'The Wars in France'

Article excerpt

The Hundred Years War. Volume I: Trial by Battle. Faber and Faber $34.95. Volume II: Trial by Fire. University of Pennsylvania Press. $45.00 Both by Jonathan Sumption.

"The Hundred Years War," as every student of the Middle Ages knows, is an historical fiction. The reference is not to a single war that lasted a hundred years, as if anyone could conceive of such a thing, but to an artificially defined period of intermittent hostilities, chiefly between the kings of France and England, in the 14th and 15th centuries. The phrase has no contemporary validity, since men of the period had no idea how long the fighting would last. For them, it was simply "the war," or "the expedition," or "the wars in France." In fact, as a periodic concept, it is apparently no older than the early 19th century. A suggestion can be found in Henry Hallam's famous history, A View of the State of Europe in the Middle Ages, first published in 1818: "It was a struggle of one hundred and twenty years broken only once by a regular pacification." By mid-century the idea was well enough established so that Edward Freeman could write approvingly that "the French are perfectly right in speaking of the whole time from Edward the Third to Henry the Sixth as The Hundred Years War."

In 1875 Guizot used "La Guerre de Cent Ans," as a chapter heading in his Histoire de France, and three years later J.R. Green took it for one of his in the History of the English People. This useful, if misleading, phrase soon passed into the school books and scholarly monographs where it has remained in triumphant authority ever since, steadfastly resistant to the assault of any force of reason to dislodge it. The impression that it referred to a unique period in European history was further enhanced by giving it a beginning in 1337, when Edward III claimed the crown of France, and an end in 1453, when the English lost the battle at Castillon and surrendered to the French. It was, moreover, fixed in popular historical memory by the great English victories at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, by the heroic figures of the Black Prince, Henry V, and Joan of Arc, and by the colorful chivalric narrative of Jean Froissart. Like the terms "Middle Ages," "Renaissance," "Early Modern," and many others invented after the fact and in which improbability has been disguised by familiarity, "The Hundred Years War" has come to have a life of its own, a moment in time which is now immediately intelligible through the force of what is taken to be its own inner logic. So Theodor Meron in Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws, published in 1993, could reassert the unwitting anachronism that "The Hundred Years War broke out in 1337," while Desmond Seward in his popular history, The Hundred Years War, reissued in paperback in 1999, invited his readers to believe that "It is arguable that the Hundred Years War was medieval England's greatest achievement." That the concept is, indeed, a pleasant deception is not difficult to demonstrate. A perfectly reasonable case, moreover, if not a persuasive one, could be made for a "Three Hundred Years War" from 1200, when the English king held more lands in France than the French king, to 1500, when he had lost everything except Calais; or, on a grander scale, for a "Seven Hundred Years War" from Hastings to Waterloo. But "The Hundred Years War," for better or worse, is here to stay, and as is so often the case in historical writing, accuracy must curtsy to convenience. In truth, it would be hard to find another phrase that puts the student so quickly into the martial spirit and diplomatic struggles of those particular years. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that rather than choose a title that is informative and dull, say, "The Anglo-French Wars in the Late Middle Ages," or lively and fashionable, "A Band of Brothers: the English in France: 13371453," Jonathan Sumption adheres to tradition, and such is the force of the familiar that before we open his book we know more or less where we are going to be, whom we are going to meet, and what we are going to do. …