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Because of serial spam attacks which the Blogger platform seems unable to deal with (yes - people warned me about Blogger), I have moved the...

Monday, 8 August 2016

Dead Blog?

Because of serial spam attacks which the Blogger platform seems unable to deal with (yes - people warned me about Blogger), I have moved the blog elsewhere albeit still on Blogger - edgyhistorian[dot]blogspot[dot]com -where you will be able to find all the posts and comments here with the 600transfomer.blogspot.com address (substitute that bit for the new one and you'll get there) as well as posts made after the start of June 2016.  People who have kindly followed this blog may wish to add the new address to your followed blogs list.  Similarly, those bloggers who have kindly listed this one in their side-bars might wish to update their blog-rolls.

I did think of simply deleting this version but - gratifyingly - people have cited it, sometimes (thanks, James Palmer!) in published books, so I wanted to ensure that those links would still work.


Prof. Grumpy.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Why Sixth-Century History Doesn't Matter (any more or less than any other history)

I'm a sixth-century historian ... and let me tell you I look good for my age.  Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.  I'll be here all week.  Now please welcome Miss Elaine Page.


Be all that as it may, the VC of Queens University Belfast, Patrick Johnston (an oncologist) has recently said that 'society' (that thing that Thatcherites like him don't believe in, remember?) doesn't need people who specialise in the history of the sixth century.
"Society doesn't need a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership [as, ahem, Johnstone, like almost all of his ilk - university managers, that is, not oncologists - clearly doesn't] and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to drive society forward."
OK. There are a lot of things you can wonder on the basis of this interview.  One might ask why, given his utilitarian obsession, Johnston is running a University and not still working to cure cancer (might one assume that, like most university managers, he ran out of ideas in his area of academic specialisation and took the soft route to a £250,000 salary instead?); one might wonder whether Durham and Newcastle (QUB's partners in the 'Northern Bridge' post-graduate funding consortium) are not now asking themselves what kind of idiot they have got into bed with; one might seriously sit down and ask what this man really thinks education is about, or what mind-numbingly limited range of things he thinks can 'benefit society'; one might ponder what sort of grey, cultureless, dystopian hell his vision of a society 'benefited' and 'led' by his idea of Higher Education resembles*; and finally one would be forgiven for thinking on the basis of this interview that, if this is an example of the sort of people who manage (for they certainly don't lead) UKHE, the sorts of people, the sorts of intellectual second-raters (amongst whom there are more than a few historians), into whose hands British Higher Education has fallen, we should all just put our heads in our hands and weep.

Such is Johnston's staggering ignorance that one assumes he picked on 'sixth century history' (he doesn't actually specify BC or AD) because he thought it was a sort of obscure Dark Age topic that no one could possibly see as valuable and that no one would stand up for (that is, again, typical of the sort of bullying these people do).  In that, at least, he was wrong.  Various responses have sprung up which have led Johnston to issue a hasty statement clarifying how much 'respect' he has for history graduates. The details need not detain us; it is corporate bullshit.  It is a sort of superficial climb-down at least but he dropped the veil on his real opinions and, one assumes, his real intentions if push comes to shove. (And he already has form in cutting back on the arts and humanities.)


Johnston's philistine, corporate dribblings are, however, no more than some of us have come to expect from University managers. It's the replies that I really despair about, for they give a pretty bleak indication of what historians think their discipline is about - or rather that, typically, they haven't got a clue what their discipline might be there for, other than as some sort of hobby or middle-class divertissement.  Charles West, to his credit, asks what history is about, if not thinking and analysis.  If one wants to be narrowly utilitarian, one can specify the ability to sift information critically, reach a conclusion and present that conclusion via reasoned argument in (in theory at any rate) cogent written or oral form, to a deadline.  Ideally that is what a history graduate should be able to do, and it is very important (maybe in practice it's the most important thing; I don't know), but it is not, of course, something that is limited to History graduates.  At that point, however, the serious argument for sixth-century history presented thus far fizzles out.

For where does it go after that, generally non-history-specific, justification?  Sadly, West retreats into an argument that important stuff happened in the sixth century that is, allegedly, 'relevant' today, and that knowing the history of these things gives them 'context'.  Do you really need to know about the rise of Islam to understand ISIS (other than, as here [and ff.], to refute the dangerous banalities of 'top historian' Tom Holland)?  What kind of meaningful context does a simple knowledge of the sixth century add to understanding the modern world?  The response to Johnstone from QUB's own Immo Warntjes, however, doesn't even get as far as West's.  All it is is a list of (to him at least) interesting things that happened in the sixth century.  Mostly they are things of some interest to me too, as you'd expect, but I would hesitate to ascribe to any of them an innate importance. But is that all history has to differentiate it from any other humanities discipline?  Knowing facts about the past?  Chronicling and antiquarianism?  Readers of this blog know full well that I do not accept that even knowing the 20th-century history of the Middle East helps you understand the rise of ISIS in and of itself.  That too reduces history to simple chronicling and raises some pretty difficult (I'd say insurmountable) epistemological questions about causation and narrative.

Does, however, the defence of history need to go anywhere beyond the intrinsic interest of things that happened in the past?  Is not knowledge for its own sake a valid defence?  Obviously I sympathise with that ideal but in practice it has severe limitations.  For, if just knowing about stuff is its own justification, then why not degrees in stamp-collecting, car-recognition, arithmetic or French vocabulary?  If knowing facts about the past is qualitatively different from being able to, say, identify the date, origin and value of any stamp, sufficient to justify the payment of university salaries etc, one needs to have a cogent argument as to why, which goes beyond mere intellectual snobbery.

I have set out why I think history does matter before and I don't want to repeat all that, but do please read that post if you have not read it before.  Suffice it to say that what matters about history applies to sixth-century history no more and no less than to the history of any other century.  Why does it matter to train 21-year-olds in history?  To help them critique sources of evidence - as Charles West says - and not just accept what they are told; to help them think about humanity and understand other human beings in other contexts too.  But these things are not unique to history.  What is (I propose)unique to history is not simply the knowledge of things that happened in the past, but the investigation of why they happened, of why people said they happened and of why they want you to think they happened; more so (perhaps) the knowledge of understanding why things happened involves the awareness of the other options that were available - the things that could have happened but didn't (and grasping why they didn't) - and of how no one historical state of affairs or set of outcomes is preordained to be the only, natural one.  It didn't have to be like that then; it doesn't have to be like this now.  This is the emancipatory potential of history, specifically.

To sum up, then, the history of the sixth century matters as much as the history of any other century not so much for the knowledge of all the things that happened so much as for the understanding of all the things that didn't.


* This is what I imagine: a society in which disease is a thing of the past and businesses are all well led but in which no one has any capacity to create or critique culture or think sophisticated, questioning thoughts about the inevitable finitude of life, disease or no (there might, I suppose, be a core of characteristically pointless analytical philosophers providing cod-logically-truthful, cod-ethical arguments for the turning off of life-support systems, under the ironic banner of 'medical humanities'), or about whether business and capitalism are good things, or by what right people with 'useful' degrees claim to lead society, or whether 'driving society forward' is ipso facto a 'Good Thing', or by what criteria we judge what a Good Thing might be, or what the alternatives are; where no one has the sort of training that might help them improve the sophistication of that society's cultural life, or indeed do anything non-utilitarian except as some form of hobby. Or maybe that is what the 'non-leaders' do in their spare time, when not working zero-hours contracts for the businesses of the drivers and leaders or watching 1000 versions of strictly on the 1000 quality-free business- and utility-driven deregulated TV channels and getting their view of the world from the sorts of 'leaders' and 'drivers' that created Fox News and the Daily Mail.  A society stuck in this rut ad infinitum for lack of anyone with the wit or imagination to challenge it and its models.  That, I imagine, is the society that technocrats like Johnston and his ilk think universities are there to produce and maintain.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Professor Grumpy's Historical Manifesto

[This is an edited bit of my introductory 'briefing' lecture to my new second-years yesterday.  I didn't get the feeling it went very well - I think they were expecting a 15 mins 'here's the course book and my office hours are...' rather than a full-on manifesto.  But still, I got some decent feedback later on...  A Facebook friend asked how we justify medieval history not long ago, so here's my answer.  This section came after a section about why late antiquity had attracted my interest, personally, about all the big changes that took place around 600, and about why they might be important.  That concluded, though, by asking why it mattered to know any of that.  Now read on...]


Why does any History matter?

Think of the ways in which people – maybe you – justify the study of history. I expect two themes come up: relevance and ‘how we got where we are’. I’d say, though, that no history is relevant … or alternatively that all history is equally relevant.

What do people mean when they say that history is relevant?

It’s, let’s face it, usually a justification for modern history. To understand the modern world, the argument runs, we have to understand its history. So, to understand the problems, say, of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Ireland, or the Balkans, we need to know the history of those regions. Sounds reasonable, but actually we don’t. It’s no more use to study the modern history of those regions than it is to study the end of the Roman world.

Why? Well, let’s look at the problem more closely. Let’s take, for example, a modern Ulster Unionist or Irish Republican, or a Serbian nationalist (or a nationalist from any other area – including Scotland). Does a knowledge of the history of Serbia or Ireland help us understand his actions (let’s assume it’s a he)? No it doesn’t. For one thing, we’ll soon discover that the ‘history’ that he uses to justify his case or actions is cock-eyed and wrong. Does it help just to know the events he makes reference to, that he keeps harping on about – the Battle of Kosovo Pole or the Battle of Boyne, say? Does it help to know that in reality King Billy’s army was paid for by the Pope, or alternatively that Cromwell’s troops killed rather more English soldiers than Irish civilians at the sacks of Drogheda and Wexford? Does it help to know that for most of their history Serbs and Croats and Bosnians rubbed along together in their communities just fine (think about it; if they hadn’t, ‘ethnic cleansing’ wouldn’t have been ‘necessary’)? Does it help, when confronted by Greek nationalism (such as there’s a lot of at the moment), to know that in the 1830s 80% of Athens spoke Albanian? That the only reason that (allegedly) Socrates could still read a Greek newspaper if he came back to life is that Greek was reinvented on more classical lines, and purged of Slavic and Turkish words in the late 19th century (as was Romanian, which is the only reason why it’s as close as Italian is to Latin)? No. It might get you punched in the face but it won’t help you understand why.

Knowing 'what really happened in history' is Chronicling not history.  And it isn't much practical use outside pub quizzes*. 1: It reduces history to simple fact-finding; and simple factual recounting isn’t history. 2: It assumes that the simple course of events explains them, and thus that the course of events naturally, inevitably, led to particular outcomes (where we are today). 3: Our modern nationalists aren’t operating under compulsion from the Past. The past has no power; it’s dead and gone. It can’t make you do anything. These people are choosing events from their understanding of the past to justify what they are doing or what they want to do in the present. 
*Though it does provide a useful basis for undermining the claims of Nationalists and others, and that is important, it's not (and this is really my point) really history.

There’s another justification. If we’d only known more about Iraqi or Afghan history in the 20th century – so runs the argument in e.g. John Tosh’s Why History Matters – we’d have thought twice about invading because we’d have seen what would happen. What – because these people always act the same way in response to certain stimuli, according to some kind of timeless national characteristics? Isn’t that just a mite – well – racist? There are some general similarities for sure between Iraq in the 1920s and in the first decade of the 21st century but to assume that the latter state of affairs was predictable from the former is essentialist at best.

These arguments are usually deployed to bolster a claim that modern history is somehow more useful or relevant but, as I’ve just shown, they’re all a bit weak theoretically, relying on a pretty poor conception of history: history as only a collection of fact. Further they provide no justification for any sort of cut-off point in how far back we go. By their own logic, there’s no reason why, to ‘understand’ Afghanistan today you shouldn’t go all the way back to Mahmud of Ghazni in the tenth century, or to Sikhander himself, Alexander the Great, or further. For if the events of say the 1990s can only be understood by studying the events of 1900-1990, then the explanation is incomplete, because surely the events of 1900 can only be understood in terms of those of 1800-99, and the events of 1800 by those of 1700-99, and so on back to the earth cooling. A modern ‘relevance’ cut-off point is purely arbitrary and contingent and doesn’t at all follow from the logic of the argument.

So: let’s unpack the historical project and see what the really important – and relevant – elements of the analysis are. In looking at our modern nationalist and his/her relationship with the past, what are we, essentially, doing? First of all we’re showing an interest in understanding the world view of another human being – I’ll come back to that. Second, though, we’re adopting a critical stance to his or her thought or world view. Thus we’re recognising similarity in the sense of a shared humanity, but simultaneously acknowledging difference. We’re not taking the nationalist’s account as gospel truth; we’re questioning it, examining it critically. And that goes for all the voices from or about the past, or from the past about the past. History is about never believing what you’re told – taking a stance of radical scepticism. Put another way, slightly flippantly, the question we are always asking is not ‘is this bastard lying to me, but why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ (an adapted quote from a famous journalist.)

And that’s exactly it, because what we’re doing after that analysis of the evidence is trying to understand why people are acting like that. Why are they making that cock-eyed use of the past? These are questions that require not data but theoretical models, an analytical tool-kit if you like – and you can get that tool-kit from the study of any history. Thus all history is equally valid, equally relevant – or equally invalid and irrelevant if you prefer!

The true point of history, as I see it is as a basis for engaging with, and action in, the world, not a simple exercise of sitting in a library finding out stuff about the Emperor Maurice or Stalin or Philip V. That exercise of critical engagement with what you’re told is a key to that. But there are other key elements at stake.

Another key point concerns the idea that history had to be like that, that it had to have particular outcomes, that the world we know was the natural outcome of all that. But nothing is ‘just like that’. It doesn’t have to be that way. To understand change you have to see all the other possibilities that were open and that could have come about. It’s about ‘keeping faith with the impossible’. Many of the things we think of as natural ways of classifying the world aren’t natural at all: like race and sexuality. If studying late antiquity does have an advantage it is in making that very clear. Late antique people didn’t see colour as the basis for their way of organising the peoples of the world; they didn’t have concepts of homosexuality or heterosexuality. Their ideas of sexuality were quite different.

Which brings us back to understanding the other: seeing these people as humans, like us, and yet somehow different; listening carefully to their stories but critically examining them. Paying attention to alternatives and different ways of doing things isn’t about wishy-washy relativism; it’s not saying that all things are equally valid – it is about trying to understand them.

All that gives us enormously important skills in dealing with, and acting within, our world in the present. When the papers tell us that this or that category of people are doing this, or are like that, or are to blame for something else, historical analysis gives us the skills of source criticism; it also accustoms us to think twice before accepting a judgement; it allows us to try and see other possibilities, the other side of the story. If we make a judgement it will almost certainly be a more sophisticated and less extreme one, but wherever we end up it will be a more responsible and informed choice of opinion and action, and if we spread that, we do good.

There’s a humanity that permeates the entire process of historical enquiry; the critical questions we ask, the desire to understand, which we must bring from history to our everyday lives. They make it impossible in my view to cast human lives off to the demands of the market, or the nation, or the class struggle. That’s why I always say there’s a huge ethical demand involved in history. Huge. Unbearable in fact. But a good historian doesn’t switch off her critical faculties when moving from the seventh century to the twenty-first. There is a demand for commitment there. So I hope you see why I think my politics are the politics of history; they’ve after all grown out of twenty-odd years of being an historian, and I think being a pretty good one at that.

Now – all this, I am sure is making some of you a bit uncomfortable. Good. History is meant to make you uncomfortable. Clio, the muse of history, is like Jesus: she brings not peace but a sword. She will make you rethink everything you think you know; everything you think you hold dear; she will make you question everything. Everything you were brought up with; everything you thought natural. She’s not here to wrap you in cotton wool and say ‘there, there’ everything is just how it’s supposed to be. She’s not there to bring succour to your view of your country, or smooth over the bad stuff that it did, or to soothe your conscience about the massacres perpetuated in the name of your religion, or the slaughter committed by people who at least claimed to share your political beliefs. She’s there to make you uneasy. She’s there to stop you from falling victim to her evil twin, Myth. In a sense I want to free you from feeling like the past controls us; that we have to base our identities in the present upon myths. That means we don’t have to feel guilty or apologise, either – just to be aware; to understand.

Put another way, the historian is the ‘Internal Affairs guy’. This is a well-known figure in popular TV ‘cop shows’ and rarely a ‘good guy’. He or she is there to suppose that the hero has lied or done something wrong and that the villains might have been wronged or be telling the truth. The character rarely turns out to be as unsettling as that but it works as an analogy. For me, the historian is not there to provide comforting truths but to question them. The historian must always be prepared to wonder whether the ‘heroes’ of history are not, in fact, the villains,

If you believe anything at all, if you want your belief to be solid, in other words, it has to be on the basis of taking it apart and putting it back together on the basis of radical scepticism.

Politicians of all sorts – left and right - always want to control the teaching of history. History is a real political football, and in the light of what I’ve just been saying you can see why. It’s about not believing what you’re told without close scrutiny; it’s about trying to understand the other; it’s about trying to see and evaluate another point of view. That makes history potentially VERY dangerous. What a history degree should be is three years of thinking dangerously. And the sixth and seventh centuries are as good a thing to think dangerously with as any other era.

So, voilà. That’s my historical manifesto. You can read my views on this sort of thing at various stages of development on my blog. The main thing is that that’s what I want this course to do – to bring out this sort of critical ethical tool-kit through the study of an interesting, and important period of change.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Feud, Vengeance, Politics and History in Early Medieval Europe

[This is the text of a paper I gave at a very good conference in Aarhus in October 2003, which I haven't (yet) written up (the rest of the conference is published here).  At some point I might yet work it up into a piece, although I am thinking of using some of it as an illustration in Escaping the Past.  A counter to the various counters to my original article on feud (1998) is probably overdue.  For now, I hope the points of contact with my previous post are clear - especially in the stitching up of time and the non-ending of narrative.]

Feuds make good stories and it is stories, you might say, that make feuds.  I will therefore – as I imagine many of us will – start with a story.  It is set in 1073 or 1074 in the Wolds of East Yorkshire, in the aftermath of a feast.  Feasts were fine times for violence.  The most famous alleged feud of the early Middle Ages – that of Sichar and Chramnesind – apparently originated at a Christmas party.  So much for the season of peace on earth and goodwill towards men!  The case that concerns me was on the other hand – according to some interpretations – the last recorded episode in a feud.  One might expect feasts, with the gathering together of lots of people and the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, to have been the occasion for acts of hot-blooded violence such as begin periods of hostility or feud.  ‘From one, an irascible ale-swiller, a man full of wine, a sword’s edge will thrust out the life on the mead bench; previous to that his words will have been too hasty’, as an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet predicted (note, incidentally the reference to three types of alcohol in a single sentence).  Be that as it may, in this case, the gathering together of a family for a feast presented its enemies with a golden opportunity to wipe them all out at once.

The sons and grandsons of a man called Carl had assembled for a feast at their manor of Settrington.  One, however, stayed away.  He, Sumerled, shared his principal estate with the man who organised the bloodshed in Yorkshire, Earl Waltheof of Bernicia.  As the story’s most recent and most eloquent interpreter, Richard Fletcher, says, this is unlikely to be coincidence.  Waltheof’s men, possibly coming by sea to the Yorkshire coast and thence riding west to Settrington, fell upon Sumerled’s brothers and nephews and butchered the lot of them.  Or almost.  One, Cnut, was spared ‘because of his innate goodness’.  He was lucky.  Few people in early medieval episodes like this were spared just for being nice.

Our primary source for this episode is an anonymous and very brief narrative written not long afterwards, called De Obsessione Dunelmi, ‘On the Siege of Durham’, a hugely misleading title although a siege of Durham does appear in the course of the story.  Its author digresses from his tale, actually about the descent of six manors on the borders of Yorkshire and Northumberland, to tell us of the violent story that cumulated in this massacre.  The story is well enough known to late Anglo-Saxonists but, for those of you who specialise in other eras, the tale, not very much abbreviated, goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a powerful and energetic earl called Uhtred who saved Durham from the Scots.  Uhtred was married three times.  His second marriage, to the daughter of one Styr Ulfsson, was contracted on condition that Uhtred kill Styr’s enemy, Thurbrand.  Alas, when Uhtred came to swear allegiance to his new king (and old enemy), Cnut, Thurbrand Hold (or Thurbrand the Hold) and the king’s soldiers ambushed him and forty other chief men and killed the lot of them.  Uhtred’s brother Eadwulf succeeded him in the earldom but when he died, Uhtred’s son (by his first wife) Ealdred became earl and killed Thurbrand Hold.  Thurbrand’s son, Carl, and Ealdred then campaigned against each other until they were prevailed upon to become sworn brothers and go on pilgrimage together to Rome.  Unfortunately, the ship was delayed by bad weather so whilst they waited, Carl entertained Ealdred at his home in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in Holderness.  One day, whilst showing Ealdred around his estate – you can guess what’s coming – Carl killed Ealdred in (and from now on I quote the source)
a wood called Risewood and still today the place of his murder is marked by a small stone cross.  Some time later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, who was the son of his daughter, sent a large band of young men and avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter.  For when the sons of Carl were feasting together at their elder brother’s house at Settrington, not far from York, the men who had been sent caught them unawares and savagely killed them together, except for Cnut whose life they spared because of his innate goodness.  Sumerled, who was not there, survives to this day.  Having massacred the sons and grandsons of Carl, they returned home bringing with them much booty of various kinds.

Seen from Durham c.1100, this was a series of tit-for-tat killings, such as we might unproblematically call a feud.  In the last episode, at Settrington, according to the writer, Waltheof ‘avenged the killing of his grandfather’.  This all looks fairly straightforward but, unlike the story of Sichar and Chramnesind, which, although far from straightforward, everyone (except me) sees as a feud, there has been significant debate about whether the conflict (to use a neutral term) between Uhtred’s and Thurbrand’s families can in fact be called a feud at all.  I want to contribute to that debate and use recent analyses of the story to highlight some of the problems involved in studying feud in the early Middle Ages.

In my past writings about feud I have expressed profound scepticism about the existence of feud, as we would understand it, in the early medieval west – or most of it anyway.  This of course raises the definition of feud, something I expect we will spend much time doing during this conference!  I feel strongly that we need a fairly precise – but not over-restrictive – analytical definition of feud, a definition which distinguishes feud from simple violent dispute or potentially violent hostility.  It seems to me that much recent discussion of feud runs the risk of dissolving feud into any relationship of hostility, even into any potentially violent dispute.  Thus far I suspect I am on solid ground.  Where I suspect I may not be, and where I expect to be rigorously questioned by people specialising in periods with better evidence, is in that I think we also need to distinguish feud from vengeance.  This point raises what is an absolutely fundamental problem in defining and studying the early medieval ‘feud’ (and I hope you can hear the inverted commas around feud there).  The words that meant, or are translated as, ‘feud’ in the early Middle Ages did not mean ‘feud’ as we would understand it.  Faida, faehþe and their cognates were generally rendered into Latin as inimicitia, perhaps hostilitas.  I hope we can agree that enmity and hostility are not, necessarily, feud. 

More to the point, the relationship rendered by these words was a one-way relationship.  ‘Feud’, as rendered by these early medieval vernaculars, was not a two-way, reciprocal relationship.  It meant the right, by one party, either to avenge, or rather to punish, an affront (actually, as far as I can see, it invariably meant a killing) through a reciprocal act, usually vengeance-killing, without (and this is the key) any fear of a subsequent revenge attack by the initial aggressors; or, probably more commonly, it meant the right to exact a compensation payment in lieu of such an attack, through the threat of such an attack.  ‘Bearing the feud’ can mean the obligation to seek redress for a wrong, by one party.  At the same time, to ‘bear the feud’ means to bear the threat of vengeance against you, or to bear the cost of the compensation payment.  I have seen no use of the word to mean a lasting and reciprocal relationship of violence, and I have found very little evidence indeed of feud in the modern sense of lasting vendetta.  Now, we may be happy to call this relationship feud, because early medieval people called it feud.  The problem is that in English at least, what people today understand by feud is something rather different.  And, more to the point, the phenomenon analysed as feud in other historical periods, or in anthropological fieldwork, is something rather different.  In a sense that is the root of the problem and why we need tight conceptual frameworks.  Most work on early medieval feud acknowledges the point about contemporary, medieval understandings but then understanding is badly hindered by the fact that modern notions of feud keep bleeding into the analysis.

I should make it clear that I am not sceptical about the historical or anthropological existence of the phenomenon of feud.  I don’t adopt an unnecessarily stringent or exacting definition of feud but I have to say that I can find very little evidence that would satisfy even a minimal (if rigorous) definition of feud in the early medieval West.

The principal area of contention in response to my work appears to lie in a discussion of motivation: feud versus ‘politics’.  Now, of course, this distinction is crude, neither hard and fast nor very clear – perhaps not even very useful.  Nevertheless, it is an important issue, and what is at stake should become clear in the course of my discussion.  Some writers, William Kapelle and Matthew Bennett for example, have argued that some violent early medieval encounters were not feuds but simply part of politics.  The counter, needless to say, is to argue (as, for example, John Gillingham, Isobel Alfonso, Richard Fletcher, Christopher Morris) that you cannot separate feud from politics.  In a sense they are quite right.  But in a sense, too, this is not a very satisfying argument if you really want to analyse and understand feud in the early Middle Ages.  I would argue that we do need some way of distinguishing feud from violent competition for resources between powerful groups or families that happen to have found themselves upon opposing sides in the past.  At least we need to think about it, and conceptualise such differences.  Many of my points run straight up against the frustrating lack of evidence in the early Middle Ages.  Here I would like guidance from those who work on better documented eras.  One lesson I have to underline, however, is that we must work from the (however vaguely) known to the unknown.  So much writing about early medieval violence is beset by assumptions, cherished, long-held notions about the nature of the period.  But feud as a central facet of early medieval life (as many think it was) has to be demonstrated, not assumed.  It won’t do to argue that the fact that we cannot find dramas of repeated tit-for-tat violence running beyond two acts – one initial wrong, and one act of revenge – just because the data is patchy.  And it won’t do, either, to argue that the reason some of our famous ‘feuds’ don’t, on close scrutiny, seem to be feuds is because the authors of the accounts of them were churchmen who did not understand the concept of feud.

There are a number of issues, most of which can be illustrated with reference to the story of Uhtred and Thurbrand’s families.  The first, possibly the most important, is that of history and narrative.  The point that historians shape the traces of the past into a story is often associated with the ‘post-modern’ turn in historiography but it has actually been made since the very earliest days of modern history.  Thomas Carlyle said as much in the earlier nineteenth century.  To be crude, we choose items from the information that has come down to us and connect them together to make a story.  This is, of course, especially relevant to the study of feud, doubly relevant because the point also applies to many of our witnesses.  Contemporaries, or near contemporaries like the Durham Anonymous, selected episodes from the past and linked them together to make a single strand of narrative – the story of a feud.  But was it a feud?  Or was it simply written up as such?  The episodes in the Northumbrian feud sound unproblematic, as related by the Durham Anonymous.  However in fact there were long gaps between them.  If, as is usually assumed, the Thurbrand, enemy of Styr Ulfsson, and Thurbrand Hold are one and the same (no one appears to have wondered why, if they are the same man, the author only explains who Thurbrand Hold was on his second appearance – and one lesson of the story is that name-giving was confusingly unimaginative in eleventh-century Northumbria) then it took ten years for any violence to erupt as a result of Styr’s injunction to Uhtred to kill Thurbrand.  Uhtred had remarried in the interim in any case and, furthermore, it was Thurbrand who did the only recorded attacking.  Styr and Thurbrand might have been rivals but rivalry is not necessarily feud.

Then there must have elapsed another seven years or more before Ealdred exacted his revenge on Thurbrand.  As William Kapelle noted the next episode is interesting in that it is described not as Carl trying to ambush Ealdred, trying to find an occasion to carry out his vengeance killing, but as a period when the two tried to do away with each other.  And the period up to Carl’s killing of Ealdred was another long one.  Ealdred’s murder dates to 1038, that is twenty-three years after his father’s murder of Ealdred’s father, and at least ten years after Thurbrand’s killing.  As noted, the Anonymous proceeds from the death of Ealdred to say simply that ‘Some time later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, ... avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter.’  What might not be clear from this is that the Settrington massacre, the fourth and final episode of the Northumbrian ‘feud’, took place no less than thirty-six years after Ealdred’s murder.  Indeed Carl killed Ealdred four years before Waltheof was even born.  Thirty-six years is a long time – most of my lifetime.  It took as long to happen in the eleventh century.

So: four acts of murderous violence spread over fifty-eight or fifty-nine years, with probably at least a decade between each of them.  It might be argued that this is to limit discussion to the recorded acts of hostility but that is one area where I object that we cannot assume the existence of types of violence.  For one thing, we do know about other acts of violence involving these people.  The war (let’s call it that) between Ealdred and Carl has been mentioned.  Another war is mentioned over the estates in Teesdale.  Waltheof, ‘avenger’ of Ealdred, was the son of Siward, who married Ealdred’s daughter, as the Durham Anonymous notes.  Now Siward, father of Waltheof, also happens to have killed Eadwulf, half-brother of Ealdred, in 1041.  No feud appears to have ensued between Eadwulf’s family and Siward’s.  This poses huge problems for the reconstruction of the De Obsessione’s story as a feud.  It makes Waltheof switch sides – at best.  The Durham Anonymous could say that when Waltheof had the sons of Carl killed at Settrington, he avenged his grandfather.  From his point of view, as he told his story, it looked like that.  It’s a nice narrative turn.  But, firstly, it only looked like Waltheof had avenged his grandfather because the writer chose to forget that Waltheof’s own father had killed Waltheof’s great uncle, the brother of the man he was supposed to be avenging.  And secondly, however the Anonymous saw it, it does not have any implications for what motivated Waltheof in 1073/74. 

There was other murderous violence.  The third son of Uhtred, Gospatric, was, like his father and elder brother, killed at court on the orders of Tostig, Siward’s successor as earl of Northumbria, in 1063.  Gospatric’s son Oswulf killed Tostig’s crony Copsig in 1067 but no ‘feud’ between Uhtred’s family and the Godwinesons is mentioned.  Oswulf was himself murdered by a robber, later in 1067.  More to the point, when Uhtred was killed in 1015 by Thurbrand Hold, he was killed alongside forty other leading men.  Why was it only his family that ‘feuded’ with Thurbrand’s?  And, finally, note that neither Uhtred’s brother Eadwulf Cudel, nor either of Ealdred’s brothers appear to have done anything at all to avenge their murders.  The Anonymous said that Eadwulf Cudel was a lazy cowardly man but not because he didn’t avenge his brother, but because he was afraid of the Scots.  There seems to be a lot of selection from the evidence, selection from a sea of violence and killing, going on here in order to make this into a long, unilinear saga of murder and revenge.  Like all historians, the Durham Anonymous chose how to emplot his story, and he did so in the tragic mode.

An alternative explanation has been proposed.  The admittedly patchy sources for Northumbrian politics at this time allow the suggestion that the families of Thurbrand and Uhtred were on different sides during the turbulent early decades of the eleventh century.  Uhtred’s family had control of the earldom of Bamburgh, or Bernicia, and appears to have been loyal to the old English royal dynasty.  Thurbrand’s family, on the other hand, seems to be counted amongst the supporters of Cnut, and perhaps at the head of a Danish faction in Yorkshire.  The first recorded action in the hostility between the two groups was Thurbrand’s slaughter of Uhtred and other English leaders.  However, as has been pointed out, even by proponents of the feud interpretation, to have slain forty-one men must have required a substantial armed force.  Indeed the sources say the first massacre was on King Cnut’s orders and that the milites who did the killing were his troops.  In the broader English context of the events of 1016, and Charles Insley has correctly pointed out that we cannot see episodes like this in purely local light, Cnut was following a policy of the eradication of the principal supporters of his erstwhile enemy and rival for the kingship, Æthelræd II ‘Unræd’.  Siward’s murder of Ealdred’s brother Eadwulf – unavenged, remember – was carried out in similar fashion, and so were other killings at the royal court (like that of the third brother, Gospatric), none of which appears to have provoked feud.  Kapelle has suggested that the family of the Bernician earls was in revolt against the crown for a while.  Carl on the other hand appears to have been an important royal official in Yorkshire, supporting the Danish royal house.  The reconstruction is plausible and gives us a reason to see how the two could have spent some time campaigning against each other even without the blood that lay between them.

Carl’s eventual murder of Ealdred might have been part of politics on the wider stage.  Another royal official in York, Siward, after all did away with Ealdred’s brother, apparently on royal orders.  But it is equally possible that – at the same time – his actions might have been motivated, and justified, by Ealdred’s killing of Carl’s father.  Finally, Waltheof sent his lads to slaughter Carl’s sons and grandsons.  It is very unlikely indeed, for reasons touched upon above, that this should be seen as an act of feud.  Again, national politics play a part.  Waltheof and the sons of Carl had both found themselves in revolt against William I in 1069-70.  Waltheof, however, had charmed William into forgiving him and even giving him his father’s earldom.  This might not have gone down well with other former rebels.  Possibly trouble was brewing again.  Either way, it seems unlikely that we have to go back further than 1069 to understand the reasons for the Settrington massacre of 1073/4.  Whether, like the Durham Anonymous, Waltheof justified his action as revenge for his grandfather, whether he added it as an afterthought, as icing on the justificatory cake, we shall never know.

The two motives – political expediency (or orders) and personal revenge – are not necessarily clearly separable.  That is the essence of the argument against the ‘politics, not feud’ position.  It is here, however, that we run into the really intractable issues.  Even if we knew how Carl justified his killing of Ealdred, and the cross erected on the site suggests atonement, the past is always made in the present.  Individuals select aspects from their knowledge of the past to justify their deeds in the present.  Carl and Ealdred had been engaged in some sort of a struggle; Carl’s father had killed Ealdred’s father twenty years before, and ten years ago (let’s say) Ealdred had killed Carl’s father.  These were all aspects that would make close friendship between the two unlikely in any society, feuding or otherwise.  Yet they had chosen at one point to forget these past events and become sworn brothers.  There was a choice.  This choice lies at the heart of what Wallace-Hadrill called the ‘dormant feud’.  Yet I think that the concept of a dormant feud is, analytically, deeply problematic.

In 1998 I wrote:
‘if, rather than having a continuous state of violence and enmity, we have a series of independent incidents taking place to solve immediate problems and the contingent selection from the past of particular episodes to justify or explain them, it does not seem analytically useful to link them into a spuriously continuous ‘chain’ of events and call that feud.’
But that, essentially, was what the Durham Anonymous did.  It is what many another individual has done in the aftermath of some event.  It is true of many another feud but, unless there is some conscious relationship, some conscious awareness of a feuding relationship, in the periods between the violence, then do we have a feud?  It seems to me that if the answer is yes, then there can be feuds that were entirely made with hindsight, and never existed in the present.  That does not seem to me to be useful.  Of course this is a question that it is usually impossible to answer in the early Middle Ages.  In his recent book on the hostility between Uhtred and Thurbrand’s families, emotively called Bloodfeud, Richard Fletcher tries out two possibilities.

In the first, Fletcher draws attention to the cross erected on the site of Ealdred’s murder.  Ealdred left only daughters, three of whom, imaginatively, he called Aelfflaed.  It was one of these that married Siward.  Now, says Fletcher, anthropological and ethnographic as well as historical parallels show that women often play a part in keeping a feuding relationship going, goading their men-folk, producing artefacts associated with the murdered victims, singing songs about the wrongs done, and so on.  The daughters, suggests Fletcher, erected the cross to remind their kin of the wrong done, which required vengeance.  He uses that as a springboard for a nice discussion of female status and power in eleventh-century England.  This is an interesting idea but it is not convincing.  Firstly, if it was the daughters of Ealdred that erected the cross (no source says as much) and if it was their intention to keep the feud alive in their menfolk’s mind, it was both spectacularly ill-advised and astonishingly unsuccessful.  As mentioned, neither of Ealdred’s brothers is recorded as lifting a finger to avenge him, and nor did either of his nephews, or his brother-in-law, or his son-in-law.  If their memory of the feud was dependent on the Risewood cross then this is hardly surprising.  It was erected in the middle of their enemy’s estates.  One might suggest that it is unlikely that the relatives of Ealdred were permitted to make regular pilgrimages to a cross on the estate of their relative’s killer in order to whip the men of the party up into a vengeful frenzy.  It seems to me far more likely that, unless Carl erected the cross in an act of penance, the cross was part of the settlement.  Not only would it have cost money – a sort of compensation payment – if it was the sort of elaborate stone monument well enough known from that part of the world.  It would also have been a permanent reminder to Carl and his family of his perfidy and wrong-doing.  This might have been punishment enough.  In any case, if feud there had been up to that point, this seems to have ended it. 

Fletcher’s is a good try but unfortunately it doesn’t work.  And alas there are precious few better examples of the maintenance of a feuding relationship.  The Merovingian Queen Chlothild’s urging her sons to avenge her father by attacking the Burgundians is sometimes cited as an instance but, as Ian Wood has pointed out, there are huge problems with the story, not the least being the thirty years it apparently took Chlothild to realise that her parents needed avenging.  Now there are references to similar mechanisms at work in the early Middle Ages, but they all concern hostility between larger groups – warfare between peoples.  Frankish washerwomen are said to have sung songs commemorating past wars against the Saxons, for example.  Now, you could assume that if these mechanisms were known at that level then they might have been known at other levels of violence in early medieval society.  But that would be precisely that: an assumption.  There’s no evidence.  This is what lies behind the rest of Fletcher’s analysis (like that of many another commentator), an assumption that feud, as we understand it, was central to early medieval life and thought. 

Briefly, we need to remember that the old idea that the extended family, or clan, was an essential feature of early medieval social organisation has been under attack for some time.  Practical kin-groups were small.  Furthermore, in spite of decades of detailed research into the reconstruction of early medieval aristocratic Sippe, there is little or no evidence that they acted as unified groups in politics.  They fought each other and changed sides in entirely understandable ways, but ways which render the assumptions about early medieval people’s supposed subjection to the demands of feud entirely questionable. 

Fletcher’s other approach, in arguing that the selected and scattered episodes of violence were a bloodfeud, is to argue that medieval texts, laws, show that feuding was a common feature of Anglo-Saxon life.  If it shows nothing else, the story of Thurbrand, Uhtred and their descendants shows that these people had a concept of vengeance.  But many, probably all, societies have a concept of revenge.  To early medieval people God took revenge – ultio – vengeance was, after all, his – but the Lord did not, I suggest, feud.  That would suggest an altogether heretical view of the Almighty.  And the texts cited as showing the centrality of feuding are, as I have argued before and as I have suggested above, about vengeance, not about feud as in modern understanding. 

There is only time for brief points.  Essentially, early medieval law permitted vengeance.  Even law codes like that of King Edmund of England, permitted vengeance, but, and here they drew upon a tradition that went back to the very last Roman laws in the west.  They made precise grants, in specified circumstances, of the state’s right to vengeance.  Only exceptionally energetic and powerful rulers believed they could prevent all acts of vindicatory violence and say that all punishment would be done by their officers.  The early medieval Latin and vernacular words for feud meant the threat to take revenge.  This threat was strategic.  It brought in external parties to mediate.  Specifically, for much of the period, it brought in the king’s officers.  Thus, as I have argued before, ‘feud’ (in early medieval terms) was not a sign of absent state power and nor was its appearance in law a sort of abject admission of this fact, a weary acceptance of the fact that the only way to keep the peace was through a system of deterrence, of mutually assured destruction.  Because the system brought in royal officers to adjudicate, it was a means of enhancing royal presence in the localities.  This vengeance was structurally and analytically different from feuding.  For one thing, it seems to have been the threat of violence that was used strategically to draw attention to the dispute and bring in third parties in an attempt to resolve it.  If compensation was not paid and an agreement or consensus was reached that vengeance was justified, then a revenge killing was seen as punishment, and to have ended the dispute.  It seems to me that this is importantly different from feud, where killing rarely ends the dispute, except perhaps where the whole of the opposing party is wiped out.  Thus to suggest that ideas of feud permeated society, or that feud, as a threat of mutually assured destruction was used to keep the peace in a stateless society, badly misrepresent the early medieval evidence.

The conflict between Uhtred’s family and Thurbrand’s was, to use Paul Hyams’ phrase, feud-like behaviour.  There were certainly elements about it that look like feud.  They were, however, only parts of a complex mix and probably not the most important ones.  Feuds make good stories and the Durham Anonymous wrote this one up into a gripping tale.  But a hugely misleading one.  He made a selection to emplot his narrative as a tale of feud.  The actors in his story might themselves have selected events from the past to justify their deeds.  The point is however that they had a choice.  When other considerations made violence necessary and actions from the past helped to justify this, they chose these justifications.  Most of the time, however, it seems that they chose not to make past violent acts the basis for present or future actions.  These people were not imprisoned within a feuding culture, or bound by the demands of feud.  To emplot the Northumbrian story as a feud masks the complexity of the situation.  More importantly it denies the actors in the story the historical choices that they clearly had and the freedom to act that they evidently enjoyed.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Battle in the Early Medieval West

[The following is the text of a piece I wrote for an Encyclopaedia of Classical Battle or some such, which - for various reasons to do with its coverage - the editors decided was not wanted, in this form at least, so I thought I'd post it here instead.]

The Characteristics of the Period

One of the most evocative pictures of
an early medieval battle I know of.
The Battle of Edington as envisaged by
John Kenney in The Ladybird 'Adventures
in History' Book of Alfred the Great.
Never mind the horned and winged
The study of battle in western Europe between the final dissolution of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century and the beginnings of the world of ‘knights and castles’ in the tenth, is not easy.  Partly this stems from the problems of the sources for the study themselves, and partly it originates in the historiography of medieval military history.  It will probably be more useful to begin with the latter. 

The most important difficulty in comprehending warfare, and battle in particular, during this period is the fact that the era is very rarely understood on its own terms.  This general problem takes two more specific forms.  The first is the debate over the inheritance of Rome and the impact of the ‘Germanic’ barbarians.  On one side there is the old idea that the barbarians brought with them a ‘Germanic’, ‘tribal’ style of warfare, which replaced, by right of conquest, the scientific warfare of the Roman Empire: we might call this the ‘barbarization’ hypothesis.  At the other extreme is the argument that the armed forces of the Roman Empire and the type of warfare they practised were perpetuated directly into the early Middle Ages: the ‘continuity’ hypothesis.  The barbarization hypothesis is the older of the two and finds, perhaps, its apogee in the work of the British historian Sir Charles Oman, whose view of medieval warfare was as a rather mournful interlude between the Vegetian warfare of the Romans and the rebirth of scientific warfare in the Renaissance.  In his view the fifth century did indeed witness a triumph of barbarism and warfare for the next millennium consisted of little more than mindless clashes between disorganised forces of armoured knights.  Indeed Oman saw the battle of Adrianople (378) as something of an emblematic turning point, as he envisaged the battle as the decisive triumph of mounted Gothic ‘knights’ over the foot-slogging legionaries of Rome. 

This is an argument long realised to have been completely mistaken.  Nevertheless, there were less extreme variations on this theme and indeed it can be seen as only one manifestation of the still-widespread misunderstanding of the post-imperial period as one wherein ‘Germanic’ culture swamped western Europe – as a result of the military conquests that the complex phenomenon of the Barbarian Migrations were (and are sadly still) mistakenly seen as being.  One variation on the theme was the dominance of dismounted infantry warfare imported by largely cavalry-free western ‘Germanic’ tribal armies.  This style of warfare persisted, runs a traditional argument, until the eighth century, when the Arab incursions into the west, allegedly bringing with them a new, more mobile form of warfare, compelled the creation of large Frankish cavalry armies.  The equipment of a mounted armoured warrior in these new-style forces was much costlier than hitherto and, it was said, required the creation of new means of rewarding armed followers.  The latter, in this view, were therefore rewarded with lands, especially taken from the church, held on a form of lease in return for continued good service.  This lease-hold agreement was sealed with the swearing of oaths.  Thus, in this vision of the early Middle Ages, the famous ‘feudal system’, supposedly characteristic of medieval warfare was born.  This system stayed in place for most of the next 800 years until replaced by the new ordonnance armies of the fifteenth century.  Because of that persistence, it is still often thought, there was little change in the practice of medieval warfare.

In fully-fledged form, this ‘barbarization’ hypothesis is nowadays held by few if any historians.  The idea of how feudalism was created in the eighth century has been challenged on all fronts, from the specifically military – the mounted warrior did not suddenly appear or dramatically become more dominant in the 730s, and the Arab armies in the west did not wage a type of war that was radically different from that practised across much of the rest of western Europe (many ideas here came from back-projecting the stock idea of ‘Saracen’ warfare from the age of Saladin) – to the institutional – the novelty or chronology of the benefice and the oath of vassalage and the systematic or formal nature of either.  Nonetheless it might still be the case that important changes did take place around 700, even if their nature has been misunderstood.  All that having been said, there are many areas where the inheritance of the barbarization hypothesis remains in force, often sub-consciously, in historians’ and archaeologists’ assumptions about this period.  It is also the case that an attempt was made recently to revive the ‘Germanic’ nature of early medieval warfare in all its glory.  This attempt suffered, however, from a very crude use of sources and has had little or no impact.

The problems with the ‘barbarization’ or ‘Germanic’ hypotheses are insurmountable.  On the one hand they assume that there was some sort of ‘Germanic’ cultural ethos that unified all the peoples that lived between Scandinavia and the Rhine and between the North Sea Coast and the Ukraine.  This both more and less than a continuation of Graeco-Roman ethnographic chauvinism, which lumped all Germanic-speakers together as fundamentally the same.  More than this, in the sense that the Romans did not regard the Goths as Germani; that is essentially a modern assumption growing out of moves towards German unity from the Renaissance onwards (although the common linguistic roots of Franks and Goths had been noted in the eighth century).  It is less than Roman chauvinism in that the Romans in fact described the Germani as an extension of the same general features as the Gaul – in other words as just one manifestation of the standard ‘northern barbarian’.  Suffice it to say that although this remains a pernicious and deep-rooted idea, there is no evidential basis that allows us to treat the Germanic-speaking barbarians as fundamentally interchangeable exponents of ‘Germanic’ culture. 

The other problem with the ‘barbarization’ hypothesis is that it is more or less impossible to know what the norms of ‘Germanic’ warfare were before the fifth century.  Archaeology gives us some interesting insights here and there about practice, armament and organisation.  The Graeco-Roman authors give us other hints but these are so mired in classical ethnographic stereotyping that they are difficult to make use of and seem often to contradict the implications of the archaeology.  That apart, the idea of ‘Germanic’ warfare have actually been drawn from the sources of the western European early Middle Ages, after the settlement of Germanic-speakers in the provinces of the Empire.  Here the argument, obviously, becomes circular: the nature of early medieval western warfare was ‘Germanic’ because, as we can see in the sources of the period, it conforms to what we know ‘Germanic’ warfare was like; but our idea of what ‘Germanic’ warfare was like is drawn from the sources of the early medieval West.  Even the ‘barbarization’ of the Late Roman army can be argued to represent a very Roman process, based around Roman ideas of what barbarians were like, rather than the importing of actual barbarian practices.

One of the reasons why the ‘barbarization hypothesis’ is no longer as common as it was is that the degree of continuity from the Roman world into the post-imperial has increasingly been appreciated.  From the 1960s and especially from the publication of Peter Brown’s classic and brilliant The World of Late Antiquity (1971), the extent to which there was any really profound break during the fifth century has been put under scrutiny.  Most of this work has been very fine indeed and has radically reshaped the way in which most historians think about the period.  It has, however, had some unfortunate side-effects, one being a view of the early Middle Ages in which nothing at all had changed from the Roman-period.  In the sphere of military history this has been manifested in a large corpus of work by Bernard S. Bachrach, which argues that the armies of the sixth century and later, right on into the central Middle Ages, were simple continuations of Roman armies and waged warfare in the same way as the late Roman army had done. In spite of its volume, this work has had little effect on the serious study of the period, but in numerical terms it does dominate the historiography of the specific subject of early medieval battle, so some further discussion is necessary.

The ‘bottom line’ that must be borne in mind is that there is no evidence at all to support Bachrach’s arguments.  The latter have proceeded essentially by reading uniform, technical meanings (out of several possible even in classical Latin texts) into particular words used in early medieval sources.  A general and unremarkable descriptive word meaning ‘scouts’ or ‘outriders’, for example, becomes the title of a specific regular unit of the Frankish army.  This ignores the demands of early medieval genre and style, which required writers to employ vocabulary ‘ratified’ by its use in the models of Greek and Roman historical writing.  Bachrach is quite right that early medieval writers did not use terms willy-nilly.  They surely chose words that were generally applicable and conjured the right sort of image although it is also clear that they could play around with such terms for stylistic, argumentative and ironic effect).  It is quite a jump from there to the argument that the appearance of this vocabulary reflects direct factual description.  Bachrach’s approach fails, furthermore, to account for the clear variations in which these terms are used within sources or the ways in which they are obviously used as synonyms for other words with technically different meanings.  An example can be seen in the way that Bachrach takes the use of the words acies and cuneus in the Carolingian poem Waltharius to mean two different military formations, a line and a column respectively.  Indeed acies does mean ‘battle-line’ and one of the many meanings of cuneus (literally a wedge) was a dense, deeply drawn-up battle-formation, perhaps like a column.  But in early medieval sources it is clear that both words were used interchangeably for the close-packed formations which (as we shall see) were usually the norm on the battlefield.  This is clear from Waltharius itself, where the poet alternates between one and the other.  Bachrach reads this as a unit of cavalry deploying from line to column and then back again, all while within spear-throwing distance of the other side.  Proper textual analysis makes this unlikely.  So too, though, does comparative military history, which would demonstrate that such formation changes within close range of the enemy would be nearly impossible to perform.  Therein lies another problem with Bachrach’s interpretations; he envisages a scale of warfare in the early Middle Ages that was not matched before the eighteenth century, and a discipline (on the march and in battle) and tactical complexity that study of battlefield actuality in better-documented eras suggests has never existed in practice.

One reason for that is Bachrach’s concentration on the continued copying of the late Roman tactical and strategic treatise De Re Militari (roughly ‘On Matters Military’) by Vegetius.  This work was indeed very popular in the Middle Ages and existed in hundreds of manuscripts in many different forms.  Bachrach has pointed out that medieval authors sometimes made amendments to the text to bring it more into line with the world in which they lived.  That is a good point and shows (as all medievalists know in any case) that post-imperial authors did not simply copy their sources without thinking about them – any more than they used words from the classical past without thinking about how to use them in their own terms.  Indeed the argument that classical texts could be adapted to current actuality by early medieval writers but that the technical meanings of vocabulary remained unaltered is something of an aporia in Bachrach’s thesis.  It is also perfectly true that (in the later Middle Ages especially) warriors are known to have owned copies of De Re Militari.  However, it is another unjustifiable argumentative leap from these (fundamentally sensible) points to Bachrach’s argument that Vegetius’ popularity means that the early medieval (and later) readers of Vegetius used his tactical and organisational recommendations in practice.  Again, comparative military history would argue that, even in eras where they were widely issued to junior officers and even NCOs (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example), there was a considerable gap between the diktats of tactical manuals and battlefield reality.  The multiple varieties of forming a square from a line in mid-eighteenth-century handbooks seem, for instance, almost never to have been followed in practice during the Seven Years’ War, when infantry lines either stopped cavalry attacks with volleys of musketry or lay down and let the cavalry ride over them.  One need not proceed so far from the period under review, however.  Close study of Vegetius will soon reveal that this was (overall) an armchair theorist’s idea of how things ought to be – indeed the whole point of the book is pretty clearly that things aren’t like they were in the ‘good old days’ – and not a description of practice even to the extent that a nineteenth-century manual was.  Vegetius’ book, therefore, is not even a reliable description of late Roman, let alone post-imperial, warfare; indeed Vegetius never claimed that it was. 

Another point is that the copies of Vegetius that circulated in the early Middle Ages, even while adding in comments here and there about ‘modern practice’, usually left out the most specifically military elements of De Re Militari.  This is because most circulated within monasteries and it has not implausibly been argued that the point the work was there intended to serve was allegorical: as a ‘tactical manual’ for monks battling sin and evil.  Even the (later medieval) copies of the work that were owned by soldiers were demonstrably acquired by those warriors late in life.  Thus rather than being an educational tool, to be followed in practice when one took the field later on, the preferable argument is that old soldiers liked Vegetius’ book because it gave a respectable classical imprimatur to what they had already learnt by dint of hard practice in the field.  Most of Vegetius’ recommendations are, indeed, of the ‘common sense’ variety (e.g. you should post guards around a camp to prevent surprise attacks) that good generals would know whether or not they read De Re Militari.  A further problem with Bachrach’s thesis is that he tends to misrepresent any historian who rejects the widespread practical use of classical treatises in the Middle Ages as arguing for the existence of primitive tribal warfare, with commanders simply bumbling about, hitting anyone who got in their way (the Oman view of medieval war).  Obviously, such a view in no way follows from the argument that medieval warfare was not a clinical Vegetian science (as Roman warfare had not been either) – which is nevertheless not to say that a lack of strategic and tactical good sense cannot be seen on occasion during the early Middle Ages.  It can, as it can throughout military history.

All this is in fact fairly typical of the early medieval attitude to the works of the classical past.  Such tracts were of huge interest and their possession, and often knowledge of their contents too, were good markers of learning and status.  It has been thoroughly demonstrated that Carolingian writers about geography paid enormous respect to works from antiquity and often repeated their comments even whilst knowing full well that they had nothing at all to do with the ninth-century world in which they lived.  The idea, however often repeated, that early medieval warfare was a continuation of Roman practice must, therefore be rejected at the outset.  This is important to make clear, because no further reference to the idea will be made in this chapter.

Bachrach also portrays any historian who does not subscribe to his view of extreme continuity as holding to the ‘barbarization’ hypothesis: the implanting of barbarian, specifically ‘Germanic’ military practices in post-imperial Europe.  In this, though, he is not alone.  It does seem to have proven enormously difficult for the study of post-imperial warfare to break free of the binary opposition between ‘continuity’ and ‘barbarization’.  The idea that the warfare of the period might be characterised by neither term has not managed to take root.  As an illustration of this point we can cite a recent encyclopaedia entry on the topic, which portrays my own earlier arguments as postulating the ‘barbarization’ of warfare before the end of the Roman Empire.  They do not and, more to the point, it is impossible to read them in this way unless one is incapable of seeing fifth- to tenth-century warfare other than as either ‘barbarized’ or ‘Roman’.  Admittedly this is not the only area of the history of this period that has been incapable of breaking free from this dualism.  Nonetheless unless we break free of it we shall never understand warfare in the West between c.450 and c.900, for one of the most important points that this chapter tries to make is that warfare in this era must be understood on its own terms, not as a simple continuation of Roman warfare or as a simple importation of equally pre-existing, supposedly Germanic norms.  Warfare in this period clearly developed from that of the late Roman period but it was essentially, neither ‘Roman’ nor ‘Germanic’: just ‘new’ and ‘different’.  To persist with the traditional alternatives is akin to arguing that sixteenth century warfare must either be a direct continuation of medieval warfare or a simple importing of Renaissance Italian norms.

This conclusion has a bearing on the other key mistake in envisaging early medieval warfare, which is to assume that it was the same as warfare in the later eras of the Middle Ages, say from the tenth or, especially, the eleventh century onwards.  It has been assumed that norms of medieval warfare existed, which meant that battle was rare and that the principal means by which warfare was prosecuted was via sieges of enemy strongholds.  This is a fine description of the warfare of the age of ‘knights and castles’ but we must think twice before we assume that it applied in an age where neither knights nor castles (as either element usually is understood) actually existed.  Battle seems to have been more common in the period that concerns this chapter than it was in the Central and Later Middle Ages, for reasons that I will return to discuss in more detail – reasons that concern the social and economic structures of the period, which were quite different from those after the economic upsurge of the ninth and tenth centuries, (especially as these concern urbanism).  Thus we must try and understand early medieval battle on its own terms, as it comes down to us in the sources of the period, rather than trying to hammer it into a framework created through the study of other, admittedly better-documented eras.

The Source Material

This, however, is no easy task, for the source materials available to us are infuriatingly uninformative about battlefield reality – it is this fact alone that has rendered it so easy to make early medieval warfare conform to templates created from Roman or Central Medieval evidence.  The silence of early medieval sources on the nature of battle is a very difficult problem to unravel.  There is no doubt that warfare was a very frequent and very real part of early medieval life, whether we are talking about society, economics or politics.  The annalistic sources are full of mentions of wars and there are very good reasons to suppose that violence that would be regarded as warfare in modern international politics was in fact considerably more common even than our written evidence indicates. 

Yet, that evidence uniformly reduces warfare to banalities of one form or another.  The standard western early medieval annalistic account of a campaign and battle habitually contains the information that King X led an army to place Y and fought King Z, with one or other being victorious and the following notable personages being killed – and nothing more.  Often even that information is not all present.  Several battles in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, lack a recorded winner.  This might have been was because the ‘wrong’ side won (that is to say not the West Saxons), or because the battle was, effectively, a draw, or because the Chronicler’s own sources did not agree on the victor, but we cannot now decide which of these explanations is the correct one.  On other occasions the location of the fight is omitted; occasionally even the opponent is missing from the account!  Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, simply says, under the year 937, that ‘in this year King Æthelstan led an army to Brunanburh’.  Were it not for the preservation, in the other manuscripts of the Chronicle, of the famous ‘Song of Brunanburh’ and its account of Æthelstan’s defeat of a coalition of Welsh, Scots and Vikings, even this, his greatest victory, would possibly have fallen victim to the curious damnatio memoriae visited on Æthelstan by his successors.

There are of course exceptions.  Occasionally another snippet of information is included and towards the end of the period under review, in the ninth century, some of the Frankish annals – especially the Chronicle of Regino of Prüm – begin to include considerably more detail, even if still tacit by comparison with the sources of other periods.  Sometimes other information about the routes taken by armies can be winnowed out of sources like charters, issued by a king en route.  Nonetheless, before the later ninth century the annalistic sources are very terse on battle and its nature.

This is rarely compensated for by the other forms of history available to the student of early medieval western battle.  Saints’ Lives, unsurprisingly, have little to say on the subject although many of the occasional additional pieces information about battlefield tactics that make it through the capricious evidential filter come from hagiographies.  One is the fact that an army led against the Picts by King Ecgfrith of Northumbria in the 670s was equitatus (mounted on horses).  This is the only reference to whether or not Anglo-Saxon armies used horses to appear in a source earlier than the ninth century.  Histories written in the tradition of classical narrative are, as has been alluded to, mired in the demands of genre, to write as closely to the Greek and Roman models as possible.  Thus Asser, biographer of King Alfred, refers to Viking and Anglo-Saxon armies as forming testudines; we should not envisage ninth century warriors drawn up in a testudo.  Asser meant us simply to see them as packed in, shoulder to shoulder, behind their shields.  When Byzantine historians like Procopius and Agathias write about western European armies as, for example, in Procopius’ accounts of the campaigns by the general Belisarius against the Goths in Italy, these problems can be even greater.  These writers were even more constrained by expectations not to use new-fangled terms.  Thus Procopius talks of Eastern Roman (Byzantine) guards using the words hypaspistai and doryphoroi and, although there is an interesting consistency in his use of the words which suggests a two-tiered nature to Byzantine guards units similar to that found in the households of western ‘barbarians’, we have to pause to remember that both terms are found in classical Greek works.  The hypaspistai were the dismounted bodyguards of Alexander the Great, for example.  Whether sixth-century Byzantine guardsmen were really called by these titles is difficult to say; scepticism seems prudent when one notes the tortuous circumlocution used elsewhere by Procopius when he refers to the ‘excubatores (for thus the Romans call their guards)’.  Elsewhere we encounter Gothic ‘Hoplites’ – possibly an instance where the use of ‘attic’ vocabulary was played with for ironic effect, although Gothic close-fighters with round shield and spear would indeed bear a passing resemblance to the Hoplites of ancient Greece.

These examples act as a neat bridge between the formulaic terseness of the annalistic accounts and poetic formulas about battle.  Battle is common subject matter in early medieval poetry, whether in the vernacular (such as late Anglo-Saxon poetry, or the Ludwigslied, about the battle of Saucourt in 882) or Latin (as with Waltharius or Angilbert’s poem on the battle of Fontenoy in 841).  In the Old English poetic corpus we can also find accounts of battles in poems about Christian History (Elene) or biblical topics (Judith).  Sadly for the historian, these accounts rarely tell us very much.  The passage about cavalry fighting in Waltharius, already alluded to, is an important but all-too-rare exception.  The accounts are again reduced to a series of commonplaces, that the brave warriors of one side defeated those of another, giving their people little cause to rejoice, and the carrion beasts of the forest (wolves, ravens, etc.) feasted on their dead.  The tone can be unpleasant and triumphalist in victory (as with the Old English Song of Brunanburh) or elegiac in defeat (as with Angilbert’s poems or some of the British battle poetry that might date to our period, like Y Gododdin) but in neither context is very much of substance relayed to us.

Why there is this unremitting near-silence on the experience of battle in the early Middle Ages is a problem which is difficult to resolve.  Comparison with other eras makes the undoubted horror of close-fighting with edged weapons unsatisfactory as an explanation and the militancy of the early medieval Church precludes an account based on the exigencies of New Testament theology.  The involvement of the Church in warfare rules out an explanation based on the overwhelmingly ecclesiastical provenance of our sources, as do the facts that sources written by laymen (such as Nithards’ Histories) are just as tacit while, conversely, some of the most detailed accounts of battles (like Regino’s) come from the pens of churchmen.  Currently the closest we might come to an answer might be via contemporary views on the reasons for victory and defeat.  It was widely, if not universally, held that victory was granted by God and that defeat was the consequence of sin.  Thus the tactics of clever generals (or of stupid ones) were irrelevant.  That the scheming of an imaginative commander like Charles the Bald, attacking via a night march and under cover of peace-feelers, did not prevent his disastrous defeat in the ensuing battle of Andernach by his inexperienced nephew Louis the Younger only underlined the point, as did the fact that while Charles was generally regarded as impious, Louis had undertaken various rituals to place the outcome in the hands of God.  These factors, presumably, explain why Hincmar of Rheims told us more about the campaign than usual.  The more tactically-interested Romans used to say that, for a disaster like Cannae, you needed not just a genius like Hannibal on one side but an idiot like Varro on the other.  Hincmar’s account suggests that, had they had an equivalent maxim, late ninth-century people would have said that, for a disaster like Andernach, you needed not just a pious king like Louis on one side but an impious wretch like Charles on the other.  Such a supposition might go some way towards explaining why early medieval writers were less interested in tactics than their Roman precursors had been.  It does not, of course, imply that early medieval commanders had no interest in tactics!

The other fundamental sources for early medieval battle are furnished by archaeology.  At one level the period does very well out of this source of evidence as the custom of furnished inhumation (burial with grave-goods), which was widely practised in England, northern France and Germany in the sixth and seventh centuries (and into the eighth century in Germany), less commonly employed in Spain and Italy in the same period and used with fluctuating frequency and uneven distribution across Scandinavia throughout the early Middle Ages, has yielded a corpus of thousands of early medieval weapons.  Other items of military apparel, whether for the warrior or his horse, are also attested.  As stated, these data are unevenly distributed in time, place and, thanks to the ritual nature of the formation of this evidence, form as well.  The custom could involve greater or lesser investment in the deposition of weapons at certain times and in specific areas.  The sample of early medieval helmets and armour is overwhelmingly skewed towards south-western Germany where the furnished inhumation rite could be very lavish indeed.  This does not mean that the Alamans were the most heavily armoured warriors in the West.  Similarly, shields are very well known from Anglo-Saxon burials but rare in Frankish ones; this does not imply that Frankish warriors went into battle unshielded.  These problems of sample and of moving from the ritual deposit of objects in a grave to the availability or otherwise of items in everyday life are very significant.  So too is extrapolating tactical practice from the form of weapons.  Nonetheless, with these difficulties taken into account, an attempt at some tentative conclusions can still be made.

The Role of Battle

Earlier I intimated that battle was more frequent in the early medieval period than at other points in history.  This is quite a controversial statement to take, not least because the good reasons why commanders avoided battle in other times and places – above all the fact that (as Charles the Bald found to his cost at Andernach) battle was a lottery played for the highest of stakes – surely applied in this period too. Indeed one contemporary, Sedulius Scotus, wrote as much. ‘There is much uncertainty’, he said, ‘in the rumblings of war.’  If this was the case, as it seems to have been, why should early medieval western commanders have been more willing to commit themselves and their forces to battle than their predecessors and successors?  Were they mad?

First of all, though, the argument that battle was more frequent needs to be substantiated.  Needless to say, this is not easy given the sources at our disposal but the recorded numbers of what one assumes were significant battlefield encounters are nevertheless quite high.  Perhaps the extreme example is the indecisive winter campaign fought between the West Saxons and the Viking Great army in 870-71 – the ‘Year of Battles’ – when seven or nine encounters were recorded, besides other skirmishes.  It must be conceded that many of the battles mentioned were probably small-scale affairs by the standards of other periods but one ought to judge battles by the political stakes played for and the significance of victory or defeat rather than by the numbers of troops involved.  In this perspective the numbers of important leaders who lost their lives in battle is very significant.  In seventh-century England, for example, no fewer than twelve battles were fought that resulted in the death of at least one king or other royal.

There are two reasons, I suggest, why commanders were readier to trust their lives and those of their followers to the lottery of battle in this period.  The first is economic.  The acquisition of loot and treasure was a very important reason for waging war, in this period as in others, although its importance has perhaps been overstated in comparison with other, less tangible rewards in patronage, office and so on that could be acquired through good service on campaign and in battle.  The crucial fact is that in western Europe for most of the period from the fifth century onwards, settlements do not seem to have been very large or to have been the locus for much wealth.  Towns in particular remained small throughout the period covered.  The fifth and sixth centuries were a period of urban decline across north-western Europe, which began to be reversed in the seventh century.  A real upsurge in the fortunes of towns did not occur until the ninth century and later.  In the Mediterranean, towns were small in the fifth and sixth century and declined later, before a later revival towards the end of the period.  The besieging and sacking of settlements was thus not a means by which large quantities of wealth would be obtained.  The only obvious exceptions to this rule were churches and monasteries and – although – pre-Viking sacking of religious sites by Christian forces are far from unknown, there were important spiritual sanctions against taking this military course of action.  By contrast, armies were concentrations of moveable wealth.  People tended, throughout this period, to wear, and thus to display their wealth.  As the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard has made abundantly clear, military equipment was a major locus for the investment of wealth in gold and other precious metal, and costly craftsmanship.  Weapons and armour did not come cheap, even if their expense has sometimes been overplayed.  As political gatherings of the powerful, the army was also a site for competitive displays of this sort.  More than that, horses, the sine qua non of the early medieval warrior, were expensive.  The price of a warhorse remained pretty stable at about ten solidi throughout the early medieval West, although especially good mounts might fetch twice that amount.  What this meant in practice is difficult to say, given that a solidus was generally a unit of account rather than an actual coin in western Europe at this time.  Nevertheless reasonably-sized parcels of land could be exchanged for a horse.   Kings, furthermore, took their treasuries on campaign, not to mention evidently luxurious tents and other items.  By the ninth century, when the western economy was becoming more complex, it is clear too that merchants followed armies.  In Charles the Bald’s defeat at Andernach, for example, shield sellers are mentioned as being caught up in the rout.  Thus defeating the enemy army in battle was liable to yield far more booty and disposable treasure than the sacking of any number of rural settlements – unless a king, his senior aristocrats and their followers happened to have been cornered within it.

The economic history of the period, and the study of its settlements also elucidates the other half of the equation.  In later periods, battle was less common an action in deciding a campaign than siege.  For most of the period after the dissolution of the western Empire, fortification is notable by its absence from many classes of settlement (especially high-status or aristocratic rural settlements and the new economic foundations, the emporia), throughout Europe.  Roman walls remained, of course.  Indeed some ‘late Roman’ defensive circuits might in fact belong to our period.  Older walls were subject to renovation and repair, as is clear.  It is also clear, however, that other circuits were in very bad repair, and that the inhabitants of other towns regarded their walls as a hindrance and were not averse to demolishing sections were necessary, whether to extend a church, as in Reims or to facilitate access to a trading zone, as at Mainz.  Many early medieval towns indeed developed their most vital areas in undefended extra-mural zones.  This situation only began to change significantly in the ninth century and, especially, the tenth.  With this in mind it is not surprising that for most of our period we have little evidence of sophisticated siege techniques, or of besiegers taking fortified places other than by direct attack.  Sieges did take place but, at least before the ninth century, these do not seem to have been the decisive set-pieces that they became later.  Where a defending army took to its fortifications, attacking armies usually ended up going home again, often ravaged by disease.  Charlemagne’s capture of Pavia after a long siege, lasting through winter, is an exceptional case where an unusually skilled organiser and commander, in effect, refused to be bound by the usual norms of warfare, and the Lombard kingdom’s existence was terminated as a result.  Otherwise a defending army could allow settlements to be taken and remain unbeaten in the field, without this striking much of a blow to its ability to win the war.  However, most of the time, an army would not simply remain unbeaten in the field; it would seek a decisive encounter.

Apart from economic advantage, the other reason for this concerns the fluidity of status and identity and the role that military status played within defining those identities.  The bearing of weapons, at various times and places, associated with masculinity, ethnicity, age and social rank but in all cases that bearing of arms symbolised, it seems, not just the ability to inflict violence upon other people but the right to participate in specific types or scales of violence, that is to say warfare, the actions of the army.  This equated, throughout the period, with involvement in high-level politics.  As, for much of the period, this right was, or could be, open to competition from rivals, the right had to be made clear on a regular basis.  Thus the calling out of armies, even if only to form political assemblies, was a frequent occurrence.  In Francia in the sixth century and in Lombard Italy in the earlier eighth, it appears to have been associated with March 1st – the Marchfield, a specific early medieval adaptation of the Campus Martius.  The three Edicts of the Frankish King Childebert II, in the 590s, and all eighth-century Lombard legislation are issued on that date, when the army came together.  Such assemblies were occasions when a king could promote and reward those who had performed well and (at least in some times and places, especially in the sixth century) demote or punish those who had not.

With status open to competition and bound up with one’s identity as a warrior, more or less to the exclusion of all else, outside the Church, it is not surprising that honour amongst warriors was a very touchy subject.  Accusations of cowardice were among the worst one could throw at a man.  Consequently, when it came to questions of honour and its demonstration, battle was frequently sought, regardless of tactical niceties.  Two Frankish defeats came about as the result of commanders not wishing to share any glory obtained and rushing into action before the arrival of another nobleman, the subject of some envy, placed in overall command.  A Lombard disaster against the Slavs was produced when the army’s commanders quarrelled about an accusation of cowardice, which eventually produced a charge up a steep hill against an entrenched enemy.  The rank and file warriors followed their leaders because ‘they considered it base not to’.

Clearly, then, the refusal of battle could be seen as an admission of a lack of personal prowess or bravery.  This could affect kings, fatally, regardless of the demands of a sensible strategy.  The Slavic ruler Liudewit successfully faced down several Frankish invasions of his territory in the early ninth century by holing up in his hilltop fortress and waiting for disease or logistical problems to compel the enemy to return home.  This, alas, was not good enough for his nobles, who rose up and murdered him.  Liudewit’s successful strategy had not, as was necessary, convinced his own followers that he was the best warrior in his lands, or at least that he had the military ability to keep them in their place.  A similar fate befell the emperor Charles III ‘the Fat’ in the late 880s.  Modern analysis has shown that Charles’ strategies against the Viking attackers – essentially involving the avoidance of battle and the payment of subsidies -  was no different from, and no less successful than, those adopted by his predecessors.  Unfortunately, his political opponents were able to use his absence from battle to their advantage, helped by the fact that Charles’ most important rival, Count Odo of Paris, was being lauded for a valiant defence of Paris in a siege which Charles failed to raise through similar virile military action.  Charles could be portrayed as ineffective, lazy, cowardly and thus as a bad king, and within a year he had been deposed, Odo becoming king in his stead.  There were, therefore, several factors that came together in driving early medieval commanders into battle when wiser heads might have stayed their hand.

Bringing About Battle

The preceding discussion raises the issue of how early medieval commanders brought about battle.  Scouting does not seem to have been extensive in this period.  It certainly existed.  In the Pyrenees certainly, and perhaps on other frontiers, the locals were required to perform what seem to have been scouting or guide duties, and there are occasional mentions of outriders in other sources.  Yet there were occasions also when armies were surprised by their enemies in situations that suggest that few or no vedettes or pickets had been posted, such as when a Spanish army managed to attack a Frankish force while the latter was having dinner.  This alone tells us that the requirements of Vegetian warfare were not always met!  In an age, therefore before cavalry scouting screens were widespread or reconnaissance a sophisticated part of the art of war, when the network of route-ways was not dense and maps as we understand them more or less unknown, the most effective means of bringing about a battle was to station one’s army by a well-known landmark or settlement or otherwise across a major line of march, and wait for the enemy to arrive.  This was sometimes also accompanied by the issuing of a formal challenge to battle – although it must be said that most of the challenges we know about were not followed by an actual battle.  Sometimes armies did blunder into each other, as when a Neustrian and a Burgundian army encountered one another late in the day in the 580s.  As we have seen, such a public and obvious statement of the willingness of one side to put the issue to the judgement of battle was likely to produce a response from the other.  Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – ravaging an enemy territory was not aimed at the acquisition of plunder but at shaming the opposing ruler by showing him to be incapable of fulfilling his duty to defend his subjects.  This would very likely bring him out into the field.

With this in mind, it is not surprising to learn that the overwhelming majority of recorded early medieval battles are by the crossings of rivers or other waterways and, less frequently, by monuments or settlements.  Such locations account for nearly all of the known locations of Anglo-Saxon battles between c.600 and c.850.  Most battles in the north of Britain are described as sieges, possibly indicating a regional exception to the general rule discussed above.  However, a close consideration of the sites in question casts some doubt on this as most are very small and do not seem capable of resisting a large attacking force.  This leaves open other possibilities.  One is that a ‘siege’ was actually a rather more formal business wherein an attacking army stationed itself before a defender’s stronghold.  The latter either than came out to fight, producing a battle (a possibility supported by the fact that the mysterious ‘battle’ of Mount Badon in post-imperial Britain, later associated with the even more mysterious figure of ‘Arthur’ is originally referred to as a ‘siege’) or he submitted and paid tribute.  The ‘Distribution of Iudeu’, where Penda took tribute from Oswy of Northumbria, might be a case in point, as Iudeu was a fortified site of some sort (often identified with Stirling but on very uncertain grounds).  Indeed the Northumbrian version of events, wherein Oswy offered to buy Penda off with tribute but the latter refused, might be an attempt to cover up the fact that, having actually paid tribute to Penda, Oswy was breaking his word by attacking him at the battle of Winwaed (tellingly, fought by a river).

There might be other manoeuvres immediately before a battle.  A side might move off early, so as to ensure that it had the high ground, as Charles the Bald’s army did at the battle of Fontenoy (841).  The Earlier Annals of Metz tell us that Charles Martel (Charles the Bald’s great-great-grandfather) moved his army so that its enemies would have the sun in their eyes before the battle of Vinchy (Now Les Rues-des-Vignes, south of Cambrai) in 717.  At the battle of Heavenfield, King Oswald of Northumbria attacked his Welsh enemies at dawn.

Battlefield Tactics

Once the two sides were on the field there may have been other opening moves.  Single combats between champions are occasionally mentioned.  Such fights might have been associated with a phase wherein one side attempted to hold a ford or bridge across a river, either to delay the enemy and ready itself, or perhaps to establish a moral advantage before allowing the enemy to cross  and fight it out (whereupon it would of course have the river to its backs; this might have been earl Byrhtnoth of Essex’s strategy at the Battle of Maldon (991), although in that instance it was his army that lost, leading to criticism of Byrhtnoth ever since).

These preliminaries aside, early medieval encounters do not seem to have involved very much tactical finesse, at least as usually envisaged.  That is to say that our evidence gives us few grounds to envisage sweeping manoeuvres, turning movements and so on, in the Napoleonic mould.  It would seem that battlefield tactics were simple, involving an approach into close range, the exchange of missiles and a charge into contact.  This was then followed by a brutal hand-to-hand fight until one side or the other gave way.  That said, there were doubtless important skills involved in commanding an early medieval force, concerned with maintaining morale, formation and momentum.  Keeping one’s force steady in the face of the enemy, setting a courageous example and knowing when to commit one’s side to the charge were doubtless arts that required some learning in a very tough school that allowed little leeway to those who failed to grasp the lesson. 

There might nevertheless have been variations on this general theme across time and place.  In the first two centuries of the period that concerns me (that is the fifth and sixth) the archaeology of weapons suggests that, as with the recruitment of armies, warfare was still recognisably practised within the general framework set up in the very late Roman period (which is not to say that it represented straightforward continuity).  The weaponry recovered from burials and other deposits in that period appears to suggest a slightly more open and fluid form of fighting.  Throwing weapons such as the francisca (a throwing-axe) and the ango (a heavy javelin descended from the Roman pilum) are known, as are more common arrow-heads and spears that seem adapted to throwing.  Shields, as far as we can tell, were quite small and their bosses appear to have been designed for use in a more open, fencing style of fighting.  Many have a disc at their apex, for which the best explanation is that it was aimed at catching an enemy’s blade.  To see these shields as easily-handled bucklers does not seem unreasonable.  It appears that an emphasis was placed upon on volleys of missiles before the charge, as was the case with the late Roman infantry.  Some of the accounts of western warriors in the fifth and sixth centuries – particularly the Franks – also lay some stress on these aspects.

After the decades on either side of 600, however, a significant change seems to have taken place.  Again, our source for this is essentially the corpus of weapons located in graves.  O some extent this is in itself problematic as the number and variety of grave-goods become much less in the course of the seventh century before largely disappearing around 700.  Nevertheless it is still possible to say that the heavy throwing weapons of the sixth century (the ango and the francisca) drop out of the record, as do some of the other missile weapons, such as the ‘corrugated’ javelin-heads known from Anglo-Saxon England.  At the same time, shields become larger and heavier and their bosses longer, perhaps more designed to punch the enemy, if not just to be held to cover a larger area of the body.  The scramasax, the one–edged dagger, which was short and narrow in the sixth century, becomes progressively heavier – broader and longer – until by the eighth century it is effectively a one-edged short sword.   Spearheads too develop to be longer and heavier thrusting weapons.  Swords, though still known (as they are, of course, throughout the period) become rarer in burials, where the scramasax is often the only weapon deposited.  This could be a simple function of the standardisation and decline of the furnished inhumation ritual, and the large number of ornately-decorated swords represented in the seventh-century Staffordshire Hoard certainly suggests that caution is required before moving from the percentages of weapon types in graves to the percentages of weapon-types in actual use.  Nonetheless, when the development in the form of the scramasax is considered, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that its popularity may have stemmed from the fact that it married some features of the sword – its point and long edge – and the single-handed battle-axe (which also disappears from the record outside Scandinavia between c.600 and the appearance of the Vikings) – its chopping ability.  This combination would be most valuable in the more closely-packed, ‘shield-wall’ fighting that battle, according to the indications we have, became at this time.  Less likely, but possible, is an increase in the frequency of defensive armour and of the possession of horses by warriors.  Both types of equipment were (as has been argued) expensive and in the social and economic context of the period, which saw an economic upsurge partly at least associated with an increase in the power and stability of the local aristocracy, this suggestion might be more plausible.

Explaining this putative change in tactics is not easy.  It does seem to be the case that at this time the means of recruitment of armies changed, towards a greater reliance on aristocratic retinues, outside those connected with royal service.  Linking this change to the precise shift in the nature of fighting is not straightforward.  It might be that ‘shield-wall’ fighting required a level of mutual trust and coordination that was best forged within the context of an aristocratic household and retinue than in periodically-assembled bodies of warriors.  The economic upturn in the period around 600 and the consolidation of local aristocratic power may, as already intimated, have facilitated a greater ability to purchase body armour and helmets, which would give such forces a significant edge over more lightly equipped warriors in such close-fighting.  Ultimately, however, the link between a change in the nature of warfare and the transformations visible in the economy and social structure remain only a matter of hypothesis and other explanations are possible.  What this important phase does imply, however, is that it is quite impossible to link up, via a simple chain of continuity, the warfare of the Carolingian period and that in the late Roman era.

As far as we can tell, however, after c.600 battlefield tactics revolved around the clash of closely packed ‘shield-walls’.  These shield-walls might have comprised the entire army, or they may have been split up into several ‘divisions’.  It appears that the Frankish armies at Fontenoy each formed three divisions, whereas both the English (West Saxon) and Viking armies at Ashdown (871) drew up in two divisions.  Where the army was broken up into smaller units, two or three such divisions seems to have been normal although there are very occasional references to more.

Whether or not fighting was carried out on foot or on horseback is very difficult to say.  One reason for this is the terseness of our sources’ descriptions or battle, as has already been mentioned.  Another, however, is that where details are given, there seems to be very little to differentiate battles fought on horseback from those waged on foot – something which may further have impaired contemporaries’ willingness to specify about such details.  Another factor was that early medieval warriors were capable of fighting on foot and on horseback as the occasion demanded, and of changing from one to the other in mid-encounter.  King Arnulf ordered his troops to attack a Viking army on foot at the battle of the Dyle (891), whereas King Louis commanded his men to dismount and fight on foot to counter a successful Viking counter attack at Saucourt (882).  Byzantine manuals from the late sixth century had also commented on westerners’ reprehensible ability to dismount and fight on foot in mid-battle and knights were still more than capable of this in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  ‘Cavalry’ and ‘infantry’ seem anachronistic terms for use in early medieval Western warfare, a fact which, alongside the other points just made about the nature of the evidence, renders equally pointless academic debates about whether the Anglo-Saxons had ‘cavalry’ or not.  The only real distinction was between warriors who owned horses and those who did not.  Experienced warriors right across the West, from Ireland to Italy and from Scandinavia to Spain, owned horses and used them in warfare.  They rode them on campaign and whilst raiding and they fought from them in battle.  Sometimes, however, it was considered more effective, especially in more serious encounters, to dismount.  Such an action proclaimed that this was a fight to the death, as escape would be that much more difficult, and it simultaneously demonstrated unity and a willingness to share the risks, with the dismounted warriors who did not own horses.  These decisions as to whether or not to fight mounted are noted throughout the period, but they make their way unevenly through our capricious evidential filter.  This has made it a methodological mistake of the first order to base discussions of Anglo-Saxon fighting on the handful of snippets of information about battlefield reality, when compared to the much greater array of evidence linking Anglo-Saxon warriors (like their mainland contemporaries, whom no one doubts fought on horseback when the occasion demanded) with their horses.

Fighting between these bodies of men, whether on horseback or on foot, must have been brutal, and yet sources refer to day-long battles or even to encounters that lasted for several days.  The physical and psychological strain imposed by such fighting surely prevents us from accepting these accounts as depicting unbroken fighting for long periods.  We should probably envisage short spells of close fighting followed by periods of rest (perhaps covered by skirmishing and missile exchanges).  It might be that the nerve of one side could snap after a long day’s fighting, even when it had been generally successful.  The resilience of Viking armies, which seem to have been able to be pushed back for long spells, appears to have sapped and broken the will to fight of their opponents, perhaps used to obtaining the victory sooner in these circumstances.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, records English defeats even after ‘being victorious far on into the day’.

The Vikings’ experience was surely crucial here, as was the fact that the ‘Great Armies’ recorded from the 850s onwards stayed together all-year round and thus, as well as being battle hardened, they were accustomed to fighting alongside each other in different contingents.  Ironic though it sounds, the Viking Great Armies were probably one of the closest approximations to regular troops that one can find in this era.  The Vikings do seem to have been very important in the development of early medieval western warfare.  One reason for that was their tactical ability.  A capacity to absorb punishment without breaking – experienced soldiers would know that continuing to fight, even while retreating, was safer than running away – was one element of this.  Another was their ability to withdraw into field fortifications (as at Brissarthe in 866, Reading in 871 and at Saucourt in 882).  Finally they were capable of launching sudden counter-attacks from out of these bases, often with dramatic results.  Two Northumbrian kings were killed and their army shattered by such Viking use of fortifications at York in 869, Count Robert the Strong (ancestor of the Capetians) was killed in similar circumstances at Brissarthe, and ealdorman Æthelwulf lost his life in the Viking counter-attack at Reading.  These fortifications are another noteworthy element..  Not for nothing has Eric Christianssen listed the spade as one of the key weapons of Viking warfare.  Frequently using a pre-existing villa/estate-centre or a church or monastery as a focus, the Vikings were adept at throwing up a bank and ditch around their camps.  The best-excavated example is probably the camp at Repton, which uses the Anglo-Saxon church there as a redoubt-cum-gatehouse.  This use of fortifications was doubtless at least partly a response to the Christian armies’ greater numbers of mounted warriors – although the Vikings too could fight on horseback, as Regino’s account of the Frankish disaster at the River Gueule (891) makes abundantly clear.  Another response to their deficiency in horsemen might have been a more common decision to fight on foot.  Before the eleventh century, mounted troops had few means of breaking a steady formation of foot-soldiers, which usually resulted in their dismounting too.  Indeed all of the mentions of Anglo-Saxon armies dismounting to fight come from the Viking period, which might suggest a change in this era.

The other ‘outsiders’ sometimes thought to have introduced change into the way in which war was waged are the Arabs, who invaded and conquered Gothic Spain in 711.  However, a close examination of the strategy and tactics of western Umayyad armies does not seem to show any significant differences in these areas from the norms of warfare in western Europe.  Warriors were for the most part mounted, armoured and focused upon hand-to-hand fighting after an exchange of missiles.  A famous passage in Nithard’s History of the Sons of Louis the Pious, describing military exercises at Worms, shows that Frankish horsemen were well capable of mobile fighting styles, throwing javelins and executing feigned retreats, at least in skirmishing warfare (there is little or no reference to such practice in set-piece battles).  Only after the development of the heavily armoured, lance-armed knight in the later Middle Ages does a clear difference seem to emerge between Christian warriors and their Andalusian counterparts. 

More unusual, it seems, were the battlefield tactics of the Bretons and Basques on the fringes of the Frankish kingdom.  Both peoples, it seems made a much heavier use of high-speed mounted attacks, involving the throwing of javelins.  The Basques employed their mountainous home terrain to good effect, launching hit-and-run raids rather than accepting battle in the accepted, close-fighting fashion.  Against the Basques, moaned one Frank after the heavy defeat at Roncesvalles (778), battle ‘was not fought fairly’.  The Bretons might have employed the difficult terrain in their homeland to similarly good effect, wearing down Frankish armies by repeated attacks.


Battle in the early medieval west, then, was sui generis, neither ‘just like’ Roman warfare nor a pale precursor of later medieval battle.  There are features which unify it, in battlefield practice, the flexibility of a warrior’s functions, and in battle’s greater importance in strategy.  Nevertheless, things were not entirely the same across the whole of Europe for the entire period under consideration, as we have seen.  Nonetheless, with the reappearance of mercenaries in the shape of Viking armies fighting for money, and the attendant commodification of violence, in the greater emphasis on fortification and in a shift towards a greater dominance of cavalry warfare, developments were evident in the ninth century that, developing through the tenth century, would eventually lead to the ‘classic’ medieval wars of knights and castles in the eleventh.