Saturday, 21 November 2020

Armies, Chivalry and Warfare

It is one of those odder aspects of writing this blog that, as a wargame blog, the actual wargames seem to be of less interest than my musings on history and historiography, at least according to the statistics which Google records of views. Of course, they are highly dubious sorts of statistics, a bit like counting how many friends you have from your Facebook page.

Nevertheless, those posts with less wargame content, such as the posts about Stanton and Oman, get less attention, even from Russian ‘bot nets, than wargames and toy soldiers, even odd ones like Hussites. Mind you, there are two issues at least here: firstly, originally, the blog was notorious for not having many pictures of toy soldiers on it, largely because I was not playing many wargames at the time, and secondly, I do have a tendency to skip over other people’s wargame reports myself, so I imagine most others do the same.

Anyway, after a spate of actual wargame reports, it is time for a bit more historiography. I have been reading:

Strickland, M. (Ed.) (1998). Armies, Chivalry and Warfare in Medieval Britain and France. Stamford: Paul Watkins.

As the title implies, this is an edited volume of academic papers, actually the proceedings of a symposium in 1995, which itself is part of a series. As an academic tome, of course, the price was high, but with twenty essays at two pounds apiece, you cannot really argue.

I got the book largely because it has a companion piece on ‘waste’ in the Domesday Book to the one in ‘The Medieval Military Revolution’ which I wrote about a few weeks ago. That focussed on the south and whether you can track the movement of armies via statements of waste. This one focusses more on the north and the extent of devastation wrought by the Harrying of the North.

Having bought the book, however, it seemed impolite as well as expensive just to read the one essay. It being a compilation of pieces it covers a wide range of stuff, ranging from the influence of Constantinople on Welsh castles, how field armies in Normandy were organised during the English occupation, tournaments in Scotland and a plethora of others. For those of us who are dilettantes in the ways of academic history, some of it is interesting, some of it is a bit ‘why did you write about that?’ but mostly it is fascinating, trying to get beyond the drums and trumpets of military history so beloved of wargamers to something that might indicate exactly how and why people fought and what they, and their society, thought about it.

How people thought about was is, of course, where the middle bit of the book’s title cones in. Chivalry, in its various forms, informed how war was conducted, or how people thought it should be conducted, at least at the higher levels of society. Sonya Cameron’s artilce on Chivalry in Barbour’s Bruce notes that there was an ambiguous relationship between the concepts of chivalry as being courteous to your enemies, never being mean or underhand and so on, and the way that the Scots under Bruce actually fought. Indeed, there is an implication at some points of the poem that those who did fight chivalrously were being, well, a bit thick. Not only that but, if they decided to fight rather than run away when the odds were against them, as some did on both sides, they had a tendency to land up dead.

The problem with books such as this is you land up with a whole load more stuff on you aspirational reading list. For example, Tony Goodman makes a ‘preliminary survey’ of the defence of Northumberland. Those who know me will be aware that I have an interest in the Scottish Borders, and so this was an interesting read. The only problem is that it added about half a dozen items to my reading list, on a topic – the medieval borders – which I am not sure I really want to make a focus. As I tell my students from time to time, you need to read with a question in mind, not just because a text you have read directs you to it. On the other hand, that is a suggestion for research students, not for hobby reading.

Still, for the real hardcore wargamer, there are essays of interest. Kelly De Vries describes the ‘forgotten’ battle of Bevershoulsveld, and suggests that gunpowder was an important factor. In fact, he argues that it was the first battle in which gunpowder was a significant factor. Perhaps it is not quite such a forgotten battle, as Bert Hall mentions it in Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe, but pretty obscure, nevertheless. In case you were wondering, the battle was fought on 3rd May 1382.

Matthew Bennett follows that with a discussion of the ‘myth’ of the supremacy of knightly cavalry. Cavalry, he argues, did become more important as the medieval period developed. Hastings is often pointed to as being the point at which infantry yielded the battlefield to the knight, but Hastings was an unusual battle. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that all battles are unusual and we cannot, therefore, compare one battle with another a delimit the ascendency of the knight, or the longbow, or any other weapon system, for that matter. Bennett makes two points which I think might be useful for wargame rules writers: up to the invention of the bayonet and platoon firing, foot could not advance on cavalry with expectation of success; conversely, cavalry could not make any impression on foot that kept their formation.

I could go on, of course, at some length. But the point to be made here is that even modern military history can make interesting observations about things pertaining to the drums and trumpets required to write wargame rules or play wargames. If anyone exhibits any interest in the above bits, I might write a more detailed account of the essays. In fact, I might anyway, just because they are interesting in their own right.


  1. "I might write a more detailed account of the essays. In fact, I might anyway, just because they are interesting in their own right." I'd be up for reading more on that.

    But don't leave it too long before the next instalment of your Ferdie and Izzie series. I'm dying to find out if he gets lucky. Dynastic imperatives and all that.

    1. Of course, I need no further incentive than someone threatening to read what I write...

      There is another F & I approaching, but it is at a distance presently.