The Myths of Medieval Warfare

By McGlynn, Sean | History Today, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Myths of Medieval Warfare


McGlynn, Sean, History Today


The study of medieval warfare has suffered from an approach that concentrates on its social, governmental and economic factors to the detriment of military methods and practice. The nature of feudal society has been analysed in great depth, but its application to how wars were actually fought has largely been ignored and frequently misinterpreted. Despite recent important work these misinterpretations have been stubbornly persistent, perpetuating the long-held myth that the art of warfare reached its nadir in the Middle Ages. John Keegan's latest book, A History of Warfare (Hutchinson, 1993), reflects the view of some leading military historians in referring to ~the long interregnum between the disappearance of the disciplined armies of Rome and the appearance of state forces in the sixteenth century'. In The Wars of the Roses (Cassell, 1993), Robin Neillands regards knightly warfare as involving no great skill, being simply a matter of bludgeoning one's opponent to the ground. Whereas these and other historians have assimilated a number of the more correct observations on medieval warfare, the complete picture has remained frustratingly obscure.

That this should be so is due in the main to the success of the pioneering work of historians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among whom were Henri Delpech, Hans Delbruck and Sir Charles Oman. Oman's influence has been particularly pervasive because of the continuing availability of a work considered a classic, The Art of War in the Middle Ages (the first edition was published by Blackwells in 1885, with a ninth printing by Cornell University Press in 1990; the final revised and improved edition in two volumes was published by Methuen in 1924, reprinted by Greenhill in 1991). Although much of Oman's wide-ranging work was of value, his conclusions on ~feudal' warfare remained flawed. Ironically, both he and the distinguished historian, Ferdinand Lot, recognised the supreme importance of fortified places, but they concentrated instead on the appeal and drama of knights and battles.

Collectively, damaging myths of medieval warfare emerged from these historians. Battles were all important, fought by opposing armies of knights who would inadvertently encounter one another. The ensuing melee was a confusion of individual duels by glory-seeking knights set on establishing a martial reputation. The knight was ill-disciplined, too proud to fight on foot, adhered only to the most rudimentary tactics and was poorly led. No thought was given to logistics and ravaging was carried out for want of a coherent strategy. Infantry and archery, if present at all, were only marginal and ineffective, insignificant until the revolutionary tactics of the fourteenth century. The early modern period saw a new age in warfare, marked by the greater efficiency and tactics of the standing armies and by the prevalence of sieges.

Unfortunately, the study of medieval warfare has been dominated by general historians (military and otherwise), soldiers and enthusiasts whose neglect or uncritical use of the available primary sources has led to judgements formulated through inappropriate modern and comparative interpretations. The growth in governmental records in the later Middle Ages has provided a wealth of quantitative information on military matters, and the period has accordingly received more research than the eleventh to thirteenth centuries; but the potential of chronicles from this earlier period has not been fully exploited.

Despite his contributions to the subject, John Beeler wrote that the only literate class of the day were the clergy and monks who understandably' had little comprehension of military matters, and even less interst in ... strategy and tactics' (Warfare in Feudal Europe, Cornell University Press, 1971). This overlooks the evidence: William of Poitiers, Villehardouin and Joinville were just a few of the fighting men who wrote detailed accounts of war. …

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