Category Archives: Books

Merits of cynicism to historians, especially regarding wars

‘War is the continuation of politics by other means.’ Although not all conflicts can – or should – be explained in such terms (some arising from emotional and irrational origins), this interpretation is basically sound and judicious; it is particularly apposite to the Middle Ages. Beyond the political objectives, we must also unearth the financial ones: these are rarely buried deeply but are frequently obscured by the noble ideals and moral justifications proclaimed by the warring protagonists. Politics means power means money. It is only rarely dangerous that too much cynicism is harmful to the process of historical interpretation; it is usually the case that the more cynical one is the closer one arrives at the historical truth.

(Blood Cries Afar: The Forgotten Invasion of England 1216 by Sean McGlynn)

I couldn’t agree more.

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Business of war

Hurrah, I have finished the last 50 pages of David Parrott’s The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe. This is both the best and the worst book on early modern warfare that I’ve read in last 5 years.

It is the best because it debunks an unprecedented number of myths on mercenary armies, supply, evolution of state and other important issues.

It is the worst because of

huge over-complicated sentences that somtimes span across half a page, and in many places a simple thought is told in ten sentences instead of only one. That’s very uncomfortable after clear and vibrant style of authors like Hale or Mallett. But it’s not author’s fault: it’s editors of Cambridge University Press who did not earn their bread. So I have read it in small chunks of 20-40 pages, which took a long time.

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Filed under 16th century, 17th century, Books, War & society

How to describe a medieval battle

Here is a wonderful quote about creating battle narratives:

The reconstruction of a medieval battle is inevitably a tentative, cautious process. In the case of Stoke Field, the surviving printed sources and chance archaeological discoveries tell us only part of the story, and some writers have suggested that there is little merit in producing a version which is partly speculative and possibly inaccurate. John Gillingham’s comment that ‘many such maps [of the battle of Bos worth] have been drawn but, apart from the fun of making them, they are all quite worthless’ is still mentioned approvingly, although those who quote him and then go on to write about the battle invariably produce maps of their own!

Dr Michael K. Jones has argued that it is virtually impossible to determine the course of events in a medieval conflict and express them diagrammatically. ‘By piecing together a number of accounts, each from its own perspective, we can recapture some of the key moments and gather a sense of what took place (but) the order in which they took place, and the cause and effect between them, is ultimately unknowable’. The terrain, strategy and tactics are, he says, relevant ‘if available evidence allows them to be determined’; but it is more profitable to consider the intangible, the motivation and mindset of the principal combatants. ‘A surer sense of battle is to be found by focusing on why men fought’ rather than by drawing neat maps which can never adequately express the chaos of the melee.

It is, of course, entirely reasonable to examine, and indeed speculate upon, the wider, psychological aspects of a battle, but difficult to see how the thoughts of the soldiers (which are ultimately unknowable) can replace the verifiable reality of the landscape and the ways in which an army could, or could not, be deployed within it. The key to understanding a battle is surely to be found not in Jones’s ‘intangible’ but in a scientific and methodical approach to the surviving evidence, one which seeks to reconstruct the historic terrain and is based on a full archaeological survey, a careful examination and concordance of the surviving literary sources, and a knowledge of the military practices of the period. It should be possible to use both documentary evidence and soil sampling techniques to determine areas of cultivation, marsh, wood-land and the courses of roads and the river in the late-medieval era, and systematic fieldwalking by volunteers armed with metal detectors could lead to discoveries which would tell us much more about precisely where and how the battle was fought.

Taken from: Stoke Field: The Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses by David Baldwin (regardless of the title this is not a book about that battle, i.e. the battle itself is decribed very briefly while the main theme is who and why opposed Henry Tudor or fought on his side).

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Filed under 15th century, Books, Tactics

Random thoughts on old books

There is a strange feeling that I get after reading some classic works on military history. Many old authors are primarily important for historiography (history of the history, which is funny when you think about its ultimate utility), but there are still mysteries left on time-worn pages.
Sometimes in books of Delbruck, Oman, Taylor or Denison I stumble upon an interesting detail that seems plausible, but there are no footnotes or other directions for primary source of that detail. Where does it come from? A mystery.
We have to assume that Oman and Taylor were careful in their studies and most probably had some reason to insert that detail. Their reputation is solid, though works stand corrected. But it is a mauvais ton to quote Oman instead of primary source, so these details have to be left where they are, until we find their source.

However, I have to say to the old historians that omitting proper footnotes and bibliography was very uncourteous. Why, oh why…

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Filed under 16th century, Books

Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines


I couldn’t miss this new book on early modern wars. Author’s backlog was respectable enough to make me first-day-buyer (I heartily recommend his April’s Blood book about plot against Medicis). I have already finished it by now and here is a brief note (I do not consider myself competent enough for a detailed review).

The book is interesting and well written. The author had put some real emotions into the text, but kept it moderate, so the book is far from dry but is not too irksome in pushing of moral appraisals. However, I am subjective here, because I share most of author’s thought on state, war and their effect on society.
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Filed under 16th century, 17th century, Books, War & society