Bernard S. Bachrach and David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Medieval Europe c. 400-c.1453 (Titterton)

Bernard S. Bachrach and David S. Bachrach

Warfare in Medieval Europe c. 400-c.1453

(Routledge, 2017) 410 pp. hb- $150.00, pb- $44.95

bachrach bachrach

With television shows such as Game of Thrones and a host of video games testifying to the enduring appeal of medieval warfare as a source of popular entertainment, military historians have an opportunity to reach beyond the boundaries of academia and present their work to a wider audience in an accessible way. This is Bernard and David Bachrach’s stated aim in writing this new text: to create a concise survey that ‘will serve as an introduction to the subject for general readers with an interest in the history of the Middle Ages and for use in the classroom’ (1). As this is not intended to be an academic monograph, the authors have chosen not to include references for their arguments but confined themselves to presenting a select bibliography of relevant texts at the end of each chapter (1). While this may make the prose less intimidating for a general reader, it limits its usefulness for study at an undergraduate level or beyond.

The authors describe the volume as ‘thesis-driven’ (2) and are very frank about the theories that frame their approach. First, that warfare was enmeshed with nearly every aspect of medieval society: religious, economic, social, political, administrative, agricultural etc. Second, that there was significant, demonstrable continuity between the conduct of warfare in the late Roman Empire and medieval Europe, a view which they acknowledge as ‘somewhat controversial’ (2). Third, that warfare in the Middle Ages was both complex and conducted on a grand scale, necessitating extensive training for combatants and a detailed military education for commanders, drawn from Roman manuals of war.

The authors seek to prove their theses in each chapter. Unusually for a survey volume of this kind, they have chosen to take a thematic, rather than a chronological, approach for each chapter: topography, logistics, arms and armour, strategy etc. This makes it easier for them to present their argument for continuity throughout the period, for example, by discussing how medieval rulers employed forms of taxation similar to those of the late Roman imperial government to fund their campaigns.

This thematic approach also allows the authors to emphasise certain understudied aspects of military history. The chapter on topography, although focusing almost exclusively on the pre-crusades period, is thought-provoking and should prompt readers to consider how the presence (or absence) of roads, waterways, and urban centres affected the conduct of warfare. Similarly, the discussion of taxation and other economic factors is very pertinent, particularly in a text designed for a general readership, inviting the reader to consider the mundane but necessary aspects of warfare.

Despite its benefits, this thematic approach to such a long time period has led to certain periods being skimmed over, especially the later period. The authors specialise in the study of the early Middle Ages, particularly the Carolingians and their successors, and this is very evident in the present volume. Although entitled Medieval Warfare c. 400 – c. 1453, half or more of each chapter is dedicated to events and developments pre-1200. The most egregious example is in chapter two, in which the subject of ‘Late medieval military topographies’ is covered in just over two pages of a fifty four page chapter (81–83). The geographical scope is similarly restricted, focusing almost exclusively on England, France and Germany, with little reference to Iberia, Italy or central Europe.

As stated above, the book does not include any foot or endnotes to allow readers to check the authors’ references. There is a bibliography at the end of each chapter, however, which directs readers to scholarly works on a given aspect of medieval warfare. Many authoritative texts from the last forty years appear but there are also significant omissions, particularly the work of Guy Halsall and Matthew Strickland.
With regard to the arguments presented in individual chapters, it is very difficult to offer a critique as the authors do not provide citations for their claims. They are very frank about this, stating in their introduction that they wish to present a ‘synthesis’ (1) of scholarship, rather than an academic monograph, in accordance with their particular views on medieval warfare. This may help to make the subject more accessible to the general reader but this freedom has allowed the authors to make some bold claims that they might not have made in an academic volume. To give just one example, from a section on the use of ladders to scale fortifications:

The task of climbing these ladders must have been exceptionally daunting for even the bravest of men. Modern firefighters receive extensive physical and psychological training to undertake this tasks, and they do not have to worry about slings, arrows, and javelins, much less boiling pots of oil, as they make their ascent, only fire, which also was faced by medieval soldiers. It must have been that much worse for medieval fighting men, most of whom never had any cause to climb a tall ladder under normal circumstances in the course of their daily lives. Consequently, it is obvious that men who were selected to climb these ladders required considerable training. (305)

On other occasions the lack of referencing obscures how the authors have selectively quoted their sources to support their argument. Again, to give only one typical example, in the chapter on strategy, they discuss the portrayal of King Henry I of England in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum:

William wrote that this king embodied the statement by the great Roman general Scipio Africanus (died 183 BC): ‘My mother bore me for command, not combat.’ The comment reportedly made by Scipio survived into the medieval period because of the decision by another Roman general, Sextus Julius Frontinus, noted earlier, to include it in his military manual, Stratagems [...] William of Malmesbury appreciated the practical importance of Frontinus’ text, and it is for this reason that he drew upon it when describing the military knowledge of the English king. (379) [1]

If we place this quote in its original context, however, we see that William was actually praising Henry for his preference for solving conflicts without resorting to military force:

As a fighter he was of less repute than some, and embodied that saying of Scipio Africanus: ‘My mother bore me for command, not combat’. As a result, being in political wisdom second to none among the kings of our day, and I would almost say, easily first among all his predecessors in England, he preferred to do battle in the council-chamber rather than the field, and won his victories without bloodshed if he could, and with very little if he could not. [2]

In conclusion, this volume is an ambitious work that raises some pertinent questions about medieval military history. It should provoke readers to consider military history in its broadest possible sense, its many intersections with geography and archaeology, as well as economic, religious and social history. Although unlikely to convince those who have not been persuaded by their previous publications, this is a concise synthesis of the authors’ particular approach to military history and serves as an introductory text to their work. The book’s shortcomings, particularly the authors’ decision not to use an academic referencing system, renders it unsuitable for its stated purpose as a classroom text for teaching medieval military history.

James Titterton
University of Leeds
hy12jwt@leeds.ac.uk; @jtitterton88

[1] Frontinus had served as an army officer and a governor of Britain (c. 74–78 CE) but to call him a ‘general’ is misleading. By the time he came to write the Strategemata (c. 84–88 AD), he was serving as the water commissioner for the city of Rome, in which capacity he produced his other famous work, De Aquis Urbis Romae. The Strategemata itself is not a manual of war but a collection of stories from Classical histories about various military stratagems that were intended to accompany Frontinus’s text on the art of war, now lost. See Christopher Allmand, ‘A Roman Text on War: The Strategemata of Frontinus in the Middle Ages’, in Soldiers, Nobles and Gentlemen: Essays in Honour of Maurice Keen, ed. by Peter Coss and Christopher Tyerman (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009), pp. 153–68.

[2] ‘Minus pugnacis famae, Scipionis Affricani dictum representabat: “Imperatorem me mea mater, non bellatorum peperit”. Quapropter sapientia nulli umquam modernorum regum secundus, et pene dicam omnium antecessorum in Anglia facile primus, libentius bellabat consilio quam gladio; uincebat, si poterat, sanguine nullo, si aliter non poterat, pauco’. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings, ed. and trans. by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), I, pp. 744–45.

This entry was posted in BookReview. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.