between a nuisance and a disaster; an enemy army was a rolling catastrophe moving across the countryside, a plague of armed men.

In the best case a pre-industrial farming community being ‘billeted’ or ‘quartered’ on might have the main part of their costs reimbursed by the army, but this still meant hosting a large number of armed men, possibly for days. Soldiers were often ordered not to steal things or get involved (by persuasion or force) with local women but the sources also overflow with reports that such orders were frequently ignored. In the late 1600s, billeting was actually used as a tactic for domestic religious persecution , as with the French dragonnades, which permitted the billeting of troops in Protestant households to ‘encourage’ them to convert to Catholicism. And in practice reimbursements for the expenses of soldiers lodged and fed at the local’s expense were often either not forthcoming or well below market rates; Roman armies tended to stay away from civilian centers but often relied on ‘forced sales’ of supplies well below market rates with the losses absorbed by the locals. For reasons we’ve discussed, individual peasant households were generally not prepared to handle the expense (heck, how many modern households could handle the expense of feeding, housing and caring for, say, six soldiers for every bedroom in their house for a month?) and the nature of billeting meant that it tended to strike a whole community at once making it harder to ‘distribute’ the costs via horizontal relationships.

The more organized and centralized the army, the more hardship on friendly civilians could be limited, but doing so was dependent on both budget and state capacity. If soldiers could be kept in camps or barracks rather than in civilian centers, the economic and social damage to friendly rural populations could be mitigated. Roman armies were for this reason generally kept out of friendly towns; the Roman preference in the imperial period for legionary bases outside and often quite distant from major civilian centers is marked (although such bases often created towns over time). The polities of medieval Europe and the states of early modern Europe largely lacked this capacity, with centralized barracks to house armies on friendly soil in peacetime only becoming really common in the 1710s.12 Even so, quartering – especially ‘at discretion’ (that is, at the choice of officers or individual soldiers) was still common enough and enough of a hardship that the framers of the US Constitution went out of their way to ban it in the Third Amendment in 1789.13

Being the target of foraging operations was worse. Warfare before the very late 1800s recognized few if any protections for ‘enemy non-combatants’ and as a result civilians in hostile territory were subject to whatever violence soldiers might meet out.14 Because rural populations tended to be fairly isolated and communications were so slow, the earliest warning a peasant community might get that an army was coming might be fires on the horizon from other villages being burned just a few miles away (and thus perhaps only minutes or hours away); in practice most villages had practically no warning before foraging parties descended on them. Once aware, it would be a rush to grab or hide whatever moveable property could be grabbed and attempt to flee (often trying to vanish into forests, as in the quote above). Bertran de Born actually gives this spectacle as one of the things he loves in war, “And it pleases me when the skirmishers/make the people and their baggage run away,/ and it pleases me when I see behind them coming/a great mass of armed men together…;” one is left to conclude the peasantry was much less pleased but they’d have been fools to trust to the mercy of warrior-aristocrats. They ran and were wise to do so.

While the purpose of these operations was to obtain supplies, pillaging enemy non-combatants was in almost all cases considered one of the perquisites of war. Foragers would thus also be looking not merely for food but also for any valuables that could be looted. Early modern armies, with their irregular pay (as a result of state finances crumbling under the new burdens of war in the period) seem to have been particularly destructive looters and we have abundant evidence that looting was an important part of the economics of soldiering in the period; a campaign with insufficient looting opportunities could financially ruin soldiers (and their camp women who clearly aided in the looting and seem to have generally shared in the spoils). That said, this wasn’t a phenomenon tied specifically to the early modern period; it is safe to assume that ancient and medieval armies also looted enemy settlements wherever they went.15

Via the Internet Archive a plate from The Lamentations of Germany (1638) by Philip Vincent, showing tortures committed by soldiers against what appears to be non-combatants (compare the pillage of a farmhouse with similar tortures below).

For peasants that weren’t able to escape, capture could be a brutal (and sometimes fatal) experience. Captives were valuable; in the ancient world they become part of the loot directly, enslaved and sold to the slave-dealers that followed ancient armies (from where slavery was likely to remain their living condition for the rest of their lives) while in medieval Europe they might be ransomed back either to their families or en masse to the castle or town that governed the area (though they might also be enslaved, especially if their religion did not match that of their captors). Moreover, precisely because peasants had adapted to survive in this environment, soldiers often assumed that valuables were kept hidden; the resort to the torture of captured peasants (see above) or terror – killing some to compel others – in order to reveal hidden valuables or food stocks seems to have been a common part of foraging operations.

Via the Internet Archive a plate from The Lamentations of Germany (1638) by Philip Vincent, showing the violence warfare inflicts on women, including women escaping pursuing soldiers by jumping into rivers and a woman being murdered after having been raped (which is what ‘ravished’ there means) in the center panel. I should note that while one might accuse publications like this of exaggeration, the diaries and memoirs of actual soldiers in this period are in fact very blunt about how common rape was, see Lynn (op. cit.) 153-5 for examples.

And we should not retreat into euphemism about female captives: captured women were very frequently raped. As Lynn (op. cit.,153-156), notes, this was so common as to have its own euphemistic artistic representations (typically a soldier grabbing a woman by her hair, an artistic symbol of capture and rape that extends back into antiquity, but sometimes more graphically soldiers forcing a woman into bed, see below). In ancient warfare, women taken as captives, like men, would have been enslaved; enslaved persons lacked a legal right of bodily autonomy and were thus frequently subject to rape. Early modern accounts regularly report women take as part of the plunder of towns and villages for the purpose of both forced labor in the army’s camp and rape.16 Medieval accounts written predominately by the clergy might be a bit more circumspect (in part due to stronger norms about violence against co-religionists), but it is evident that war rape was common in this context too. By way of example, Fulcher of Chartres, a churchman eyewitness to the First Crusade (1096-1099), stresses the virtue of the Crusaders who ‘only’ murdered captured Muslim women, instead of raping them: when the Crusaders captured women in the camp of a Muslim army after a battle outside of Antioch (1098) they “did nothing evil to them except pierce their bellies with their lances.”17 Nevertheless other Crusade accounts, like the Gesta Francorum, make abundantly clear that the Crusaders enslaved captured young women even as they massacred everyone else. There’s a reason that the farmers knew to run and hide in forests and hills; the alternatives – even in a capture-and-ransom society – were much worse.18

Via Wikipedia, Plate 5 (‘The Pillage’) from Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre, a series of etchings by Jacques Callot (1592-1635) showing the horrors of the Thirty Years War. Soldiers threaten to murder men (upper left, lower center, middle right), with one woman (upper left) seeming to plead with the soldiers not to kill the man they have. There are also at least four soldiers shown in various stages of perpetrating rape (lower left, upper center, far right), while other soldiers loot food but also valuables. Finally a man is tortured in flames (right).

Even after the foraging party passed the ordeal for the peasants wasn’t necessarily over. After all the foraging party will have stolen valuables but also made off with vital agricultural capital and products: animals, tools seed and of course food. The loss of a substantial portion of the harvest could be devastating to a peasant family, forcing them into starvation in the short term, while the lost of animals could represent the destruction of years of carefully built of agricultural capital. If the army was intentionally devastating the land (a common strategy in pre-industrial warfare but not unknown to modern war as well), they might have also burned farmhouses, barns and other structures. Suddenly deprived of the basics of subsistence, farmers may have tried to use social networks to seek help or else stream towards cities and towns to find safety and work (though if food was scarce, as it might be if the countryside was being pillaged, towns were quick to shut their gates to rural folk to preserve supplies for the townspeople). Alternately they might turn to their own political authorities for aid. Failing that, they starved.

That said it seems fairly clear that while foraging operations could be utterly ruinous (and fatal) to individual farmers and communities, actually depopulating a region required repeated military operations in the area over multiple years. Peasants, after all, knew the risks of military activity and so prepared for them, cultivating those social networks, hiding seed grain and valuables, knowing where to run if an army came by and so on. The entire way of life for pre-industrial farmers was oriented around resiliency in the face of disaster, though here we also need to be careful of a form of survivorship bias: the countryside was populated entirely by survivors of events which not everyone survived. The fact that the peasantry might demographically recover could be of little comfort to the rural folks who were murdered, starved or raped.

Not all foraging operations were this brutal, though brutality does seem to have been the norm. Armies might act with more restraint if they expected the need to campaign in an area over long periods or desired to control the land (and thus would want to preserve the productive peasantry for future taxation). Consequently it was often in the interest of the general and his officers to keep foraging operations limited; to shear and not skin his sheep, as it were.19 Thus French Marshal Villars advised his soldiers when marching into enemy territory for an extended campaign, “If you burn, if you drive out the population, you will starve.”20 He knew what he was talking about – the 1600s had seen many armies burn and then starve as they destroyed the very agricultural fabric they relied upon to operate. Nevertheless actually restraining the army in the moment proved difficult, even for generals who knew they needed to be restrained, especially when the soldiers relied on forage to eat and pillage to pay their way.

More broadly the constraints of warfare also impacted its destructiveness in any given era. In particular the early modern period seems to represent something of a peak in the uncontrolled destructiveness of armies, a combination of the burgeoning size of field forces as compared to the Middle Ages with state finance and logistics systems unprepared to cope with the new larger armies. Medieval armies may not have been any nicer, but they were smaller which reduced their impact, while the armies of the 1700s and 1800s were increasingly better organized and supplied and as a result less logistically destructive. Armies in the Hellenistic and Roman periods were substantially larger than in the Middle Ages (comparable for the armies of the 1600s and 1700s in size in some cases) and could be staggeringly destructive; Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul seem to have verged on genocide even if we assume some considerable degree of exaggeration. At the same time, Macedonian and Roman generals seem (keeping in mind the limits of our sources) to have been able to restrain their armies when they wanted (regular pay helped), relying on local polities to deliver food at the threat of violence rather than uncontrollably pillaging their surrounds. Pushing back much further than this runs into severely limited evidence, though foraging as an essential part of agrarian logistics seems to be true for basically all large agrarian armies, stretching back into pre-history.

One solution commanders might lean on were variations on what in the 17th century were called ‘contributions.’ Armies moving into a region, rather than having soldiers forage directly, would instruct civil authorities – village headmen, mayors and so on – to ‘contribute’ supplies and cash at specific places and times, essentially extorting local civilian populations. It was the reinvention of an old system: Alexander the Great relied on communities he approached preemptively surrendering to him, negotiating the food they’d supply his army to get it to the other side of their territory and safely away from them.21 Similar arrangements might be made in the Middle Ages, with an army negotiating with a local enemy city or castle to agree to avoid violently pillaging the countryside if its supply needs were met (Rogers, op. cit., 87), though in many medieval campaigns the agricultural devastation was itself the goal (aimed at compelling a political outcome).

If carefully managed such arrangements could make for efficient extortion, though the demands of large armies (often several tens of thousands) could still put severe strain on communities in the area of operations. Repeated ‘contributions’ and foraging over the course of the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) in the Low Countries and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in the Holy Roman Empire both created depopulated ‘no man’s land’ areas which in turn made further military operations logistically challenging as no army can forage a depopulated countryside; devastation on this scale and over this much area seemed to have been mostly out of reach for the smaller armies of the Middle Ages.22 In the late 1600s, we see a marked shift towards a greater degree of central state supply and control which begins to reduce the uncontrolled destructiveness of armies (even as the intentional capacity for destruction of armies is rising), though foraging is still a major factor in warfare well into the 1800s. That said even modern armies are by no means immune to plunder or foraging, especially when other forms of logistics fail.

If this needs saying: war is terrible, we should do less of it.

All of this has substantial impacts on where a general can take a pre-railroad army and how fast it can move or how long it can remain and we’ll turn to that next time, but I want to stop this post here and keep focus on the miseries of war. Foraging and devastation operations in ‘enemy’ territory against unarmed civilian non-combatants is a part of pre-industrial warfare23 that is frequently omitted both in the popular portrayal of such warfare but also in its broader discussion by historians. We write books about how general so-and-so took his army here and then there and maybe offer some bloodless line about how they ‘ravaged the such-and-such district,’ but only rarely engage in what that means (and when we do, typically only to other scholars). In part we do that because it is what our sources do; foraging was normal and so there was no need to explain it. Or we pretend that this kind of warfare was particular to just one period, rather than being the norm of agrarian warfare in all historical periods.

But actual pre-industrial armies were brutal, destructive things by their very nature, even if our sources often obfuscate the violence they are doing in part because they do not care about the sort of ‘others’ (more often ‘others’ by social inferiority than by cultural or religious difference) who are having the violence done to them. But of course those ‘others’ are most people – the rural population on the business end of this kind of military activity make up most of the population. Every so often someone asks “If you were in [era in the past], what would you be?” and folks respond with kings and knights and clergy and artisans. But you wouldn’t, would you? By the numbers, we wouldn’t be the soldiers in gleaming armor, we’d all be the poor peasants desperately grabbing what few valuables they had and their families and sprinting in the woods as everything we had built over decades burned behind us.

That is as much, if not more, the reality of ‘How They Did It’ as the spectacle of the battles or sieges.

Next week (schedule subject to moving house) we’ll look at how all of this relates to moving an army: where it can go and how fast it can get there.

  1. What about gunpowder itself? Armies generally carried their powder with them. Maybe at some point we’ll talk about the black powder and how its made, but producing good powder on the march would be a challenge and doesn’t seem to have usually been a driving concern in any event, as far as I can tell.
  2. On this topic, see Roth, op. cit. 119-125 and in more detail G. Moss, “Watering the Roman Legion,” Master’s Thesis, UNC Chapel Hill (2015).
  3. ‘The Army of Flanders was a logistical disaster’ is rapidly becoming the running theme of this series and that seems, on the whole, pretty accurate.
  4. an actual word that means ‘to supply food to an army’ (inter alia).
  5. I appear to have already packed my First Crusade source book so I don’t have the citations to Fulcher and Anna Komnene handy, but I’ll try to remember to come back and add those once I’ve fully unpacked my books.
  6. Link simply because I do not know if DoorDash is as common in other countries and so this joke might need a gloss. I’m actually not very fond of DoorDash; the service is expensive but they don’t pay their Dashers well.
  7. on this see J.S. Richardson, “The Spanish Mines and the Development of Provincial Taxation in the Second Century B.C.” JRS 66 (1976)
  8. Though of course you might hit multiple villages in an area at the same time or in quick succession
  9. Reduced by 25% because soldiers nutrition requirements are substantially higher than the average peasant because, of course, many peasants are children, women or elderly people with lower calorie demands
  10. And that ‘get hit hard or not at all’ kind of risk is, of course, precisely the kind of risk that the vertical and horizontal social relations peasants rely on are designed to mitigate.
  11. Rice agriculture with its higher population densities has different breakpoints.
  12. For a good surface-level overview of these processes, see Lee, Waging War (2016) ch 9.
  13. By far the most successful of the first ten amendments. It has never been the primary subject of a Supreme Court decision – see how well it works!
  14. “It’s wrong to deliberately target civilians” is a fairly recent and very valuable moral innovation. I don’t want to entirely oversell this: particularly in the Middle Ages there were at least notionally some moral qualms about violence against co-religionists, but these fell far short of modern international law, even with all of its weaknesses.
  15. Though in all cases the most important sources of loot were towns where the greatest wealth was; that doesn’t mean armies didn’t rob the peasantry (they absolutely did) but an army that only robbed the peasantry would have sorely disappointed (and possibly impoverished) its soldiers.
  16. As Lynn notes, this was a process that would have been taking place in armies with large numbers of camp women in the ‘campaign community’ who were there of their own volition. Lynn concludes that the evidence suggests that on the whole that most camp women “realized what was happening and tolerated it since those attacked were “others,” and women within the campaign community shared the identity and values of that community.” There is little if any evidence that they objected and significant evidence that they often took part in the pillaging. This may also go some distance to explaining why accounts of the period – even by soldier-rapists themselves – often make little effort to conceal it; it was considered a ‘normal’ part of war against an enemy. As Lynn notes, the enmity could also go both ways: neither soldiers or camp women who found themselves alone and unprotected in a hostile countryside could expect mercy from the populace.
  17. Trans. from E. Peters, The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials.
  18. I should note that even a casual survey of the literature studying modern war crimes will also reveal that this sort of behavior – while now forbidden by law in most countries and by international law – remains common, particularly in wars where the civilian population is the deliberate target. Atrocities are not simply something that only happens in the past.
  19. Suet. Tiberius 32.2, though on taxation rather than foraging.
  20. Quote via F. Tallett, War and Society in Early Modern Europe: 1495-1715 (1992), though the quote is famous and I have seen it in several other places as well.
  21. There’s a ton on this, but A.B. Bosworth, “Alexander the Great: Greece and the Conquered Territories” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 6: The Fourth Century BC (second edition), 846-875 offers a good overview of the diversity of arrangements that might result from this process, while Engels, op. cit. discusses the logistics implications.
  22. Older sources for the Middle Ages and the ancient world often report similar levels of devastation, reporting whole areas to have been essentially abandoned, but it is often unclear how literally we should take this and we often lack the evidence to ascertain how severely depopulated the areas actually were: in some cases there may have really been scars of depopulated land but in other cases the self-same regions seem to be functioning just fine within a few years or decades. By contrast in the 17th century we can be quite confident about the scale of the damage as the evidence is much more extensive.
  23. And often industrial warfare

384 thoughts on “Collections: Logistics, How Did They Do It, Part II: Foraging

  1. Regarding footnote 22, perhaps such areas were temporarily depopulated in the sense that surviving residents mostly fled to the nearest non-devastated community where they had some social connection, then returned to rebuild a few years later?

    1. Farmers relied on such horizontal ties for survival. An entire village couldn’t up stakes and move to one particular area — adding that many extra mouths to feed would be an untenable burden. And when they moved back into the devastated zone, they’d need to take extra food, seed stock, and often building materials to rebuild destroyed homes. Such a resettlement effort would be out of reach of anyone but the local nobility. I certainly wouldn’t expect peasants to be undertaking it on their own!

    2. It depends a lot in the level of economy. If you have a semi-capitalist economy, there is “work” available. If you are in an area with subsistence agriculture, a neighbouring region doesn’t really have need for extra workforce. They have already a population density that the area can support and any extra hands are primarily extra mouths to feed. Your work is less worth than the food that you eat. So, the stress is on the social capital: do you have friends, relations and acquaintances who can lend you a hand when you have lost everything? IOUs are the only thing that a looting army can’t steal.

        1. You don’t have to pay slaves, but you do have to feed them. If your land struggles to feed your family, you don’t want an extra mouth.

          1. The point was that your IOUs with your neighboring villages are worthless if the army has killed/enslaved/impoverished your neighbors as well as you.

          2. True. On the other hand, all things are flexible at the edges and there are always edge cases.

            For example, perhaps one of the neighboring villages is on the other side of a ridge that a determined human being can climb easily, but a horse struggles with and a wheeled cart overturns on. The column that pillaged your village winds up missing it entirely, because it’d be half a day’s journey to get around the ridge and take them dangerously close to an enemy-held castle.

            They can’t put up the whole population of your village, but they can accommodate a dozen people. And they try to accommodate a few more than that who are in-laws of theirs, because the spouses involved would never let their households hear the end of it otherwise, even if it means a lean winter.

            And the buildings are mostly burnt down, but you can salvage enough half-burnt timbers and hastily improvised shelter from pine boughs and whatnot that some of your village’s people can stay behind and try to survive the winter living on the turnips the army didn’t dig up and some barely palatable acorn stew and whatever small game they can catch in the woods with snares, thrown rocks, and a few slings. Miserable but not impossible.

            And so on, and so on.

            So the “village destroyed by pillaging” outcomes are often not going to be strictly either/or. Some communities survive largely intact while others are heavily damaged. Even heavily damaged communities may still support a residual population at greatly reduced comfort and increased risk of death by starvation, exposure, or disease.

          3. Indeed, when the land reaches carrying capacity one can have the awful situation of labor being calorie limited: the people you already have don’t get enough to eat to work as hard as they could if they were better fed.

          4. One thing about slave taking is that you’re usually only taking healthy adults, you simply kill the children and old people. So you get more labor for less food from slaves than you would from your own population, this also means that slaves can also be used on marginal lands and in activities like mining that don’t produce food.

            In a bad year you just let the slaves starve. In a good year you get extra production. There’s no downside if you consider slaves and their lives to be effectively worthless.

            For both Caribbean sugar plantations and ancient mines, the estimate I’ve encountered is an average of 3 years of life expectancy for a freshly taken slave. That basically means you’re not feeding the slaves when you have a bad year.

            With it understood that slaves replace the old and small children in the “starves to death first” sweepstakes, while producing valuable goods in a good year, and in a bad year what little food they produce on marginal land can go to their “more deserving betters”, then it’s clear that slaves can have value even if your population is already up against the available food supply.

          5. Only if you can replace them easily. Prime slaves might not be so easily gotten.

          6. >You don’t have to pay slaves, but
            >you do have to feed them. If your
            >land struggles to feed your family,
            >you don’t want an extra mouth.

            Subsistence farmers don’t typically want slaves, but subsistence farmers also typically can’t afford slaves, anyway.

            Refer back to Dr. Devereaux’s posts on farming, and the observation that most agricultural societies had a class of “big men” who owned far more land than they could personally cultivate, and who then relied on various mixes of free and unfree labor to cultivate it for them.

            For various fairly obvious reasons, “big men” are almost never in any danger of personally starving to death. Instead, they are nearly always making the calculation “can I make a profit from having this potential worker (be they free or unfree) use the capital I own (land, tools, animals, etc.) to cultivate crops?”

            It is nearly always this class of person in any given society who owns the overwhelming majority of the slaves. They will typically also own a lot of land. So their land assuredly doesn’t struggle to feed their family.

            Of course, it may struggle to feed the families of the tenant farmers who work that land. But under many historical legal systems, that is not the “big man’s” problem, and they are well within their rights to kick off the tenant farmers and turn the land into a slave plantation if that would be a profitable course of action for them.

      1. > Your work is less worth than the food that you eat.

        Eyeballing some thought experiments, not all subsistence agricultures were equal; it seems to me that in “Europe” work was (almost) worth the food, but in some other places it definitely wasn’t.

        One implication is in war. If labor is of little value (around the carrying capacity, and given a fixed technology, capital, etc., the marginal unit of labor produces very little extra food) then it just doesn’t make sense to capture slaves, or to subjugate the population in situ. You just genocide them and settle the land with your people, because land is the only valuable thing (the only thing that food production of the polity depends on, if a significantly decreased number of people can produce nearly as much food on the same land). Slavery, helotage, and other forms of society where social classes have even vaguely comparable sizes but ethnically distinct origins only makes sense if, basically, the labor of the lowest class is valuable enough that the second-lowest class doesn’t kill them all to free up food for their own subsistence and expansion.

        Another implication is in marriage customs. If labor in general, and women’s labor in particular, is of low value to the household, then ceteris paribus you want to have your daughter(s) marry someone and thus leave the (nuclear) household as soon as possible. Furthermore (to the extent land is owned by small family units) you care a lot about them marrying a guy with as much land as possible, because that quantity of land directly determines how many grandchildren (and further descendants) you will have. This competition between parents for the best in-laws straightforwardly leads to some customs that we (coming from a high-value-of-labor marriage custom culture) see as astonishingly cruel to women.

        By contrast, if labor is valuable, as a parent you’d be willing to retain your daughter(s) for longer; in looking for a son-in-law who can provide food to your grandchildren, you’d look at e.g. industriousness as much as you look at land; and your society’s rituals would retain odd little details vaguely implying that the groom is abducting the bride. Forms of cruelty that sacrifice productivity are non-starters.

        Of course, the above is mostly put in terms of nuclear-family households, whereas lots of cultures live(d) in rather larger households. However, most of the reasoning doesn’t change too much until the households get so big (and the marriages so incestuous) that you get within-household marriages. There’s also a bit of tension between “food production is limited by peak-time labor, during harvest” and traction animals being widespread, since, treating them as the lowest social class and extending the slavery/helotage argument, we get that “food production is limited by peak-time -l-a-b-o-r- traction, during planting”. That would have to imply that spades are surprisingly ineffective and that traction-increasing devices (e.g. laying a ladder horizontally, against an anchor) are the second most important agricultural tool after the plow. If that’s nonsense, then even given the existence of fallow (free grazing), why would anyone feed cereals to traction animals rather than people?

        There are other possibilities beside. For instance, if the size of the population is not limited by food availability but something else (classically, diseases) then in the extreme case single mothers can provide for their children by themselves. Warfare becomes to be “kill all the men, rape all the women” and “marriage customs” become men competing to impress women.

        1. I think you’re overthinking it a bit, and trying to tie long term demographic tendencies into the response to a specific crisis. The big thing here is short term versus long term.

          Almost by definition, an able-bodied agricultural laborer can contribute more to the community in terms of food production than the cost of feeding them demands. However, those contributions are built into a yearly cycle of agricultural activity. If the community has unfarmed land (but the means to plow that land!) and seed grain, then at the start of the agricultural cycle, one more farmhand can translate directly into more cultivated land. Or, failing that, indirectly into crops flourishing better due to being tended better, less risk of individual farmers overworking themselves into injury or exhaustion and then losing some of their labor, and more certainty of actually getting the whole field harvested before the rain hits and ruins everything.

          But if someone shows up after harvest (and this is when armies time their arrival, so this is when they burn you out), then all that goes out the window. That’s someone who’s going to be eating grain they didn’t help plant (because they were elsewhere) for months before they even have a chance to contribute. They might even move on before next year’s planting season.

          In a subsistence situation, then, their labor is not yet worth the food they will eat before they start doing useful labor. Even if it might well be worth it in a different context or when the capital to make use of that labor was available in unlimited supply.

          1. And this is one of the reasons that times of warfare often saw breakdowns in the traditions of hospitality. It is one thing to give a few meals and a place to sleep to travellers and pilgrims who are going to be leaving after a day or two. It is another to take in travellers who might be the leading edge of groups of refugees who will tax your resources while having nowhere else to go. Combine that with travelers possibly being scouts for an army who will determine if you are worth pillaging, and it becomes a survival trait to be inhospitable.

      2. If you are in an area with subsistence agriculture, a neighbouring region doesn’t really have need for extra workforce. They have already a population density that the area can support and any extra hands are primarily extra mouths to feed. Your work is less worth than the food that you eat.

        That depends on how close the area is to its carrying capacity. If there’s marginal land which you could farm but don’t because there aren’t enough people, it could be worth taking on new hands if doing so would allow you to bring more land under cultivation.

        1. Subsistence agriculture tends toward its carrying capacity, but that doesn’t mean it’s always at it. If there was a plague or a famine or an army devastated that community some time in the last decade there may well room.

          1. Most of the time in western Europe (and even more in eastern Europe it was nowhere near carrying capacity outside a very few regions (Flanders, south-east England and some others). Post Rome there were large areas of forest and marsh, reclaimed in the 11th and 12th centuries. Agricultural technology improved steadily – animals, ploughs, new crops, new methods, and emigration – to Spain, Ireland, Poland, east Germany, Hungary – was constant.

          2. Of course, for these exact reasons, carrying capacity is a “soft” rather than “hard” limit.

            For instance, draining a marsh or clearing thick old-growth forest are back-breaking manual labor and are, importantly, not labor that is likely to result in a direct increase in the amount of food available during the current sowing-reaping cycle.

            From one perspective, an area has hit its “carrying capacity” only when all the forests have been logged off, the marshes drained, and the hillsides terraced to permit cultivation of every available plot of land.

            From another perspective, an area has hit its “carrying capacity” well before the point where this happens… unless there is enough access to tools, surplus labor, and community organizational capacity to permit the necessary changes to bring land under cultivation.

    3. I am not very familiar with how historical European peasants fared, but in pre-modern China, it was very common for peasants to flee into mountains in huge numbers (China is quite mountainous). Those who fled would disappear from the state administration registers, thus creating a picture of the “total depopulation” of a region from the viewpoint of the state and elites, despite those peasants were still alive. Sometimes disappearing from records does not equal disappearing from real life.

      1. Along these lines, don’t forget about a beautiful pearl of monumental stupidity by Steven Pinker in “The Better Angels Of Our Nature,” where he interprets the drop in population recorded by Tang census-takers before and after the An Lushan revolt as indicating the violent deaths of all concerned.

        1. Hmm, let’s look at what he actually says:

          “The worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War, an eight-year rebellion during China’s Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire’s population, a sixth of the world’s population at the time. 13”

          “These figures, of course, cannot all be taken at face value…”

          “13. An Lushan Revolt: White notes that the figure is controversial. Some historians attribute it to migration or the breakdown of the census; others treat it as credible, because subsistence farmers would have been highly vulnerable to a disruption of irrigation infrastructure.”

          And a table uses Matthew White’s figure of 36 million dead. Wiki says that White *later* revised that down to “only” 13 million dead.

          So Pinker isn’t just doing his own amateur research, and he does note controversy.

          1. You’re right, Pinker isn’t doing his own amateur research, he’s citing someone else’s amateur research in a way that “launders” its amateurism through his own perceived scholarly credibility (which of course is a dubious perception since he’s writing about subject matter extremely far afield from his actual scholarly bona fides) and lends it an imprimatur of being something other than amateurism.

            The footnote doesn’t change this problem, it arguably makes it worse by implying that White’s amateur pop-history is actually a respected-if-controversial contribution to a serious professional discourse among historians, and eliding the basic problem that neither he nor White is proposing any sort of methodology that might provide a respectable stab at an answer as to many violent deaths the Tang administrative records they’re citing might actually represent — and regardless, Pinker still takes the maximalist “every single missing census entry represents a violent death” interpretation at face value when incorporating the “death toll” into his quantitative analysis of violent death in history, so the credibility boost provided by the rear-end-covering footnote is negligible at best.

          2. I guess Pinker never bothered to consult, say, the Cambridge History of China. Even I know better than this.

          3. For what it is worth here, these kind of problems are part of the reason I tend to think that Pinker- or Turchin-style data-driven megahistory doesn’t work well before about 1500 or so.

            There are so many quirks and blind spots in the evidence, so many incomparables that harmonizing them into a single data set introduces more problems than it solves.

      2. Southern Europe is also very mountainous. Most of Italy, for instance, is divided in two by the Appenines. Greece is also full of mountains. And don’t get me started with the Balkans or Turkey. Given a modicum of notice, rural population would surely flee tho the hills

        1. As in the current atrocity being waged on Ukraine — there are reports of groups fleeing for refuge into the same mountain caves where peoples in the region have fled from invaders throughout the region’s histories.

      3. How much food was there to eat in your average mountain? If a large fraction of the population of China flees into the mountains, a large fraction of the population of China is going to starve.

        And notice that life in China away from the mountains has to be worse than that, in order to drive people into the mountains in the first place.

        1. Some points to notice:

          1. When speaking of “living in a mountain,” the picture should not be “random wooden hut in a middle of a dense forest” but “flat valleys and gulches with grasslands suitable for farming.” The latter could hold many people, as in the cases of Switzerland, Albania, Armenia, Nepal, Bhutan, Southern India, Sri Lanka, Northern Myanmar, Laos, Central Malaysia, Central Japan, etc.

          2. The mountain valleys in China can be pretty fertile and support a decent population. My family lineage came from a rural townlet in such a mountain valley in Hunan – it’s called a “townlet” 镇 in the Chinese context but has a 50k population, enough for a “city” in the EU or US context. Hunan, a known mountainous province – 2/3 of the province are hills or mountains – has at least 1/3 of its population residing in the mountain (valleys). The terraced farm is also a common practice in southern China.

          3. It was very common for the mountain-hiding population to return to the plains after a couple of years. They would certainly not live in the mountains forever; sometimes they would even fight with the plain population for the land.

          4. As other comments have pointed out, having population hiding in the mountains was a widespread phenomenon across the world’s mountainous regions, from the Mediterranean to South East Asia. “The Art of Not Being Governed” is a nice read on this topic.

        2. Old story about Confucius: while traveling in the mountains with students, he heard an old woman wailing. Her son had been eaten by a tiger, after her husband had been, after her father-in-law had been. He asked her why she lived in the mountains.

          “Because there are no oppressive officials here!”

  2. It is estimated that Pomerania – which was particularly badly hit by Swedish and Catholic troops during the Thirty Years’ War – lost three-quarters of its population. There were areas in Germany that didn’t recover until the 19th century. And in 1637, logistical tyranny saved the Swedish bacon. After the failure at Nördlingen (1634) we had our back to the sea. If Gallas had been able to supply his armies he could have crushed us. But while we could be supplied via the sea, his army starved to death. The best defense was a logistical wasteland like the one created in Pomerania.

    1. My German ancestors were from a town that was largely spared the destruction in the Thirty Years War and it helped kickstart the town’s growth after the Peace of Westphalia. The town next to theirs was totally destroyed.

  3. “foraging operations often involved a lot of violence directed against civilians, including sexual violence.”

    The taking of captives was actually an alternative to absolute genocide in history. If people are taken as plunder its because they were spared from the sword as in being killed.

    Interestingly there are regulations for war brides in the Bible just to minimize such incidents:

    “10When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hand and you take them captive, 11if you see a beautiful woman among them, and you desire her and want to take her as your wife, 12then you shall bring her into your house. She must shave her head, trim her nails, 13and put aside the clothing of her captivity.

    After she has lived in your house a full month and mourned her father and mother, you may have relations with her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14And if you are not pleased with her, you are to let her go wherever she wishes. But you must not sell her for money or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

    The Man was forced to leave her alone for one month allowing her to cry for her dead relatives. Also her head is shaved and nails were trimmed. No makeup and no jewelry just puffy cheeks from crying. Plain clothes.

    Ample time for the Man to come to his senses and allow her to be a free woman and freed from potential slavery. Or in rare cases to have the full dignity of a wife.

    A huge improvement over the potential for sexual violence in the heat of the moment where the state of the mind is animalistic and violent after having killed your share of the men.

    1. A good visual representation of the state of mind I am talking about as demonstrated by Titus Pullo in this scene:

      1. Kinda interesting to contrast the film language with the actual tactics. The film language is very effective at showing how disciplined professionalism will cut down courageous fighters. The professionalism is easily conveyed with little things like the legionary calmly staring while waiting for the Gaul to strike and the legionaries keeping their hands on the troop in front of them. Yet the disciplined professionals actually do a lot of puzzling things. They aren’t raising their shields until ordered to do so which is just begging to get a missile to the chest. When the Gaul takes a flying leap and gets stabbed on the ground, the legionary stabbing him leaves himself completely exposed to do the stabbing. When Vorenus gets his helmet knocked off, he decides to celebrate that fact by moving his shield to the side and rear even as he is in no hurry to turn his eyes back to the enemy. The professional soldier’s tactics succeed only by dint of the Gaulic fighting style being elaborate suicide. It’s rather ironic, the concept of these men being professional is conveyed extremely effectively but the actual professionalism is absent.

        1. Yeah its an improvement on portrayal compared to other films. But there is still room to improve.

          1. Honestly the gauls knew how to fight, i found the scene not at all believable

    2. During the heyday of ISIS antics, there was much talk about Quranic rules on slavery. The way it’s been told where I’ve read it, was that they represented progress for the day. You wanna loosen up a bit after a battle? Go ahead, but take one sex slave at a time, treat her well, and marry or free her when you knock her up. Something like that. Trick is, folksies applied the same rules when the underlying assumptions were, shall we say, different than all these hundreds of years ago.

      1. Similarly, “eye for eye” was a massive progress for its time when it appeared.

        1. Works pretty well as a first-approximation upper bound on retaliation, problem is continuing to settle for that when more finely calibrated models become available, or worse yet somebody gets confused and starts using it as a LOWER bound.

      2. Maybe avoid to spear ISIS propaganda yes ? Women taken as slaves by ISIS were not, under any definition, treated “well”. They were subjected to rape, violence, both by ISIS men but also by ISIS wifes, and being sold as an object.

        1. I’m not sure if I recognize the idiom “to spear propaganda”, but just in case, I’ve never said what you say I said. (I imagine we’re on the same page on the topic, actually.)

      3. ISIS is a bit like US evangelicals – they take the bits they like (often from tradition rather than the text) and ignore the rest. There’s a lot in Islamic law about slavery – overall it’s an improvement on Roman or Greek codes if still by our standards horrible – no breaking up families, encouragement of emancipation, right to earn one’s freedom and so on.

        1. To broaden the comparison a bit, I find it interesting to chew on the historical parallels between Protestantism vis-a-vis earlier Christianity, and Wahhabism vis-a-vis earlier Islam. In both cases, you see a sense that existing Christian/Islamic religious institutions have “lost the plot” and added layers of borderline-polytheistic idolatrous obscurantism to the alleged simplicity and straightforwardness of the core monotheistic scriptures (which of course are never actually as simple or straightforward as they like to imagine), sowing sectarian hatreds that quickly blossom into violent holy wars in which the Protestants/Wahhabis come to regard adherents to the longstanding earlier forms of Christianity/Islam as not “real” Christians/Muslims at all.

          Of course this also provides a darkly poetic riposte to an old ideological mantra from the early “war on terror” era (found in the ideological discourses of both evangelicalism and “New Atheism”) that one of the problems with Islam is that unlike Christianity, it never had a Reformation — if you take the above comparison at face value, Islam has absolutely had its own version of the Protestant Reformation, and Osama bin Laden was one of its Martin Luthers!

          1. I think the New Atheist idea is that Islam never had an *Enlightenment*.

            I doubt the evangelicals agree that’s the problem, since from the New Atheist POV, the evangelicals are largely rejecting the Enlightenment as well.

          2. Well the “Islam never had a Reformation” canard (including the dubious, Protestant-chauvinist premise that “Reformation” should be treated as functionally equivalent to “modernization” or “enlightenment”) has been perfectly common among all sorts of people, including people culturally distant from US evangelicalism or even Christianity at all — you could find it during the high water mark of the War on Terror era coming from figures as mainstream as Thomas Friedman, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2015 book is even framed around the idea of an “Islamic Reformation” with “Five Theses” geared toward liberalization/modernization/etc, implying by analogy that the original Ninety-Five Theses played a similar role within Christianity. In many ways it’s a form of the “medieval is inherently bad; modern (including early-modern) is inherently better” premise that Bret has skewered well and repeatedly on this very blog.

            The bigger-picture contradictions and problematic tendencies in mid-2000s neocon-adjacent New Atheist rhetoric are a pretty huge can of worms, but suffice it to say that it was common among figures like Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris to advance a “clash of civilizations” narrative in which Islam as such is worse and less enlightened than Christianity as such, and to frame evangelicals in the US as a problem specifically to the extent that their religiosity was too similar to the much-despised religiosity of Muslims.

          3. People don’t often remember how fanatical the Puritans and the Calvinists initially were.

    3. I’ll point out that the quoted section, at least in English, is contingent on ‘wanting to take the woman as your wife’ if not, none of which follows is relevant.

      More broadly, I think your argument fails on the same basis as the ‘repeated regulations against theft/rape/murder mean it didn’t happen.’ But also, I note that at least some of our sources seem to prefer murder to rape (hence the ‘only killed the women, didn’t mistreat them’ section in the original argument).

      1. As I read it, the writer was saying that murder was better than rape + murder (rather than simple rape). Which, sure, I wouldn’t disagree. But I guess your even darker interpretation would also make sense.

      2. I had a funny discussion with a female friend. She expressed distaste for the Dothraki because they rape their female captives. I pointed out that they kill their male captives, and asked if she would prefer that. She recognized the absurdity of the argument, but was forced by the logic of her own argument to say, “Yes, because it would be more equal.”

        1. Plains tribes would often have the women torturing the men to death while the men gangraped the women.

          Bringing your wife foraging meant she could torture the prisoners while you captured more, or lugged out what other prisoners had revealed, perhaps

        2. @ey81

          Then in that case the Hebrew regulations on the treatment of women captives after war is preferred.

          Shaved heads, removed jewelry and makeup. And eyes puffy from crying for her dead relatives would humanize her and allow a cooldown period where more rational faculties can be employed.

          That and the prospect of freedom if he discovered that he doesn’t like her.

          Too bad the Bible wasn’t as known in those Medieval Times among the normal soldiery.

        3. Perhaps your friend would prefer the equality of the Romans then; Sallust has Caesar mention “the rape of maidens and boys” among the horrors of war. I am myself not sure whether it is better to be raped or murdered

      3. @ECD

        Even so those regulations were designed to minimize rape. Or at least force the person to come to their senses.

        Like the head shaving, nail clipping, remove makeup and jewelry so on. Even the requirement that she is to cry for her family.

        Would all tend to humanize the woman in the eyes of the captors. Rather than dehumanized “objects” of the enemy.

        And they even are made free women rather than sold into slavery.

        So I stand by my points.

  4. This isn’t 100% on topic but I despise Bertran de Born and I hope he enjoys wandering around holding his own head.

  5. If someone still needs a cure for “war is fine” thinking, I can recommend “Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth” game. It gave me a nice experience of living in a medieval city and doing quite well until an army arrives and destroys everything.

    1. So does Sharon Kay Penman, particularly in her volume, When Christ And His Saints slept. Sometimes it was the English soldiery doing to their own, and sometimes it was the English hired mercenaries, usually both.

    2. The TV miniseries was also great. There you are just doing your job building a cathedral when the neighbouring aristocrat massacres you and your coworkers because the trade going to the market town in his territory will be put at risk when pilgrims start going to your cathedral.

  6. It’s funny to think of garrisoning armies increasing public order in Total War and similar games. It makes sense up to a point – people have less incentive to revolt if there’s a big army right there to put the revolt down. But it’s clearly something that could probably be revamped,

    One thing I’ve always wondered about when talking about ancient and medieval logistics is migration era tribes on the move. Their numbers would sometimes rival those of big Roman armies, with a priori few of the Roman state’s logistical capabilities. They also had large numbers of noncombatants and flocks of animals that would compel them to move very slowly, which would have a massive impact on the countryside through foraging. How did they manage it?

    1. Perhaps something like the supply system in Three Kingdoms/Thrones of Britannia — having the army around raises Control, but only until they’ve eaten through the local supplies.

      1. People will see the writing on the wall.

        One reason you need a large force is that peasants may fight. After their alternatives are death by torture and death by starvation.

        1. Well yes, a canny and capable leader will understand when the stationed military forces are over-stressing the ability of the local area to feed/supply them, and either reduce that force or disperse it (or ship in extra supplies, if you have that administrative capacity). But when your enemy is massing nearby, you need to mass forces to confront them. Do you starve the peasants out and face a rebellion? Or do you let your enemy walk in and besiege the area, which will also involve burning and killing a lot of peasant homesteads?

    2. Talking about total war and moving slowly raises one of my hobbyhorses– turns in Total War are very, very long. Like 1-2 years. An army could pretty much move anywhere on the map in a turn, if they had supply for the route.

      1. Depends on the game. Three Kingdoms has each turn being a season (5 seasons, so a bit more than two months) Fall of the Samurai had, IIRC; four turns per season, etc.

        1. That’s fair, but even at that short end, those marching distances are very short for 2.4 months.

    3. A lot of those “migrating tribes” were pretty damn similar to Roman armies at the time and could swap back and forth being Roman-affiliated armies. The Fall of Rome podcast gives a good sense of these migrations and who they were, how they operated, and hiw they change and it’s by a guy with a PhD in Roman history.

    4. Generally speaking, it was easier to supply a garrison than an army on the march — most cities big enough to be worth garrisoning imported lots of food anyway, so they had the natural and artificial infrastructure needed to bring in supplies, and because garrisons stay in one place you can plan ahead better. Plus, because they were going to be there for the long haul, it was more worthwhile to build or find specific places to house them in (I believe it was common in the Hellenistic period for garrisons to live in a city’s acropolis, for example) rather than scattering them around in a load of random civilian homes.

    5. One thing I found interesting about the “Divide et Impera” mod for Rome 2 Total War is it actually makes garrisoning armies in cities *decrease* public order, though it is occasionally required if you don’t have a strong supply foundation or your armies are too large. Perhaps a nod to some of what’s being discussed here.

      1. i could see a bit of both applying.. the first few turns causing public order to decrease, as a result of the army eating up resources, harrassing the populace, etc. then gradually increasing it to represent the army having settled in, the disruptions from them being present dying down, and the economic activity of having that mass of men and their pay around starting to improve conditions in the area. this would force you to decide whether to garrison and take the shorter term penalties at the expense of having to keep the troops in place to create a viable territorial holding, or to keep the army in the field and moving, which usually means taking attrition and limiting your ability to recruit new units into the army.

        1. One thing I’d expect is that a small garrison increases public order, while a large one hits diminishing returns, then starts to decrease it.

          In a sizeable city, the state has a strong interest in having at least enough soldiers reliably loyal to the state that they can keep up a watch on the gates and man the city’s citadel. This is pre-modern times and regular urban police forces to maintain public order are basically Not A Thing, if you have no actual soldiers working for you in a city, you have very little control over that city.

          But as you pile in more and more soldiers, the public order ‘benefits’ start to decline, as the downside of “more soldiers causing more problems and taking up more of the space within the walls” starts to offset the upside of “more warm bodies around to monitor events and make sure things are going smoothly.”

          1. In the middle ages
            the citicens had been the police.
            In Rome the were cohorts of police
            the cohortes urvanae and viriles

    6. But were the tribes deliberatly migrating – packing up their stuff and moving x miles per day, to get from point A to B? Or was it more: move with grazing animals over plains during summer, build winter camp, move further west/ south next summer?

      Because that’s how generally human migration out of Africa is portrayed, as generational affair. A handful of young people from Village A move a few day’s march north and start Village B. One generation later, repeat, and “suddenly” = after many generations, there’s villages everywhere.

      1. In the Roman period what we see is a lot of tribal migration to get away from invading folks moving in from the East. Atilla’s Huns pushed a lot of groups ahead of them, trying to get out of his way, and when they ran up against the Roman limes… Well there’s a saying about a rock and a hard place.

  7. I’ve no evidence either way, but this makes sense, especially if they were burned- even if you can return to a region, a village that has been burnt and looted isn’t somewhere you’d move back to until the following spring at the least- you might want to get in on next years planting season if your real keen, but re-building your house is a bit pointless if it’s in a region that you know for certain won’t have much food until the following year. I’d imagine that, similar to many large scal modern disasters, there’s a brief period of coming back for belongings and then you move on to somewhere you can get work in order to avoid starvation, and only actually come back once you’ve the ability to rebuild.

  8. > neither soldiers or camp women who found themselves alone and unprotected in a hostile countryside could expect mercy from the populace.

    When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains …

  9. “generals simply long stays in areas where gathering firewood would be impossible.”

    A word is missing. Probably “avoids”

  10. Billeting sounds like it would have completely dispersed an amry unless done at a town. Also couldn’t the army just be encamped outside?

    It sounds actually getting your soldiers out of the town and into their regiments would have been very difficult with billeting.

      1. Kings and generals claimed that soldiers would be making small huts when encamped to sleep under. The better off used tents.

        1. Sorry for the mistakes

          building huts needed time and ressources, which may not available

      1. But we are still talking about an army of several thousand men. You could probably quarter a platoon in a farmhouse, but I am thinking of a large American farmstead with a large house and a lofty barn. Napoleon marching through Russia would’ve encountered much smaller houses, 24 square metres for about six residents. Even if you kicked the residents out, you could fit only a dozen men inside. A single village with a dozen homes would’ve been big enough for a single French company.

          1. I didn’t, but 100 years later a Russian peasant family owned 1.2 horses and 0.8 cows, with foals and calves often wintering in the house with the family. So they didn’t own any large stables. Even if you double the density, it doesn’t look like you could billet a large army without spreading it very thin.

    1. But the army doesn’t want to be encamped outside, and it can be very hard to get an army to do something it doesn’t want to.

      1. This. Why sleep in a tent when you can have a real roof over your head? Why cook your own meals when you could get a homeowner or even household servants to do it? Nit to mention the fact that while billeted you’d be fed from the homeowners larder, which is going to have better food than hardtack and saltpork. Plus the potential that the homeowner would have supplies of alcohol, might have daughters or female servants, and other things soldiers would view as ‘entertainment’. Deny them that and morale plummets, discipline drops, and you risk the troops deciding to sack the town while seeking such luxuries without orders.

        Now if you were a general you could build a proper fort with barracks, arrange for purchase of supplies, etc to limit the odds of the encamped troops doing that, but such things are time consuming and expensive, so unless you already planned to do that (or can do it quick like the romans) it is just easier to billet.

        1. Point of order, the Romans didn’t just build their camps spontaneously. They planned to do so. It was part of what we today would term their doctrine.

    2. Winter quarters were usually dispersed (this was a point in favour of barracks) and a few generals made sudden descents upon their enemies in winter (eg Gustavus Adolphus in the lead-up to Breitenfled) in an attempt to defeat them in detail.

  11. In my lexicon, the term “victualler” isn’t restricted to a supplier of food to armies; I knew two victuallers in Liverpool, whose business was supplying food to (civilian) ships. They were wealthy men.

    1. The organisation for people who run pubs in the UK used to be called the Licensed Victuallers’ Society.

  12. A lot of this matches descriptions we’ve been getting from ukraine, of russians essentially foraging for food from Ukrainian cities. What’s more we’ve been hearing stories of Ukrainian appliances being stolen and shipped back to Russia.
    Considering some russians haven’t been paid it sounds like the logistical capacity of Russia is somewhere around the 30 years war.

    1. Well, the 30 Years’ War, plus eight trillion artillery shells.

      And, less sarcastically, we shouldn’t forget how much harder modern war is to supply than agrarian warfare. The logistical demands are orders of magnitude higher – even logistics that’s bad by modern standards would be decent in WW2, good in WW1, world-best in the ACW, and incomprehensibly good even to Napoleon, let alone to Julius Caesar.

      Also, Russian soldiers going unpaid in this war? That seems unlikely, offhand. It made sense in the 90s when everything was a shambles, but right now money is the one thing that Russia has a lot of (because they’re still selling oil and gas pretty freely, but they can’t buy much on the global market with the proceeds). Seems more likely to just be corruption – getting paid is nice and all, but payment plus a pile of stolen stuff is even better. The army is corrupt enough normally that stealing from somebody else (instead of stealing from their own army) is more a change of venue than a change of actual practices. See for a lengthy discussion of this. (A channel that’ll probably appeal to most ACOUP readers, actually – there’s a ton of really good defense economics on there.)

      1. They are currently exporting natural gas to Europe at 20% of normal levels to exert diplomatic pressure, which is one reason my energy bill has tripled since the war started.

      2. > The logistical demands are orders of magnitude higher


        Both sides are making extensive use of multiple-launch rocket systems. A MLRS is a truck with a a dozen or so tubes on top; they can fire-off all their ammunition in under a minute. To reload them, you need an ammunition truck as big as the launcher.

        If a MLRS fires just one rocket a minute, it will need sixty reload trucks in the first day.

        For conventional gun artillery, US practice seems to be to replace barrels after 1,500 rounds or so. I have no reason to believe that barrel replacement can be done without a return to depot. So instead of a column of trucks carrying replacement barrels to the front, you’d get a column of worn-out guns heading back to depot, and revived guns traveling back to the front. If you’re relying on limited road routes, that means traffic jams.

        I understand that at least some of the Russian guns have been exploding due to barrel wear; apparently there are photos of guns that have exploded “banana-peel” fashion.

  13. Kinda makes it seem like the part at the end where a bunch of soldiers kill each other en masse is a relief from the horrors.

    1. I regret to inform you, that is not the end (except for the 5-15% who actually die). Generally speaking, there is at least one army still in existence after the battle, often in possession of a lot of captives to be sold into slavery. The defeated army may likewise continue to exist as an army, or it may have completely dispersed and is now retreating in a form very similar to a foraging army, just with no baggage/siege train at the core of the cloud.

      If the army victorious (or unchallenged) in the field goes and lays siege to something, but goes for starving the defenders into surrender due to an inability to take the place by storm, it sometimes happened that the defenders kicked out all “non-combatants” form the city (i.e. women, children, elderly) if they thought that would make the difference between being able to hold out long enough for an allied army to lift the siege. Of course, the attacker has precisely no reason to feed them either, particularly since long sieges quite often ended with the attacker having to retreat due to having run out of food — and that’s around a place worth laying siege to, i.e. generally a place with above-average agricultural productivity (see the Lonely city series). Either way, what happened to the people inside a city taken by storm was already described in some detail in an earlier post of this blog.

      1. IIRC at Alesia once Caesar had his siege lines set up, Vercingetorix kicked the non-combatants out of the city.

        And Caesar refused to let them through his lines, so the non-combatants got to sit and starve, trapped between the two armies.

  14. You know this whole thing about how nobles in the past such as Breton liked war and how “It’s wrong to deliberately target civilians” is a relatively modern value makes me wonder how they would react if they could be brought to the present and shown our values. I imagine the hypothetical time shifted peasantry would be happy of course if they were brought to the present.

    1. There’s a reason why civilians achieving power (in the era of democratic revolutions) has been so heavily linked to these changes in morality, I’d wager. You still see some truly awful atrocities, in cases where you can “other” some large group (e.g., Hitler), but generic abuse of civilians for its own sake is…well, certainly not obsolete, but at least it’s a fair bit less common, especially in democracies. When you build your society on “all people have value”, that’s going to echo elsewhere in your moral code.

      1. Oh yes I do agree with that but that’s not really the question I asked aka:what would those people think of todays values and such if you somehow brought them to the world of today

        1. I imagine many nobles would quickly find themselves in jail or the subject of ‘frontier justice’, due to treating everyone like essentially disposable pets, toys, and tools to be broken and thrown away. Or because someone refused to bend to their whims. Or possibly they’d think everyone was a noble due to our washing and clothes and glass windows and everything, and be very confused in that manner.

        2. The Romans would just think we were all gods.

          We have vehicles that can move without horse or ox to pull them and travel three day’s journey in an hour.

          We have clocks that measure that hour day or night.

          We have ice in the summer without relays of slaves bringing it from the mountains.

          We can talk to people many day’s journey away and see pictures of them too.

          Light does not require finding another flame to light yours off or else an elaborate process.

          Fresh fruit in winter. Heck, canned fruit in winter.

          1. Judged by the values of previous eras, the average modern westerner is extremely shallow, hedonistic, and immoral. People from the past might be imppressed with our technology and wealth, but in terms of our values, which is what the original question was asking about, I reckon they’d be less impressed.

            Also, when we somehow bring these people to the present day, how much of a look around do they get? Do they just experience the life of a middle-class American circa 2022, or do they get taken round our sweatshops and abortion clinics as well? I fell like that might have an impact on how favourably they assess us.

          2. Why not european

            Because most of the commenters here are American, so I assumed that “today’s values” and “the world of today” referred to the US.

            Though given that American and European middle-class lifestyles are pretty similar, and that both America and Europe have legal abortion and buy lots of goods made in third-world sweatshops, I’m not sure it would make much difference to our hypotethical time traveller’s opinion of the modern world.

          3. “do they get taken round our sweatshops and abortion clinics as well”

            If you’re assuming someone from the past would be as anti-abortion as modern anti-abortion people, you might be unpleasantly surprised. Ben Franklin put an abortion recipe in his math textbook. AIUI medieval Catholic penances did not treat pre-quickening abortion as murder, following Augustine and (somewhat) Jewish attitudes. Modern European abortion regimes — easy early on, harder later — might well seem more sensible than the “no abortion even in case of rape or even to save the mother’s life” extremists would.


            And a Greek or Roman from classical times would be surprised by the lack of outright infanticide, until they learned about abortion based on fetal sex and assumed that was the easier alternative.

            As for European vs. American values, European universal health care would probably seem wonderfully miraculous, while European gun control might seem suspiciously tyrannical to people used to assuming “self-help”. OTOH the crime rates in most parts of European or American cities would also seem miraculously peaceful.

          4. Even if they do think of us as in your words “ shallow, hedonistic, and immoral” and society as a whole as lacking values they find important they would still have to acknowledge that living standards and technology have improved greatly since their times which I suppose means they might have to decide if the loss of their values was worth such improvement.

          5. AIUI medieval Catholic penances did not treat pre-quickening abortion as murder, following Augustine and (somewhat) Jewish attitudes.

            Some Catholic penitentials didn’t treat abortion as murder, but I’m not aware of any that treated it as acceptable, even in the pre-quickening stage. Abortion itself has been forbidden in Christianity since the first century AD. (“Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not corrupt boys; thou shalt not commit fornication. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not use witchcraft; thou shalt not practice sorcery. Thou shalt not procure abortion, nor shalt thou kill the new-born child. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.” — Didache, chap. 2.2.)

            Also, even people of the “shout your abortion” tendency tend to freak out in the face of descriptions or images of what abortion actually entails. If you take Augustine on a tour of an abortion clinic, I guarantee you he would not approve of what he sees.

            Even if they do think of us as in your words “ shallow, hedonistic, and immoral” and society as a whole as lacking values they find important they would still have to acknowledge that living standards and technology have improved greatly since their times which I suppose means they might have to decide if the loss of their values was worth such improvement.

            Maybe, although the commonness of “This society seems great at first, but its people are decadent and immoral/its fabulous wealth is based on oppressing others” as a dystopian trope suggests that quite a lot of people don’t think that improved living standards are actually worth the loss of moral values.

        3. Since people are answering “In general” not just “about warfare”:

          0. Obviously, the technology. Once they figure this out somewhat:

          1. They’ve gone from a society dominated by peasant farmers (by numbers), fighters of some sort, ad big landowning aristocrats (by status/culture) to one where these groups are a pretty small proportion of most societies (Even the soldiering is done differently), and existing but side roles like merchants, craftsman, clerical workers/scribes/bureaucrat types, whatever the ancient of equivalent of janitors, waiters, etc. are the main portion of society. Major cultural clip. Plus the “merchants” maybe some “craftsmen” are now the richest people. Very, very shocking.

          2. Money is the default way to do lots of things. What craziness?

          3. Much less tolerance of deaths, certainly in richer areas, quite possibly everywhere in the world. Pre-modern world has lots of diseases, warfare, random weather/famines etc. to randomly kill you, that aren’t well understood, but modern world can control these much better. “forced to supply and army” or “attack by raiding army” goes here, wars still cause destruction but people would react much more poorly to someone trying to do this than in ye olden days.

          4. For the rest of the foraging/military changes, hard to answer differently than the other comments. But war has certainly changed a lot, going from “fights are in a single defined place, or raids where lots of little fights on single defined places happen’ to “fights must be coordinated over large areas at large distances” probably is a big shocker, with lots of knock on effects that are hard to spot because we haven’t experienced both (and many haven’t experienced any kind of warfare personally)

          1. Merchants have often been the richest people, much to the offense of those who insist that they are obviously the lowest orders of society.

          2. 4. For the rest of the foraging/military changes, hard to answer differently than the other comments. But war has certainly changed a lot, going from “fights are in a single defined place, or raids where lots of little fights on single defined places happen’ to “fights must be coordinated over large areas at large distances” probably is a big shocker, with lots of knock on effects that are hard to spot because we haven’t experienced both (and many haven’t experienced any kind of warfare personally)

            I think our time-traveller would conclude that modern wars are more organised, but also more destructive, as in: soldiers are less likely to go around in small groups looting and burning, but modern weapons still destroy much more than ancient or medieval armies were capable of (cf. the moonscapes of the Western Front, or various European cities in the aftermath of WW2).

      2. You still see some truly awful atrocities, in cases where you can “other” some large group (e.g., Hitler), but generic abuse of civilians for its own sake is…well, certainly not obsolete, but at least it’s a fair bit less common, especially in democracies.

        The democratic age saw the development of areal bombing, which was explicitly intended to terrify civilians into submission, and sanctions regimes designed to inflict such pain on civilian populations that they rise up and overthrow their governments. Granted, neither have proven particularly effective, but I don’t think we get a pass just because our civilian-targetting efforts aren’t very good.

        As for military pillaging, I suspect its decline is mostly because it simply isn’t necessary any more. Transport and food preservation are so good, and state capacity sufficiently high, that we can supply armies with food and reasonable pay in a timely and regular manner. Pillaging armies consequently don’t even have the fig leaf of “Well, it sucks, but we really need an army and we can only support one if we take supplies from the locals.”

        1. I also do not think that if we look at the british and other colonial empires would support that idea

          1. Or, for that matter, anti-colonial powers like the United States or Soviet Union, both of which were officially committed to some form of doctrine of equality, and still carried out some pretty bad atrocities.

          2. If memory serves, the British armies in India in 1800 or so tended to be notably smaller and better disciplined than most of their adversaries, and so were probably less devastating. And more likely to be paid on time.

          3. AFAIK during the sepoy uprising the british troops massacred their way through india, not caring about involvement or else
            executing prisoners with cannons
            the we go to massacre of amritsar
            peaceful protest gunned down

          4. Thodan, there is only so much massacring you can do, when you have hardly any troops to do any massacring.

            Wikipedia notes that during the 1857 Siege of Delhi, during the revolt you mentioned, there were ~ 9000 British or loyalist troops (mostly loyalist Indians), vs ~ 40, 000 rebels. One of those armies is going to be a lot harder to supply than the other, especially if it has a very improvised logistics system.

            When the Marathas attacked Delhi exactly a century before, they did send an army of 40, 000, and that would have been harder to supply.

            And when the Iranians sacked Delhi a couple of decades before that, they are estimated to have killed 20-30,000 civilians (not without provocation) and taken 10,000 slaves.

            A colonial war would seem to mean one in which the invading army had to cross a large body of water in order to do any invading. An army that can do that is generally going to be quite small.

            As a point of comparison, the sepoy revolt you refer to was fought during the Taiping revolt in China, in which the loyalist and rebel armies are said to have numbered millions, and the dead, tens of millions. The British imperial armies were just too small to cause that scale of havoc.

          5. I spoke about the crushing of the rebellion, the british forces waded in blood not in the same numbers as taipeh, but massacre they did

          6. I spoke about the crushing of the rebellion, the british forces waded in blood not in the same numbers as taipeh, but massacre they did

            British forces carried out massacres as reprisals for rebel massacres of British civilians. I don’t think it follows that British forces were generally undisciplined and prone to looting civilians.

          7. Which included people who had nothing to do with the rebellion, except living in the area the british forces marched through

          8. Which included people who had nothing to do with the rebellion, except living in the area the british forces marched through

            Sure, but my point is that deliberate reprisals are different to looting for food/supplies, and you can’t assume that an army doing the first would also be prone to doing the second.

        2. “The democratic age saw the development of areal bombing”

          The democratic age post WWII also then saw the *rejection* of areal bombing. Again, you’re treating events of *eighty years ago* as “the present”. In fact, you’re cherry picking to make as bad a case as possible for the present: 80 year old atrocities but modern abortion clinics.

          1. In fact, you’re cherry picking to make as bad a case as possible for the present: 80 year old atrocities but modern abortion clinics.

            No, you’re just conflating my responses to two different questions: (i) whether armies no longer pillage stuff because of democracy, and (ii) whether someone from the past would approve of modern values.

          2. >The democratic age post WWII also then saw the *rejection* of areal bombing

            The US SIOPs beg to differ. We rejected *nothing*, we just didn’t get much chance, thank the Gods.

    2. I think if we brought any ancient military commentator to the twentieth century and showed them Katyn Forest and Manila, Dresden and Hiroshima, they would say, “Your state capacity is greater, and your weapons are more powerful, but your morals have not hanged at all.”

      1. I mean yeah warfare is still brutal(and in ways more so thanks to it being industrial) but it seems a little simplistic to say morals in society have not changed at all

      2. Bit biased to pick the worst events. You could also show them the Dutch government resigning some years ago, because their peacekeepers in Yugoslavia had failed to prevent a massacre. That’s pretty extraordinary (granted, even by modern standards.)

        1. I will grant this to ey81 our hypothetical general might point that the only reason we can worry about things such as human rights and such is that we live in times that are comparability much more safer and stable(probably downright luxurious in terms of many areas). After all if we lived in that situation and wound up doing the same in their shoes how could we say we are more moral then they were.

          1. @James Carpenter

            Not to mention in the fact that people like us were stabbing people with spears and swords. Or firing arrows.

            And we were enraged whilst doing it. Real violence is ugly and brutalizes us.

        2. Sanctions regimes are pretty common nowadays, and are generally explicitly targetting at hurting a target country’s economy to force them into submission. I suspect an ancient military commentator would say that we’re no less eager to use economic devastation as a tool of warfare, we’re simply more delicate about the methods we use.

          1. Modern sanctions regimes tend to exempt food, plus agricultural and medical supplies. I’m not sure how much the intent is to “rile up the civilians” vs. “cripple the warfighting capability”, but at any rate it’s not to starve out the civilian population, which by historical standards of siege or chevauchee makes it quite delicate indeed.

          2. During the early stages of the Ukrainian war, plenty of commentators were gleefully predicting that western sanctions would cause the Russian economy to collapse. Granted I don’t think most of them were expecting it to collapse so badly that people would starve to death, but they were clearly expecting widespread economic pain in Russia, and equally clearly regarded this as a good thing.

      3. There’s also that your examples are decades ago, not “the present”, and there’s been significant evolution of norms since WWII.

        Just 30 years later, the My Lai massacre was something to cover up, then prosecute (if not very well), rather than something to brag about to terrorize the enemy.

        1. I think what has changed lately is the ratio of limited vs existential wars in the developed world. When not fighting for survival, morals and such become affordable. I’m not so sure any evolved norms would be apparent if the nukes started flying.

      4. I think the only issue a hypothetical Roman general would have with the firebombing of Dresden is that the US didn’t ship in millions of American farmers to colonize the area/give land grants to veterans to settle the area after the war. The Romans were practiced at genocide as a military tactic.

    3. “Well, you seem to have raised the standards of living all around, even for the commoners! Not bad, not bad…but about the way you manage conflict…”

      So you have these weapons with destructive power unimaginable to people from my time, but you hardly ever use them. I can understand preserving the infrastructure of your defeated enemies, but you don’t even use it! The news is your economy’s in trouble, so why aren’t you exacting tribute or plundering from any of your enemies?? Either crush your enemies, or profit from them!”

      And speaking of news, I see all manner reports of peoples’ honor slighted, yet I see no reports of any duels! What man hosts a prominent event of distinguished figures, broadcast to the masses with your wonderous machines, and lets some jackanape strike him in the face in front of everyone, without even drawing a sword? And your leaders allow all MANNER of people, from commoners to their peers, to malign their character and suffer virtually no reprisal, aside from being maligned in kind! Have you people no honor?? No dignity??”

      1. A time traveler who expects gentlemen to fight duels would not expect entertainers to fight duels.

        1. He would if he understood the entertainers in question are part of the elite classes in this era.

          Now that you mention it, I agree that alone would take some explaining,

    4. The armies this post describes were not foraging because they “didn’t have our values”. They were foraging because otherwise they could not exist and manoeuvre. By definition, all surviving polities in some period are willing to do what is required to survive, and forming an army in case of war is one of those things.

      Therefore, every surviving country, polis, or empire must have been prepared to form an army that forages from the enemy its supplies. They literally could not exist otherwise.

      Moral philosophers are fond of saying you cannot deduce what morality should be from empirical facts. Given that there is no logical basis for them, popular morals are essentially a matter of fashion. People believe what the people around them believe, because there is no logical way of arguing they should not do so.

      If it is necessary to do X to survive, you will be surrounded by people who do X. Therefore, the popular belief will be that it is OK to do X.

      If armies always have to forage, everyone will believe that it is OK for armies to forage. These armies did not forage because they didn’t have our values. They didn’t have our values because they had to forage.

      1. “Therefore, every surviving country, polis, or empire must have been prepared to form an army that forages from the enemy its supplies. They literally could not exist otherwise.”

        That forages from the enemy…and their own people.

        Cracking answer though. As far as I’m concerned, moral codes are largely emergent from survival requirements (or perceived survival requirements), barring some of the more hard-baked evolutionary traits like ‘murdering all of your family is frowned upon’.

      2. > popular morals are essentially a matter of fashion.

        It looks as if that must be the case, because we don’t have any shared philosophical foundation for “morality”. And yet, it appears to me that there *are* shared moral principles, even if they lack a shared philosophical underpinning.

        What’s interesting to me is that we do seem to have a collective “morality”, shared across cultures. Some moral postures, of course, are highly contentious, and not shared even *within* a culture; anything to do with sex, abortion, and so on is contested. But the “crush your enemies, and hear the lamentations of their women” attitude doesn’t seem to be part of any culture. I don’t think any culture glorifies warfare.

        Perhaps this comment relates to Bret’s earlier comments on the “Warrior” archetype, which Arnie’s Conan The Barbarian epitomises.

  15. >> If the army moves at ten miles per day, that’s 200 square miles of terrain, which at agrarian, pre-industrial densities might have 5,000 people in it (25ish people per square mile; densities can be substantially higher than this but often wasn’t), so right after the harvest they’d have about 1.35 million people-days of food,9 which conveniently for us, we can say is roughly a kilogram of food (mostly grain).<<

    I'm not sure I follow this bit – is there supposed to be a "per person" or "per day" or "per person/day" somewhere?

  16. A smaller point and a larger question: I don’t know how good of a source you’d consider it, but the Masoretic Hebrew of the Old Testament frequently describes a large army with the phrase “ויכס את עין כל הארץ”, which would translate to something like “And they covered the face of the earth” (literally eye, not face, but that sounds weird). It’s also a phrase that’s used to describe a swarm of locusts descending on a place and eating everything, most prominently in the plagues that strike Egypt (Exodus 10:15 for that one)

    My question for our good host is this: Pleminius in Locri, 205 B.C. Livy at least, (29.8-9, if I’m getting it right on a very quick re-skim) seems to talk about his pillaging of the town as being particularly brutal and leading to a breakdown in discipline within the Roman army and actually murdering tribunes attempting to restore order. But a big part of why the senate (29. 18-20 or so) seems to be so outraged by the behavior of this particular force is that they considered the Locrians friendly. But they had gone over to Hannibal, which makes this sort of pillaging a relatively normal part of Roman warfare, or so you make it seem when they actually did get into a town. Is there something contextual here I’m missing? Is it just that things got bad enough that you had a breakdown in discipline like this, which the Romans seemed to look down on? Political maneuvering against Scipio now that his star was ascending? Or were they really considered friendly people and this sort of atrocity a step too far? Something else entirely?

    1. Just spitballing here but RE “Considered the Locrians friendly” it could be that the Senate, or some in it anyway, viewed going easy on Hannibal’s Italian allies a part of bringing them back to the Roman side?

  17. A couple of notes.

    “As you may recall, cut grain stalks can be used as green fodder and so even an army that cannot process grains in the fields can still quite easily use them to feed the animals, alongside barley and oats pillaged from farm storehouses.”

    I actually didn’t recall any discussion of green fodder in the last article and when I went back and skimmed it, didn’t see anything in there. Perhaps a part of the previous article that was cut?

    “Likewise towns in Roman provinces seem to have fairly regularly paid exorbitant sums to avoid having armies quartered on them, as Cicero documents in his time in Cilicia (e.g. Cic. Ad Att. 5.21), sometimes in cash and other times in kind (e.g. Plut. Luc. 29.8).”

    What form would the “in kind” look like? Supplying the needed victuals directly rather than having the army pay for them?

    1. “As you may recall” from way back when we did farming. I’ll add a link.

      And yes ‘in kind’ here means they supply massive amounts of grain or other supplies instead of hosting the army.

    2. How are grain stocks fodder? At least in the case of harvested wheat, the remaining stalks- straw- are so nutritionless even to ruminants that they’re usually used just as coarse bedding or stable matting. Does Bret mean green, unripe grain stalks?

      1. Our sources – particularly Varo – are explicit that animals were sometimes fed with the stalks of freshly cut grain, particularly in Southern Italy and in other climates farm animals were encouraged to nibble on the stubble left behind by cutting. It’s also clear this has to be done *before* it fully dries and was harder to do in dry climates, but there it is.

      2. Straw provides nutrients to ruminants, but it’s hard to get them to eat it– but they’ll eat dry stalks if the kernel is still there, and they’ll eat fresh stalks.

        1. Misapprehension corrected. A brief search reveals that straw, especially _fresh_ straw is useful, just insufficient for nutritional needs. Also, that oat and barley stalks are superior to wheat stalks.

          1. When I worked for a small dairy operation, in a previous year, for some reason I never fully understood, they didn’t properly harvest their oat crop, and just cut it and baled it up. They called those bales ‘stray’, and urged me to use it in place of good hay as much as the animals would tolerate.

        2. Growing up with horses, my observation has been they’ll eat just about any plant-based material. The only exception that comes to mind is hay that’s gotten too old.

          1. Yep. Sister had a horse that was bored once and took a sizeable mouthful out of a yew hedge. Managed to pull enough of it out that the stupid thing survived.

            The more I learn about horses the more I’m surprised they survive at all!

  18. I recall a Napoleonic-era writer – not Trinkmeister Clausewitz, but one of his contemporaries – making the point that in that period, a potential marching route for an army in hostile territory had a “carrying capacity” limited to 27,000 men or so. Why? Because a force of that size would strip that road and the foraging zone to either side bare, leaving nothing for any troops following to subsist on. This (as well as operational flexibility) is why Bonaparte used his “battalion carree” of corps d’armee marching along parallel routes, only concentrating for battle.

    1. “An army marches on its stomach.”

      Lois McMaster Bujold had Miles think once that it’s really intelligence that’s important, an army marches on its head, but he lived in an era where food was not so desperate an issue.

      1. The tyranny of the wagon equation doesn’t apply to modern ships let alone science fiction ships, although the first Miles story had him act against the opponent’s supply line in a manner of speaking, and in another story the exact method of distributing rations was a critical part of his plans.

  19. What about gunpowder itself? Armies generally carried their powder with them. Maybe at some point we’ll talk about the black powder and how its made, but producing good powder on the march would be a challenge and doesn’t seem to have usually been a driving concern in any event, as far as I can tell.

    It might have been almost impossible. IIRC pre-modern gunpowder manufacturing took a long time – just getting the nitrates usually involved a nitre bed or nitrary that took a year to produce useful potassium nitrate to make gunpowder, unless you were lucky enough to live near somewhere where it could be mined (IE a cave with lots of bat droppings).

    But gunpowder is pretty dense stuff, and it could be readily stored and carried on the person of the soldier.

    1. A small number of wagons could carry enough gunpowder and shot to last an army a long time. I get the impression that soldiers would carry enough for one battle on them and then restock after a battle from the supply wagons.

      But it’s not really until the arrival in the 1890s of the bolt-action magazine-fed clip-loaded rifle (a type of weapon that would remain in use until after WWII with the exception of the USA using a semi-automatic after 1936) that ammunition consumption exceeded what could reasonably be carried on a few supply wagons – by which time the supply of artillery shells was a far bigger issue in both weight and volume.

    2. From early on manufacturing black powder of good quality needed an almost industrial-scale effort. The nitre required an intensive multi-step process to concentrate and purify (you can reference YouTube videos on the subject). The sulfur had to be of high purity. Properly grinding and mixing the ingredients required a ball mill, and the resulting powder had to be “corned” to grains of the proper size.

  20. Bret! I only wish this was the first article in this series, since you mentioned on Twitter that the first articles are the most read.

    1. First: Hwaet! is a great posting name. Well done. Worthy of lof.

      Second: I am certainly hoping this essay makes the internet rounds, but I suspect its reach will be a bit limited by the content. I think the ‘family friendly’ topics tend to travel further because they get wider readership. Still, this is going to be one of those posts that gets linked back to frequently.

  21. Re footnote 6. DoorDash doesn’t exist as a company here in Britain, but the same concept does – we have our home-grown equivalents in Deliveroo and JustEat. Plus the global UberEats.

    None of them have been verbified the way DoorDash has in the US, though – possibly because there is fierce competition between them?

    1. No, it’s not the competition. DoorDash is neither the first nor largest in the US of the external delivery companies. The US already had a strong food delivery culture (“order delivery” and “get delivery” both being common phrases before DoorDash got verbified). I think it’s just the smoothest to verb – “UberEated”, “Deliverooed”, “JustEated”, “GrubHubbed” just don’t work as well as “DoorDashed”. Not only does it end in a verb to start with, it’s the right *kind* of verb (one that conjugates simply).

  22. Belisarius rather famously ordered his men to treat North African civilians as if they were Roman, since it was a campaign of liberation rather than conquest, and the invasion and subsequent occupation seems to have gone rather easily as a consequence (until the garrisons didn’t get their pay on time). Events in Italy early on may have been similar, but since that war stretched out far longer and over a far larger geographic area, I suspect that discipline was far harder to enforce and contributed heavily to the depopulation of the region that made it so susceptible to future invasions by the Lombards and the Franks.

    It’s notable that several of the military writings coming out of the medieval Roman tradition specifically treat logistics as something to exploit, especially regarding the so-called Franks (here meaning anyone from Latin Europe rather than actual ethnic Franks as above) who were generally viewed as so logistically inept that they could be defeated without battle by simply butchering their foraging parties (using skirmisher tactics) and slowly withdrawing to keep them chasing but not able to catch you until their supplies run out (roughly 40 days or thereabouts).

    I’d wager that one of the things that allowed the medieval Romans to continue to maintain standing armies and to campaign regularly while relying primarily on their own logistics train was the relative population density in the eastern Mediterranean (even on the offense, there would be comparatively more marching from city to city in that region, with consequently more ability to employ the “contribution” method mentioned in the article). They also repeatedly broke down their military administrative districts into smaller blocks, most popularly explained as a measure to prevent rebellion, but I suspect also to distribute logistical burdens more effectively.

    An amusing anecdote regarding the medieval Roman army is that their logistics corps was called the Optimates (Greekified Latin, meaning something like “Best Men”). It was one of the prime military divisions, until it led a rebellion. When the rebels lost, the division was busted down from an elite combat unit to mule-handling logistics personnel, while keeping the name as a reminder of their fall from grace.

  23. Where do sutlers get their wares from? Trying to fight with pillaging soldiers over loot seems dangerous.

  24. I gather that one of the advantages of potatoes over wheat is that they can be kept in the ground longer, making them more resilient against quick storehouse raids.

    Great post, it really drives home the incredible cost of keeping an army in the field. 5% of the annual local food supply per day…

    1. I’d read exactly this at one point, though only in one book so can’t back it up with anything else, it mentioned the Spanish Road among other places as an area where potatoes served this purpose.

    2. It’s been argued for one of the reasons the Napoleonic Wars didn’t have the smae kind of destructive impact as the 30-years war: Potatoes were more common and harder to forage, so civilians were left with at least *something* to eat.

  25. In the caption under the English looting picture: “Note that they look not only food and wine but also any valuables they can find, destroying what isn’t worth taking. Image also shown in Rogers (op. cit.), 86.” It should be “Note that they loot”

  26. I am somewhat inspired to write a fantasy novel where the protagonist, inspired to revenge against the leader of the army who sacked his village, (and empowered by circumstance and plot) taking arms, finds he needs to loot multiple villages to achieve his aim.

    1. Sounds very fatalistic. Not so much “when fighting monsters, take care to avoid becoming a monster” as “don’t bother fighting monsters, you’ll just turn into a monster”. There would be ways to mitigate that, of course—whether giving the protagonist a way to avoid becoming monstrous or by focusing on how pointless and destructive the war is rather than the justice/vengeance angle—but you’d have to try to mitigate it.

      1. I mean, it is fatalistic, but only because of the hard logic of logistics. The point is being an antidote to the idea that the good guys can cleanly wage war against the evil empire.

        1. Hence why Logistics should be gotten right first. Including the building of Canals to transport.

          A lot of brutality is done by hungry soldiers who have experienced the brutality of war. Who would be in a much more instinctive animalistic state as a result.

        2. Would you be willing to give your protagonist some ahistorical knowledge?
          – Pound locks (~1000 China, ~1400 Europe), true canals (1761 Bridgewater Canal) for ~30 t/horse;
          – Wagonways (1600-1700) for ~10 t/horse;
          – McAdam roads (~1820) that are relatively cheap to build, unlike the Roman stuff;
          – For what it’s worth, the draisine (1817) has some advantages over the standard handcart.

          1. Rails weren’t practical on any large scale until it became economical to mass-produce iron, at which point we’re into the industrial revolution. Good roads helped some but more in the sense of keeping roads from turning into quagmires in wet weather. Canals were expensive and required a central state to maintain. And finally, improvements on transportation only go so far when the fundamental economic fact is that before the mechanization of farming it simply wasn’t possible to get much improvement in the arms to work/ mouths to feed ratio. Before the 19th century the two biggest improvements were probably the horse collar and the introduction of new crops from the New World.

          2. Wooden rails were in use since before 1515, enabling funiculars and wagonways.

            “improvements on transportation only go so far”

            True, but comparing inland places to places with good ocean ports, that can go fairly far in enabling markets and thus food security. Bret has talked about different equilibria even in Roman times: low (subsistence) production and trade, or high trade and higher production (because people are growing what grows best rather than trying to grow all their own food in a risk minimizing way.) The better your transportation, the more you enable that in regions beyond the port.

            As for the biggest productivity improvements, I’m not qualified to say, but stuff like better crop rotation and seed drills seem important too.

            Also, for a time traveler who somehow has a lot of time to spend, crop breeding. Part of the potato advantage is a high “harvest index” since like 80% of the biomass can be edible tuber safely underground; if a cereal plant tries that, it falls over. Still, dwarf varieties of grains can move you from like 25% edible biomass to 50% edible. Imagine doubling your food supply for the same land and labor (modulo possibly needing more fertilizer to go into those grain seeds.)

          3. Canals are expensive per length, yes, but mostly unlike roads and railways, usually surprisingly little length has to be built. There is already a “network” of individually navigable river-sections, they only need to be joined up. Turning an inconveniently non-navigable (or only seasonally navigable) stretch of river navigable with a few weirs and locks, turning what might already be known as a portage into a canal, or making a lengthy portage much cheaper with a good road (or rails) can massively increase the size of the connected supply network. Now you can run a supply line that doesn’t eat the food it carries through friendly territory (and into enemy territory, as long as you follow a naturally navigable river), and draw the supplies into it from not just a small part of your polity but the entirety of it.

            Improvements in the efficiency of transportation (analogous to specific impulse a.k.a. effective exhaust velocity) do go quite far when the topic under discussion is how to deal with the tyranny of “the wagon equation”. But, sure, let’s talk productivity, because many improvements are surprisingly back-portable. In agriculture, again waterworks (both irrigation and drainage; the latter also opening up lands that previously weren’t arable — the Romans were sometimes draining marshes), better plows (that can be drawn by fewer horses/oxen; for that matter, the carruca they displaced was invented late into the Roman Empire), better crop rotation (notably replacing fallowing with clover, fixing more nitrogen — and separately, blunting the labor demand peak by having crops that are harvested at different times), and selective breeding.

            There’s also a huge what-if around biological pest management. Many practices could be introduced by a time traveler to medieval peasants despite IRL being only discovered/invented as a result of scientific study, at a point in time when industrial chemistry was already flattening stuff with pesticides. A number of things, e.g. terra preta, could also be added to intensive agriculture in particular.

            In the mechanization of agriculture, the obligatory point is that the Romans had a horse-powered reaper. Threshing machines however only appeared in the late 1700s.

            Or perhaps generalize to agriculture from other industries. In Europe, the spinning wheel only arrived in the 13th c. and its straightforward derivative with multiple spindles, the spinning jenny, was invented in 1764-5. Watermills (3rd c. BC, Hellenistic world), windmills (9th c. Persia, vertical axis; 12th c. Europe, horizontal axis). For linear motion, fore-and-aft sails (1st c. AD), multiple-segment masts (15th c.), traction kites (19th c., basically preempted by steam power). And for that matter, several improvements in metallurgy could be brought significantly forward: even on the low-carbon pathway, the Romans had the trompe and could have blown their bloomeries (5th c. BC China, 12-13th c. Europe), or could have made crucible steel (approximate process ~1st c. India, actual process 1740). Despite the expense of charcoal, everyone completely missed air preheating (1828, regenerative form 1857), even the Chinese, who used the high-carbon pathway. Speaking of which, Europe used the finery for centuries before puddling (1780).

        3. I mean, yes, that’s the raw logistics. But if you say “X is harmful,” you’re implicitly going to say something about what should be done instead, whether you intend to or not. (If you talk enough, you’re going to say something.)

          There’s an important difference between, say, “War is destructive, even if righteous, so don’t start wars” and “Fighting back against oppression is destructive, so don’t fight back”.

          1. …I genuinely don’t know how to react to that. Do you not see any difference between a story about the horrors of war and one about how people should just accept their oppression? That’s like someone not seeing any difference between an apple and an orange. Like, yeah, they have some things in common, but come on!

    2. Something something … die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. 😛

      Revenge often goes awry like that.

    3. The “Strongbow” series kind of get’s into this. It’s a historical fiction series about a boy who’s mother was a Viking chief’s sex slave, and who works his way into Viking society. He ends up on a quest of revenge against his half-brother, and part of that quest is taking part in the historical campaign against Paris. His first priority is getting allies and experience for his quest, but he recognizes the problem with pillaging people who he has no quarrel with, and tries to be nicer than the average raiding murderhobo.

    4. You don’t necessarily need an army to kill one man, even a King. Consider this incident from the wikipedia page of King Richard I:

      “On 26 March 1199, Richard was hit in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt, and the wound turned gangrenous. Richard asked to have the crossbowman brought before him; called alternatively Pierre (or Peter) Basile, John Sabroz, Dudo, and Bertrand de Gourdon (from the town of Gourdon) by chroniclers, the man turned out (according to some sources, but not all) to be a boy. He said Richard had killed his father and two brothers, and that he had killed Richard in revenge. He expected to be executed, but as a final act of mercy Richard forgave him, saying “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day”, before he ordered the boy to be freed and sent away with 100 shillings.”

        1. According to one chronicle. In any event, he wanted to kill Richard I as an act of vengeance, and did so. Without having to form an army. Therefore, it was possible to take vengeance against a king without forming an army or looting an villages.

  27. “The way this worked was To avoid having their reinforcements pillage their way across their own lands or alienate key friends on the way to the Eighty Years War, the….

    I’m assuming “the way this worked was” was meant to be edited out?

    Also, this is a fantastic article. I knew that pillaging and horrible violence was common, and was aware of crusaders sacking cities and such, but I hadn’t really internalized that this was the norm, not an exception.

  28. Random thought: Strategy/Management game about being a small village’s ruling aristocrat or old-yeoman-everyone-respects at the brink of war. At first you’re just campaigning against General Hunger, but eventually you have to defend your village against “friendly” soldiers, and then actively hostile armies once your king starts losing the war.

    The Romans neatly divided these into four categories: food, fodder, firewood and water

    There’s got to be a way we can turn this into the four F’s of foraging. Floods? Flushing? Fwater? (You know, to go with your fsteak.)

    [P]easants can potentially flee with or hide harvested grains, but they cannot hide their fields.

    Roman soldiers were too canny to be deceived by throwing a tarp over the field and saying it’s a baseball diamond.

        1. Another option would be “freshwater,” as opposed to non-potable salt- or waste-water. “Firewood” establishes precedent that compound words are acceptable.

    1. “The Seven Samurai” aside (when the village was defending itself against bandits, not a professional army), resistance would usually be suicidal because as Bret pointed out the foragers almost always outnumbered the population of a typical village.

        1. The alternative is hiding yourself and as much of your goods as you can. And probably moving to the local population center for whatever wages you can manage. Which is probably awful, and probably means you get exploited in every way possible. But that’s how it goes.

          1. They go out of their way to make it hard for you to hide.

            And there may be no population center for you to travel to.

          2. Just because there are no options doesn’t make fighting back non-suicidal. If 300 armed men swoop down on a village that might have 80 men with the rest women, children and elders, the outcome is foregone.

          3. Yes, but it may be the least painful death, and at least you take some of them with you.

          4. the problem are not the 300 men, but the thousand maybe supported by artillery
            300 men are not enough if the village is fortified and the women will also fight

          5. “300 men are not enough if the village is fortified”

            But AIUI your lord might not allow you to fortify the village, as that would allow you to resist *his* taxation, too…

        2. Yes. You might survive torture, and starvation takes a long time to kill you, so there’s more chances of finding a solution. The men with guns are here right *now* and will kill you *right now*.

          People did sometimes resist (though usually by ambushing smaller groups of soldiers) but there is a reason most didn’t.

          1. There’s a long history of pirates who never tortured prisoners who surrendered, even when they suspected they were hiding valuables, because otherwise the threat of no quarter would not keep ships from fighting. Torture has a long history of making people fight.

      1. “Defend” does not always equal “resist”. Hiding and fleeing are forms of defense.

        I’ll grant I didn’t make that point clear in the original comment.

    2. Leave a tape for them to loot with the Jurassic park (lost world?) velociraptor’s in the grass scene.

  29. Thank you for writing about this topic.
    I wanted to know more about it for a long time, and as you point out, it is quite important.

  30. On the fantasy front, all this logistical pain suggests justification for ‘parties’ in games like D&D. If you have people who are, through magic or superhuman prowess, worth 10 or 100 people, then it makes sense to lean on them heavily.

    Also, I don’t think Tolkien was particularly good on this front. You have occasional nods to logistics, like the slave farms of Nurn in south Mordor, or Theoden asking Denethor’s messenger if there would be supplies in Minas Tirith for them if they ride light and fast, and rest stops and lembas for the Fellowship, but also a lot of armies marching around in places where there’s no one to get supplies from, whether by pillage or purchase. The War of Dwarves and Orcs comes to mind. Or the War or Sauron and Elves, though I suppose there were more people around in the Second Age. Or King Elessar’s later wars with the east and south — even as a kid I wondered how his armies got that far east; I don’t think there’s anyone living between Mordor and Mirkwood in Frodo’s time.

    Not that elf/dwarf/orc food supplies got much attention in general.

    1. (And of course it’s hard to imagine any of the ‘good’ armies systematically pillaging and raping across Beleriand or the rest of Middle-earth)

      1. For the Lord of the Rings, I actually don’t think they would. As far as I can remember, the armies of Gondor and Rohan are mostly moving through their own territory, and looking at Appendix B none of their armies’ marches seem to be longer than a couple of days. The exception is the march to the Morannon, but even that is only 5 days out from Gondor.

        For the Silmarillion I’m not sure, but, well, this is the book that includes the Kinslayings.

        1. Part of the article is about how destructive the armies still could be in friendly territory, so that’s not necessarily a reprieve.

    2. My feeling from the books was that Middle Earth was actually fairly small– Maybe I’m misremembering, but I think the Battle of Five Armies happened within the two weeks of provisions soldiers could carry from home?

      1. Well two of the armies were already “there”: the men of Lake Town and the Mirkwood elves. The dwarves had made a concerted logistical effort to get a fighting force with supplies there. And the orc and wargs had been planning an invasion eastward already and this just accelerated their timetable; plus I could see an orc and warg army deploying “commissars” to reassign stragglers to “kitchen” duty. 😉

      2. The part of Middle-earth we see unlike Prydain; the Fellowship covers like 1350 miles, by one estimate, Hobbiton to Mount Doom. Unlike later fantasy authors, the LotR map has a scale. I’m not sure we know exactly how long Thorin’s party spent crossing Mirkwood, but it was several days, enough to use up all their provisions (though they were carrying water too!)

        I suppose goblins going from the Misty Mountains to Erebor isn’t impossible, but probably pushing the envelope. Might help if they had resources in the Grey Mountains they could come down from. OTOH, there’s getting *back*. And no forage.

        Dain’s 500 dwarves marching from the Iron Hills doesn’t seem like a big deal, that was pretty close.

          1. also worth noting that when you look at the maps, given that the Goblins are described approaching from the North [1], the only route the Goblins from the misty mountain’s could have followed was to gather at their capital of Gundabad, then follow the grey mountains east before making a sprint south to the mountain. [2]
            since the goblins are said to have riddled the mountain ranges with their underground settlements (and their capital was a captured major dwarf city [3]) odds are they wouldn’t have had much issues foraging from friendly goblin communities during the march, and would only have had to worry about carrying large numbers of supplies during their sprint south.

            [1] from Chapter 17 “The Clouds Burst” of the Hobbit: Still more suddenly a darkness came on with dreadful swiftness! A black cloud hurried over the sky. Winter thunder on a wild wind rolled roaring up and rumbled in the Mountain, and lightning lit its peak. And beneath the thunder another blackness could be seen whirling forward; but it did not come with the wind, it came from the North, like a vast cloud of birds, so dense that no light could be seen between their wings.

            “Halt!” cried Gandalf, who appeared suddenly, and stood alone, with arms uplifted, between the advancing dwarves and the ranks awaiting them. “Halt!” he called in a voice like thunder, and his staff blazed forth with a flash like the lightning. “Dread has come upon you all! Alas! it has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you! Bolg* of the North is coming. O Dain! whose father you slew in Moria. Behold! the bats are above his army like a sea of locusts. They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!”



    3. It’s also worth a mention that some of that magic or superhuman prowess would be able to help with logistics themselves directly, things like teleportation, creating food or shelter, or things like bag of holding would help a great deal, and someone so tough they could withstand harsh environments would have more mobility in terms of where they could go. This would also be more noteworthy if magic/superhuman ability is rare or if the magic the party has is far more potent then others in the world

    4. Tolkien’s elves would seem to have most logistics problems solved- they can run all day without getting unmanageably tired, and lembas is an impossibly nutritious superfood that keeps for a very long time. A human army can only carry maybe 1-3 weeks’ worth of food with it, but an elven army could probably carry enough food for well over a month, and in that time they could cover thousands of miles.

  31. It speaks to some of the biases of this blog that the go-to examples of modern day war crimes are committed by Russia against Ukraine, when also exists those war crimes committed explicitly by the US military against the countries it has occupied outright (Afghanistan, Iraq), as well as the low level churn of endemic criminality conducted by military personnel around the bases in which they reside, both stateside and in allied nations hosting bases.

    1. There’s a big difference between crimes and war crimes that happen *despite* law and policy, vs. being actively encouraged by policy.

    2. The war in Ukraine is happening right now, rattling the entire world, and constantly producing ever-more-shocking atrocity stories. It would be bizarre if it wasn’t the chief source of modern examples here.

    3. when also exists those war crimes committed explicitly by the US military against the countries it has occupied outright

      cool. Could you give me at least one example in Iraq or Afghanistan of looting, pillaging or foraging committed by a US-aligned military force borne out of logistical failure to properly supply their troops with money, food or other essentials?

  32. > Rogers (op. cit.) is, I think, unusually sanguine in assuming these repeated regulations meant the knights and soldiers were often restrained; in an early modern or Roman context we tend to view the same sort of repeated promulgation of the same laws to mean that abuses were common despite repeated efforts by the central government to stamp them out.

    We have a funhouse mirror image of this even after the -I-n-d-u-s-t-r-i-a-l- Organizational Revolution. Whenever a sufficiently egregious event happens, we do not issue a proclamation whose effects fade over time, but often enough establish a formal procedure (or entire organizational structure) — the effects (including costs and side effects) of which is often static or even tends naturally toward increasing over time. If, simply given the sheer size of modern societies, some class of exceptionally undesirable events happens multiple times, sometimes this results in comically terrible pileups. Perhaps the two best-known examples of this are the “security” procedures before boarding airliners and the active shooter drills in schools.

  33. Man, the Roman military really was something, huh.

    Also, I think you repeated yourself about the Third Amendment. Not that it wasn’t relevant both times, but it seemed like the same beats were being hit twice.

  34. I had to read all the comments to make sure nobody else had mentioned the absolute last word on the 3rd amendment:

    Great article, as always. I’m not sure how well regarded it is by proper historians but the alt-history book 1632 by Eric Flint included quite a bit about the horrible treatment of civilians by early modern armies. Though I’d taken several history classes in college (would have had a minor in it if my college had those at the time) reading it was the first time I really thought about that side of warfare.

  35. Do we have evidence as to how (un)restrained British army behavior was during billeting in America?

    1. Given that the third amendment could only restrict billeting by the American army, I’m inclined to wonder how restrained American army behaviour was during billeting.

      Especially in areas that voted for the Presidents opponent.

      1. The Third Amendment is as old as the presidential election and the Articles of Confederation didn’t support a standing army. It was informed by the behavior of British troops as called out in the Declaration of Independance:

        For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

        For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

        1. I doubt burning enemy towns would have bothered anyone, though. So the people who wrote the Third Amendment cannot have been thinking about that.

          Or was Sherman’s March to the Sea considered unconstitutional?

          1. When the Confederacy declared secession they removed themselves from the authority and protection of the constitution,

            During the march, officially only militarily useful property was suppose to be confiscated or destroyed although nobody really cared if soldiers took other valuables like silver spoons or jewelry.

            I understand that while fences and such were torn down for firewood most structures were not destroyed unless the soldiers were angry because they ran into resistance or they saw evidence such as a bloody whipping post that the owner was an especially cruel slave owner.

    2. Aside from the troops’ behavior, quartering was viewed with disdain on general principles: in essence, the population was being told they had to support the very occupation troops that were there to oppress them.

  36. Why do armies burn down farms, slaughter entire villages, etc? Is it just plain cruelty or is there a practical reason for it? It seems to me they should just take whatever they need but actually destroying the entire village is unnecessary

    1. I suspect that a lot of the time they didn’t. Not only would it normally be unnecessary, as you point out, but foraging parties would need to keep up with the main body of troops, which wouldn’t leave much time for razing whole villages to the ground. Plus, it seems that areas tended to rebound pretty quickly unless fought over repeatedly or for long periods of time, which would make more sense on the supposition that the physical infrastructure was still largely intact; and there are references in contemporary sources to armies devastating regions more thoroughly than usual for whatever reason, which implies that most armies didn’t devastate places as thoroughly as possible (though of course, the ordinary level of devastation could still be pretty bad).

      1. Yes – but much ancient and early modern warfare was conducted by people who had been socialised over years into routine violence (the ‘scorchers’ and ‘flayers’ of the later Hundred Years War, or the veterans of the Eighty Years War or the Thirty Years War), or came from areas where violence was routine. So they were brutal as a way of life – including a great deal of entirely pointless violence. Then there was devastating an area to deny it to an enemy – eg Turenne rendering the Palatinate a wasteland. This included denying shelter – so burning homes. The retreating Germans in the Soviet Union did the same – burn villages, drive off livestock, blow up whatever they could.

        1. I’m not saying people couldn’t be brutal, I’m saying they weren’t generally *pointlessly* brutal. I think that there are a lot more people who’d kill someone or burn down a house because it was the easiest way of achieving some goal than who’d do so just because.

          1. Brutality becomes a way of life – something you do for recreation or because you’re bored or in retaliation for some trivial slight. Why did retreating Germans burn houses, blow up the library and hang a few children from the trees before leaving in 43/44? Because they resented losing, had taken Nazi values on board and thought themselves true warriors – ‘hard men’.

      2. Burning it down, it turns out, is pretty quick, and you can do a lot of it while you’re also looting the valuables. But the short answer is, you’re on enemy territory, and doing them damage benefits your side.

        1. That depends — if you want to conquer the land yourself, or expect to fight in the same area in future years, you generally want the peasants to stick around, which they won’t if your army is too destructive.

    2. At least if you’re reasonably close to an enemy army it was usually simply to prevent enemy foragers from grabbing anything you’ve missed.

      1. Sherman’s tropps were under orders to destroy every mill, barn and cotton-gin they encountered. And they advanced on a very broad front, in four columns.

        1. And every courthouse. Geneaologists who had ancestors living in Georgia and South Carolina before the Civil War curse Sherman’s name on a regular basis.

          1. Hey, their situation could be worse.

            They could have ancestors who were enslaved, and then good luck trying to trace their whereabouts and genealogy through the antebellum South.

    3. I don’t think the idea is that they exhaustively scorched earth the entire place, but it’s to secure the village and stop the inhabitants from running off with the food or otherwise causing trouble. It sounds to me that the outriders would sabre whoever they could see, and light some of the thatched roofs on fire, perhaps to smoke out any more hiding villagers or to signal the follow-on foragers.

    4. Ancient armies aren’t large enough to occupy the entire countryside they’re marching through, and want to inflict costs on the enemy’s political leadership (i.e. landlords and tax collectors). Therefore; burn what crops in the field you cannot eat, slaughter whatever cattle you cannot take with you, destroy storehouses, homes, mills, depopulate settlements etc. The consequence is that the enemy will remember the costs incurred and is more likely to give your political leadership what they want in the future to avoid further war.

      You can see some modern practice of agricultural devastation in, say, Colombia’s fight against insurgents; burning cocaine fields and so on to reduce the amount of money FARC has to spend on fighting the government.

    5. You take what you need and you leave the rest
      But they should never have taken the very best

      ~ The Band, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

  37. On the subject of George RR Martin, because you link to your reviews of Game of Thrones stuff a lot:

    One piece of research I’m fairly sure he *did* do was going over some Callot. Large chunks of A Song of Ice and Fire are depictions of foraging armies, from the perspectives of the peasantry (Arya-on-the-run), aristocratic officers (Jaime, Robb), or soldiers (Sandor, to a certain extent). Especially, he goes out of his way to point out that this is inherent to the structure of agrarian war – when Arya gets to Stark-controlled territory, she (as a noble-born partisan) is shocked to find the Wolves are plundering and raping and abducting just as much as the Lions.

    I agree with you that this is very much more early modern than the medieval setting Martin claims to draw inspiration from, but it’s a very well-wrought and haunting depiction, and it suffered particularly poorly in adaptation.

  38. A question about captives: in classical antiquity captives were loot on foot due to their value as slaves; but what about medieval and early modern eras? Supposedly medieval Europe didn’t retain the custom of chattel slavery, although the very persistence of references to slaves would seem to contradict that? Nobles were usually ransomable; woman no doubt often got sold into prostitution; prisoners of war got used as galley slaves; and anywhere on the Mediterranean there were slave markets in Muslim areas. But more generally where was there a market for a random peasant nobody?

    1. But more generally where was there a market for a random peasant nobody?

      Not really; generally, peasant nobodies would either be killed outright, or else left to survive as best they could after the foraging party had taken all their food stores.

    2. “Medieval europe” in this case is a complicated because it simply was very different depending on where you were, and what kind of slave-system you were in contact with. But it should be noted that a lot of the demand for slaves was simply for people to do all the boring or unpleasant unskilled work that you otherwise either had to do yourself ro pay someone to do: Peasant nobodies were quite sufficient for digging ditches, making fence-posts, watching sheep, and so forth.

      Underlying this is a distinction (though it could get complicated) between *slaves as luxury goods* and *slaves as economic investment*; IE: Are slaves there to produce something that you can then sell on to make a profit, or are they there to make your life easier by doing things you don’t want to do? IE: Are they something you expect to earn money from or something you spend money *on* to make your life easier?

    3. Slave-taking was not a thing, as there were no markets outside a very few areas (parts of Italy and the Balkans). Women and some others could be dragged along to provide the usual services; prisoners were exchanged and often the ordinary inhabitants were held against contributions or ransomed back to local authorities.

      1. Depends how you define “Medieval Europe”. IIRC, about 10% of the English population in 1086 were slaves, so obviously there was a market then. But not a century or two later.

        1. I assume you mean 1066? IIRC, the Anglo-Saxons had slavery, which the Normans abolished. Though I think that Anglo-Saxon slavery was mostly a kind of debt slavery or way to avoid starvation (as in, if you don’t have enough food to stay alive, you could become your lord’s slave in return for him feeding you), rather than chattel slavery.

          1. 1086 is the date of the Domesday Book. And I don’t know that there is any record of slavery being abolished in England at that time. Certainly, no one dug up such a precedent in the days before Somerset_v_Stewart.

            On the face of it, if slavery had been banned in English Law before 1600, American history would have been quite different in some important ways.

          2. There certainly are records:

            But the moral scruples were there, especially at the highest level. In 1070 William the Conqueror deposed the elderly pre-Conquest Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, and replaced him with Lanfranc, one of the leading lights of the reform movement and William’s own moral tutor since boyhood. The new archbishop was soon urging his pupil to abolish the slave trade and the Conqueror complied. It was at Lanfranc’s insistence, explains William of Malmesbury, that the king ‘frustrated the schemes of those scumbags who had an established practice of selling their slaves into Ireland’. Malmesbury noted that William was somewhat reluctant, since he enjoyed a share of the profits, but the record of the king’s own legislation shows that a ban was indeed put in place and that William had found a way of squaring the matter with his conscience. ‘I prohibit the sale of any man by another outside of the country,’ says the ninth law of William the Conqueror, ‘on pain of a fine to be paid in full to me.’ William’s personal attitude towards slavery can also be surmised from his only recorded visit to Wales, glibly reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1081: ‘The king led levies into Wales, and there freed many hundreds of people.’…

            Yet in their attitudes towards slavery the Normans appear to have improved the lives of the most wretched people in Anglo-Saxon society: the sizeable percentage of the population, largely ignored by historians in the past, who have preferred to dwell on the free majority and their supposed virtues. The effect of the Conquest on slavery was not immediate and the Conqueror’s ban was clearly not wholly effective. As late as 1102 a Church council condemned ‘that shameful trade by which in England people used to be sold like animals’. But this was, significantly, the last ecclesiastical council to issue such a prohibition. By the time William of Malmesbury was writing in the 1120s slavery was gone and at least some of his contemporaries were willing to give credit where it was due. ‘After England began to have Norman lords’, wrote the monk Lawrence of Durham, ‘the English no longer suffered from outsiders that which they had suffered at their own hands. In this respect they found that foreigners treated them better than they had treated themselves.’”


  39. I am really enjoying these articles on supplies and logistics, demonstrating the nuts and bolts of keeping an army supplied, and also reminding us of just how brutal the process was (despite the euphemisms that might be used by some historians).

    “What about gunpowder itself? Armies generally carried their powder with them. Maybe at some point we’ll talk about the black powder and how its made, but producing good powder on the march would be a challenge and doesn’t seem to have usually been a driving concern in any event, as far as I can tell.”

    I’ve done a little study into early gunpowder armies and I don’t remember much discussion of making gunpowder on the march. The only example I can think of off the top of my head is a painting of Maximilian I’s siege train which shows a wheeled powder mill (seemingly being worked while it is in motion). (The only link I can find at the moment is to pinterest :-/)

    I know that simple dry compounded gunpowder (i.e. not corned/grained) will separate when transported over large distances, and might need to be remixed. But that picture appears to show a powder mill of some sort, not a mixing barrel.

    Also, somewhere (can’t find the source), I read about a general ordering his troops to requisition all of the bed ropes in the area to make matchcord for their matchlock firearms. But even that presupposes a ready source of saltpeter (a key component in gunpowder) to treat the cords. My understanding is that matchcord can be made out of almost any kind of natural cording, although some kinds are better than others.

    1. From my understanding armies had *some* capacity to do a lot of stuff on the march, including some steps of the gunpowder refining process, quite a bit of smithing and such, etc. etc. (that’s part of what all of those camp followers were doing) but not enough to actually supply the entire army, but more as supplemental thing to what could be stolen or transported.

      1. Yeah, things like field forges, etc. Possibly they collected the raw materials for gunpowder, and produced some amount of the finished product on the march. Although this picture is of the siege train, where they may need to be in a single position for a while (using lots of gunpowder) — it may have been easier to transport those raw materials to the siege, and process them there. But I’m just speculating, I haven’t read anything to that effect.

        I do know that the amount of gunpowder used in sieges was greatly increasing at the time. According to Michael Mallett (in “Mercenaries and their Masters”), a little over 12 tons of powder were used during the 2-3 month siege of Rimini in 1469. But by 1513 Henry VIII’s army was using 32 tons of powder a day(!) in siege operations in northern France. They must have had some system in place to supply all that powder, and maybe, as you said, the ability to make powder on the spot could be a useful supplement if the usual supply channels broke down or became inadequate.

        I just thought of something else: Corned gunpowder was made by lightly wetting the powder, pressing it into cakes, drying it, and then grinding it to the fineness needed. Possibly they transported the gunpowder in the large cakes (in fact I think I read this may have been the original intention, to make it easier to transport without it separating), and the powder mill we see is to grind the powder into the desired grain size?

  40. > Also, even people of the “shout your abortion” tendency tend to freak out in the face of descriptions or images of what abortion actually entails. If you take Augustine on a tour of an abortion clinic, I guarantee you he would not approve of what he sees.

    Could say the same of modern meat eaters and factory farms.

    1. Not to anything like the same degree. Compare the number of places where showing a picture of even a healthy, living foetus outside an abortion clinic will get you arrested vs. the number of places where showing a picture of an animal outside a butcher or supermarket will.

      1. If the average supermarket were picketed as aggressively and its average client were as likely to be harassed as is the case at abortion clinics in many states, then it is fairly likely that local and state governments would pass laws restricting supermarket protests for the sake of maintaining public order.

        1. “Many states” didn’t care when angry mobs caused billions of dollars’ worth of property damage a couple of years ago, so let’s not pretend they pass or don’t pass laws based on a disinterested wish to maintain public order.

  41. Quite interesting! We now know that for the near mediterranean, 20k is a normal army, 40k is large, and 80k is pushing it. You mention that rice makes for different numbers- who could we ask about how different, first of all?

    Second, do you feel like updating the Resources for World Builders section? You’ve accreted quite a bit of material already!

  42. I note that our host has discussed how peasant populations can rebound swiftly from something so devastating as an earthquake, because the fewer mouths mean more survival. But the effects of foraging can last for centuries.

    1. Sort of, the thing you have to remember is that population growth is very slow even in normal cases. (usually just about breaking even when things go well) now, wars tends to have a slightly different demographic pattern than earthquakes or bad harvests (basically, they tend to kill the breeding couples to a greater extent) but a lot of it is simply that while population will rebound to *some extent* within a generation, it then goes extremely slowly to make up for any shortfall. (I should also note the caveat that “population decline due to war” does not mean everyone involved is *dead*: refugees are not a new phenomenon)

      (the 1600’s and the 30-years war is also especially complicated since we see *both* a major destructive war and the effects of the “Little Ice Age” hitting at the same time, so population growth is already depressed)

      1. (the 1600’s and the 30-years war is also especially complicated since we see *both* a major destructive war and the effects of the “Little Ice Age” hitting at the same time, so population growth is already depressed)

        Also, the Thirty Years’ War lasted for, well, thirty years, and much of the fighting happened in the same regions in central Germany. If you had an area which suffered a major earthquake every year for thirty years, I imagine it would end up pretty depopulated too.

        1. It’s a bit more complicated than that, while certain areas were especially heavy hit, some areas saw very little fighting and actually increased in population (IIRC mostly the northwest) and some areas had intensive fighting, then long periods (in some cases decades!) of relative safety only for the war to come rolling back again.

      2. Meanwhile as our host observed, conquering other regions was the best way to prosperity and protection WITH all these destructive effects

  43. Abortion itself has been forbidden in Christianity since the first century AD.

    Oh dear, no. I expect that’s a common claim for the consumption of people who like to call themselves Christian but don’t want to do the heavy lifting of actually reading history, but it really isn’t a thing.

    If you care to ask Google you can find out about how the American anti-abortion movement was manufactured in the last few decades.

    1. Oh dear, no. I expect that’s a common claim for the consumption of people who like to call themselves Christian but don’t want to do the heavy lifting of actually reading history, but it really isn’t a thing.

      Did you miss the bit where I quoted from a primary source written c. AD 100 explicitly fobidding abortion? Here it is again, in case you missed it the first time:

      “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not corrupt boys; thou shalt not commit fornication. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not use witchcraft; thou shalt not practice sorcery. Thou shalt not procure abortion, nor shalt thou kill the new-born child. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” (Didache, chap. 2.2.)

      1. And it was a continual theme in Christian apoletics that pagans had a lot of nerve, accusing them of sacrificing babies when they taught abortion was wrong and did not practice it.

      2. And what did “Abortion” mean in that context? Something very different compared to today: no safe surgery, no hygiene.

        Christian Bible has Sotah, the ritual of Bitter waters, too. Funny how modern fundamentalists never mention how God describes a recipe to cause an abortion as punishment for women who had sex with a man not their husband.

        1. No, it caused prolapsed uterus.

          Immediately switching goalposts doesn’t help your cause, either.

        2. In that era, the possibility of you dying as a result of doing something was considered part of the cost of doing business. They weren’t against abortion because it was medically dangerous to the mother.

          Also, your second paragraph is the equivalent of someone saying 1000 years from now that obviously our society didn’t believe that kidnapping was a crime because people who broke the law were taken away from their lives by force and confined.

      3. It’s weird how people just ignored your comment, although it’s weirder that they were unaware of the point in general (if you want to know what early Christians thought about abortion, it’s pretty easy to look it up for yourself).

        In addition to the Didache of course there are documents like the Letter of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter and others which all point to the fact that early Christians considered abortion to be homicide. Clement of Alexandria mentioned in passing that CHristians more or less universally believed that ensoulment happened at conception, and Basil of Caesarea went to the extent of saying explicitly that it made no difference whether the fetus was formed or unformed. If you’re looking for Ecumenical Councils, the Council of Trullo said in one of its canons (in 692) that abortion was homicide as well.

        I don’t know where there. Aquinas hedged about abortion in the 13th century, and some people like to make much hay out of that, but of course he has nothing to do with “early Christianity”: Thomas Aquinas was closer to us in time than he is to the Council of Nicaea.

        1. Wrt Aquinas, I’m given to understand that he (and others who held similar views) was following the Aristotelian view that the foetus first becomes alive at the point of quickening. But however plausible that might have been in ancient Greece or medieval Europe, it’s not really very plausible now that we know so much more about foetal development.

  44. Since your footnote mentioned rice, is there any chance your future posts would cover the logistics of pre-modern Asian armies?

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