Book Reviews: Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War and The Circle of War in the Middle Ages

Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War
Edited by Curry and Hughes
(Boydell, 1999)

The Circle of War in the Middle Ages
Edited by Kagay and Villalon
(Boydell, 1999)

Reviewed by Dana Cushing
University of Toronto

Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War

This book is a collection of essays, the result of presentations to a conference held at Oxford University in November 1991.  Both professional historians and amateur aficionados contributed to this work, which includes everything from a reappraisal of military tactics to an examination of the artistic program of knights’ monuments.

Three strong essays by Bennett, Ayton and editor Curry initiate this work; together they outline the development of tactical approaches and armies over the period of the Hundred Years War. The Aquitanian theatre of conflict is highlighted by Vale, who compares its network of ‘listening-post’ castles and private feuds to the Marcher societies of Britain.  Hughes and Kenyon provide compatible essays about the Channel ports and isles; Hughes discusses the specific problems faced by these areas, while Kenyon demonstrates how defences in these areas were altered to accommodate cannon.  Smith contributes an excellent essay examining the difficult subject of early gun manufacture and use.  Another fine essay is contributed by Friel concerning the medieval ship – a subject in which he is a renowned scholar for several periods of medieval history – explaining the defensive purpose of a ship’s architectural elements as well as the military advantages to changes in rigging that developed during the War.  Finally, Kemp makes a significant contribution to the study of memorial art of the Hundred Years War with a thorough analysis of five ingredients – fabricated components, materials, sculpture, decor and architectural setting.  These he uses in place of the traditional foci of style and iconography used in fine art history, as well as providing a discussion of the memento mori movement on English memorials.

There are three essays in this book which raised important questions for this reader.  The first is Omrod’s paper on domestic response to the conflict, wherein I question two points.  Omrod asserts that:

The marked shift in the military priorities of the English crown away from the preservation of distant Aquitaine and towards the maintenance of English positions in the more familiar and fertile territory of northern France, already evident long before Henry V’s conquest of Normandy, is an interesting example of the war in which the original war aims of the crown had to be adapted to accommodate the interests and enthusiasms of the elite.

Thus he argues that the elite discouraged the Crown from fighting in its hereditary lands due to distance and infertile farmland.  Vales essay on Aquitaine in the same book serves nicely to refute this argument.  On the first point, the elite’s interests, Vale writes (p. 79):

Among those who gained from war… in Aquitaine, the nobility must be given pride of place… War, and the prospect of war, kept these men alive… it was difficult for many of [the elite] to find any other gainful occupation.

With livelihoods at stake, I find it difficult to believe that those of the same class and profession would seek to discourage the Crown from employing them in any theatre of conflict, regardless of distance or the quality of farmland – which quality Vale (p. 75) notes was only wanting in the south of the duchy.  On the second point, Aquitaine was also a traditionally English territory, albeit some two centuries less than Normandy had been.  Indeed, I find it ridiculous that any King would peacefully surrender his own lands on the advice of those beneath himself.  Vale says (p. 69) that:

… the kings of England were the immediate and >natural= lords of the area, and a certain long-standing loyalty to them was evident at every stage of the war… the very fact that it was by force of arms that the duchy was finally annexed to the French crown in 1451-3 may tell us much about Gascon loyalty and less about English military efforts to retain this long-standing continental possession.

Furthermore Vale reminds the reader that the most significant source of English archival material remains unpublished (p. 71).  Thus, given that the English attitude may not be truly determined, Omrod’s assertion seems to be a generalization.

Next is Jones’ essay which discusses the constant low-grade destruction inflicted upon the French countryside.  He makes two important points in this essay.  First, it is significant he notes that the Jacquerie revolts came of the social discontent caused by the War – no other source we have read thus far has touched upon what I believe is a crucial social undercurrent of this era.  Second, he is careful to point out that the concept of ‘total war’ was not yet being exercised despite the continual destruction wrought upon the land and people.  Instead he writes, “Here there was no single great wave of destruction and desertion followed by a general movement of recolonization, but rather piecemeal efforts…” which led to an ongoing ‘convalescence’ or crippling of the land rather than its death.  I was glad to see this distinction made for the reader because his account, initially, had given me the impression that he would argue for a sort of total war during this era.

Third, I encountered several problems with Hardy’s essay on the longbow.  While he does prove his case for archers’ uniforms in Chester and Flint, nevertheless I find his assertion that the writs’ mentions of “… clothing, ‘gowns’, ‘hoods’, ‘one suit’ apiece, and so on…” constituted a general use of a uniform is shaky, especially since his very next statement qualifies that information is limited (p. 166).  Second, his assertion that the good treatment of archers by their leaders was the direct cause of their re-enlistment (p. 167) is supported only by a secondary source, and I for one find it difficult to believe that the lowest class of any skilled fighter – both by social rank and pay – would receive special consideration.  It seems even less likely that such treatment would be the primary consideration when we remember this war in its context of more tangible rewards, like regular wages and booty.  Next, his estimate of the height of the medieval archer (p. 179) seems extreme compared to what I understand was the normal medieval stature, and no evidence is provided to support the idea that there would be sufficient numbers of such tall people to provide a populous archer corps; nor do I think only “young, fit men” would be selected for service if any skilled marksman were also able and available, regardless of age, physique or stature.  Finally, as discussed in class, I believe that Hardy’s essay looks at best practise versus common practise – his bows from the Mary Rose are, he writes, “bows of the finest quality imaginable” (p. 171) – and he seems more concerned with the range than the actual effect of the weapon.  Yet his efforts at estimating a quartermaster’s logistical concerns for archers are laudable.

Overall I believe this book provides a solid and informative introduction to the Hundred Years War, despite the problems I encountered with Omrod’s and Hardy’s essays.  Also it might be argued that an essay on memorial art might not strictly qualify as “Arms, Armies and Fortifications”, but I think the editors did well to include such a comprehensive essay and it provides a unique perspective on the mindset of the War’s participants.

The Circle of War in the Middle Ages

Like the first work discussed, this work too is compilation of papers presented at various medieval conferences, this time in America.  Its function is to serve as a platform for the resurgence of interest in medieval military history, and to provide further impetus for academic investigation (pp. xi, xiv).

The purpose of the first portion of this compilation is to challenge common assumptions about medieval warfare, and I believe every essay in Part I does so successfully.  First Bachrach, with characteristic forthrightness, systematically picks apart the problems with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century military historians, confronting the assumptions of Hans Delbrück.  Bachrach develops seven points on which to refute Delbrück, asserting that he is Teutocentric and showing how his contemporaries had disproven his theories, even using Delbrück’s own evidence to refute his other rules!  Certainly Delbrück’s theories – especially his theories about the medieval estimation of numbers – have had tremendous effect on our field and it is refreshing to see him so expertly criticized, lest the novice historian accept the weight accorded to Delbrück’s work without appropriate skepticism.  Later in the section, Vann’s essay uses Castille to show how the medieval commander gained and used tactical knowledge and deployed resources to the best advantage, contrary to many modern historians’ apologetic approach to medieval strategy.  Next, Chevedden provides an analysis of the development of the trebuchet, disproving Smail’s assertion that neither innovation nor adaptation were made during the medieval era.  Morillo provides a six-point theory on the rise and fall of the cavalryman as the dominant form of warrior in medieval conflict, dissatisfied with the traditional three-pronged explanation of stirrup, gunpowder and bow.

I found of particular interest the final essay in Part I, wherein Schönfeld dispels six old theories about the identity of agrarii milites and provides his own tentative theory on the same.  He concludes – generally in keeping with Karl Leyser – that these people were farmers, too poor to afford marching out with the general levy, who therefore had their feudal obligation commuted to defensive service in military districts.  Yet he qualifies his conclusion, calling for the re-examination of the question regarding the status and cavalry ability of the people in question (p. 72).  I find it appropriate that Schönfeld dispels the “authoritative” conclusions of his predecessors without attempting to impose his own.

In Part II of the book the question of the role of the divine in medieval warfare is examined.  Hare investigates accounts of the increasingly direct intervention of saints in war as the period progresses. Kelly DeVries provides an engaging essay that seeks to answer the question every medieval historian has asked of their sources: When God is on your side, how do you excuse defeat?  Both essays are more informative than controversial.

Part III of the book examines “Orders of Society at War”, but really concerns itself with stereotypes.  Isaac’s essay does an excellent job of defeating the common stereotype of the mercenary as a common, amoral sword-for-hire, by using the career of William of Ypres to illustrate a loyal nobleman supporting himself as a mercenary while exiled from his heritage.  Later, Lane provides an insightful piece examining the effect of Italian urban warfare upon the daily and military life of surrounding rural communities.

Nevertheless I did have one quibble with the second essay in this section.  Traux’s work is generally an informative treatment of the role of noblewomen in active warfare, however I dispute her assertion that “… it seems doubtful any of the women actually fought in battle and exchanged blows with the enemy.”  I find it extremely unlikely that a woman would hesitate to raise a weapon against someone attacking her person or home, especially in an armed society; at least it is to be hoped that the author meant noblewomen, for certainly there is documentation of common women participating in skirmishes throughout the Middle Ages.  Thus it is an inaccurate generalization, perhaps unintentional but surprising from a feminist scholar.

The fourth portion of the book uses the theme of naval warfare to unite an essay on Greek Fire with an in-depth analysis of the Battle of Malta.  While Haldane’s essay on Greek Fire was interesting in terms of the transmission of technology and the machinery used to fire it, I was a bit disappointed that he did not risk, or at least review, suggestions of its ingredients.  Mott’s essay on the Battle of Malta was lengthy, but his analysis of the weight of situational and tactical circumstances upon a battle between naval equals – as well as the hidden psychological factors – was worth the read.

In conclusion, this book too was educational and the academic debate most engaging.  To quote Prestwich’s review:

This well‑produced volume consists of a somewhat disparate, but very interesting set of essays on medieval military and naval history…  There is no consistent theme beyond a desire to question the assumptions of past generations of historians, and to provide fresh answers, and this is done admirably in these studies… This is not the kind of volume which prompts a general conclusion, beyond the fact that it is very clear that there is a real, and very welcome, renaissance of medieval military history.

Certainly some papers are more intent on breaking down past notions while others provide fresh information, and overall I feel this is an excellent volume, with one minor exception free of the faults found in Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War.



10 February 2000

Prestwich, Michael
Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

19 September 1995

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