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This question popped into my mind after criticizing the strategic choices in a recent episode of a famous fantasy television show (coffs).

A lot of genre fiction (mostly fantasy, even if we may cast historical-fiction into the pot) deals with battles, war and similar events. However, the emotional impact of those scenes can be lost if the author doesn't write plausible, or at least coherent, battle tactics.

When the heroes win, we want to see them win thanks to clever tactics, and when they lose, we want them to lose despite having fought their best. This is an hard target to hit when not knowing much about military strategy.

Fantasy usually goes along pretty well with a medievalish era, in terms of technologies and settings, so let's stick with the middle ages.

I'm interesting to hear the name of some good, reliable historical source on how war was waged, what strategies where employed and what the state of the art was at the time. I know there are some manuscripts about very specific aspects of fighting (swordplay manuals mostly) but I'm unaware of any source discussing tactics.

What I'd like is something akin to Sun Tzu's Art of War, roughly speaking.

  • Could you clarify “the emotional impact of those scenes by some gross mistake on the author’s part” I’ve read this a few times and do not understand. Thanks.:) – Stefan May 18 at 20:56
  • @Stefan You're right, it was poorly written. It should be clearer now. – Liquid - Reinstate Monica May 19 at 9:23
  • Thanks for that. I’d love to have insights into the thinking of the battleground decision makers. Good reading in my book. – Stefan May 21 at 6:57
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If the idea is to have battles with a medieval feel, then the choice lies on Epitoma rei militaris by P. Vegati Renati (now better known as Vegetius).

While Rome produced many excellent military treatises, this one was the most popular throughout the Middles Ages in Europe. His work was studied, rewritten and adapted to the new techniques as they appeared, and quite a few princes (at least in the Iberian Peninsula) studied it thoroughly.

Now that you've read Vegetius, choose the area of Europe that you want to use as basis for your fantasy work. This choice is important because Northern Europe moved to heavy armor for both knight and horse earlier than the Iberian Kingdoms, since the latter favoured fast horses. Also, England was famous for the longbow, while the Iberian Kingdoms favoured the crossbow for its accuracy (spiced with some poison, obviously). I don't know the particularities of German and Italian warfare of the time, but take a look at them before choosing what matches your fantasy world.

Once you've chosen your area, look for treatises that locals of the time produced. Even if they were 'translations' of Vegetius, they'll have new sections to mention the techniques developed since. In the Iberian Peninsula, there is quite a history of military treatises in the 11th-15th centuries. Some were copies, some were more original. For example, King Alfonso X of Castille wrote the famous Siete Partidas in the 12th century, which includes a veritable treatise on warfare in its second section. In the 14th century, Don Juan Manuel wrote another treatise on War, but the influence of Vegetius is clear throughout his work.

After you've gone through the work of the time period, look to the present. Find a Military Encyclopedia or similar and study all the big battles of the time period you're after. Don't limit yourself to the area you've chosen, but look at others for it will give you an insight into, eg, why the English relied so much on their longbow, while the Iberian Kings prized the crossbow and forced the infantry to practise its use regularly.

Battles where the smaller army beat the bigger one will be of particular interest, but reading about the bigger armies' victories or the evolution of well balanced opponents will help you understand how the smaller armies could take advantage of traditional moves.

Have fun!

  • The Brits used poison for their projectile weapons too, particularly Digitalis. – Ash May 13 at 15:46
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    @Ash: Interesting. In Portugal, they favoured Helleborus foetidus, AKA hellebore, dungwort, setterwort and bear's foot. – SC for reinstatement of Monica May 13 at 15:48
  • Digitalis is a powerful heart stimulant and an anticoagulant so the wounded bleed out faster, or died of heart failure having taken only superficial wounds. – Ash May 13 at 15:53

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