What factors should be considered for creating a Professional Army in a medieval based society? Basically in a Feudalistic society how would a professional army function? What benefits would this create? What drawbacks? Why would a monarch choose to have a professional army?

Would it be like the Roman Empire where the soldiers also acted as police forces and construction as well? In fantasy (take Lord of the Rings) we see massive professional armies like Gondor and Rohan (I will ignore the Dark Lord for purposes of this).

**EDIT: Perhaps I worded my question poorly. I appreciate the answers thus far but its not really what I'm looking for. I'm not after a history of how our (earth) armies came to rise, but rather what conditions would need to change to make professional armies with 15th-16th century technology (less gunpowder). How could you have Professional Armies and still have Counts, Dukes, Kings, Emperors? Would nobles act as officers? What situations would a commoner choose a life as a soldier/guard? Would their need to be a constant state of war to justify this? What sort of economic impact would this have? What economic power would be required to support this? What if the state/kingdom where in a state of Total War? How would magic fit into this? Perhaps Roman empire structure in the 15th century.

The closest I can think of is the transition period of our history from Feudalism into mercenary armies 1500-1600ish, but rather than Mercenary every kingdom decides they need standing armies. I'm hesitant to provide real world examples but will do so for clarification purposes. Perhaps something like the Roman empire structure in the 15th century. Would Chinese and Japanese society have better examples?

Something more akin to the Holy Roman Empire, but with a clear nobility, merchants and commoner class system. Nobles still own the land and still have peasants like Feudalism and draw taxes from these lands. 'Feudalism' exist in the aspect of a time period(technology wise) and not necessarily the social structure as a direct copy. More of a blend of Feudalism (castles, weapons, Renaissance technology less gunpowder).

In the event of a war rather than summoning his vassals and raising his levies the Duke would just muster/mobilize his professional army and the farmers keep farming while the soldiers do the fighting. In emergencies a conscription of peasantry may occur but the idea is that the soldiers fight.**

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    $\begingroup$ In Lord of the Rings neither Gondor or Rohan has massive professional armies. $\endgroup$
    – palako
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 5:44
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    $\begingroup$ Feudal societies didn't have the cash to have a permanent, professional army. That's why they were feudal in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 17:53

4 Answers 4



Throughout history, armies were made of different people:

  • conscripts (non-professionals, told to join a battle),
  • mercenaries (professionals, often foreigners, paid for a battle or for a war),
  • professional armies (professionals, non-foreigners, paid during war and peace time).


Let us review a bit what the armies were made of in Europe.

  • Roman Empire. Originally the legions were composed of levied (hence the name) Roman citizens. Those were paying themselves for the equipment. The legions were created for a particular event and disbanded afterward. Of course, back then, a campaign may last for some years. Around 2d Century BC, it became a volunteering professional army, to resolve issues of man shortage. It went on to extend on non-Roman citizens who would be granted citizenship as a reward. The legions became permanent. Towards the 4th Century AD, the Roman relied more and more upon foreign mercenaries, to make up for the lack of man power and time to train the volunteers.

  • Feudal Europe. The concept of the feudal time was so that a lord had vassals working on his lands, and in exchanged he was to provide protection for them. If a King wanted to go to war, he would require his vassals nobles to come and join the battle, as well as provide some troups. Those troups were composed of levied peasants as well as mercenaries. But the main element of the armies were made of the nobles themselves.

  • 100-years war changed that order when English levied crushed the French Knights. Furthermore, due to the frequent wars, and financial issues of the different components, the mercenaries gathered in so-called free companies, which was good for the various lords as they lacked the resources for a permanent army, but proved to be desastrous for local inhabitants, and at the end the whole economy of, in particular, France. This lead to the creation of standing armies (or professional armies), in particular, Charles VII of France made the first standing army in France since Roman era.

  • In the follwing centuries, most states in Europe developed standing armies, but war were still mostly fought with mercenaries. In particular, the Swiss and German mercenaries were quite popular. At that time Macchiavelli famously warned against the use of mercenaries in The Prince. Nevertheless, standing armies were developing to the point to acquire some reputation, like the Spanish Tercios.

  • Modern time saw a generalisation of standing armies and a reduction of mercenaries employed in large wars. Napoleonic wars were the first almost entirely fought between standing armies of different nations.

Your questions

You ask different questions, but let's see what we can answer.

in a Feudalistic society how would a professional army function?

What benefits would this create?

What drawbacks?

Why would a monarch choose to have a professional army?

Now, Charles VII of France raised a standing army, which proved to be somehow contributing to his final victory against England in the 100-Years war. So, yes you can choose to do so. But one may argue that the feudalism as it was intended originally already "died" at that point. It will turn to its absolutism form.

Some advantages are

  • well trained army,
  • loyal,
  • not prone to kill/rape/etc. your inhabitants and disrupt your economy.

Whereas disadvantages include

  • expensive (especially in time of peace).

Those are the obvious point. I once read that Charles VII could build such an army due to, at least, two factors

  • vassals got weakened by defeats during the war,
  • he organised a restructuration of the economy, and in particular of the trade with the muslim world.

Indeed, before that time the King of a country was only nominally head of a state, but he wasn't necessarily the richest. If he were to form a professional army, he would need to get enough money for that, and fear that his vassals would do the same. And it's never good that your vassals have a larger army than you have. On the same issues, you can see the difficulties that King James II of Britain had when building his army.

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    $\begingroup$ Professional soldiers as a slave caste should be added to your list of soldiers. $\endgroup$
    – palako
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ @palako, do you have an example? In particular in Europe? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ In Europe, for example the Ottomans (their Janissaries) and Spanish Umayyads employed military slaves. Arming slaves is not entirely unique to muslims although pretty much every premodern Muslim dynasty from Spain to India relied on slave soldiers in some capacity. Romans and ancient Greeks armed their slaves at times but didn't use them as a professional armies. $\endgroup$
    – palako
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 7:13

The absence of professional armies in medieval Europe are due primarily to economic and social factors. After all, as you observed, the Romans and other ancient societies had professional standing armies. By definition a professional army is a standing army, otherwise one cannot make a profession out of it.

In feudal society the king grants land and title to the lords who must repay the king by supplying (fully equipped) troops as needed for defence of the realm. The lord grants the peasants rights to work his land, in return for tithes/taxes and he also expects some of the peasants to serve in battle alongside his own men at arms from time to time.

Now, it is in the Lords interest to spend as little as possible furnishing the king with troops, and it is in the peasants interest to pay as little taxes and avoid finding himself on the battlefield wherever possible - there is no incentive to do any more than the absolute minimum to fulfil ones obligations.

As Thucydides observes, professional armies arise following suppression of the nobility and replacement of the feudal system with absolute monarchy. This allows the king to raise taxes from the people directly and thus fund the army.

However this is generally necessary, but not sufficient to fund a professional army. In concert with changes to the political landscape, we also have the introduction of banking in Europe from mid 1400 reaching a large scale by mid 1500s. About 150 years later the notion of government bonds/public debts is introduced. Prior to this, the king would take on debt in his own name. In any case, the ability to borrow very large sums at short notice makes day to day funding of large armies much easier.

However, if the king loses a war or cannot raise sufficient taxes after the fact, he probably defaults on the loan.

In the first instance, these new sources of funds are used to buy mercenary armies, since the funds are still in short enough supply that standing armies are impossible for most (unless you have some foreign gold mines or something, like the Spanish). As this goes on, the cadre of military mercenary professionals, and itinerant mercenary grunts, grows to the point where it is possible to use some of these men to form a small standing army core. This core was always supplemented by mercenaries but the existence of a core made raising troops rapidly easier, and made training and controlling them easier.

Until the advent of stable absolute monarchy, standing armies were a terrible danger to the incumbent king. How many Roman and Byzantine Emperors were deposed by their own soldiers? Even if they remained generally loyal, feeding and quartering the army could easily ruin even a rich king.

With regards to the Middle Earth reference, I don't think the Rohirrim were a professional army - they were nomads who knew how to fight. Gondor on the other hand did appear to have professional soldiers (but probably only because during the time of the LoTR, Gondor is perpetually at war with Sauron and with the Corsairs). How this was paid for is not a subject Tolkein covered!

The last point about the middle ages is that following the black death population was much reduced and labour costs high as a result. It was not until the late 15th century that population was recovering sufficiently in places like Germany, Switzerland and Italy that sufficient numbers of idle an unemployed young men unable to find work on the land could be persuaded that (a short) life in the ranks was preferable to the (few) alternatives.


Kings and royal houses created the prototypes of professional armies in order to suppress brigandage (from unemployed mercenary bands, especially after the 100 Years War) and to secure their power against the lesser nobility. This process took a long time to complete, the 100 Years War ended in 1453, and France wasn't fully secured under a single Royal house without threat of challenge until Louis XIV (The Sun King) finally suppressed the nobility in the mid 1600's.

The other source of "professionalism" was the rise of citizen militias in the walled merchant cities of the Low Countries and Italian City States, which coincided with the "Infantry Revolution" (introduction of standardized arms and tactics which allowed large numbers of men with limited training to become an effective force on the battlefield).

The combination of Royal forces with standardized weapons and tactics might not have been totally effective except that it also occurred around the same time that Artillery became a factor on the battlefield. Only the Royal treasury had the ability to mount both a large force of Infantry and an accompanying artillery train. The logistics (payment, care and feeding) of such large and expensive forces was actually the real spark which "professionalized" the land based military.

At sea, professionals were needed to master the complex arts of sailing, and adding a force of soldiers aboard as well as artillery required a lot of standardization of procedures to protect the ship and secure the expensive add ons that turned a ship into a warship. Galleys in the service of powers like Venice also demanded professionalism, since only free professional oarsmen could be counted on to perform the complex evolutions needed to manoeuvre a warship or squadron of warships in battle. Incidentally, this was true even in ancient times; the only reason we think of oarsmen as being slaves or criminals is because the Spanish importation of massive amounts of silver from the New World created massive inflation and literally priced free oarsmen from the market. European galleys from after the Spanish conquest of the New World became much larger and slower, and primarily artillery platforms and troop carriers rather than weapons in their own right.

So a professional army is needed to impose order by being "better" than the opposition, or to deal with an increasingly expensive and complex force, or the management of highly technical means of war. In our history there was a combination of all these factors, so if you are writing a backstory, you can select which factors were in play and when they were important.


This is a very interesting question.

I would probably draw inspiration from the difference between the armies of the early Roman republic and the ones created by the Marian Reforms, which changed the army from a citizen levy to the professional legions we know today.

There was a lot of factors behind the changes, but a few absolutely key factors were the centralization of almost all arable land in the hands of very few people, and the introduction of massive amounts of slave labor. Earlier, the Romans used property requirements, including how much land you owned, to determine who could provide what equipment. Once almost all land was held by the elite, and slaves, captured in military campaigns, could work the land for free, it induced both a manpower shortage in the old system (since fewer people had the necessary wealth to equip themselves) and a manpower abundance for the new system (a LOT of very poor and very desperate citizens).

I would make your Counts, Dukes etc. a very wealthy elite and the only land owners. There need to be some reason why farming does not occupy a majority of the potential population (could be slaves, magic or some kind of technology) and a reason for the poor to see military service as the best way out of their misery. They might be forced to fight, but then it more like a slave army, which I would not consider within the parameters given.

I would also suggest coming up with a good reason why armies need to be kept standing. Maybe there are a lot of surprise attacks or maybe the armies are need to keep the peace.

I did consider a few other alternatives: Maybe the soldiers have some special quality that are hard to identify and lost if not used regularly or maybe the food production is so poor that even fighting medium scale military campaigns can devastate both the attacker and defenders manpower and so engagements are only fought between small groups of skilled fighters to not waste precious life.

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    $\begingroup$ Awesome stuff. This is more in line for what i was looking for. I'll have to take a look at the Marian Reforms. $\endgroup$
    – Dynas
    Commented Sep 28, 2015 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ Great. I would recommend the "History of Rome" podcast (thehistoryofrome.typepad.com) for getting an overview. Episode 28-33 should have the information you are after, but the whole thing is definitely worth listening through, if you have the time. $\endgroup$
    – Oragada
    Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ I cant seem to find these podcast. Its all about the French Revolution. $\endgroup$
    – Dynas
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ Try this instead: thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/the_history_of_rome/page/5 The author since went on to create another podcast about revolutions, which he is linking to in the last post $\endgroup$
    – Oragada
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 20:25

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