The Medieval Review 10.10.08

Biolzi, Roberrto. "Avec le fer et la flamme": La guerre entre la Savoie et Fribourg (1447-1448). Cahiers lausannois d'Histoire Médiévale, vol. 49, . Lausanne: Cahiers lausannois d'Histoire Médiévale, 2009. Pp. 311. . $36 ISBN 2-940110-62-X.

Reviewed by:

Philippe Genequand

Following an excellent tradition in Lausanne, Roberto Biolzi delivers a very interesting book: "Avec le fer et la flamme, La guerre entre la Savoie et Fribourg (1447/1448)". Analysing Savoyard war treasurers' registers during the military operations taking place in the eastern Pays de Vaud, he proposes a study of expenses to describe and analyse the marshalling, composition and tactical formations of Savoy's armies at the end of the Middle Ages, offering in a second part a substantial publication of primary sources and nearly fifty maps, images and graphics to enhance the reading comprehension and pleasure.

Although the war between Savoy and Fribourg had an almost negligible impact on fifteenth-century European history, it has historiographical importance, thanks mainly to the surviving evidence in the Savoyard war treasurers' registers, of which four of the original five concerning the conflict remain: the two summaries registered in the Chambre des comptes in May 1458, and the personal instruments of Jacques Meynier (July 1448) and his enrollment book, called livre des revues from the first months of 1448. Only the so-called livre des montres of Antoine du Plastre is missing (January-March 1448).

A thoroughly conducted document study is always interesting in itself, but here the author's work goes far beyond a mere explanation of the functioning of the financial administration. After a presentation of the historical context, which sets the scene for the conflict and presents the protagonists, there follows an analysis of the war treasury, a relative novelty in Savoy in the middle of the fifteenth century, that was established to shorten delays of payment to the troops, a sad necessity to ensure their fidelity and to strengthen control over them. Next is the presentation of the main mechanisms used to assemble the army by way of montres and revues, through feudal service and the mercenary system.

Taking a step backward, Biolzi examines the way the treasurers obtained money through subsidies and the way they spent it, partly by the trésorerie générale, partly through the war treasurers, not forgetting the direct contributions of communities in the area of conflict. He shows the Duchy's growing centralisation in financial matters at the end of the Middle Ages. He argues that the evolution was far from linear, as the campaign against Francesco Sforza (1449-1450) following immediately afterward "a illustré une décentralisation importante dans la distribution des financements" (65).

The three following sections focus on research on the Savoyard army itself, considering its composition, its tactical organisation and its marshalling options. It is arguably the heart of Biolzi's study and the most interesting part of the book. It appears that the army was mostly mounted and scarcely equipped in firearms, contrary to their adversaries with the likely result that firearms--and above all artillery--were defensive weapons, heavy and very difficult to move, and hence more efficient in a stationary role. It is interesting to note that social origin was not so important in terms of troop remuneration: non-noble mounted soldiers were treated equally, or nearly equally, to noble ones. These findings are all the more important because there is no normative document on the military for the Duchy in the fifteenth century. Biolzi's work is indeed pioneering, and the subject surely will be considered again in the future, probably using part of the rigorous methodology set forth in the present book. The subject of the leading of Savoy's army is not terra incognita--Alessandro Barbero analysed it for the war of 1449-1450 [1]--but the documentation at Biolzi's disposal permits a more thorough analysis of the campaign of 1447-1448, highlighting, for example, the crucial importance of the coordinating role taken by the chevaucheurs in the retinue of the Marshall, in the present case, Jean de Seyssel. Taking as example the company formed under Guillaume de Montbel, Biolzi shows how precise the picture drawn from the documentation can be. It appears that Savoy's army was not totally up to date with the most modern military organisation of the day: there was no lance garnie in its ranks and files, but bowmen and crossbowmen appearing in some of the noble payrolls indicate this kind of military unit. In a third part, Biolzi exposes some views about the marshalling of the army, based on a system of calls to the nobles to assemble what the dukes felt necessary for the task at hand. The call was supplemented by a voluntary non-professional levy and mercenary troops. This system served the dukes well, and the example of the war against Fribourg shows that it worked, even if the system seems heavily dependant on internal peace to field an army, as shown by the Italian campaign of the next year: the troops assembled to confront Francesco Sforza were burdened with neophyte soldiers because of conflicting noble factions at home. The Savoyard army was neither professional in the middle of the century nor firmly in the duke's hand. This would cost him dearly.

In all these pages, the chief sources remain the war treasurers' registers. In the last part of his study, Biolzi compares his results with the chronicle of Jean Gruyère, a man from Fribourg, showing the defects of the figures offered by this kind of text and validating once more--if necessary--his own choice of primary material. These last pages, in a way forming the beginning of another study, are not so useful, as the inaccuracy of medieval chroniclers is well-known.

In the second part of the book, covering no less than 70 pages, a large body of texts from the registers of the two successive war treasurers is edited. [2] It is disappointing that Biolzi chose two excerpts from documents of the same nature: why not select one of the less elaborate accounts written on the field in the spring and the summer of 1448? The transcription is careful, and the addition of a short analysis in French between each article is timely and useful. Some methodological choices could be contested. For example, the editor decided to faithfully respect what he read in the original text, transcribing totius on page 169 (paragraph #11) and tocius on page 197 (paragraph 71), even though it is nearly impossible to distinguish t and c in late gothic script and thus he could have uniformly transcribed the same word written by the same author! But this kind of detail does not in the least impair the subject of the work at hand and should not mislead the competent reader, so it is not really embarrassing in the end.

A few more serious issues, however, need to be discussed in this review, as they concern some interpretations Biolzi proposes for his sources. First of all, some analytical discussions seem to fall short. When Biolzi concludes the chapter about l'organisation administrative of the Duchy's army, stating that "nous avons donc compris de quelle manière le duché payait les milices, ainsi que le processus de mise en place de l'armée savoyarde levée pour la guerre contre Fribourg, qui se faisait au travers d'un système de rémunération établi en fonction de la disponibilité pécunière du trésor de guerre" (50), his analysis seems presumptive after pages devoted to mere examples of the system. The same remark could be made for other topics: Biolzi is often lacking restraint, considering the limited scope of his study. [3]

The preoccupation of the ducal officer's remuneration also falls short of the announced objectives: I am concerned here with the analysis of evidence on pages 37-38, 89 and 93, for example, and Biolzi seems not to be aware of the latest publications in the field, [4] struggling with the use of the terms "salaire" and "gages", for example (note, p. 38).

Nearing inconsistency, the author approaches some questions without really going into them and without offering some possible ways to understand and supersede the limits of his documentation. I will present only two short examples. When considering the foot soldiers, Biolzi writes "l'infanterie est très peu présente dans [his documentation]" (80). In fact, infantry is utterly non-existent, and it is very surprising that Biolzi cannot admit it! Some discussion would have been needed. Four pages later, he writes surprisingly that "[m]ême si Félix V en recommande la levée à Jean de Seyssel, les fantassins vaudois n'ont vraisemblablement pas joué un rôle de première importance". In the fifteenth century when infantry begins to be "la reine des batailles", so to speak, it is quite a surprising opinion, delivered without any proof or reference. Even if it can be admitted that the kind of war waged by the Duchy needed quick-moving troops above all, one could imagine that Amédée VIII wasn't totally unaware of the necessities of warfare in his time! Some lines later, Biolzi declares: "leur absence dans la comptabilité des trésoriers indique, soit qu'ils ont été payés par leur ville d'origine pendant toute la durée de la guerre, ce qui est très improbable [why so?], soit qu'à la fin du mois de mai, lorsque l'achèvement du conflit se profilait, ces milices étaient déjà rentrées chez elles". Some more information would be appreciated in order to accept his statement. These are the typical defects that can be found in this study, i.e., producing too weighty affirmations given the limited scope of the documentation considered (although that fact in itself is in no way a defect).

Nevertheless, Roberto Biolzi and the staff of the University of Lausanne deliver a very readable, interesting and useful volume, as is their custom. This is well worth a read for everyone, both scholar and nonspecialist, who is interested in a case study of a medieval war and in the use of medieval financial documentation.

-------- Notes:

1. Il Ducato di Savoia: amministrazione e corte di uno stato franco-italiano (1416-1536). Laterza: Roma, 2002.

2. The first part comes from the final account of Antoine du Plastre (165-202), the second from the final account of Jacques Meynier (203-239).

3. Another example at the end of the first part of his introduction, where he writes: "Nous profiterons de l'analyse de ces comptes pour proposer une étude inédite dédiée à l'organisation administrative et tactique de l'armée savoyarde au milieu du XVe siècle" (2). In no more than 130 pages, it can only be an introduction to this grand scheme, of course.

4. He cites only A. Barbero's Il ducato di Savoia, op. cit., although the more specialised works of G. Castelnuovo are in his bibliography, and he doesn't seem to be aware of the studies concerning the pontifical court with which the Savoyard lands are well connected from the middle of the fourteenth century onwards as published in the Mfrm, for example (118, 2006, 165-268).