Medieval Warfare: A Reader (Part One)

by Jeff

The only acceptable reason for not blogging is that I should be writing instead. I am not. In the past months, I have rather spent most of my free-time reading, which I hope is at least near-acceptable. My defense? Research. Good and well-crafted stories are written by those who know what they are talking about and I believe this holds true with Fantasy just as well.

In On Writing, Stephen King is absolutely right that research should not be an end in itself.  The story must always remain your primary focus, because you are writing a novel, not a research paper. However, this does not dispense the writer from a certain kind of responsibility. King says the following on p. 230 of his book:

What I’m looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like the handful of spices you chuck into a good spaghetti sauce to really finish her off. That sense of reality is important in any work of fiction, but I think it is particularly important in a story dealing with the abnormal or paranormal.

So it is with Fantasy that aims higher than cheap window-dressing. We must never underestimate the required level of out-of-the-box thinking when setting characters in an ancient world. Let us momentarily forget the magic, the fantastic creatures or whatever mythical wonder a writer has freely and legitimately imagined. How was it truly to live in an age of limited technology and low literacy? When life was often dangerous, when war may almost be an everyday affair? When news may take weeks to reach opposite corners of the same land? How is it truly to wear a sword at your belt daily just as we store a cellphone in our coat pocket? I am fascinated by these questions and by their possible answers. This is why, in the context of my own book project, I have been reading on medieval warfare, from battle tactics to military architecture to life in general within a society organized for war, as was that of the Middle Ages.

I am not doing this in order to explain anything in my narrative, nor to fill it with distracting historical factoids. Rather, in this I have found fresh ideas, distinct points of views and useful vocabulary guidance. In fact, these past months I have learned a tremendous amount of information, and though this was a great pleasure for its own sake, without these books a lot of interesting plot ideas would have actually never crossed my mind. And that is natural, as I live in 2012 and my story is not just about showcasing magical fireworks, fiery dragons and ugly critters for the sake of it. It involves human beings, and their world is simply not mine. Such is my approach to writing.

Here are four books (more will follow) that I can recommend to any serious writer of Fantasy inspired, in whole or in part, by the medieval era. Click on the covers for an Amazon link.

Medieval Warfare: A History

This collective work, edited by Maurice Keen, is the best all-around overview of warfare in the Middle Ages that I can recommend among the books chosen here. Barring rare and exceptional cases (one of which I will cover in a further post), we should always be wary of overarching histories written by a single author. The topic is way too vast for us to be generally trusting of a single-handed effort.

This one certainly is not. Each chapter is written by a different specialist. The first six, after the Introduction, cover a different period of the Middle Ages, broken down thusly: Carolingian and Ottonian, the Vikings, 1020–1204 as the Age of Expansion, the Latin East, European Warfare between 1200–1320, the Hundred Years War. The last six chapters tackle different aspects of warfare itself: fortifications and sieges between 800–1450, weapons and armour, mercenaries, naval warfare after the Viking Age, the oft forgotten non-combatant, the advent of gunpowder and of permanent national armies.

This book is written in an accessible manner and is well-edited, with only a slight discernible change in tone or style from one author to the next. The visual aids (maps, figures, pictures) are many and useful. There are no footnotes, but at the end, you will find a sufficient number of references, an index and a chronological table of important events, spanning from 714 to 1526 (over thirteen pages). The breadth of topics leave you with a good sense of the bigger picture that was war during a long, and certainly evolving, period of human history.

Anglo-Norman Warfare

This collective, edited by Matthew Strickland, covers warfare in England and Normandy between the 11th and 12th centuries, especially through William the Conqueror’s legacy. It is both the best and worst to recommend. For this reason, I have to rate it slightly lower than Medieval Warfare.

First, the bad. This book is an after-the-fact collection of 15 influential papers from the past 30 years or so. This is bad because you shall read historians writing to other historians in the typical dry style of Academe. Your required background knowledge shall be quite high and many papers are difficult to read, some of them even a pain. And believe me, I do know a thing or two about dry academic writing. Fortunately, John Gillingham’s papers still stand out from the crowd as very lively, personal and passionate contributions.

Now, the good. Beneath this unpolished surface, you will find a bottomless mine of gold. This book is not only about military history. It is also about social evolution in England, as the Anglo-Saxon ways of old faded in favor of the Anglo-Norman rule. From the early housecarls to the household of Norman kings, it carefully considers the subtle intertwining of social relationships and duties with war. This is a fascinating world to delve into. That being said, I still believe that the most to be enjoyed is the detailed telling, and analysis, of what is perhaps the most famous and best described battle of all the Middle Ages, the confrontation between William the Bastard’s and Harold Godwinson’s armies at Hastings in 1066. This is nothing less than required reading.

This book has no index, but there is a select bibliography at the end and every paper has footnotes aplenty, as is customary within specialized literature. The specific focus on a well-defined topic probably makes this book insufficient for the researching writer, but its approach and the finer points that come out of this still make it a necessary item on his or her reading list.

Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World AD 500–AD 1500

This book is another collective work. It is the most accessible of the bunch and it has to be recommended as a starter on medieval warfare in general. Divided into five chapters (infantry, mounted warfare, command and control, siege techniques and naval warfare), it is a highly illustrated exploration of the cultural variations within both Western and Eastern Europe in the waging of war for a thousand years. Its focus is on the material aspects of its topic rather than the social. It may therefore lack some depth, especially in comparison with Medieval Warfare: A History, but I would not consider this a flaw, considering the aim (and the title) of the book.

There is one caveat. The editing is not up to par. Some glaring typos, a disturbing change in tone between certain chapters and some amount of content overlapping, without internal references, result in an overall feeling of this book being rather patched up. But it has good sources despite their paucity (one of the authors has in fact a paper featured in Anglo-Norman Warfare) and the provided index is well done.

This book really distinguishes itself with its battle schematics. Famous engagements, such as Hastings, the battle between Robert Bruce and Edward II at Bannockburn, Agincourt, the fall of Constantinople, and many others, are illustrated and summarized on two-page spreads detailing the forces in play, the tactical movement of the troops and the final outcome. I would study a thousand pages of such charts and still beg for more. I have a limitless appetite for these, even when they are as simplified as the ones in this book. This was in fact my main reason for acquiring Fighting Techniques. I have no regrets.

Soldiers’ Lives Through History: The Middle Ages

This is the best history book I have read in a long time. I recommend it unreservedly as a prominent member of your history bookshelf. At the very least, if you have just one to pick among the books reviewed here, choose this one. It is the work of a single author, Clifford J. Rogers, a professor of history at West Point who, incidentally, has won a couple of awards for his work.

There is unavoidable overlapping in content between the three books above because their starting point remains the same: the history of warfare in Europe. But Soldiers’ Lives is, as this collection title implies, an attempt at reconstructing the personal experience of the medieval soldier. There is no chronological exposition of important events, crucial innovations and decisive battles, such as those that become common knowledge once you start reading more than one reference on the same subject. This kind of information in this book provides necessary context, but no more. The heart of the matter is the point of view of witnesses or actors of this history. This is why a good number of less famous battles, when they are not simply forgettable skirmishes, are covered here. Indeed, where the mundane lacks glory, it may actually be more enlightening to the historian. This may be in fact the truest form of military history that can be, but then again I say this with my heart and not my brain, as this is such a captivating theme for me. Given this, I will introduce the individual chapters in more details below.

  1. Soldiering in Peacetime attempts to find the blurry line between the civilian and the soldier during the Middle Ages. The chapter is about “those who fight, those who work and those who pray”, thus echoing a contemporary assessment of the social classes of this age, but also without forgetting the important role of women.
  2. Joining the Host is all about the realities of recruitment and the complex logistics of mustering.
  3. Camp Life and Mobile Operations covers a wide range of concrete experiences of the soldier, such as life in camp with friends and rivals, food and equipment, march formations and rate of advancement, “devastating” (pillaging, foraging and ravaging) as the most common act of war in the Middle Ages (it is emphatically not the pitched battle), and important secondary functions like scouting, shadowing, harassing and skirmishing.
  4. Sieges looks at assaulting fortifications not as a strategic or tactical matter but, again, through the daily routine or hardships of both besieged and besiegers.
  5. Battle surveys the deployment of mixed armies on a battlefield, the facts of leadership and orations, but also carefully assesses how social values of the day may determine or affect the fear and expectations of the soldier. The experience of the physical engagements according to their setup (infantry wall vs. infantry wall, cavalry vs. infantry wall, etc.) is also examined — an impressive topic all by itself. An in-depth analysis of the Bayeux Tapestry is a nice complement to R. A. Brown’s own study of the battle of Hastings in Anglo-Norman Warfare.
  6. The Aftermath of Victory describes what happens after a battle: pursuits, plunder, medical care and casualty rates.
  7. Little War revisits most of the previous topics, but does so instead in the context of private wars between smaller lords and between families. Most confrontations of the Middle Ages, and certainly the less documented ones, were probably of this type.
  8. The Life of One Active Warrior concludes this book by following the steps of a particular English soldier, Sir Thomas Gray of Heton, through all the campaigns he has seen, or must have according to documents, at the turn of the 14th century.

I would highlight the following two qualities of this book. Firstly, the author’s writing is free-flowing and highly enjoyable overall. Secondly, he lets his witnesses speak for themselves: the number of quotes and longish excerpts of original sources is exceptionally high. This is therefore a genuine work of source interpretation, rather than some abstract summary for which we would have to take the author at his word. He treats similarly the few illustrations provided in the book: they all are medieval art, the content of which he directly comments in the context of his current topic.

The index at the end seems a bit short and the reference timeline between the introduction and the first chapter feels quite minimalist compared with Medieval Warfare‘s equivalent offering. Be that as it may, the commented bibliography, which even includes online resources, is very good. Fair warning: the endnotes number in the ridiculous. The editor was judicious in not placing them as footnotes, as their per-chapter count ranges from 32 to… 169! This is a thoroughly documented and unique perspective on a difficult, if ever accessible, subject. Whereas Anglo-Norman Warfare is a hidden gold mine, Soldier’s Lives Through History: The Middle Ages is an open field of treasures.

The second part of my Medieval Warfare Reader is available here. The third part is here.