15.08.30, Green, The Hundred Years War

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Stephen Morillo

The Medieval Review 15.08.30

Green, David. The Hundred Years War: A People's History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. pp. xx, 339. ISBN: 978-0-300-13451-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Stephen Morillo
Wabash College
morillos@wabash.edu

The Hundred Years War has surged in popularity as a target of medieval historians' attention in the last decade, perhaps in part because of the imminent 600th anniversary of Agincourt. As a topic of major importance, it deserves this attention. David Green has joined the field of those aiming to explicate the war with what he calls a "people's history." The book offers a useful synthesis of recent research as well as Green's own original analysis. But whether all his analytical shots hit their mark is open to question.

Green certainly takes advantage of the recent research on the war, as he draws on an extensive reading of both the primary and secondary literature available. He is conversant, for example, with recent military analysis, this reviewer's specialty, even if his synthesis too readily accepts a "Military Revolution" take on the military developments in the war. But ultimately, this is a difficult and not completely successful book. My criticisms relate to two key concepts in Green's work: the idea of a "people's history" and nationalism.

Writing a people's history of the Hundred Years War is not really possible in a full Howard Zinn kind of way, of course: the sources available to us, extensive as they are for a medieval topic, are not detailed enough, especially about the lives of most commoners, to allow such a treatment. Green knows this, of course, and does not pretend to create a completely bottom-up, ideologically motivated alternate history of the war. His aim is instead to provide a full social history of the war focused on its impact on different social groups and sorts of people. This is an admirable goal, and many non-specialist readers will find new information and perspectives presented here.

The aim to view the war in terms of social groups partially shapes the organization of the book, which combines examination of themes that include social groups with chronology, in that each group or theme is tied to moments in the war that are ordered chronologically. Thus, the first chapter on knights and nobles is dated 1346, the second on the peasantry 1358, the third on clergy 1378, and the eighth on women 1429. Unfortunately, this ends up as a somewhat confusing mode of organization, despite its theoretical elegance. Each of the themes applies throughout the course of the war, requiring Green in later chapters to circle back as well carry forward his story. One result is that Green repeats elements of an initial narrative framework, first presented in the introduction, numerous times, sometimes in more detailed form, often with fragments of analysis repeated in a number of places as well. Combined with Green's penchant for digression into semi-related topics, the book's organization ultimately presents neither a coherent narrative of the war nor a systematic thematic analysis backed by sustained argumentation. I detail an example of the latter deficiency below.

But returning to the concept of a "people's history," Green's chapters are problematic in carrying out this project. For a people's history, the themes are very traditionally top-down. Of the ten chapters, four are about elite social groups: knights and nobles, the clergy, kings, and prisoners of war. Three are about elite or elite-dominated politics: peace-making, occupation, and national identities. Of the remaining three--peasantry, soldiers, and women--the latter two are largely (though not entirely, especially for soldiers) about elite representatives of those groups. There is nothing inherently wrong with this emphasis, which descends from the perspective of most of our sources for the war. But it sits oddly with this being a "people's history."

Crucially, however, the list of social groups has what is, to this reviewer, a glaring omission: there is no chapter on townsmen (or the bourgeoisie, or whatever term might have seemed appropriate). Given the key role of urban merchants in the English House of Commons and its developing power of the purse during the war, and given that a key chronicle Green uses comes from "The Parisian Bourgeois," this omission is difficult to explain. Green himself may reveal his reasoning. He cites the Parisian Bourgeois extensively in the chapter on the peasantry, and in explaining the Cabochien revolt of 1413 as evidence of peasant political awareness says that it was "primarily a rising of the urban peasantry" (62). Green here echoes Guibert of Nogent's narrative of the revolt of the Commune of Laon centuries earlier by failing to draw any distinction between urban dwellers, especially relatively prosperous merchants, and the bulk of the rural farming population. Apparently The Three Orders is still valid social theory for late medieval society. One result of Green's truncated view of society is that he devotes almost no productive analysis to the economic dimension of the war. This is a real shame, as readers could have benefited from a social historical updating of the old Postan-McFarland debate about the costs of the Hundred Years War, which was both Anglo-centric and institutional in perspective.

Still, just because much of Green's analysis doesn't exactly fit the concept of a "people's history," either in perspective or by omission, does not necessarily invalidate the analysis he presents. The more serious problem, for this reviewer, is the conceptual framework of nationalism that Green wraps around almost every aspect of the war. Indeed, far from a "people's history" perspective, Green's central claim is not just that the Hundred Years War helped give birth to English and French national identities, but that it shaped the development of English and French "nations" that were already there: "The Hundred Years War refashioned whole nations, making and remaking them and their peoples" (4). This perspective leads him into even more teleological formulations, as for example when he claims that, "The French fought the Hundred Years War to substantiate a mythic conception of nationhood" (239).

Now admittedly the claim that the war shaped national identity might be defensible. But Green's defense does not convince. To begin with, he does not define precisely what he means by "nation." Though he nods in a footnote to Benedict Anderson's concept of nations as "imagined communities," Green mostly reifies the two nations in question, England and France, into entities that, as the above quote demonstrates, act as unified historical agents. Used in this way, Green's "nations" are interchangeable throughout the text with the English and French states, monarchies, realms, countries, or peoples. When he does speak of medieval imaginings of identity, he does not specify what was being imagined. Often, as at the beginning of chapter 10, "National Identities," the medieval sources he quotes as evidence for notions of "national" identity refer explicitly to kingdoms or realms. On the English side, what he describes would be most often captured by the phrase "political community," a far more concrete concept that "nation."

He admits that the various medieval words that can be translated as "nation" meant different things at the time, but does not follow through on the implications of that variety for the cultural history of national identity. Indeed, Green's claims about the war and national identity end up asserted without ever being systematically argued for or defended against counterarguments, the most serious case of this general problem with the book. If, as one could argue from an Andersonian perspective, nations are the product of nationalism (and not vice versa) and nationalism as a self-conscious ideology is, like almost all "isms," a post-industrial (or at least post-French Revolution) phenomenon, then here, at least, Green needed to do some serious grappling with the conceptual issues embedded in his argument.

This nationalist framework, as noted, pervades the book and, for this reviewer, warps parts of the analysis. This problem is most serious in chapter 7, "Occupation," in which the English occupation of Normandy after 1415 becomes one instance of a series of occupations by England and France of parts of each other, extending back to a French occupation of England in 1066 and including the English king's possession of Normandy and later Aquitaine in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Such a perspective makes a hash of medieval political history, and distorts the rest of this "people's history", reducing the actual people on both sides of the Channel to puzzle pieces in Green's construction of English (or is it British?) and French national identities--a project not just dissimilar but antithetical to a Zinn-like people's history, whose point was to challenge dominant national narratives. Unfortunately, this nationalist frame undermines the execution of a book whose conception and supporting research hold much value.

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