Medieval Warfare: A History by Maurice Keen (ed) - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

An Archer Could Beat the Knight in Armour

Medieval Warfare: A History


Oxford University Press 340pp £25 order from our bookshop

This is a series of thirteen essays designed to bring before the general reader the fruits of the latest research on medieval warfare. After half a dozen chapters, laid out chronologically from the Carolingians in France to the end of the Hundred Years War (with a brief coda on the years 1453–1526), the book switches to themes, including arms and armour, castles, mercenaries, non-combatants, naval battles and the coming of new technologies such as guns and gunpowder. The emphasis is overwhelmingly on Western Europe, and in this respect the book’s title is a misnomer. More significant military successes in the Middle Ages were gained by the Mongols, the Turks (both Seljuk and Ottoman) and the Byzantines, all of whom feature in this book largely as ‘noises off’.

The most potent image of medieval warfare is the knight in armour. The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena, who observed Norman knights during the First Crusade, wrote in the Alexiad that the mounted ‘Frank’ was irresistible ‘so long as the opposition everywhere gives ground’. As John Gillingham remarks in his essay, historians have usually missed this crucial proviso. Cavalries were devastating when pursuing and ‘mopping up’ a defeated enemy after a battle, but their usefulness during the battle has been wildly exaggerated. In fact, faced with a resolute infantry, knights invariably retreated in disarray. This has been obscured by the medieval chroniclers. Aristocrats themselves, they recorded the deeds of their mounted peers and played down the achievements of the foot soldiers, who came from a lower social class.

As the contributors to this volume make clear, it was the archers who usually decided the outcome of medieval battles. This was the case at Courtrai (1304), Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). The cavalry could be decisive if a charge was launched at exactly the right

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