Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
23.12.01 Titterton, Deception in Medieval Warfare

23.12.01 Titterton, Deception in Medieval Warfare

Studies of espionage and deception in military history have proliferated in recent years, and medieval scholars are now beginning to influence the conversation. James Titterton’s new book is a major contribution in this regard and will likely be a foundational text on deception in the Middle Ages for years to come. Well-written and easy to follow, the book presents several different aspects of the subject and bolsters them with representative examples from primarily western narrative sources and occasionally literary works. While it is not a comprehensive survey--the focus is explicitly on documents produced within the environment of England, France, and the Low Countries between 1000 and 1300--it should stimulate similar studies of other locales in medieval Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.

At the same time, the book offers a glimpse into the complexity of the subject and some of the pitfalls that lie within its study. Deception implies premeditation, which cannot always be proven because it is often hard to judge the intent of actors in medieval documents, particularly those making decisions on campaign and especially in the midst of combat. To clarify the subject and frame his analysis, Titterton offers a clear definition of military deception at the start: “deliberate attempts to deceive or mislead an enemy in order to gain a strategic or tactical advantage” (2). This seems eminently simple and reasonable at first glance. Looking again, however, how does one discern “deliberation?” Going further, how can one confidently determine whether a given tactic was deceitful in conception or, rather, simply the product of good military planning and execution? Titterton readily admits the difficulties posed by these sorts of questions, yet the conundrum nonetheless occasionally leads him into questionable interpretations.

He lays out his argument in nine chapters, cleverly modeled on the order of topics in Sextus Julius Frontinus’s first-century Strategemata (7). Each chapter introduces a general subset of deceptive activities, followed by discussion of its particular aspects and then representative examples. Chapter One, “Trickery in Medieval Culture,” surveys the general topic of deception and attempts to sort the historiography. Much of it centers on the reliability of types of medieval sources and their (and commanders’) use or disuse of Frontinus or the Epitoma rei militaris of Flavius Vegetius Renatus. For seasoned students of medieval warfare, it is summative and probably unnecessary; for the unacquainted, it makes useful observations about how to glean martial material from problematic source texts.

Chapter Two, “Military Intelligence,” explores deliberate techniques used by aggressors: misdirection (feints), misinformation (posturing, rumors, and lies), and espionage. [1] The discussion of the latter is somewhat fraught. Titterton initially seems unsure how to distinguish spies from scouts, for the Old French term espie can mean both (39). The line between the two is indeed fuzzy, even in modern contexts, but they are clearly not the same thing. Spies engage, individually, in both overt and covert intelligence collection, whereas scouts typically only the former and often in groups. Unlike espionage, scouting (i.e. reconnaissance) is a formal activity, a so-called “enabling operation” that seeks information on terrain, routes, and the enemy’s condition and disposition. Such operations “enable” a commander to develop a situation appropriately, maintain contact with the enemy, and/or establish freedom of maneuver. The question of exactly how to collect information is one of ethics, as Titterton stresses throughout. He therefore concentrates on examples in which “chroniclers explicitly describe deception being used to gather intelligence” (42), a good solution to be sure, and he does well to alert readers to how knowledge of medieval intelligence collection is highly reliant on how prejudiced sources judged the behavior of a given actor in a particular circumstance.

Chapter Three, “Element of Surprise,” covers ambushes and other types of what Titterton considers to be deceptive tactics, such as night raids and attacks at dawn. Here, I think he reaches too far because not all surprise attacks should be considered deceptive, contra his prior assertion in Chapter Two that “it is usually necessary to deceive the person you wish to surprise” (28). This is far too glib. Good planning and competent execution in movement and maneuver can create the necessary conditions for a surprise attack sans deception. Examples are tactical (refusals and flanks); operational (audacious gap crossings, movements-to-contact, reconnaissance-in-force, or stealing a march); and strategic (rapid mobilizations or fortress construction). Serendipity is often a factor, as is stupidity on the part of a surprised commander or military unit moving too fast or against orders. Indeed, surprise is usually a two-way street. Opponents caught off their guard are often just incompetent--perhaps they have neglected security operations (like guards or screens), conducted poor intelligence collection, or underestimated or misjudged their enemies. In other words, opportunistic generalship that takes advantage of a foe’s shortcomings need not employ deceit, even if cast as “shameful” behavior by chroniclers (who, as Titterton notes, were often inexpert).

Overgeneralization reduces the persuasiveness of the rest of Chapter Three and also Chapter Four. On ambushes, Titterton is spot on and provides an interesting discussion. Ambushes are certainly deceptive in nature, even when militarily expedient. His point that ambushes were part-and-parcel with medieval martial practices is critical--yet another retort to the tired yet persistent idea of “western way of war” preferences for formalized field actions (63). However, nighttime and dawn raiding--while often unexpected--are not necessarily deceptive if they constitute themodus operandi of a given force. Chapter Four, “The Feigned Flight,” centers on this particular sort of deceptive tactic and then offers examples of its execution in West and East. Acting as if routed, the enemy goads an opponent into a pursuit and subsequent encirclement. But while crusading armies, for example, may have been initially caught off guard by the tactic, it was so ubiquitous that it soon lost its deceptive qualities; the Itinerarium peregrinorum even admits that such “is the Turks’ habit” [2]. No longer deceived, crusade commanders could study and plan against the opposing force’s inclinations and train soldiers to maintain the sort of discipline required to maintain formation, either in field ranks or while on the march. If the cavalry charged anyway--such as at Hattin or Arsuf--it was often the result of frustration or desperation, not deception.

In Chapter Five, “Disguises,” Titterton explores several deceptive practices at both the individual and collective level. The section on infiltration--via incognito warriors sneaking into fortifications or in a fake funeral procession--is fascinating and contributes to our understanding of how crafty, stealthy operations could be carried out in the period. Individuals escaping from a fortress incognito, however, seem less related to warfare at the tactical or strategic levels. More germane is his discussion of armies falsely inflating their sizes via the multiplication of banners or the intermingling of livestock in the ranks. Here, Titterton might have expanded an already-useful analysis by examining the deeper operational purpose of such methods, which is really to deter armed conflict. The rest of the chapter centers on assorted verbal and material tricks and techniques to imitate an enemy’s war cries (and thus sow confusion), as well as disguising oneself during the course of battle to catch adversaries unawares or evade capture.

Chapters Six and Seven discuss the use of bribes, other financial inducements, and oaths and truces (and the breaking thereof). The tactic of bribery itself seems indirect: hoping the person accepting money will actually choose to betray an employer. Titterton comes closer when discussing oaths, where he is careful to distinguish between oaths broken out of expediency and those violated by design. The difficulty, he acknowledges, is that, unless sources expressly note that a deal was made in bad faith, judging its breaker’s motives is very difficult. Indeed, some of his examples, such as Philip Augustus’ reduction of castles in Normandy in 1195, seem more like commanders taking advantage of treaty loopholes than negotiating falsely.

The final two chapters move from tactics back to sources. Organizationally, they might have been better placed alongside the first chapter, in order to more fully combine and integrate questions about how and under what cultural and religious assumptions medieval authors wrote about deception. Chapter Eight, “The Language of Deception,” examines the terminology used by Orderic Vitalis, Walter the Chancellor, and William of Apulia when writing about deception. Vague and pliable terms like “craft” and “cunning” defy certain conclusions about their intent. Likewise, when discussing sieges, Titterton is skeptical about whether cunning really meant deception when it came to engineering, for which some authors describe simple creativity as a sort of trickery all its own. Finally, Chapter Nine, “The Morality of Deception,” considers deception in light of thejustus bellum (as expressed in both theological and legal texts) and political and social stereotypes. Certain ethnic groups were judged essentially deceptive in nature: the Welsh, Irish, Scots, Greeks, and Arabs/Turks. The Welsh discussion raises, again, the problem of distinguishing between deception and standard operating procedure: Gerald of Wales clearly knew the Welsh preference for ambushing and night fighting, but it was an open secret because King Henry II had personally encountered such tactics in two campaigns waged years beforehand (184).

A Conclusion and Appendix finish off the book. In the former, Titterton correctly disputes the assertions by modern military scholars (many of whom can hardly be bothered to read scholarship on medieval warfare published after 1980) that war in the period was all chivalry and formal field actions fought by unorganized, uncreative armies. Again, he admits to the ambiguity of the sources and urges caution about believing them too readily. The Appendix is an extremely useful list of every incident of deception located within his source material.

There is some excellent scholarship on display in several chapters, although it sits astride some curious omissions. There is nothing here on mercenaries, whose hiring and deployment were so often associated with unsavory methods in the period. Titterton’s frequent references to the Third Crusade lack citation to the three major recent books on it, and he curiously utilizes not John Gillingham’s authoritative 1999 biography of Richard the Lionheart but rather his 1989 study [3]. Also missing are some key books linking warfare to honor and shame, especially in regard to chivalry and knights [4]. Readers are left to speculate alone about the relative place of deception alongside other unsavory (and oft-denounced in the period) practices in war, such as pillaging, arson, torture, or execution of prisoners. In an interdisciplinary sense, he might have incorporated literature on medieval deceit in non-military contexts in order to better judge religious and social attitudes towards falseness during the period in general [5].

Deception in Medieval Warfare is a needed addition to specialized studies on the context of medieval warfare. Titterton has done well to provide military scholars with a glimpse into how medieval armies and commanders employed creative methods to gain advantages on campaign, in battle, and at siege. Whether or not all the methods he describes actually constitute deception, however, remains very much up for debate. It is the reviewer’s hope that this book stimulates further explorations into the finer aspects of medieval tactics, operations, and strategy, both in the West and beyond.



[1] See now Valentin Baricault, L'Espionnage au Moyen Âge (Paris: Passés composés, 2023).

[2] The Chronicle of the Third Crusade: The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, trans. H. J. Nicholson, Crusade Texts in Translation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 234-35.

[3] Stephen Bennett, Elite Participation in the Third Crusade, Warfare in History, 50 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2021); Jonathan Phillips,The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018); John D. Hosler, The Siege of Acre, 1189-1191: Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and the Battle that Decided the Third Crusade (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018); John Gillingham, Richard I (New Haven and London, 1999).

[4] See Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); and essays inKnighthood and Society in the High Middle Ages, eds. David Crouch and Jeroen Deploige (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2020).

[5] For example, Emily Corran, Lying and Perjury in Medieval Practical Thought: A Study in the History of Casuistry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).