12.04.07, Bell, ed., The Soldier Experience in the Fourteenth Century

Main Article Content

Steven Muhlberger

The Medieval Review 12.04.07

Bell, Adrian R., Anne Curry, Adam Chapman, Andy King, and David Simpkin. The Soldier Experience in the Fourteenth Century. Warfare in History. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. 232. ISBN: 978-1-84383-674-2.

Reviewed by:
Steven Muhlberger
Nipissing University

This attractively and carefully produced volume features, aside from its introduction, ten articles originally presented at a conference held at the University of Reading in July 2009, "England's Wars, 1272-1399." All of the authors use prosopographical methods in hopes of creating a much fuller picture of late medieval military recruitment and service than has been possible in past. The current best example of what is possible by using this approach is the web-based, openly available database, "The Soldier in Later Medieval England." [1] The connection between that project and this book is direct: the chief investigators behind the database, Adrian Bell and Anne Curry, were the chief editors of The Soldier Experience.

These articles rest upon our current ability to organize and analyze vast amounts of data through computerization. This allows diligent researchers not only to track the careers of individual warriors with greater accuracy and convenience than before, but also to reconstruct military retinues and study how recruiting related to landholding and other important aspects of medieval social life. The Soldier Experience, like many another report from a programmatic conference, is in part an argument for the value of a methodology and in part a series of demonstrations of how the methods used by the participants can be used by others. The volume is successful in making those points because the demonstrations are worked out in detail and the claims made for the methodology are not overblown. The authors are not under the illusion that computerization solves all problems; they know quite well that every source and every technique has its puzzles and limitations. Yet they show us how a combination of intelligent database design and data crunching ability offers us the opportunity to re-create an important aspect of medieval life, military organization and military service, in an amazing degree of detail. That use of detail, however, results in some very dense discussions which are not easily summarized. In the rest of this review I will restrict myself to indicating briefly the chief arguments of the individual articles.

It is appropriate that the first article is Andrew Ayton's "Military Service and the Dynamics of Recruitment in Fourteenth-century England." Ayton is the author of the extraordinary study, Knights and Warhorses: Military Service and the English Aristocracy under Edward III, in which he showed how a collection of dry administrative documents, the horse inventories, could cast an unexpectedly bright light on Edward III's armies, illuminating many aspects of the practical workings of those forces, including the careers of otherwise obscure warriors and the changing role of horses over the course of the fourteenth century. [1] Ayton's article, by far the longest in the collection, credits the prosopographical approach for taking military studies beyond treating armies as "characterless numerical abstraction[s]" (10). He also argues for its potential to contribute to an understanding of other aspects of local and national politics and cultural life. Ayton goes beyond such assertions, however, to discuss in detail the mechanics of retinue formation and what a specific set of data shows us about that process and how it changed over time. Ayton's article serves well as a primer on the challenges and rewards of the research typical of this group of scholars.

David Simpkin's "Total War in the Middle Ages? The Contribution of English Landed Society to the Wars of Edward I and Edward II" is an attempt to integrate landholding records with military service records to understand recruiting and the degree of militarization in England at various times. It is based on a study of Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire and select localities within them. Andrew Spencer's "A Warlike People? Gentry Enthusiasm for Edward I's Scottish Campaigns, 1296-1307" brings a prosopographical perspective to bear on the well-known falling off of support for Edward I's Scottish wars; it is based on landowning records from eight counties, which are compared to military records for the campaigns. David Bachrach in "Edward I's Centurions: Professional Soldiers in an Era of Militia Armies" discusses a neglected career track for gentry in Edward I's armies. Centenarii were men of the stratum just below the knightly class, who might have served as heavy cavalry, but who instead became effectively professional officers leading organized units of one hundred foot archers. Other such men led smaller units of crossbowmen. Bachrach notes how important the extensive experience of such men would be in maintaining discipline and tactical control. Iain A. MacInnes, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bruce? Balliol Scots and 'English Scots' during the Second Scottish War of Independence" re-examines the Scots who supported Edward Balliol's attempt to take the Scottish throne from the Bruces, and suggests that more research may revise the common view that Balliol's invasion was doomed to failure by a general lack of support. Adam Chapman's "Rebels, Uchelwyr, and Parvenus: Welsh knights in the Fourteenth Century" discusses the Welsh contribution to England's wars in the fourteenth century. Chapman explains how Welsh knights were exceptional figures in a Welsh context but quite comparable to English knights of the time.

Michael Jones' "Breton Soldiers in the Battle of the Thirty (26 March 1351) to Nicopolis (25 September 1396)" is one of the few articles focusing on an area outside Britain. It discusses the family connections, military careers and diplomatic service of the men who fought with Beaumanoir in the famous deed of arms. The Breton families whose members participated are surprisingly well known both before and after the battle itself, and their activities are well documented. The article ends with an appendix giving details about Beaumanoir and his companions and the Bretons who fought on the other side. Guilhem Pepin's "Towards the Rehabilitation of Froissart's Credibility: The Non-Fictitious Bascot de Mauléon" will interest many people who approach the Hundred Years War through chronicle accounts. In the last decade there has been speculation that one of the most memorable military men sketched in Froissart's Chronicles, the Bascot de Mauléon, was invented by the chronicler. Pepin refutes the suggestion by documenting the mercenary captain's career from archival records. Rémy Ambühl, in "The English Reversal of Fortunes in the 1370s and the Experience of Prisoners of War" explores the fate of English and English-obedient Gascon prisoners of war during the 1370s, and discusses the involvement of the crown and warrior community in the liberation of prisoners. Ambühl concludes that solidarity within the warrior community proved more helpful to captives than royal patronage. Adrian R. Bell's article, "The Soldier, 'hadde he riden, no man ferre,'" seeks to establish how extensive and far-ranging the travels of average and exceptional soldiers were. Bell makes a point of showing that even such prestigious sources as statements made in the Court of Chivalry have to be compared to the relevant archival records or the researcher will end up with an incomplete reconstruction.

This book is not for everyone. It is designed to appeal to a restricted audience: those who want to dig deeply into the details of medieval military service, and how service and recruitment reveal the structure of royal armies and, in fact, society at large. Indeed, its primary audience is likely to be other researchers in the same field, especially those using or considering using similar research methods. For them, however, it may be extraordinarily rewarding.



1. http://www.icmacentre.ac.uk/soldier/database/

2. First published in 1994 by University of Rochester Press; a new paperback edition appeared from Boydell Press in 1999.

Article Details

Author Biography

Steven Muhlberger

Nipissing University