The Hundred Years War, Volume 1: Trial by Battle by Jonathan Sumption

This is a complex read.  This is quite possibly the most complex read I’ve ever undertaken.

My progress on this volume began life as a buddy read, the ripcord pulled on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.  Due to logistics, the buddy read fell apart.  Simply put, this book just doesn’t work as a buddy read.

It also doesn’t work as an introduction to The Hundred Years War.  Beginners could conceivably jump in and figure it out, depending on personal preferences and understandings in regards to the Middle Ages.  I can’t personally conceive of what that must be like to be pushed into this face first.  I come at this topic with a fairly decent understanding of English history, some dabbles of French history, a level of enthusiasm in regards to certain personalities of the era (I can tell you all about Joan of Arc), a great deal of understanding about life, culture, and combat of the Middle Ages, and some personal understanding of what it’s like to armor up and carry a sword into battle.  I’ve read overviews on this era, overviews that include this era as part of a greater whole, and an extensive “war journal” on this era that would make most armchair tacticians geek out given the level of logistics in regards to food, terrain, arms, troop movements, etc.  Most of these things are angles of approach that do not seem to cross-pollinate in most books on this subject, or indeed in a great many other subjects.  That’s why you have to read several different kinds of books on any given subject before you can create a fully-realized holographic idea of what’s going on.

I feel like none of that prepared me for this book because, before this, I barely scratched the surface.  The truth of the matter is that I probably couldn’t have wrapped my head around this book if not for all that back there, but I was still overwhelmed.  And gratefully so.  When it comes down to it, I’m pretty good about parroting back things I learn, but I’m not nearly as smart as most people seem to think.  Enthusiasm makes up for a lack of academic ability, and the rest comes in flashes of insight.  I learn what I’m interested in, pure and simple.  When it comes to the Middle Ages, this war is a mighty cross-section of what it means to live and die in that time period.  Usually my approach to something like this would be to dive in obsessively and continue on until I either exhaust the material or burn out, whichever comes first.  That’s just not possible here.  I whittled away at this a few pages at a time, a couple of nights a week, over the course of months, allowing myself to digest it slowly.  I had to.  Any other way would have been self-defeating.

What the author has done here is to create one of the most detailed and complete accounts of The Hundred Years War I’ve ever encountered, and this is only the first of a now-confirmed five-part series (the fifth and final part still being written).  This is a book written by an historian for other historians or for those who think they want to be.  Everything you could possibly want to know is here, with perhaps one small exception.  The author assumes you either know or will look up the personalities involved if you’re unfamiliar with them.  Names are dropped, motivations are offered, but by and large the focus is on recorded words and deeds, not so much on psychology or full biography.  Political motivation and degeneration, on the other hand, plays a heavy part, as does money, supply, troop movement, tactical explanation… the list just goes on and on.  An average 30 page chapter will feel like it’s own book, and every single sentence is an information bomb that informs the next one in line.  There’s no fluff here at all.  None.  By the time you’re done with it, you feel like you’ve fought the war in real time.

For me, that’s a big selling point.  In the experience of just this first book, I’ve gained so much insight that I’m now able to apply that to other wars through history.  Everything from Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, to the Crusades, to the American Revolution, to World War II and beyond… it all now makes sense on an entirely new level for me.  I can better appreciate the top-down perspective of seeing the tactics on a map.  I can better appreciate the diplomacy or failure of it that informs mindsets and dictates why things happen as they do.  I can better understand the single soldier in the field in various positions and specialties.

I feel like this book pushed me to grow as a scholar, as an enthusiast of the era, and even as a swordfighter.  I am humbled at how much I learned, how much I only thought I knew, and how much I can’t possibly explain back because it’s too complex.  I have to keep reminding myself this is only the first book.  There are four more!  I will most definitely continue with this series to the end.

5 stars

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