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Medieval/Fantasy Military Organization

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Meyer, Apr 4, 2013.

  1. Meyer

    Meyer Minstrel

    Is it important to have a believable rank structure/organization in a fantasy setting? How complex would various militaries be? The US Army has (I believe) 24 total pay grades and pay varies based on time in service and time in grade as well. I think that is only possible due to modern technology and record keeping.
  2. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

    They didn't really use "rank" as we know it now, more the hereditary titles and social standing. The different types of soldiers would make different amounts; the more specialized sorts of combatants probably making more money (i.e. Welsh Longbowman etc.) Basically the medieval armies weren't like the armies we know now, but I will give an example of how it might be organized in a Monarchy.

    Base soldiers: Archers/pikemen/bannermen etc. (likely conscripts since standing armies were prohibitively expensive in most cases).
    Armsmen: Serve a knight directly and serve to command small groups of conscripts or levies.
    Knight: Armored horse/heavy infantry. (often of noble birth and with their own armsmen)
    Earl: Overseer of a collection of villages/small area and usually has several local knights as armsmen, likewise with their levies.
    Duke: Usually controls a large city (Duke of York etc.) and has both Earls and Knights as sworn armsmen, plus the levies from his lands.
    Lord: A step below the royal family; probably controls a county and all cities/communities therein. All dukes/earls/knights in his territory are his armsmen.
    King: The end all of the hierarchy; all knights/earls/dukes/lords are sworn to him and all armies are his. He may have generals (often the most experienced Lords) to advise him, and even if he follows their advice, his word is law.
    Taniwha likes this.
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Basic rank structures have been around for a long time. Not common in the medieval era but soon afterwards, especially with the later advent of standing armies.

    In the US military we have 9 enlisted ranks, 5 warrant officer ranks, & 10 commissioned officer ranks. Most modern military forces follow a similar structure with some minor differences in title or nomenclature.

    Each rank has a corresponding pay grade. For example, a sergeant would be an E-5 pay grade. Pay grade provides a base pay amount which is adjusted from time in service (how long they've been in the military as a whole) & time in grade (how long they've been a sergeant). Pay grade however, has little to do with actual command authority other than assignment of rank.

    Command authority begins at Corporal (E-4). It's the first rank as a non-commissioned officer (NCO). A corporal can charge a subordinate with disrespect, disobedience, or other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Corporals typically run 4-5 man fire teams. Sergeants run fire teams or squads. Staff Sergeants run squads or platoons. Staff Non-Commissioned Officers (Staff Sergeant through Sergeant Major) are another part of the rank structure. These ranks serve in platoon level billets as well as company, regiment, battalion, division, & command level billets. For example, a Command Sergeant Major is a billet. That individual would serve as the enlisted right-hand of the base commander...a general. Even senior officers don't want to piss off a Base Sergeant Major...they've got the C.O.'s ear and know how the military runs better than anyone.

    Billets are important to understand. A billet is a rank within a rank. For example, within a squad there could be 2 sergeants. Only one of those will be the squad leader. The other serves in a subservient position to the squad leader as a fire team leader. Billets are very important in the military. A sentry on post outranks everyone else at that post...even a general. This is granted due to the importance of the sentries role and the need for security personnel to wield authority. Still, you don't see many sentries chewing out sergeant majors....but the billet is understood by all. Similarly, a helicopter pilot might be a captain. That captain may be flying senior officers around. Concerning command of the vehicle though, the captain is in charge. It's his/her billet. I once saw a range officer (a warrant officer) throw a full colonel off the rifle range because the colonel was a repeat safety violator. Rank didn't matter...billet did.

    Within fiction, a well-designed rank structure can give an air of realism to any military fiction, even sci-fi & fantasy. The naming of each rank, in my opinion, is less important than the structure and levels of detail (like a comprehension of billets).
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2013
    Devor likes this.
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I'm with T.Allen.Smith on the important of ranks, but it depends. A standing city guard would have a good rank structure, but a recently conscripted army or a militia really wouldn't.

    I think the longer your army is in place, the more structured it would become. But most feudal settings didn't maintain their armies long enough to develop a clear structure.
  5. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Maybe the most important thing about rank, though, might be how you integrate it into the story. Look for places where the plot touches a little on the main character associating with a knight rather than a count, who pulls rank on who, and what it means to get promoted.

    Ranks are fun things if they stay in the background and are consistent, but they're a problem if they get in the reader's way and he needs to stop and check a glossary-- and they're a delight if the storyline teaches how they work so that the reader can't forget it.
  6. Meyer

    Meyer Minstrel

    I appreciate your extensive post TAS, but I apologize for wasting your time writing it as I already knew everything that you covered in it. I supposed I should have made it clear that I am very familiar with modern western military organization.

    Is the extensiveness of a rank system tied into the size of a military force as well? For every layer of command, you typically have a higher rank holding that billet for example:

    Fire Team: Corporal
    Squad: Sergeant
    Platoon: Lieutenant
    Company: Captain
    Battalion: Lt. Colonel
    Brigade: Colonel

    and so on

    If an army is only say, 40,000 strong and has a "flatter" structure say:

    Company of 100~ soldiers
    Regiment of 1000~ soldiers
    Army of several regiments

    There really wouldn't be a reason to have more than 5-6 Officer ranks would there?

    I don't want to a massive post, but this is how I've organized one army so far:

    Lord Marshal - Supreme commander of the entire military. (Above him in the Chain of Command would be the Grand Chancellor and then Emperor)
    Grand Marshal - Commands all military operations within a theater.
    Field Marshal - Commands a Corps.
    Marshal - Commands a Legion or a specialized Corps. Also serve as staff officers at the Army High Command.
    Brigadier - Commands a Brigade or serves as a high ranking staff officer
    Colonel - Commands a Regiment or Battalion or serves as a high ranking staff officer
    Major - Staff officer rank. Occasionally commands a Battalion or Company.
    Captain - Commands a Company
    First Lieutenant - Senior Lieutenant of a Company, may command a Platoon or serve as XO
    Lieutenant - Commands a Platoon

    All of this is definitely background material. It is just there for internal consistency.
  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    That's okay, Meyer. People post to help you, but also to help others who are thinking about the same questions. I learned a couple of things from T.Allen's post, and I thought I understood ranks well enough before.

    Just be aware that your command structure feels somewhat modern evolved, which may or may not fit your time period or the military developments of your setting.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2013
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    This is a good point. What time period are you trying to represent?

    At first glance, your rank structure works, yet feels modern or even futuristic. This is not to say that it couldn't work in a different era. Perhaps this is a military force, in a world of lesser enemies, that owes a large part of its success to organization (One of the reasons Napoleon was so successful).

    If you're going to have an advanced rank structure, within a time period where this would be considered exceptional, I'd recommend having that rank structure (and sense of militarism) ingrained in the culture.

    P.S. No worries about the posting. I misunderstood your question...and as Devor said, posts are never really wasted.
  9. Meyer

    Meyer Minstrel

    It's meant to be a military with Napoleonic to Civil War era technology. Not quite as large as say the armies of the North and South during the war, but much larger than any other military in the setting.

    The Orc one is much simpler for example:


    Most other militaries in the setting are much simpler.

    Edit: The Imperium is very militaristic. It has basically been in constant conflict since its inception. Veterans are considered superior to other civilians and have more rights. Nobles are expected to serve in some capacity for a minimum of ten years. Not required, but those who don't will rarely rise. High ranking politicians are almost universally all veterans. The current Grand Chancellor was once Lord Marshal and served for over fourty years in the military.
    Last edited: Apr 6, 2013
  10. Asura Levi

    Asura Levi Sage

    You might take a look in the Templars/Hospitalars/Teutonic Orders. They do have some command struct with the highest being the Grand Master (not sure if this is the right english equivalent for 'grão-mestre').
    It is not detailed as we have in modern armies but still, some organisation was necessary.
  11. Pat Harris

    Pat Harris Scribe

    In some places there were also lesser kings and a high king (Fiction ex: Narnia). I think Ireland had that structure. At least they had kings over cities/counties.
  12. The advent of standing armies (and professional soldiers with ranks) is tied in with the evolution of tax systems and law. If anyone's interested, I could type out what I've learned about that in my law studies. It basically comes down to this: first decide what kind of tax your country levies (if it levies one at all) and then the military system will adapt to that.
  13. Meyer

    Meyer Minstrel

    I am very interested in that information on taxation. That is one factor I failed to consider outside of a basic flat tax, tariffs, and levies.
  14. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    A related point is, compare something like a Roman or modern army where you earn your way up the ranks (in theory), to feudalism. The latter simply converts the army chain of command into the system of lordship, and makes it hereditary. "Now that you've helped me conquer this country, I'm making you generals Counts to manage these areas of land, and some of your officers Barons or lesser lords to hold parts within yours. They report to you, and you're all under me, the king."

    It rewarded the king's followers (in the main wealth of the time, land) and kept the realm in trusted hands and a chain of command they already knew, easy to re-mobilize for the next war. A feudal lord's resources in battle came simply from how many troops he'd inherited (and if he'd hired mercenaries with any spare money) and any new lands he'd just earned, plus what orders higher nobles gave him about where to use them.

    And even the Romans (at at least one point, as I remember it) made a big point of giving land to every legionnaire who signed up, but only when he retired.
  15. I'll give you a brief summary on what I've learned. Please consider that the reality is far more complex and there are other systems that I will not discuss here.

    (Early) Roman Period

    To fully understand the relation between tax systems and different armies, we have to go back to the early Roman times. Back then, there were two kinds of men: those who fought and those who didn't. Those who fought were called ciues (originally this meant "brother-in-arms" but its meaning is now translated as "civilian") and they were given civil rights. Those who chose not to fight were slaves and they contributed to the Roman war engine by working for the ciues. Contrary to popular believe, slaves were rarely treated badly in Roman times. After several years of military service, the men were dismissed but kept their status of ciues. They had access to the legal system, were allowed to testate and could run for public office.

    Note: The Roman system would change drastically over the years as their empire expanded. After Marius' reforms, a new military system was created. I won't discuss that one here, as you're no doubt more interested in medieval systems.

    Early Middle Ages

    Early Middle Ages were very similar to the Early Roman Period. The feudal system wouldn't be (fully) implemented until Charlemagne. Again, there's a distinction between those who fought - who were still referred to as ciues in the legal texts of that time - and those who didn't (slaves, serfs). Again, those who fought had access to a legal system (based entirely on Roman texts, most importantly the codex theodosianus). The soldiers were paid with plunder (or the revenue thereof).

    Feudal Middle Ages

    In feudal times, the nobles were the most important fighting class. The ciues-system disappeared gradually and was replaced by levies. To escape those levies, rich farmers could pay a scutage (tax). Because there weren't many rich farmers back then, the income of scutage taxes was relatively low and not sufficient for mercenaries. In feudal times, the armies were composed of a core of noblemen and conscripted peasants.

    Late Middle Ages

    With the advent of large cities, the citizenry wanted to be exempt from military duty while retaining their access to the legal system. Cities would buy charters from noblemen who would then use that money (a substantial amount - paid only once in most instances) to hire mercenaries. In the 100-year war you can see the transition from feudal armies to mercenary armies. The reason the French got such a whooping was because the English implemented the system before them.

    Note: until then, there was almost no taxation at all. Farmers had to give food and service to their lords and merchants had to pay toll but there was no system of recurring taxes like we have now.

    The system of the late middle ages/early renaissance is called the "begging-system". When the lord's coffers were empty, he had to beg the cities for new taxes. This usually led to renegotiations of charters. This was of course very tiresome.


    In the renaissance most kings strove for absolutism. To achieve this, they would need a good standing army. Europe was in an almost perpetual state of war in the 15th and 16th century (with the advent of protestantism and other great conflicts between the upcoming superpowers).

    In France, after the English were kicked out, the king managed to implement a system of recurring taxes (gabelle, taille, aide,...). The gabelle for instance was a tax on salt. Salt was used to conserve food and the king got a bit of money for every transaction. This is the system we currently still have (although our system now is more complex etc.) Because of these recurring taxes, the king could afford a standing army and he managed to gain absolute power (there were four other major factors in play, but they are not relevant to my story here). We all know king Louis XIV as the culmination of absolutism.

    In England, absolutism failed because of the Magna Charta. Taxes had to be approved by parliament. King James I and King Charles I tried to implement recurring taxes but they failed. King Charles I was decapitated. England did not have a standing army at the time (but because of the perpetual state of war, they did de facto have a standing army). They did have a standing navy because they had a recurring tax for coastal cities. Those cities paid a recurring tax in exchange for protection from pirates.

    This is a very simplified history of taxation. In truth, a lot of these systems co-existed (or a hybrid thereof) and there were many other factors in play. A lot of countries had their own system and the English model. Still, this summary should give you an idea of the different tax systems and armies. My terminology might be a bit off, since I had this course in Dutch.
  16. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    I would offer this for the lower trained or militia type group:(town watch, defenders of a town)

    conscript:no training at all workers, shop keepers, poor owners,
    warrior(little or no battle experience, possibly hunting or related experience)
    veteran(some battle experience)
    honored veteran (respected for his battle experience.)
    Veteran leader (a leader and honored veteran)
    Higher would start being noble or political, rather then based solely on experience.

    Some militia or town defenders might not have the upper veterans, it might be the leader was a conscript of one previous battle or there might be a group of men that fought in may wars.

    The rank is honorary, but you respect the person that has been there before, and knows what to expect.
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2013
  17. Sean Cunningham

    Sean Cunningham Dreamer

    As I recall, around Napoleon's time officers joined the army by buying their commission, and left the army by selling it. There was a period in English history in which commoners were expected to keep up their skills with the bow, so they would be useful if called up by their feudal lord. (Sorry I can't nail that down a bit more, but offered in case it helps.)

    It sounds like you're aiming for a Roman-style meritocracy with more modern-sounding rank titles. Roman military service as an officer was also frequently a stepping stone for those wanting a career in politics, should you be interested in incorporating that into your world.

    (Though I would guess the career of a Roman soldier was considerably affected by his previous education - so class of birth mattered.)
  18. Wolfram

    Wolfram Dreamer

    Does anyone have a list of rankings from a medieval time periods, or something similar? Modern day rankings aren't as relevant to the fantasy story uses.
  19. There weren't any rankings in medieval times. You basically had knights (men of noble birth) and conscripts (men drafted from the peasant population). When cities started to buy their charters, mercenaries became more important. I don't think mercenary armies had much of a ranking system. The leader would be called a commander or captain. Perhaps a few of them would have some kind of seniority or other distinction. Ranks were only invented later.
  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Abbas-al-Morim has it right. Ranks, indeed an obsession with hierarchy in general, is a modern disease. Still, I would add a few nuances, which Abbas-al-Morim likely knows but didn't mention.

    Don't forget the sergeant or man-at-arms (medieval people were also notoriously inconsistent in their use of terms). These fellows were typically non-noble and served as companions to a knight. In fact, when you think medieval knight you really should picture a sort of squad, with the knight, at least two horses for the knight, his sergeants mounted or unmounted, and a couple of valets or squires or garcons or Knechten (every language had a term, but often they translate to something like "boy").

    But you ought not think of these as ranks, not even the knight, because rank implies the ability to move up (or down). Instead, think of these as roles. All three roles--knight, sergeant and valet--were needed to field a single fighting unit (the knight). But no one expected to move up. A squire might some day become a knight, but only if he was in fact noble and basically was simply a knight who was not yet of age. Plenty of other squires remained squired. Sergeants *could* be ennobled, usually through some exceptional service on the field of battle--the medieval version of a battlefield commission--but it was very rare. It wasn't so much gaining rank as it was being transformed.

    The above applies to the miles , the Latin word from which we get "military" and which usually applied only to the mounted warrior. Foot soldiers were pedites . These could be conscripts or mercenaries. Nobody moved up ranks there either.

    Titles like count and earl and margrave were exactly that: noble titles. They had nothing to do with military rank or even with political power.

    Oh, there were some special offices, though: seneschal, constable, master of the horse ... er, others can chime in here. These were normally to be found only within a royal (or imperial) household.

    If you want ranks, real ranks, go study the Byzantines, at least for the Middle Ages. The Europeans start getting serious about rank and hierarchy in the 17th century and doesn't get fully elaborated until the 19th century.
    Abbas-Al-Morim likes this.

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