Sir Charles Oman

Sir Charles Oman

Sir Charles Oman Missed This Too

One of the most frustrating things about Charles Oman is that he ignores when his medieval sources were alluding to famous ancient texts. At the battle of Benevento in 1266, the army of Charles of Anjou crossed the Apennines in February only to find themselves trapped between the mountains and the swollen River Calore with Manfred of Sicily and his army on the other side. Charles’ men were already reduced to eating fallen pack animals, and it was hard to see how they could go forward or back. But then fortune intervened:

Ricordano Malaspina wonders why Manfred crossed the River Calore at all since if he had waited a day or two, King Charles and his people would have been killed without a blow of a sword through lack of vittles (columns 1002, 1003). Oman wonders whether Manfred was worried about treachery or desertion, and asks whether “perhaps in the spirit of the mediaeval knight, he preferred to beat his adversary by the sword rather than hunger.” But any attentive reader in the 13th century would have seen that beating the enemy with hunger rather than the sword is a strategic principle from the third book of Vegetius on military matters. He mentions it three times: 3.3.1, 3.9.8., 3.26.32. It seems to me that Malaspina was just as unimpressed with Manfred’s strategic decisions as Oman was.

snippet cut from a forthcoming piece in Medieval World (Karwansaray Bv)
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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.

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Good King Robert’s Testament

A group of soldiers in full suits of mail with bascinets and kettle hats and lances or axes and shields in their hands are standing in water on the left. A group of men in pseuydo-antique robes, one of them with a Jewish hat and the rest bare-headed, hold swords and axes and stand on land on the right
Soldiers and civilians in the age of Bannockburn (pharaoh’s soldiers drowning in the sea?) on folio 24v of the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library BL Royal 2 B VII, painted in London c. 1310-1320). A good general doesn’t plan for miracles!

Throughout the long five hundred years of war between Scottish and English kings, the Scots tended to win the wars but lose the big battles. Scotland was a smaller and poorer kingdom, and the way of fighting battles that the Scots were good at (lining up big masses of spearmen and axemen with jacks and steel caps) was not very effective against the way that the English were good at (dismounting their armed men and galling the enemy with arrows until they charged, breaking formation as they came because no prince in Europe could keep a large army together long enough to drill it). A fourteen-line gem of a poem describes the way of fighting which proved most successful in campaign after campaign:

On fut suld be all Scottis weire, // weire = Wehr, defense
By hyll and mosse themself to reare. // reare: roar? an earlier edition has weire “defend”
Lat woods for wallis be bow and speire,
That innymeis do them na deire.
In strait placis gar keep all store,
And byrnen ye planeland thaim before.
Thane sall thai pass away in haist
Wenn that thai find na thing but waist.
With wykes and waykings of the nyght // wyke: wake
And mekill noyis maid on hytht, // mekill: big, large
Thaime sall ye turnen with gret affrai, // affray: fright, alarm
As thai ware chassit with swerd away.
This is the counsall and intent
Of gud King Robert’s testiment.

– After Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War: The Middle Ages from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century. New and Cheaper Issue (Meuthen & Co.: London, 1905) p. 579 https://archive.org/details/historyofartofw00oman/

Now roll that around in your mouth a bit and savour it. Enjoy the language and the rhythm and the joy with which it describes something horrible in ways that poor crofters and shepherds can understand. Think about how rare it is to have something like this from the side which was wise to avoid battle. And then if you really must, go on where I ask my annoying academic question, namely where does this poem come from?

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