De Re Militari | Book Reviews

(ed.)

From Crecy to Mohacs; Warfare in the Late Middle Ages (1346-1526)

Acta of the 22nd Congress of the International Commission for Military History (Vienna:Heeresdruckerei, 1997) 408pp. No Price/ISBN ISBN xxx .

[for De Re Militari's online table of contents and selected articles, please see
<http://www.deremilitari.org/resources/articles/crecymohacs.htm>]

Collections of conference papers are a notoriously difficult genre to publish in a satisfactory manner. The present volume will do little to silence sceptical voices which doubt whether the exercise is worthwhile. A simple statistic gives some idea of the problem; 32 papers in some 380 pages. Inevitably papers are short and mostly superficial. The Conference theme was too general to impose cohesion on contributors and in any event many papers go well beyond the nominal chronological limits. There is no named editor and no sign of an editorial hand, which might have weeded out howlers like the supposed Spanish naval raid on "Wallsingham" in 1377 (278) and the attribution of the French Ordonnance of 1445 to Louis XI (350) or pointed out that the same anecdote about the engineer Urban's gun tests in Adrianople/Edirne recurs in two contributions (174 and 285).

Apart from Liu Lumin's eulogy to the first Ming Emperor (warranted for soundness by reference to Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin) the geographical focus of the papers is European. There is a certain central European weighting; sadly several of the papers relating to that region come with visible nationalist agendas (e.g. Cemalettin Taskiran's impossibly idealised account of the Ottoman Army in 1526 or Mircea Dogaru's footnote war over the status of Transylvania in his account of the diplomatic fancy footwork undertaken by the rulers of the "Romanian" principalities before and after Mohacs). Naval warfare gets short shrift (a pedestrian account by Jose Maria Blanco Nunez of 14th century Spanish naval operations in the Hundred Years War which almost ignores the substantial participation of Castilian ships in the 15th century period of the conflict and Hugo O'Donnell's description of the Spanish Mediterranean galley fleet in the 16th century). Fortifications do little better; Vladimir Seges produces interesting material on the role of towns in the northern part of the Hungarian kingdom (now Slovakia) in the years round 1500 but Efpraxia Paschalidou's piece on the walls of Constantinople is little more than a re-telling of the 1453 siege. Strategy and tactics get a couple of the better papers; Clifford Rogers expounds his views on the dominance of the tactical defensive in late medieval warfare and Matthew Bennett re-examines the way in which English archers were deployed in battle. His paper would however have benefited from some graphics to clarify his argument that there was more flexibility in this matter than is sometimes assumed and jumps abruptly from Agincourt to Elizabethan military theorists, ignoring everything which happened in between.

The bulk of the contributions fall roughly into three groups. One is made up of narrative accounts of battles or campaigns. The most interesting papers deal with unfamiliar actions. Luc de Vos examines the Burgundian victory over the Gent city militias at Gavere in 1453 (though it is hard to see much justification for the paper’s sub-title "The Triumph of Organisation" when it is clear that the Burgundian victory was due primarily to the accidental detonation of the Gentenaars' gunpowder stocks in mid battle). Erik Wihtol recounts the Swedish/Finnish victory over a Russian invasion at Joutselka in 1555 involving the use of ski troops (the parallel with 1940 is explicitly made). Marek Plewczynski discusses the almost uniformly unsuccessful campaigns of Johann Albrecht of Poland in Hungary, Moldavia and against the Turks in the 1490's as the spur for an increasing reliance on paid professional troops.

This leads to the second group of papers, which deal with the changes to warfare in the late medieval centuries- the arrival of gunpowder weaponry, increasing professionalisation of armies and, in conventional historiography, the rise of infantry (though Plewczynski's paper illuminates a rather different world where professionalisation was predominantly cavalry based). Kelly de Vries examines early artillery records to argue that the monster bombards created for Mehmet II were already obsolescent in the 1450's. Cormac O'Cleirigh's account of changes in Irish frontier warfare in the 15th and early 16th centuries shows how gunpowder impacted even on military cultures far removed from the fields of France or Italy normally seen as the proving grounds for "modern " warfare. In one of the best papers in the collection, Leopold Auer sketches military developments in the territories of modern Austria; a world of early military professionalisation among the minor nobility but one where units remained small scale, knights proved extremely reluctant to fight on foot (unlike their English or French contemporaries) and the influence of Hussite war wagons provoked a wider social range of recruitment into military service. This piece overlaps with Bernhard Kroener's paper on the rise and fall of the German Landsknecht; another interesting piece, though one which at times seems to contradict itself over the precise social origins of the men involved. This is one paper which would have benefited from more space to resolve the complexities of its subject.

Finally there are a small number of papers on cultural issues. These tend to the superficial (it is hardly news that there are lots of references to warfare in Shakespeare or that Cervantes' writings echo his own military experiences). Easily the best comes from Philippe Contamine on the neglected subject of military music in late medieval France. His conclusions are cautious- he thinks there were standard trumpet calls which could transmit orders or give signals but that most orders were still conveyed by voice at least until the end of the 15th century, when the influence of the Landsknecht drum (itself arguably a response to the growing noise of a battlefield full of firearms) was felt. This is a fascinating paper which raises a wide range of questions; for instance, just how were orders transmitted on the medieval battlefield and how (if Clifford Rogers is right to argue that medieval troops advanced into battle in step) was the beat given before drummers became an integral element in armies? Sadly it is one of the few quality items in a disappointing collection which does all too little to open up new perspectives on a crucial period in the development of warfare.

Brian G.H. Ditcham

Independent Scholar <jasminjo2@aol.com>

Page Added: September 2004