The Medieval Review 10.11.06

Jones, Robert W. . Bloodied Banners, Martial Display on the Medieval Battlefield. Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 2010. Pp. 205. $95 ISBN 9781843835615. .

Reviewed by:

David Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

Perhaps the best-known image, at least in the popular imagination, of medieval warfare is the knight astride his noble destrier, wearing shining armor, and bearing a shield and lance that were adorned with his heraldic symbols. These symbols, as well as the horses, armor, banners, and weapons carried by medieval fighting men, have attracted enormous attention from historians concerned with social and political functions. Specialists in a wide range of fields, including heraldry, metallurgy, and technology also have worked diligently to understand important developments in the presentation and construction of these symbols and tools of war. For the most part, however, scholars have not devoted much attention to the specifically military function of martial display on the battlefield. In this study, Robert W. Jones, visiting research fellow at the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds, essays to fill this lacuna through an investigation of the use of heraldic signs, banners, armor, music, weapons, warhorses, and religious symbols by men who participated in combat. His central thesis is that the social functions generally attributed to martial display were equally important on the battlefield.

Jones examines these elements of battlefield display over a long chronological period, drawing on sources from the eleventh-fifteenth century. The bulk of the discussion, however, focuses on the end of this period, and particularly the Hundred Years War. The geographical scope of this study is also broad, with references to elements of martial display taken from much of western Europe. Nevertheless, the predominant element is Anglo-French.

Bloodied Banners is organized topically in nine chapters, with an introduction and brief conclusion. Jones begins his study with a vignette of the death of Sir John Chandos in 1369, which serves to introduce the main historiographical traditions in the study of martial display. Here, Jones notes that scholars, at least Anglophone and French scholars who specialize in the history of Anglo-Norman and Anglo-French warfare, have tended to emphasize the social and political roles of martial display, while down-playing its military significance. Jones notes the continued influence exercised on modern scholars by the censorious comments of the great Cistercian abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux (died 1153), who sought to convince secular fighting men to take up arms in defense of the church, rather than donning fancy armor and silks to fight in vain wars against their fellow Christians.

In the first three chapters, which treat in turn heraldic display, banners, and badges, Jones points to the militarily important role of visual display on the battlefield for unit cohesion and the maintenance of morale. Heraldic symbols, the personal standards of military commanders, and the badges worn by their men made it easy to differentiate friend from foe on the battlefield. In addition, by making clear the identities of knights, to whom Jones accords the preeminent role in combat, these visual elements of martial display made it possible for men to gain renown for their great deeds, and encouraged them to avoid shameful acts in battle, such as running away, because this behavior would be widely known and condemned. In the fourth chapter, Jones turns from visual to audible display. He draws attention to the use of musical instruments, including trumpets and drums, that were used by leaders to give commands to their soldiers that could be heard above the din of battle. Jones also notes the value of marching songs and instruments in helping fighting men, whom the author identifies as largely untrained in the techniques of marching or tactical maneuvers, to keep their positions when facing the enemy. Jones notes that instruments were supplemented on the field by battle cries, which had the manifold purpose of providing identification on the battlefield, raising the morale of one's own troops, and striking fear into the heart of the enemy.

Chapters five and six focus on the practical and psychological role of armor on the battlefield. In discussing the practical value of armor, Jones notes the striking division among scholars regarding the efficacy of armor in providing protection to the individual fighting man. This scholarly divide is the result, in large part, of the wide range of accounts provided by contemporary authors who did not agree among themselves whether armor provided protection against enemy action. Jones notes that many works of entertainment literature, such as epic poems and romances, tended to emphasize the ability of heroes to cleave through the armor of their opponents. By contrast, the authors of self-consciously historical works often remarked upon the ability armor to withstand arrows and even the blows of swords and spears. In the end, Jones presents the main arguments on either side of this scholarly debate, but does not offer a view as to whether one or the other is more convincing. Jones emphasizes, however, that whether or not armor really did provide considerable protection to its wearer, contemporary observers emphasized that the wearing of it provided a sense of security.

In the seventh chapter, which is entitled "The Display Value of the Sword and Horse on the Battlefield," Jones focuses rather more on the connection between the possession of an expensive horse and social status, than on the effect that having horse and fine weapon had on a man's image on the battlefield. He emphasizes the great expense involved in owning a warhorse and highly-adorned weapon, and the social prestige that accrued to the possessor of these ostentatious elements of martial display. Jones also points to the higher wages that were earned by men who came to war equipped with warhorses and the equipment that was appropriate to equestrian combat, including armor for their mounts.

Chapter eight focuses on the religious elements of martial display. Here, Jones discusses the personal adornment of fighting men with crosses, as well as the more communal uses of religious symbols and objects of sacred power. The latter included the carrying of relics on the battlefield as well as the deployment of parish or diocesan banners of patron saints. In the final chapter, Jones turns his attention to the model of the fourteenth-century military revolution, popularized to a great extent by Clifford Rogers, and suggests that an overall continuity in the forms and practices of martial display from the eleventh to the fourteenth century argue against a major recasting of society and military institutions during the early phases of the Hundred Years War.

The volume is rounded out with a brief conclusion in which Jones reiterates his major arguments. The text is equipped with an index, a substantial apparatus of notes, and a bibliography. The scholarly works cited consist almost exclusively of English and French language texts. Jones does not include any scholarly works in German or Spanish, and just one in Italian. The absence of German scholarship is particularly regrettable given the enormous scholarly production on the topic of Wappenkunde. Finally, the work is richly endowed with illustrations and images, which serve admirably to illuminate the armor and weapons discussed in the text.

In considering the overall impact of the text, Jones clearly makes his case that martial display, including its visual and audible elements, played crucial roles in the conduct of war. The most important of these are the development of unit cohesion, and the maintenance of morale. As a consequence, this work makes an important contribution to modern understanding of medieval warfare, and the efforts by medieval men to prepare themselves for the terrors of battle. Nevertheless, this is a highly problematic work and Jones would do well to reconsider a number of matters if he should revise this text for publication in a new edition.

The first major concern is Jones' depiction of war as largely a contest between relatively small numbers of "knights" engaged in virtually individual combat with couched lance and decorated swords on the fields of Europe. This type of military romanticization is all too common among British historians, particularly those who focus their attention on the knightly retinues that are depicted as constituting the armies of King Edward III of England and his son the Black Prince. Particularly disconcerting in this context is Jones' deployment of the long debunked notion of a military elite descending from the warrior bands (Latin Comitatus, German Gefolgschaft) of the Germanic forest (159).

In fact, war was dominated throughout the medieval millennium, including the centuries under discussion in this work, by sieges. As a consequence, the predominant element in all armies, including those relatively few armies that engaged in open battle, was foot soldiers. Many of these men were professionals, although the majority were recruited on the basis of income-based military obligations that dated back to the late Roman empire. Knights as a juridical class are hardly recognizable before the twelfth century. Even after 1100, the military importance of knights, juridically defined, was minuscule in medieval warfare outside of the rarified confines of romantic literature that was written for wealthy audiences that wished to hear good things about themselves. Indeed, even among mounted fighting men who were equipped and trained for equestrian combat, men of knightly legal, social, or economic status, formed a small minority. Knights certainly did not constitute a military elite, although from the thirteenth- century onwards members of this juridical class often did constitute a social or economic elite in the army.

The romantic model of a warrior aristocracy, which is perpetuated in this study, leads Jones to a number of conclusions that are not supported by the available evidence. The reader is told, for example, that social status was dependent to a great extent upon prowess and conduct in war (41). While this may have been true among some men, who served as professional soldiers, such a bald claim hardly accounts for the systems of scutage and other fines for non-service that were developed to account for the large numbers of arms-worthy men who sought to evade mobilization for war.

A second problem is Jones' apparent lack of familiarity with the broader traditions of medieval military history that inform the topics treated in this study. His claim, for example, that an increasing professionalization of soldiers during the Hundred Years War led to the development of common badges and uniforms for fighting men (58), does not account for the important, indeed crucial, role of professional fighting men from the late Roman empire onwards. A similar lack of familiarity with the historiographical tradition of early medieval warfare is evident in Jones' discussion of the training available to militia forces. He argues (73) that the latter could not march in time or fight in step, in the manner outlined in Vegetius' military handbook Epitoma rei militaris, because of a lack of training. However, a number of scholars have made clear that militia forces were able to carry out such maneuvers, as at the famous battle of the Dyle in 891.

Finally, in his treatment of the written sources, Jones does not differentiate sufficiently among the genres from which he draws his information, particularly with regard to the audiences for these works, the sources of information that were available to the authors, the ability of the authors to understand this information, and finally the authors' parti pris. It is jarring, in this context, to see the Song of Roland, for example, presented as ostensibly providing information of equal quality to Gerald of Wales' Expugnatio Hibernica in identifying the defensive value of armor for men in the service of the Anglo-Norman kings (86-87).

Overall, this work provides an important corrective to prevailing views regarding military value of martial display. The weaknesses of this work, which can be broadly defined as a lack of familiarity with important historiography and the critical assessment of written sources, too many of which are treated transparently as plain text, do not undercut the author's main argument. Nevertheless, care should be given in assigning this text to students in order to avoid perpetuating romantic fallacies regarding the "knights" and war.