Part Three of a Medieval Warfare Reader: A Deeper Look

by Jeff

Eleven books, fourteen months and three thousand pages later, all the high priority items on my reading list have been completed, finally. This experience has been quite rewarding, though sometimes demanding. I am therefore both happy and relieved to conclude my Medieval Warfare Reader with three superior titles that are not to be missed (or at least the first two — see below on why) by both the history aficionado and the serious Fantasy writer. My opinion on how to leverage the knowledge of actual history in writing Fantasy has been made clear enough in the first and second part of my series; I will not push that particular topic any further here.

Historians have no monopoly on truth. What sets professionals apart is not what they are, nor what they say; it is just how they work. The books reviewed below represent what I find the best and most laudable in a quintessential work of scholarship, to wit: primary sources as the main material, authors who can actually read them and quote them, authors who are truly careful in interpreting them and who are methodical in their criticizing the interpretation of others, so that their own conclusions are transparent. In other words, these people don’t just tell, they demonstrate. This does not make them infallible, just a lot more credible.

R.C. Smail’s Crusading Warfare and J.F. Verbruggen’s The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages are two cases in point. Both works were first published in the 1950s (though the latter was only available in English after 1977). Both historians begin by discussing the state of their field. This may seem trivial, but in truth this is not. By pointedly challenging the work of established and influential scholars, such as Sir Charles Oman, Ferdinand Lot and even Hans Delbrück who seems to have been the best of this dignified generation, historians like Smail and Verbruggen have heralded a new wave of medieval history in the second half of the 20th century that has resulted in a much more nuanced depiction of the Middle Ages, both in general and on warfare in particular.

Many of the more recent works I have reviewed previously are in perfect continuity with this legacy. Philippe Contamine‘s La guerre au Moyen Âge, first published in 1980, is another one, though a different beast altogether. This book is in fact the most comprehensive work of academic research I have ever set my eyes on in any field. The first part of the book is dedicated to an extensive listing of its sources, both primary and secondary. There is no informational text per se, only bibliographical data, and thus eight chapters and three supplements add up to what may well redefine the meaning of being humbled: 2133 references, all numbered, in at least seven different modern languages (French, Italian, Spanish, English, German and Dutch) and six historical languages or stages (Classical and Medieval Latin, Old and Middle French, Old and Middle English). I can acknowledge that quantity alone does not normally make up for quality, but this book does manage to turn this sound principle on its head in the most irrefutable manner.

The three aforementioned books are reference works in the truest meaning of the term.  Their authors have made all the hard work that your casual history textbook relies on. They represent the cream of the crop. Get them (click the covers for Amazon links). Then read them.

Fair warning: this post is rather long. I could have made it into three smaller and separate reviews, but I decided I would not. Take it as one big review essay.

Crusading Warfare, 1097–1193

Crusading Warfare

This is the second edition of R.C. Smail’s classic, dated 1995 and augmented with a bibliographical introduction by Christopher Marshall, in which he discusses the context of Smail’s work before and after him. This part is in fact a pleasant and equally useful appetizer. Almost fifty years after the original publication, Marshall can certainly afford to look back and assess how Smail’s contribution, even as we have to reinterpret it in light of further research, had in effect established a new framework for studying medieval warfare as a legitimate area of medieval society history.

Smail’s work focuses entirely on the Latin States in the East during the first three Crusades. By their very nature, by their denouement and by the actors who played a part in them (such as Richard I the Lionheart during the Third), these events have perhaps earned a place in the collective memory greater than all the other Crusades combined. At the very least, they have certainly contributed, alongside feudalism and chivalry, in making the High Middle Ages the prototypical representation of ‘the’ Middle Ages (see note), as unfair as this is. Be that as it may, Smail’s point being the study of war as part of the social history of those who waged it, what seems a narrow choice stands on its own. It bears repeating that this book is not a historical account of the Crusades, nor does it claim anything about ‘the Middle Ages’ as a whole. Its topic is the society that nurtured the early Crusaders.

Crusading Warfare is divided into seven chapters. I have already commented on the first one, entitled The historians of crusading warfare. The other six go by short and descriptive titles:

  1. Warfare and policy in Latin Syria
  2. Franks, Armenians, and Syrians
  3. The Muslim armies
  4. The Latin armies
  5. The Latin field army in action
  6. The Crusaders’ castles

Chapters 3 and 7 have withstood the test of time especially well. Indeed, one of Smail’s main contentions still valid today is that the Franks, as the crusaders were called, did not throw down existing structures during their occupation of Syria. They erected the Latin Kingdoms on top of the local organizations in order to exploit more efficiently these new territories. This made for an uneasy balance, which broke more often than not as history has shown.

Another point of analysis by Smail that is still acknowledged today purports to the function of castles. He has demonstrated that these fortresses fulfilled a role much broader than the purely military, in the sense that they were not meant solely for defense. They were concrete centers of authority, or what Smail called ‘the physical basis of overlordship’.

From my point of view, one of the most interesting discoveries with this book was in seeing the traditional view on the development of European castles take a good hit. You can find this idea in the earlier works of Viollet-le-Duc and Toy that I have reviewed, as well as that amateur compendium by the Kaufmanns I criticized in the same breath. There is this notion that, because the development of stone castles in Western Europe really took off at about the same time as the Crusades, the East must have somehow influenced the West. Smail’s analysis of the famous crusader castles which he has himself visited, such as Belvoir, Beaufort, Sahyun and Crac des Chevaliers, shows compellingly how this question cannot be solved in such superficial terms.

The castles the crusaders have built, or rebuilt, always display an application in some form of principles or of a practical sense already known in Western Europe. It is therefore impossible to conclude with reasonable confidence that any kind of Eastern experience was transferred back to the West. In fact, we cannot even afford to generalize in both directions:

Confident generalizations on the crusaders’ castles have sometimes been made as the result of discussing part of the subject as if it were the whole. Some scholars, for example, have written on the early castle in western Europe solely in terms of one of its features, the keep. Others have commented on Byzantine military architecture in terms of its greatest achievements […]. But if all known buildings are considered, good and bad, simple and complex, they defy any but the broadest and most general of classifications. Nor can it be said that any one factor predominated in the determination of their form. Byzantine and Arab example, western European experience and custom, the compulsions of ground, function, available time, available material, available wealth, all played their parts. (p. 244)

This kind of conclusion is in line with Smail’s examination of the role of Vegetius, a Roman writer of the 5th century AD whose writings on war permeates written medieval military theory almost everywhere. The historian employs both his sources and a practical view of the crusaders’ experience in arguing against any discernible influence of Vegetius in crusading warfare. Here again, Smail rightly favors local explanations based on the concrete experience of the crusaders over facile and unsupported conclusions between unrelated documents.

I must mention two caveats for the casual reader. The book may be at times difficult to follow for anyone not already familiar with the history of the first three Crusades, such as I was. Fortunately, Chapter 6 solves the greater part of this problem. It reviews the major events of the period and also features maps of ancient Syria, Galilee and Palestine. I believe this content is sufficient to get acquainted with what one could call the “received knowledge” on the topic. On the other hand, there is not much a reader can do about the fact that every quote is reproduced in its original Latin text without translation. This may put off a fair proportion of readers. Should you hesitate, know that this rarely hinders the understanding of the main argument, only parts of its demonstration.

The only way I can conclude this review is by emphasizing yet another time how this book is such a beautiful example of a thoughtful study in medieval history and philology. I will not comment on the bibliography, the notes or other idiosyncrasies of academic writing. The quality of both method and content should suffice to convince that this book is a must-read. How would this matter to the Fantasy writer, you might ask? Christopher Marshall has the final word:

Crusading Warfare is a book which contains statements as relevant and profound now as they were when it first appeared. It is, of course, a classic work in the historiography of both the Crusades and medieval military history. But in its recognition that warfare is best considered as simply one facet of human society, Crusading Warfare has a more universal relevance which should not be forgotten. (p. xxxiv)

The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages, from the eighth century to 1340

The Art of Warfare in Western Europe

Originally published in Dutch in 1954 and translated into English for the first time in the late 1970s, this 1997 edition of J.F. Verbruggen’s study is a revised and enlarged version of this first translation. As Matthew Bennett, the series editor of this new rendition, reminds us in his general preface, its great merit was in showing how the conduct and organization of medieval warfare was a lot more methodical than the disorderly affair it was said to be at the time. Bennett remembers reading Verbruggen as a young postgraduate:

Even in the much-reduced translation, I was delighted to find an author who took military historians to task for completely distorting and underestimating the skill with which medieval societies and individual commanders organized war. Delbrück, Delpech and Oman fell alike to his scholarly sword, as he demonstrated the inaccuracy of their assessments which presented the ‘Middle Ages’ as a primitive period in which the ‘Art of War’ was lost, not to be regained until the Renaissance. (p. ix)

Unlike Smail’s work, this book is predominantly about battles. Besides the first chapter already alluded to above (and aptly titled Historiographical problems), the content is organized into four very broad chapters — witness the brevity of their titles — under which many subtopics are covered. Below are mentioned some of them, in order to paint a clearer picture of what this book offers.

  1. The Knights

Equipment and training; psychology on the battlefield; knightly discipline in camp, on march and during battle; knightly tactics and command

  1. The Foot-Soldiers

Their remarkable development in the 14th century; their equipment, their cohesion, their battle psychology; their role in some major battles (Courtrai in 1302, Arques in 1303, Mons-en-Pévèle in 1304)

  1. General Tactics

Exploitation of terrain and the march into battle; co-operation of cavalry and foot-soldiers; the supreme commander and reserve corps; a study of famous or major battles (Antioch in 1098, Tielt in 1128, Arsuf in 1191, Bouvines in 1214, Worringen in 1288)

  1. Strategy

The knowledge of strategies and plans for war; offensive and defensive strategies; the influence of the Church on warfare methods

The above outline should make it clear that this study is aimed at portraying in detail the concrete experience of the battlefield. In this respect, it is quite similar to Rogers’ volume in the Soldiers’ Lives Through History series, though Verbruggen’s material is more extensive and his point-of-view more collective-minded. The descriptions of battles are particularly worth your attention. Most will include the analysis of their initial setup as well as of their immediate aftermath. Plans are also given for the encounters at Courtrai, Mons-en-Pévèle, Arsuf, Bouvines and Worrignen. As was emphasized already, the goal is to show that there is a minimum of structure and planning where none at all was even considered before. Verbruggen is very careful in demonstrating how medieval battles did not amount to a mere sum of one-on-one skirmishes, as was commonly thought (and sometimes still is).

Another surprising quality of this book is in what we might call ‘the Dutch factor’. Given the author’s country of origin, it is a welcome change to find an account of the Middle Ages that is about more than just France or England, or both fighting each other. The Low Countries were the theater of several major events other than Bouvines. Verbruggen gives them their due. His work has also contributed significantly in documenting the infamous Brabançons mercenaries.

I will mention briefly my two personal highlights. The first one is the author’s discussion of army sizes; not in its conclusion (again take note: yes, they were small), but rather in its method. The way in which Verbruggen manages to correlate independent data, from demographic surveys to the reported duration of a march, in order to estimate army sizes and then assess the original sources, seemed to me thoroughly conclusive. I believe this is a clever example of what could be construed as, in effect, true historical evidence. The other point is his stressing the value of all material written in vernacular language. In these cases the vocabulary is often less imprecise than Medieval Latin and therefore they can be useful, when not decisive, in interpreting contemporary documents.

Potential readers will be happy to learn that no particular academic background is presumed so that all citations, no matter their original language, are translated into English. Nevertheless, it must be said that the translation of Verbruggen’s text is itself uneven. At times, especially in the early parts of Chapter 2, several paragraphs range from choppy to outright confusing. The second half of the book reads much better.

Be that as it may, this book remains an invaluable resource. Just like Smail, Verbruggen’s care in discussing how to interpret the source material is a paragon of scholarship. While this quality has nothing to do directly with writing Fantasy, I do believe that this kind of reading is good for one’s general education and intellectual betterment. I certainly felt so when I turned the last page. Still, in the case of a Fantasy writer wishing to portray any kind of medieval-inspired war campaign, the content of this book figures to be beneficial in describing both action and build-up of the battlefield. Read this. You will be better for it, in many ways.

La guerre au Moyen Âge

La guerre au Moyen Âge

I did not want to read history books written specifically in English because they are inherently better, but because I needed to build for myself a good thematic vocabulary in this particular language. After having collected enough material, however, I could certainly opt for something different at least once along the way. Contamine’s La guerre au Moyen Âge (War in the Middle Ages) is one such exception.

There are many reasons in life to learn another language and there are as many reasons in life to learn French. This book could certainly be one of them. Go learn French at once! This review will be here when you return.

Good. Now that you are equipped with one more language in your life, I can tell you that I did manage to find an English translation of this book’s 2nd edition. However, I am reviewing here the 6th one, dated 2003. From my point of view, it made no sense to settle for the older and lesser edition. And now that you also know French, it applies to you as well. Win–win!

At 500+ pages, this book is the longest in my review list. Because of its scale, it is also the only one worth dividing into parts. I have already called attention to the first one, which is entirely bibliographical. Here is an overview of the other two (also note the continuous numbering of the chapters):

  1. A general history of medieval warfare
  1. Barbarians (5th to 9th century)
  2. Feudal times (early 10th to middle of 12th century)
  3. Apogee of the Middle Ages (middle of 12th to early 14th century)
  4. Mercenary companies, gunpowder artillery and permanent armies (early 14th to late 15th century)
  1. Miscellaneous themes
  1. Weaponry
  2. Artillery
  3. Military science
  4. War, political power and society
  5. A history of courage
  6. Juridical, ethical and religious aspects of war

Contamine’s work is an ambitious panorama of the Middle Ages in Europe as seen through its numerous wars. Because a greater breadth always means a lesser depth, it is deliberately superficial. Still, as a history treatise, it is a complete work unto itself. Of the books discussed here, this is the only one that closes with a proper conclusion, where the preceding development is succinctly rephrased into a coherent bottom line. A summary of this summary could go as follows, though it is unforgivably incomplete:

  • Compared with the Antiquity, Byzantium or the Modern Era, the essential character of Western medieval warfare lies in the dominance of a highly experienced heavy cavalry making use of costly steeds, stirrups, complete armor and very high saddles. In most cases, knights own their equipment, are flanked by their servants in battle and are members of a lay aristocracy broadly defined. The nature of their relationship with established structures of power varies.
  • Aside from its early years, Western Middle Ages was not a period of massive invasions/migrations, nor of servile wars. It saw frequent internal strife, but no hegemonic wars of domination. Innumerable small-scale conflicts between neighbors changed little of political balance, and major attempts at conquest against heathens, Islam or Byzantium were few and far between.
  • Medieval society can be described as militaristic only insofar as there is no clear boundary between soldier and commoner (a point well emphasized by Rogers). The social hierarchy was tied to economic production and this in fact insulated a minority of professional combatants with highly diverse sources of income. The majority of the population usually participated in wars only episodically.
  • Medieval armies are comparatively small. Fragmentation of power can explain this for the most part, but inadequate administrative structures and a lack of financial means were also significant contributors to this situation. Armies were not constrained by the size of the population, but by the limited capability of maintaining them for a long time.
  • The Middles Ages is not really more warlike than other eras of our history. Many centuries between the fall of Rome and of Constantinople have seen no more violence than the 16th or the 17th, for example. Our judgment is easily misled by the military-minded decorum of the period, however. This nuance makes all the difference.

As this book targets a larger audience, all the foreign excerpts are translated into French. Be careful what you wish for, however: Old and Middle French are also left untouched and, should you choose to tackle these citations, you will need more than just a good dictionary. In general, the author’s writing is very “French” (as in, wordy) and overuses the semi-colon, but it is a pleasant read that alternates a somewhat conversational tone with the occasional flourish of rhetorical elegance.

In the specific context of my research, I have to admit that this book has been both impressive and disappointing. On the one hand, most of what I read in it I can only find in the combination of all my other readings. On the other hand, most of what I read in it I did find in the combination of all my other readings. This shows how this book is a most excellent survey, but a survey nonetheless. Contamine especially eschews the tactical aspect à la Verbruggen in favor of a more abstract approach, namely the social and political context of wars. The chapter on weapons is the weakest. Still, there is so much content in this book that one cannot even tell what is the author’s main area of research, although signs point to chapters 8–10. As a matter of fact, I found them to be the most interesting of the lot and I have to concede that their respective topics were certainly unique among everything else I have read in the past year or so.

If there is only one book to read for the newcomer who, thankfully, knows French, it is this one. Read Keen‘s volume if you are in a hurry or did not learn French when I told you to, but read Contamine if you are truly committed to medieval history, as you should probably be if you are a Fantasy writer.

I will repeat this a thousand times if I have to: the point is not to copy history, but rather to use it in order to accept, and even embrace, the constraints of verisimilitude whenever you are aiming, as a storyteller, at something deeper than cheap window dressing. Of course, until now all I have done on this blog is to pontificate. This is about to change. Blogging about my creative process has never been the endpoint. I have a story to tell. It is high time I do just that.

* As an aside, I must confess that I remain permanently confused by the fact that in French the High Middle Ages (Haut Moyen Âge) is the name of the Early Middle Ages in English, whereas Low Middle Ages (Bas Moyen Âge) is that of the Late Middle Ages. In French, high/low will mean “far/near” in a context of time (this is not colloquial, by the way, just historian geek-speak). I understand that High Middle Ages in English refers to another idea altogether, namely that of the classic period being associated with the apex of feudalism and chivalry. Still, these two frames of reference keep clashing in my head and I daresay they always will.