I can think of one such battle in the British Isles; the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 in Scotland. In that battle, a 14,000-man English army despoiled a bunch of "homeless" vagrants on their way to meeting Robert Bruce. Bruce's 7,000 man army stopped the English army cold at Bannockburn creek with a downhill charge. Then between 1,000-2,000 vagrants formed an "army" and hit the English in the rear. It's not clear that they actually won the battle for Bruce, but it's clear that they were helpful to a Scots army outnumbered 2 to 1. Wiliam Wallace vs. Robert Bruce: Why Did One Win and One Lose?

Some definitions:

1) For the purposes of this question, "Continental Europe" refers to anything outside of the British Isles, Australia, or the Americas (where "militias" were fairly common). Basically, anything on what I call the "Eur-As-Af" land mass. Feel free to use Asian or African examples.

2) "Peasants with pitchforks" refers to civilians that fought only in the one battle, using lethal but "non-standard" weapons. This rules out "government issue" weapons like swords, spears, bow-and-arrow, and guns, but allows pitchforks, hoes, scythes, clubs, knives, hammers and sickles, etc., basically anything that a civilian might pick up on the spur of the moment. "Battle" refers to an action of at least 1,000 men on both sides, with the "peasants" fighting regular soldiers armed with conventional weapons (for their time), not other "peasants with pitchforks."

3) "Decided" means that if the "peasants" were fighting on the same side as regular soldiers, these regulars were outnumbered (as Bruce's men were) or otherwise at a disadvantage against the enemy, meaning that a good argument can be made that the "peasants" provided the margin of victory.

Have "peasants with pitchforks" (a concept put forth by America's Pat Buchanan), in fact, "decided" battles under the above conditions? Put another way, how dangerous were such fighters?

Hints: I have a recollection of peasants winning battles for Poland's Thadeusz Kosciusko in 1794-5, but don't know if they were armed with "pitchforks" or conventionally. Ditto for the victors of the battle of Courtrai in 1302.

  • 1
    Battle of Racławice during Kosciuszko's Uprising was the first that came to my mind. Later I'll provide the details for the military equipment, origin of the peasant soldiers and their importance at the battlefield. But even if the peasants provided the margin of victory, it was also thank to bad decisions and misunderstandings among Russian officers. – Darek Wędrychowski Mar 23 '13 at 16:53
  • As for peasants with pitchforks check also the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685. It was of course lost by the peasants, but maybe you'll find some valuable informations that suit your interests. – Darek Wędrychowski Mar 23 '13 at 17:00
  • I forgot to +1 ;) – Darek Wędrychowski Mar 23 '13 at 17:36
  • 1
    Does Pugachyov's uprising in Russia fit your bill? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pugachev%27s_Rebellion. Also, I seem to recall a bunch of peasants fighting against Poles for Minin/Pozharsky; and against Napoleon in 1812, but would need to dig deep for specific references... it's been a while. – DVK Mar 23 '13 at 23:57
  • 1
    @TomAu - does this qualify as "winning a battle"? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Kazan_%281774%29. They won against the original force, but lost against the reinforcements. – DVK Mar 24 '13 at 3:16

In your edit you mention the Battle of the Golden Spurs, as Courtrai, its other name.

Quoting the Historical significance part in Wikipedia article:

The Battle of the Golden Spurs had been called the first incidence of the gradual "Infantry Revolution" which occurred in Medieval warfare during the 14th century. In conventional military theory of the time, mounted and heavily armoured knights were considered an essential part of military success and consequently warfare was the preserve of a wealthy elite of bellatores (nobles specialized in warfare) serving as men-at-arms. The fact that this form of army, which was expensive to maintain, could be defeated by basic militia, drawn from the "lower orders", led to a gradual change in the nature of warfare during the subsequent century. The tactics and composition of the Flemish army at Courtrai were later copied or adapted at the battles of Bannockburn (1314), Crecy (1346), Aljubarrota (1385), Sempach (1386), Agincourt (1415), Grandson (1476) and in the battles of the Hussite Wars (1419–34). As a result, cavalry became less important and nobles more commonly fought dismounted. The comparatively low costs of militia armies allowed even small states, such as the Swiss, to raise militarily significant armies and meant that local rebellions were more likely to achieve military success.

Of course Crecy and Agincourt are more famous for the Welsh archers, but Courtrai, Bannockburn, Aljubarrota, Sempach and Grandson are good examples of "peasants with pitchforks" tactics being decisive.

EDIT: A case could be made that the Battle of Stirling Bridge belongs to this group too.


Spartacus battles? Majority of his rebels used whatever they could scavenge. Not sure this is what your after though, as most of his followers were trained fighters.


How about Boudica's campaign in which the overabundance of disorganized peasants caused her to ultimately lose?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.