The Illusion of Chivalry

February 18, 2008

John A Lynn in his excellent book “Battle” speaks of what he calls the illusion of chivalry. One the one hand is the medieval concept of chivalry and on the other is the brutal reality of war. I think our perception of this so called illusion derives from how we see the makeup  medieval armies. Dr. Lynn describes the army of Edward III as composed of “2,700 knights and squires, men of aristocratic and landed backgrounds.” Serving along with them are 12,000 commoners including 7,000 peasant longbowmen. The problem with this description is the assumption that medieval mounted warriors were composed of aristocrats, knights and squires.


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Longbow the final

January 30, 2008

I apologize for letting this blog go so long. Maybe I don’t have the right disposition for mainting a blog. However I will try to do better in the future. Now to continue my discussion of the myth of the longbowmen. When we turn to the smaller battles of the Hundred Years War the lack of dominance by the longbow is readily seen. Take the battle of Mauron, 1352. The French attacked the English archers on horseback. They broke the archers who fled. Another battalion of French attacked the English on foot.  However, it was the English men-at-arms which won the battle. They finally beat off the French. The thing to notice here is that the bowmen could not stand up to a cavalry attack.


Four years later at Constance (1356) The French crossbowmen had their pavises this time and they wore their armor. So protected, the longbow fire was quite ineffective. They simply waited for the longbows to run out of arrows then they returned the fire. The longbowmen quickly hid behind their men at arms. With the French crossbowmen supporting the French dismounted attack, the English were defeated this time.


Nogent 1359, the French made their initial attack on horseback but had to fall back. Then, on foot, the French attacked the English bowmen. The French were so well armored and with them holding their shields a loft that English arrows could not hurt them. The French broke the archers position and when the archers broke and ran the French mounted men-at-arms rode the archers down and slaughtered the, Once more the English men-at-arms could not hold and were defeated.


The chroniclers who wrote about the battle of Auray clearly pointed out the English bowmen were quite ineffective. The French men-at-arms were too well armored and shielded. The French were finally defeated but they were defeated through a combination of English men-at-arms and Breton cavalry.


The longbow was a mature technology even when it appeared first on the battlefield. It could not keep up with the armor improvements. By 1415, at Agincourt, the armor of the French was so well developed they no longer needed their shields. What Constance showed was when crossbowmen were properly armored and had their pavises, the English longbowmen were no match for them.


Luckily for the English, the French raised their military forces a bit differently than did the English. The English military contracts specified how many men-at-arms and archers were to be raised. Thus, English forces were always composed of both arms. The French, on the other hand, contracted with men-at-arms separately from crossbowmen. There were a number of occasions in which French men-at-arms had to fight without crossbowmen simply because there was not enough money with which to raise units of crossbowmen.


The French men-at-arms were quick to improve their armor and make tactical changes. They adapted their attack tactics to include dismounted attacks and to carry their shields over their heads much in the manner of the Roman tortoise. The one thing the French couldn’t match was the steadiness of the English man-at-arms. When the English won, they won because of their men-at-arms not their longbowmen.


With regards to Robert Hardy:


“It had been hard to train him to his best; it proved impossible to keep him to it; but as his best there was no man in the world to beat him, no matter the odds against him; and his breed lasted long beyond the longbow; he used the musket and the rifle; he endured in 1915 the same, and worse, than his forefathers suffered in 1415.”


This kind of jingoism is hardly history. And,


“When two such armies met again ten years later at Poitiers there were almost no crossbows on the French side. They were remembered as useless.”


his historical knowledge I find to be lacking.

Myth of the Longbow

June 2, 2007

I woke up this morning and asked myself what is the greatest mischief I can get into today? Then it came to me. I could get a whole country pissed off at me. Now you have to admit that is ambitious. How am I going to piss off a whole country you ask? By attacking one of the great mythic shibboleths of the English people: the longbow. First let me say I have never met an Englishman that I didn’t like. I think they are delightful people. However, someone has to do this dastardly deed and it might as well be me.
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Iraqi War Prattle

May 14, 2007

I had planned to write about the longbow. Just before beginning I took a swift look around at some of the blogs I like to check on. I went to BLOG THEM OUT OF THE STONE AGE. I like to drop in every now and then to see what Dr. Grimsley has to say. Most of what he says seem to be focused on military historians and academia. In spite of my degrees I have no desire to teach history. I skip those posts. Today, however, I see his headline: “Who Won the Iraq War?” This intrigued me since I didn’t know the war was over.
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Cavalry Charges part drie

April 30, 2007

OK, we have established that the cavalry was trained to advance at the trot but to end up at the gallop. Big deal. Everyone knew that this is how the Swedish cavalry was trained to attack. The only thing is Ward, from whom we took the most information, was describing the Dutch cavalry. I make this assumption based on Ward’s referencing ‘the Prince of Orange’, ‘Hollanders’, the ‘States General’ but no references to Gustav or Sweden. Also, John Cruso said, in his dedication, that his manual was based “according to the present practice of the Lovv-Country Warres.” Here is how he describes what happens after the trooper has discharged his pistols: “Having spent both his pistols, and wanting time [not having enough time] to lade again, his next refuge is his sword.” There is no indication that the trooper should file to the rear of his unit and reload. He was to fire his pistols then go in with the sword.
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Cavalry Charges part deux

April 20, 2007

I want to start out by helping clear up one thing for Gavin. He writes,

“Just to prove that language is gendered, every one of these four books consistently refers to the horse as “him”, even when they don’t specify a preference for stallions, geldings, or mares.”

Gavin, there was a good reason for using ‘him’ for cavalry horses. Cavalry horses were almost all male. If you included mares in your cavalry and any of them came into estrous there would not be a stallion in the whole army that would be worth a damn. Ergo, no mares.

Now let us turn our thoughts to discussing military manuals. This is the theory aspect that Gavin talks about. I’m not focusing particularly on Gavin’s approach to these types of documents. However, how he once approached these manuals is very indicative of how early modern military historians have generally thought of these documents.

“Since I was an undergraduate I’ve been aware of the potential difference between theory and practice, but I used to think that if theory didn’t agree with practice, it could simply be discounted as ‘wrong’.”

Gavin no longer approaches these texts in this manner but many military historians still do. The attitude is that these works are just theory. Their attitude is that since these men didn’t have military experience their ideas were created in a military vacuum and therefore we have little to learn from them. They fail to understand the relationship between theory and practice.
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Cavalry Charges

April 17, 2007

Jeremy Black has recommended we move beyond John Keegan’s horizons. However, in my estimation, there are too many errors of interpretation and too many holes in our understanding in early modern warfare to do so.

One of the purposes of this blog is to explore these errors of interpretation and the holes in our understanding. In doing so I will quote from various historians but those I challenge will not be named. If you want to know who I’m talking about send me an email and I’ll be happy to name names. However, in this blog the idea is to attack ideas not historians. I do make an exception with bloggers. There very existence imply a give and take of criticism. I do want to stress that it is ideas I wish to challenge, not the blogger.
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