Daniel Williman

title.none: Urban, Medieval Mercenaries (Daniel Williman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.015 08.02.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel Williman, Binghamton University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Urban, William. Medieval Mercenaries: The Business of War. London and Minnesota: Greenhill Books and MBI Publishing Company, 2006. Pp. 304. $39.95 1-8536-7697-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.15

Urban, William. Medieval Mercenaries: The Business of War. London and Minnesota: Greenhill Books and MBI Publishing Company, 2006. Pp. 304. $39.95 1-8536-7697-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Daniel Williman
Binghamton University

This discursive and chatty book, co-published by two military-history presses, contains fourteen chapters plus preface about war, not limited either to the medieval or to mercenaries. There is a laudatory Foreword by Terry Jones, author of Chaucer's Knight: A Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, but better known as a member of the Monty Python collaborative. The Preface states three purposes of the book: it "describes how mercenaries created the business of war"; it treats "the popular literature that has created our imagined world of medieval mercenaries," because "what we believed happened is almost as important as what actually did take place"; and thirdly it investigates the importance of mercenaries. Urban cites Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That and Richard Armour's spoof histories as witnesses for his principle that "historical truth is what people remember."

Chapter 1, "Early Medieval Mercenaries," is devoted to England from the Conquest to the Anarchy. Chapter 2, "Early Italian Mercenaries," goes to the thirteenth century. Chapter 3, "The 'Classic' Medieval Mercenary," is an attempt at exploring and defining that concept. Chapter 4, "Chivalry," begins with Froissart as a publicist of noble military activity, moves to Shakespeare's Henry V inconclusively, then has a section on "Younger Sons," "Free Companies," the Ottoman Empire and the Visconti, blood, and Huizinga, without any argument to link the subjects.

Chapter 5, "The Hundred Years War: Part One," goes to 1415. Chapter 6, "Forming the Victorian Imagination: Chaucer's Knight and Twain's Saint," quotes the "General Prologue," lines 43-78, mentions John Aubrey and praises Terry Jones at length, then goes on to Mark Twain's Prince and the Pauper, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, again without connecting to the title theme. Chapter 7, "Forming the Victorian Imagination: The White Company," is devoted to that adventure tale of Conan Doyle with brief mention of Sir Nigel. Chapter 8, "The Crusades in the Baltic," uses material from Urban's Baltic Crusade (1975, 1994), Prussian Crusade (1980), Tannenberg and After (2004) and his translation of the Livonian Chronicle with Jerry Smith (1997). Eisenstein's 1938 movie Alexander Nevsky gets a section to itself.

Chapter 9, "The Hundred Years War: Part Two," runs from 1415 to 1491, with emphasis on the battle of Agincourt according to Henry V, but the section "War for Profit" returns to 1388 and Prussia without explanation. Then there is some Henry IV, Part I, some of Shaw's Saint Joan, and some French dynastic history. Chapter 10, "The Renaissance," is about Italy, starting with Froissart, a section about John Hawkwood, then a jump to 1494 and Giovanni de' Medici. Chapter 11, "The Black Guard," is about the early sixteenth-century suppression of the commune of Dithmarschen, the subject of Urban's 1991 book. Chapter 12, "Machiavelli," recalls that The Prince was addressed to Giovanni de'Medici (cf. Ch. 10). Chapter 13, "Mercenaries in the Late Medieval Baltic," carries the story of Ch. 8 from 1410 to 1502. Chapter 14, "Summary," says that war is unending and mercenaries dangerous but inevitable, and calls on the medieval fictions of Sharon Kay Penman and Ellis Peters to witness.

The titles of this book encourage certain expectations. It should include a general picture within a recognizable period, of mercenary forces as distinct from other sorts of military formations, with some treatment of the economic or managerial side of mercenary warfare. Those expectations were not well fulfilled in the book. The sketch of chapters above shows the loose periodization. There is no meaningful biography, typical or singular, no picture of material, arms or tactics in any period, no account of contracts or sharing out of pay and plunder. The war stories involve men in contracted military companies, armed free brigands, and the infantry and horsemen of state and even feudal arrays. Citation notes are missing, and a short list of Sources by chapters stands in for a bibliography.

The extended passages that Urban quotes from the adventure romances of Conan Doyle and the satirical romances of Mark Twain provided a relief for this reviewer and recalled the excitement of first readings at age twelve. Terry Jones, with his medieval peasant jokes in Monty Python and his Holy Grail lampoon, has been a recurrent delight for years. The weaknesses of this book as a historical study are not the fault of those decorations.

Kenneth Fowler published his Medieval Mercenaries, Volume I: The Great Companies, in 2001. He wrote there the history of the routiers in France from the treaty of Brétigny in 1360, which uprooted the garrisons of scores of towns and fortresses without repatriating them, creating a new military, economic and social reality in France that was revolutionary in its effects. The too-long-delayed second volume was planned to follow those forces and their customs, particularly with the Bretons and John Hawkwood, into Italy. With his careful use of archival evidence, scrupulous footnoting and bibliography, Fowler wrote the sort of book that Urban dismisses (291) as "dry as dust history." But readers of The Medieval Review will probably prefer it to something more fluid and soupy.