David Whetham. Just Wars and Moral Victories: Surprise, Deception, and the Normative Framework of War in the European Middle Ages. History of Warfare. Leiden: Brill, 2009. viii + 262 pp. EUR 99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-17153-4.
Reviewed by Brian G.H. Ditcham (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
All's Fair in Love and (Medieval) War?
At one time, the complex mix of theological principles, legal concepts, and social conventions that made up the "law of war" in the Middle Ages--"chivalric warfare," in shorthand terms--could largely be ignored by scholars. At worst, it could be dismissed as proof of the pre-Renaissance imbecility of European society, at best it could be seen as a largely ineffectual attempt by religious elites to impose order on violent men of war, elements of which might be deployed as window-dressing by cynical professionals to camouflage their self-interest. Thankfully, these reductionist views no longer prevail. The work of such scholars as Maurice Keen, Richard Barber, and Richard Kaeuper has done much to demonstrate that the code of chivalry (of which chivalric warfare was a major element) was an intellectually complex and at times contested belief system which had impact on the real world. In this book, David Whetham sets out to examine a specific area in which the principles of chivalric warfare might impact the ways in which actual wars were fought. To what extent was it legitimate to use deception and other "underhanded" means in order to obtain victory? And, if such practices were in fact regarded as legitimate, how does one account for situations in which commanders appear to have behaved in an "irrational" way by failing to attack an enemy force while it was still deploying for battle? Although this topic is potentially interesting, the reader of Whetham's book will unfortunately be forced to conclude that it does not really address these fascinating issues.
In part, this problem occurs because of the relatively narrow range of authorities on which Whetham focuses. Although his coverage can plunge deep into antiquity (tracing the origins of "just war" theory back to its pre-Christian roots in classical Greek thought) and occasional reference to the writings of scholars like Otto Brunner can be found, his focus falls on a limited number of canonical texts written in the period from 1350 to 1450. All of them come from what one might broadly define as an "Anglo-French" world--Europe east of the Rhine and south of the Alps and Pyrenees hardly figures. The main exception to this rule is the Roman military theorist Flavius Vegetius Renatus (invariably cited as Vegetius in medieval sources), whose works were widely copied across medieval Europe, though even he is approached as much through the ways in which his thought was adapted and modernized by translators and popularizers like Christine de Pisan and John Trevisa as through his own writings. Only one of the chosen writers, the French knight Geoffroy de Charny, could be seen as a "practitioner," though the widely traveled chronicler Jean Froissart had spent much of his life in and around courts and chivalric gatherings. In essence, this study treats the Hundred Years War as normative for defining chivalric warfare--a common enough view in Anglophone and Francophone scholarship, but one which excludes much of Europe from its purview.
Curiously, Whetham never fully defines what he means by "deception" in warfare. His coverage is inclined to lump together issues of grand strategy, tactical management of campaigning, small-unit actions, and questions of individual behavior. Admittedly, this confusion can probably be found in his sources as well, but it makes for a somewhat disjointed presentation, especially since one of his conclusions is that rules might apply in different ways to different levels of military activity. In broad summary terms, Whetham concludes that despite a very wide range of permissible behavior at the tactical level (including ambushes, night attacks, and even the deceptive use of banners), strategic surprise (invading an enemy's lands before one had gone through the proper procedures of defiance) was illegitimate. At the individual level, a knight ought to keep his word even to an enemy (but be careful about accepting that enemy's word), abide by ransom agreements, and adhere to truces. It was at the individual and small-unit level that the issues became most blurred, at least judging from Whetham's analysis of concrete cases recorded by Froissart. For instance, a king who launched a full-scale invasion before formal defiances had been lodged would have been dishonored, but it was permissible for an individual commander to attack unsuspecting towns and villages at a moment when he knew that defiances had been made but the news had not reached his targets. A commander might give his word that he had no hostile intentions towards a town in order to persuade its authorities to open the gates--after which his allies, who did have such intentions, piled in behind him and looted the place. The level of hair-splitting legalism that Whetham suggests might have been deployed to legitimate such behavior implies that, even though the Law of Arms was never taught at universities, its practitioners might well have been as capable of complex casuistry as any scholastic lawyer or theologian. It is intriguing that Charny's most substantial work is a series of questions based on hypothetical situations that look somewhat like the topics proposed for quodlibetical disputation in medieval university teaching--and it is a matter of deep regret that the answers, if they were ever given, have not survived.
Whetham's conclusions are thoroughly plausible. The core conceptual problem with the book is the author's attempt to embed them in a much more ambitious framework. This structure takes a long time to emerge from a rambling presentation and some elements of it are implied rather than stated. My understanding of Whetham's argument runs like this: war between monarchs and other sovereign princes was in effect a feud on a grand scale and the rules governing legitimate private warfare applied. The aim of such activity was to force a compromise settlement and most tactics were legitimate in that context. Battles, however, were a different matter, being subject to the rules of trial by combat. They were not part of the feud but outside it, a mutually agreed-upon attempt to seek divine judgment that had to be waged within much stricter rules. In principle, the losers were expected to bow their heads, admit they were in the wrong in the sight of the Almighty, and accept the verdict handed down from on high.
The contention that warfare was the feud of princes has some degree of credibility and deserves further examination. Private war was a more or less legitimate activity under some circumstances, even in relatively centralized monarchies like fifteenth-century England--though Whetham's reification of "the feud" as an institution appears to owe something to the constructs of twentieth-century anthropologists working primarily on non-European societies, constructs whose wholesale applicability to medieval and post-medieval Europe has begun to be questioned. In this regard, the geographically limited focus of Whetham's book potentially weakens his argument, since some examination of the practice of warfare in the late medieval Holy Roman Empire, where many conflicts between members of the Reich, such as imperial free cities and territorial rulers, were explicitly cast in terms of private warfare, would have provided interesting comparative material.
Whetham's approach to battles, however, is problematic. For one thing, contrary to his implication, trials by combat that actually reached the stage of a confrontation in the lists were very uncommon by the fourteenth century; Froissart makes so much of the famous duel between Jean de Carogne and Jacques le Gris in 1387 precisely because of its rarity. It is certainly clear from Charny that "battles" were distinct from the normal "business" of warfare, for some of his questions turn on this point. In the absence of the answers, though, we are poorly informed on how the distinction was made. Was a battle only a "proper" battle if it was fought in response to a formal challenge issued by one of the parties and specifying the time and the ground? Or did any encounter between substantial bodies of armed men count once they had formed up in "battle array"? Whetham himself wavers between the two positions, though he appears to lean towards the former (which meant that it could be legitimate for a commander to shift his position under cover of night or simply refuse battle in the absence of a challenge).
Clearly challenges to battle did matter and should not be dismissed as so much frippery. A monarch who ducked out of a formal challenge, even if he had very good tactical reasons for so doing, needed to explain this decision away deftly or achieve a major battlefield victory in the following weeks if he wished to avoid serious damage to his reputation. Philip VI of France lacked the former after the abortive challenges in the Low Countries campaigns of 1339 and 1340; Edward III of England was arguably bailed out by victory at Crecy in 1346 after evading a challenge by Philip earlier in the campaign (a point Whetham concedes). Whether a formal challenge existed and how far it imposed constraints on battlefield tactics is difficult to assess. Whetham makes a good deal of Froissart's account of the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346. He claims that the battle was fought as a result of a formal challenge and that the Scottish army therefore refrained from attacking their English opponents until after the latter had formed up in proper line of battle (a very rare example in which an army appears to act in a militarily irrational way for "chivalric" reasons). Unfortunately, Froissart was either deceived by the Scottish king, David II, when they met in 1365 or chose for his own reasons to accept David's self-exculpatory account. In reality, David had quite literally been caught napping and had maneuvered his numerically superior forces so incompetently that they were routed by a force of local levies, while a third of his army under the command of his designated heir but political rival, Robert the Steward, withdrew precipitately from the field. Only Froissart mentions a formal challenge.
While this information does not entirely invalidate Whetham's account (after all, Froissart's version could be seen as reflecting what should have happened had there been a formal challenge), it suggests that any account based on one source alone needs to be viewed with caution and underlines the problems that even relatively contemporary observers faced in determining what had happened in a given situation. Whetham's attempt to map the Crecy campaign onto his model illustrates the problems that model poses. In part this problem arises simply because the precise movements of the armies and their commanders are not known with absolute certainty. Available sources are partisan and selective in their coverage. The account Whetham gives is, however, implausibly legalistic in its approach to the realities of campaigning (even Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Burne's much-mocked doctrine of "inherent military plausibility" seems more convincing). At times, it read to me like the brief that might have been produced by Edward III's defense lawyer in a hypothetical case before a Supreme Court of Chivalry for evading Philip VI's challenge to battle at the gates of Paris.
It would be interesting to determine just how many battles in the Hundred Years War were fought in direct response to challenges and within the terms laid down by the party issuing the challenge--probably very few, even when one takes situations of challenge and counter-challenge into account (as at Verneuil in 1424). And, (pace Whetham, who on page 248 appears to endorse the view that English battlefield victories in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reflected God's verdict on the merits of the English claim to the French throne--a piece of loose expression that an editor ought to have picked up) it is far from apparent that the outcome of battles was perceived by the losing side as deserved judgment. Even at the nadir of French fortunes in the 1350s, after John II had been captured at Poitiers, nobody in a position of authority in France suggested that the estates of the realm ought to send a delegation to London humbly confessing that they had sinned in the sight of God by putting Philip VI (a Valois) on the throne and presenting Edward III with the French crown. At a pinch, the Peace of Brétigny in 1360 could be accommodated to Whetham's "feud/compromise" model. It does not fit his "battle/God's judgment" model at all.
Ultimately, this book is frustrating. It makes some valuable and interesting points on the ways in which theorists, and possibly military commanders, reconciled apparently devious actions with the chivalric code which (after all) cushioned elite warriors from some of the more ghastly possible consequences of warfare. It does so, however, in the context of a distinctly unconvincing overall model that raises as many questions as it answers. Like many books produced by this publisher, the handsome presentation of the volume is undercut by a steady sprinkling of typos and misprints, even in the bibliography. While most readers will recognize "Normal Housley" as the distinguished historian of the Crusades, Norman Housley, it is likely that readers seeking articles identified as being published in the Journal of Medieval History will be misled, unless they know they have to insert the missing word "military" after "medieval."
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Brian G.H. Ditcham. Review of Whetham, David, Just Wars and Moral Victories: Surprise, Deception, and the Normative Framework of War in the European Middle Ages.
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