Saturday, 1 June 2013

Review: By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare, by Sean McGlynn

I bought this book a week or two ago, because I was interested in finding out about the level of mercy and brutality that medieval warfare involved.

The book is divided into several sections, which include placing brutality in warfare in context by explaining how pervasive violence in was in medieval peacetime, battles and sieges. The first chapter on violence during peacetime is deliberately concise, but does a very good job of providing a useful background for the warfare sections.

In addition, it was fascinating to read about the medieval perspective that a strong king, unafraid to be brutal, was actually a good thing, as viewed by those who lived under his reign. This was because the law and state was weak and violence commonplace, and it was felt that only by extreme measures could deterrence prove effective.

Even more intriguing were the competing powers of mercy and brutality. Both are shown to be successful or not at different times. For example, slaughtering the garrison of a castle that doesn’t surrender can prompt others to simply give up. On the other hand, sparing men could mean that behaviour being returned by the enemy, whereas killing prisoners could demoralise the army as they knew they’d likely face the same if they’re ever captured.

The focus in the book is England and France, although there are forays into the Holy Land, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This is partly because England and France were more cohesive and centralised nations than their rivals at the time, emphasising the authority and approval of kings when it came to atrocity. Perhaps surprisingly the bits I found most extreme were in the initial peacetime section.

There are three maps, all at the start. For this sort of book I view maps as a nice extra rather than something essential, but it’s still useful to include them, particularly for the Holy Land.

The writing style is clear and easy to understand, and good use is made of sources. The author has his own views regarding traditional and revisionist schools of thought (about King John, for example) and is quite open about it, which I like. He also explains why Philip Augustus, despite being hugely successful, isn’t nearly as celebrated as Richard the Lionheart or Saladin.

I don’t have much bad to say about this book. I’m not too fond of pointing ahead to future chapters/atrocity examples (I’d rather just read as it comes). That’s about it, to be honest. The book’s interesting, easy to read, explains why brutality was so commonplace and the balance between brutality and mercy. It more than met my expectations.


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