Saturday 15 August 2020

Granddaddy Oman

I have commented before on the idea that in any scholarly community, there is a work which is the one everyone starts from. Last week I commented on Stenton’s work on Anglo-Saxon England. This week it is the turn of another ‘old school’ scholar, Sir Charles Oman.

I recently discussed, in fact, Oman’s ‘Art of War in the Sixteenth Century’, with the comment that despite complaints about it, no-one has actually managed to produce a work that replaces it, and so it is still in print, much to the chagrin of serious military historians who think that its ‘drums and trumpets’ approach gets them a bad reputation in the serious academic historian areas. It is quite likely that it does.

Still, I have recently read another of Oman’s tomes (or perhaps it is the other):

Oman, C. W. C., History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages (Uckfield: Naval and Military Press, 1924).

I managed to get this two-volume work for a decent price in the Naval and Military Press (for it is they who have published a facsimile) New Year sale, and have just about managed to finish reading it. Volume one is from 378 – 1278 AD, and Volume to covers 1278-1485. It is an interesting if slightly irritating read.

Firstly, the irritations are comparatively minor. Oman has a habit, probably widespread at the time, of referring to Muslim armies and commanders as ‘the infidel’. I am almost certain that this terminology would not be printable today, but it does suggest a certain mind-set. Again, Oman spends a great deal of time dealing with British and specifically English warfare. For a lot of the time English warfare, that is, warfare in England was neither terribly distinct from other European warfare nor terribly interesting. Of course, Edward III’s army did somewhat leap out the cupboard unexpectedly in France in the 1340s, but the arrow storm was hardly unprecedented.

So apart from the orientation to Christendom and being somewhat Anglo-centric, Oman does an interesting job. His major argument is that, in the art of war, the light horse archer was mainly dominant in the earlier part of the period. As a response to the invasion of Europe, the castle and other defences were created which blunted the effect of the lights, but also meant that the defence of fortifications became dominant over the offence, at least until effective gunpowder siege artillery came on the scene in the fifteenth century.

The other major theme running through the latter part of the period is, of course, the annoying habit of European knights of charging off in all directions. You can almost sense the author’s despair as another lot of Crusaders go down to feigned flight and overextension by the heavy cavalry. Even Richard I nearly suffered from it at Arsuf.

I mentioned before the problems I had in my rule sets of the interaction between foot and horse archers. This stems from a comment Oman makes to the effect that horse archers detest foot ones because they are outranged by them. This is, in fact, the lesson of Arsuf – the steady fire of the Crusader crossbowmen meant that the army could not be worn down by the horse archers, so Saladin had to commit the rest of the army before the Crusaders were demoralised and disorganised. That meant, of course, that the shock troops of the Crusaders got a decent crack at the Muslim (aka ‘infidel’) army.

I may have mentioned before the idea of reducing the ranges of the horse archers to bring them into range of any passing foot archer. I did try that out in a battle based around Otranto, but (if I get around to writing it up) the battle itself did not give much enlightenment. And anyway, I have changed my mind. There is a simpler answer – if foot archers are being skirmished by horse archers, they can simply shoot back for effect in their own bound. After all, the model for skirmishers is of small packets of men galloping up to the enemy and shooting. If they return to their lines looking like porcupines the rest are likely to be less enthusiastic in having another go.

Anyway, I digress (sort of). The latter part of the period saw the resurgence of infantry – the Swiss, the English and the Hussite. These exploited the propensity of the noble classes to attack them, even once the said noble classes had decided that dismounting was a good idea. This actually seems to relate to the idea that armies reflect the societies from which they come. The very idea that a commoner, possibly even a serf and certainly a peasant, could stand up to a noble was anathema to the society of the time. Famously, the Second Lateran Council attempted to ban the use of the crossbow so that peasants could not dispose of their betters.  Shooting crossbows at ‘infidels’ was, of course, permitted. Unfortunately, that led to a large number of Crusades being declared, as heretics were beyond the law in these sorts of respects. So everyone could ignore it anyway.

Is it a good book? Well, yes. I confess that I enjoyed it. It is well written and easy to follow, and in fairly small chunks, so I could pick it up and put it down easily. I confess that I did get a bit lost in the account of Bannockburn, but it was rather a lengthy chapter by comparison with some of the others. Oman also ignores the effects of naval warfare – I think he mentions the problems the English losing control of the Channel in the Hundred Years War caused them, but on the whole, I suppose there was not a great deal of strictly naval warfare going on at the time. I have also griped before about his ending of the period at 1485, although he does confess that this chops the Reconquista up. On the other hand, given his location in space and time, when else would he have given the medieval the chop?

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