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So I'm writing a medieval epic fantasy book, as one does.

I've read in a few places that armies should have camp followers, but frankly, I'm not sure what that means or how that might operate.

As I understand it, these would be families of soldiers/craftsmen/etc that follow the soldiers (generally with the baggage train?), but - apart from the families, obviously - would they seek these people out and bring them with them? Would they pick them up along the way, with people just tagging along in order to try to sell stuff to the soldiers?

I read somewhere that the army also feeds the followers, which makes me think that anyone who joins would have to be approved (if not sought out specifically) by them.

(This is the relevant one) If an army passes through hostile territory, would it make sense for someone to blend in with these people and get close to the army like that, in order to sabotage their equipment or something similar?

Thanks in advance.

(Also apologies in advance if this is a bit of a dumb question, I've been able to find very little and what I did find is like American Civil war stuff.)

The saboteurs one is perhaps the most accurate, though I'm looking for something more general as well (i.e how does that actually look?) that I don't expect to be fully answered in a post. Pointing me to places to read about it is also very helpful (like Bret Deveraux whose articles I will now binge as a form of procrastination), as I've not really been able to find many.

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    Fortunately, Brett Deveraux has just covered this, complete with citations. Strongly recommend you explain what research you've already done and explain why the relevant WIkipedia page doesn't answer the question. B. Deveraux points out that camp followers are pretty consistent prior to railroads - also WarHistory or JAR
    – MCW
    Aug 1, 2022 at 15:27
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    @MCW: That's wonderful. I particularly enjoyed this: "Roman armies, for instance, were mobilized in March (Roman Martius, the month of Mars, because the Romans are not subtle) for this reason; the general rule of thumb is that the campaigning season in Europe began with the Spring Equinox in late March." Aug 1, 2022 at 16:02
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    @veryconfusedman - is there any way to edit the title of this question to clarify? Some people will read only the title; can you edit the title to ask a question that is closer to what you want to know? (How did they work? can be answered "in unskilled labor" or "on their backs", which I think is not what you're seeking)
    – MCW
    Aug 1, 2022 at 18:00
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    What about "How were camp followers vetted?" or "How were camp followers selected?"
    – MCW
    Aug 2, 2022 at 10:08
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    @MCW: Too specific on one of OP's sub-questions, I think. How about "Who became a Medieval camp follower? How? and Why?" Aug 2, 2022 at 16:38

1 Answer 1

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The details of this really depend on the period, the kind of society that fielded that army, the leader(s) who organized the army, and the kind of campaign the army was on. I think it's best to look at the different kind of camp followers, why they were there, and what conclusions can be drawn from that.

  • Wives and children of soldiers - this varies a lot.
    • Short-term conscripts that were only expected to be in the army for the duration of that year's "campaing season" would not bring their wives along - they needed to stay at home to take care of the soldier's farm, to which he expected to return after the campaign (and would mutiny if he wasn't allowed to). This would apply especially when there was no standing army, such as during the Roman Republic and in medieval Europe.
    • Professional soldiers in standing armies were often prohibited from marrying, in part to prevent them from taking their families along. Example: Roman Empire.
    • Mercenaries (for whom war was a long-term profession) would very often have wives and children along; any general trying to ban that would have problems hiring mercenaries.
  • Personal servants/slaves - whether these were available depends on the organization of the society, but higher ranked or rich soldiers would have these if possible; generals often tried to ban this, but in doing so risked damaging morale (and might even be politically impossible).
  • Professional who provided important services to the soldiers: farriers, blacksmiths, cooks, horse-minders, prostitutes, etc. These would indeed typically be approved by an officer and assigned to a specific unit.
  • Merchants who sold stuff to the soldiers, or might even be directly involved in supplying the army's regular rations.

As you can probably infer, your scenario of "saboteur blends in with the camp followers of an enemy army in his/her territory" is very difficult for the infitrator:

  • Wives, servants and tradespeople were all attached to specific soldiers or units, so strangers would stand out.
  • An infiltrator who knows about the structure of the army and the names of its units and officers might be able to bluff their way around by always claiming to belong to a different unit, but that would be very risky - if anyone gets suspicious and verifies those claims, it's game over.
  • Posing as a merchant seems like a better option at first, since merchants would pass around different units - but they were also more widely known and a new face would arouse suspicion more easily. Plus, merchants would generally only follow an army in friendly territory since acquiring new wares in enemy territory would be difficult and dangerous.
  • Trying to join the army as a new tradesperson or concubine in enemy territory would be extremely dangerous, since enemy civilians were basically free game to rob, rape and murder.
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  • I'm skeptical of your bullets - Even in unfriendly territory, the supply lines reached back to friendly territory, and every new town would send out sutlers to try to minimize the impact of forage. I wonder where we could find evidence to resolve the competing hypothesis (I'd citing Bret Deveraux as above, but that's evidence, not proof.)
    – MCW
    Aug 8, 2022 at 20:20
  • Actually, no, because it was not feasible to supply an army. Everything that carried food to the army needed food to do so, and it became impractical. You lived off the people around you.
    – Mary
    Aug 9, 2022 at 1:52
  • @MCW: I'm sure there was a continuum of how "unfriendly" the territory was (or was treated by the army), but in many cases, the army's explicit goal was to maximize the impact of forage. Aug 9, 2022 at 14:01
  • While I don't disagree, I'm not sure that it responds to the hypothesis I've advanced.
    – MCW
    Aug 9, 2022 at 15:12

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