The Myths of Medieval Warfare

An absurd procession of chivalry or mad mass charges? Analysis of fighting in the Middle Ages has become more subtle than either of these scenarios, argues Sean McGlynn.

The study of medieval warfare has suffered from an approach that concentrates on its social, governmental and economic factors to the detriment of military methods and practice. The nature of feudal society has been analysed in great depth, but its application to how wars were actually fought has largely been ignored and frequently misinterpreted. Despite recent important work these misinterpretations have been stubbornly persistent, perpetuating the long-held myth that the art of warfare reached its nadir in the Middle Ages. John Keegan's latest book, A History of Warfare (Hutchinson, 1993), reflects the view of some leading military historians in referring to 'the long interregnum between the disappearance of the disciplined armies of Rome and the appearance of state forces in the sixteenth century'. In The Wars of the Roses (Cassell, 1993), Robin Neillands regards knightly warfare as involving no great skill, being simply a matter of bludgeoning one's opponent to the ground. Whereas these and other historians have assimilated a number of the more correct observations on medieval warfare, the complete picture has remained frustratingly obscure.

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