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The Numberless Hordes: Keeping Your Fantasy Armies a Little Less Fantastic
by John Savage

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

All fiction requires us as readers to suspend our disbelief. Speculative fiction requires somewhat greater suspension of disbelief than does the "mainstream," because the story is somehow beyond the normal. Few flaws will break that suspension of disbelief faster than obvious words, things, and concepts that just don't fit the background world. Inaccurate -- even just plain bad -- military concepts abound in speculative fiction. This article attempts to guide writers away from two of the most common, yet most easily avoidable, mistakes in presenting military events in fantasy: oversized forces and modern ranks. Finally, we'll look at some sources for further information.

The Million-Man March

Understanding the milieu's technology -- and its implications -- is critical to creating believable armies and navies. That means more than merely defining the standard military weapons. Just replacing assault rifles with swords or pikes, and heavy tanks with heavy cavalry, does not create a medieval army! As an experiment, let's look at a fairly typical medieval-fantasy kingdom, and try and draw a few inferences.

Ruritania parallels medieval sub-Scandanavian Northwest Europe -- Ireland, England, France, and the various Germanic realms north of the Alps and west of modern Poland. Ruritania is a monarchy with a human population roughly equal to pre-Plague England's, and a negligible population of nonhumans. The technology base is early 13th century (pre-gunpowder). Knights in armor are de rigeur; the commons are either peasantish louts (about 92% of the population) or townsmen (6-7% of the population), and land ownership is extremely concentrated. King Thomas VII reigns with only moderate opposition from the baronial party. Wizards and other users of magic generally don't condescend to participate in the wars of human beings.

Let's march Ruritania's army off to war. We'll assume that the campaign begins shortly after planting and ends a couple weeks before the harvest, or else begins after harvest and ends a couple weeks before winter. The basic calculations are in Table 1, both to show the effects of individual factors and to enable you to vary them for your own fantasy world. (Note: The precision and reliability of the source materials vary quite a bit; the "rounder" a percentage, the greater the variation.)

Table 1: The Ruritanian Army

Factor Effect Resulting Army
Base Population  


"Draft Pool"
Only 10% of women bear arms
Too young (<15)
Too old (>45)
Not physically capable
Exempt skills/professions
Outlaws, criminals, dodgers




Non-chronic Disease
At muster (callup)
By campaign start (2 weeks)



Other requirements (navy, town watch, border guards, customs agents, bodyguards, garrisons, camp guards) and lack of transport

-80 %


One factor absent from Table 1 -- and yet a critically important one -- is serfdom and slavery. No European medieval society obligated or even allowed serfs, slaves, and other "unfree" men to serve in an offensive force. They might be pressed into service to defend a siege, but even that was unusual. Late medieval nations varied tremendously in their "unfree" populations, ranging from less than 5% in England, Scandanavia, and Silesia to 40% or more in Muscovy and parts of France and Byzantium. This factor would act in the first stage, when determining the size of the "draft pool."

Another factor to which Table 1 gives short shrift is the actual callup. Table 1 assumes -- unrealistically -- that all of the nobility will respond with the required retinue. The "draft dodgers" noted are simply able-bodied individuals who choose not to go to war. The political and interpersonal realities of your world will determine which nobles withhold their retinues. For a Crusade, virtually all of the nobility will muster; for an unpopular cause, such as the third resumption of the Hundred Years' War, perhaps 40% will muster. This issue provides fertile ground for growing subplots.

We can use these principles in reverse, too. If the plot and prose demand that the Dark Lord of the Miskatonic's army numbers a million human soldiers, he needs to have -- as a minimum -- around (1,000,000 / 48,000) * 4,000,000 = 210,000,000 human beings under his dominion. That's more than four times the population of Europe during the 13th century, and his opponent probably needs to be as large. And he hasn't paid his soldiers yet, bought their equipment or food, or found any leaders.

Speaking of paying the army, medieval economics made that very difficult. An English soldier's daily pay was 25-40% greater than he could earn as an unskilled or semiskilled laborer; other parts of Europe paid soldiers at least on a par with civilian life. This burden is why Henry V's army left for France with approximately 20,000 soldiers and dwindled to less than 6,000 present at Agincourt, opposing a French army of about 24,000.

Table 2: Typical Earnings in England, 1412 - 1419

Job Class Daily Wage
Thresher (seasonal) unskilled 1
Mason unskilled 1.5
Carpenter semiskilled 2
Reaper (seasonal) semiskilled 3
Master Carpenter skilled 3
Master Mason skilled 4
Footsoldier semiskilled 4
Archer skilled 6
Man-at-arms skilled 12

The professional army developed when it was economical to maintain it. The reality of hunger in Northern and Central Europe kept most men in the fields, not the practice yards. Conversely, the rich and easy food supply of Rome and Byzantium both increased each city's value to invaders and made possible permanent professional armies for defense, and eventually for conquest, over 1,000 years before it was possible to do so in Northern and Central Europe. Keeping a permanent army requires both that pulling the men from the fields will not cause immediate agricultural collapse, and that the government that creates the army can afford to pay it in the long run. And that's not cheap!

Table 2 doesn't look too bad to veterans of Dungeons and Dragons, but a little context is quite sobering. Paying the English army cost approximately 2.4 million pence in the 57 days of the Agincourt campaign, which is almost 20% of the royal income for the year of 52,400 (12.6 million pence). Paying a full-time professional force for a full year would cost the same for about 1,000 soldiers, who aren't producing food by toiling in the fields. Arms, arrows, armor, food, horses for the baggage train, and other mundane expenses generally cost 20% of total pay on nonbattle days and 100% of total pay on battle days.

Then there's the importance of ransoms to feudal warfare. Had Henry's army been defeated at Agincourt, England would probably have been bankrupted, both by ransoms of nobles and the loss of tax revenue from its dead soldiers. By winning the battle, though, England turned a tidy profit of nearly £1 million in ransoms demanded -- about 20 years of royal income! Some of those ransoms were collected by commoners, too -- and, as military historian Jim Dunnigan asserts, probably began some of the great English landed families. Maybe your hero's (or heroine's) family came to prominence similarly...

Even religious wars such as the Crusades fall within these general guidelines, although paying the army was a much less significant concern (since it wasn't paid by the Pope). This is one loophole for fantasy armies: just make all the wars religious wars, and many of the economic barriers to gathering a large short-term army disappear! Historically, however, no preindustrial culture managed to put more than 7% of the population under arms for an entire campaign season (90 days or so) without causing famine at home. Such a large army both drained food reserves and took too many laborers from the fields.

Generals, Admirals, and Privates

Once we have an army, just what does one call a common soldier, or a leader of soldiers? If all things were equal -- and, as we'll see below, they're not -- we would just use a table of ranks, rather like the modern armed forces. Even such a simple system hides some pitfalls for the fantasist, as Table 3 shows.

Table 3: Modern Military Ranks

Rank Supervises First Use and Comments
Private Nobody Mercenaries, 15th-16th century; a "private soldier" had more prestige than a draftee (levy)
Corporal 615 Royal Navy, 16th century; the sailor in charge of small-arms practice on a ship
Sergeant 050 Dark Ages; originally a knight's sidekick, not a military rank
Lieutenant 25100 France, 10th century; "assistant"
Captain 50250 Dark Ages; highest common military rank below Marshal until the 16th century
Major 200500 England, 15th century; contraction of "sergeant-major," became a supply officer under Napoleon
Colonel 4001,200 Spain, 16th century; commander of a column (colonella)
General 1,200+ Holy Roman Empire, 16th century; contraction of "Captain-General"
Marshal Everyone, in theory France/Normandy/England, 11th century; a noble office, not a rank, until Napoleon

As the table reflects, formal military ranks above the voice-command level (about 100 soldiers) did not develop until the late Renaissance. (The Greek phalanx and Roman legion are not exceptions; they were packed so tightly that voice command extended over a greater number of soldiers.) The French army at Agincourt demonstrates what happened instead. Immediately prior to battle, the French nobility argued over who got to command whom, and the results depended upon the prestige of the noble's title. For example, the Constable of France -- the most experienced professional soldier at the battle -- was somewhere between seventh and tenth in the "chain of command," and could not even order the French crossbowmen to fire. None of his "superiors" had any experience commanding either commoners or more than 40 or 50 men-at-arms.

Agincourt also demonstrates other advantages of an expensive, small, relatively professional army. The English system worked because all the arguments were confined to the few (900 or so) nobles and gentry in the army, while the king and commons had sorted out a very effective chain of command for the archers (the remaining 5,000 soldiers). Sir Thomas Erpingham had complete authority over the archers, which resulted in a clear plan, clear and timely orders, and the destruction of French chivalry through massed fire by the archers. However, Sir Thomas was known just as the Captain of the archers, which merely leads us back to Table 3.

The End of the Beginning

As we've seen, you can make your fantasy armies more realistic -- absent the effects of magic -- by:

  • Limiting the army's size to one that won't cause famine (i.e., less than 7% of total population), unless the plot demands such a result.

  • Remembering that not everyone called up for service will end up on the battlefield.

  • Ensuring that the army's owner can pay his soldiers or otherwise coerce their service.

  • Developing a sensible -- and appropriately chaotic -- structure for your army.

Of course, this article won't tell you everything you need to know to create the mother of all fantasy battles. I recommend the following readable (although not all that detailed) books as a starting point if your exposure to medieval military history ends near Camelot or Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

John Keegan, The Face of Battle and A History of Warfare.

Trevor N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare.

Elmer C. May, Ancient and Medieval Warfare.

Beyond these four books, try reading general histories until you come across a battle that sounds "right" for your plot, then study the battle with more-detailed sources. As you'll discover, there are a lot of other interesting issues in plotting a fantasy war, ranging from mercenaries to command and control of the armies to disease. And that's before we consider the effects of magic, ranging from just better intelligence and smokescreens to fireballs on the battlefield, and nonhumans from hobbits to dragons. Have fun!

Find Out More...

Blending Fiction and History - Paula Fleming

Contemporary Fantasy: Setting the Fantastic in the Everyday World - Paula Fleming

Historical Research for Fiction Writers by Catherine Lundoff

Using Current Events in Speculative Fiction - Paula Fleming

Copyright © 2005 John Savage
This article is not available for reprint.

John Savage practices entertainment law on the Silicon Prairie. Some of his colleagues claim that he has a sense of humor, but he admits only to telling rougher and dirtier lawyer jokes than any other lawyer he knows. This article was originally published in Speculations, Issue 27 (June 1999).


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