Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Medieval Hungarian Mercenaries - 10th century
Durable light Hungarian warriors were in demand as mercenaries primarily because of their formidable archery which allowed them to inflict heavy causalities on their enemies without irrevocably committing themselves to close combat. Procopius, a Byzantine military historian writing in the sixth century, called the composite bows of the Huns ‘miracle weapons’. The Emperor Maurice, however, who wrote his Strategikon less than a half century later, noted that composite bows were sensitive to inclement weather. These weapons came unglued when wet. Consequently, he advised his commanders to attack mounted archers when it rained. Examples from various parts of Eurasia show that Maurice’s observation was indeed correct. Especially in the Latin West north of the Alps, where rainfall is evenly distributed throughout the year, Hungarians on many occasions were forced to put away their bows in waterproof cases and flee when torrential rains or even sudden showers caught them by surprise. The archery of steppe warriors was affected not only by rainfall, but by other micro-climatic and geographic factors as well. Composite bows were most effective when archers released arrows as rapidly as possible at an angle of approximately forty-five degrees which ensured that arrows would fall in clusters at the maximum range of the weapons and with maximum force and killing power. In this kind of archery precise aiming at individual targets point-blank was of little importance. Archers lofted projectiles into a target zone several hundred meters away. To do this the bowman had to estimate accurately the distance and the windage, and he also had to make an educated guess as to the whereabouts of his enemies several seconds after the volley when the missiles (powered by gravity on their downward trajectories) landed. The weight of the arrow and even that of the bowstring affected flight of projectiles.
Archers needed open landscapes. In 955 Otto I was able to protect his forces from Magyar archery by marching his men through a forest on the way to relieve the siege of Augsburg. Thus Hungarian horse archery was not effective under all conditions. It was a tactic that could be devastating. Releasing hailstorms of arrows, horse archers sometimes completely destroyed opposing armies in the field; nevertheless, their tactical repertoire was too limited to allow them to become an army of conquest under the climatic conditions in the Latin West, even if the Carpathian Basin could have supported more horses. At best their tactics could only complement those of sedentary armies. These tactics were well suited for forces paid to accomplished specialised task, that is for mercenaries, but not for conquerors.