04 January 2007

Lords of Battle

Lords of Battle: Image and Reality of the Comitatus in Dark Age Britain, by Stephen S. Evans.

It's not a bad book, and raises some interesting points regarding similarities of military culture between British and Germanic kingdoms. Over all, it's not a bad introduction, if highly limited by the fact that the only good sources we have for the subject are heroic poems.

Heroic poems suck as military history. Seriously. Very difficult to interpret--rather like a historian trying to figure out the history of WWII based on Captain America comic books.

One conclusion Mr. Evans (err, Dr. Evans, this is a magnification of his PhD thesis) reached that I disagree vehemently with is his conclusion that the British used horses only as a means of operational mobility, invariably dismounting to fight. That this was true of the Germanic tribes I do not doubt, based on the lack of horse furniture in the grave goods, lack of description of mounted combat, etc.

But for the British, there is only offered a statement by RHC Davis that the native horse breeds of Britain averaged 8-10 hands. Again, I don't doubt this. The fact remains that the Notitia Dignitatum lists no less than five named cavalry cohorts in Britain at the end of the 4th century. Each of these would have had a book strength in the neighborhood of 500 troopers, plus a remount pool. I doubt that, given the difficulty in moving horses by ship, these horses were bred in Gaul or further afield. It is far more reasonable to assume that the Romans had stud farms with warhorse breeds to provide for their own troops. These horses would have be highly prized and not likely to have become extinct in the century after the Romans left. I have not read the Gododdin poem but I have it on order, and will judge for myself the statements made in this poem in regards to mounted warfare.

I am unconvinced of the statements by Dr. Evans definitely excluding those not full-time members of the 'comitatus' or professional warband from the practice of warfare. I am also unconvinced of the conclusion that the warband's ranks were refreshed only from the sons of the warriors, wandering mercenaries drawn by the chief's reputation, and fostered boys. It seems to me, given the apparently high casualty rates of battles and given the apparent lack of concern for any hereditary component to the warband's makeup (outside of the chief's immediate family) that any number of 'hangers-on' hoping to win a place in the chief's hall could have attached themselves to a warband. After all, not every Joe Snuffy that's going to show up with a spear and shield (huge economic investments? I think not) is going to have enough of a reputation to justify being taken on by the chief as a full-time professional fighter.

Just because the practice is not attested to in the poetry doesn't mean that it _didn't_ happen. I'm just leery enough about the reliability of epic poetry as a source of technical military details (especially when interpreted by some sillyvilian) that I am far less comfortable making definitive statements than Dr. Evans seems to be.

Then again, I doubt they hand out PhDs for saying, "There really isn't enough data to honestly tell much about subject X, Y, or Z. So let me inflate the chapters dealing with A, B, and C, about which the poets do go on and on about."


Anonymous cMAD said...

Then again, I doubt they hand out PhDs for saying, "There really isn't enough data to honestly tell much about subject X, Y, or Z. So let me inflate the chapters dealing with A, B, and C, about which the poets do go on and on about."

Sounds rather plausible to me that this is what happens quite often (but that's after I've seen what it took to get my PhD).

On the facts side of things ...

How hard was a proper pointy end of a spear to come by? When everything irony was made by hand, I figure things were expensive, and on top of that, this was some 1100 years before the Second Amendment.

And how expensive would it be to maintain a standing army of mounted soldiers? How did the Romans maintain it??

8:10 PM  
Blogger tychecat said...

Regarding Celtic use of horses in war:
Ceasar, in his commentaries mentions the British use of war chariots and says they were quite adept and manuver and throwing spears from them but that they primarily used them to manuver to the battle and dismounted for most of the fighting. I expect horse calvary was quickly adopted following the Roman model.
A source you may not be familiar with that will be of some help to you is Singer, Holmyard, and Hall "The History of Technology" 5 vol, Oxford Univ. Press 1954.
This gives a pretty complete overview of technological developments from the time of the earliest evidence found (by 1954) and approx. 1900. I don't know if it's still in print - I got my set in 1957.

9:36 PM  
Blogger A Soldier's Girl said...

Great. Now you've got me interested in researching British horses, inasmuch as they can be researched from 5th c.


I'm still looking for more on the native horses.

2:07 AM  
Anonymous Michael Llaneza said...

Oh, I've got two recommendations.

The first is nonfiction; Ann Hyland's Training the Roman Cavalry. This is a very detailed work based on Arrian's Ars Tactica as interpreted by a professional horse trainer. She's written more than a few books on horsemanship. I'd consider this an essential reference for anyone using cavalry in gaming. ISBN 1-85627-899-9.

The second is fiction, Jack Whyte's Camulod series. These should be easy to find. The series is historical fiction, big fat page turners, covering King Arthur's story from the time of his grandfathers' service in the Legions through the evacuation of Britain and the founding of the colony at Camulod. He's taking it all the way through the end. I see that the ninth and final volume just came out, so I'll be getting that tomorrow. For the rest of you, start with The Skystone. Terrific stuff. If John hasn't read these I'd say they're a must. I can't imagine he's missed these.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Just A Decurion said...

Regarding pointy spear ends:
Any blacksmith can make a servicable one. They were buried as grave goods in roughly 30% of the Saxon graves of the time period. Sadly, neither Christianity nor paganism as practiced by the British in the 5th-6th centuries encouraged leaving grave goods.

Maintaining a large cavalry army is hideously expensive. But we know that the British warbands were smaller than their Saxon counterparts. I'm supposing for purposes of discussion that only a fraction, perhaps a fifth or so, of the warband fought on horseback. Evans argues that the British warbands were mounted for operational mobility, and the cost of doing so would only be slightly lower than the cost of maintaining warhorses.

Regarding pre-conquest Celts:
Yup, but chariots can be drawn with scruffy little ponies, as long as they have lightweight chariots, and unarmored riders. However, we do know that:

1) Celtic cultures put a great emphasis on raiding for livestock,


2) The Romans who owned the bloody island for 4 centuries had real cavalry horses there.

These two facts make me doubt that there was no improvement at all in the breeds available.

Mike: I have the Hyland book in storage in Germany. Will look at it again when I get my hands on it.

Camulod sounds familiar, I think I've read at least the first few of them. It's actually one of the influences in the back of my mind as I work on this.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Michael Llaneza said...

If your recollection of the Camulod series has Excalibur being made from meteoric iron, then that's the one I'm thinking of. I won't spill why it's called a 'singing sword' in case you haven't.

6:20 PM  

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