Thursday, April 05, 2012

My review of Bell et al. The Soldier Experience in the Fourteenth Century.

From The Medieval Review:

Bell, Adrian R., Anne Curry, Adam Chapman, Andy King, and David
Simpkin, ed. The Soldier Experience in the Fourteenth Century.
Series: Warfare in History. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp.
232. $90. ISBN: 978-1-84383-674-2.

 Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger
     Nipissing University

This attractively and carefully produced volume features, aside from
its introduction, ten articles originally presented at a conference
held at the University of Reading in July 2009, "England's Wars, 1272-
1399."  All of the authors use prosopographical methods in hopes of
creating a much fuller picture of late medieval military recruitment
and service than has been possible in past.  The current best example
of what is possible by using this approach is the web-based, openly
available database, "The Soldier in Later Medieval England." [1]  The
connection between that project and this book is direct: the chief
investigators behind the database, Adrian Bell and Anne Curry, were
the chief editors of The Soldier Experience.

These articles rest upon our current ability to organize and analyze
vast amounts of data through computerization.  This allows diligent
researchers not only to track the careers of individual warriors with
greater accuracy and convenience than before, but also to reconstruct
military retinues and study how recruiting related to landholding and
other important aspects of medieval social life. The Soldier
Experience, like many another report from a programmatic
conference, is in part an argument for the value of a methodology and
in part a series of demonstrations of how the methods used by the
participants can be used by others.  The volume is successful in
making those points because the demonstrations are worked out in
detail and the claims made for the methodology are not overblown.  The
authors are not under the illusion that computerization solves all
problems; they know quite well that every source and every technique
has its puzzles and limitations.  Yet they show us how a combination
of intelligent database design and data crunching ability offers us
the opportunity to re-create an important aspect of medieval life,
military organization and military service, in an amazing degree of
detail.  That use of detail, however, results in some very dense
discussions which are not easily summarized.  In the rest of this
review I will restrict myself to indicating briefly the chief
arguments of the individual articles.

It is appropriate that the first article is Andrew Ayton's "Military
Service and the Dynamics of Recruitment in Fourteenth-century
England."  Ayton is the author of the extraordinary study, Knights
and Warhorses: Military Service and the English Aristocracy under
Edward III, in which he showed how a collection of dry
administrative documents, the horse inventories, could cast an
unexpectedly bright light on Edward III's armies, illuminating many
aspects of the practical workings of those forces, including the
careers of otherwise obscure warriors and the changing role of horses
over the course of the fourteenth century. [1]  Ayton's article, by
far the longest in the collection, credits the prosopographical
approach for taking military studies beyond treating armies as
"characterless numerical abstraction[s]" (10).  He also argues for its
potential to contribute to an understanding of other aspects of local
and national politics and cultural life.  Ayton goes beyond such
assertions, however, to discuss in detail the mechanics of retinue
formation and what a specific set of data shows us about that process
and how it changed over time.  Ayton's article serves well as a primer
on the challenges and rewards of the research typical of this group of

David Simpkin's "Total War in the Middle Ages? The Contribution of
English Landed Society to the Wars of Edward I and Edward II" is an
attempt to integrate landholding records with military service records
to understand recruiting and the degree of militarization in England
at various times.  It is based on a study of Cambridgeshire and
Nottinghamshire and select localities within them. 

 Andrew Spencer's "A Warlike People? Gentry Enthusiasm for Edward I's Scottish
Campaigns, 1296-1307" brings a prosopographical perspective to bear on
the well-known falling off of support for Edward I's Scottish wars; it
is based on landowning records from eight counties, which are compared
to military records for the campaigns.  

David Bachrach in "Edward I's Centurions: Professional Soldiers in 
an Era of Militia Armies" discusses a neglected career track for 
gentry in Edward I's armies. Centenarii were men of 
the stratum just below the knightly
class, who might have served as heavy cavalry, but who instead became
effectively professional officers leading organized units of one
hundred foot archers.  Other such men led smaller units of
crossbowmen.  Bachrach notes how important the extensive experience of
such men would be in maintaining discipline and tactical control.

Iain A. MacInnes, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bruce? Balliol Scots
and 'English Scots' during the Second Scottish War of Independence"
re-examines the Scots who supported Edward Balliol's attempt to take
the Scottish throne from the Bruces, and suggests that more research
may revise the common view that Balliol's invasion was doomed to
failure by a general lack of support.  

Adam Chapman's "Rebels,Uchelwyr, and Parvenus: Welsh knights in the Fourteenth
Century" discusses the Welsh contribution to England's wars in the
fourteenth century.  Chapman explains how Welsh knights were
exceptional figures in a Welsh context but quite comparable to English
knights of the time.

Michael Jones' "Breton Soldiers in the Battle of the Thirty (26 March
1351) to Nicopolis (25 September 1396)" is one of the few articles
focusing on an area outside Britain.  It discusses the family
connections, military careers and diplomatic service of the men who
fought with Beaumanoir in the famous deed of arms.  The Breton
families whose members participated are surprisingly well known both
before and after the battle itself, and their activities are well
documented.  The article ends with an appendix giving details about
Beaumanoir and his companions and the Bretons who fought on the other

Guilhem Pepin's "Towards the Rehabilitation of Froissart's
Credibility: The Non-Fictitious Bascot de Mauléon" will interest many
people who approach the Hundred Years War through chronicle accounts.
In the last decade there has been speculation that one of the most
memorable military men sketched in Froissart's Chronicles, the
Bascot de Mauléon, was invented by the chronicler.  Pepin refutes the
suggestion by documenting the mercenary captain's career from archival

Rémy Ambühl, in "The English Reversal of Fortunes in the
1370s and the Experience of Prisoners of War" explores the fate of
English and English-obedient Gascon prisoners of war during the 1370s,
and discusses the involvement of the crown and warrior community in
the liberation of prisoners.  Ambühl concludes that solidarity within
the warrior community proved more helpful to captives than royal

 Adrian R. Bell's article, "The Soldier, 'hadde he riden,
no man ferre,'" seeks to establish how extensive and far-ranging the
travels of average and exceptional soldiers were.  Bell makes a point
of showing that even such prestigious sources as statements made in
the Court of Chivalry have to be compared to the relevant archival
records or the researcher will end up with an incomplete

This book is not for everyone.  It is designed to appeal to a
restricted audience: those who want to dig deeply into the details of
medieval military service, and how service and recruitment reveal the
structure of royal armies and, in fact, society at large.  Indeed, its
primary audience is likely to be other researchers in the same field,
especially those using or considering using similar research methods.
For them, however, it may be extraordinarily rewarding.



2. First published in 1994 by University of Rochester Press; a new
paperback edition appeared from Boydell Press in 1999.

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