Decision Making in the Medieval Military


Arthur: ‘I am your king’.
Peasant: ‘Well, I didn’t vote for you.’
(Monty Python and the Holy Grail)

Any discussion of policy and strategy naturally raises the basic question of decision-making.

Who was making those decisions about strategy or influencing them? How were those decisions debated and ratified? And, perhaps even more importantly, in societies with very limited bureaucracies or policing mechanisms, how were they implemented?

‘I Didn’t Vote For You’

The Crusader states were never dictatorships.

Regardless of their personal inclinations, the rulers of the Latin East needed to persuade their subjects to carry out their plans. Time and time again, it is clear that lively—sometimes far too lively—debates helped shape ideas and decision-making. Every plan had to be justified, and every idea had to be defended on its own merits.

Unlike the peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the crusader states never operated as ‘anarcho-syndicalist communes’, but there was usually a surprisingly inclusive and open discussion about determining and agreeing with major decisions. Consensus—and consent—were the ultimate aim.

The system could break down when political dysfunctionality trumped normal social protocols. In the Hattin campaign, for instance, a weak king, intense political infighting, and a fractured political elite meant that the normal checks and balances were overridden. But, by and large, dispersed day-to-day authority and the ‘first among equals’ nature of the Frankish kingship tended to produce relatively sensible policies that had broad levels of support.

Layered Decision-Making

The aftermath of the siege of Shaizar in 1157 provides a simple example of just how diffuse this decision-making might be in practice and how much emphasis was placed on the principles of agreement and consent. The siege had collapsed amid recriminations because King Baldwin III had allegedly promised the town, if it should be captured, to Thierry of Flanders, while Reynald of Châtillon wanted to absorb it into his Principality of Antioch. Even afterward, however, it still felt important to regain some sense of unanimity among the gathered decision-makers. We are told that

‘… the Christian leaders were still lingering at Antioch. Notwithstanding the fact that they had been somewhat at variance before Shaizar, they had now . . . arrived at unanimity of spirit. They therefore resolved, in the bonds of peace, to undertake some notable work that would be worthy of remembrance forever. With the approval and aid of all, it was determined to lay siege to a fortress about twelve miles from Antioch. . . Accordingly . ., the entire army, as with one mind, went there and encamped before the place.’

The Priority of Consent

Anything done without consent and without the weight of tradition behind it was suspect and hugely unpopular. Such decisions were not to be made lightly or without consequences. Calling out the arrière-ban (general call to arms) in time of emergency, for instance, was thought to be acceptable. It had been agreed by all classes of society in principle, and its use had been consolidated and condoned by tradition. Ad hoc conscription, however unavoidable it might be, was neither popular nor acceptable.

Pilgrims unfortunate enough to have arrived in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the spring of 1113 were rapidly conscripted to help fend off a Turkic invasion, and many died when the Frankish army was overrun at the battle of As-Sennabra a few weeks later. Similarly, in the weeks before the disastrous attack on Damascus in 1148, pilgrims who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time were dragged into the army and forced to march into Syria with the field army of Jerusalem and the remnants of the Second Crusade. William of Tyre later wrote that there had been severe consequences to this act of conscription and that fear of being caught up in the fighting had led to fewer people making the trip to the Holy Land.

The buy-in was sought from the nobility, the church, and, more broadly, from the population as a whole. And, once one view had prevailed, everyone was expected to go along with the outcome ‘unanimously’—an e early example of collective responsibility. With life-or-death decisions that affected entire communities, everyone needed to be visibly committed.

Devolution and Dispersal

The devolved nature of decision-making was an issue for all feudal societies. It inevitably created huge problems. Reynald of Châtillon was once confronted about how his actions might be detrimental to the interests of the kingdom as a whole. He is reported to have said that he was ‘lord of his land, just as [the king] was lord of his’. It is hard to imagine a less encouraging environment in which structured or centralised decision-making might take place. But even if he was misquoted, as he possibly was, Reynald was making a broader point.

Devolved authority may have its place, but it is usually not suggestive of coordinated decision-making. On the surface, medieval political structures do not provide an effective route for military innovation and the formulation of strategy. Poor communications, a lack of central infrastructure, and dispersed economic productivity were inevitably reflected in the devolution and dispersal of military authority; given the resources available, there was no viable alternative.

The knights had their own fiefs, which were often greatly dispersed geographically. Lesser lords had their own castles and strongholds. The greater lords, particularly on the frontiers, almost had their own kingdoms within a kingdom. Even those who were entirely loyal to the king had considerable autonomy. If they were more independently minded, they could use their own small armies to develop local strategies and, in extreme cases, their own foreign policies. There were times, notably in the 1180s when these forces showed signs of getting out of control.

Devolution, Consent, and Excellence

Ironically, however, this unprepossessing material also had strange advantages for innovation and strategy. Everyone had their own resources, but they came together frequently—far too frequently for comfort when they went on campaigns together. Whatever they had learned and whatever successes they had achieved could be shared with their peers and comrades extremely quickly. Particularly among these highly competitive elite groups, knowledge transfer in military matters was a very natural and fluid process.

The development of strategy was thus necessarily relatively simple, as the best strategies often are, but dissemination and buy-in from the military leadership were surprisingly straightforward.

The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble



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  • Tibble, S. (2020). The Crusader Strategy. Yale University Press.


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