The Hundred Years War: A People’s History
Yale University Press 360pp £14.99
'The peoples of England and France and the countries in which they lived were … changed in deeply significant ways by the experience of the Hundred Years War.' So concludes David Green's book, which explores a well-known medieval conflict in a new way. Others have written on one aspect or another of the impact of war. Since the war was fought mainly in France, it is hardly surprising that French historians have emphasised the damaging effects of a long-drawn out conflict in which English strategy was often aimed at deliberate destruction. In the 1890s Henri Deniflé wrote a magisterial study of the 'desolation' of churches, monasteries and hospitals in France during the Hundred Years War. In 1976 Guy Bois published his influential study of crisis in late medieval Normandy, where he went so far as to speak of 'Hiroshima in Normandy' for the combined effects of economic decline and English military occupation in the late 1430s and early 1440s. Despite the fact that the English won the battles but lost the war, English historians have tended to a more positive view. Their publications highlighted the social elevation engendered by participation in the great campaigns, the profits of war through ransoms and booty and the stimulus to the role of Parliament through the king's need for the consent of the Commons to the taxes essential to funding his wars.
David Green's book is the first to bring all of these elements together into one clear-sighted and extremely well-structured volume. Cleverly, too, Green combines a thematic approach with a chronological structure. Thus, the first chapter, 'Knights and Nobles: Flowers of Chivalry', provides the entrée into the first phases of the war, culminating in the victories of Edward III. The Jacquerie of 1358, a French popular revolt in the dark days following the capture of John II at Poitiers in 1356, forms the kernel of the second chapter, 'Peasantry'. The Great Schism, which exacerbated Anglo-French divisions by placing them in the camps of rival popes, stimulates a chapter on the role of the Church in the late 14th century and links into the final chapter on this century, which considers efforts for peace. The 15th-century phase is highlighted in the remaining chapters. The resumption of war in the 1410s is seen through the eyes of kings and soldiers, the English conquest and occupation of Normandy through the experiences of French civilians, women and prisoners. A final chapter focuses on national identity, probing whether French and English identity were the product rather than the cause of conflict. As Green wisely observes, 'questions of allegiance lay at the heart of the Hundred Years War'.
Each chapter is full of intriguing detail and example as well as providing a sound insight into the ways historians have approached the Hundred Years War and what it meant for different people at different times. Green is surer footed on the English than the French side of the Channel, but overall he has provided an attractive and eminently readable book on a fascinating and significant period in the history of both countries.
Anne Curry is Dean of the Faculty of Humanties and Professor of Medieval History at the University of Southampton.