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Deception in Medieval Warfare

Deception is part of warfare – or should be if you want to win! But how was it regarded and how did it fit into medieval societies that so valued honour, loyalty, chivalry, and bravery? James Titterton’s wonderful new book examines just this. In this exclusive article he gives us an intriguing overview and tells us chroniclers often harboured a sneaking regard for the successful trickster.

‘He plotted how he might enter the castle, now on horseback, now on foot, taking on the likeness of a jester and a prostitute […] In this way, and others, as much by his crafty tongue as his bold heart, one man made fools of many’.

This is a description of Hugh of Crécy, a French nobleman, from the chronicle of Suger of Saint-Denis (d. 1151). In 1108 Hugh and his father, Guy of Rochefort, were in armed rebellion against the new king of France, Louis VI (1108–1137). Hugh had expected support from his brother-in-law, Odo of Corbeil, but, when Odo refused to join the rebellion, Hugh kidnapped him and imprisoned him in the castle at La Ferté-Alais, some 40 miles south of Paris. King Louis laid siege to the castle, blockading the roads to prevent the garrison leaving or supplies entering. It was at this point that Suger claims Hugh attempted to sneak through the royal lines and enter the castle by adopting his unusual disguises. On another occasion, while he was being pursued by a knight named William of Garlande, Hugh managed to escape by shouting to some nearby royal soldiers that he was William and was being chased by Hugh of Crécy.

                What makes this incident particularly interesting is that it was reported in the Life of King Louis, Suger of Saint-Denis’s panegyric to the king. This is a royal chronicle, intended to extol the king and present him as a strong and pious ruler. Hugh was a rebel and Louis’s sworn enemy. The description of him dressing as a prostitute is clearly comical but Hugh is not presented as a wholly ridiculous figure. There is a hint of admiration for a cunning warrior, one who possessed both a ‘crafty tongue’ and a ‘bold heart’. Suger, like most medieval chroniclers, took great care in crafting his narrative, choosing which incidents to include, which to exclude and what language to use when describing them. The fact that he chose to include a passage praising a fighting man for using deception, even though that man was an enemy of his hero, reveals something of medieval attitudes towards warfare and how it was conducted.

                My forthcoming book, Deception in Medieval Warfare, is based on a study of hundreds of similar incidents from chronicles of the central of Middle Ages (c. 1000–1300). They highlight a previously neglected facet of warfare in this period: the use of ruse and trickery to gain a tactical advantage. Accounts of ambushes, feigned flights, night raids and extraordinary disguises show that there was more to medieval warfare than simple pitched battles. Some of the stories strain credulity to breaking point but their inclusion in ostensibly historical narratives is more important than whether they happened exactly as reported. Chronicle writers and their audiences expected soldiers to use deception. Moreover, they admired a warrior who could use intelligence to defeat his enemy, just as they admired feats of physical violence in hand-to-hand combat. It is highly unlikely that the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard really captured a town by pretending to bring a dead body to be buried in the local monastery but it is still significant that William of Apulia, who chronicled Guiscard’s conquests in southern Italy, wanted his audience to believe that he had done it.

                In addition to studying the incidents reported in the chronicles, the book also considers the language used to describe them. The choice of vocabulary can be just as revealing as which events were included or excluded. A great general might be praised for displaying prudens in ambushing an unsuspecting opponent, whereas an enemy ambush might be called a wicked fraus. The essential action is the same but it can be presented in very different ways. Even the breaking of an oath, a major social taboo in that culture, could be excused if necessary. Likewise, Western chroniclers could acknowledge cunning and cleverness even in enemies from different religious or cultural backgrounds, such as Greeks and Muslims.

                By studying this aspect of warfare, we uncover some of the contradictions of medieval culture. Churchmen preached faith and truth, while carefully preserving tales of deception from the classic world. Knights defined themselves by their personal honour but loved to hear stories about the archetypal trickster, Reynard the Fox. Kings and emperors wished to be portrayed as fearless warriors but entered battle in disguise to escape their enemies’ attention. It is in these contradictions, no worse than those of our own age, that we find the humanity of these long-dead warriors and historians.

This guest post was written by James Titterton.  

Deception in Medieval Warfare: Trickery and Cunning in the Central Middle Ages
By James Titterton
9781783276783, Hardcover, £45.50 or $64.35

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