Many journalists and commentators on current affairs have a habit of using the word "medieval" as a kind of easy superlative to describe atrocities in modern conflicts that are characterised by particular cruelty or magnitude, and such writers will have their views confirmed by this book by Sean McGlynn, written for both an academic and popular readership. His aim, as proclaimed on the dust jacket, is to discuss "the savage reality of the so-called 'Age of Chivalry'", as evidenced in the practice of warfare between the 11th and 15th centuries.
Since from the very beginning McGlynn highlights a major incongruity between chivalric ideals and the realities of war, one might have expected an initial discussion of what chivalry was. However, the first chapter ("Violence") deals with neither chivalry nor warfare but surveys the prevalence of violence and cruelty in medieval crime and, even more, punishment. While this is perhaps useful in establishing a threshold for the acceptability of violence in medieval societies, it does not tell us anything directly about warfare, and after reading the many graphic descriptions of sickeningly ingenious forms of torture and execution (which those faint of heart or stomach may wish to skip), one might well conclude that the horrors of medieval war were no worse than those devised by peacetime legal systems.
The second chapter is more satisfactory in setting out the influences of rulers, the Church and chivalric ideals on warfare, and here McGlynn postulates four (or, more accurately, three) recognised types of warfare, each with different rules: guerre mortelle, or war to the death; bellum hostile, in which knights "could expect to be ransomed"; and guerre couverte, in which killing was acceptable but taking prisoners was not. Yet there is no detailed exploration of these definitions, nor are they supported by reference to primary sources or published research, and the fact that McGlynn is obliged to mix Latin and French terminology, while also recognising that siege warfare had its own laws, suggests that these types were not fixed, schematic alternatives. Rather, the treatment of captives and non-combatants varied enormously according to time, place and, especially, circumstances.
Certainly the three central chapters, dealing with warfare in the British Isles, France and the Crusades, reveal that calculated savagery was regularly employed to intimidate opponents and to discourage resistance, but that it was often a pragmatic, if brutal, response to emergency. Thus the massacres of the inhabitants of Jerusalem by Crusaders in 1099 and of the French prisoners at Agincourt on the orders of Henry V in 1415 are convincingly explained as desperate responses to situations where the victors feared attack by large numbers of captives whom they simply could not keep under control. The slaughter of Muslim prisoners by Richard I at Acre in 1191 was a calculated response to Saladin's failure to keep to the terms of an agreed truce.
Even McGlynn admits that, at least for warrior aristocracies, the conventions of the age mitigated the worst effects of warfare, but one might easily conclude that he perhaps places too many expectations on chivalry as a civilising factor. After all, chivalric ideology did not spring up fully formed along with the phenomenon of knighthood, and even when it did emerge around 1200 it was more of a set of aspirational values rather than a wholly prescriptive code for life. Certainly there is little in the many descriptions of battles, sieges and campaigns of scorched earth that has not been surpassed in savagery in Nazi-occupied Europe, Vietnam, Bosnia or the many conflicts in our 21st century of international conventions and human rights.
By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare
By Sean McGlynn
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 304pp, £25.00
Published 10 April 2008