Deception in Medieval Warfare

Trickery and Cunning in the Central Middle Ages


Welcome to the Herald Dr Titterton! We’d like to begin with a brief account of your studies to date, please, and hear what it was that first drew you to the Middle Ages.

Thank you for inviting me! I did an MA at the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds in 2013, then returned to do my PhD in 2015. I grew up in Derbyshire and Nottingham Castle was a regular (and free!) day out during my childhood, so you can probably trace my interest in the Middle Ages back there: Robin Hood and knights-in-armour. I think I became seriously interested in the period as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, when I took a class on the reign of King Stephen under Professor Keith Stringer, as well as reading Maurice Keen’s seminal Chivalry.

What a fascinating subject you have tackled! What inspired you to look at this particular aspect of medieval military history?

It started when I was writing an article on John Barbour’s poem The Bruce. It’s about Robert Bruce and the First Scottish War of Independence, when the Scots were using what we’d called ‘guerrilla tactics’ to harass the English, so there is a lot of military deception in that poem. Most of the scholars who have written on the poem seemed to assume that contemporaries thought this was unusual and contrary to ‘chivalry’. When I went looking for evidence to corroborate this, I found that nobody had written a detailed study on how deception was used in medieval warfare, or what contemporaries thought about it.

Talk us through what you define as trickery and cunning.

Trickery, in this context, is a deliberate attempt to mislead an enemy into believing something that isn’t true. For example, that your army is still encamped in a particular place when, in fact, it is marching around that mountain to attack from a different direction. The intention is key. Somebody has to be deliberately trying to deceive somebody else. This is what distinguishes, say, an ambush from two forces who just blunder into one another in the dark. You have to set up an ambush, conceal the troops, wait for the enemy to get close enough to surprise them. 

Cunning is more difficult to define. The languages used in my sources, mostly Latin and Old French, have a variety of words for deceitful activity. There are words like fraus, which have criminal, illicit overtones, but also words like ars or prudens, which mean cleverness or skill, particularly with machines. We have similar words in English. Think about the difference between ‘craft’ and ‘crafty’, or the different meanings of ‘subtle’. Cunning sits in the middle of that ambiguity. It is cleverness, in a deceitful way, while not necessarily being immoral.

You must have found some wonderful examples. 

Nearly two hundred, in fact. That is why I put the taxonomy in the back of the book. I discuss the most interesting examples in the text but they represent a much larger catalogue of incidents. Some are comical – like the French nobleman who dressed as a prostitute to try and sneak through the enemy siege lines. Others are pretty grim – like the Normans leaving bread before the walls of a city to entice the starving defenders into ambush. 

Did these episodes of trickery and subterfuge change the course of battles or perhaps overturn numerical disadvantages, or simply speed up victories that were probably coming anyway?

It is difficult to say. Medieval accounts of battle are not trying to analyse strategies or tactics. They are closer to literature. When stories of deception appear, it’s usually because the author is trying to make a particular point. If ‘their side’ won, they might highlight a particularly clever stratagem in order to say: ‘see how wise and skilful our leader was’. If they lost, the intended message might be: ‘see how foolish our men were for not anticipating the enemy’s tricks’. It’s worth noting that it’s very rare to find a chronicler blaming a defeat on the enemy fighting ‘unfairly’. When the enemy uses trickery, it’s the defender who is blamed for falling for it.

Which were the boldest and strangest examples you found? Did I see something about laundry being waved…?

Yes, that was Barbour again. He says that at Bannockburn, the Scottish camp followers put laundry on poles and advanced onto the battlefield in a body, so that the English mistook them for a division of soldiers and ran away. Probably the strangest example is the fake corpse trick: pretending that somebody is dead so you can get into a stronghold by saying that you want to bury the body. That appears in both Norman and Norwegian texts. A version even shows up in the Byzantine text the Alexiad, where the author claims the Norman crusader Bohemond escaped her father’s troops by pretending to be dead. He was carried around in a coffin, holding a dead rooster so that he smelled convincing, while all his men wailed and cried.

How did people – generals, soldiers and civilians – respond to this style of warfare? Was it not seen as somewhat shameful in the era of chivalry? 

Chroniclers were very selective about what material they included in their narrative, so the very fact that these stories were recorded tells us that people wanted to hear about them. A quick survey of medieval literature will show how much contemporaries enjoyed hearing about tricksters and their ruses: Tristan and Isolde, Robin Hood, Renart the Fox. This behaviour could be interpreted as dishonourable but it could just as easily be presented as clever and skilful. Prudence was a key Christian virtue and good generals are often praised for displaying ‘prudence’ or ‘good sense’. Mostly it depended on who was doing the trickery and to what end. Chroniclers could portray the same basic tactics in remarkably different ways, depending on where their sympathies lay.

How did you go about researching your book and finding all these wonderful examples? 

I am afraid it was not very glamorous: just long hours in the library, pouring over lots of chronicles and keeping a very thorough index. I became very good at spotting keywords.

What’s next for you? Will you continue with this subject beyond 1320?

I hope to, one day. Right now I am working on an article about how heraldry was used in deception, which will include material from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: the material in my book only covers the early stages of heraldry. I also have plans to publish more on the tournament, looking in particular at an early romance-biography from the Low Countries, The History of Gilles de Chin.

And finally, what has your experience been of online conferences over the last two years? The hybrid model (online and in-person) seems likely to spread, at least in the short-term. What are your thoughts on conference formats these days?

I think online conferences have been one of the challenges of the pandemic. There are some benefits in terms of running costs and, theoretically, they make conferences more accessible to a broader range of scholars, but there are significant drawbacks. A lot of the connections you make at a conference are done outside the actual sessions, during coffee breaks or over a meal. You cannot really replicate that experience online. The hybrid model is probably the best compromise under the current circumstances but I hope that we can return to wholly in-person gatherings someday.

Deception in Medieval Warfare:
Trickery and Cunning in the Central Middle Ages


1/w & 4 line illus.; 292pp
£70/$99, 9781783276783
February 2021
Boydell Press



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JAMES TITTERTON received his PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of Leeds. In addition to his work on the history of warfare, he has published on crusader rhetoric, chivalry and the medieval tournament.

Cover Image: Renart the Fox wounds Isengrin the Wolf, from Li Brance de Renart ke Jakemars Giellee, de Lisle, traita, MS Français 1581 f. 6v, Bibliothèque National de France