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Medieval Warfare and the Value of a Human Life

Medieval Warfare and the Value of a Human Life

Medieval Warfare and the Value of a Human Life

By Kelly DeVries

Noble Ideals and Bloody Realities: Warfare in the Middle Ages, eds. Niall Christie and Maya Yazigi (Brill, 2006)

Introduction: It has always seemed to me illogical and inhumane that the people of our world have frequently decided matters of relatively little importance by sending a large number of their young males out to be killed. The fact that diplomatic negotiations, when used, have more often been made to increase alliances between parties who similarly are willing to send their young males to be killed seems to confirm this illogic and inhumanity. Recently a number of military historians have sought broadly chronological and geographical answers for this dilemma. Focusing almost entirely on culture, rather than technology, Victor Davis Hanson, John Keegan, Geoffrey Parker (to a lesser extent, as he still holds to his technological deterministic theses), Jeremy Black, and, most recently, John Lynn have crossed over the line once reserved for anthropologists and sociologists of trying to analyze why men have fought wars and why, in particular, the west has almost exclusively been the victor in these wars. Using historical examples, these writers have at least surpassed their sociological and anthropological counterparts who all too frequently still rely on the “dark glass” or “rosy shades” belief of man being led to war by something outside of an innate proclivity to do so, à la Jared Diamond, who borrows just a little too much of the most wacky Montesquieuesque explanations for warfare to be either sensible or scholarly comforting.

On the other hand, their own reliance on culture to explain warfare and the west’s success in this warfare is dissatisfying, although preferable in my estimation to the technological superiority explanations proffered by so many military and non-military historians, most recently the very dreadful Throwing Fire: A History of Projectile Technology, by Alfred W. Crosby. Most specifically, at least for the premodern period, and in particular for my speciality, the Middle Ages, culture appears to be incomplete as a means of defining the history of warfare and its success. What I intend to do here is to supplement what is currently being written about the relationship of warfare and culture by adding another factor to the definition, the value of a human life.

First, let me review the literature, beginning with the works of one of the most popular military historians currently writing, but one who also serves as the doyen of the neo-conservatives, Victor Davis Hanson. John Lynn has done this very well in reviewing Hanson’s work in general in the first chapter of his book discussed below; my purpose here, as with the other authors discussed below, is simply to focus on the place of the Middle Ages in their historical writings. Building on the thesis put forth earlier in his The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, which looked specifically at Greek hoplite warfare and its success against the Persians, Hanson has recently written the chronologically and geographically broad The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny (1999), which determines military leadership excellence as a “western way of warfare,” and his even more chronologically and geographically broad Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001), which determines tactical superiority as a “western way of warfare.” Based on the above description, neither of these books seems to focus on culture, although I assure you that they do. What is more troubling for the medieval military historian is that neither focuses much on the Middle Ages. The Soul of Battle does not introduce any medieval general in its case studies, thus at least implying the author’s agreement with the well-worn but expressly disproved notion that the Middle Ages produced no efficient general.


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