I was never one who enjoyed books on warfare. Outside of youth, I found the spectacle of slaughter amusing only for mere historical annotation—a human phenomenon promulgated by unjust economic systems of exploitation. But, in Western culture, there is this great mythology around medieval warfare; whether it is Dungeons & Dragons, (grievously) inaccurate tales of King Arthur, or representations of the Hundred Year War and Joan of Arc’s military prowess, we are bombarded with sentimentalized depictions of valor, glory, and legend.
But, no one can be a consummate scholar of the medieval world without studying, to some degree, the warfare of your chosen field’s epoch, even if it is only for reference. And so I decided to pick up what I thought would be an adequate introduction to the basics of siege warfare as practiced in the middle Ages: Christopher Gravett’s (rather dryly named) Medieval Siege Warfare.
First things first—Gravett is not an academic. Accordingly, his book is not academic, not insofar as we presently consider things ‘academic.’ One of the facets of his book is that there is a citation lacuna; he cites the location of reproduced images, but not of the claims he makes about the specific and universal claims of medieval siege warfare; so, though I think he does a fantastic job at informing the reader of the subject matter, we must take him at his word—and his title as a museum aid—that he is faithfully explaining the concepts and ideas of the epoch (I believe that he is but that is just my gut talking).
Beyond this caveat, though, is a well-written, concise, and much needed read.
I bought Gravett’s book because it looked like a nice step in-between ‘full on academic title’ and ‘children’s picture book.’ It contained many images for reference and so got me hooked with its combination of pictorial splendor and lingual dissemination; usually, when one buys a book on medieval life and war, its target audience is young adolescents, but this title found that sweet spot in-between greasy pre-teen and tenured professor. My mind told me to buy it, learn the basics, and then keep it around for reference and to see how it stacks up one you learn more about medieval warfare.
Reading the text is a pleasure. Every page is littered with pictures accompanied by detailed descriptions. Chapters flow seamlessly as topics melt into one another. Gravett perfectly blends academicism and casual medievalism. With the reading level anchored at the high-school level but the material able to be appreciated by the typical Undergraduate (and perhaps enjoyed as a dirty little secret by the Grad. Student), the stylish presentation of information should attract all manner of people. If you are afraid of reading about historical events for fear of not understanding the material, then you should check out this text as it welcomes the curious.
I do have some complaints about Gravett’s text, however. Namely, it is a short book. Although I am well aware that not all titles need to be epic chronicles filled with elaborate artistry, at a total of sixty-four pages, Gravett’s book is closer to a pamphlet than anything else. This, in addition to the fact that much of the information, though presented chronologically, remains somewhat of an exiled ghost when considering its divorcement from the wider scholarship, we have to deduct some points for general errors (though, to his credit, he does provide a short ‘Further Readings’ section at the end of the book which could double as a citation page, but perhaps that is too generous).
Once everything has been considered, however, I feel that whatever is ‘iffy’ about Gravett’s text should be overlooked by the general medieval lover. There is nothing wrong with this brief foray into medieval warfare; it is well written and filled with intriguing reproductions of original medieval images as well as colored originals. Fans of the middle Ages should take note and pick this classic up as a stepping stone to greater works yet.
Medieval Siege Warfare
64 pages. Published by Osprey. $18.95 (Paperback), $8.95 (Hadcover; Used). 1990.