00.02.12, Kagay and Villalon, eds., The Circle of War in the Middle Ages

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Michael Prestwich

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.012


Kagay, Donald J. and L.J. Andrew Villalon, eds.. The Circle of War in the Middle Ages. Warfare in History vol. 6.. Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer Inc, 1999. Pp. xii,172. ISBN: 0-851-15645-2.

Reviewed by:
Michael Prestwich
University of Durham

This well-produced volume consists of a somewhat disparate, but very interesting set of essays on medieval military and naval history. It is not the product of a single conference, but brings together papers given at various gatherings in the USA. There is no consistent theme beyond a desire to question the assumptions of past generations of historians, and to provide fresh answers, and this is done admirably in these studies.

One traditional assumption, for which Delbrueck was largely responsible, was that armies in the late antique and early medieval period were far smaller than the narrative sources suggest. He argued that most figures were grossly overstated, and that the "barter economy" made large armies impossible. Bernard Bachrach provides a powerful demolition of Delbr^ßck's case. What remains to be done is to provide realistic estimates of military numbers. This is not easy even for a much later period, when pay rolls and other documentary sources provide solidly quantifiable evidence, for even they do not count the numbers of grooms, servants, and camp-followers who accompanied armies. Those who argue for very large armies should, however, note that the English in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries do not appear to have been capable of putting more than about 30,000 men into the field. A paper later in this volume, by Stephen Lane, examines the way in which north Italian towns in the late twelfth century made use of rural levies. The numbers were small; he estimates that Pavia was able to recruit some 600 labourers to assist with the siege of Milan in 1162.

Another view, still common among military historians of later periods, is that medieval commanders were ignorant of strategy. Certainly, there were difficulties in formulating strategies and putting them into effect. There were no maps, and communication was slow. There is, however, a wealth of evidence from conflicts as diverse as the Crusades, or the Hundred Years War, to show that commanders thought carefully about strategic aims and methods. In this volume, Theresa M. Vann provides a valuable case-study from the Castilian frontier in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, demonstrating the careful use of fortresses to provide defensive screens, and with Las Navas de Tolosa, the capacity to plan a highly effective campaign culminating in victory on the battlefield.

Three papers consider the importance of technology in war, and reach very different conclusions. One of the continuing mysteries of medieval warfare is Greek Fire. Its use was confined to the Byzantine and Islamic worlds: what Edward I used under this name in Scotland appears to have been a gunpowder mixture. Douglas Haldane's paper here examines the Greek Fire used by Muslim naval forces. This was essentially a mixture of inflammable oils, either sprayed from a flame-thrower, poured on the sea, or used in bombs. It was dangerous to use, but highly effective.

Much modern analysis of castles stresses their social role, seeing their design in terms of symbolism rather than military need. The idea the defences developed in response to changes in methods of attack may seem rather old-fashioned, but Paul E. Chevedden provides a convincing argument that the development of powerful counterweight trebuchets necessitated the transformation of defences. Towers had to be made larger, so that they could serve as platforms for artillery. Passive defence was replaced by more active systems, with posterns created so that men could sally out to destroy the enemy's machines. The citadel at Damascus, built by al-'Adil in the early thirteenth century provides an excellent example, while Crusader fortifications were also transformed to deal with the threat of the trebuchet. The analysis could be extended; changes in castle-design in western Europe in the thirteenth century can also be seen as a response to the development of far more effective stone-throwing machines. Recent practical experiments, courtesy of NOVA/WGBH Boston, have demonstrated just how formidable a weapon the trebuchet was.

In contrast to Haldane and Chevedden, Stephen Morillo argues that technology was not important; it was government that mattered. He examines the role of cavalry, and joins the ranks of those who are (surely rightly) not convinced by the argument that heavy cavalry was made possible by the stirrup. Rather, he suggests that cavalry were only really effective when infantry were of poor quality. When governments were capable of recruiting well-armed and well-motivated infantry, cavalry were far less successful. The argument has much force, although the extraordinary impact of western cavalry on the Byzantine empire, attested to by Anna Comnena, suggests that there was something quite exceptional about the Norman horsemen of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries.

Anglo-Norman warfare is also considered by Jean A. Truax. She provides what is now an obligatory essay in any collection, and examines the role of women. This, however, is not an aggressively feminist paper. The evidence is neatly put together, and the argument is solid. It was not uncommon for a lady to find herself in charge of a castle. King Stephen's queen Matilda, however, led forces in the field when her husband was held captive. There is some chronicle evidence to show that the Empress Matilda also played a role in commanding troops, though whether her role was more than purely formal is not clear. What women did not do, as a rule, was to take up weapons and fight, though Henry I's illegitimate daughter Juliana was unwise enought to try to shoot her father with a crossbow. As a punishment, she had to jump from the walls of Breteuil into the frozen moat, displaying her backside as she did so.

A further twelfth-century study is provided by Stephen Isaac. In concentrating on William of Ypres, he delineates the acceptable face of the mercenary in the warfare of Stephen's reign. He is surely right to minimise the differences between mercenaries and other soldiers. Unfortunately, the evidence simply is not available to reveal the full scale of recruitment of paid soldiers from overseas during the Anarchy. It would be interesting to know if it matched the scale of Henry II's recruitment in the Low Countries during the rebellion of 1173-74, or even that of John at the end of his reign.

Two papers discuss contemporary attitudes to war. Celestial assistance to armies is often recorded, with a great many instances on the First Crusade. Kent G. Hare argues that the scale of miraculous events recorded by chroniclers of the crusade transformed the way men wrote about war. Simeon of Durham, looking back to the Viking invasions, suggested that the Anglo-Saxons were assisted by angelic spirits, while St Cuthbert appeared in a vision to King Alfred. William of Malmesbury was also influenced by the Crusade stories, adding apparitions to the Anglo-Saxon past.

Victory was easy to explain in the Middle Ages. It showed that God was on your side. Defeat was less simple to understand. No one was prepared to accept that God had chosen to assist the enemy. The sinfulness of military leaders, or of their armies, or indeed of a whole people might provide the explanation. Defeat might be no more than the result of a turn in the Wheel of Fortune. The range of explanations is considerable, but few of them will convince today. One, however, has a modern parallel. Modern football players are conventionally prohibited from sex before matches, and over-indulgence, as in the Middle Ages, is a common explanation for defeat.

Two papers do not relate closely to the themes of the others, but are none the worse for that. Edward J. Schoenfeld re-examines of the tenth-century military reforms of Henry I in Saxony. Here, the sources are difficult to interpret, and once again established views are open to question. The identity of the agrarii milites referred to by the chronicler Widukind is unclear, and claims that Henry introduced heavy cavalry to Saxony are probably overstated. There is little doubt, however, that much work of fortification took place.

The final paper in the volume is the longest. It is devoted to the battle of Malta of 1283. This was a naval battle of familiar medieval type, with the two sides fighting hand-to-hand at close quarters once their ships had crashed together. Laurence V. Mott provides a very full analysis of the fight, in which the Aragonese and Catalans under the great admiral Roger de Lauria defeated a Proven^Íal fleet. He argues that although the ships on each side were fundamentally similar, the Catalan vessels were probably equipped with built-up forecastles and poops, and raised bulwarks. This would have made them slower, but gave them a major advantage in battle conditions.

This is not the kind of volume which prompts a general conclusion, beyond the fact that it is very clear that there is a real, and very welcome, renaissance of medieval military history.

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Author Biography

Michael Prestwich

University of Durham