We're all familiar with the basic setup of feudal society: a large class of peasants supporting a small martial-administrative class of knights. In the event of a big war, peasants get handed some cheap weapons and told to march off to someplace. The reason that invasions by nomadic societies were so successful was partly because the quality of an average peasant conscript was atrocious.

Later on, mercenary armies would become more of a thing, and some states would force their peasantry to train (for example, the classic English longbowman). But in the early Middle Ages (500-900 CE) was there an intermediate role? Not a knight (expected to be a professional soldier) and not a peasant (no training at all) but someone who would own arms and armor and train with them, while still dedicating some time to farming a personal plot of land for sustenance?

  • Please show research.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 17:16
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    @MarkC.Wallace: To OP's credit, he is giving English Longbowmen as an example, and I dunno about your youth but when I was taught the early middle ages in childhood it was presented as marauding hordes taking over the Western Empire for all practical intents. Plus there have been lots of developments on this topic in the past few decades, and judging by OP's question I'd wager school textbooks still haven't been updated. IMO the request for prior research here is unwarranted. Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 17:23
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    @SPavel: In several cases the barbarians that took over were mercenaries hired by locals, evolved from mercenaries and turned into the Roman army over time, or actually had been the Roman army itself for a while. And in some cases (e.g. the Huns) the ones that didn't take over were mercenaries too. In this sense there were plenty in the early middle ages. Your question might make more sense in a later period. Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 17:35
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    @MarkC.Wallace: I mostly agree in principle, but there are some areas of history (such as the fall of Rome and the early middle ages, or Nazi Germany and the Holocaust) where prior research is basically guaranteed to lead posters to debunked narratives or outright misinformation. IMHO we should be accommodating to what history textbooks actually teach in such circumstances, as well as to what nationalists are putting forward in their narratives, and tone our criteria down for periods where there are tons of BS going on about. (Feel free to open a question in meta if you disagree.) Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 18:51
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    It would help to specify the country... Feudal society and different privileges and roles had a large variety from the west to the east. For example, in feudal Hungary, the Szekely tribes had some similar role what you are asking
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 3:36

3 Answers 3


Pieter Geerkens is making a good point in the comments: a knight was usually supposed to lead a small unit from his manor/castle/etc. Besides the knights or semi-professional soldiers there could be carriers, helpers, servants, etc. moving with the army. An inportant point about the answer: As the call to arms was often periodic or even annual, it would make more sense if usually his subordinates were the same people and not random totally untrained peasants.

I will illustrate this with XIII c music (unfortunately not early middle ages) This page has commented lirics of the music 'O que da guerra levou cavaleiros' composed by the king Alfonso X. His basic idea was to ridicule the knights who did not fulfill their feudal contract in wartime. Each verse ridicules a specific case (and some historians believe that each verse really correspond to an specific knight). So, let's see how the king was displeased with some of his knights:

O que tragia o pendom sem oito       
The one who brought his banner without eight (without his 8 promised companions)   

e a sa gente nom dava pam coito
and to his people did not give baked bread

nom vem al maio
do not come to the May

O que tragia o pendom sem sete
The one who brought his banner without seven (without his 7 promised companions)   

e cinta ancha e mui gram topete,
and a large belt and well combed hair

nom vem al maio.
do not come to the May

Up to now we have 2 verses about knights who showed up with no companions. The King made them the favor of specifying in the music exactly the number of expected soldiers - besides telling everybody about their greed and vanity.

O que tragia o pendom sem tenda,
The one who brought his banner without tent
(without his military tent and equipment for long term stay. Was he supposing the war would be quick?)

per quant'agora sei de sa fazenda,
considering what I know now about his situation
(probably the King got word that he was rich enough to pay for his equipment)

nom vem al maio.
do not come to the May.

Now the king ridicules another greedy or coward knight who did not bring equipment to stay for the whole annual campaign.

About the 'do not come to the May': It means the feasts of May, a merry party time also including religious Marian feasts. It also means the period when the army must assemble to the main annual campaigns. So telling them not to come to the May means that they do not deserve neither to party and pray with the King nor to fight with the army.

A good moral of this history is 'do not try to fool a King-poet': he will shame you in music for the ages...

PS: If you wonder about the language it is Galician-Portuguese - it is surely not modern Portuguese, so forgive me any mistakes in translation. Comment if you know better.


Most nobles had some permanent staff. It wasn't just a baron keeping peace in his castle and the whole demesne all by himself.


Permanent staff in a noble estate was called Retinue. They would include men at arms who's main job was to always be ready to fight for his master.

Town guard

Most medieval cities and bigger towns had their own militias or guards. In peacetime they acted as police or custom officers. In times of war some city troops may be called by their overlord to join the common cause.

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    Sources from the requested early (500-900) rather than mid or late medieval period would improve this answer. (Suggesting because what you wrote seems to be more about the mid to late medieval period.) Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 18:04
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    Exactly. It is vital to distinguish the training role of a knight from his combat role. It was a knight's responsibility to arrive for combat not only himself, but with a designated number of other men at arms, trained and equipped for battle. In this sense regard him as a sergeant. That he might (or might not) fight in battle as part of mounted troop is an entirely different matter. Likewise for the Constable of a castle, as noted here, perhaps not himself a soldier. Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 2:33

Europe is a very large area.

In the early middle ages Europe contained many provinces ruled by the eastern section of the genuine original Roman Empire, what is usually called the "Byzantine" Empire.

So the "Byzantine" Empire certainly had units of totally professional soldiers.

But it may also have had semi professional soldiers in the theme system. I have the impression that the theme soldiers held farmland through military service and had to serve in the theme army when called to active duty. Thus they were part time soldiers like militia, national guard members or army reservists in the contemporary USA. I am not entirely certain that is the contemporary understanding of the theme system but if it isn't it can be corrected.

And I don't think that all medieval knights all over Europe all during the millennium that the Middle Ages lasted for were always professional soldiers.

Knights and men at arms who resided in the castle of their lord as part of his retinue were professional soldiers who worked for their lord for room and board and maybe cash pay.

But it seems to me that a knight who had a manor and was the lord of the manor would usually hold the manor as a fief from a higher lord. Thus he would administer his manor full time but would have to serve in his lord's army a specified number of days per year and fulfill other duties specified in his feudal agreement. Thus knights who had manors were part time warriors like militia, national guard, or army reservists in the USA.

And I suspect that a number of medieval societies had social classes vaguely similar to knights and thus being semi professional part time warriors.

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    Sources from the requested early (500-900) rather than mid or late medieval period would improve this answer. (Suggesting because what you wrote seems to be more about the mid to late medieval period.) Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 18:04
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    I believe It's a serious error to regard knights as any sort of cavalry trooper during this time period. That might (or particularly in Poland is probably not) the case in combat, but the knight's primary responsibility is the maintenance of a manor and the training of a squad of men-at-arms of which he is the sergeant. Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 2:35

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