On Medieval Warfare, Revisited (but it’s not that great this time)

by Jeff

Medieval Military TechnologyWhile my first draft keeps chugging along (more on that very soon), I thought I would interrupt my regular programming with a short review of another book on medieval warfare that I read last month. It is the second edition of Medieval Military Technology by Kelly DeVries and Robert Douglas Smith, published by the University of Toronto Press in 2012. I should note that DeVries was a contributor in Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World, a book I have previously reviewed. This was not the reason for my acquiring it, however. It was in fact an impulse buy, after reading some rave reviews on Amazon, where people said it was the new reference on the subject.

Fair enough. But my short answer to that has to be this: sorry, but no way.

I will not even make an effort of breaking down this book’s chapters in details here, because this is not worth it. With the exception of a handful of useful factoids on ships and naval warfare, I learned nothing new by reading this. And this is not even the worst part of it. Here is the real kicker. On page 236, we read the following:

Throughout the Holy Land they confronted other Byzantine defensive structures, so strongly built that they had been repaired by the Muslims who had inhabited them since the seventh century. These clearly influenced the Crusaders, and they began to imitate them.

My first reaction upon reading this was to feel disappointment with myself. The fact is that I have argued the opposite on this very blog, based on my own book reviews! I therefore concluded that I had missed important research. I promptly followed the note associated with this passage to have a look at the relevant references. Three works were cited.

The first one was a 1955 expanded edition of Toy’s work about which I wrote already. This work describes many things, but argues very little. This raised an eyebrow, for clearly this reference is insufficient. An expanded version of an outdated work cannot lend any weight to this.

The second reference was R.C. Smail’s Crusading Warfare from 1956, which I also reviewed with great pleasure — because it thoroughly argues against that very sort of sweeping statements on medieval castles that DeVries had just tried. I went back to the four-page section referenced by DeVries on this topic (pp. 226–230 in Smail’s book) and all I found there was a review of other people’s ideas on the matter. Smail’s own take on the subject starts on page 232, where he states the following:

Historians have seen in these castra of the crusades clear evidence that the Syrian Franks were learning from the Byzantines. […] The extent to which the Franks were influenced by such examples is more doubtful than historians sometimes allow.

The next twelve pages are then dedicated to an analysis of the contrary evidence supporting Smail’s doubts. His final conclusion comes on page 244, where Smail asserts that we simply cannot ascertain an influence in any direction, whether from the East to the West or vice versa. In fact, I had already quoted that conclusion in my review of Smail:

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.

Alas, DeVries either does not know how to read, is cherry-picking dangerously, or both.

This kind of sloppy scholarship used to anger me in my previous life as an academic. It still does.

I knew nothing of the third reference, a 1967 monograph by one T.S.R. Boase, but at this point it bears nothing on the argument to even bother checking it out. It either contradicts Smail — in which case one has at least to acknowledge the debate, unless Boase conclusively disproves the entirety of Smail’s lengthy and careful analysis (let me call this the epitome of dubiousness) — or it does not, which would be even more damning for DeVries.

Do not waste your time with this book.