09.09.09, Potter, Renaissance France at War

Main Article Content

John Gagné

The Medieval Review 09.09.09

Potter, David. Renaissance France at War: Armies, Culture and Society, c. 1480-1560. Warfare in History. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008. Pp. xviii, 405. ISBN: 978-1-94383-405-2.

Reviewed by:
John Gagné
Concordia University

Readers should not be overwhelmed by the first thirteen pages of David Potter's new book. In those few pages, Potter blows through a narrative of over fifty years of French military history, an overview that even those familiar with his topic will find almost dizzying. But this quick survey is a requisite primer before Potter can turn to the material that most interests him. In the pages that follow he offers a masterful and exhaustive consideration of all facets of war in early modern France, marrying a pragmatic and holistic approach to military history with an impressively thorough body of research. An English- language survey of France's relationship to war has been wanting for some time, and Renaissance France at War more than ably remedies what has been an unaccountable paucity of large-scale synthetic studies on conflict in the decades preceding the Wars of Religion.

Potter argues that war was a pervasive element in premodern French society, and his monograph illustrates how the kingdom incorporated this reality into the ways it viewed itself and the ways it functioned. The exigencies of war, as he reminds us, were fundamental organizing principles in French society. Kings, nobles, and commoners all had roles to play in assuring martial success: young noblemen, for instance, expected to make their mark on the battlefield as a prerequisite to success at court. That these teenagers' efforts at derring-do often made them more of a liability than an asset did not prevent them from seeking honor in battle. Nor did fear of arming the masses (a fear more theoretical than actual, Potter holds) prevent kings from striving through the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries to create a standing army. What makes Renaissance France at War particularly successful is Potter's effort to show the constant dialogue between theory and actuality, between policy-makers and fighters, between war and the culture that surrounded it. The glory teenaged nobles wanted was informed by literature like Amadis de Gaule and Le Jouvencel , along with deeply-rooted cultural assumptions about the nobility's obligations of service to its crown. The author straddles military and cultural histories with a keen interest in engaging both approaches.

Focusing on the Italian Wars to the Hapsburg-Valois Wars, the book moves methodically through the mechanics of conflict and traverses the 1480-1560 period in each chapter, tracing the evolution of theory and practice on each topic over the course of the chapter. The bulk of the book (its first nine chapters) is devoted to the practicalities of making war and takes readers through analyses of kings and decision making; high command and planning; cavalry and nobility; infantry; mercenaries; artillery and fortifications; making battle; administration and finance; and supply, garrisons, logistics and disorder. The last three chapters treat propaganda, history and public opinion; music and the visual arts; and culture and the literary world.

The nine chapters on making war are extremely informative in the way they succinctly map out the labyrinthine structures of French warcraft. Potter offers clear analyses of the reasons subtending war in 1494, 1521, 1536, and 1551. He leads the reader on a comprehensive survey of military leadership at all levels, offering some of the clearest descriptions of the responsibilities of high command (constables, marshals, lieutenants-general) this reviewer has encountered. In this regard the monograph is encyclopedic, and readers who want a handy reference to remind themselves of any number of facts, figures, or names will likely find it here, from the composition of a lance to the recruitment of footsoldiers and so forth.

At the same time, Potter is eager on several occasions to correct what he sees as accretions of received wisdom or as outdated arguments about making war in the Renaissance. While he acknowledges that personal feuds exacerbated conflict (in an era when King Franois I and Emperor Charles V clearly despised each other, such tiffs are hard to discount), he wishes to nuance the idea that war was merely the sport of kings. His consideration of casus belli in the first half of the sixteenth century shows that wars "were shaped by a constant consciousness of threat, of imminent attack and of long-term problems" (41). As noted above, in chapter 4 Potter disputes the notion that perceived lags in establishing a standing army responded to fear over the volatility of the people by detailing Louis XII's efforts to do just that in 1503 and 1512. In the following chapter, he hopes to dispel misconceptions about foreign mercenaries by arguing that kings engaged them specifically to harness their skill and geographical flexibility. Potter's treatment of mercenaries also reveals a stratum of diplomats rarely discussed by historians: troop recruiters active in Germany, the Swiss Cantons, and Italy whose efforts were crucial to the smooth operation of the French military machine.

In chapter 6 Potter surveys the complex topics of artillery and fortifications, showing how developments in each field provoked change in the other; as gun technology changed, towns and strongholds needed to respond with new defensive measures. Numerous illustrations help to clarify some of the more arcane points of fortress construction and defense. Most interestingly, Potter connects the refortification of France's frontier zones to shifting relations between cities and crown. As the need to undertake new defenses grew, the crown increasingly took the financial reins out of the hands of cities. By the middle of the sixteenth century, much of the sense of local independence had been dampened by royal interference. Indeed, while the author avoids reinscribing a narrative of statist progress in his analysis, much of his evidence shows the period under consideration is notable not just for the scale and rapidity of social, administrative, and organizational change, but also for the tendencies toward centralized control of military matters. This was the case as well when Henri II sought in the late 1540s to streamline supply depots by appointing royal captains to replace municipal officials, as outlined in chapter 9.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this centralizing trend that Potter rightly highlights. In the revealing chapter on administration and finance, we learn that royal finance officials often kept the massive coffers of soldiers' wages in their own houses. The need to pay thousands of men hundreds of miles away led inevitably to logistical problems and breakdowns of a system characterized here as "arcane and unresponsive" (235). Efforts to streamline could also be derailed by unrest and disorder among fighters, a trend that peaked from 1520-1540 and that owed its temporary decline in the 1550s partly to the implementation of disciplinary measures.

Military disorder--and the disorderly business of war itself--posed challenges to a much wider population than just royal administrators; the kingdom-wide impact of war and various opinions on the value of armed conflict interest Potter in the last quarter of the book. Here he offers a valuable survey of popular and learned opinion, propaganda and print, as well as representations of war in art, music, and literature. While much of this material relies on the work of specialists in these fields, Potter adds several terrific insights of his own, particularly on chroniclers of war: his appraisal of the much-used Bourgeois de Paris is thoughtful and appropriately critical. In subsequent chapters, he provides synthetic interpretations of works by the composer Jannequin, a variety of artists (including an impressive section on medals), along with readings of well-known humanists Erasmus and Rabelais, and lesser-known satirists like Pierre Gringore. Readers will be satisfied that Potter has reviewed a remarkably diverse body of sources, ranging from national or municipal archives and libraries to rare imprints and under-utilized memoirs. Six appendices provide handy figures, largely on troop strengths (always a confusing business, capably distilled here) and finances.

As a review of the state of the field in French Renaissance military history, the book offers scholars working in this field an occasion for reflection. One is struck by the prodigious and ground-breaking contributions of Philippe Contamine to this subject over the past half century. Contamine, a scholar whose name resurfaces often in the notes, receives warm acknowledgement here, and his ubiquity in Potter's bibliography reinforces the crucial role he has played in defining these topics for his generation. At the same time, it is also interesting to realize that many of the other scholars cited here died nearly a century ago. The opportunities for new work in this field are myriad; while Potter's contribution is surely authoritative, it also highlights the fact that many questions and sources still remain to be investigated or revisited.

Renaissance France at War is perhaps best enjoyed as a reference resource; it assumes extensive knowledge of early modern French politics and personalities, and so will undoubtedly become indispensable in graduate seminars. Still, one wishes at times for a break from the headlong presentation of facts. Occasionally the reader wants a more expansive analysis linking the chapters' concerns to broader arguments about French government and society, particularly at the end of chapters. While the book steers refreshingly clear of entanglements in the "military revolution" and absolutism debates, gestures at an ampler context for its findings would help orient readers more firmly. Scholars will find Potter's monograph a welcome and durable resource, one likely to serve its audience for a very long time.

Article Details

Author Biography

John Gagné

Concordia University