Book Review: Medieval Warfare Source Book

Medieval Warfare Source Book:  Christian Europe And Its Neighbors, by David Nicolle

Most of the time, when Westerners think of the Middle Ages, they think of knights fighting gallantly on horseback.  What this book does, and does well, is place the warfare of the Middle Ages in a context that is broad in multiple ways.  For one, it looks at examples of continuity with ancient history, showing broadness in its temporal dimension over the course of medieval military history.  In addition to this, it looks at warfare in the Middle Ages from a broad scope that includes not only warfare in Western Europe, but also warfare in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, Africa, and East, South, and Southeast Asia [1].  While there are a few ways this geographical reach could have been made more broad in looking at the conflicts between Scandinavian settlers and Inuit/American Indians in Greenland and Vinland, when that is the most obvious theater of warfare that is neglected, one is doing a good job at having a broad scope.  Third, this is a book that looks not only at battles and diplomatic history, but fortifications, naval history (including piracy and riverine fleets), logistics, and even the pay of soldiers.  Despite a fairly boring title, in other words, this book is an immensely worthwhile one for those who have an interest in medieval military history.

In terms of its structure and organization, this book has an unusual but effective organization that is based both on regional geography as well as chronology and theme.  The first chapter looks at the Byzantines, Persians, and Muslims between 400 and 750 AD.  After this the book looks at the Christian-Muslim confrontation from 750-1050.  Third, the book looks at Turks, Mongols, and the rise of Russia in the steppes and neighboring areas from 600-1400 AD.  Then the author returns to the Crusades, Reconquista, and counter-crusades from 1050-1400.  In the fifth chapter the author turns his attention to China, the Fear East, and India from 400-1400 AD.  A short set of interesting biographies on leaders during the period follows, along with a lengthy set of sources on various topics ranging from general works on the period to specialist works on various cultures, fortifications and sieges, communications, and even flags and heraldry.  The last chapter of the book is made up of miscellaneous topics that are explored in a cross-cultural fashion including laws of war, distribution of booty, taxation and pay and feeding of an army, religion, drugs and alcohol, combined operations, uniforms, and the manufacture of arms.  Each of the first five chapters looks at major campaigns, army recruitment, military organization, strategy and tactics, weaponry and harness, fortification, siege warfare, and naval warfare.  The result is a book that is impressive in its scope and contents.

Obviously, as a student of medieval military history, I greatly enjoyed this book.  I can see this book and its material being useful for reading for those who want a larger context of the military history of the Middle Ages, and especially for those who want to craft accurate accounts of the time for use in writing and/or film based on the available historical and archaeological record.  This is not to say that it is an easy book to read.  The author has clearly done a wide amount of reading to be able to construct this sourcebook, and he assumes that the reader will have an interest in immensely technical vocabulary related to warfare in the period, which is one reason why the book’s glossary is so long.  Not everyone has either the background knowledge or the breadth of interests to make this book appealing, but for those who do, this is a great book to read about the warfare of the Middle Ages that looks at warfare in an immensely broad context and with a high degree of nuance and sensitivity.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Middle East, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Medieval Warfare Source Book

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Khubilai Khan | Edge Induced Cohesion

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