Tom Lewis, Medieval Military Combat (Casemate, 2021)
In this examination of battle in the Wars of the Roses, Tom Lewis deploys various analytical weapons, including modern warfare parallels and re-enactments, to come up with some startling conclusions that if accepted will overturn a few historical apple-carts.
Lewis sets the scene with an overview of the Wars of the Roses then the development of the infantry combat that dominated the WoR battlefield. He also points out through the next chapter that contemporary accounts of battle are devoid of detail, for which there are a number of reasons, though he sets up a typical battle as a framework for exploration. Lewis examines weapons and armour, arguing that the poleaxe was probably the most lethal weapon used in the WoR. He follows that with a curious chapter on understanding medieval combat through modern books and movies because, Lewis argues, they shape our understanding of medieval combat; thus, he unmasks his intended audience as the most gullible constituency of historical readers. Chapter 5 returns to a discussion of how armour developed and when, and he again singles out movies as his enemy for understanding how armour worked. That brings us to the longbow, another misunderstood aspect of medieval tactics apparently, and back to a more involved look at the poleaxe and how it was used.
Lewis turns his attention to a hypothesis on how medieval battles were fought: he considers ground, weather, battlefield communications, loyalty in battle, aggressive leadership, the aim of the battle, the formation of the battle line, the preliminary to the foot battle, how foot soldiers were arranged, the rhythm of battle, the clash of the front lines, the infantry melee, and the continuation of battle. The Battle of Towton provides Lewis’ example. He relies on logic for the most part in his reconstruction, which looks good but is a doomed exercise for historical understanding of battles. Chapter 10 brings us to Lewis’ mythbusting. The first is the tally of deaths, which focuses solely on Towton, and then the numbers who fought in medieval armies, again based mostly on Towton. Lewis argues that the numbers of both have been exaggerated, though this is pushing at an open door and argues from the absence of evidence, which, as every historian knows, is not evidence of absence. In his short conclusion, Lewis posits a new theory of medieval battle, which is provocative but lacks the hard evidence he needs to force it over the line into an orthodox interpretation.
You have to appreciate a historian pushing the envelope to introduce new ideas to the field. But that historian has to be extra-careful with his methodology and evidence; unfortunately, Lewis falls short of the standard required in this book – when you make a historical error in your first sentence of your introduction, that does not bode well for what is to follow. He is strong on describing tangible things like weapons and armour, and he understands the limitations of his re-enactor evidence, though that does not stop him from drawing conclusions that stretches that evidence too far. Also, much of what Lewis describes, we already know, and it feels like filler. In addition, Lewis’ deployment of modern warfare analogies as evidence might look good, but it simply does not work – there is no universal soldier or timeless combat experience. His use of creative fiction as evidence, we will just file under Straw Man and move on. Lewis is on firmer ground pushing evidence from medieval warfare, but the historian has to be wary here too as with the modern analogies. And his focus on one battle, Towton, as his case-study leaves a lot of other equally important and potentially revealing battles out in the cold. Lewis’s writing is also loose at times and repetitious as if he is struggling to maintain a book-length project rather than an interesting article. His use of bullet-points merely contributes to that weakness. Nevertheless, Medieval Military Combat is thought-provoking and Lewis’s conclusions, however arrived at, are worth considering for those interested in that period of military history.