Book Review: Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000 – 1300

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 Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000 – 1300

By John France
UCL Press, 1999

Review by Dana Cushing
University of Toronto

A survey of military equipment, tactics and engagements employed under the Western European sphere of influences during the period 1000 to 1300, it is my opinion that John France’s book provides both a good summation and a positive contribution to medieval military scholarship to date.

Throughout the book, the reader is reminded of the four key factors which France argues most influenced war during the high medieval period.  These four elements are emphasized and elaborated upon throughout the book.  First, the landed basis of the medieval economy not only made territorial conquest the goal of medieval campaigns, but also provided the means and compensation for waging war.  Second, the limited reach and inconsistent abilities of medieval authorities – especially the webs or the mouvances of fealty and family relations – provided the opportunity for gain and the necessity for self-defence, but made a cohesive and confident army practically impossible for any single commander to achieve.  Third, the predominance of defensive technology meant that war centered upon fortification of the land and the body; thus castles and armor are the chief concerns of the period.  Finally, the ecology of Western Europe dictated the style of war, limiting the season, scope and tactics of the commander.

In reading the book I found several nits which I shall now pick.  First I shall deal with weapons and armor, then the horse, then swordsmithing, and finally with tactical change.

First, one might say that France’s discussion early swords (p. 22) left a bit to be desired.  He mentions both the grooved sword type and the raised-ridge sword type but fails to alert the reader to the fact that these features were not mere curiosities of sword construction, rather that both groove and ridge were designed to add strength to the blade.  Also I disagree with France=s statement that the early falchion:

… must have been very awkward to handle, which is perhaps why some early examples appear to be two-handed and another has a special handle. (pp. 22/3)

Instead I hypothesize that the evidenced methods of wielding the weapon is a response, not to awkwardness, but to the point-weight of the weapon which would have made it difficult to keep upright using the strength of a single wrist.  Thus, the two-handed and special handles would have been an attempt at technological adaptation to a specific characteristic of a new and therefore unpractised weapons form.  Also I felt his discussion of the shield (p. 20) was sparse and slightly misleading on three counts: a) he fails to mention the so-called “heater” shape of shield that was developing toward the end of this period; b) he writes only that shields were wooden, thus failing to elaborate upon the plywood-laminate and leather covering essential to the endurance of the shield in battle, because a plain wooden shield would have been hewn and shattered almost immediately upon the field; and c) he writes that the shield was functional only to prevent direct blows, obviously ignoring the shield=s protective value as a shelter during salvos of arrows and other missiles.

Third, also in this chapter, France discusses the warhorse (pp. 23/4) but neglects to mention that the knight’s usual mount for travel would be a simple horse.  It is my understanding that the knight would have ridden, unarmed, the regular medieval horse while the stronger, taller warhorse would likely have been loaded with goods; during battle the regular horse would be left in camp among the baggage, while the now-armored knight rode the heavy charger for the duration of the battle.  Given the importance of the horse to the very definition of knight, I think this lapse regarding his stable is an important omission.

Fourth, in his third chapter, I quite agree with French’s discussion of medieval society’s metallurgy.  However I would also have added, although perhaps as a footnote for the curious, that many of the high-carbon steel swords of the medieval period – especially famous named swords, like those of King Arthur, Charlemagne and the like – were often said to be made of steel from meteors.

Fifth, Frances states early on that Western Europeans “… proved singularly reluctant to change their style of warfare when they came into contact with other civilizations.”  (p. 2) I found this statement somewhat confusing for three reasons.  I am not certain whether this was an actual reluctance to adapt, whether contemporaries simply saw little point in change, or whether change could have been achieved at all.  In the case of adaptation, the Christian knights of Europe definitely changed their manner when confronted with Baltic pagans, and indeed overall the end of the period saw a change in tactics tending to massed charges.  And regarding whether change was seen as necessary, in Iberia the Reconquista was generally quite successful and in the Holy Land there was an initial period of success as well, which would have indicated that established methods were working.  Furthermore, France himself states frequently that the ad hoc and seasonal nature of the medieval army made organization, let alone tactical and technological advance, very difficult.  In my opinion, therefore, it is not so much an actual reluctance as a lack of impetus as well as means.

A sixth criticism has been discussed [students of Prof Bert Hall, Toronto, 2000], namely that France fairly glances over the Mongol invasions of Russia.  In this case I would argue for France, in that his book is targeted on Western European warfare and really should not be expected to include much information on an Asian invasion of Eastern Europe.  One might say that, technically, it would follow that France should not have discussed the Baltic at such length – an interesting and informative dialogue about a little-known aspect of Crusading.  However I would argue that the significant Western commitment to providing money, troops and colonists for the area does serve to bring it within the scope of France’s examination.

Overall, despite these criticisms, I think the book is well-written and very sound.  I thought France’s key points were well made throughout the book.  I was especially appreciative of the use of the mouvances as opposed to the traditional feudal / familial and, worst of all, the anachronistic national model of the army.  I enjoyed the many discussions of castles and defensive war.   Also I liked the moment-by-moment maps of the Battle of Bouvines.  Yet the portion of John France’s book with which I was tremendously impressed was his opening chapter.  What very much captured my attention and favor here was France’s discussion of the concept of “Vegetian warfare” in the medieval period.  In my own research of Richard Lionheart’s efforts on the Third Crusade, I encountered a thesis which proves that Vegetius’ treatise was widely owned and, more significantly, seriously studied by nearly every major military leader of the period.[1] I was happy to see Vegetius brought to the reader=s attention as a significant teacher and widely-used resource for the medieval commander.  It was also refreshing to read an author who was concerned more with the daily grind of small-scale warfare – such as raids, devastation and minor sieges – than with the more glamourous but less representative full-scale battles of the period.

Regarding other reviews of this book, I was able to find only one review which is really a publisher’s summary.  It emphasizes that France’s work is directed primarily to examining how European factors affected war in the Middle East, saying:

In 1095 with the launching of the First Crusade, Europeans established a great military endeavour to save the Holy Land, an undertaking that remained a central preoccupation until the end of the thirteenth century… This authoritative and concise work surveys the range of warfare in the high Middle Ages while reflecting on the society that produced these military struggles. The book brings together for the first time a wealth of information on such topics as knighthood, military organization, weaponry and fortifications, and warfare in the East.

However I see the focus of the book somewhat differently.  I think that Baltic Europe plays an equally important role as the Holy Land in his book, and that the overall focus remains Western European warfare in the Crusader era rather than Crusader warfare specifically.

In conclusion, John France’s book emphasizes economy, authority, technology and technology as the formative elements of warfare in the eleventh to fourteenth centuries.  His survey has only a few very minor faults of detail – which are quite excusable given the scope of his effort – and provides significant new information to the English-speaking academic concerning the Baltic crusades, as well as casting better-known European and Crusading campaigns into the new light of his four-pronged theory.  His emphasis of mouvances, Vegetius and the small-scale raid was particularly appreciated by this reader.  Overall I feel the book was not only informative, but very well-written, and I am glad to have read and considered it.

[DANA CUSHING, TORONTO, 2000]

REFERENCES

Books

France, John,Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000 – 1300 (UCL Press, London UK, 1999)

Hyland, Ann, The Medieval Warhorse From Byzantium to the Crusades (Sutton Publishing Limited, Stroud UK, 1994)

Shrader, Charles Reginald, The Ownership and Distribution of Manuscripts of the De re Militari of Flavius Vegetius Renatus Before the Year 1300 (Columbia University (thesis), UMI, 1976)

Reviews

Publisher Reviews @ Amazon.com

Reviewed 24 Feb 1999


  1. Shrader, Charles Reginald, The Ownership and Distribution of Manuscripts of the De re Militari of Flavius Vegetius Renatus Before the Year 1300, Columbia University (thesis), UMI, 1976.

Sharan Newman