Joanna Bellis and Laura Slater (eds.), Representing War and Violence, 1250-1600 (Million)

Joanna Bellis and Laura Slater (eds.)

Representing War and Violence, 1250-1600

(The Boydell Press, 2016) 232 pp. $90.00

Representing War and Violence is an important contribution to the recent scholarly discourse on how medieval people interacted with, justified, or condemned violence with a focus on France and England. Inspired by the monumental work on cultural criticism, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, each of the nine authors uses both fictional literature and manuscript illuminations in a long-awaited exposition on medieval representations of violence.[1] After a comprehensive introduction, the nine contributors follow one of two threads. In the first, led by Richard Kaeuper in the opening chapter, the authors probe the motivations behind and impacts of medieval violence on contemporary society; in the second, see David Grummit’s concluding essay, the authors examine how medieval people remembered and wrote about past acts of violence in a way that sheds light on contemporary politics, ideologies, and identities for historians. Ultimately, the editors, Joanna Bellis and Laura Slater, see this project as a response to ‘A Great Effusion of Blood,’ in which the editors claim that violence was normative in the Middle Ages.[2] In Representing War and Violence, then, the reader is cautioned to consider a middle ground between viewing violence as normative and recognizing it as chaotic. It is certainly a convincing argument. This volume, divided into three parts that encourage interdisciplinary reflection, will be of great use to the specialist researching the social impact of war, but it will be notably less useful to the undergraduate or beginning graduate student who is not already familiar with the large body of scholarship on which this volume rests.

Part One considers the ethics and aesthetics of depicting war and violence in the Middle Ages, better understood as the contemporary consumption of literature and images replete with references to violence. Richard Kaeuper (Chapter One) opens with a poignant commentary on the difficulties in reading about warfare and its atrocities but reminds the modern reader to investigate the motivations and ideals behind acts of violence in their medieval contexts. As an example, he builds off his recent work on chivalry to show how knights were driven to violence in their search for honor and then used their interpretation of the Bible to justify and challenge clerical criticism of their behavior. He ends the chapter by pointing out that to truly understand medieval violence we need to better investigate the impact of warfare on non-elite populations within the context of contemporary society. None of the following chapters address this issue, but it is a clear call for scholars moving forward.

Christina Normore leads the rest of the contributors, beginning in Chapter Two, in tackling specific texts and manuscripts to shed light on the representation of medieval violence. Normore looks at two manuscript editions of the Grandes Chroniques de France, BnF 2813 produced under Charles V (r. 1364-80) and BnF 2608 for Charles VI (r. 1380-1422) and contemplates why each contains a different interpretation of the Battle of Courtrai (1302). Under Charles V, the French knights ably defeat their Flemish foes; under Charles VI, the French hastily and chaotically retreat from a Flemish onslaught. She convincingly argues that the manuscript produced for Charles V reflects the new era of French chivalry he ushered in, an era defined by orderliness and military success. Charles VI, however, wanted to rekindle the shame of defeat as motivation in 1302 when they finally overcame the Flemish in Kortrijk. Concluding Part One, Anne Baden-Daintree turns to the Alliterative Morte Arthure in Chapter Three to show how writing and verbal techniques were used by composers of literature to prepare an audience for the emotional experience of hearing accounts of violence. This, she argues, aided an audience in reflecting over emotives and their larger importance to the political and ideological issues of the text.

Part Two is the heart of this volume, responding directly to ‘A Great Effusion of Blood?’ as Andrew Lynch (Chapter Four) opens with an exploration of the melancholic (feelings of hatred and ill will) descriptions of warfare in John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1412-20) and Siege of Thebes (1421-22). By tracing the historical tradition of these tales, and Lydgate’s own aversion to violence, Lynch argues that medieval clerks led a propaganda campaign that challenged and warned about the dangers of the martial virtue championed by knights. Sara Torres, in Chapter Five, considers the violent nature of medieval peace. She focuses on the legal and political structures required to enact and maintain peace in late medieval England, a process and institution which hypocritically required violence to maintain. In Chapter Six, Laura Slater shows how Matthew Paris, author and illustrator of La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei (c. 1236), employed biblical iconography and historical examples to serve as moral guides for the kings of England. She focuses on the violence used to punish tyrannical rulers and praises the use of violence by Harthacnut to protect his kingdom against the invading Danes. She ties this advice in with accounts in the Estoire of how royal action impacted a kingdoms’ subjects.  All three of these essays come together to show that while violence could serve as the foundation of royal power, peace, and identity, it was far from normative as clerks and clerics constantly questioned and challenged the use of arms. We see the chaos in moral musings, hypocritical political theory, and alliteration.

In Part Three, representation takes on the meaning of self-fashioning as the authors look at how accounts of violence helped shape medieval behavior and identity. Anne Curry begins with Chapter Seven, an exposition of the College of Arms Manuscript M9.  She argues that this manuscript is a celebration of the military service of Sir John Fastolf and Henry V during their time in France in the early fifteenth century – one can easily imagine this manuscript being displayed prominently by members of either family, motivating future generations on to similar deeds of arms in warfare. Matthew Woodcock looks to the Tudor period in English and Welsh history to overturn the perception that the British Isles fell far behind the Continent in the writing of military treatises for Chapter Eight. He argues that autobiographies written by and for soldiers, of which there are nearly 200 printed in this period, were intended to publicly challenge slights to the authoring soldier’s character. This focus on only parts of one’s military career to challenge these insults has resulted in a modern historiographical tendency to see, for example, William Blandy’s account as inferior to that of the French Blaise de Monluc which encompasses an entire career in arms. In the closing chapter written by David Grummitt – Chapter Nine – we return to the theme explored in Chapter Two, this time in relation to the English defeat at Calais in 1558. He shows how contemporaries reflected on the defeat in three ways: first, some sought out charges of treason, both political (against Thomas, Lord Wentworth who was governor of Calais) and religious (against Queen Mary who was charged by her Protestant opponents); second, writers turned to a chivalric sense of shame at having lost the English town but still celebrated the good deeds of those who served valiantly; and, third, some later authors reflected objectively on the loss in several military guides which mark the rise of military theory in seventeenth century England. All three representations of the defeat at Calais mark important relationships with different forms of power and authority that provided identity during a difficult period in English history.

This volume, while small, is certainly an important contribution to the field of medieval violence that will be a necessary source for the years to come. All of the chapters contribute to the overall theme which the authors follow closely, a testament to the editors’ hard work. And, as usual, The Boydell Press has produced a beautiful book with five full-color plates that do much in enhancing the reader’s experience. It is clear that historians will be well-served moving forward to include representations of violence in their work on medieval warfare.

It is difficult to find problems in this beautifully edited and produced volume, but a couple points of note are worth mentioning. First, although this has no impact on the larger project, chapters two and seven should be switched in order when reading as it would reinforce the theme of identity in Part Three. Second, the editors openly challenge Kaeuper’s chapter in the introduction in a clearly awkward exchange never resolved in the pages of the text. On page 4, Bellis and Slater state “Some voices have sometimes been singled out as ‘representative’ witnesses to or articulators of an allegedly uncomplicated thirst for and glorification of war (such as William Marshal, Robert Bruce, Geoffroi de Charny, Ramon Llull, Don Pero Niño, Thomas Mallory)” (4). Compare this to a strikingly similar but oppositely intended sentence from Kaeuper, “Far from any reluctance over violence and destruction, [knights’] ideal was to seek the good theatres of war and join the enterprise,” after which he lists William Marshal, Robert Bruce, Geoffroi de Charny, Pero Niño, and Thomas Malory, in that order, as the voices of that ideal (27). This challenge reveals the pitfall of cultural criticism: Who or what is really “representative” of an entire culture? This book, however, certainly offers interesting leads to follow in the search of an answer.

J Tucker Million
University of Rochester

[1] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, tr. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton Classics, 2013).

[2] A Great Effusion of Blood’?: Interpreting Medieval Violence, eds. Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery, and Oren Falk (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).

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