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I have no idea how to start researching this, so I'm going to here, where there are people who are much smarter than me. So I'm writing a story set in the medieval time period. In my story, there is a group who is consistently attacking towns in this one country. The monarch is able to get reports on the the aftermath of the attacks (reports might include approximate death count, infrastructure damage, and how much money/supplies will be lost, but these details aren't set in stone as they are the point of this question). I have a pretty good idea of long these reports would take to come in, but how detailed would they be?

Clarification: By how detailed, I'm not asking you to write my story or anything of the sort. I just need a vague sense of accuracy and what information would be included. Would there be a lot of details or not many at all? (Though I in no way believe that these reports are going to be some exact masterpieces.) Would they be able to even include a death count? How accurate would it be?

Details on Reports: These reports are created from soldiers going into attacked areas after the attackers have left. They look through the wreckage for bodies and talk to witnesses and survivors for details, but they do try to get these reports done quickly in order to get them to the monarch in a timely fashion. The reports are written and taken to the ruler by a messenger, and while I do expect some reports to go missing, let's go on the assumption that most wouldn't be.

Details on Attacks: The people attacking the cities don't attack many places at once (at most they attack three small towns a day. A big city is a large score for them). The attackers move quickly, only spending a small time at each town, so the towns generally aren't completely destroyed. The attackers' goal is to get in and get out and cause as many deaths to the town as possible. They generally aren't targeting supplies, the towns' businesses, or important locations. The most damage they do to the towns themselves is starting fires, the only purpose of which is to kill more people.

I know there is a certain extent to which it's my story and I can do what I want. But what's the high end of details that these reports can have?

(Also feel free to edit the tags, I have no idea which ones to use besides )

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    $\begingroup$ This query looks to be a better fit with History Stack Exchange rather than Worldbuilding - some people here may have an idea, but that is where the greater knowledge base is. $\endgroup$ Jul 30, 2023 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ I'm no expert, but it appears that you're creating your medieval logistics in the image of a modern bureaucracy-driven military. In the early medieval era kings led the battle. After-battle reports had to walk to his tent and give a oral report. In the late medieval period, kings finally started realizing that combat was a scary place to be and started receiving written reports - but it was the general on the field making all the decisions (oral reports), not the king, who was worried about the political consequences more than the small details. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 31, 2023 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ One thing that I haven't seen explicitly addressed in the question or the answers is that the perception of time was very different in Medieval Europe. We are used to every second of our time being accounted for because even a few seconds can sometimes make a much bigger difference. This would've felt very alien to someone from the Middle Ages, especially from rural areas where the pace of life was much more tied to the ebb and flow of the outside world than an internal clock ticking away at constant speed. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jul 31, 2023 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ When you say medieval are you specifically thinking of medieval Europe? Reports in the famous Confucian bureaucracy of China in the same era would look very different. $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2023 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ approximate death count of guards on our payroll, infrastructure damage of military importance; bridges, windmills, ect., and how much money/supplies will be lost doesn't matter because we don't keep money outside of the Keep, beyond the payroll we don't need anymore anyway so.... $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jul 31, 2023 at 18:06

7 Answers 7

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  1. When we say that try to get these reports done quickly in order to get them to the monarch in a timely fashion, we need to take into account that, first, it will take some time for the report to reach the monarch, and, second, the monarch cannot do anything immediately anyway. The reporters can and will take two, three, maybe four days to get their report in order. There is no point in hurrying to get it done in a day, because the report will then need to travel quite a few days, maybe even a few weeks, to get to the king, and then the king has no means to react right away.

  2. I need to point out that attacking a town with the purpose of killing as many people as possible is extremely non-medieval. Once because nobody killed for fun, and then because nobody had the technological means of mass killing. Attacking a town with the purpose of taking as many slaves as possible, sure, that's medieval. From the point of view of the attacked kingdom there is no difference -- the people are gone and lost anyway.

  3. The most common way for a military reconnaissance force to report back to the king was to send somebody to report back to the king. Reporting in writing would have been rather strange, because anyway somebody had to travel back to carry the written report. Why waste a perfectly good and expensive sheet of parchment? If the king considered it necessary, he had secretaries who could write down the essentials of the messenger's report.

  4. The count of lost people (dead or enslaved) would have been accurate for towns, but likely inaccurate for rural areas. It is the Middle Ages, the vast majority of people did not live in towns. They lived in villages. Villages were small. Villages were many. There were no roads, there were no maps.

  5. The report of infrastructure destroyed would again be accurate for towns. For villages, maybe the reporters could get a good approximation of the number of villages attacked and a rough approximation of the number of houses burned.

  6. The reconnaissance force would not even try to estimate a monetary loss. It is the Middle Ages, very few people thought in terms of money, and generally money was very much less important than in the Antiquity or in post-Medieval times. Houses burned, yes, it is important. Sheep stolen, yes, important. Bushels of wheat or tuns of wine burned, spilled or stolen, important. People dead or enslaved, important. Actual silver and gold stolen, important, and reported by weight. How much would it cost to rebuild the houses etc., not important and more importantly impossible to estimate by soldiers.

  7. The messager reporting to the king would be brief and direct. Flowery speech was not practiced in the Middle Ages, and in any case soldiers would not have been expected to have received courses in rhetoric. Something like this:

    Sire, I am Roughsoldier Braveman, yeoman, and I have been sent by captain Longlash Smallbaron to report on the wreckage inflicted by the stinking Vandalgoths who have attacked Your Majesty's fine province of Frithlandia.

    Captain Smallbaron made haste and arrived in Your Majesty's obedient city of Yardchester on Saint Batholomew's day.

    We made inquiries, and found that the murderous Vandalgoths, led by their left-handed war leader Ohtrad the Fearsome, second son of their chieftain Hunferth the Much Scarred, entered the province around the day of Saint Mary Magdalene, maybe two or three days earlier, coming from the black forests of Withenhold. The locals estimate their number at two thousand, but captain Smallbaron says that they could not have been more than five hundred, at the most, because more than that could not pass through the Withenhold forest without starving and anyway chieftain Hunferth does not even have two thousand warriors to call.

    In the city of Yardchester itself the Vandalgoths tried to burn the cathedral, and I grieve to report to Your Majesty that they did indeed burn the proud belfry and part of the roof of the cathedral. Upwards of a dozen good houses were also burned, and some three dozen or so hovels were put to the torch. Some sixty men were killed, and the Vandgoths took some fifty or sixty young women, and also some children, both boys and girls. The barbarians stole some four pounds of silver from the city, and about a quarter pound of gold, mostly from the good houses they burned down.

    The countryside around Yardchester was savagely harried by the Vandalgoths. We found out for sure that three manors were burned, and possibly some more. Captain Smallbaron has left his sergeant in Yardchester to compile a list of manors attacked by the Vandalgoths, and he made it known that the barons who had suffered damage at the hand of the barbarians should come and make report, bringing good and honest witnesses to attest and give credence to their words. Captain Smallbaron took it upon himself to appoint his man the good knight Sir Lindolf to begin a survey of the province, expecting that Your Majesty will appoint surveyors to assess the worth of the lands and the people.

    The Vandalgoths spent no more than seven days in the province, before turning back to Withenhold forest with their captives and their ill-gotten prizes. Besides Yardchester itself they also pillaged and did grievous damage to four other small towns, where they killed upwards of four score men and took fifty, sixty, maybe more young women.

    Captain Smallbaron has moved his men to the town of Raginvald, near where the old Heregang road comes out of the Withenhold forest, where he awaits the pleasure of Your Majesty. I am pleased to report that Raginvald itself, though small, was able to use its stone walls to defend itself and escaped the brunt of the Vandalgothic fury. Not more than two dozen men died, and only two houses were burned.

    Although the people of Frithlandia are peaceful and were not prepared for such a forceful invasion by the barbarians, the local barons did put up a fight with their armsmen and what force they could gather, and at least one hundred, maybe even two hundred, of the barbarians were killed dead. Captain Smallbaron says that in his opinion the Vandalgoths will take some time to make up their losses, and no more attacks are to be expected in the coming months.

    That is it, Sire, what we know and where we stand. I am waiting for your reply to Captain Smallbaron.

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    $\begingroup$ "...attacking a town with the purpose of killing as many people as possible is extremely non-medieval..." Not if the people are a different sect or a different religion. The Albigensian Crusade is the origin of the phrase "Kill them all and let God sort them out". $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Jul 31, 2023 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ I'm curious: Would consistent value judgements to describe everyone/thing be part of the expected tone? Prepending adjectives unnecessarily and regularly strikes me as needless editorializing. I can understand "They were led by Hrudin the Left-Handed" as a moniker or emotionally saying "the rotten cur even pillaged our holy monastery", but it comes across as almost unprofessional today. Was that part of the rhetoric in the era or would that be a minor anachronism for narrative purposes? $\endgroup$
    – Aos Sidhe
    Aug 1, 2023 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ @AosSidhe: "Their left-handed war leader Ohtrad the Fearsome" is intended to be factual. His name is Ohtrad, he is known as Ohtrad the Fearsome, and he is left-handed. Roughsoldier Braveman is a yeoman, probably working as an armsman for Longlash Smallbaron who is a low nobleman, or else he would not be performing full-time military duties in peacetime. Neither of them have much in the way of education, andthe yeoman is surely illiterate and definitely not a professional the way we think about such things. Only noblemen were military professionals in medieval Western Europe. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 1, 2023 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Alex P "...attacking a town with the purpose of killing as many people as possible is extremely non-medieval..." I seem to remember that during the medieval era the Mongols massacred the populations of many of the thousands of villages, towns, and cities they captured, and a century later Tamerlane also piled up pyramids of severed heads at the cities he massacred. And didn't the Mongols destroy a number of cities, slaughtering their people, as far west as Russia, Poland, and Hungary? Continued. $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2023 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ An excellent answer. One correction/addition: The details of rural places available would depend on the time and place. In some places and times during the middle ages (which span hundreds of years and are in no way a uniform period) the local church would have pretty detailed records, especially of people. In later periods there were also local courts which could have partial records on land ownership or leases, houses and businesses, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Aug 2, 2023 at 9:24
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Feudalism or an unitary monarchy?

When one thinks of middle ages, details might differ. In a feudal system, the liege offers land and protection to a vassal in exchange for service and taxes. This might go through several levels, until the lowest lord grants a shack and some fields to a serf, in exchange for a fat pig on Michaelmas, 15 days of work during the planting season, and another 15 days during harvest.

Each level would demand to be included in the reporting chain, and bypassing that lord would be a grave insult. So the headman of a village reports to the lord of the manor, the lord reports to the baron, the baron reports to the earl, the earl reports to the duke, and the duke reports to the king.

At each level, reports would be aggregated into a more or less coherent picture, and the reporting noble would take political considerations into account. Does his or her status diminish by being unable to resolve this problem? Are there any other requests pending with the liege? What would rivals think or say?

"Sire, I beg relief of this year's taxes on account of increased bandit activity across the border. I had to call up the levies of this, that, and that county, and send my household troops as well."

In a more unitary system, there would be provincial viceroys with similar considerations. They have been empowered to solve problems, so can they resolve problems on their own?

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Frame Challenge

So, hypothetically - there's no difference in terms of detail that one could generate in Medieval times vs today.

The practical difference however is the cost of paper, the time of a scribe/someone who can write.

There's things like the Doomsday book or there's legal contracts from Rome, sales agreements etc. The limiting factor is that Paper is/was a much more expensive resource, so you tended to only put down things that were super important.

In the case of the Doomsday book, William the Conqueror had just conquered England and wanted an inventory of everything he now owned. It was important, therefore it was done.

Legal contracts for the sale/purchase of goods, likewise - pretty important.

The question really should be: What does the King really want to know? Then assume that you will fit that information onto a single, standard sized piece of parchment (approx 15 x 20 inches) - no one likes multi-page reports.

I would probably start with approximate fatalities, Prisoners taken, Attacker strength and composition (100 men, 20 archers and 10 on horseback), then buildings destroyed, ingress and egress routes (e.g. where did the attackers attack from, where did the leave via) and then any 'general' observations - e.g. something out of the ordinary 'They poisoned the water wells after leaving'.

Depending on the size of the battle/town, that could realistically be done in about 1 day by an experienced soldier/Officer.

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  • $\begingroup$ If there was paper. A lot of that material was written on velum. If you think trees are a limited resource. Velum is made from animal hide. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 31, 2023 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ Good point - but same general point stands, if the King really wants it, it will be done. $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2023 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, no argument at all! In fact, I was completely supporting your issue about the cost of paper. It's true that the king's will be done! Even if the report must be written with the enemy's blood on an old shirt (which would be cheaper than velum or paper). $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 31, 2023 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH --- There are plenty of writing materials that could be used apart from vellum. There's paper --- bark paper, rag paper, rice paper, papyurus; there's leather; there's cloth; shingles; shells; tally sticks; quipu; human memory & mnemonics; wax tablets; slate tablets; lead tablets. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Aug 1, 2023 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas There's even the human themself, if the monarch is sufficiently upset or cruel. A messenger returning with a reply branded upon him would be a pretty strong statement. Hell, if you really want to make a tyrant obviously and fantastically evil, have him declare war/announce his arrival by kidnapping a noble or a general out of the blue and sending their body (live or not) to the king, message carved into their flesh. $\endgroup$
    – Aos Sidhe
    Aug 1, 2023 at 14:09
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From what has survived from medieval times, the further one was in time and space from the event, the more detailed the report.

So the initial report from Johnny on the spot would be brief and focus on whatever was important to the reporter. 'The village was pillaged and burnt, X corpses were left unburied, the Church was burnt down and the remaining villagers fled or were taken Eastwards. The reporter would have no idea about amounts of gold and silver taken etc,.

Later reports would be full of lavish detail replete with names, ages, artifacts listed, colour of horses, maidens ravished, monks tortured etc,.

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  • $\begingroup$ On the later reports we have no way of knowing whether the reports are factual or confabulations. We can tend to say that the later reports tended to not be primary sources; They were reconstructions. $\endgroup$
    – zoboso
    Jul 31, 2023 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ @zoboso you can and did get primary sources citing everything from witchcraft to wildly impossible numbers. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Jul 31, 2023 at 20:56
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Medieval commanders can’t read or write

Probably, neither can the king.

Of course, “medieval” is a period of 1,000 or so years covering the continent of Europe so it’s impossible to generalise. However, if we’re talking the classic chivalric society of the early and mid medieval, the commanders are knights and these guys spent their childhoods learning how to be brutal killing machines, not in learning how to read or write.

So, battlefield reports would largely be verbal and necessary short.

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  • $\begingroup$ There was a Latin proverb, attested to in the early part of the second millennium Rex illiteratus est quasi asinus coronatus that compares an illiterate king to "a crowned donkey". Literacy rates varied widely over time and space, but the idea that few knew how to read and write, especially among the nobility, is not correct. $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2023 at 8:42
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The questions says medieval but doesn't specify Europe. Medieval states like China and many large states in India, or the Islamic Caliphate, etc, would be more literate and bureaucratic that the typical European state.

And European states included the 10th century Caliphate in Spain and the eastern Roman or "Byzantine" Empire which had larger and more "Byzantine" bureaucracies that most Medieval European states.

The question does specify that the country was ruled by a king, and thus is a kingdom instead of a Caliphate or an Empire.

The Middle Ages last for about a thousand years and even if restricted to Europe covered a few million square miles of land from Iceland to Georgia, and from Portugal to Russia. I think that one of the dozen or so kingdoms in Europe outside of Ireland in AD 1500 would be much more bureaucratic than an Irish tuath in AD 500.

I wonder whether there is any surviving historical account which quotes from contemporary report of the devastation at a place by the Mongol invaders in the 13th century. Such a quote would give you some idea of the contents of a report.

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You might want to look at the the history of the Osman Akinji. The reports of their raids still exist - at least here in Austria. Part of it is official (document kept in archives) and part of it is legend. The main information that reached the higher authorities seemed to be the routes they took and the villages raided. Some reports also include information about lifestock and humans taken. But their accountability is of debate. Especially if humans where actually kidnapped. There is still a little memorial on a mountain pass the Akinji crossed on one of their biggest raids.

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