Born to Kill: 'Warrior Races' in Medieval Europe: Len Scales Considers the Complex Role of Martial Skill in the Development of National Identity in the Middle Ages

By Scales, Len | History Today, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Born to Kill: 'Warrior Races' in Medieval Europe: Len Scales Considers the Complex Role of Martial Skill in the Development of National Identity in the Middle Ages


Scales, Len, History Today


'AMERICANS ARE from Mars and Europeans are from Venus', proclaims Robert Kagan in Paradise and Power. his provocative dissection of 'America and Europe in the New World Order'. published in 2003 at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Though steering clear of crude national stereotypes, Kagan seeks to show how events in the twentieth century conspired to lend American and European (by which he means primarily French and German) foreign policy fundamentally different, indeed incompatible, qualities. While Europeans bargain and prevaricate, Americans reach for their guns, he says. His book does not settle merely for describing; it ascribes and prescribes too, moving from observations about the present to predictions and proposals for the future.

What could be more strikingly of its time? But Kagan's style of argument, and aspects of the world vision and assumptions on which it draws, have some surprisingly remote precursors--in the European Middle Ages. Medieval people were similarly inclined to think in terms of a political order that was both global and constituted by distinct peoples, which were also units of politics. And they, too, believed that some of those peoples were fundamentally more disposed and qualified than others to bear the sword.

Though less scrupulous than Kagan about ascribing immutable collective characteristics to peoples and powers, medieval commentators showed, on occasion, a similar taste for shaping ideas about the distinguishing qualities of different populations into arguments that served the writers' own political convictions. Some of them clearly intended their words to reach the ears of the powerful, and to set the political agenda for the future. The lawyer Pierre Dubois (fl. c. 1300) was one who, in an age of French political and cultural ascendancy, grounded his king's power in an argument about the relative qualities of different populations. The disposition of the heavenly bodies, he argued, ensured that men conceived and born in the Paris region were 'better constituted, appointed and endowed than those of any other district'. The 'full spectrum dominance' in western Christendom, to which the French and their kings by this date aspired, was written in the stars. Most often, however, medieval observers found the decisive proof for their people's political destiny in a different place: on the battlefield.

Historians interested in medieval warfare often emphasize the allegedly international character of the military culture of the warrior classes; a culture in which descent, social rank, and personal mode of life were everything: a world of violent, high-status Games Without Frontiers. Students of medieval nationalities (a 'hot' topic among academics for some time now) have meanwhile given only modest attention to war as an element in definitions of common identity. They may emphasize the importance of war as a factor in forging solidarities; but less often mentioned is the enduring importance of war, and of violence more generally, as a component in the language of medieval political identity.

To underline the point, we need only to glance at the chronicles of that most characteristically 'medieval' form of war, the Crusades. We may remember the deeds of chivalric heroes like Bohemund, Godfrey and Tancred; medieval people did too, but they also wrote of 'God's Deeds done by the Franks', or the 'History of the Franks who took Jerusalem'. We see in the Crusades a religions struggle; medieval observers did too, but they also perceived clashing armies of distinct peoples. The author of the Gesta Francorum--'Deeds of the Franks'--has the Crusaders (Franks) joining battle not simply with non-believers but with 'Turks, Arabs, Saracens, Agulani, and all the barbarian peoples'. 'Barbarian peoples' is a stock phrase in medieval Latin, meaning 'pagans'; but it is also a revealing one.

Armies had provided the framework within which European 'nations' first formed, in the shadow of the Roman Empire. …

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