If one in ten people possess the magical ability to fly, would this change the development of defensive measures and tactics in a society reminiscent of Britain in the medieval era? No other magic exists for practical usage.

Having part of the population be able to fly would cause a problem, for instance, with the traditional walls and high ground as defense strategy that gave rise to motte and baily and then more sophisticated castles. But since most people CANNOT fly, this means that walls are still effective against 90% of enemies? I imagine having a "flying corps" would probably be a useful military strategy, much like how old fashioned militaries would have cavalry units. Bowman would probably be even more essential, as a means of taking down flying opponents. How could a lord keep their town/lands protected when the enemy might have flying spies/attackers?

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    $\begingroup$ "what are the consequences of X on society?" is always too broad of a question, for any X. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 3, 2022 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ I actually had to consider this for about 20 worlds, each with their own magic, so I don't think it's too broad at all. One of them even happens to have flight. Thrust from the hands, but same thing. This kind of question is a staple book premise for sci-fi. How would society change if we could do X. $\endgroup$ May 3, 2022 at 5:47
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    $\begingroup$ @RobertRapplean, that you did it for your worlds doesn't mean it's a good fit for this community. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 3, 2022 at 6:12
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    $\begingroup$ Cultural changes is really, really broad. We can fill books with just the changes in economy alone. In addition, we have a lot of cultures in our world. There is no single answer that can say how all cultures will change. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 3, 2022 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ Does this answer your question? Most effective castle fortifications against fantasy/medieval airborne attack? $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    May 3, 2022 at 9:56

5 Answers 5


The main advantages of flying troops in medieval warfare would be as follows;

  1. mobility. The ability to travel over most terrain reliably without the need for roads would make even a small troop invaluable. It would increase the flow of information, decrease the predictability of attack patterns, and make moving over ground without air defense less safe.

  2. stealth. An army marching together makes a lot of noise, draws a lot of attention, and tend to be easy to look for, especially given their reliance on roads. A flying squadron could hide their presence far easier, and would leave behind far less in the way of tracks to follow than soldiers on foot or horseback.

  3. weapon variety. Siege warfare already involves a great number of weapons that depend upon gravity - dropping burning sand, boiling oil, or just rocks from castle walls onto invaders. Surely a great deal of similar weapons would be developed and honed to perfection to allow a flying squadron to attack from above and retreat to a base where more ammunition awaited them. Of course, fliers with bows and arrows is probably going to be the main option, but the weird, creative ones will also see use.

  4. targeting capability. From above, fliers would be able to zero in on important figures in the enemy line-up, whether that was nobility they wished to kill or capture for ransom, officers who gave orders to the infantry, or couriers or flag bearers who might signal those orders. They could also as a group target one particular part of an army, possible a reserve or reinforcement troop, and try to force them out of position.

With all of this in mind, what defenses might be developed?

The first and most obvious is an increase in ranged weaponry. Archery would become invaluable, and the use of cheaper weapons like slings and spear-throwers might remain in the armory for longer. Super long spears and throwing spears, both of which were common in bronze age warfare but didn't survive to iron age, might still see use to stop low fliers. However, if a person can fly in plate armor (which they probably can) then at some point, they will, and for that, crossbows and longbows might the only reliable weapon.

Other tactics might prove useful, however. Building bonfires to provide large clouds of smoke might make the air difficult to fly through. Training birds like hawks and falcons to harass flying humans could be more useful than trying to take them out by hand - flying is usually a difficult and dangerous undertaking, and magical flying is probably no different. Little distractions might do a lot of damage if they lead the flier to lose their balance or their nerve.

Catapults and ballista might also be retooled so as to shoot nets, or shotgun-style loads of debris. This would probably be used sparingly, since you don't want that stuff to then fall on your own troops - these weapons would be best employed by castles and by troops while they were moving, not so much in actual battles.

Passive defenses will also develop. This would likely include armor, especially helmets, designed to protect from above. Roman-style shield formations for infantry would stay in style, and siege towers or mobile defense huts like the ones they put around battering rams might see use in other contexts. Likely, the officers will use contraptions like these to relay their orders during battle, waving flags or tooting horns from a more defensible, fortified construction rather than a sitting duck on the field. As for Castles, they will have to have intricately built roofs, able to defend against things being dropped or thrown at the ramparts but incapable of having someone fly onto or over them without being seen.

There will also be some accommodations made to promote the use of friendly fliers - lighthouses on land, to make flying by night possible (and make sneaking around at night less possible). Towers and forts with drawbridge-style openings high up in the walls, to allow for quick bombing sorties from well stocked rooms.

Remember, if this gift has always existed, this has always been a part of combat. By the iron age, these techniques will be highly developed by a long military history, and military technology will reflect those developments. Fliers probably have aerodynamic armor, may even have something like a parachute if falling from the sky is a risk.

This seems to me like good summary of some of the main effects flying humans might have on iron age warfare. However, as a parting thought, here are some musings on the societal effects.

In medieval Europe in particular, the military advantages offered by horseback riding resulted in the existence of the nobility. Mounted Knights who served alongside Charlemagne were given grants of land to secure their loyalty. A later Carolingian King eventually made the ownership of that land hereditary, tying the families of those knights to the king. This created a system where the knight's family acted as landlords, pushing their serfs to farm the land and then using the profit from this to fund all the necessary training and equipment to guarantee a mounted warrior for the crown. In particular, the raising and training of the horses would have been a great expense. However, because of the power cavalry offered, this system successfully spread across Europe.

Because the gift of flight is not hereditary, kings would not be able to guarantee themselves the use of a flying knight by ennobling that knight's family. Other incentives would have to be used - if anyone can be born with this power, society must make allowances for anyone to be capable of rising in status if they are found with the power. Hereditary nobility may not exist. At the very least, I think that the caste system of this world may end up noticeably more fluid, at least on the surface.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree on the society bit. I envision nobles coming to power by overthrowing the person who had their position before or by being deemed a worthy successor by that person, as opposed to via automatic blood heredity. While to pass on to a child is probably preferred by a parent in power, that child is going to have to prove their worth, not just to the parent, but to the parent's followers, or risk being overthrown when they do inherit. $\endgroup$
    – MarielS
    May 3, 2022 at 20:04

Prolonged sieges become less common

In medieval warfare sieges were usually about surrounding the city/castle and starving it into submission. Siege engineering was not as advanced as in the classical period or later when cannons became widespread, so against a well-constructed walls and other defensive structures an assault was often near-impossible or too costly in terms of men.

Now flying corps are a bit like a medieval airforce but with an important difference. High explosives didn't exist back then, so using the flyers as bombers is probably going to be difficult - there wasn't anything like a bomb back then that's commonly available to most cultures. As I see it, the main use of the flying corps for the offensive side would be as paratroopers - fly over the wall, land and fight your way to the gates to open them for the main force. Possibly a large all-flying force could assault small garrisons all by themselves.

Now, the side that's defending will have their own flyers too. They are an even bigger game changer in siege warfare, simply because they can bring food into a besieged city, potentially making the siege last indefinitely. For this job, you don't need any particular military training, so women and children could do it too. I imagine the besieging side will try to control the airspace with their own flying forces as 'interceptors' but this will probably be many orders of magnitude more difficult than blocking all the gates of a city/castle.

So, I imagine an army that is vastly superior to their enemies will find conquest a lot easier by assaulting the enemy strongholds, but an army trying to conquer territory against an enemy of similar strength will make very little headway.


As before, with additions

Though tactics may change, there's plenty that will stay the same. As you say, 90% is still a 'normal' person. That means the 'normal' tactics are still very valid. Build in strategic places where you can easily field and move your units, while still having an easy to defend location. A local hill, along a river split or the like. The doctrine needs to only account for an extra threat. The flyers.

The flyers will not add much utility on a normal battle. They can try to stay out of range by hovering over the rest, which is a BIG advantage, but they will also be a recognisable target for any ranged people. Archers aren't as prevalent as you might think, but spears are plenty. They have range and can often be thrown. Otherwise there's plenty of other stuff that can be thrown. You can say the same for horseback riders, but they have a horse that allows them to easily carry the full plate throughout a battle.

Flying archers is also a dangerous tactic. Again, they will make themselves an easily spotted target by flying. Besides, an arrow costs about the same as a spear, which is a lit. This is due to that the labour that goes into a spear and an arrow is nearly identical, despite the size difference.

Then flying high enough to stay out of any ground danger. Dropping big stones or again firing arrows. It will require thick clothing most of the time, as it'll quickly get cold higher up and in the wind. The enemy will do the same however, so they will field flyers that try to solely kill other flyers.

There's probably a lot more angles to this, but in the end they're just an extra resource that can aid in battle. They are probably most useful as scouts, able to fly around relatively safe as they have 3 dimensions to move and flee from.


Fortifying will be different. The fortifications need to euther fully repel an attacker, just like a wall. Or there needs to be more guards to spot and dispose of the flyers. Or there needs to be both.

Building with this in mind is possible. Open courtyards are still possible, but everything of use needs to be proof against quick tampering. All access points need to be easy to guard. If guards are posted on the walls or other 'open' areas they do need to be better protected. Depending on the situation, this can be as easy as having two people guarding together to a fully enclosed walkway.

Guerilla tactics would be the best way to attack with flyers under cover of low visibility. Yet the dangers to the flyers is extreme. Low visibility is very dangerous to navigate. It is not a surefire way to infiltrate a castle.


The flyers will definitely change part of the battlefield. They are a useful resource that can be applied in all areas of tactics. Their influence isn't such that all military tactics need to be changed. The toolbox is just more full. That means defence also needs to be changed to aid here.

Though high utility, they are also very vulnerable. Just landing in a courtyard isn't a great idea, as the enemy also has 10% flyers in the population in addition to just regular manpower. It does add many effective tactical options that can't be overlooked, but with extra vigilance and building with different access points in mind their power can be reduced.

They change the battlefield much like the introduction of horseback riding has done. The battlefield is definitely different, but only an extra consideration.

  • $\begingroup$ Nets, flying resupply of castles, castles having few defenders modt of the time so less flyers, how arrows are thought to have been not very lethal but mostly a psychological weapon? $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    May 3, 2022 at 10:58

Huge Difference

In ancient warfare, battles were rare and sieges were common. When I say siege I don't mean trebuchet and mangonel; I mean park your army outside the walls until they all starve to death.

Sometimes there were only thirty or fifty people in the castle, not all soldiers, and far too many to patrol the walls around the clock; and thousands of troops outside [citation needed].

Now give the attackers ten flying men, who can swoop down on any part of the castle at any time.

There is no siege any more. It is just a matter of time until the flying men manage to open the gate from inside.


An interesting job market

The first thing I have to ask is if those 10% are random or hereditary. If it's the latter, you can guarantee a religiously enforced ruling class, and a presumption of superiority by anyone who can fly. There are plenty of stories about a magic person being born to a muggle-esque household, so you can see how that would work.

Militarily, you can guarantee that every country would have "elite" forces. You'd basically have an airforce at an early part of their development. This doesn't mean that they wouldn't have walls. Why let the heavy forces just walk in? They would have a much stronger emphasis on ranged weaponry. You'd also have to secure the windows on most buildings to prevent bird burglars.

Technologically, let me ask, what powers their flight? How much can they lift? Let's say that a person can only fly in light clothing. That means they could easily generate energy by flying up to a platform and letting the weight pull it down. They could sit on a ferris-wheel all day and make themselves weightless on the way up. You can bet that they'd get good at converting that energy to physical labor. They would still need oxen to plow their fields, but it would be 10th century easy to figure out how to use a person's weight to drive a chariot. "Engine" would be a job description the same way "calculator" used to be in our culture.

Ten percent is a good number. That's what I've been using for the distribution of magic in the Thaumechanical Man. It's enough that it's ubiquitous, but not so much that it's presumed. You have a large enough work force to be sure that any job would have enough people to fill it if that magic became a requirement. You'd have a shortage of qualified people, but that just means that people don't use fliers for things like ditch digging. They'd be too expensive.

You can bet, however, that if fliers can carry their own weight, that the rich would have flying palanquins. Courier would be another natural role. They'd be more adept at 3 dimensional thinking, and probably a complex set of traffic rules, and laws against flying over private property.

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    $\begingroup$ The 10% is random. It is not genetic. As to how much they can carry, about as much as a person can carry normally, I'd say. They do get "tired" if carrying extra weight while flying, same as you would while walking. $\endgroup$
    – MarielS
    May 3, 2022 at 6:05

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