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22.04.06 Lewis, Medieval Military Combat

22.04.06 Lewis, Medieval Military Combat

The title of Tom Lewis’s Medieval Military Combat implies a very wide analysis of combat in the medieval era. The subtitle narrows the subject. Lewis reconstructs the practicalities of medieval warfare largely on the basis of one famous fifteenth-century English battle, Towton (1461). But he is interested in reaching a wide audience and answering big questions, and that shapes his presentation. Lewis has a military background, having fought in Iraq, and he has been the director of two military museums. Unsurprisingly, he is focused on the experience of the individual soldier and how small units actually worked together in battle. Furthermore, he writes primarily for a non-academic audience.

The book has an introduction, ten chapters, a conclusion, and three appendices. Several of the chapters are devoted to establishing background for his reader, whose knowledge he does not take for granted. Chapter 1 is a short summary of the War of the Roses for those who may know nothing about them. Chapter 2 discusses the evolution of infantry, from the evolution of human brains and opposable thumbs, until the development of the complete plate armor of the late fifteenth century; Lewis throughout the book compares the armour of this period to other eras of pre-gunpowder weaponry.

Chapter 3 is concerned with reconstructing battle tactics, describing how various weapons were used. In the same chapter Lewis begins discussing a point that he returns to in other parts of the book: both contemporary sources and modern depictions of warfare have their severe limitations. In Chapter 4 some of the best-known portrayals of medieval warfare--works like Braveheart, Game of Thrones,and Kingdom of Heaven--are critiqued. Lewis wants to be sure that his reader is made aware of the limitations of “common knowledge” before he begins his own reconstruction of medieval battles.

In chapters 5 (“Armour in the Medieval Period”), 6 (“The Longbows’ Place in Medieval Battle”), and 7 (“The Fight of the Poleaxe Soldier”), Lewis returns to one of his favorite topics-- how developments in arms (in the widest meaning of the word) shaped the tactics of the medieval period. Of particular interest are his discussions of the longbow and the poleaxe, which he sees as the most effective weapons of the best equipped soldiers of the era. Lewis is concerned to show how progress in the effectiveness of both defensive and offensive equipment shaped the battlefield behavior of the English armies in the fifteenth century.

In chapters 8 (“How Were Medieval Battles Actually Fought?”) and 9(“Towton as an Example of Medieval Battle”), Lewis turns his attention to recreating medieval battles. He bases his reconstruction on three types of information: his observation of re-enactors’ “battles” using equipment typical of the fifteenth century; comparisons with other infantry battles that are somewhat better documented than the English ones; and what he calls “Inherent Military Probability” (not his own coinage), the application of logic to the source material to see if it makes sense. Half of the chapter is a discussion of the use of a ranked battle line which allowed for the circulation of armored infantry within the battle line, as the soldiers became fatigued. Chapter 9 seeks to integrate many of the conclusions reached earlier by relating what is known about Towton with other armoured infantry battles. Lewis disputes reconstructions of Towton that attribute as many as 28,000 fatalities from both sides, which would require that the total number of combatants to be huge by medieval standards, and an extraordinary proportion of England’s population.

The book proper ends with a short conclusion that presents Lewis’ view of medieval battles: that they were shorter, sharper and less bloody than they often have been depicted (especially in movies where priority is given not to scholarship but to drama). He makes the proper point that just because the Chancellor of England said 28,000 men were killed in a certain battle does not mean we shouldn’t be skeptical of this estimate (or propagandistic claim) especially when England’s total population was still depressed as a result of the Black Plague.

As a whole, the bookhas a number of features to recommend it, especially those which are likely to appeal to a general audience. Where his analysis rests on systematic comparisons, Lewis provides tables to make the comparisons clear. Appendix 1 makes available two of the most important contemporary accounts of the battle, while Appendix 3 compiles and compares information derived from re-enactors. The book seems to have the ambition to be the one book a reader will need to begin to understand Towton and the War of the Roses.

The use of “Inherent Military Probability” is one aspect of Lewis’s work that readers will have to make up their mind about. Some of the comparisons resulting from IMP are thought-provoking. Others are more problematic. How much faith can we put in the experience of 11 re-enactors, who are fighting for fun, as establishing that heavily-armored warriors had to stop and rest every 14 minutes? It is one thing to show that the use of late medieval armour restricted movement and slowed down the battlefield action. It’s another to derive that very precise number from a limited set of data. I, for one, would like to know more about the rules that governed these re-enactments.

Medieval Military Combat is nicely produced, with one exception. It is well bound and printed and at a reasonable price. At some point, however, typos began to creep into the text, not misspelling of single words but the complete omission of entire words--an unfortunate flaw in a very good presentation.