18.01.02, Rogge, Killing and Being Killed: Bodies in Battle

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John France

The Medieval Review 18.01.02

Rogge, Jörg, ed. Killing and Being Killed: Bodies in Battle: Perspectives on Fighters in the Middle Ages. Mainz Historical Cultural Series. Mainz:transcript Verlag, 2017. pp. 271. ISBN: : 978-3-8376-3783-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

John France
Professor Emeritus, Swansea University

This collection of essays emerged from a conference held at Mainz in April 2015. The focus of the contributions, according to the Editor, is "on shaping bodies for battle, using bodies in battle, bodily injuries by means of battle, and on the dead bodies of fighters" (10) and he sees this publication as a contribution to the debate on "writing or telling pain and other emotions in the Middle Ages" (12). The essays certainly cover an impressive period of time, from the fifth to the sixteenth centuries. In the first essay G. M. Berndt, "'The Goths Drew their Swords Together' -- Individual and Collective Acts of Violence by Gothic Warlords and their War Band," argues that the groups which moved into the Roman Empire in the fifth century formed "communities of violence" (18) in which warriors chose to follow leaders who brought success and loot. He applies this to what we know of the "Goths," and shows us both Fritigern and Theoderic as tough warlords. Theoderic's assassination of Odoacer amply makes the point. However, he also draws a contrast between these two men because Theoderic used his reputation to acquire the status of king in Italy, thereby becoming something greater than a mere warlord. Berndt says a lot about the fragility of identity in the fourth and fifth centuries, although relatively little about bodies. B. P. Maleon, "Torture of Bodies in Byzantium after the Riots (Sec. IV-VIII)," argues that although mutilation of rebels and enemies continued in Byzantium, it was modified and ameliorated by Christian influence until "the torture of prisoners' bodies was gradually abandoned in the 9th century" (57).

There then follows a chronological gap, for all the remaining essays are late medieval, ranging from the Anglo-Scottish wars starting in 1296 to the end of the fifteenth century. This discontinuity seems very odd because in those 2-300 years there are numerous descriptions of war and its effects on bodies. A very good starting point would be the poetry of Bertrand de Born whose rejoicing in the physical business of war often approaches the positively gruesome. As a result, this collection is marked by a chronological chasm which makes it very difficult to see how and to what extent attitudes changed across the centuries. This kind of gap is very evident in the concluding "Summary and Conclusions: Silent Men and the Art of Fighting," despite all the skill of its author, D. Schuh.

On the other hand, this collection presents us with a very interesting and different perspective on late medieval warfare. Discussions of fighting in this period are normally weighted towards an Anglo-French standpoint which sees everything through the lens of the Hundred Years' War. It is very refreshing to read the studies in the present volume because only one discusses the wars in France, while two focus on the Anglo-Scottish conflict, two investigate German fight-books and the other concerns Italy.

E. Burkart's "Body Techniques of Combat: The Depiction of a Personal Fighting System in the Fight Books of Hans Talhofer (1443-1467 CE)" is an impressive study of a set of manuscripts. The author eschews the romantic notions of knighthood which in the past have coloured the reception of these works and argues that they were produced "according to a didactic system" (113) and aimed at "premodern violence professionals" (111) who expected to be in lethal and threatening situations, but probably in individual or small-group conflict rather than in battle. In Burkart's view the fight books recognised that fighting was "personal experience and cannot be fully verbalised" (119) but were in the nature of teaching notes. The books themselves were not given to the pupils but simply used by instructors. D. Jaquet, "Six Weeks to Prepare for Combat: Instructions and Practices from the Fight Books at the End of the Middle Ages, a Note on Ritualised Single Combats," points out that although "state" powers frowned on judicial combat and duels, in practice they were remarkably common. Aristocrats settled quarrels in their own ways, while cities and other jurisdictions often prescribed judicial duels to settle disputes. Indeed, one of the fights he describes was in London in 1456 and involved biting, gouging and kicking in the private parts. Fights could always end up in this kind of crude way but the fight books of Talhofer and Paulus Kal prescribe a period of six weeks for training by a fencing master, during which the behaviour, both temporal and spiritual, and even the diet of the combatants, is carefully prescribed. And every effort was made to curtail the excesses of the crowds which gathered to witness these events--shades really of modern football fans! What is striking about these fight books is the attempt to ritualize combat, although there is a clear acceptance of the lethal nature of what is being discussed. Men may fight but they should always do so in a controlled way and under tutelage. To this extent these books point in the same direction as the "state" efforts to prohibit personal violence.

For those seeking concrete examples of men being wounded and killed, I. MacInnes provides numerous and vivid examples in his "'One man slashes, one slays, one wounds': Injury and Death in Anglo-Scottish Combat, c.1296-c.1403." This is a very systematic trawl through the sources for wounds, fatal or not, to the head and face and to the torso and extremities. Because the main sources are chronicles, most of the reported cases were injuries to the elite, but MacInnes has cast his net wide. He thinks that arrows generally caused injury rather than immediate death and this is quite likely, but in any case when men fought in close order sudden death was probably relatively rare because so many blows and thrusts would be glancing. This has a bearing on the discussion of the effectiveness of contemporary armour which MacInnes raises briefly. A disproportionate number of the reported injuries were to the head, perhaps because they were so highly visible. Some of these are said to have been through the helmet, and the author might like to note that examples are shown in the Maciejowski Bible (New York, Pierpoint Morgan Library, MS M 638).

T. R. Smith, "Willing Body, Willing Mind: Non-Combatant Culpability According to English Combat Writers, 1327-77," examines literature written by combatants, or at least by persons well informed about the realities of war, with a view to understanding the attitude of warriors to the horrors they visited upon non-combatants. This is an admirable and very vigorously argued piece suggesting that English warriors were perfectly well aware that they were killing innocents. To disguise this in their writings they pretended that all those killed were soldiers, and/or avoided detail because "it was thought unsavoury to discuss non-combatants as victims openly" (93). I am sure that soldiers were aware of the ethical dilemmas presented by their vocation, but perhaps Smith underestimates their hardiness, for, as he recognises, bullying peasants was the staple of war. When William Marshal lay dying he rejected the idea that his way of life was incompatible with knighthood, crying "the clerics are too hard on us. They shave us too closely. I've captured five hundred knights and all their gear. If that means the kingdom of God is barred to me then that's that...Unless the clergy mean to see me damned they should stop their harrying! Either their claims are false or no man can have salvation." (N. Bryant, The History of William the Marshal, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2016, p. 219). Smith accepts the distinction between combatant and non-combatant that the clergy drew, but it is not at all clear that was actually so sharp in practice. The Assizes of Arms of Henry II and much subsequent legislation, and indeed the occasional calling of whole populations to arms, assumes that the generality of males had weapons and could fight. They may not have been, as Smith says, as expert as the professionals who were increasingly important in armies, but they could still kill. Gilbert of Mons tells us of a woman who claimed an enemy knight's arms because she knocked him off his horse!

A. J. Macdonald's "Two Kinds of War? Brutality and Atrocity in Later Medieval Scotland" tackles a subject closely related to Smith's and with splendid vigour. He accepts that the Anglo-Scottish wars saw terrible atrocities, but he casts considerable doubt on the reasons conventionally given for this. A binary distinction between guerrilla and regular did not, as he says, exist in this period. Soldiers, even in the "Companies," came to war at their own expense and expected to get something out of it; they often operated in small groups and sought their own rewards as much as the ends of their masters. And he dismisses the notion that this was intercultural war, not least because the Scots leaders were precisely the same kind of people as the English aristocrats they fought. His conclusion, that savagery was the product of particular situations when protagonists felt they had little choice, seems admirably well-judged.

Nothing is more basic to the well-being of the body than food supply, and this is the subject of an admirable study of the Crònica of Ramon Muntaner. A British officer once remarked that moving an army was like a giant picnic and this careful study shows how Muntaner achieved it, though he probably gives himself credit due also to others. It is easy to forget that at this time ordinary people earned their bread or starved, and that, therefore, even the grand Catalan Company "could not live in the absence of war" (248, quoting Muntaner). This is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on logistics that owes so much to the work of J. Haldon (which is well acknowledged here).

G.Morosini's "The Body of the Condottiero. A Link Between Physical Pain and Military Virtue as it was interpreted in Renaissance Italy" is a fascinating study of the military values of Italy at this time, and the way they were manifested by the physical wounds of the war-leaders, the Condottieri. The price of their eminence was continual exposure to the risks of war, which inevitably produced injury and very often death. To bear these well was to display fortitudo, the supreme virtue of the warrior, and so injuries became "a manifestation of moral and physical strength" (191). By the cultivation of such virtues the commander created and sustained the bond with his troops, though one might add that it was no substitute for success and the loot that came with it.

This is an interesting and enjoyable book which has some sharp insights into violence and war in the medieval period. Not all the contributions focus on bodies or even deal with battle, and there is a huge chronological gap, so the book perhaps lacks the intended focus. But having said that, the essays are of a high standard and are worthwhile in themselves, and the notion of the fighter's body obviously sparked interesting discussions. It is a pity that the illustrations could not be in colour because evident care had gone into their selection. The first language of many of the contributors is clearly not English. One early example is "fighters had to anticipate in killing other men" (10). This may sometimes be jarring. However, I can only admire the bravery of the participants and reproach the publishers for not having had a native English speaker edit the contents. Overall anyone interested in medieval military history will find this a useful volume and the organizers of the conference are to be congratulated in producing it.

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