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Renaissance France at War: Armies, Culture and Society, c. 1480–1560 (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1314-1316 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0439

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Renaissance France at War brings to life the powerful French royal army that fought in the Italian Wars and the Habsburg-Valois wars of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. David Potter crafts a highly detailed and well-documented description of all facets of the French royal army: command, infantry, cavalry, artillery, garrisons, and support personnel. Potter has exploited massive and disparate manuscript collections in numerous French archives to assemble documentation for this impressive study. This methodology demonstrates the vital importance of avoiding a strictly institutional approach to war and society in early modern France, especially when studying periods prior to the creation of war archives in the mid-seventeenth century. Potter’s rich appendices provide ample additional data on army strength, troop composition, and war finance drawn directly from manuscript sources.

Renaissance French kings engaged in serious formulation of strategy, according to Potter. Royal ministers drew up elaborate campaign plans and maintained intense correspondence networks with military commanders and advisers (pp. 53–62). This finding parallels Geoffrey Parker’s conclusion that Spanish military policies under Philip II reflected a grand strategic vision. Potter is hesitant to fit the royal army of Renaissance France into the wider debate on the Military Revolution, however, despite its technically impressive artillery and formidable siege train, which could be seen as heralding an “artillery revolution.” Potter discovers massive fortification programs underway in the early sixteenth century, suggesting that France was significantly involved in the expansion of bastioned fortifications earlier than some historians had previously thought. “Vauban in effect systematised and strengthened a network of fortresses that had begun in the later 15th and early 16th centuries” (p. 159). Paying for artillery pieces, fortifications, and an expanding army increasingly strained French war finances, imperiling the “sinews of war” and adversely affecting French society by the mid-sixteenth century (pp. 235, 248–254).

In addition to gauging warfare’s effect on the kingdom, the book reveals fascinating intersections between Renaissance warfare and French culture. Renaissance French armies relied heavily on mercenaries in addition to “national” troops, producing ethnically diverse armies that effectively dealt with complex linguistic and cultural issues (pp. 94–102, 124–125). Potter implies that family networks and political alliances may explain the service of “foreigners” better than mercenary economic motives. He examines other cultural dimensions of warfare, including memoir-writing, battle cries, speeches before combat, musical celebrations, artistic representations, and ritualized conventions. Unfortunately, the book relies on problematic and dated methodological concepts such as “mentality” in building an analysis of war and culture. Potter’s suggestive discussion of Renaissance battlefields as “places of remembrance” alludes to Pierre Nora’s influential notion of lieux de mémoire, but fails to develop an extended examination of history and memory surrounding evocations of combat sites (pp. 187–190).

Renaissance France at War goes well beyond conventional institutional histories of warfare in examining the connections between the royal military system and a growing French “public sphere.” Potter demonstrates that French kings and their advisors felt a need to mobilize popular support for their military policies. Royal entry ceremonies, festivals, poems, songs, and speeches could all serve as well-argued justifications for engaging in warfare. Printed edicts, books, pamphlets, and engravings communicated complex rhetorical messages to a French public that was eager to hear news about the latest military maneuvers, battles, and sieges—but also prepared to ridicule failures and defeats through biting satire. Potter’s findings here could have achieved even more resonance by addressing the theoretical debates about the “public sphere” in France involving Jürgen Habermas and his critics. The book’s approach to art, music, and warfare might have benefited from excellent recent studies by Rebecca Zorach and Kate Van Orden.

David Potter’s book offers readers an impressive comprehensive examination of warfare, society, and culture in Renaissance France. Potter successfully traces the growth of the royal army and the development of the French military systems from Charles VIII’s dramatic crossing of the Alps and the march on Naples in 1494 to Henri II’s review of “the finest and largest army a King of France had ever had” in 1558 (p. 332).

Copyright © 2009 The Society for Military History
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