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The Wars In France’

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000
The Hundred Years War. Volume I: Trial by Battle. Faber and Faber $34. 95. Volume II: Trial by Fire. University of Pennsylvania Press. $45.00 Both by Jonathan Sumption.

“The Hundred Years War,” as every student of the Middle Ages knows, is an historical fiction. The reference is not to a ingle war that lasted a hundred years, as if anyone could conceive of such a thing, but to an artificially defined period of intermittent hostilities, chiefly between the kings of France and England, in the 14th and 15th centuries. The phrase has no contemporary validity, since men of the period had no idea how long the fighting would last. For them, it was simply “the war,” or “the expedition,” or “the wars in France.” In fact, as a periodic concept, it is apparently no older than the early 19th century. A suggestion can be found in Henry Hallam’s famous history, A View of the State of Europe in the Middle Ages, first published in 1818: “It was a struggle of one hundred and twenty years broken only once by a regular pacification.” By mid-century the idea was well enough established so that Edward Freeman could write approvingly that “the French are perfectly right in speaking of the whole time from Edward the Third to Henry the Sixth as The Hundred Years War.”

In 1875 Guizot used “La Guerre de Cent Ans,” as a chapter heading in his Histoire de France, and three years later J.R. Green took it for one of his in the History of the English People. This useful, if misleading, phrase soon passed into the school books and scholarly monographs where it has remained in triumphant authority ever since, steadfastly resistant to the assault of any force of reason to dislodge it. The impression that it referred to a unique period in European history was further enhanced by giving it a beginning in 1337, when Edward III claimed the crown of France, and an end in 1453, when the English lost the battle at Castillon and surrendered to the French. It was, moreover, fixed in popular historical memory by the great English victories at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, by the heroic figures of the Black Prince, Henry V, and Joan of Arc, and by the colorful chivalric narrative of Jean Froissart. Like the terms “Middle Ages,” “Renaissance,” “Early Modern,” and many others invented after the fact and in which improbability has been disguised by familiarity, “The Hundred Years War” has come to have a life of its own, a moment in time which is now immediately intelligible through the force of what is taken to be its own inner logic. So Theodor Meron in Henry’s Wars and Shakespeare’s Laws, published in 1993, could reassert the unwitting anachronism that “The Hundred Years War broke out in 1337,” while Desmond Seward in his popular history, The Hundred Years War, reissued in paperback in 1999, invited his readers to believe that “It is arguable that the Hundred Years War was medieval England’s greatest achievement.” That the concept is, indeed, a pleasant deception is not difficult to demonstrate. A perfectly reasonable case, moreover, if not a persuasive one, could be made for a “Three Hundred Years War” from 1200, when the English king held more lands in France than the French king, to 1500, when he had lost everything except Calais; or, on a grander scale, for a “Seven Hundred Years War” from Hastings to Waterloo. But “The Hundred Years War,” for better or worse, is here to stay, and as is so often the case in historical writing, accuracy must curtsy to convenience. In truth, it would be hard to find another phrase that puts the student so quickly into the martial spirit and diplomatic struggles of those particular years. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that rather than choose a title that is informative and dull, say, “The Anglo-French Wars in the Late Middle Ages,” or lively and fashionable, “A Band of Brothers: the English in France: 1337-1453,” Jonathan Sumption adheres to tradition, and such is the force of the familiar that before we open his book we know more or less where we are going to be, whom we are going to meet, and what we are going to do. On the other hand, because of the narrative style adopted, we are drawn into the problems of the period one step at a time, much as were the men of that age for whom every day was the present, and the tyranny of the artificial historical framework imperceptibly fades away.

At this point, it is surely appropriate to ask whether we need another book on the subject. Since Edouard Perroy’s magisterial account published in 1945, there have been dozens of general and specialist studies on different aspects of the political, social, economic and military history, to say nothing of substantial surveys by Christopher Allmand, Kenneth Fowler, Philippe Contamine, Malcolm Vale, Anne Curry, and, most recently, Nicholas Wright. The answer, without any hesitation, is that we do need it, and we are glad to have it, because Sumption has taken us beyond any other history in the wealth of information which he has carefully organized and clearly presented in this enormous multi-volume work of great narrative power. Rased on an informed use of pertinent archival records and printed sources, and on the important secondary works, this is the longest and most detailed reconstruction of the period yet attempted. By way of comparison, whereas Perroy needed only 350 pages to lay out the major events from 1328 to 1460, and Allmand half that number, Sumption’s first volume is more than 600 pages long, and by the end of it we have come only as far as the siege of Calais in 1347. His second volume, also of about 600 pages, ends in 1369. Or, to focus on a single event, Perroy disposes of the English naval victory at Sluys in three sentences, Allmand and Curry each in one, while Sumption makes the most of it in 12 and, by the time we are through, we are left with a singular and vivid image of the encounter. On this scale we should expect at least another two books to take the story through the middle of the 15th century when, presumably, the author will choose to call a halt. Almost 40 years ago, in the Introduction to the translation of Perroy’s book, Professor David Douglas was moved by comparison to write that, “The Hundred Years War, as a whole, still awaits its English historian.” We can safely say now that, as a whole, it has found him.

Sumption begins his story in France with the death of Charles IV in 1328. A description of the royal funeral procession allows him to lead us through the streets of Paris from Notre Dame to Saint Denis, so that we are plunged at once into the sights and sounds of the 14th-century city. This promising introduction is followed by a thoughtful, critical assessment of the structure of the French monarchy under the last Capetians, and then by a similar analysis of English politics in the reign of Edward III, and so on, in turn, to the position of Gascony, Scotland, Flanders, Brittany, and the other major players in the cross-channel conflict. The point is quickly made that the war was not merely a chapter in an extended Anglo-French dispute, but also a civil war in France, as well as a greater European quarrel in which at different times a Castilian-French alliance threatened English control of Gascony, an English-Flemish alliance strengthened Angevin command of the sea, and a French-Scottish alliance was a constant restraint on English domination in the north. All these different threads are expertly gathered up and related to each other as the events of the period are made to unfold at a slow and deliberate pace. Sumption has a good story to tell and, like a good storyteller, he very soon establishes a narrative rhythm in which the critical moment is described and at the same time explained by reference to the larger political, economic, and military framework. But like a good storyteller, he does not want to be interrupted; in this case, by questions about sources or methods, or by a discussion of the conflicting views of modern historians, or by extensive notes at the bottom of the page. Nor does he spend a great deal of time on specialist topics, such as arms and armor, fortifications, cost and supply of armies, recruitment and sendee, or military command. The author’s interest remains the development of the different conflicts and their relationship to each other, and only enough background material is brought in to make them understandable. The decision to abandon the thematic approach, however, is surely offset by the dynamic of the narrative style and the feeling which the reader has of living the history as it is reconstructed in a flow of colorful figures and graphic scenes.

As to the big questions about the origins of the war, its underlying causes, the goals and objectives of the participants, and important issues like the French seizure of Aquitaine, Edward Ill’s claim to the French throne, sovereign and feudal jurisdiction, and commercial rivalry, there is none of the usual set pieces where the sources are laid out alongside a summary of current scholarship with which to compare the author’s interpretation. Rather, we are led, inevitably one might say, into the conflict, through the decisions and actions of the people involved until we find ourselves at the point where men stopped talking and started fighting and the causes become self-evident. In the case of Aquitaine, for example, Sumption opens with an account of the Angevin inheritance, moves quickly to the collapse of English rule under Edward I, then to the failure to repair the damage by diplomatic intervention, on to the further encroachment by the French, and finally to the departure of the English fleet in the summer of 1338. All this is enlivened by a series of fascinating everyday vignettes of the great and the common seen against a background of the Scottish threat, the Valois ascendancy, a Flemish alliance, the independent-minded Gascon nobility, papal mediation, and the ambiguous position of Robert of Artois. We, of course, know a good deal more about the events than any one person did at the time, but instead of seeing them at a distance, as is so often the case in a general historical survey, we are now made to feel that we see them as they happened. We lose in the broad view, but we gain in the details.

This kind of meticulous coverage, in some cases carried year by year, reveals, for example, the staggering extent of the devastation to woods and vineyards, fields and farms, and villages and towns wrought by the armies in the French countryside, and brings to light a great many incidents which, in their complexity, are often ignored in the textbooks, and a great many individuals who rarely receive more than a passing glance. So we have an interesting account of Walter Mauny’s raid at Cadzand near Sluys in November 1337, and a longer description of the dramatic assault across a narrow bridge and the capture of Bergerac in August of 1345. We see the figure of Hugh de Montgeron, prior of St. Thibault near Sens, who, finding himself in the path of English and French routiers in the fall of 1358, fled to the forest, but was captured and forced to supply food and money to the invaders, and who wrote down a lament of his tribulations on a little piece of parchment which still survives. There are, indeed, enough portraits of the lesser known military leaders, such as Bernard-Aiz, lord of Albret who shifted his loyalty from the French king to the English, or Pietro Barbavera, the Genoese naval captain, or Oliver Ingham, the seneschal in Aquitaine, or Séguin de Badefol, a soldier of fortune in Roussillon, or Arnaud Foucaud of a peasant family who became a professional soldier, served the English, was arrested by the French and beheaded in Paris, or Arnaud de Cervole, the archpriest and mercenary leader, to inspire half a dozen doctoral dissertations. Sumption, unlike most historians of the War, also pays a good deal of attention to naval operations, which obviously had a significant part to play in the transport of troops and the protection of supply lines. The engagement between English and Castilian ships off Winchelsea in August of 1350 is a good example, and it may serve to illustrate a single important difference between the classic medieval chronicler version and the present one. Sumption keeps his narrative close to the facts and reins in the temptation to elaborate and embroider the episode, relying on an accumulation of detail to paint a memorable scene. Froissart, on the other hand, tells essentially the same tale, but with a good deal more color achieved by the use of reported conversations and striking images, all or part of which may have been simply invented by the author.

In the Preface to the first volume, Sumption, by way of defending his choice to write the kind of history we have here, makes the startling claim that, “Although narrative history has not always been fashionable, the facts sometimes explain themselves better than any analysis of them could possibly do.” We need not take this seriously, and we can put it down to an engaging modesty. Since the beginning of recorded history there never has been a fact that explained itself. Without some guiding principles it would be impossible to select any facts at all, and once selected they must be related to each other and interpreted by a competent scholar. This is the task that Sumption has accomplished in a masterful way. The result is a very successful, constantly informative, and endlessly entertaining encyclopedic work based on a wide variety of facts which are handled with authority and imagination.


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