5: Iron Age to Europe's Feudal Society


Iron makes the Chariot obsolete

The chariot innovation of the ancient Kurgan culture of the Central Asian Steppes revolutionized the civilized world. They employed the chariot to invade the surrounding kingdoms - inaugurating the militarized aristocratic Bronze Age. After conquering the indigenous agrarian populations, the Bronze Age rulers became the enemy of the nomadic cultures of the Steppes. They had settled down into the comforts of a sedentary life. In contrast, nomadic tribes still spent their time herding, traveling, warring amongst themselves, and raiding the settled Bronze Age communities. Because of their military background, the warrior-led kingdoms were better able to defend themselves from the nomadic raiders. The Bronze Age rulers used chariots to both conquer the farmers and then to repulse the attacks from the warriors of the Central Asian Steppes.

The constant battling between the nomadic and settled cultures inevitably led to advances in military technology. Due to their expertise in metallurgy, the nomadic Steppe cultures eventually discovered a new metal that was superior to bronze - iron.

Iron was both harder and more plentiful than bronze. Also it was much easier to use. Bronze required the combination of tin and copper in an exact mixture. In contrast, once extracted from its ore, iron only needed to be melted before it could be turned into weapons. This was a simple one step process rather than a complicated multiple step procedure. Due to these features alone, iron became the metal of choice.

The Bronze Age military technology had other drawbacks. The chariot was expensive and time consuming to produce. The war machine’s wheels also required flat terrain to be operable. (Ironically, the farming communities inadvertently provided open land when trees were cleared for planting crops.) Finally, the chariot required two highly trained people, a charioteer and an archer. It took many hours of specialized training to develop a team that could use a chariot effectively.

Iron’s relative availability combined with its hardness rendered it the ideal metal for weapons. Employing this new military metal allowed the Steppe cultures to defeat the Bronze Age kingdoms. The Hittites, another nomadic culture of the Steppes, were probably the first to employ iron to conquer nations.

The development and use of iron weapons replaced the chariot as the superior military technology around 1200 BCE in the Middle East. This transition inaugurated the Iron Age. While iron had replaced bronze as the military metal, the political structure of the Bronze Age, with its extreme class structure - including the subjugation of women and devotion to war, remained and remains unchanged.

The Cavalry - Fighting on horseback

After the initial victories of the nomadic raiders, the Bronze Age civilizations co-opted iron to defend themselves and fight amongst each other. This included the cultures of China, Mesopotamia, Europe, India, Egypt, and Persia. But the Steppe cultures were resourceful. Around 900 BCE, they learned to fight on horseback. The riders rode their horses with no hands, which enabled them to shoot arrows at the same time. The invention of stirrups provided more stability. Standing in the stirrups significantly increased the warriors’ shooting precision.

This synergy of horse and man allowed the Assyrians, another nomadic culture, to dominate the Fertile Crescent starting about 900 BCE. The Cavalry Revolution put horses first in the steppe economy.  Due to their usefulness in war, the warrior on horseback completely replaced the complex chariot as the superior military technology.

Eventually, the conquering nomads were assimilated by the settled farming cultures they conquered. At this point, they too became soft – perhaps not so fond of battle. This taming of the warrior mentality also happened to the Assyrians. The Scythians, who spoke an Iranian dialect, were the next wave of conquerors. They migrated from the extreme east of the Western Steppes, from which they had already attacked China.

The Scythians then turned their energies to the West. The fury of their attack brought the long-lived Assyrian Empire to an end. The Scythians, a loose confederation of tribes - as are all of the peoples of Steppes, returned home with their booty. They left the remaining cultures to fight it out for supremacy - which included the Medes, Babylonians, and Egyptians.

To indicate the military strength of the nomadic people, the great Persian Empire was also unsuccessful at repelling nomadic intrusions into their territory. Cyrus the Great was killed in a campaign against the nomadic raiders. His successor, Darius, while militarily effective in the West, could not defend his culture from the Scythians in the East. The Persians resorted to diplomacy - which included protection money. This worked well.

Alfalfa for defense?

After Alexander the Great defeated the Persian civilization in Iran, there was no one to guard against nomadic invasions from the steppes. Alexander’s successors, the Seleucid dynasty, were incapable of preventing these raids. Partially due to these attacks, this dynasty weakened. Eventually, their territory split in two. The Greek dominated Bactrians ruled the western portion. The Parthians, an Iranian speaking tribe who moved in from the Steppes and settled, came to dominate the eastern part. From 100 BCE -> 200 CE, they grew rich as the middlemen of the lucrative trade that carried goods across the Steppes by way of the Silk Road. The trade route was from Syria in the West to China in the East or even India in the South.

Attracted by the wealth like moths to a flame, the militaristic tribes from the Steppes regularly raided the Parthian Empire. In response, the Parthians developed bigger and stronger horses by feeding them alfalfa - a nutrient rich grain thatwas already in use for crop rotation. Their horses developed such a reputation that the Chinese Han Emperor Wu Ti organized an expedition to obtain these Parthian alfalfa-grown horses. The Chinese traveled thousands of miles to Ferghana. This was a city-state in the east of the Parthian Empire, which was known for these semi divine horses, which were rumored to fly. These were the famous horses of Ferghana.

The alfalfa innovation allowed the horses of the civilized world to grow bigger and stronger than the grass-fed horses of the Steppes. These larger horses were strong enough to wear armor that shielded them from attack. They were also able to carry armored men on their backs. The horsemen frequently carried lances to extend their reach and pierce enemy armor. These new live weapons were also able to carry a greater load farther and faster.

While these bigger and more powerful horses were able to defend the settled communities from attack, they were not able to defeat the nomadic warriors. The raiders were able to disappear into the endless Steppes, riding their smaller grass-fed horses, which were still quicker and more mobile than their larger alfalfa-grown counterparts. Having recently come from the Steppes themselves, the Parthians realized the futility of attempting to defeat the nomadic raiders. As such, they maintained mounted cavalry to expel these aggressive Steppe cultures from their borders. The Sassanian dynasty that supplanted the Parthians continued this policy.

Blocked from attacking Persia, the nomadic warriors simply went around and attacked Europe. This strategy eventually brought about the collapse of the almighty Roman Empire.

The Huns, another nomadic tribe from the Steppes, allied with the Goths, who had been defeated by the powerful Roman armies. Together they attacked the Germanic tribes of central Europe. Disturbed, these tribes began migrating west and south, dominating any cultures in their path. Eventually these Germanic tribes conquered all of Europe and sacked Rome. Due to these regular attacks from their perimeter, the old Roman Empire moved its capitol to Constantinople for safety.

It is evident that the use of the larger alfalfa-fed horses to effectively defend Persia set up a chain of events that entirely changed the political landscape of Western Europe.

Horse-riding Bedouins of Arabia spread Islam

As mentioned, arrow-shooting horsemen were relatively invincible at this time in history. The military technology began in the Western Steppes, eventually spread to the nomadic Arabs in the south. Like the Central Asian tribes, the Bedouins of Arabia had intense tribal loyalties. This kept them fighting amongst themselves most of the time.

Fragmented, the Bedouin tribes were exploited by the surrounding powers, notably the Empires of Rome, Persia and Egypt. Like the nomads of the Steppes, the Bedouin tribes were also invincible when they were united. When these tribes unified behind Mohammed’s Islamic religion, they became an unbeatable force.

The Muslim principles deplored strife among the faithful, but admired military action against the infidel. Embracing Islam, the Bedouins spread over the entire Middle East, uniting it for the first time in centuries. The Bedouins carried the Muslim tide into the Steppes. The Steppe cultures then spread Islam from Turkey to Afghanistan and India in the East. The African Moors, part of the same Islamic flood and using the same horseback riding technology, swept across Northern Africa. The force of their wave took them onto the Iberian peninsula of present day Spain and Portugal. Continuing with this momentum, they crossed the Pyrenees into the land of Gaul - present day France.

Here lived an aggressive Germanic tribe called the Franks. They were fierce warriors who were able to dominate the indigenous populations of Western Europe. However, the Franks didn’t yet have the horse riding military technology.

Faced with an ensuing onslaught of the Islamic cavalry, Charles Martel organized his warriors into a unified army. When the Islamic horsemen arrived, they were confronted with an impenetrable row of shield bearing warriors. By utilizing this strategy, the Franks successfully warded off the invading Moors in 732 BCE. The defeat sent the Moors back over the Pyrenees into Spain - the energy of the Islamic wave finally spent.

Europe's Feudal Society

Martel had seen the light. In order to be competitive on the battlefield, he organized the Franks into a mutual defense league, comprised of small communities. There were several features to this political organization. Each community was bound by vows of allegiance to come to each other’s aid in case of attack. Further, each community was required to train and provide horse-riding warriors, i.e. knights, for military purposes.

To raise more powerful steeds that could carry armored riders, the Franks began growing alfalfa. Due to this increased need for alfalfa, Europe’s new political system came to be built around many estates rather than cities. This was a distinct change from the prior city-based Bronze Age civilizations.

This shift from city to country had some distinct ramifications. This trend resulted in a drastic decentralization of European communities. Further the warrior/knights, who were needed to protect the local citizenry from attack, became the new aristocracy.

In turn, these knights pledged allegiance to a king. In this fashion, an aristocratic hierarchy was established. This aristocratic and decentralized system was needed to support this new military technology. This was the birth of the feudal system with knights and kings. In summary, to defend themselves against the horse-riding warriors of the Islamic world, European cultures created the feudal system.

While the Moors never attacked again, this new political military technology proved effective. Europe's feudal system provided the foundation by which Charlemagne, the grandson of Charles Martel, conquered and consolidated control of Western Europe under his leadership. Due to these accomplishments, the Pope proclaimed him the first Emperor of the new Holy Roman Empire based in Rome.

This feudal organization spread all over Europe. The military system behind feudalism was refined and perfected, while fighting amongst each other. The military technology encompassing knights and their alfalfa-fed horses was combined with feudal allegiances. Due to this military orientation, European wars became endemic.

As a solution to the constant warfare between the knights on European soil, the Pope called for the not so Holy Crusades against the Muslims. He hoped to channel the knight’s aggressive energy onto a foreign culture. The Europeans refined their military capabilities fighting each other and the Muslims.

Gunpowder and Cannons

Gunpowder was a significant feature of this military interaction. There is evidence that the Chinese employed black powder, as gunpowder was originally called, for fireworks as early as the 10th century. However, it was the Arabs who first used this black powder for military purposes.

Composed of saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal, black powder burns rapidly when lighted. It decomposes into 40% gas and 60% solids (white smoke). When the gases are compressed in a confined space such as in the barrel of a gun, the pent-up energy can propel an object such as a bullet.

The Muslim Arabs first used this feature of black powder against the Europeans in 1304 CE. They propelled arrows through a bamboo tube reinforced with iron. The military potentials of black powder were rapidly exploited as these simple arrow-firing guns were turned into cannons. These cannons could propel iron balls weighing between 30 and 60 pounds great distances.

The Muslims employed the cannons to create havoc in the enemy army as well as attack and destroy fortifications, such as mighty castle walls. Of course, the Europeans adopted this new military technology relatively quickly. Some historians feel that the ability of cannons to bring down thick fortresses was a significant feature in undermining feudal society and setting up nation states. Presumably, Church and princedoms could no longer hide safely behind castle walls, but were forced to join together in larger groups.

As part of the Crusader wave, the Portuguese and the Spanish unified around Catholicism to expel the Muslim Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. With this new military technology based around gunpowder and cannons, the Portuguese sailed south and then east to conquer Malacca. This military technology proved so effective that the Europeans eventually used it to conquer the world.


Home    Southeast Asia Home    Chapters    Prior    Next    Comments