Antonio Santosuosso. Barbarians, Marauders and Infidels: The Ways of Medieval Warfare. Cambridge: Westview Press, 2004. xiv + 344 pp. $ 27.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8133-9153-3.
Reviewed by Brian G.H. Ditcham (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-War (April, 2006)
Medieval Warfare Slightly Out Of Focus
Sometimes you can tell a lot about a book by its cover. The dust jacket of Antonio Santosuosso's work is derived from what is almost certainly a nineteenth-century French painting (sadly unidentified) depicting a Romantic's eye view of a medieval battle, full of rearing horses and violent action with a swooning female figure in the center and massive armies clashing in the background--the Hollywood history of its day. Despite the formal apparatus of footnoting and an extensive multi-lingual bibliography it is clear that this is a book designed for the general reader rather than the specialist.
This is a notoriously difficult genre to do well and Santosuosso, like the artist whose work covers his book, is painting on a very wide canvas. His book addresses more or less a thousand years of warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean basin from about 500 to 1500 and tries to do so in just under 300 pages of text. Issues of selection and balance of coverage are bound to arise and it is unlikely that any author would be able to entirely satisfy every reader. Santosuosso's previous works have been studies of warfare in the ancient world while the reviewer's area of expertise lies at the end of the period covered; it is perhaps inevitable that we might differ on what is important.
Even making due allowance for this difference of perspectives, however, there are serious problems of coverage and balance with the book which could make it rather confusing for the non-specialist reader. Chronology gets very tangled indeed. Warfare in the "Barbarian Kingdoms" (Gothic and Langobard Italy and Francia) is covered up to 800 or so, then the story jumps back some two hundred years to recount the Arab conquests. As a result, Charles Martel's victory at Poitiers/Tours is dealt with well after the military activities of his grandson Charlemagne. A chapter on infantry battles jumps from Legnano in 1176 to Courtrai in 1302 and then back to Bouvines in 1214. The Mongols, Tamerlane and the rise of the Ottoman Turks are consigned to the final half dozen pages of the book.
The balance of coverage might also confuse the non-specialist. Almost half the text covers the much less well documented period before 1000. While a case could no doubt be made for this somewhat unconventional approach, Santosuosso never sets out to make it. There are other oddities of coverage as well. The Arab conquests in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain get some 50 pages, the whole of the Crusades are dispatched in less than 25, a disproportionate number of which cover events at Antioch on the First Crusade. Fortifications and siege techniques are allocated one chapter of six pages, though admittedly the attentive reader can glean more information on them elsewhere in the book. Even if one can argue that both Crusader castle building and the construction activities associated with Edward I in Wales have been overestimated in previous writings aimed at a popular audience, it is surprising to find them almost completely omitted from a study of medieval ways of warfare. For the years after 1300 the only conflicts covered in any depth are the Hundred Years War and the activities of the mercenary companies in Italy.
It would obviously be inappropriate to expect a detailed engagement with ongoing scholarly controversies in a book of this nature. On the whole, Santosuosso follows the consensus view of current scholarship in his interpretations and is a reasonably reliable guide to the issues raised by medieval warfare, if at times old-fashioned and rather broad brush in his approach. His touch can, however, be variable. His coverage of the Barbarian invasions tacks uncomfortably between a traditional catastrophist approach (which admittedly may be coming back into vogue in some quarters) and a view which stresses collaboration of "Roman" and "barbarian" elites. He appears to favor Bernard Bachrach's "large armies" interpretation of Carolingian warfare though suggests that Viking raiding forces were small (the bibliography does not contain Nicholas Brooks's paper arguing that they too were large). His account of the genesis of Crusading reflects that of Jean Flori, though glosses over Flori's key (and highly controversial) argument that crusading ideology developed at least in part as a direct response to jihad. The works of Clifford Rogers on the Hundred Years War, which, whether one agrees with them or not, have reshaped the way in which scholars view English campaigning, do not figure in the bibliography and his views are not reflected in Santosuosso's account of that conflict.
Santosuosso is at his most comfortable when he has a clear narrative thread to develop, whether drawn from original sources or later writers. His battle and campaign narratives are lively, even if perhaps a shade uncritical of his sources. In fact, the book would have functioned far better had it been structured as a series of chapters each of which centered on a specific battle or campaign. This would have played better to Santosuosso's strengths and accommodated his fondness for descriptive passages much more comfortably than the format actually adopted.
In addition to the issues of coverage and balance alluded to above, it has to be said that Santosuosso has been poorly served by his editor. Misprints abound, especially where dates and places are concerned (e.g. a non-existent Crusader siege of Damascus in 1218--presumably Damietta is intended on p.169, and phantom sieges of Antioch and Jerusalem in 1123, p. 269). There are a number of thoroughly misleading statements which might have been sorted out by a more alert editor; e.g., few commentators even at the time thought the Second Crusade was a success (p. 216), talking about the French " raising the Scots expectations for independence" in the 1330s (p. 237) is so compressed an account of events in Scotland as to be utterly misleading, the implication that the Ottomans settled Janissaries in Samarkhand, Merv and Bukhara makes no sense at all (p. 297).
It would be hard to recommend this book to any reader not already quite well versed in medieval warfare. Like depictions of medieval battles painted by nineteenth-century Romantics, it is full of sound and color and excitement but the focus is somewhat blurred.
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Brian G.H. Ditcham. Review of Santosuosso, Antonio, Barbarians, Marauders and Infidels: The Ways of Medieval Warfare.
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