Sir Charles Oman Almost Understood
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval

Sir Charles Oman Almost Understood

In print and on this blog I have written a lot about how I think the basic debate in the study of Greek warfare from 1989 to 2013 was about whether we should read Greek writers as giving faithful glimpses at a timeless unchanging practice of warfare, or as class and civic partisans whose stories about the good old days were just as wishful as the ones we hear today. People who like to talk about abstract ideas often link the second approach to words like deconstruction and postmodernism and names like Eric Hobsbawm and Jill Lepore. But they were not the only thoughtful people to realize this, and in October I found some similar thinking in an unexpected place.

Back in 1924, Sir Charles Oman revised his history of warfare in Middle Ages after being introduced to the works of Hans Delbrück. Have a look at his new account of the battle on the Marchfeld between Austro-Hungarian and Bohemian forces in 1278, in one of the chapters which he says he specially reworked in response to the German historian.

In endeavouring to ascertain the array of the Imperial army, we are confronted by even greater difficulties, mainly owing to the fact that the majority of the German chroniclers entirely, or almost entirely, ignore the part taken in the battle by the Hungarians, who must have constituted at least three fourths of the combined army. It is only fair to say that the one contemporary Magyar annalist who has described the battle, Simon Keza, is equally unjust to the Germans, whom he describes as merely looking on while the Hungarians did all the fighting. The combined army is described as drawn up in three or sometimes four divisions; but, on closer investigation of the sources, we find that some of the chroniclers who speak of only three corps are describing the Germans alone, and leaving the Magyars quite out of sight.

Sir Charles Oman, A History of The Art of War in the Middle Ages, revised edition (1924, reprinted Greenhill Books 1998) vol. 1 pp. 520-521 (on BookFinder)

Sir Charles Oman was an antiquarian and a teller of tales in the British tradition not a scientific historian in the German tradition, so he did not follow these ideas to their logical conclusion and rethink his trust that if a medieval chronicle just mentions the nobles and horsemen during a battle that must mean that the foot-soldiers did not do anything worth mentioning. He focused on common sense and telling a good story not on what we can and cannot know and how to use sources (and his books are really really good at telling a story, they keep you reading). But I think that this shows that the ideas which won in the last generation of debates about early Greek warfare were ideas which many thoughtful historians willing to challenge received wisdom could come up with.

These ideas about how to read sources won because they could answer more and harder questions than alternative ideas, not because of intellectual fads. And that gives me hope that my broad, all-sources approaches will win some of the arguments that scholars since 2013 have been having.

Edit 2022-11-21: my very first post on this blog talked about this issue in Phil Sabin’s Lost Battles: if a wealthy Greek man does not say much about poor Greeks or barbarians in a battle, does that mean that they did not do much or that wealthy Greek men tell the heroic deeds of wealthy Greek men? There is an old joke that the shortest academic monograph would be Women in Thucydides.

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8 thoughts on “Sir Charles Oman Almost Understood

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Aaah, painful place of Czech history, not just in sense of national pride (Austrians have this day as national holiday), but also in a menaning of deficiancy in Czech Medieval scholarship. I will have to do some checking and searching, but as far as I know, there is no update in this battle for elementary school, or high school publications, and even Czech academic monographies are in pitiful conclusions. 1) Alleged betrayal of one of the Czech commanders, or their cowardice. 2) Terrible heat of that day, absence of light cavalry on Czech side. 3) Ambush of Rudolf, reckless attack behaviour of Přemysl Otakar II. What is sad, I don’t know some new serious Czech language article, book. I’ll check my previous engagement, magazine Historické Války what does it say about this event. In Czech books there is no serious attempt to compare German and Hungarian sources they are mostly Czech only! That’s a scandal.

    Second, big important issue, I’m afraid, that even if some Czech academic has contemporary sources for battle on plate (translated by himself or prepared by someone), he wouldn’t be able to do reconstruction not just by analysis of chronicles, but also in a modern way of thinking. That means military history reconstruction, infantry probably was there and had some role in battle. In Ancient Greek military history You have at least two decades of new thinking, that primary sources don’t say all and dimnish or distort role of unprestigious groups. Like hoplites weren’t all mighty winning force and others in role of secondary help or watching spectacle. Role of light infantry, sailors was considerable and crucial vis and mainly here

    What does it say about Czech medieval studies and approach to warfare? Nothing good, there are fine works about weapons, armour, metallurgy, castles from Medieval times. This book was ready for publishing, but revolution came in 1989 and no one saw translation again. Yet, I’m dissapointed that Czech martial artists, writters produced many Medieval fencing books, but I don’t see blending of these informations into historical narrative and some update of knowledge in schools. Battles here are often heroic or mysterious events without top notch informations, reconstructions about tactics, weapons, fighting techniques. Marchfeld is trauma, clearly, aura of haziness and mystery, blaming insidious, unchivalric Rudolf, blaming Czech aristocray, rational analysis and reconstruction is largely missing. There are 0 movies, TV series about Přemysl Otakar II. our most powerful king except Charles IV. Coincidence? I don’t think so, but it is such loss, good theme and we know all about costumes and weapons, enemies included. King of Iron and Gold would be under leading of experts (Loades, or others) superb movie.That reminds me, is archeological research of Marchfeld contemplated or done by somebody?

    Problem with update of knowledge for public leads me here. There You can find contemporary Italian chronicle about According to Czech books, king Jan Lucemurský had suicidal bravery and want to fight hopelessly to death even blind. According to this source, he didn’t want to attack and made arguments for it, but French king didn’t listen and Jan saved retreat of whole army by his attack. Do You wanna bet how long this will be hidden before Czech kids and students, public? I hate certain lazy protectionist b*****s (not all, but some people in Ministry of Education and universities are like that, with 7 figure pay a year and no work for decade or two decades creating strategies of betterment instead of actual work).

    Luckily some Czech people, academics are still hard working despite obstacles, there is new published contemporary biography of One company supported this, but we have plenty of funds for this in university sector. What’s the point to publish 90% of academic works by Czechs to abroad, when our people paying for this system and have nothing from this? Because our Ministry of Education created in 2008 stupid system, where public level of knowledge isn’t concern, translations aren’t important concern (it is led in category unscientifical work for 0 money), bringing new knowledge into schools and universities isn’t primary concern.

    But, hey, why bother, certain people die in function by old like members of Soviet politburo or pope, and without any significant work of newer date. But still they acquire many fat paychecks and third or fourth generation members from their families will continue in this practice till revolution (New February comes sooner or later). And others (like me) are deemed incompetent, impudent youths (I wish), who weren’t able to glorify their name abroad and stay there forever. Because in Czech Republic where budgets of universities are bigger every year, we haven’t money for employing our own people and create better knowledge for public. Not official government, university policy, but deeds speaks louder than words and % of failed Bc. students is here 60%.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I am sorry to hear about Czechia’s troubles!

      Anglo academics like to stick up their nose about Sir Charles Oman (he mixed up different sources, he was a dreadful snob who didn’t understand why working people might walk off the job instead of into gunfire if they were not being paid, and he wrote about battles :shudder:) but I don’t know of any replacement for his Art of War in the Middle Ages or especially his Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. There are books which are stronger on how to think about the period, but not with a coverage of so many campaigns and not so fun to read.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Also, there are texts and translations of many sources on Crécy in Kelly de Vries and Michael Livingston’s The Battle of Crécy: A Sourcebook Russ Mitchell is working on a pop book in English about the Hungarian adventures in Italy and the Crécy War. Anglo medieval studies is a bit ‘parochial’ too in terms of which parts of the medieval world scholars are expected to be familiar with. But they have a lot more sources in more languages to handle than we do!

      1. Vavča says:

        This is sounds tempting, one would almost say it’s not too late to become Czech Medievalist with specialization in warfare:)) Sad thing is, I don’t have right now fellow teacher, student or aquintances with Ph.D. in some prominent position to pursue such goal. Medieval era is from military point of view interesting, in Ancient Greek warfare we know our limitations, many myth are gone (role of light infantry, cavalry), but Middle age surely have their problems to solve, but they are in better position than classicists regarding written sources, not to mention fencing manuals. From curiosity about myths, distortions, how is the perception about condottieri? Here there is terrible novel/media fog (fiction Man from Da Vinci (1982), tv series The Borgias (Showtime 2011-13). These works showed Italian renaissance warfare as some kind of fun for proud peacocks and brigands, where is no sense after annihilation of enemy, fighting is for honour, main aim is to create fear, avoid battle. But if some brave publisher released in Czech excellen Chris Dobson San Romano , people would start to think differently.

        1. Sean Manning says:

          There is also Mallett’s Mercenaries and their Masters in English. Christian Cameron might publish a history of the War of Chioggia which I don’t think anyone has done in English. Someone needs to English a good German book on Kaiser Karl / Karel IV.!

          I am confused because I don’t think its possible to earn a living wage writing thoughtful history books today like Adrian Goldsworthy or David Nicolle did last century, but people like Mike Loades and Chris Dobson are using the Internet to get around the hostility of Anglo medievalists to anything to do with warfare. I have Dobson’s book on quattrocento armour from Savoy.

        2. Sean Manning says:

          I think the way people remember 15th century Italian warfare depends on who is doing the remembering. There are people who ‘learn’ about the middle ages by watching the Vikings TV show (complete with long-handled swords and anime-sized axes) and reading fantasy novels, but do they count? If they cared about facts they would look for better sources.

          There are people who take Niccolo Machiavelli’s position because they studied before people had pointed out that he needed to disparage the condottiere to make room for his people’s army. And then there are cases like the American historians who don’t know that Krentz and van Wees won or tied all the arguments with the hoplite revolutionaries between 1989 and 2013. Last year when I was looking in to corporate social media (which is like turning into a snake, it never helps) Matthew Lloyd wrote that two recent histories of Archaic Greece written in the United States repeat the grand hoplite narrative and cite the retired scholar in California. Roel K. wrote that Matthew Sears’ survey of Greek warfare written in Canada does the same. Sears did his PhD with Barry Strauss south of the border, whose name rings some bells, but even then …

          • Hall, Jonathan M. (2013) A History of the Archaic Greek World. 2nd edition. Wiley-Blackwell.
          • Lavelle, Brian M. (2019) Archaic Greece: The Age of New Reckonings

          I feel like its getting harder and harder to see what readers in general think about a historical topic, and I know that in Ancient World Studies, the most important results from in one sub-discipline are not getting spread to neighbouring sub-disciplines let alone the curious public. Just like there are honest-to-Nisaba Jungians, Freudians, tankies, and Greek and Ukranian Neo-Nazis this century! “Sweet master Vavča, learned master Vavča, who ever heard of a woo that really died? You can always get them back.”

  2. russell1200 says:

    So as I understand you, the Greek accounts are likely to over emphasis the importance of Hoplites if they are the main audience for the account. Only where something really strange happens would you likely get anything else much noted.

    On the plus side, the Greeks did have a rather broad political compared to some other time frames, and thus they audience may have had slightly broader interests than say the medieval era with its clash of the knights.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes. At Thermopylae, there are a few anecdotes which mention helots, but they are not in the numbers passed down by historians. And within the hoplites, the Spartiates get the vast majority of the attention even though they were not a majority of the dead, because Sparta was a big powerful prestigious city and Thespiae was not.

      Cyrus’ “Greek force” contained some Thracian cavalry who Xenophon does not list but brings up when they desert (just like Xenophon only mentions one of his slaves once, when the slave was not quick enough to bring him his shield). And when an army does not have cavalry or light-armed with it and bad things start to happen, that gets called out (like at Sphacteria or Demosthenes’ expedition into Aetolia).

      But a typical battle description in Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, or Diodorus focused on Greek hoplites and cavalry of any nation, and the people who get named by historians are overwhelmingly leisured Greek men and a few even richer barbarians.

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