30 April 2009

History Book Review: The Hundred Years War

The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337–1453
Desmond Stewart (1999)

I guess I have an obsession with wars that have numbers in their titles. I find the Thirty Years’ War, The Seven Years’ War, and The Hundred Years’ War all fascinating, with the first receiving the unofficial title of “My Favorite War.” But it’s the title of the last that most grabs people’s attention: “A hundred years? How in the hell did somebody drag out a war for that long?”

Some qualifications:

First, the war didn’t last a hundred years. It lasted a hundred and fifteen years. Round down past a hundred, please, must be the historian’s rule. Second, those 115 years weren’t sustained, endless combat. The war moved in phases with periods of peace in between. Finally, no one recognized the concept of a “Hundred Years’ War” until the late nineteenth century. It is something that later historians created as an umbrella for a century-plus of British intervention on the French territory. As the author of this book says after the conclusion of the Battle of Castillon: “. . . nobody seems to have recognized that the Hundred Years War was over.”

So, admitting a certain artificiality with name “The Hundred Years’ War” (and for some reason, Seward drops the apostrophe from ‘Years’), why does it capture so much attention? Because it contains one of the most archetypal conflicts in world history: English vs. French. Because it contains two of the most astonishing battles ever fought: Crécy and Agincourt. Because some of the most incredible figures of the Middle Ages strode across its stage: Henry V, Edward III, Edward the Black Prince, The Bastard of Orléans, Lord Talbot, and a teenage girl named Joan. That’s why.

I’ve dealt with the Hundred Years’ War from even before the history of the Middle Ages started to devour my free time. William Shakespeare devoted a number of plays to the conflict, most notably Henry V, where he re-stages the Battle of Agincourt for the immense pleasure of Elizabethan audiences who viewed the victory as the finest hour of their nation. I was a Shakespeare freak by seventh grade, and I particularly loved the Histories, so the Hundred Years’ War leaped right out. When I actually started to study the era, the complexities of the English plundering of France for more than a century was a serious intoxicant.

Seward’s book is the most widely available popular history of the war. First published in 1978, and now in trade paperback from Penguin, it is a bit out of date, but not enough to deter readers who don’t have a background in history. I occasionally found myself wanting Seward to go into more detail and cite other sources aside from Froissart (who wrote an important chronicle of the first part of the war, which I had to read in college) and a few other eyewitnesses, as well as look a bit more into the war from the view of commoners and how it affected them. But for readers who know little about the war, Seward’s overview will more than satisfy. He narrates the events in chronological order with clear and concise prose.

Where the book excels is in its descriptions of the battles, especially the three big ones—Crécy, Agincourt, and Castillon—which mark the early, middle, and end phases of the war. The description of Crécy is especially thrilling; this is one of key battles in the chronicles of Europe:
[King] Edward [III] had won one of the great victories of Western history. Until Crécy the English were very little thought of as soldiers, while the French were considered the best in Europe. Tactically and technologically the battle amounted to a military revolution, a triumph of fire-power over armour. The King of England became the most celebrated commander in Christendom.
The Battle of Castillon, which closed out English ambitions on French soil for good, is almost as thrilling to read about, perhaps because it isn’t as well-known as the other battles, and it also caused a technical revolution: artillery succeeding against those same long bows that had once let the English mow down the French like ducks and drakes in a shooting gallery.

For readers expecting a lengthy discussion of Joan of Arc, they may find the short treatise that Seward gives on her a disappointment. Seward does not approach the many controversies surrounding the teenager who rallied the French toward their first important victory, and this is probably to keep the narrative from spiraling off too much in a different direction. He tries to put Joan in context away from the massive mythologizing that followed: no, she did not cause the English to lose the war; the English managed to achieve that themselves in the decades after her execution, thank you very much. She did, however, give the apathetic French a firm kick in the seat of the pants, but they let the energy sputter out fast.
It is impossible to know whether Joan’s inspiration was restricted to a small circle of court soldiers or if—as today’s social romantics would like to think—she spoke to the rank and file as one peasant to another. What is undeniable is that for a few months many Frenchmen thought they were fighting a holy war, and the English went in terror of the Maid and her sorceries.
Basically, if you want an in-depth look at Joan of Arc, you’ll have to go to another book.

On the other side of the conflict, Seward’s look at England’s great heroic figure from the conflict, King Henry V, is refreshing for its brutal honesty. Henry comes across as bloodthirsty and with scant regard for war etiquette or the lives of civilians. He certainly seems nothing like the man in Shakespeare’s play, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an amazing figure. The Battle of Agincourt still has shocking impact, although it wasn’t strategically that important—its effect rests in how it inspired the English and again proved that the long bow couldn’t be beat (until somebody finally figured out this gunpowder stuff).

For populist history enjoyment, Seward’s The Hundred Years War will satisfy most readers . . . unless they’re expecting The Joan of Arc Show.