03.07.01, Abels and Bachrach, Normans and Their Adversaries at War

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Andy King

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.001


Abels, Richard P. and Bernard S. Bachrach. The Normans and Their Adversaries at War: Essays in Memory of C. Warren Hollister. Series: Warfare in History. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 232. ISBN: 0-85115-847-1.

Reviewed by:
Andy King
University of Durham

Though best remembered for his work on the reign of Henry I, C. Warren Hollister began his academic career working on the military organisation of late Anglo-Saxon and early-Norman England and it is this work that has provided the inspiration for the current volume. Originally intended as a festschrift, it is now sadly a memorial, and starts with a brief but affectionate Appreciation of its subject from Robin Fleming. The customary bibliography of the honourand is also present, and -- more unusually, though most welcome -- a full index. The author of the preface, Richard E. Barton, is clearly aware of the reputation of such essay collections, for the unconnected randomness of their contents; and so he works strenuously to highlight the overall coherence of these essays, and their relevance to Hollister's own work. In fact, he need not have worried, for this is a reasonably cohesive volume which works well as a collection. If a common theme emerges, it is the importance of studying the individuals who set up and operated the institutions of war in this period; and of the political and practical realities which shaped those institutions, and within which those individuals had to operate.

Richard Abels, "From Alfred to Harold II: The Military Failure of the Late Anglo-Saxon State," sets out to explain why, when the government late Anglo-Saxon state was so comparatively well developed and powerful, it nevertheless signally failed to fend off the threat of the Vikings under Aethelred, or indeed the Normans, under Harold, particularly when compared with the achievements of Alfred, who achieved much greater success from a much less powerful base. Abels contends that the threat presented by the Vikings in the eleventh century was neither quantitively nor qualitively much greater than that presented by their ninth-century forebears. In part, he argues, England was a victim of Alfred's very success. He created elaborate and expensive systems for raising a standing army, and providing for town defences, which enabled him to beat off the Vikings; but as he was so effective in doing this, there was little incentive for his successors to maintain these defensive organisations, and they were quietly allowed to crumble into desuetude. But Abels suggests that a failure of political leadership was also a critical factor. Whilst accepting that Aethelred was not the hapless incompetent of legend, he argues that when faced with the renewed Viking threat, he failed to rise to the occasion. Not only did his arbitrary style of kingship alienate many of his nobles, but he lacked "an overall coherent defensive strategy" (26). The "military failure of the late Anglo-Saxon state" was thus a combination of political instability and institutional decay.

Bernard S. Bachrach's piece, "William Rufus' Plan for the Invasion of Aquitaine," is somewhat unusual, in that it analyses a campaign that never actually took place, the plan being interrupted by the "strange death" of its author in the New Forest. As the entire evidence for this plan derives from a couple of short passages in Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury, the piece is inevitably somewhat speculative. Relying as it does on comparison with other campaigns undertaken by Rufus, and by his father and younger brother, Bachrach's speculations are credible, if somewhat maximalist; and he suggests that Rufus could well have succeeded in establishing his authority in Acquitaine. Nevertheless, given that at the height of his powers, Edward III was able to raise no more than 30,000-odd men for the siege of Calais in 1346-47, after two centuries of dramatic population growth and governmental development, it may be wondered whether William Rufus would really have been able to raise 20,000 men from the English select fryd in 1099. Overall, however, the piece amounts to a useful overview of the potential military and diplomatic capabilities of the Anglo-Norman state at the end of the eleventh century.

Kelly DeVries, "Harold Godwinson in Wales: Military Legitimacy in Late Anglo-Saxon England," surveys Harold Godwinson's record of fighting against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, King of Gywnedd, between 1055 and 1063. He demonstrates that Harold was largely successful in subduing the threat of incursions from the Welsh (frequently in league with Earl Aelfgar of Mercia) by a mixture of diplomacy and force, until 1063, when, for reasons now obscure, he invaded Wales and defeated Gruffydd decisively -- so decisively that although Gruffydd managed to escape, he was captured by his fellow Welshmen, who promptly cut off his head and sent it to Harold. DeVries portrays Harold as a successful warlord, and argues that it was this military success that provided him with a "military legitimacy" (84), validating his claim to the English crown. He adduces some interesting evidence to demonstrate Harold's high military reputation in twelfth-century England, from Gerald of Wales and John of Salisbury; but in the absence of direct evidence that Harold's success in Wales was a factor in his accession to the kingship of England, his argument remains necessarily speculative.

John France, "The Normans and Crusading," examines the participation and influence of "Normans" in the Crusades and demolishes the idea that there was any "pan-Norman" identity within the crusading movement. The Normans of Normandy under Robert Curthose, and the Normans of South Italy under Bohemond, formed entirely separate contingents; and when Bohemond established his principality of Antioch, those of his followers who settled there seem to have thought of themselves as "Franks," rather than as "Normans." France goes on to set the subsequent, somewhat fitful, crusading of the Italian Normans within the context of the various difficulties afflicting the kingdom of Sicily. Beyond its immediate relevance to crusade studies, this is an important contribution to the debate on the existence or otherwise of a "Norman" identity.

C. M. Gilmor, "Aimoin's Miracula Sancti Germani and the Viking Raids on St Denis and St Germain-des-Pres" focuses narrowly on the island encampment on the Seine established by the Vikings in the 850s, and whether this was at Oissel near Rouen, or further upstream at Jeufosse. She provides a detailed, albeit rather dry, discussion of the practical realities on the ground to support her case that it was at Jeufosse; and she makes a generally convincing case for the rehabilitation of Aimoin of St Germain's Miracula Sancti Germani as a reliable source for these events. Like Bachrach, she usefully deploys comparative evidence from other sources -- though how much light a British cavalry training manual from 1937 can shed on the practices of the Vikings may perhaps be open to doubt. Her discussion would also have benefitted from a map.

As he himself admits, Robert Helmerichs, "'Ad tutandos patriae fines': The Defense of Normandy, 1135," is primarily a work of political rather than military history. But it is none the worse for that, and fits well with the other essays in the volume (and with the interests of Hollister himself), offering a lively, lucid and thoughtful examination of the reaction of the magnates of Normandy to the momentous events of 1135. Having argued that Henry I managed to undermine his own arrangements for the succession of his daughter and designated heiress, Matilda, through greed and parsimony, Helmerichs makes a strong case that even before Henry's death, the Normans had already arranged to back his nephew, Theobald of Blois, as a contender to the throne. Consequently, they were more concerned about a potentially hostile reaction from Louis VI of France to such an enhancement of the power of the Counts of Blois, than about any threat from Matilda. He also suggests that the "invasion" of her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, following on Henry's death, was simply an attempt to assert Matilda's claim to Normandy, in blissful ignorance of the fact that the Normans had already gone back on their sworn oath to accept that claim. As soon as he discovered he had been overtaken by events, Geoffrey withdrew. The ravaging perpetrated by his men sprang from indiscipline rather than warlike intent. It was not until the following year that he made a serious attempt to impose his wife's authority by force. The piece includes a useful survey of the Norman border lordships, helpfully illustrated with a map, and provides an important reassessment of the precise circumstances surrounding Stephen's coup.

Niels Lund, "Expedicio in Denmark," re-examines forms of military obligation in Denmark, and shows that the military force which made up the leding, or expedicio, was far from being "the nation under arms," as the traditional view of Danish medieval society would have it. Rather, it was "a gathering of magnates" (163); and furthermore, attempting to summon such gatherings could prove highly troublesome for the king. This, in turn, suggests that the authority wielded by Danish kings was rather less than has often been argued.

As its title might well suggest, the widest ranging of these essays is Stephen Morillo, "Milites, Knights and Samurai: Military Terminology, Comparative History, and the Problem of Translation." He looks at the problems inherent in using post-medieval military terms, such as "infantry" and "cavalry," to describe medieval soldiers, who operated, and were organised, in very different ways from their post-medieval counterparts. Morillo is right to draw attention to the problem, although to some extent, he is kicking against an open door, as military historians are increasingly sensitive to the precise implications of the terms they use. In fact, many of these problems of teminology existed in the Middle Ages; after all vernacular French and German both used terms meaning "horsemen" to translate the Latin miles, despite the fact that, as Morillo points out, "knights" frequently fought on foot. And indeed, it is difficult to see how the problem is to be avoided; it is perhaps unlikely that the terms he suggests as alternatives will prove popular, for "urban-based military forces" is hardly a catchy substitute for "infantry" (aside from the fact that it hardly applies to the Scots who fought so successfully on foot at Bannockburn). Nevertheless, this is a useful discussion, if only to serve as a reminder to students to be aware that the problem exists.

Michael Prestwich, "The garrisoning of English Medieval Castles," addresses a question which, as he points out, has been surprisingly neglected by historians; after all, even the mightiest of castles was indefensible without a garrison. In a paper ranging beyond the Norman period to as late as 1468, Prestwich aims to to do "no more than sketch an outline of a relatively neglected topic" (200), a task in which he succeeds admirably. Looking at both royal and magnate castles, he examines the size of garrisons (noting that in peace-time, they were invariably tiny or indeed, non-existent), as well as their recruitment, charting the decline of castle-guard and its eventual replacement by the payment of wages.

By coincidence, Frederick Suppe, "The Persistence of Castle-Guard in the Welsh Marches and Wales: Suggestions for a Research Agenda and Methodology," provides a detailed and valuable case study of some of the issues raised by Prestwich. Suppe demonstrates that castle-guard remained an important and viable means of garrisoning castles on the Welsh Marches long after it had ceased to function in the rest of England, because of the real and constant threat of Welsh raiding. He also shows that the precise details of this service varied widely, depending upon the individual circumstances of each castle; and that it was frequently adapted to fit the differing social and military customs of the Welsh tenants within English lordships. Again, a map would not have not gone amiss, for those of us who are not as well acquainted with the details of the tenurial landscape of medieval Shropshire as is Suppe himself.

Overall, this is an interesting and worthwhile collection of essays, testifying to the continuing renaissance of medieval military history; and there is much in it to appeal to medieval historians beyond this field. Certainly, it makes a fitting tribute to a widely respected scholar.

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Andy King

University of Durham