Friday, 11 May 2001

Jonathan Sumption: The Hundred Years War: Trial by Battle (1990)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 820

In England, the Hundred Years' War is chiefly remembered for the victories of Crecy and particularly Agincourt. There was a great deal more to the war - or, more properly speaking, series of wars - and it had important consequences for the development of both the French and English states, and on the conception of these states by their inhabitants (as immortalised by Shakespeare, Agincourt was still used in Second World War propaganda).

Sumption's history of the war, of which this is the first volume, is an old fashined narrative history, if more concerned with matters like finance than earlier or more sketchy descriptions. It assumes a fair amount of knowledge of the generality of medieval history, and concentrates instead on a detailed study of the causes of the war and its earliest phase (this volume, about six hundred pages, only covers the admittedly complex events of the period 1328-1347, along with the background which sets the scene).

The major thing which comes across from this particular book is just how difficult medieval administration was. Lack of information meant that governments had little idea what could be afforded by their countries; poor communications made it difficult to gather troops; tax systems in their infancy made it difficult to collect money, especially when military defeat provoked opposition; and France in particular was an extremely complex collection of smaller communities, each with different traditions, laws and privileges (far greater unity was one of the eventual effects of the war), making it impossibly to impose any taxes or conscript armies with any degree of uniformity across the nation.

These difficulties explain why gains and losses in this stage of the war tended to be impermanent; each side could take territory when they could spend money in one place, but this would quickly be lost when the money ran out. Magnates changed sides when their expenses went unpaid, and soldiers and sailors frequently refused to fight unless their own homes were in danger.

This is an excellent history, with the same feeling for the Middle Ages shown by Sumption's portrait of the church, Pilgrimage. A must for anyone interested in the period.

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