16.07.09, Livingston and DeVries, eds., The Battle of Crécy

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David Bachrach

The Medieval Review 16.07.09

Livingston, Michael, and Kelly DeVries, eds. The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook. Liverpool Historical Casebooks . Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015. pp. xiv, 524. ISBN: 978-1-781-38270-7 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
David Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

On 26 August 1346, an exhausted and hungry English army under the command of King Edward III (1327-1377) won a major victory over the larger French force commanded by Philip VI of France (1328-1350) near the town of Crécy in the region of Ponthieu. Edward III had been on the offensive in France for the better part of a decade, and his major naval victory at the battle of Sluys in 1340 had made it possible for the English ruler to bring forces across the channel with very little opposition from the French. However, Crécy was the first major battle between the English and French kings during this initial phase of what ultimately would become known as the Hundred Years War. The scale of the one-sided English victory made a great impression on contemporaries and word about the battle spread rapidly throughout Europe. Reports about the battle of Crécy were included in scores of contemporary accounts, not only in England and France, but also in the lands of their allies in the Low Countries and the German Empire, as well as in Italy. Many more accounts appeared over the following decades and then centuries. Over time, stories about the events of the battle developed into myths, and these myths hardened into accepted truths, such as King Philip's military ineptitude and even the location of the battle, itself.

The remarkable volume edited by Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries, which they call a Casebook, is unlike any previous study of the battle of Crécy. Rather than a straightforward narrative or analysis of the campaign and battle in 1346, the core of this book is a collection of sources from the fourteenth century that provide information about the movement of the French and English armies, and their final confrontation at Crécy. Each of the 81 sources is provided in the original language (including Latin, French, Italian and Flemish) and a new translation composed for this volume. In addition to translating the texts, the editors provide a brief description of the authors of each of the narrative texts, the date of the texts' composition, and notes about passages that have attracted scholarly attention in the past and about problematic terms, and in some cases, the manuscript traditions. These sources, which include letters, poems, and histories, represent all known narrative texts that provide any information about the battle at Crécy.

The gathering together of this vast range of source materials into a single volume and offering new translations would, in itself, present a remarkable achievement. However, the editors also provide a series of essays that bracket these translations and offer striking new insights about the campaign of 1346 and the battle itself. In his introductory essay, Livingston offers a brief overview of the war between France and England leading up to the Crécy campaign, and analyzes the historiographical tradition regarding Edward III's military plan. It is in this context that Livingston challenges the now widely accepted idea, first proposed by Clifford Rogers, that King Edward sought from the very beginning of his campaign to force a decisive battle with the French. This would have required, as Livingston notes, that Edward planned to march 370 kilometers through enemy territory at a precise place and time that he had chosen in advance. However, as Livingston's careful treatment of questions of topography and logistics makes clear, Edward was not leading Philip on a merry chase to a designated location. It was rather the case that the English were running for their lives. It was only through a series of fortuitous accidents that the English were able to arrive at Crécy at all, and here they were trapped. The genius of Edward was not strategic in Livingston's reconstruction, but rather tactical, in that he used the terrain to his best advantage, and put his army in a position to succeed. In addition, Livingston is able to show that King Philip was masterful in his pursuit of Edward III, and that it was the French ruler who demonstrated remarkable strategic skills throughout the campaign.

The edited and translated sources are followed by a series of eight essays. These include essays focused on the participation of Bohemian contingents at Crécy by Jan Biederman and Václav Zurek, on the service of Genoese crossbowmen in the French army by Kelly DeVries and Niccolò Capponi, and on Italian perspectives of the battle by Capponi. However, the two most important essays are those by Livingston on the location of the battle of Crécy and by DeVries on the tactics employed by the two sides at the battle.

As Livingston makes clear, the first effort to identify the site of the battle was made by Cesar-François Cassini de Thury in his Carte générale de France published in 1757. Cassini placed the site of the battle north of the town of Crécy, largely on the basis of an old stone windmill located on a hill, which seemed to fit very closely with topographical descriptions of the battle. Cassini's identification of the site remained unquestioned by the vast majority of both amateurs and scholars writing about the battle despite the fact that the topography north of the town of Crécy cannot be reconciled with the numerous contemporary accounts of the placement of the English army, and the advance of the French army.

After a thorough discussion of the contemporary written sources that provide clues about the battle site, Livingston then considers the question of how far the English and French armies marched to reach the site of the battle. His analysis of their marching rates makes clear that neither army could have reached the site located north of the town of Crécy. Livingston then turns to a discussion of the physical topography of the area south of the town of Crécy, which he had examined on foot. It is here, south of the town alongside the ancient forest of Crécy, that Livingston identified a wedged shaped hill that is sufficiently large to have contained the laager of English supply wagons reported by many contemporary reports. Livingston also was able to identify a man-made ditch at the bottom of the east side of this hill, which also was recorded in numerous contemporary accounts. Notably, the hill north of Crécy was too small to accommodate the English wagon train, and there is no evidence of a man-made ditch.

The essay by DeVries builds upon the Livingston's identification of the new site, by demonstrating how the topographical features of the battlefield south of the town of Crécy illuminate heretofore unexplained aspects of the battle. These include the fact that the French king, and his cavalry commanders, could not see what was happening to the Genoese crossbowmen, who were the first elements of the French army deployed to attack the English. Indeed, the claim by numerous contemporary writers that King Philip's forces could not see the English until they were almost in contact with them could not be reconciled with the original site identified by Cassini because the hill there was surrounded by open fields for a space of several miles. By contrast, the hill south of the town was imbedded in the woods of Crécy, and could only be seen by soldiers once they had advanced up the road to within a few hundred yards of the English position. Consequently, as the French mounted forces advanced to attack the English position, they were utterly surprised to see the Genoese retreating toward them. DeVries argues that it was this confusion, caused by the specific topographical features of the newly identified battle site, that compromised the attack by the French army, and led to the English victory.

In sum, this volume offers unprecedented access to the sources for the campaign of 1346 and the battle of Crécy both to scholars and to students. The essays by Livingston, DeVries, and their collaborators, further enhance the value of this volume, which could be use profitably in both undergraduate and graduate courses in medieval history as well as more specialized courses in military history. However, two criticisms can be leveled. The first of these is the lack of attention to the crucial problem of logistics other than in the introductory essay by Livingston. Just one of the 81 sources translated by the editors comes from the English or French governmental bureaus that dealt with the purchase and transportation of supplies for the campaign of 1346, and this kitchen account (document number 1) is used only to show the movement of the English army. If there is a second edition of this work, it should include a discussion of these invaluable administrative texts, and several exemplars from both the French and English governmental archives. The second problematic feature is the limited number of maps. It would significantly aid the reader if the editors augmented the single map of the course of the campaign (xiv), the two illustrations of the battlefield included in the essays by Livingston and DeVries, and the plate from Cassini's atlas.

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