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Warfare was the principal force shaping the course of European history during the Middle Ages.

By Dominic J. Caraccilo

While the culture of the Western world “has its origins in ancient Greece,” writes Maurice Keen, its political foundation has been shaped by events occurring in the Middle Ages “largely in the course of warfare.” In Medieval Warfare: A History (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, $40), editor Keen, a leading authority on medieval Europe, expands his prolific studies of the topics of medieval brotherhood-in-arms, courtly love, the Crusades, heraldry, knighthood, the law of arms, tournaments and the nature of nobility. He does so by assembling a comprehensive anthology of essays by 12 scholars, all experts in their field, who together explore more than 700 years of European conflict.

“The fact that warfare and the warrior ethos were so central to the secular history of the middle ages, political, social, and cultural, has shaped the planning of this book,” Keen explains. Warfare in what Keen calls a “singular epoch in military history” was brutal, chaotic and, at times, “seemingly universal,” though the notion of sovereign governments’ defending their lands and maintaining exclusive rights for waging war was virtually absent. From resistance to Viking and Magyar invasions to the Norman and German wars of expansion, and from what Keen calls the “great confrontations” involving support of popes and emperors to “petty confrontations” that were nothing more than family feuds, medieval warfare encompassed the full spectrum of human disagreement.

Keen has smartly compartmentalized his anthology into two distinct sections. The first, “Phases of Medieval Warfare,” offers essays on Carolingian and Ottonian warfare, by Timothy Reuter; the Vikings, by H. B. Clarke; the wars and expansion of the 11th and 12th centuries, by John Gillingham; warfare in the Latin east, by Peter Edbury; an encapsulating chapter on European warfare, circa 1200-1320, by Norman Housley; and an essay on the Hundred Years’ War, by Clifford J. Rogers. This section’s aim is to explore the societal experience of war and examine the impact of its demands on human resources and endurance.

The contributors of the second section, “The Arts of Warfare,” endeavor to trace thematically the most important developments of the medieval era. Richard L.C. Jones examines fortification and siege craft, while Andrew Ayton offers his views on the role of armored cavalrymen and the integration of the mounted warrior’s equipment. Michael Mallett provides an essay on the use of mercenary forces–“a standard feature of European warfare”–and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto describes the challenges surrounding the development of medieval naval forces. Christopher Allmand examines the emergence of what Keen calls “an articulate approach to the non-combatant,” and Keen himself concludes with an essay on the birth of gunpowder artillery, a factor that changed the face of battle at the close of the Middle Ages.

This wide-ranging volume goes beyond the where and when of great confrontations to give us a fuller sense of warfare in the Middle Ages. Medieval Warfare: A History is at once a scrupulously prepared survey, written in textbook form, that will be invaluable to students, and a superbly illustrative chronicle that will hold the interest of lay readers on the subject.