03.11.05, Porter, Medieval Warfare in Mauscripts

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Philip E. Bennett

The Medieval Review baj9928.0311.005


Porter, Pamela. Medieval Warfare in Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. i, 64. ISBN: 978-0802084002.

Reviewed by:
Philip E. Bennett
University of Edinburgh

This lavishly illustrated and useful work is a co-publication between Toronto UP and the British Library. It takes the tried and trusted form of British Library and British Museum subject and topic guides, which means that it is intended at least partly as an introduction to the institution's collections, partly as an introduction to the subject for the educated general reader, and partly as an educational tool for schools. The way in which the book is intended as an introduction to the British Library collections is seen from discussions of two manuscripts, a sixteenth-century copy of Hero of Byzantium and a fragment of the Strategemata of Frontinus (9-11). In each case the derivation of the manuscript from originals is discussed, and an illustration given, but without any discussion of the contents of the illustration in terms of what is shown of real warfare. In the former case the example is of a complex siege tower, described as being able to move in any direction -- a capability not obviously demonstrated by the machine with fixed axles in the manuscript illustration -- and having a large battering ram suspended from ropes, which has no obvious means of being deployed by users of the tower. The only comment from the author is that the manuscript appears to have been intended for library study not for practical consultation on campaign. Similarly the illustration from Frontinus, which is of "Sulla's defences against scythe-bearing chariots," elicits no comment on the applicability of this to medieval warfare, just one that the illustration seems intended to "reproduce the antique style" (11).

One problem that anyone producing a work of this sort has to contend with, and one which is fully acknowledged by Porter, is that the overwhelming majority of usable manuscript illustrations come from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, so that, given the lack of interest in archaeological detail or local colour in the pre-Romantic era, the visual information we have about medieval arms, armour and warfare relates very much to the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, even when earlier events are being represented. The author is also very conscious of the roles of artistic convention and of the use of copy-books in the images we have to interpret, which means that all such images need to be treated with caution as sources for artefacts and actions. Having given the general caveat Porter then takes no more particular account of these difficulties, normally leaving it to the reader to perform the delicate task of interpreting the images. Thus, on p. 13, when presenting an illustration from Vegetius including an image of a knight practising sword strokes against a pole, no comment is made on the fact that he is holding his shield above his head, most improbably leaving his entire left side exposed to exactly the sort of round-arm stroke he is delivering himself. Similarly, on the same page, and on p. 28, where knights are shown mounting their horses, the only comment made, on p. 13, is that the exercise is a difficult one. No comment is made on the fact that contrary to modern practice the knight on each occasion is shown facing the tail of his horse with the stirrup turned through 180ยก and the left hand hooked, in a way not easy to interpret, round the saddle-bow while the arm passes apparently beneath the saddle (28) or (13) with the left hand pressing on the back of the saddle-bow. Now, in each image there is another group of figures standing to the rear of the horse, and the importance of the disposition of figures within the picture should not be discounted.

Two other areas of convention which are not taken into account are those of the genre of the work from which the illustration comes, and its geographical origin: illustrations of episodes from romances being treated in exactly the same way as those from chronicles and Classical texts and treatises. So, on pp. 15-16, the illustration of a joust, from Jean de Wavrin's Chronicle (MS Flanders, 15th century), one of a tournament in the Prose Tristan (MS Naples, ca 1300) and one of a tournament (?) from Meliadus (MS Naples, ca 1352) are all treated as equally valid evidence for real practice. Now, the scene from Wavrin shows two knights jousting under an arcade; that from the Prose Tristan shows a general melee with knights fighting with swords wearing chain armour and simple pot or kettle helmets; that from Meliadus shows orderly rows of knights riding towards each other with lances raised, not couched, and wearing plate armour and bassinets bearing elaborate parade crests. The only comment on the Wavrin illustration is that it shows "a joust between two knights"; the comment on the Prose Tristan illustration is that it shows "an early tournament, more like a battle than a sport," and that on Meliadus that it depicts "a later tournament organised by stricter rules." To concentrate just on the last two for a moment, one cannot distinguish "early" from "late" in terms of the ways in which tournaments as opposed to jousts were organised on the basis of the dates of the manuscripts (early fourteenth century and mid fourteenth century respectively) nor indeed on that of the dates of the underlying literary materials (separated again by a couple of decades in the mid-thirteenth century). More questions need to be asked, and answered, about exactly which episodes from the romances are being depicted, about which scenes have been chosen from those episodes, and above all about the artistic conventions deployed in the depictions.

A similar problem arises with the illustration on p. 27, which shows, according to its caption, "two warriors protected by scale, mail and plate, c. 1415". The surrounding text, as is the case with most of the book, does not relate to individual illustrations but provides a general running history of the development of armour, repeating and abridging material from standard manuals, a typical but very brief selection of which appear in the list of further reading on p. 62. The text therefore gives no help in elucidating some of the odder features of the arms of one of the combatants, who is wearing a coat of rectangular plates of what appears to be horn, a leather skull cap leaving his face totally bare, soft leather boots and gauntlets. Nor does reference to the manuscript from which the illustration comes help at all: it is British Library, Cotton Nero E ii, Les Grandes Chroniques de France. To get some idea of what is being depicted one needs to know that the scene illustrated is that of the duel between French hero Roland and the Saracen giant Ferracutus incorporated into the Grandes Chroniques from the twelfth-century Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle. While historical verisimilitude is presumably not intended -- Roland is shown pretty well as a late fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century knight, even if he is fighting on foot -- a certain amount of exoticism derived partly from the original text partly from inherited conventions for depicting Saracen arms undoubtedly is.

One could go on with such comments, but they would serve little extra purpose. Above all the reasonable reader of the volume and of this review will object that such generalisation is inevitable in such a slim volume intended for a general readership. Naturally I agree with this judgement, while protesting that it is precisely because the book is aimed not at a specialist audience, which will be delighted to have so many superb illustrations in full colour and supply necessary detailed interpretation from professional experience, but at a general audience and at secondary school pupils undertaking projects on that most misleading of non-concepts the "Middle Ages" who do not have the necessary information to make nuanced interpretations that it becomes dangerous. I am certainly not imputing to the author either a lack of knowledge of the field or a lack of awareness of the problems I have outlined above. What worries me is that the genre of these simple guides, while being updated thanks to technology with regard to illustration (one remembers the very poor quality of black and white illustration of the British Museum guides to romanesque and gothic manuscripts of the 1950s and 60s), the text has been stuck in a time warp in the period of Huizinga. Thus the book opens with the following evocation of chivalric warfare:

The ways of war in the Middle Ages never cease to exert a fascination. The glamour associated with knights in shining armour, colourful tournaments and heroic deeds appeals strongly to the modern imagination... (5)

The brief caveat that "war in the Middle Ages must have been no less harsh and repugnant than it is today" (loc. cit.) barely changes the image, while the title of the book's final chapter "Gunpowder and the Decline of Medieval Warfare" (55) not only begs a whole series of questions but perpetuates a neo-Romantic view quite at odds with contemporary, professional historiography.

My final plea is that those responsible for publishing series of manuals of this sort for the general reader should treat that general reader with the same scientific seriousness with which they would treat fellow professionals. The intelligent general reader -- and the next generation of such represented by secondary school pupils -- deserves no less.

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Author Biography

Philip E. Bennett

University of Edinburgh