The Town Militias

During the 12th and 13th century a new military power appears. The Flemish towns become wealthy and powerful and insist on providing in their own means of defence. Town militias are raised throughout entire Europe.

The Flemish towns take up a military role

The militia is of course a defensive force and is used to guard the town walls against hostile raiders. But soon the town councils discover that the militia is the perfect instrument for securing the town's interests and frequently use the town militia to campaign against their political competitors. The Count of Flanders has the right to commandeer the town militias, but he cannot deploy them beyond the borders of his territory without the explicit permission of the town council.

All men living within the town walls can be called up to serve in the town militia in times of war. The town council maintains a register of all men who are subject to military service and maintains an arsenal of military equipment and weapons. But most of the men own their own fighting equipment and weapons and keep these at home.

The Leugemeetefresc
Part of the Leugemeetefresc from Ghent, dated around 1346.

A town raises its forces

A town militia is subdivided into several "vouden" or folds. Such a "voud" or fold counts about 600 men and is composed of both patricians and craftsmen. A patrician is a person living within the town walls who also owns a strip of land in town. A craftsman belongs to a particular trade union. The patricians provide a number of men per town district in proportion to the respective number of people living in each of the districts. The trade unions also have set a number of infantrymen to provide in relation to the size of their union. The weavers traditionally are the largest union in town and therefore supply the strongest contingent. The town council calls up a number of folds according to the demands of the campaign. During the early years of the 14th century, Bruges for example is able to assemble one dozen folds and can rely on a task force of 7000 men.

The Bruges town militia

The militia is mainly composed of heavy infantry and archers. The infantrymen carry pikes and goedendags and always fight in close order. Each fold has a number of "coningstavelryen" or constabularies which each count about 20 serjeants, 6 horses and 2 wagons. Such a unit is commanded by a "coningstavel" or constable. The town council pays for the horses and wagons, but the common serjeant would hardly receive a penny. At the battle of Courtrai, the number of infantrymen supplied by the town of Bruges is estimated to have been about 3.000.

Archers are armed almost exclusively with the crossbow. In 1302, Bruges disposes of a contingent of sixteen constabularies, each having around 19 archers, 10 servants and two wagons. The town has an artillery force totalling 320 crossbows supported by 160 servants carrying the pavises (big shields to take shelter and reload the bow) and ammunition supplies. The archers form the elite of the communal army and a member of the select Saint-George guild is paid a wage of 4/- per day, an amount very similar to the daily pay of a squire.

Town patricians with assets worth more than 300 Flemish Pounds are required to own their own horse, weapons and armour. These upper class patricians form the communal yeomanry, but this cavalry force does not appear in the town's accounts for 1302. It is therefore estimated that the town's cavalry was not present during the battle of Courtrai or the campaign that followed the victory.

The headquarters of the town militia was composed on the members of the town council, together with a number of trumpeters and servants. The trumpeters took care of the communication during the heat of battle. Their numbers are estimated to have been around 60. This means that during the battle of Courtrai, Bruges had a total of approximately 3.000 soldiers on the battlefield, almost ten percent of the town's population.

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Copyright on text, images and photos by Joris de Sutter, unless noted otherwise.
This information is provided by De Liebaart and was last updated on March 30th 2001.