The Medieval Review 16.09.40

Halfond, Gregory I., ed. The Medieval Way of War: Studies in Medieval Military History in Honor of Bernard S. Bachrach. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015. pp. 348. $129.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-4724-1958-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Cliff Rogers
United States Military Academy

Bernard S. Bachrach has been the most prolific and most influential historian of medieval warfare of his generation. The bibliography of his publications included in this festschrift extends to twelve pages and across four decades, listing over 130 articles and 20 books. It is a sign of his standing in the subfield that De Re Militari, the Society for Medieval Military History, named its biennial award for career achievement "The Bernard Bachrach Prize." This volume, published in conjunction with the honoree's seventy-fifth birthday, reflects the breadth and the vibrancy of the current scholarly work dealing with warfare in the Middle Ages. It includes seventeen studies that cover the full chronology from the fourth century to the fourteenth, and a geographic spread from London to the Levant.

All seventeen contributions are at least competently executed and valuable; several of them are of an excellence and significance not commonly found in collections of this sort. Many of the better ones fall into one of two categories: either taking a small subject and using it to cast light on a much bigger topic, or taking a big subject the author has already addressed in greater depth and distilling his findings relating to warfare into a short overview.

The latter category includes an analysis of the military career of Emperor Conrad II (990-1039) by Herwig Wolfram and an especially good summation, by Richard Abels, of Alfred the Great as a military leader. Abels argues that common misunderstandings of early medieval (and especially Viking) warfare have led to an under-appreciation of the military as well as political "genius" Alfred demonstrated as he restructured his kingdom to ensure its survival. Abels emphasizes Alfred's combination of pragmatic flexibility and stubborn determination. Without denigrating the importance of the burhs to the new military system of Wessex, Abels notes that "for Alfred, battle remained at the heart of warfare" (61). John Pryor's analytical narrative of the epic siege of Acre (1189-1191) will eventually appear in a substantially longer form in a monograph he is preparing. Gregory I. Halfond's treatment of how Merovingian church councils dealt with matters of war and peace also falls more or less into this group. He makes the case that the Frankish episcopate never really sought to eliminate war within the regnum Francorum, but rather merely to limit the damage it did to the Church's institutional structure, property, authority, and dependents. Halfond also indicates the bishops sought to minimize the destructive impact of war on lay society generally (p. 45), but this is less well supported by the contents of his essay: for example, on p. 42 he notes the Council of Orléans in 538 imposed significant penalties on bishops who entered into communion with men guilty of raping those women who were under the protection of the Church.

Bernard Bachrach is known for his skill in taking relatively small quantities of data from original sources and using logic, context, and Sachkritik to paint a larger picture from that base. Michael Prestwich explicitly follows Bachrach's lead in this regard in his essay on the trebuchets and springalds of the Tower of London, though since he is writing on the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Prestwich can draw on reliable information from fiscal accounts. The trebuchets with nineteen-ton counterweights he describes provide noteworthy evidence of the quality of medieval engineering, a point that fits well with Bachrach's ongoing crusade against "primitivist" interpretations of the Middle Ages. David Bachrach's contribution to the volume examines the career of one of Edward I's royal clerks who participated in the management of the king's military endeavors, a topic of limited importance in itself but significant insofar as we can take Peter of Dunwich to be representative of a class of officials who collectively were very important.

Benjamin K. Zedar offers a speculative but persuasive reinterpretation of Richard I's strategic and tactical intentions for the battle of Arsur (1191), explaining how the Lionheart probably planned to launch his knights against Saladin's horsemen in a position where the terrain would have enabled him to destroy rather than merely dispersing the Muslim forces. The status Richard I has attained (thanks to John Gillingham) as the leading exemplar of good medieval generalship makes this reinterpretation of one of the few pitched battles he fought especially telling. Another study of an individual battle--Bouvines in 1214--is provided by John France, one of the few living historians who has had an influence on medieval military history comparable to Bernard Bachrach's. His analysis of the battle itself is typically thorough and sensible, emphasizing the advantage in morale and coherence the French gained from being a single national force under a single undoubted leader. Perhaps the essay's greatest value, however, comes at the beginning, where France points out the wide-ranging consequences of the French victory in this eminently contingent (not pre-determined) engagement, thus effectively challenging the Annales school's insistence "that major events could only arise from long and deep-rooted causes."

Like Zedar and France, Kelly DeVries focuses on a single battle, but his purpose is even more revisionist than Zedar's. DeVries believes that the recently "rediscovered" description of the battle of Crécy (1346) in the Cronica anonimo romano constitutes eyewitness testimony set down shortly after the event, and that it therefore should be accepted as among the most important sources for the narrative of the engagement, perhaps as the single most important one. He systematically revises the accepted story of the battle on this basis: shifting the battlefield from the east to the west of Crécy, explaining the failure of the Genoese crossbowmen by the muddy ground that left them without the secure footing they needed to load their weapons (rather than by the superiority of the English longbow), and emphasizing the wagon defenses behind the English line. Again, all this rests on taking the testimony of the anonimo romano very seriously, which seems to me to be an error, since the chronicler's account of the campaign leading up to the battle is full of demonstrable inaccuracies. But the exercise is interesting nonetheless.

Equally revisionist on a much larger subject is Niels Lund's excellent analysis of the military service obligations of Danish bishops in the High Middle Ages. Lund successfully challenges the orthodox view that Danish kings in this era had in effect converted an old general military service obligation (the udgærdsleding) to a tax of provisions. He also offers a great deal of information on the medieval Danish military system that should be of interest to anyone studying army recruitment and service or indeed royal government generally in neighboring countries (including France and Great Britain), but that is likely to be unfamiliar to those who do not read Danish.

The two most broadly important contributions to the collection are those of John Gillingham and Stephen Morillo. Gillingham addresses a topic that medieval military historians have only just begun to appreciate the significance of: slave-taking as a normal (indeed a central) part of warfare on the periphery of Christendom. This essay is a must-read for anyone working on the Crusades (including the Baltic Crusades), the Reconquista, or warfare in the medieval Mediterranean generally. Morillo uses the example of William the Conqueror's delayed transit to England in 1066--which he convincingly shows was due to factors beyond human control, not to intentional waiting by William--to develop the idea of "Structured Contingency." This is his way of reconciling two overarching conceptualizations of how historical causation works: on the one hand, the "linear" model favored by historians of the Annales school, Marxist historians, and many others, which presumes some degree of necessary proportionality between causes and effects, and on the other hand the "non-linear" understanding that military historians (and theorists like Carl von Clausewitz) tend to share, which recognizes that at least in some cases a single contingent decision or the play of chance can have vastly disproportionate consequences.

Other essays included in the volume deal with early efforts to develop maps and atlases illustrating French history (Walter Goffart); the "grand strategy" of the Iberian kingdoms c. 1031-1157 (Manuel Rojas Gabriel); the inclusion of female figures in war-related decorations in Romanesque churches in France and Spain (James F. Powers and Lorraine C. Attreed); the career of the mercenary Catalan Company from 1303-1311 (David Jacoby); and the military aspects of the Roman frontier on the Upper Danube in the fourth and fifth centuries (Andreas Schwarcz).

Copyright (c) 2016 Clifford J. Rogers

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