Random question for anyone who reads accounts of medieval battles. Was it customary for European medieval commanders to exchange words before battle, not merely for diplomatic reasons but more out of custom?

For example, I thought King Harold of the England and King Harald Hardrada of the Norwegians exchanged words at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; I think Harold was trying to broker a deal with Hardrada to avoid future bloodshed (I haven't read the account, however). I don't mean this kind of "diplomatic" exchange; I mean more like a formal declaration of war if the two armies had not met each other yet.

What makes me think this happened at least once is that, in the book The Hobbit, Tolkien had one of the dwarfish commanders (I believe from Moria) address the elves before they began the Battle of Five Armies. Being that Tolkien was a medieval scholar it seems plausible that this sort of formal, customary exchange could have happened at some point. I also know Joan of Arch on multiple occasions gave the typical "Surrender or Die" to the cities she besieged, but that served a practical purpose rather than a culture one.

It just doesn't seem plausible to my ignorant brain just to see an enemy army and shout "ATTAAACK!" without first saying something to the enemy commander, especially in a situation where it was the respective armies first encounter. That makes me think there might have been a formal and cultural way of doing it.

Examples with text would be appreciated.

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    I don't believe it was customary. If the commanders had something to offer to each other to avoid the battle then sure, Otherwise no.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 14:31
  • Ok. Maybe it's just a weird impression of mine that they did. :/
    – mkrell
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 14:52
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    Prior to the Battle of Agincourt: "*The next day the French initiated negotiations as a delaying tactic, but Henry ordered his army to advance and to start a battle that, given the state of his army, he would have preferred to avoid, or to fight defensively: *" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Agincourt#Campaign). That Henry also addressed his men before the battle is of course well known, though Shakespeare's rendition is undoubtedly embellished. Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 15:13
  • Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong but I got the impression that you're talking about opponents. If that is correct it might be worth noting that in The Hobbit the battle you refer to the elves and dwarves were more concerned about the goblins. Yes they had their differences and that's to be expected with the imprisonment even without the other things - but the danger at hand were the goblins (not saying there weren't other dangers here) and other creatures pursuing the dwarves but risking those they came across on their hunt.
    – Pryftan
    Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 18:54

3 Answers 3


I have looked at the descriptions of many of the battles, especially the 100 Years' War, and most of them were preceded by negotiations, leading us to believe that it may have been customary and was at the very least common.

  • Do we know of any written chivalric texts that suggest that it was honorable to give words before battle? I know chivalry didn't exist as one standardized code like (as far as I know) the samurai code in Japan, but it's relative commonality makes me think that there was at least a cultural notion of it, or else, there was enough practical reason in any given situation that lent you to do that.
    – mkrell
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 2:04
  • @mkrell When I get back to a computer, I will do further research.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 20:30
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    @mkrell I can't find anything from a skimming of the texts.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 21:37

It just doesn't seem plausible to my ignorant brain just to see an enemy army and shout "ATTAAACK!" without first saying something to the enemy commander, especially in a situation where it was the respective armies first encounter. That makes me think there might have been a formal and cultural way of doing it.

Ideally, you'd like to shout "attack!" before the enemy army even knows you're there: an ambush. These are hard to pull off, but clearly happen without any negotiations, e.g. Hannibal at Lake Trasimene or the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

If there was no chance of hiding your forces from your enemies, your armies would maneuver around each other, trying to force battle at a tactically strong location. Some famous examples of such maneuverings include Pompey and Caesar in Greece and Hannibal and Fabius during the 2nd Punic War. If you could figure out where the opposing army was, you could send emissaries to negotiate, but both armies would be trying to hide their movements. An example of this type of communication is the delivery of Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal's head to Hannibal's camp by the Romans as a sign of his death. In this case, yes, generals could and would negotiate as long as it met the orders they were operating under.

Once the armies met, the chance to hide was over: they would get into formation, with each side trying to get into a position that benefited them while costing the other side. Given that the armies would then march at or charge each other, their lines had to be pretty close -- which also meant that it was possible for generals to send emissaries to negotiate their way out of the battle -- since any battle held the possibility of a rout, any general would like to win by peaceful means of at all possible, but might not have been authorized to: few generals would be able to negotiate a peaceful solution if their leader had decreed merciless war, say. I think the examples you give in your question are good examples, but I don't think negotiated settlements would have been very common, as both generals would have had specific military goals to accomplish (capture some land, eliminate some army) and would know that they'd be unlikely to get these by negotiation. So, while this was definitely possible, it was probably not generally attempted. A good example of the closeness of the armies was at the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar's legions advanced to within throwing distance of Pompey's, paused to regroup, and only then charged. So, yes, even at this late state, negotiation was an option. It seems unlikely to me, though: negotiating might show weakness to the enemy or to your own soldiers, and you might be accused of cowardice.

To respond to the other part of your question: the dwarves and elves had been allied not so many centuries ago and did not have perfectly contradictory goals here: the elves were looking for a monetary reward, and the dwarves could easily have paid them and both sides would have left peacefully. If the dwarves wanted to, say, eject the elves from Mirkwood, I don't think they'd've bothered to negotiate.

  • Caesar's forces were advancing uphill at Pharsalus; and paused to catch their breath just out of philum range. Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 22:43

Sounds like a villain in a James Bond movie.

Seriously...dispatching emissaries prior to any contact with friend or foe alike was I believe it was considered normative in Roman Times especially prior to giving battle as there are no greater victories than ones that require no battle be given in the first place. This would change during Imperial Rome though. As far as Medieval Europe goes it's hard to imagine the notion of chivalry without the theory of failing to give battle without losing one's honor in so doing.

In Naval terms there is also the concept of "parlay" made famous by the movie series Pirates of the Caribbean and Captain Jack Sparrow.

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    Do you have any historical basis?
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 17:09
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    Polybius and Livy are highly readable...as is Caeser's Conquest of Gaul...the latter being one of the best books I have ever read actually. As far as Midieval Europe "Knights of the Roundtable" my favorite reference is Shakespeare ... especially the tennis ball scene in Henry the Vth. Just because you have a communication before battle does not mean the point isn't to give battle...it can be the exact opposite. What better way to win than to cause your advesary to quit with only words? Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 17:20
  • Thank you. I would recommend making your answer more focused.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 19:28
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    What better way to win than to cause your advesary to quit with only words? A famous theorist agrees with you. Winning battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. -Sun Tzu, The Art of War- Suggest that you support the "parlay" point with historical examples from naval encounters, not a Disney movie. Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 16:14
  • @KorvinStarmast any idea if there were European writers (like Baldassare Castiglione) who said similar things? So far the practical reasons for exchanging words seem plentiful, but I'm wondering if there is any hint of it being a chivalric custom other than the fact that it was pretty common.
    – mkrell
    Commented Jul 3, 2016 at 2:09

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