Thursday, 11 February 1999

Philippe Contamine: War in the Middle Ages (1980)

Translation: Michael Jones, 1984
Edition: Blackwell, 1984
Review number: 207

Philippe Contamine's survey is designed to cover a subject that for many other historians might almost as well not exist. There is a stereotyped view of medieval warfare which makes it seem hardly worthy of study: it is seen as lacking in strategic and tactical thinking, consisting of poorly armed peasants hacking at each other with agricultural implements while a ludicrous knightly caste engaged in empty charades of chivalric encounters covered in so much armour they could hardly move.

Like all stereotyped ideas, there are elements of truth and fiction in this view; at the very least, it should be remembered that the thousand year span of the Middle Ages is sufficiently long and Western Europe sufficiently vast and fragmented that few generalisations hold over the area or period as a whole. Contamine's aim is to produce a concise account of the main features of warfare in the Middle Ages, avoiding unwarranted generalisation.

The book is arranged in three parts, including a comprehensive (and lengthy) bibliography. The first part is a chronological survey from the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire to the advent of the first professional armies at the end of the fifteenth century. The second consists of various thematic essays, covering topics such as arms and armour, fortification, tactics and a history of the ideal of courage.

It is in the first part that the limitations imposed by the desire to write a short treatment of such a massive subject become apparent. At almost every turn, there is more that could be said. Even to list the major campaigns of the Middle Ages would take more space than Contamine has allowed himself - though of course his purpose is not to attempt anything so pointless but to show how warfare affected the political and economic situation and how warfare itself changed. Even with the concision attempted by Contamine, War in the Middle Ages is a long book.

The second part is the most interesting, particularly the sections dealing with the theoretical aspects of war, which are less well covered elsewhere. The chapter on courage, looking at how ideas of what should be praised as courage and its relationship to the other chivalric virtues attributed to knights, attempts something very different and unusual.

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