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Reviewed by:
  • Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550, and: Medieval Mercenaries: The Business of War
  • Niccolò Capponi
Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550. By Yuval Noah Harari . Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-8438-3292-8. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Works cited. Index. Pp. xi, 224. $80.00.
Medieval Mercenaries: The Business of War. By William Urban . St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-8536-7697-7. Maps. Illustrations. Sources. Index. Pp. 304. $39.95.

It is common knowledge that wine develops with age (provided it does not turn into vinegar), and Dr. Harari's most recent effort shows signs of improvement over his first, unsatisfactory, book. Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry reads as an eager attempt to fill an apparent gap in military historiography, and it is therefore unfortunate that, despite the author's best intentions, the fissure was never there in the first place. The main problem is Dr. Harari's approach, since he applies the label 'Special Operations' to incidents that, in days of old, people considered more prosaically as part of the 'ruse de guerre'; therefore he is at pains to find elements characteristic of modern commando-style missions, or units, that may be applicable to the period under scrutiny. Only in chapter four - the best part of the whole book - does the author manage a degree of success, when he describes the activities of the nizari (assassins) in the Middle East.

Dr. Harari appears to have done his homework diligently, if somewhat unsystematically and not always critically. The endnotes overflow with sources, but more than once these prove to have little or no reference to what is being discussed in the main text. Also, in order to buttress his argument, the author accepts without question the conclusions of certain historians. Basing himself on the work of Dennis Showalter (see JMH, 57, n. 3, 1993) he states that during the Middle Ages 'most military units were ad hoc formations' and therefore 'until the rise of standardized drill in the late sixteenth century, unit training was minimal at best' (pp. 34-35). Had Dr. Harari dug a bit deeper, he would have found remarkable cases of unit training and drill in the Age of Chivalry (one example will suffice: Braccio da Montone's company). Besides, his text also is not free from factual mistakes and anachronisms, and shows a puzzling approach to primary sources. Until the second half of the sixteenth century the capital of the Duchy of Savoy was Chambéry, not Turin (p. 152). The statement about Blaise de Monluc conducting 'what almost amounted to an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Guienne Huguenots' is as silly as it is anti-historical. In chapter one, after rightly stressing the difficulty one may encounter by basing oneself on medieval chronicles and Renaissance propagandists, the author declares 'I often felt that my primary duty was to create an engaging story rather than write down [End Page 559] only what I could be certain of' (p. 39). Excuse me, but in this case The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchhausen also could be considered a reliable historical source.

All this said, faute de mieux, Dr Harari's work makes for some diverting reading, and, going back to enological similes, can be compared to a decent everyday wine with a somewhat pretentious label.

The same, unfortunately, is not true of Medieval Mercenaries, notwithstanding the glowing foreword by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame – an example of true friendship, since the book produced in me the same intestinal reaction for which Jones is remembered, as Mr. Creosote, in the movie "The Meaning of Life." Professor Urban's opening sentence in the first chapter is all too revelatory of things to come: 'The connection between mercenary and employer is money' (p. 13).

The book appears to have been put together in a hurry, and with little attention to logic. For one, it is difficult to see a connection between nineteenth century pseudo-historical novels and the history of hired soldiery in the Middle Ages; yet two whole chapters are dedicated to the subject. The work itself is hardly an analysis of the medieval...


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pp. 559-560
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