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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

David Potter

Renaissance France at War: Armies, Culture and Society, c. 1480-1560

Warfare in History 28. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008. 454 pp. $99/£60. ISBN 978-1843834052.

In 1494 Charles VIII of France led an army over the Alps to attack the ruler of Naples in pursuit of a number of rather hazily defined objectives. The march southwards was largely a triumphal procession that left political chaos and instability in its wake; the very scale of Charles’ success triggered reactions across Italy and beyond. The scene was set for repeated conflicts that saw France at war for most of the next sixty-five years.

David Potter’s substantial and densely documented study sets out to examine the impact of these years of warfare on the French military establishment and on French society more generally. In general, the tale he tells is not particularly surprising. Heavy cavalry remained at the core of French armies socially as well as militarily, though increasingly supplemented by light mounted units. Infantry grew in importance. Artillery became increasingly crucial on the field of battle but remained even more central to siege warfare, where its growing hitting power forced a massive—if somewhat piecemeal—programme of rebuilding fortifications from the English Channel to the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. The armies were supported by a relatively professional and competent bureaucracy, which might be able to undertake fairly realistic strategic and tactical planning but was unable to prevent growing arrears of pay and supply problems developing as the wars dragged on. Military discipline could be shaky but tended to improve over time. The publication of royal propaganda justifying conflicts and glorifying successes tended to become more sophisticated (though the overtly racist and anti-Semitic tone of some anti-Spanish propaganda comes as a surprise) and draw on new media like the commemorative medal, and appears to have found a degree of assent from a wider literate public amongst whom Erasmian pacifism had only a limited appeal. When peace came (provisionally at least) in 1559, however, it was a peace of exhaustion.

Overall Potter paints a broadly convincing picture. In some places he challenges conventional wisdom, seeking, for instance, to rescue the French infantry from the condescension of contemporaries and posterity alike by noting the development of what came to labeled the “old bands”. These undeniably effective units, however, appear to have come into existence almost un-noticed , growing out of volunteer units raised by individual nobles, especially in Gascony and Picardy. Centrally planned attempts to create a regular infantry force, whether the francs archers inherited from the fifteenth century or François I’s legions, were flops. Even with the “old bands”, however, the French army remained heavily reliant on Swiss and German mercenaries for its infantry (as indeed it did on Italians for military engineering), despite their defects. They were difficult to command, reluctant to do manual work during siege operations and inclined to threaten strike action if not paid—to the extent that their pay demands might impose unwise operational decisions on French commanders. Nevertheless they were still the best troops around and could be paid off at the end of the campaign season in a way Frenchmen could not easily be.

The major shortcoming in Potter’s study is a certain disregard for the operational aspects of warfare. While not entirely “military history without the battles”, this tends to be campaigning viewed from the paymaster’s tent, if not from the offices of the royal administration. As a result, there is little analysis and explanation of why, for instance, the battlefield performance of the French armies in the 1520s was so dire and why they appear to have made a better fist of things in the grinding siege-dominated warfare of attrition in the succeeding decades. While he has a good deal to say about the development of fortifications, there is very little concrete examination of actual sieges, either those laid by French forces or those sustained by French garrisons. Despite making use of the Memoirs of Blaise de Monluc, this is a rather muted and even bloodless account of distinctly colourful and bloody times.

When Potter does identify operational issues his judgements are sometimes debatable. The two factors that he identifies as altering the battlefields of the early sixteenth century are the use of field artillery and field fortifications. Clearly there were vastly more firearms of all sizes on the field of battle in the 1520s than there had been in the 1420s. On the other hand, field fortifications used in conjunction with such weaponry (in the shape of the Hussite wagenburg and its imitators further west) were already reshaping battlefield tactics at the earlier date. The difference is arguably one of scale rather than substance. Indeed Potter’s world, when viewed with eyes accustomed to the French armies of the fifteenth century, displays a lot of familiar features: a heavy reliance on mercenaries, with Swiss replacing the Scots; a tendency to manage the heavy cavalry compagnies d’ordonnance as much as a source of royal patronage as for military effectiveness; and problems over fraudulent musters and embezzlement of royal funds. Certainly the problems of the 1520s look very like those of a hundred years before: repeated defeats, collapse of discipline and the emergence of quasi-military brigandage on the model of the Ecorcheurs. Potter argues that discipline at least had greatly improved by the 1540s but, beyond reference to normative sources like Coligny’s code of discipline, does not explain how this had been achieved.

Potter is rather inclined to understate his conclusions. The reader is left to infer the impact of demands for taxation and supplies for the royal armies upon French society as a whole, as well as the longer-term consequences of the debts incurred to fight the wars for developments in the 1560s. The structure of the book also sometimes blurs his arguments. Important changes to pay and supply structures which tended to break up the fifteenth-century “lance” organisation of the compagnies d’ordonnance based on a distinction between men-at-arms and archers in favour of one in which all members were similarly equipped heavy cavalry are split up over three chapters. It is similarly hard to get an overview of royal “news management” and written propaganda, with relevant material scattered over several chapters. Despite its very wide range, some issues are left out: naval warfare is ignored, and even on land there is very little on French activities in Italy beyond Piedmont after the 1540s (Blaise de Monluc would not have appreciated the virtual omission of the epic siege of Siena), and even less on the French intervention in Scotland, even though both theatres weighed heavily on the royal finances. The “culture” of the title is largely confined to that of a tiny elite, though it is intriguing to find just how limited the visual depictions of warfare are by comparison with the sensational status enjoyed by Clément Jannequin’s onomatopoeic show-off piece to celebrate victory at Marignano, which had an even wider international career as the base for liturgical music than Potter suggests (it was still used to that end in mid-seventeenth-century Mexico).

Despite these quibbles this is a substantial and important study which will require careful attention from all those interested in Renaissance warfare.

Brian Ditcham

Independent Scholar <Brian.Ditcham@bis.gsi.gov.uk>

Page Added: August 2011