Cover image of "War and Conflict in the Middle Ages,"

Most Western historians view the years between about 500 CE and 1500 CE as the Middle Ages, and they typically divide the period into three sections of 500 years each. The bookmarks for the period are the collapse of the Roman Empire and the “discovery” of the Americas. But this is a decidedly Eurocentric view. Taking events into account in Asia and Africa as well as Europe, an arbitrarily neat periodization doesn’t fit. And adopting that global view is what medieval historian Stephen Morillo set out to do in War and Conflict in the Middle Ages.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The effort, which proved more challenging than he’d anticipated, led him to a different approach. Instead of marking the beginning and end of the period with historic events, he turned to climate change and the spread of pandemic disease as his guideposts. The result is unfamiliar for Western readers but refreshing in the way it draws our attention to a wider canvas and gives us a deeper sense of the universality of human experience.

Three broad eras dominate world history

Viewed from the broadest perspective, as innumerable other historians before him have done, Morillo sees the history of the world as spanning three long periods characterized by shifts in the dominant means of production. The hunter-gatherer era, which drew to a close around the year 9,600 BCE with the advent of the cold snap known as the Younger Dryas. The Age of Agriculture, covering the years around 9,600 BCE to 1800 CE. And the Industrial Revolution that got underway in earnest in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But this periodization is unsatisfactory for any historian who seeks to study a time measured in hundreds rather than thousands of years. This led Morillo to revise the conventional view of the medieval era based on global rather than European circumstances. And it’s this approach he used as the framework to examine war in the Middle Ages.

War and Conflict in the Middle Ages by Stephen Morillo (2022) 280 pages ★★★★☆

Painting of Mongol warriors on the march, a familiar sight in war in the Middle Ages
When you think of war in the Middle Ages, images of knights in armor come most readily to mind. But Mongol warriors like these raged across the Eurasian landmass for hundreds of years during much of that period. And they were the greatest warriors of the era. Image: YouTube

A fresh definition of the Middle Ages

Morillo sets the beginning of the Middle Ages as the year 540 CE. “The great empires of the classical era [had] flourished in a climate age known as ‘the Roman Warm Period’ . . . Then in the mid-500s, the good times suddenly came to an end, as a series of major volcanic eruptions triggered what is usually referred to as ‘the Late Antique Little Ice Age‘ (LALIA), which lasted c. 540-660″ CE. And this sharp shift in climate corresponded with (and conceivably caused) “the widespread outbreak of epidemic diseases.” In the Mediterranean, the emergence of what we today call the bubonic plague was known as the Plague of Justinian (541-3 and later).

Then, Morillo observes, “between c. 800 and 1300, the ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly‘ saw warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, rising populations, and the expansion of many of the major societies of the Afro-Eurasian world.” But of course nothing lasts, and change came again. “The cold, wet summers of 1315-16 . . . led to widespread famine, but the cool period extended for several centuries into the early nineteenth century, encompassing a period known as the Little Ice Age (during which, famously, the River Thames regularly froze over in winter).”

Dividing the era into three periods

Thus, Morillo divides the medieval era into three periods that differ somewhat from what others usually posit: early (540-850), high (850-1300), and late (1300-1500 “or 1800”). He leaves to the reader’s judgment to decide the date when the Middle Ages came to an end.

As the book’s title suggests, Morello’s subject is broader than just war in the Middle Ages—because war, as we view it today, typically involves intense fighting between large, professional forces (at least on one side, if the other is a guerrilla or terrorist force). And in the medieval era fighting that changed the course of (local) history frequently involved disputes between “major elite families” on the scope of the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. Morillo notes, “although the scale of major wars could have significant historical impacts, the sheer volume of sub- and non-state armed conflict shaped the course of history constantly.”

The world’s history through the prism of war in the Middle Ages

The author views war and conflict broadly as “a crucial part of a process of cultural construction and reconstruction across the medieval world.” And in context this vague, abstract claim becomes clear. He leads the book with accounts of three battles, one in each of the three periods of the era and in a different part of the world.

The Middle East in the seventh century

The Battle of al-Qadasiyyah in 638 in what is today Iraq cemented the victory of Islam over the much larger and better-equipped Persian army of the Sassanid Empire. This victory opened the way to the domination of Islam over the Middle East—and far beyond—for centuries to come.

China in the thirteenth century

A similar major historic shift took place with the siege and Battle of Xiangyang in today’s China in the years 1268-73. Then, the fearsome steppe warriors of Kubilai Khan, supported by Mongol naval forces, Chinese and Persian engineers, and a polyglot Central Asian army, seized a key city on the Yangtze River from the long-ruling Southern Song dynasty. The Mongols thus gained control over the whole of the old Chinese Empire against “a military establishment of over a million men, supported by the world’s richest, most advanced economy.” And the Mongols ruled China for a century to come.

Western Europe in the fifteenth century

The Battle of Morat in 1476 pitted Europe’s largest and most advanced military force—the army of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy—against the much smaller army of the Swiss Confederation. But the Swiss won. And their victory was decisive, ensuring the independence of the Protestant city-states of Switzerland and putting an end to Charles’ ambition to reestablish an empire on the scale of Charlemagne’s nearly 700 years earlier.

In every one of these three major battles, the contending forces represented different faiths, cultural traditions, and political systems. The outcome in each case helped shape the character of the world to come.

A final note

War and Conflict in the Middle Ages is not popular history. Morillo is a serious historian who delves deeply into the causes and consequences of events, and that approach is clear on every page of this book. Much of the text is not history as familiar to general readers but historiography, which deals with the theory and history of historical writing. The result is a book that is dense and often a challenge to read. So if you’re looking for a breezy account of war in the medieval era, this isn’t it. However, you’re likely to find it rewarding if you have special interest in the Middle Ages, in military history, or, for that matter, how historians work.

About the author

Photo of Stephen Morillo, author of this book about war in the Middle Ages
Stephen Morillo. Image: Silverthorn Farm

As his bio on the Wabash College website reveals, “Stephen Morillo, long-time Chair of the Wabash History Department and now Chair of Division III, the Social Sciences Division, specializes in world history, medieval history, and military history, combining the three in various ways in his teaching and research. He is the author of a number of books and articles on these topics, and has made appearances on both the History Channel and on Spike TV.”

Morillo was a Magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College and a Rhodes Scholar to the University of Oxford. He earned his PhD in history from Jesus College, Oxford, in 1985.

For related reading

I’ve read quite a number of books about the medieval world. You’ll find many of them reviewed at Good books about the Middle Ages.

And take a look at Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott (This book will challenge everything you know about ancient history). Morillo refers to Scott’s hypothesis in his own book.

You might also check out 20 top nonfiction books about history and Gaining a global perspective on the world around us.

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.