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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Yuval Noah Harari

Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History, and Identity, 1450-1600

(Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004). 240pp. $90/£50. ISBN: 1843830647

In a modern world in which television increasingly seems to serve up its coverage of the horrors of war much as it does any other “reality program”, the true reality of warfare seems forever lost except to those who bear the psychological stigmata of being eyewitnesses to the horrific “face of battle” and then living to talk of it. The complaint that war is often written of in glorified and extremely unrealistic terms stretches back to Thucydides and before. One source that may have lessened somewhat this misunderstanding of war as it actually exists, the battlefield memoir, has seldom been dignified by modern military historians as worthy of serious study. This gap is at least partially filled by Dr. Noah Harari’s fine monograph on war memoirs in late-medieval and Renaissance Europe.

In many ways, Harari sees the battlefield reminiscence as a form not held captive by its own time. He thus inserts into a single continuum works as diverse as the personal war accounts of Bernal Diaz and Olivier de la Marche in the sixteenth century and the more politicized remembrances of Ron Kovic and Norman Swarzkopf in the twentieth. He contends that despite the different ages in which these books were written, they were all composed in similar styles by authors of the same class and for much the same reason. No matter when these memoirs were penned, the authors set out to tell their personal stories of accomplishment and survival in the autonomous realm of the battlefield, a place that eerily stands outside the bounds of time and history. Since such writers claim to have suffered all the terrible shocks war can unleash on body and mind, the works they produced normally focus on how their war service changed them and do not constitute an accurate listing of the facts of any particular campaign. Far from being chronological, they attempt to recreate the kaleidoscope of emotions every warrior experiences in the midst of battle. A strain that runs through all the memoirs is that history’s rendition of war was designed to principally glorify the accomplishments of kings and generals who were often touched by war only indirectly. The works that Harari focuses on, however, were principally written by captains or common-soldiers who set out to tell the “real story”—not in historiographical, but in personal terms. The motivation of these old soldiers for such lengthy and complicated projects was to counter the very misunderstanding and misinformation about war they encountered in the civilian populations they were trying to re-enter. In re-telling their war stories, however, the authors of the memoirs often strayed from their averred purpose of “setting the record straight” to commemorate their own “good deeds of arms”, while providing life lessons concerning manhood and honor drawn from warfare for those who had no personal knowledge of it. Because of the personal vantage point of the memorialists, the events of campaigns often ran together and became badly confused with the authors’ retelling of them. This confusion often manifested itself in the distortion of the authors’ memories and the apparent illogical organization of these works.

Despite the anomalies of the accounts he discusses, readers will find Harari’s own work very well-organized and well-written. He effectively makes the case that, despite a viewpoint which is ahistorical or even ant-historical, the late-medieval and Renaissance memoirs are important for a number of historical specialties. For the military historian, they provide a human face to long-past battles which are often discussed by professional historians as if they were a package of abstract military events. For psycho-historians, the memoirs constitute an invaluable, though imperfect, snapshot of the effect of war on the human psyche and personality. For scholars of who use the historical record to recapture in part the most ephemeral aspects of mankind’s connection to the past, the human memory, the memoirs establish a very personalized record of the sojourn into the “land of war” and back. The memories that soldiers were endowed with from this experience and how hey elaborated them will be extremely interesting for scholars of the human dynamics of remembering and fashioning the past.

One of the weaknesses of the memoirs (which Harari is quick to point out) is their viability as historical sources. As students of the American Civil War have sadly discovered in the last few decades, the over-reliance on such accounts of the battlefield “reality” can often obscure rather than clarify the historical record. As one modern scholar puts it, investigating past campaigns solely from the viewpoint of the soldier in the field is fraught with intellectual dangers, since old soldiers not only can but do exaggerate and even lie. Despite such shortcomings of the memoirs, Dr. Harari is to be congratulated for a clear and effective treatment of a body of work which will surely spawn further research into the chimera of battlefield experience in both the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance.

Donald J. Kagay

Albany State University <dkagay@asurams.edu>

Page Added: January 2005