Thursday, 7 April 2011

Book Review, Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual by Michael Prestwich

This is a sort-of sequel to the fantastic Legionary Unofficial Manual, by Philip Matyszak (I’ve just seen there’s a Gladiator Manual out as well, also by Matyszak). Like Legionary, it’s a light-hearted, entertaining, concise but nevertheless intelligent book crammed with juicy titbits.

My knowledge of knights and the medieval period is essentially rubbish, so a lot of the stuff in Knight was new to me. The book covers a lot of ground, including how to become a knight, how to impress at tournaments and jousts and how to conduct sieges and battles.

The bits I found most interesting were about armour, siege weapons and retinues. Like most people, I knew the basics of armour but didn’t know about different suits for tournaments and battles and enjoyed reading about the advantages of plate armour, chainmail and boiled leather armour. Similarly, the trebuchet wasn’t new to me but there were a number of siege engines that were. Formations/units seem far less formal than in Greek/Roman armies, with a knight often having one or more squires, likewise pages and some servants plus numerous horses.

Throughout the book, (which is a nice solid hardback), there are oodles of medieval pictures and numerous quotations from medieval works (some of them by knights themselves).The author also does a good job of comparing many different knights and their fortunes and styles. John Hawkwood, for example, was born not only a commoner but a bastard, rose to become Florence’s favourite (and most expensive) mercenary and had a glittering career slightly besmirched by an unsound approach to spending money.

Prestwich also highlights the interesting doublethink of the chivalric code. Honour matters above all, yet peasants seem to be strangely exempt and are fair game for extortion, murder and all manner of general unpleasantness.

The book blends the serious stuff of history with rather more witty remarks and snippets of information (I particularly enjoyed the bits about football being a peasant’s game, and the penalty for suicide being death).

Knight, like Legionary, is an excellent sort of book, suitable for history buffs or those who enjoy light reads peppered with mirth. I learnt a lot more from this than did I from Legionary, though this is probably because I know sod all about the medieval period (similarly, I prefer Legionary, but only because ancient history interests me more than recent stuff).

The only real problem I have is that when checking the spelling of Matyszak’s name for the purpose of writing this review I stumbled across the recently released Gladiator Unofficial Manual. Damn, you Matyszak! Don’t you have enough of my money already?

[Incidentally, for those wanting a strictly serious but nevertheless excellent book on gladiators I can recommend Fik Meijer’s Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport].



  1. John Hawkwood, for example, was born not only a commoner but a bastard, rose to become Florence’s favourite (and most expensive) mercenary and had a glittering career slightly besmirched by an unsound approach to spending money.”

    He also had an attitude to women that today’s feminists would definitely disapprove of and would hardly be acceptable in polite society. In fact when it came to organising mass rape, and pillage, of course, Hawkwood stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

    In 1377 one Cardinal Roberto had a falling out with the people of the town of Cesena in Northern Italy. The Cardinal, being a good churchman of the period, decided that the best way of effecting reconciliation would be to have the whole population of the town killed. He offered the job to Hawkwood, who was organising the rape of every female inhabitant of the nearby town of Faenza at the time. After some back and forth, no doubt negotiating the overtime rates for raping and pillaging after normal office hours, Hawkwood accepted the commission.

    The subsequent sack of the town was so dreadful that it shocked even the elastic consciences of the age. Probably 8,000 people were put to the sword, including twenty-four priests and the entire congregation during a church service and at the end not a single building was left standing. Hawkwood even got into a bit of white slavery, sending 1,000 women to Rimini (some have argued that this was in order to save them, to which the only sensible answer can be, “Yeah, right”).

    The dreadful slaughter did not, by all accounts, do Hawkwood much harm amonsgt potential employers. Indeed it seemed to have confirmed his reputation as a man who could be relied upon to do a thorough job. His last fifteen years were indeed spent in the employ of the city state of Florence, possibly because they were too frightened of what might have happened if they tried to make him redundant. He died in 1395 a very wealthy man and, at the request of Richard II, his body was returned to England for an honourable burial.

    Of course Hawkwood’s mercenary career would not have happened were it not for the Treaty of Bretigny, which meant he and others like him were made redundant. So, in reality, the horrors inflicted upon the people of Northern Italy, were like so many ills of the time and since, all the fault of the French.

  2. I was unaware of much of that.

    The book does tackle the fact that lots of knights enjoyed essentially running protection rackets and the like, although this sort of thing was not mentioned (in fairness, it is not a Hawkwood biography).

  3. Hawkwood was a man of his time. A violent and brutal age will throw up violent and brutal men. Though Western Europe the fourteenth century was no worse than Byzantium throughout its long history, as I have discovered because of your book recommendations.

    Anyway, none of it changes the facts, and the problems in Europe in the 14th century and thereafter were mostly down to the Frogs.

  4. We are all of us men of our time. (Well, except for women, obviously).

    There are people who can be more or less humane than the morals of the age, though. Theodore Dodge's excellent biography of Caesar includes a meaningless and dishonourable genocide of half a million Germanic people. Alexander treated the captive wife of Darius with dignity, and Hannibal treated the Roman consuls he slew with rather more decency than they offered Hasdrubal.

    I never knew llamas loathed frogs.

  5. "I never knew llamas loathed frogs."

    The ones born in England do. DNA is more than genetics.