Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
6 Oct. 2021
Review by Ian Atherton, Keele University
Writing Battles: New Perspectives on Warfare and Memory in Medieval Europe
Ed. Rory Naismith, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, and Elizabeth Ashman Rowe
New York: Bloomsbury, 2020. Pp. ix, 267. ISBN 978–1–78831–674–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, Middle Ages, War and Memory Print Version

Battles are, in Edward Luttwak's memorable allusion, "no more characteristic of war than copulation is of marriage," and yet, as several of the contributors to Writing Battles note, battles rather than wars or other forms of conflict are often remembered as turning points of history or as a means of structuring memories and identities. One of the book's strengths is its coverage of Northern Europe before 1300. It comprises eight essays on medieval England, Ireland, and Scandinavia and two considerations of memory in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Click cover to purchase
at Amazon to support MiWSR

In chap. 1, Robert Bartlett (Univ. of Cambridge) draws on Philip Morgan's exploration of the lexical processes by which battles were named in the middle ages.a href="#footnote01" name="01">[1] He notes many variant names for the same encounter, sometimes owing to differences of geographical precision. Poitiers (1356) is also known as Maupertuis, which was actually closer to the fighting. Others indicate names of their combatants. Thus Fontenoy (841) was also remembered as the "battle of the Three Brothers," since three—or, in other traditions, four—of Charlemagne's grandsons fought there. In one case, "Sandeford," an alternative name for Bosworth (1485) was chosen because of a prophecy that it would be the site of a great final battle. Naming a battle is an essential part of memory, for the process "gives the messy realities of carnage and confusion a simple label" (20).

Jenny Benham (Cardiff Univ.) in chap. 2 focuses on memories of the battle of Assandun (1016) to consider battles as means of achieving peace rather than merely killing or overcoming enemies. Although Cnut defeated Edmund Ironside at Assandun, the following peace was described as if between equals. In writing about battles, Christian chroniclers, Benham argues, had a four-way balance to maintain: victory as a sign of God's judgment; the overarching virtue of peace; imposing limits on the exercise of violence; and promoting commemoration as a healing process.

Most battles in England before 1066 are lost to geography and largely to history, relegated to what Morgan calls "that historical limbo of unlocated names and events which historians and others denote by italicisation."[2] Despite this unpromising terrain, Matthew Strickland (Univ. of Glasgow) attempts in chap. 3 to analyze how Anglo-Saxon battles were remembered before the twelfth century. Terse entries in chronicles reveal little about the course or nature of most battles, and where more details are provided, they are often drawn from Roman or biblical exemplars. As "markers of memory" (47), battle lists in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle might be used to shape a common identity of the English against their enemies. Hence catastrophic defeats might be recalled in greater detail than victories, while evidence from Frankish, Ottonian, and Anglo-Saxon sources shows the various means by which battles were remembered, including liturgical commemoration (especially obituaries), poetry, physical structures like churches, and the preservation of weapons, armor, and banners. All were used, not so much to preserve details of the battle itself, but rather to shape cultural and political identities for the present.

In chap. 4, Rory Naismith (Univ. of Cambridge) examines the creation of political identities through conflict. He sees warfare against the Danes as the catalyst for the creation of London as a "community in arms" (85) as well as for the city's growing dominance in England, so that, by 1066, "control of London stood for control of the kingdom" (93). While other contributors to the volume generally equate "writing battles" to mean written texts, Naismith provocatively extends the sources for conflict memory by asserting that "recollections of military conflict are inscribed especially deeply into the city's fabric" (77).

In chapters 5 and 6, respectively, Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (Univ. of Cambridge) addresses Scandinavian battle memories, and Máire Ní Mhaonaigh (Univ. of Cambridge) Irish battle writing. Both stress the present-centered nature of many records. Rowe explores the importance of poetry and runic inscriptions in establishing warriors' undying fame; she finds that valor and death in battle outweighed details of place, date, or even enemy. She argues for a shift in memories of battles from a shared focus on heroic virtues in the Viking age to more critical memories and the manipulation of reputation for present-focused purposes in medieval Scandinavia. Thus, for instance, Snorri Sturluson (d. 1241) used the memory of Stamford Bridge (1066) to support the continuing independence of Iceland from Norway. Ní Mhaonaigh goes further, seeing Irish battle texts as "conscious literary creations" (140), one of the twelve kinds of major tales poets should master. Both mythic and historic battles were key elements of a narrative of history stretching from the Flood to the present; their form and content reveal the influence of narratives about both Troy and ancient Rome—so, too, Strickland suggests the significance of biblical and classical models for Anglo-Saxon battle writing. Despite these older models, narratives were often crafted to present ends, which in the eleventh and twelfth centuries meant the attacks of Vikings and Anglo-Normans.

Natalia Petrovskaia (Univ. Utrecht) also parses relations between past and present in chap. 7, though with more attention to warfare generally than battles specifically. Known and familiar terms of opprobrium were often used to describe enemies in medieval writings. Thus, Anglo-Saxon sources, drawing on late Roman writings, describe Vikings as "pagans." From the advent of the crusades, the term "Saracen" was quickly adopted to mean a non-Christian or even simply an enemy (such as the Vikings); hence the allusion in the late thirteenth-century Middle English verse chronicle of Robert of Gloucester to "Saracens that were there living in England" (150) in the 940s. Pagan Saxons, too, could be branded as Saracens, allowing the medieval English, so Petrovskaia argues, to see their roots lying with the Christian British rather than their pagan Saxon opponents.

In chap. 8, Naismith, Ní Mhaonaigh, and Rowe assemble translations of five key sources for the battle of Stamford Bridge, composed between the late eleventh and early thirteenth centuries in a range of genres. The longest and most detailed is the latest, by the Icelandic Sturluson. The editors do not attempt a detailed unpacking of literary text, oral tradition, or invention in Sturluson's account, though earlier in the volume Rowe provides an analysis of his account of the battle (120–24). The value of Sturluson as a source for events in England in that year has also long been debated, including by Rowe herself.[3]Instead, they conclude that "Battle as the stuff of history was indistinguishable from battle as the stuff of legend" (168), a judgment that sums up the previous seven chapters as well.

The last two chapters are different. In chap. 9, Tony Pollard (Univ. of Glasgow) uses his experience as historical advisor for the 2018 film Outlaw King (dir. David Mackenzie) to examine the cinematic representation of medieval battles, in particular those of the first Scottish war of independence such as Bannockburn (1314). He argues for the educational role of cinematic portrayals despite, or even because of, their inaccuracies, which provide a means of initiating a debate on the nature of medieval warfare. He also highlights the influence of contemporary concerns in cinematic depictions of conflict. There are "no cannons in the canon" (186): few films depict gunpowder weapons on the medieval battlefield because viewers do not associate them with the chivalric age, even though their use is well attested in western Europe from the early fourteenth century.

In chap. 10, Robert Tombs (Univ. of Cambridge, em.) compares the changing collective memory of the First World War (rather than any specific battle) in Britain and France. In Britain, the interwar focus was not on victory but on mourning, whereas the French saw the war as one of national liberation. The British tomb of the unknown warrior is located in a church, but the French unknown lies under Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe. Since the 1960s, the "lions led by donkeys" thesis has dominated British collective memory, despite a revisionist onslaught by academic military historians. For Tombs, this "vision of horror unencumbered by purpose, meaning or consequence" (217) allows for a superficial contemplation of the horrors of war without raising difficult questions about its morality in the twenty-first century.

An afterword by Brendan Simms (Univ. of Cambridge) draws out interconnecting themes, particularly what he sees as the way the essays "reduce the gulf between the present and the past which, for all their differences, have some very familiar features" (223). Many of the contributions are concerned with that relationship between present and past in the memory of warfare. Several of the authors draw explicit parallels between the medieval past and the war of 1914–18: Rowe, for example, sees the Old Norse Battle of the Goths and Huns as "the Viking equivalent of All Quiet on the Western Front" (118), while Strickland compares Anglo-Saxon warfare and the Great War (43). While World War I is, in British scholarship and memory, the touchstone of conflict against which all others are measured, the approach here is also a product of the book's origins in three conferences hosted by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at Cambridge University in 2014-16, timed for the centenary of the First World War. The modern parallels are defended by the editors, who see of the "timelessness of warfare as a structuring element in both society and memory" (1). That overlooks what was peculiar to the battles discussed and takes them out of their individual contexts which have also been stressed by the contributors. These include the religious and ethnic dimensions of battle between Christians and non-Christians, between Saxons and Vikings or Danes, and the impact of the spread of Christianity on Scandinavian memory. A tension runs through the volume between, on the one hand, a desire to make comparisons between medieval warfare and the modern world and, on the other, the analysis of the past as contemporaries understood it in the Middle Ages. If memories of battles can be chronologically and culturally specific, what might they say to the current Anglophone world, locked into modes of commemoration derived from either the American Civil War or the First World War—sacrifice, poppies, and "necronominalism?"[4] The volume's concentration on the memory of medieval warfare in Northern Europe makes it essential reading for all scholars of European conflict in time and place. It also poses wider questions about the relations of past and present that will interest all students of conflict commemoration and memory.

[1] "The Naming of Battlefields in the Middle Ages," in War and Society in Medieval and Early Modern Britain, ed. Diana Dunn (Liverpool: Univ. Pr, 2000) 34–52.

[2] Ibid. 47–48.

[3] Robert Glover, "English Warfare in 1066," English Hist. Rev., 67 (1952) 1–18; Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, "Historical Invasions/Historiographical Inventions: Snorri Sturluson and the Battle of Stamford Bridge," Mediaevalia, 17 (1994) 149–76.

[4] See Thomas Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton: Univ. Pr, 2018) 413–46.

Purchase Writing Battles
Site News
Books Available for Review
For an updated list of books available for review, see Submissions.
Contact Us
Around the Web
Michigan War Studies Review
© 2005-2021 Michigan War Studies Review