The Militia of Medieval Communes

Aldo Ghetti is the author of The Fall of the King™. He is a very experienced wargamer and history buff, and he has always been fascinated by the Middle Ages. In this exclusive article written for Top Hat Games, he will explain as clearly and concisely as possible everything we need to know about the Italian Age of Communes, between 1000 and 1300 AD. With this quick excursion we will delve into the period in which the battle of the Fossalta of 1249 took place, thus enriching the tactical experience of the players who will travel in time with us to return to the Middle Ages.

The birth of Communes

The feudal organization of the Franks had abandoned the Italian cities to their bishops, while the nobles, the lords of the countryside, forgot them because of their obligations to the Empire and the frequent wars that broke out. Cities, on the other hand, became gathering points for artisans, who dedicated their craft to the construction of everything that was necessary for life, but also for war. Daily life took on particular aspects and consequently to the activities of the Communes' inhabitants and to the increased exchange of ideas, citizens developed a new awareness of their rights and their work.

Communal autonomy

Members of feudal nobility, who resided in the countryside, were content with their privileges, while peasants - forgotten by men and God - lived as servants and formed the lords' own gangs, called masnade. It was precisely then that a certain progress and improvement in social life took place in the cities. The first examples of communal autonomy were reached around the year 1000 and it was remarkable that, after more than two centuries, consuls of the communal judiciaries replaced dukes, Lombard stewards, counts and Frankish marquises.

The Communal Militia

The social and cultural evolution of that period allowed for the development and specific constitution of communal militias which is, in fact, inextricably tied with the very origins of the concept of Commune. Born out of the struggles between the Papacy and the Empire, Italian Communes presented themselves, since their very beginning, as both political and military entities. Once constituted, they had no need to create their own military organization. The Commune itself was already a military union.

The Military Organization

The feudal system was based on the concept that only certain social classes, the noble and less numerous ones, had military aptitudes. The Age of Communes began when the lower classes of the city proved themselves capable of taking an active part in military life. From this condition, the communal militias' infantry and cavalry were born. Infantry was the commoners' army par excellence, while cavalry, on the other hand, was more aristocratic and represented those elements of the vast feudal society which Communes were able to join.

Quartieri, Sestieri and Rioni

Especially in the first centuries, Communes could not resort to hiring mercenaries, nor did they have the right to exploit peasants: they had to resort to citizens who were offered the rights of freedom in exchange for the duty to serve the Commune even in armed fight. Most of the cities were divided into districts (called quartieri, sestieri and rioni based on their features), each with their own banners and insignia. When they had to siege castles or lay waste to enemy territories, the population of the districts was ordered to carry it out. Besides, everyone would take up arms in a carroccio if the city was in some serious danger.

The First Phase

Being divided by districts, the city's communal infantry represented something more than a confusing mass conscription. It formed a single square formation, and each soldier was armed with a shield and spear, with both defensive and offensive (to a certain extent) combat capabilities. Their military training was modest: maneuvers were carried out at least once a month, in addition to the use of weapons, while shooters, especially crossbowmen but also archers, were required to train with their crossbow outside the city walls every Sunday.

Spear and Shield

Communes expressed a great strength of resistance and a scarce offensive capacity but, in the long struggles against the Empire, their main task was to defend themselves and their autonomy, so they hardly felt the need to assault. In combat, the Carroccio was a point of reference and gathering for infantrymen armed with shields and spears, equipment that was used simultaneously. Spears could not be very long, 7 to 10 feet at most, and shields had to be small. When the cavalry was repelled, it had to take shelter behind its infantry to regroup

Everything comes in threes

A communal army won when it managed to place the enemy cavalry between the spears of its infantry and its cavalry. It was precisely in 1200 that a third line was developed in the armies of knights hitherto ordered on only two lines: the vanguard and the bulk of the army. It was necessary to help the bulk of the army when it was in crisis between the enemy infantry and their cavalry. The battle scheme was very simple: the imperial army formed by two cavalry ranks against the communal army with three ranks, the vanguard followed by the bulk of cavalry, and finally infantry with the Carroccio.

Frederick Barbarossa

Communes therefore compensated the inferiority of their cavalry with the combination and cooperation of knights and infantrymen, which would be too weak on their own. Together they were able to integrate and support each other so well that they could face and even defeat the best feudal armies in the open field again. The climax of the Italian communal infantry's success of this period was the battle of Legnano fought on 29 May 1176, which saw the defeat of Emperor Frederick I, also known as "Barbarossa".

The Second Phase

During the 1200s the infantry of Italian Communes evolved further, recruiting an increasing number of shooters, almost exclusively crossbowmen. Infantry took on an increasingly passive attitude by resorting to ever greater shield coverage, and pitted shooters against shooters. Shields and spears were no longer in the hands of a single soldier: the spear was now held with both hands, having stretched out to 13 feet or more, becoming a weapon called "lanzalonga" (literally, “long spear”). The shield also became larger, rising up to 6 feet, wider and capable of fixing itself to the ground.


The pavise became a defensive weapon in its own right: a new kind of soldier used it to protect, besides himself, the pikeman and the crossbowman. Spears became longer to better resist the cavalry, but the infantry's tactical function did not improve: it could not react with resolute and energetic actions in attack. On the contrary, it increased its passive attitude always leaving to the task of winning the battle to the cavalry. By the second half of the 1200s, the organic constitution of square formations underwent a major change caused by the increasing lack of skilled infantrymen.

The End of Infantry

When creating infantries, communal bourgeoisie and craftsmen, too absorbed by trade and industry, were replaced by lower classes, poorly trained plebs or peasants. This kind of infantry, no longer animated by old communal pride, began its decline in the second half of the twelfth century, when each district was organized into “Compagnie delle Armi” (armed companies). Each street, precinct, district and ward now took on the task of maintaining the internal security of the city, while war became a job for mercenaries, professionals and chosen elements. The Battle of Altopascio in 1325 spelled the end for communal infantry.

Communes at War

Since the battle of Cortenuova (where emperor Frederick II scored an important victory in 1237), even when fighting in the open field, Communes of Lombardy especially strove to keep enemy soldiers at bay and tiring them out while seeking support from terrain and field fortifications. The difference between lanzelonghe, pavesari (soldiers carrying a pavise) and crossbowmen did not change the defensive character of the infantry. On the contrary, it only emphasized it, as did its large overuse of fortifications and war of position tactics. Besides laying long and difficult sieges, infantry could barely obtain any decisive successes in the open field.

Attrition warfare

In fifteen years of exhausting battles, Frederick II (King Enzius' father), despite his great economic and military means, was not able to stand up to a few extremely determined Lombard Communes. The end of this conflict, in addition to the myriad of small border wars and social conflicts – lower classes fought for a more equitable division of burdens and rewards – hastened the transition to a new form of government, the Signoria, while accentuating the political game of alliances and defeats. Thus, political motives ultimately triumphed over military ones.