14.05.16, Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany

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Michael J. Decker

The Medieval Review 14.05.16

Bachrach, David S.. Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 310. ISBN: 9781843837626.

Reviewed by:
Michael J. Decker
University of South Florida

According to the Introduction, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany aims to undermine the current scholarly view of the Ottonian State (AD 919-1024) and demonstrate that eastern Franks did not operate outside of the cultural and political spaces established during the Carolingian period (AD 800-887/8). In addition the author claims that the Ottonians inherited and enhanced state apparati from the Carolingians whose continuity is clear, and that in the military sphere especially the eastern Franks drew on "a massive inheritance from their Carolingian predecessor that include not only military institutions, and political models of highly developed royal power, but also crucial economic, cultural, and educational resources" (4).

Chapter 1 "Restoring Francia Orientalis: Henry I's Long Term Strategy" provides a narrative of events in the wars of Henry the Fowler (919-936) particularly against internal challengers as well as the Slavs and Hungarians in the east and south. Key to the attritive, siege-intensive campaigns that were planned to extend and hold territory through the continuation of Carolingian policies was the use of fortified administrative and mustering posts, as well as the organization of support troops, among them rural levies, the "agrarii milites" garrison troops about whom so much ink has been spilled. Bachrach demonstrates considerable depth of knowledge of the secondary and primary literature and makes a clear case for an understanding of strategy and operations based on a rather sophisticated military approach that undermines the traditional views of backwardness that still dogs many areas of medieval studies.

In Chapter 2, "Forging a New Empire" Bachrach details the numerous internal disturbances that shook the foundations of the new dynasty and to which Otto I (936-973) responded with exceptional vigor, if not always with astounding success. Among the important points made along the way in detailing these campaigns are that the German kings needed not only sufficient infrastructure from which to build and refurbish their armies, which were constantly in use, but also that their response to crises were dealt with according to a certain pattern of logic and pragmatism. The reader gets a good grasp on the sweep of Otto's activities and his pretensions to universal empire, although his confrontation with Byzantium in south Italy was more of a sideshow to Constantinople than it was to the German emperor. There are important discussions here of policy, strategy, and the structures that sustained the nascent Ottonian regime. Of course Lechfeld plays a central role (and perhaps too central) in our conceptualization of the military actions of the period, especially against the Hungarians. Again, from the latter, this battle was viewed as decisive and for Bachrach it demonstrates more than German tactical superiority but the culmination of a carefully planned and orchestrated program of fortress building and manning with an overarching strategic goal. While appealing, such grand strategies rarely are as historians see them. If Verdun led to the Maginot Line, what on earth about Ottonian confrontation with the Magyars would lead the former's strategic thinkers to believe that these superb steppe horsemen could be countered by levies and forts? In the Carolingian period, as in the late Roman Empire, the use of cavalry to intercept raiders and to strike back at nomad territory were central to military operations against rival horse. The idea of defense-in-depth is overplayed somewhat as well--these modern strategic concepts remained unproven from every case in which they are suggested (Late Rome and Byzantium, among them--and the present author is as guilty as any in speaking in such terms). Bachrach does, gratifying, highlight one of the main issues in this debate--that the study of military architecture (and military history generally) has made some progress on the Continent, but it is not well-advanced. Detailed chronologies and occupational phasing of the fortresses in the south and east of the Reich present many lacunae that, once filled, will help to solidify or overturn the "defense in depth" theory.

Military organization is the subject of Chapter 3 where it is argued that there was a tripartite military organization emplaced by the Ottonians. Three classes of soldier are discussed: local levies, select levies, and professional soldiers from among the retainers of the great families and ecclesiastics. Those with knowledge of the body of work of the senior Bachrach on the Merovingians may find familiar the essentials of this argument. Foregrounded here, though, is royal authority, which looks more state-like and less regionalized than many would assume. The fortified cities and their garrisons at which so much is at stake regarding royal authority and "state" structures are simply not well enough known to support such statements as "The ongoing use in the tenth century of the many hundreds of fortifications, and the continued centrality of siege warfare in campaigns of territorial conquest, are crucial factors in understanding the importance of continuity in military organization from the Carolingians to the Ottonians" (74). Ottonian use is likely over many of these, but far from certain--as in most regions, we are probably dealing with fortresses which are built, fall, derelict, and then are reoccupied--these periods of probable abandonment cannot be simply glossed over and once again more caution is called for.

In Chapter 4, Bachrach deals with military education. As in Byzantium and elsewhere in the medieval world the sources are frustratingly sparse. Proof exists for the reading of western military handbooks from antiquity, namely Vegetius, but the role of this text and its use in medieval society is gallingly uncertain. Yes, Vegetius was read--this we know. But did the Ottonians (or the Carolingians or Hohenstaufens, or Capetians, for that matter) produce a range of comparable manuals? Training across the liberal arts among military elites is demonstrable in certain cases, but to make men of such training the norm rather than the exception is a challenge. The well-known commander Adalbero of Augsburg is one thing but to range as far afield as Alfred's England to prove the point of liberal education among early medieval military elites is a stretch and the litany of men within Germany whom the sources described as educated warriors is but a slender number. One has to credit Bachrach for delving into this bramble where we are constantly pricked by the nature of their sources, bound as they are by the order of their day and the usual topoi--were not commendable men among "those who fight" not to be described as versed in war? What on else would they be versed in? It is more than an intellectual furlong to cross Charlemagne's displeasure with idle youth to render some broader commentary on a culture of military tactics and book learning among the Germanic courts (118). Bachrach's discussion of the discipuli in Adalhard, abbot of Corbie (d. 827) is a welcome addition and certainly should be read and rightfully recognized for its significance for the way in which a previous generation of officer cadres were trained. But it may be a bridge too far to state flatly that Ottonian military elites were book learned in a constellation of knowledge touching on military affairs, "...including mathematics, geography, and engineering." These were, in the Roman and Byzantine armies, the realm of specialists. Likewise, it remains to be seen the means by which Ottonian elites without Latin accessed such texts indirectly through "close contact in war…gatherings or aristocrats in social, legal, or religious events" (134).

Chapter 5 comprises arms and training. As elsewhere throughout the medieval period, there are many gaps that must be filled with only the barest of references in chronicles and the like and comparative data from other contemporary or near-contemporary cultures. As is expected most of the textual evidence of training relate to elites. A considerable portion of the chapter (and a welcome one) is devoted to siege weaponry and techniques. Here too one has to be careful again not to overstress the complexity of building machines like siege towers in the first place. Many men with basic carpentry skills could assemble the frames of such devices, given time and proper material. Moreover, there is no need to continue to insist that torsion engines, which were complicated and temperamental, continued to be widely used in the medieval west (166).

In Chapter 6, the author examines morale among the Ottonian armies. Specifically, he relates that the Ottonians understood and carefully looked after the psychological well-being of their troops. This much seems logical. Likewise, the efforts the kings too to ensure equitable distribution of plunder, access to land, and prestige as rewards for military service seems logically to have had a correlative effect on their motivation to fight and sense of identity. One critical element of this which is often overlooked is that of supply, the victualing of any force being requisite to maintain fighting spirit, and Bachrach pieces together a good deal of evidence to support his claim that the Ottonians developed considerable logistical capabilities. Their range of military action would support this.

Tactics comprise the discussion of Chapter 7; Bachrach approaches these through case studies of four major operations and consideration of several others, including sieges, which he rightly stresses were central to Ottonian warfare (as to medieval warfare generally). Indeed, siege warfare was the greatest capability of the army, which is why these forces continued to be dominated by foot soldiers. The use of cavalry was generally reliant on a strong tactical anchor of infantry. These features mark the Ottonians as rather typical of contemporary practices elsewhere, as did their lack of strict specialization and tactical flexibility.

After a short chapter (Chapter 9) which provides a blow-by-blow examination of the crucial civil war of 953-954, Bachrach concludes with a restatement of basic points made in the preceding chapter, with a special stress placed on continuity with Carolingian institutions and behaviors. As with any work of such sweep on a topic so important, we are greatly hampered by our meagre sources, and the logic and assertions made in this work to supplement these will no doubt draw lively debate--and so they should. Many questions remain open, and the details may never be known to our satisfaction. Unfortunately, many cultural elements are among these. It is not made clear at any one point what the specific cultural structures and agencies are, nor exactly how they are employed in the imperial project and in the proto- Drang nach osten of the Ottonians, for example against the Polabian Slavic confederations that farmed, fished, and lived in their gords along and beyond the Elbe when King Henry the Fowler (919-936) started to absorb them. Regional distinctions are rather blurred. Clearly regional centers, their magnates and ecclesiastical elites along with their familiae were crucial in this long process both administratively and militarily. Local direction and contributions need to be examined more closely and elaborated upon. As is to be expected, the lion's share of discussion revolves around the examples of Henry I and Otto I; there is little assessment provided of the capabilities of the opponents whom the empire fought, nor a consideration of what new institutions and praxis were established, nor the manner in which Carolingian norms were deepened and rooted east of the Elbe, for example. In sum, though, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany provides students and specialists alike a provocative and welcome window into a central and neglected area of inquiry. Undoubtedly it offers great scope for debate and a foundation for further regional and thematic investigations which will support or contest Bachrach's insightful and often challenging arguments.

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Author Biography

Michael J. Decker

University of South Florida