The ancient art of fighting dirty

Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550
September 7, 2007

The term "special operations" in a military context will almost inevitably evoke the type of activities undertaken in the modern world by forces such as the SAS, the Green Berets and other elite units with similar training and ethos. We might well wonder what these could have to do with the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance: were not those times, after all, characterised by chivalrous codes of honour rather than ruses and covert tactics?

Yuval Harari defines a special operation as one that "is limited to a small area, takes a relatively short span of time and is conducted by a small force, yet is capable of achieving significant strategic or political results disproportional to the resources invested in it". Even with the additional criteria that such operations usually involve covert and unconventional fighting methods, it becomes clear from the analytical overview that constitutes the first part of his lively and wide-ranging study that Harari is heavily influenced in his definitions and scope by special operations in the modern world. Yet he succeeds in demonstrating that the period from the 12th to the 16th centuries was not only one of rapid development in methods and technologies of fighting, but that its practitioners were capable of mounting and often pulling off operations as difficult and daring as the commando operations of the Second World War or the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976.

The introductory analytical overview is followed by six case studies, three from the Crusades to the Holy Land from 1098 to 1192 and three from the interminable struggles involving the English, French, Burgundian and Habsburg monarchies between 1350 and 1536. Harari's narrative and analysis have enough context to appeal to anyone interested in military history, while being sufficiently founded in the primary evidence to provide a useful and thought provoking resource for students and academics.

The case studies themselves are varied, if somewhat uneven. The fact that two of the operations - the Crusader attempt to rescue King Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1123 and the French ruse against English-held Calais in 1350 - ended in failure illustrates the constant dangers inherent in such covert operations, not least the perils of relying on enemy traitors. It is also noticeable how monarchs, even self-proclaimed paragons of chivalry such as Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy, were increasingly happy to instigate assassinations and abductions of high-ranking enemy personnel, including their own relatives.

The most detailed and illuminating case study analyses a French raid on the town of Auriol in 1536, when a small force of Gascons effectively ended Emperor Charles V's invasion of Provence by destroying the mill that provided the flour that fed the bulk of the imperialist army.

The D'Artagnan of this particular exploit was one Blaise de Monluc, a poor Gascon nobleman who could easily have sprung from the pen of Alexandre Dumas. With this notable exception, it is a pity that we do not learn more of the careers of some of the other extraordinary captains who executed such operations, such as Olivier de La Marche, Charles the Bold's hatchet man for all manner of desperate schemes.

One can only marvel at the warriors in this book, who had the benefit of neither military academies nor significant technological superiority. Rather, it was native ingenuity, determination and courage that enabled some remarkable all-rounders to challenge and in some cases change the course of medieval and Renaissance history.

Alan V. Murray is senior lecturer in medieval studies, Leeds University.

Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550

Author - Yuval Noah Harari
Publisher - The Boydell Press
Pages - 248
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 9781843832928

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