An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

May 20, 2022

Naismith, Ní Mhaonaigh, and Rowe: Writing Battles

Rory Naismith, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, and Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, eds., Writing Battles: New Perspectives on Warfare and Memory in Medieval Europe. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Reviewed by: Craig M. Nakashian

This edited volume fits nicely into Medievally Speaking’s mission to encourage “critical engagement with the continuing process of inventing the Middle Ages” in that it discusses how medieval people themselves invented and reimagined the world around them. The act of remembering battles was fundamentally a creative one, an effort to memorialize and shape the perception of historical events both for posterity and contemporary utility.

The volume includes ten scholarly articles, in addition to the introduction and afterword, and covers a wide array of examples from how contemporaries saw the role of London in combat to how Mel Gibson has shaped our understanding of a medieval melee. The articles were inspired by the “slew” of conferences that were sponsored by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge to commemorate major battles in the 2010s. The volume primarily “showcases” some of the papers presented at those conferences, expanded and developed into articles.

One of the central themes of the volume is the “timelessness of warfare as a structuring element in both society and memory.” (1) The editors note that there are “striking continuities” in how battles are remembered, memorialized, and understood by contemporaries and later observers. Battles were often seen as “key markers in the course of history” and were woven into collective memories, nostalgia, and cultural historical imagination. (1)

The introduction itself is a brief, but highly effective, overview of the chapter contents and the central themes of the volume. Instead of discrete paragraphs discussing each chapter, the editors offer a discussion that links themes running through each contribution and ties them together. They also highlight continuities in methods and conceptual frameworks. This is a very useful approach to a volume such as this, though it benefits from the fact that the geographical range of the volume is limited to Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia (despite the subtitle of “Medieval Europe”). Either way, the introduction, while only running to four printed pages is among the best scholarly introductions to an edited volume that I have seen. With that said, I will proceed to review the book in discrete paragraphs.

Robert Bartlett kicks off the volume with an article covering one of the most basic aspects of memorializing a battle - how do you go about naming it? One of the examples that Bartlett cites is near and dear to my own memory growing up as an American Civil War buff - the United States named major battles in that war according to the nearest river or stream (Bull Run, Stone’s River, Antietam, etc.) whereas the Confederates named them according to the nearest town (Manassas, Murfreesboro, Sharpsburg, etc.). For later medieval conflicts, Bartlett points out the crucial role played by heralds (memorialized by Shakespeare’s Henry V). He also considers the grammatical forms and etymological realities of how battle names developed. His presentation is lively, vibrant, and suffused with humor throughout. His conclusion forwards the psychological impulse to name a battle at all as a mechanism to create “a simple and solid event from the mess.” (20)

Jenny Benham shifts the focus a bit and considers the role of battle in efforts to create peace. Her approach examines battle narratives to see how they were situated in a Roman-inspired “just war” paradigm and she demonstrates how the portrayal of battles was often shaped in order to promote their role in achieving peace. Peace was the ultimate purpose of war in this conception and it could be achieved by victory in battle and war (provided they were justified). Observers also often saw two mechanisms of peace strategies - mediation and arbitration - which Benham does an excellent job unpacking and examining.

Matthew Strickland’s article – “‘Undying glory by the sword’s edge’: Writing and remembering battle in Anglo-Saxon England” - looks at the commemoration and memory of Anglo-Saxon battles prior to Hastings. His fundamental question was why certain battles were commemorated whereas others were largely forgotten. He shows how much our reliance on chance survivals of evidence - he uses the wonderful epic poem The Battle of Maldon as his prime example - have shaped our understanding of the cultural perception of battle and war in Anglo-Saxon society. He asks (and argues) whether “the laconic annals recording battle in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were intended merely as an aide memoire, implying access to fuller oral accounts and poems (whether legendary or more contemporary).” (48) The implication is that the answer was a strong affirmative.

The following three articles come from the volume’s editors. The first is Rory Naismith’s “Fortress London: War and the making of an Anglo-Saxon city”. Naismith argues that war made London into the de facto capital of England by the eleventh century (despite Winchester’s historical claim to centrality). He examines London’s military role in three phases - the most important of which was against the Vikings in the 900s. Naismith also unpacks a great deal of how London was imagined in various phases, focusing on the relevance and scope of the various names given to it over the period(s) - Lundenwic, Londinium, Lundenceaster, and Lundenburg.

Elizabeth Ashman Rowe moves the action northward with her article “‘Axe-age, sword-age’: Writing battles in Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia”. She surveys the available evidence for writing about battles, and she wisely adopts a broad approach that includes poetry and sagas to supplement runic inscriptions and manuscript evidence. She examines evidence across a broad temporal swath as well, from early medieval runic writing up through the writings of the thirteenth century author Snorri Sturluson. She focuses on the cultural purpose of narrating battles, and argues that in addition to the political and religious purposes in battle memory, we must also account for their role in establishing fame and reputation amongst warriors.

The final article from one of the volume’s editors is Máire Ní Mhaonaigh’s “Medieval Irish battle narratives and the construction of the past” wherein she examines Irish battle-writing from the late eighth to early twelfth centuries. She shows how medieval Irish writers, much like writers in other medieval societies, used a glorious, imagined past to presage a strong and vibrant present (and future); in the case of medieval Ireland the imagined past was linked to the legend of Troy (as it was in many other medieval societies). The Irish used both Classical traditions as well as Biblical ones to fit themselves into the cultural narrative of history. She shows how the narratives of battle memories were designed to illuminate and support the ideology and ambition of the elites who consumed them, even if the details of particular engagements were less than trustworthy.

Natalia I. Petrovskaia broadens the discussion even further with her article, “Which ‘pagans’?: The influence of crusades on battle narratives in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia”. In it, she engages with how modern audiences envision the Middle Ages and how medieval peoples understood those whom they saw as quite different from themselves. Much of her discussion swirls around the use of the term “Saracen”, which she shows to be an ubiquitous way of referring to essentially any non-Christian population. She sees this lumping together of non-Christian populations as a mechanism of establishing Christian unity. She ends with a reminder that our modern theories of self-identification are useful lenses through which to approach the medieval past, but that ultimately we should focus on the theoretical frameworks that they themselves utilized, often derived from the teachings of the fifth century theologian Orosius, the translatio imperii, and synchronicity to align historical memory with emotionally-memorable contemporary events.

The three editors then team up for a joint article that examines the battle of Stamford Bridge (1066) in which King Harold Godwineson of England defeated an army led by King Harald of Norway and his own brother Tostig. They give accounts of the battle found in four separate languages (English, Latin, Old Norse, and Irish) ranging in period from near-contemporaries (such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Irish poet Gilla Cóemáin) to the early thirteenth century writings of Snorri Sturluson. They show how each text was constructed to influence the memory of the event (even the laconic Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) and they do a valuable service in providing versions of the original texts. One area of criticism would be that it would have been nice for them to weigh in with more of their own analysis - it is tantalizing to have these three engaging with such fascinating materials and I felt that they could have gone further with their own interpretations.

The final two articles bring us into the twentieth century, first with Anthony Pollard’s fascinating look at how Hollywood makes movie magic in “Shooting arrows: Cinematic representations of medieval battles”. Pollard, both a professional academic historian and someone who served as a technical advisor on major film productions, looks at how modern movie-makers seek to imagine and portray the medieval past. He shows how proper terrain was crucial for both medieval commanders and the film-makers seeking to restage their epic victories and defeats. He pushes back against the tendency to portray medieval battles as merely mindless chaotic melees and questions why gunpowder does not turn up in more medieval cinema, given its presence on battlefields from the fourteenth century onwards. Surprisingly he does not tie in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with its use of gunpowder to draw distinctions between the “backwards” Christians and “scientific” Muslims. Still, his article is a strong defense of historical cinema, inaccuracies and anachronisms notwithstanding.

Finally, Robert Tombs advances the discussion to how battles in the First World War were remembered and memorialized. He shows how the cultural memory of the war in Britain was focused on battles themselves and a general theme of loss and mourning, primarily through the use of poetry. In France, on the other hand, the overarching focus was one of pride and celebration of liberation. He gives an excellent overview of how the British (and to a lesser extent French) saw the Great War up through Blackadder in 1989, but his article is often focused more on memories of the Great War itself, not necessarily just the battles.

The volume ends with a brief Afterword written by Brendan Simms whereby he pulls together the various themes of the volume, including how war should be seen as a “process” in addition to an “event”. He reexamines how battles were commemorated, named, recorded, and appropriated by contemporaries and successors for their own purposes. He ends with a strong defense of seeing the people of the past as fundamentally people, rather than as a foreign “other” to our contemporary world.

Overall, this volume provides a great deal of food for thought on how medieval authors understood the role of battles in their own past and in their cultural imagination about their own presents (and futures). While the subtitle overpromises the breadth of areas under study, as an examination of how authors from Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia understood the “timelessness of warfare as a structuring element in both society and memory”, it does an excellent job and will provide plenty of food for thought for anyone interested in how medieval peoples conceptualized battles. (1)

Craig M Nakashian, PhD

Texas A&M University-Texarkana