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Reviewed by:
  • Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History and Identity, 1450–1600
  • Noel Fallows
Yuval Noah Harari . Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History and Identity, 1450–1600. Warfare in History 18. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer, Inc., 2004. x + 226 pp. index. append. bibl. $85. ISBN: 1–84383–064–7.

This book is a detailed study of English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish military memoirs written between the years 1450–1600. Italian memoirs are excluded because, says the author, "Renaissance Italian military memoirs often came from a different milieu compared with the trans-alpine ones, and display different views and characteristics" (4, n. 16). In keeping with the latest critical trends Harari correctly views the Renaissance memoirs as a continuation of their medieval counterparts and not as a spontaneous phenomenon, hence his chronological parameters of 1450–1600 are, as he admits, somewhat arbitrary, since these dates happen to frame a period that witnessed a boom in military memoir writing. The author pays equal attention to little-known and well-known texts. The many little-known texts are finally given the attention that they deserve; and thanks to Harari, other texts, such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo's Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, finally make sense (see the insightful analyses on 170 and 178, for example).

Harari adopts an unusual approach to the analysis of the texts themselves, for as well as comparing the texts with each other, he compares them to a selection of twentieth-century military memoirs written primarily after World War II by junior-rank officers. It would also have been fruitful, I think, to have compared the Renaissance military memoirs in some more detail to Renaissance military manuals. The author mentions military manuals only briefly to demonstrate that memoirists, unlike theoreticians, tended to view war neither as a human nor a political phenomenon, or to underscore the fact that memoirs were generally not written with instruction in mind. I would add, however, that at least some of the Renaissance theoretical manuals on warfare are interesting in that they blur the lines between highly objective instruction and highly subjective accounts of experiences in battle, thereby standing as halfway houses between "manuals" and "memoirs." This minor criticism aside, Harari's approach is ultimately successful, with the result that the reader gains a unique appreciation of these memoirs. I would go so far as to say that his approach to military memoirs works so well that this book provides us with a theoretical framework that at the very least must be taken into account by all future studies of the genre.

Through Harari's analysis we learn that the objectives of the writers of Renaissance military memoirs were, for example, to validate honor, to emphasize individual deeds and identities over collective identities (something that the memoirs do not have in common with contemporary military manuals, which do tend to emphasize armies' collective goals and interests over those of the individual), to dwell upon actions as opposed to emotions or sensations, to focus on the factual instead of the experiential, and to give precedence to the tangible (specific individuals fighting for personal interests) over the abstract (armies fighting for some national or moral cause). We learn that whereas the twentieth-century memoirists [End Page 666] are at pains to refute the vision of war presented in popular movies, theirRenaissance counterparts, for all their experience on the battlefield, generally do not debate or otherwise engage in dialogue with the exaggerated claims made by the authors of the most popular war fiction of the time, the romances of chivalry. The author argues convincingly that this was because the memoirists were concerned only with the facts of particular individuals, wars, and skirmishes and therefore had no cause to be offended by, or even interested in, fictitious accounts of warfare.

The book includes two appendices. Appendix A provides an overview of the military memoir genre. Appendix B contains short biographies of each of the memoirists mentioned in the book. The book concludes with extensive primary and secondary bibliographies, and an index. I note that the translations into English from foreign languages in the body of the text are accurate and, with the exception...


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pp. 666-667
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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