Bell, et al., The Soldier Experience in the Fourteenth Century (Boydell & Brewer, 2011) — Ditcham

Adrian R Bell, Anne Curry, Adam Chapman, Andy King, and David Simpkin (eds)

 The Soldier Experience in the Fourteenth Century

 Warfare in History 36 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2011).  232pp.   $90/£50.  ISBN 9781843836742.

A common criticism of multi-authored publications of conference proceedings is that these lack focus and coherence.  This reproach cannot be levelled at the present volume.   Linked to the launch of a database of soldiers in English service from 1369 to 1453 [1] it is very closely focussed on the English experience with only a couple of glances across the Channel.

By far the longest contribution comes from Andrew Ayton, who covers the whole of the century in his overview of recruitment dynamics.  He notes the shift from the fairly stable structures of the first half of the century in which men served in relatively cohesive groups with an identifiable existence over several campaigns, usually as part of the same retinue, to a much more fragmented situation visible by the 1370s and 80s.  This was characterized by much greater fluidity in patterns of service, with royal armies drawing on a much-expanded pool of military labour.  Despite the devastation of the Black Death the number of men who were in principle available for service appears to have been higher than in the 1340s, drawing heavily on groups whom Ayton labels “gentlemanly military careerists” and “ sub-genteel professionals” which were only too willing to regard royal service as just one employment option among many.   This is a complex and densely argued paper which repays close reading and raises questions about the long term impact of war on social and even cultural structures.

The next three pieces focus on the early years of the century.  David Simkins seeks to match up evidence of participation in warfare with records of landholding in Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire for the reigns of Edwards I and II.  He finds high levels of participation well down the social scale, though not much visible sense of self-conscious county communities in the way this participation was structured.  David Bachrach identifies men who, he argues, acted as the professional leadership cadre for infantry levies under Edward I and sets them alongside other professionals in the logistical sphere (crossbow makers and engineers).  Between these articles, Andrew Spencer issues a major caveat about the long term effectiveness of Edward I’s drive to militarise the English landed elites.   He points to growing gentry dissatisfaction manifested in a reluctance to serve visible even before the king’s death in 1307; on this reading, a more competent monarch than Edward II would have faced major problems over sustaining the Scottish war.

Three pieces with a Celtic tinge follow.   Iain MacInnes examines the fate of those Scots who supported Edward Balliol in the Second Scottish War of Independence.   For some, Balliol service was a way station on the road to permanent exile and life as professionals in the English armies but he argues that a Balliol (or at least an anti-Bruce) cause retained considerably wider latent support in Scotland well into the 1330s than an identification of the Bruce dynasty as the sole legitimate bearer of national identity would allow.    The success of the Bruce cause  in the 1330s, as in the 1310s, was as much a victory in a civil war as a triumph over an external foe.  Adam Chapman examines the fate of the very small number of “native” Welshmen to obtain knightly status in the years after the Edwardian conquest.  He qualifies without fundamentally overthrowing the traditional picture of an elite slowly but inexorably on the slide, undone less by conscious English  prejudice than by factors such as partible inheritance, changing ways of organising Welsh archers in English service and pure genetic bad luck as lines ran out without male issue.   Intriguingly, he also identifies a discernable “Welsh” loyalism towards Edward II springing from his role as Prince of Wales.  Looking across the Channel, Michael Jones examines the background and future careers of the men who formed the Penthièvre -aligned “side” in the famous “Battle of the Thirty” in 1351.   Mostly men of at least local standing in northern Brittany, the survivors of the fight enjoyed some celebrity for the rest of their days and several of them went on to lengthy careers in the service of Charles de Blois and his heirs or the French monarchy.

Guilhem Pépin responds to the doubts cast by Kenneth Fowler in “Medieval Mercenaries” (2001) on the existence of the Bascot de Mauléon whom Froissart claimed to have met at Orthez in 1388.  Pépin identifies him with one Galhardet de Mauléon, active in the Albigeois and Provence during the 1380s.   He makes a strong case for this identification, though a pedant might argue that he does not entirely address Fowler’s claim that there is no trace of the man in the 1360s and 70s.  The bravura passage attributed to the Bascot relating to that period might still be a Froissartian fabrication.  Rèmy Ambühl examines the fate of English prisoners in the 1370s.   They had to look to the wider military community rather than the crown for assistance in finding ransoms, though the situation was eased by French willingness to go easy on ransom demands in return for the quick surrender of strongholds.   What this contribution underlines is how little we know about the ransom business below the highest social levels.  Finally Adrian Bell trawls evidence from Court of Chivalry cases and the database to get a sense of how widely English soldiers might travel.  This, along with Ayton’s essay, serves to underline the strengths and weaknesses of the latter source.  It can throw up previously un-noticed participation in campaigns or garrison service but excludes whole chapters of an individual’s career if these were not undertaken in English royal service- Bell’s nomination for the most widely travelled soldier barely figures in the database and Chaucer’s Knight would have been completely invisible there.

One criticism of the book (and in particular the somewhat ungrammatical title) is that it makes universalising claims about one national experience of warfare.  Another might be that the methodology shared by all the contributors: a prosoprographical focus on reconstructing military careers from surviving administrative and other documentation- does not exactly amount to a reconstruction of the lived experience of the men it studies.  It is also intriguing that the majority of the contributors cover careers that for one reason on another fall outside the database.   Nevertheless this is a rich and sometimes intriguing set of essays which opens perspectives for further work on the social impact of war in later medieval England.



Brian G H Ditcham

Independent Scholar <>




This entry was posted in BookReview and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.