Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A kind review from Phil Paine

Phil has written a short review of my book Deeds of Arms. I reprint it here largely because it contains one beautiful passage I wish I'd written, and which I will want to refer to in the future:

(Steven Muhlberger) Deeds of Arms ― Formal Combats in the Late Fourteenth Century

Steve has outdone himself with this parvum opus. It's an exemplary work of focused history, with everything there in the right quantities and proportions. Medieval western Europe was a military society in which tournaments --- group or single combat done by rules and for the display of prowess --- had a profound significance, affecting far more than their immediate participants. Success in deeds of arms could bring more mere celebrity. In a society where aristocracy justified itself itself primarily by courage in battle, it was the key to upward mobility and power. Learning how this kind of combat nullo interveniente odio (without rancor) was done and celebrated gives us insight into how medieval society worked. The Middle Ages, especially its upper reaches of power, smelled of blood, sweat, dung and horses. This book is a fine antidote to those that retrofit the era with a kind of abstract geopolitical aura, something like an EU Barosso Comission report delivered by board members unaccountably wearing hose and plate armor. Those who have only a passing interest in chivalry or deeds of arms will find this book refreshingly compact, clear and informative. Those with a deeper interest will not find it wanting in depth of scholarship and understanding.


  1. Anonymous4:01 pm

    You boldfaced the sentence: "The Middle Ages, especially its upper reaches of power, smelled of blood, sweat, dung and horses."
    This sounds like something out of "A World Lit Only By Fire". Or Monty Python. I was surprised to see it here.
    Yes, a percentage of the nobility did take part in tournaments and a small (smaller?) percentage took part in war. But even during the Hundred Years War, I think it's been estimated that this percentage was maybe 2 (two) percent of the aristocracy of France and England. Most nobles sat on their estates or served as magistrates, etc.
    It could be pointed out that in ancient Rome, consuls and senators routinely served in the armies. For that matter, many of our own (modern U.S.) presidents and congressional leaders have fought in combat - Eisenhower, JFK, George Bush (the 1st), John McCain, etc, etc. And combat is still a sweaty, bloody business today.
    I don't see how the the medieval period differs in this respect from any other period. I think it's a stereotype.

  2. The figure of %2 participation in martial activities by the nobility in 14th & 15th century France sounds pretty implausible to me, and it would certainly force a revision of my impressions of the era. I would like to know how such a figure was arrived at. It would certainly be unlike any recent time or place, say Mughal India, Central Asia, or West Africa, where similar aristocracies ruled, and where their attitudes and activities can be documented. It seems unlikely that all those castles were built for no particular reason.

    When I travelled in West Africa in the 1980s, I can assure you that it did indeed smell of blood, sweat, dung and horses. The Fulani nobles I encountered, who still had retinues of mounted, chain-mailed knights, may have spent time managing their assets, but they were nothing like the lawyers and accountants who manage Toronto or Cleveland.

    But I was merely noting the blandness of many histories I've been reading, which treat the past as if war and death were trivial statistical matters. They also fail to have much feeling for the closeness to animals and to agrarian life that pervaded pre-industrial life. Such bland books can be written about any era ---- yes, Rome is often treated to the same bloodless way. I don't think Caligula was the equivalent of David Cameron, or that the Coliseum was just a variant of Shea Stadium. God knows there must a thousand books and articles which have reduced the millions of agonized deaths in the Gulag or Mao's famines to mere administrative dislocations. Those who are now going to Afghanistan with the expectation that the Pashtun warlords and local magnates will behave like politicians in small-town America are in for a surprise.

    The only way to settle it, I guess, is to have a time machine. Within a day of arriving in the 14th century, we would quickly find out which set of stereotypes was closest to the truth. I plump for Monty Python's as being closer to common-sense.