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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 836-837

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Book Review

Medieval Warfare: A History

Medieval Warfare: A History. Edited by Maurice Keen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. viii+340; illustrations, maps, bibliography, index. $40.

This new history of warfare from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries provides an interesting synthesis of current and classic scholarship on the subject, but if the devil is in the details this book falls short in some areas. The text acknowledges military technology as a legitimate category within military history, one which demonstrates that military history has grown out of its former exclusive, staff-college attention to battles and royal politics. Still, there is a conscious segregation of the technologies from the histories proper here, and technology is not dealt with in any great depth in this sweeping survey. Heavily illustrated (though often poorly captioned), the book will appeal to lay readers, but the academic audience will find it lacking.

Medieval Warfare is divided into two sections: one on the "Phases of Medieval Warfare," arranged in a rough chronological order, and the other on "The Arts of Warfare," covering many of the technologies (broadly defined) used in war. It is gratifying to note that in most chapters in the first section the authors give center stage to the role of technology (that is, hardware) in the evolution of warfare. But therein lies one of the problems with this volume: the contributors frequently fall prey to the "soft" version of technological determinism, and occasionally even its "hard" form. In his introduction, Maurice Keen states that medieval warfare exhibited considerable continuity precisely because the technologies of war did not change until the advent of gunpowder weaponry; the uninitiated reader, however, could conceivably come away with notions akin to the now popularly disabused theory that the stirrup caused feudalism (although at least this one is happily disproved). Such monolithic pronouncements are generally avoided, but technology is frequently cited as the sole determining factor for victory: Vikings (and English) over Irish, English over Welsh and Scots, Arabs over Franks--the list goes on. The contributors are also slightly at odds with one another at times, placing more or less emphasis on the role of, say, fortifications or cavalry in the battles they analyze.

The first section has chapters on Carolingian and Ottonian warfare, the Vikings, the Crusades, and the Hundred Years War, as well as two general chapters on warfare in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. With minimal overlap, the authors do a good job of covering eight hundred years of war and are to be commended for expanding the traditional boundaries of medieval military history beyond the core of Europe, and also for incorporating cogent primary sources and less-well-known but nonetheless instructive battles. But the chapters are uneven, some being research-based essays (albeit without footnotes) where a beginning student could get lost [End Page 836] in a maze of unfamiliar terms, geography, or dynastic-specific histories (a glossary would have been a better appendix than the chronology that is provided). Other chapters provide clear, textbook-like summaries that serve as excellent introductions to the field without presuming too much specialized knowledge nor talking down to the reader. Some cross-referencing has been provided, but apparently as an afterthought, where individual authors tread on each others' contributions.

The second section may be of more use to historians of technology looking for a general introduction to the topic, but here again caution is required. As with any broad survey, there will inevitably be quibbles from specialists who insist that an author got this or that point wrong or misrepresented a general belief in the field. Such is the case here, but by and large these six chapters do serve as useful orientation tools for the study of fortification, arms and armor, mercenaries, naval warfare, noncombatants, and the development of guns (coupled with professionalization). The difficulty here is that some chapters (notably the last, on guns) rely on previous surveys that have been partially or wholly revised in the last two decades. As in part one, the list...


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