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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Vesey Norman

The Medieval Soldier

Pen & Sword Military Classics. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2010. 288 pp. $24.95 / £12.99. ISBN: 9781848842045.

With The Medieval Soldier, Vesey Norman aims to explain the organization of Western Europe’s military system during a period that lies between the establishment of barbarian kingdoms in previous territories of the Roman Empire and the fourteenth century. It is undeniably a huge task for such a book, yet Norman tackles it despite the difficulties. In order to reach his purpose, the author divides his book in two parts. In the first third of the book Norman explores the development of the first feudal (or proto-feudal) armies through the analysis of four groups (Lombards, Franks, Vikings, and Saxons). In the latter part, Norman goes deeper in his study by exploring both the concepts of feudalism and chivalry, using both a conceptual approach and the presentation of empirical data.

The first part of the book is quite clear. In four chapters, each of them dedicated to the study of the one of the barbarian peoples, the author attempts to understand the evolution of medieval warfare in different environments. The Lombards constitute the first chapter, though oddly the author didn’t say too much about them. In chapter 2, Norman analyses the military evolution of the Franks from barbarian war-bands to an organized army under a new hierarchical system which developed in their kingdom (i.e., feudalism). As the author says, the “essence of feudalism which developed from these beginnings can be summed up as, “no privileges without obligations, no duties without rights.” (25) He also draws attention to the military reforms of Charlemagne and the development and deepening of feudalism as a consequence of his campaigns. In chapter 3, Norman evaluates the contribution of the Vikings to medieval warfare, with a special emphasis given to their arms and their evolution. In the last chapter of the first part of the book, the author pays attention to the Saxons and their successful establishment in Britannia. As he does for the other peoples, he also explores the issue of their weaponry, observing their evolution and the consequent changes in Saxon weaponry as a result of foreign influences (such as their adoption of the Danish axe).

The second part of the book starts with a chapter about the concept of feudalism. The author develops ideas presented in previous chapters and shows the complexity of the mature feudal system through its study in diverse contexts such as England or Germany. Chapter 6 is related to the main characteristics and organization of this system: in eight sub-topics, Norman explains how feudalism dealt with issues like homage, service, castle-guard, scutage, mercenaries, military command, ordinances of war, and the development of military forces in England. It is interesting to see the attention given by the author to the Latin Kingdoms in the Levant, or Crusaders States. In chapter 7, Norman raises questions of chivalry and knighthood and the evolution of the knight, from a mere cavalryman to a member of a hereditary caste, is the core issue of this section. Moreover, the author goes further by considering changes in the ideals of chivalry with the introduction of Christian values. Finally, he examines the question of tournaments, first as part of military training, practice combats and private exercises, and then as public spectacles.

In chapter 8, the author attempts to outline the main military orders present in Middle Ages: the Knights of Hospital, the Knights of the Temple, and the Teutonic Knights, but also very briefly to other orders existing in Spain at the time of Reconquista (Knights of Calatrava; Knights of St. Julian del Pereyro; and the Knights of St. James [of Santiago]). The last four chapters of his book highlight a specific  and important context in which the medieval soldier participated: the Crusades. Therefore, chapter 9 is a summary of the first crusade (1096-1099) and the next chapter presents the following crusading campaigns. In chapter 11, the author examines the arms and armor of the crusaders and in the last chapter Norman briefly described the ships used by crusaders. This picture is still useful to understand sailing in Northern countries like England as well as the Mediterranean (e.g., Venice).

The first impression I got when I began to read The Medieval Soldier was a feeling of déjà-vu. It was like Vesey Norman’s book was just another book about this subject. However, and despite some similarities with other studies of medieval warfare, it seems that The Medieval Soldier has something different from the others. This difference resides in the fact that it focuses on a specific and, perhaps, the most important aspect of medieval culture of war: the soldier, the one who was in the centre of fighting and battles. Is it something new? Well, maybe it was a novelty in 1971, when it was first published. Today, Norman’s book cannot be seen as something new in the field of medieval warfare studies. Due to the fact that The Medieval Soldier is a reprint, it is in partly out of date as reflected in its bibliography, which is deficient in more recent studies about this topic. Missing are books like Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World: Equipment, Combat Skills and Tactics of Matthew Bennett, Jim Bradbury and Kelly DeVries (2006); Medieval Warfare of Helen Nicholson (2004); Warfare and Society in Barbarian West, 450-900 of Guy Halsall (2003); Medieval Warfare: A History, edited by Maurice Keen (1999); or Medieval Military Technology of Kelly DeVries (1992), just to refer to some of them. This lack of up-to-date references can be seen as negative, especially for those who look to complement this reading with other points of view and perspectives. Of course, any specialist of medieval warfare, scholar or not, will be partially disappointed. It doesn’t mean that this book has no merit; on the contrary, Norman contribution to the understanding of the evolution of the medieval soldier is extraordinary. And because it focuses on the soldier and not exclusively on his arms and armor, or in a particular geographical or chronological context, it must be praised as a significant contribution to this field. Based on the analysis of surviving weapons and armor as well as on medieval documents, the author was able to present the medieval soldier in a nutshell, almost. In fact, what I appreciate the most in Norman’s book was the capacity of the author to be very clear in his statements and this permanent reference to medieval sources and archaeological evidences. To conclude, The Medieval Soldier is still a very interesting book for both scholars and students of the history of medieval warfare, but also for all of those who are interested in this subject.

Daniel Rodrigues

Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal <dmrodrigues_296@hotmail.com>

Page Added: October 2010