Purton — History of the Early Medieval Siege c.450-1220 (Eads)

a-history-early-medieval-siege-c-450-1200-peter-purton-hardcover-cover-artPeter Purton

A History of the Early Medieval Siege c.450-1220.

Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. xxvii+505.  ISBN 978-1-84383-448-9.

As the date range in the title implies, this book is only half of the author’s history of medieval siege warfare.  There is a second, equally robust, volume devoted to the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries.  This review is concerned only with the first volume.

The core of the book is a chronological narrative of medieval warfare focused on its main component, the siege, with primary sources, including archaeology, and a selection of secondary sources.  The whole is supported by 32 black-and-white plates, fourteen maps, seventy pages of bibliography, an eighteen-page timeline and a glossary.  Assembling such an array of sieges and sources in a single accessible work is a considerable contribution.  Purton has cast a broad net, and scholars who have become accustomed to beginning with the observation that a specific person or action is undeservedly neglected may have to update their opening paragraphs.  Students can be glad that there is now an intermediary level between the surveys of medieval warfare that proclaim the importance of siege warfare and the specialized books and articles that comprise the scholarly literature.  Also of benefit to students is the effort to indicate translations where available, although the rate at which new translations appear make this a happily impossible goal.

The organization is chronological with geographic subdivisions within the time periods.  Each chapter covers a block of time, such as “After ‘Rome’” or “The tenth century.”  As the sources become more numerous, chapters become more focused.  Thus, warfare in the Islamic lands from India to Iberia during the twelfth century is treated in “Franks and Saracens: the early crusades,” while western Europe and Byzantium during the same long century have a chapter to themselves, “The twelfth century in northern and central Europe and Byzantium.”

This is not, however, a handbook or encyclopedia.  There is a valiant effort to weave the numerous strands of information on hundreds of sieges across nearly eight centuries and an equally vast territorial range (roughly from Hadrian’s Wall to the Great Wall of China) into a cohesive fabric explaining the role of sieges in warfare and the development of defensive and offensive technology. Each chapter includes some discussion of issues or questions raised.  In the first chapter there is a summary of the literature on the diffusion of the lever technology that became the trebuchet; “The Arab conquests” considers such questions as how the technologically unsophisticated Arabs defeated people with more advanced technology at their disposal and then absorbed siege technology; also noted is the substantial amount of information that can be gained by studying sieges that failed or did not occur.  “Shifting balances: the eleventh century” ends with brief conclusions concerning the advances in stone building skills and the symbolic or ceremonial significance of resulting structures such as the donjon or the Bergfried, the popularity of siege towers despite the difficulty of deploying them, and the slowness of western Europe to add mining to the poliorcetic repertory.

A final chapter summarizes some of the questions raised in the preceding eight chapters, and gaps become more apparent.  That transportation by land was difficult and expensive and that this would have an effect where siege trains and supplies were needed is not questioned, but, although the question was raised, the discussion is minimal.  It is not clear to what the single figure—a travel rate of twenty miles per day—applies.  The question of roads is not continued in subsequent discussion of the economic developments in the late ninth and tenth century that led to “developments in the quality and quantity of siege technology during the tenth century.”  Transportation, communication, travel, sanitation and logistics do not appear in the index, but trebuchet, mangonel, ballista and Greek Fire do, and it is in the discussion of these technological developments that the chapter is strongest, recapitulating the questions raised earlier and summarizing the evidence presented.  Also interesting is the discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of various kinds of sources including archaeology and experimental archaeology.  Some efforts that scholars carried out for British television, such as John Haldon’s 2003 effort to recreate Greek Fire, may not be familiar outside the UK.

The challenges of getting a pair of large and complex volumes into print are underscored by the uneven distribution of more recent works in the bibliography which runs to seventy pages for the first volume alone and includes publications as recent as 2007.  This would seem more than substantial, and a pass-through quickly turned up a number of must-read articles.  Still, a few omissions are notable.  For example, the brief discussion of the early Carolingians, from Pepin II of Heristal through King Pepin I le Bref, has no mention of Bachrach’s Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire (Philadelphia, 2001)which discussed their careers in more detail. Likewise, the index lists a handful of individual women (Matilda the Empress, Matilda of Boulogne, Matilda of Tuscany, Nicola de la Haye) but there is no entry for women as a category such as can be found, for example, in Bradbury’s much shorter book (The Medieval Siege [Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1992]) even though a good bit more has been published on medieval women and war since then. That said, even this reviewer (the writer of some of that bit since 1992) can find a previously unknown gem in this comprehensive work.[1]

The book’s appearance is timely because it needed to be written: there is no other comprehensive overview of siege warfare throughout the centuries recognized as medieval.  That said, since the consensus that siege was a central element of medieval warfare is no longer new to academic medieval military historians, there is also a feeling of, “At last!”


[1] E. Lévi-Provençal, “Une héroïne de la résistance musulmane en Sicile au début du XIIIe siècle,” Oriente Moderno 34.6 (1954): 283-88, cited on p. 374, n. 1; not included in the  bibliography.

Val Eads

New York Military Affairs Symposium <veads@nymas.org>

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