Cover of Medieval Warfare

Medieval Warfare
Helen Nicholson
232 pages including index
published in 2004

Helen Nicholson's Medieval Warfare is, as she puts it in her introduction, "intended to provide a point of entry tpo the subject of medieval warfare for students and others with an interest in the subject who are perplexed by the rapidly expanding body of scholarship in this area". Which is just what I needed, as this is indeed a subject I've become interested in following on from my earlier readings in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Medieval Warfare is an ambitious book for trying to cover this whole period (300 to 1500 CE) even in overview in just 166 pages, excluding index. But Nicholson is a reader in history at Cardiff University who has written extensively on Medieval military matters and therefore is well suited to the task.

As any good historian should, she sets out how she will go about it in her preface. What she attempts to do is to look at the development of the main aspects of medieval warfare from just after the end of the (western) Roman Empire to the end of the Middle Ages, using concrete examples to illustrate these developments. She chose the period 300 to 1500 CE to emphasise the continuity between the military practises of the Late Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, with the latter date providing a convenient cutting off point between them and the Renaissance. The fourth century was chosen as a starting point because it was in the late fourth century that the Roman bureaucrat Vegetius wrote his manual on military strategy, a book that was hugely influential in European warfare until at least the sixteenth century. Geographically, Nicholson limits herself mostly to Europe, particularly France, Italy, England and Germany for her examples, though she does look to Eastern/Byzantine examples as well when appropriate.

After the introduction, Medieval Warfare starts with a chapter on the theory of warfare, followed by chapters on military personnel, buildings and equipment and finally one on the practise of warfare, with a smallish chapter on naval warfare tacked on at the very end. Each chapter is organised in a roughly chronological order, though several start with enumerations, as e.g. in the military buildings chapter first the various kinds of military buildings are briefly examined. Where necessary, Nicholson has also taken care to present the various parts of a given subject in a logical order, where e.g. the chapter on the practise of warfare has her first looking at the training of soldiers, troop manoeuvring, the actual battle, sieges and finally the aftermath of war.

The overall impression that you get from the development of the art of warfare in the Middle Ages was that it was largely evolutionary rather than revolutionary. After the collapse of the Roman political order war was effectively privatised, with professional warriors recruited for service by a warlord rather than trained by the government. As new states became stronger warfare became more centralised and professionalised again, but there wasn't a real watershed moment. As Nicholson argues it is tempting to think about a warfare revolution in the last few centuries of the period, what with the development of larger standing professional armies, the switch from largely cavalry based armies to infantry based ones, not to mention guns and gunpowder, but in fact most of the fundamentals of warfare remained the same throughout the period.

As a primer to a huge subject Medieval Warfare was quite good, with one minor caveat, as there were no illustrations at all, which would've helped with some of the more technical bits.

Webpage created 27-12-2011, last updated 29-12-2011.