Book Review: The Crossbow by Mike Loades.

Author: Mike Loades
Illustrator: Peter Dennis
Short code: WPN 61
Publication Date: 9 Mar 2018
Number of Pages: 80

https://ospreypublishing.com/the-crossbow

Osprey’s Weapon’s series has some excellent titles, and allows a specific kind of author a valuable chance to investigate the nuts and bolts of military hardware. Mike Loades is a perfect writer for this series due to his practical experience, dedicated research, open mindedness and engaging style. As the author points out at the beginning, the crossbow has a strangely bad reputation, especially in England. Seen as the weapon of villains and foreigners, and scoffed at when compared to the longbow, this weapon is undeserving of the scorn heaped upon it. When your humble reviewing servant opined, one indulgent evening, in a tweet that noted the expertise of crossbow companies as opposed to those of the longbow, he was met by quite a bunctious barrage of indignant replies.
Nevertheless I maintain that professional crossbowmen, or arbalists as those of the fraternity are called, were on the whole better drilled and more professional than their archer counterparts, at least at first. The synchronicity required to orchestrate the continual massed discharge of a lateral firing weapon and it’s accompanying pavises in battle necessitated the expertise of crossbow armed troops, hence they were perfect mercenaries and ‘scientifically minded’ soldiers. They also represent an overlooked factor of warfare in the Middle Ages. All too often people imagine a frenzied melee, but the presence of a machine like a crossbow and the inherent necessity to protect their practitioners shows us the much neglected combined arms nature of 12th and 13th century medieval armies. This seems borne out by the Chinese, who left us the only actual written evidence of the complexity of crossbow tactics, and happily this is covered in Loades’ book, identifying how it could dominate the battlefield in a number of ways.
It was not a super-weapon, as many tend to argue as overcompensation for its bad press, but it checked the boxes of what makes a weapon useful and popular, simplicity, portability, ruggedness and maintainability. Loades delves into the science, construction and attributes of the weapon and explores its role and effectiveness, in China, the Middle East and Western Europe.
Not being an archer myself I couldn’t say wether all the talking points are covered in the examination of what makes a crossbow, but it seems thorough to me. I enjoyed the analysis of its combat use, especially how it could form only a part of a professional soldier’s arsenal of talents. Being able to shoot a crossbow and work with others looked good on ye olde CV.
It is commonly thought that both the church and the nobility shunned crossbows, and while it is partially true the papacy tried to prevent all bowmen from shooting fellow Christians, it’s hardly true that the crossbow was despised by medieval commanders. Much like the later musket, the bow, and especially the crossbow (because it’s construction allowed for a greater amount of technical intricacy and artistic embellishment) was a prized weapon for the nobility to master. It was of course rare to see them employ it on the battlefield, and it was most commonly to be seen as a sporting weapon in the upper echelons of society, however in saying that let us not forget that it was with crossbow in hand that Richard the Lionheart waded ashore to relieve Jaffa, and the bolts of his mercenaries that he beat off Saladin’s horse-archers in the ensuing battle. Loades does not omit the factor of crossbow culture here, when he examines the importance and influence of crossbow societies and guilds which were remarkably egalitarian in their membership requirements.
A wealth of practical and experimental knowledge is brought to this work, from shooting the bow mounted, to the tricky procedure of using it in a turret at targets below you, and by the end the reader should find themselves in the enviable position of those who are inspired to learn more. Peter Dennis does duty for the main illustrations here, delivering an engaging scene of the Battle at Jaffa and some typically exciting siege scenes. There are also as many excellent photographs of the weapons themselves as anyone could wish.
The demise of the crossbow, ironically seems to have been its expense. Though at first the ease with which the weapon could be mastered made it popular, the upkeep of professional companies would prove more damaging to a purse than the trickier and more labour intensive longbow, at least in Britain. Although both stringed weapons superseded by the gun, so long as Mike Loades has anything to say about it, neither will be considered inferior to them.

Josh.

Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell.

When a writer chooses as their lead protagonist an actor and his main theme the theatre, possibilities abound. At first looking at Bernard Cornwell’s new novel “Fools and Mortals” you might dissapointedly think, oh, the creator of Sharpe has finally succumbed to the Tudor period eh? And oh look! He’s writing about Shakespeare, how original. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. But don’t be fooled, as we mortals often are, this is a story of layer and depth. Continue reading

Book Review: Viking Warrior vs Anglo-Saxon Warrior by Gareth Williams

Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (24 Aug. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472818326
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Viking-Warrior-Anglo-Saxon-England-865-1066/dp/1472818326

The Viking Age has often been called the time when England was made. These Scandinavian intruders, who were only one in a line of successive invaders since the Celtic Migration and which included the Saxons, succeeded for a short time in replacing the then current owners of the land and left an indelible mark on, not just England but practically every nation in the British Isles.

This was a time period dominated in military terms by the shield-wall, made up of men, for the most part, armoured with hauberks, shields, swords, spears and axes. Because of the legendary exploits of the Vikings as bloodthirsty pagan looters, and the fame of the saga of 1066, this is a very recognisable time in the history of Northern Europe. Bernard Cornwell had added his popular touch to the history of the subject by writing the Last Kingdom series, which deals with the emergence of the Saxon kingdoms, so it’s safe to say this is a subject dear to many people’s hearts.

This is a well constructed overview of some key battles, and a neat survey of weaponry and organisation, accompanied by some fine photographs and action packed original artwork, however it doesn’t quite deliver the “boots on the ground” experience that other titles in the series provide. Also lacking here is the progression seen in other Versus books. We don’t see much in the way of an evolution in fighting styles.

This was always going to be a tough subject. Unlike later medieval eras there is a scarcity of sources that can reconstruct the use of shield, spear, sword, axe and seax. However experimental archeology does allows us to theorise as to their most logical applications, Mike Loades for instance has presented some highly interesting theories on the subject in his series Weapons that Made Britain.

Interestingly what the author is doing is showing us how alike the Vikings and Saxons were in their approach to warfare. How elements of each other’s military ethos and technology was harnessed. Rather than their differences this book observes two remarkably similar tactical doctrines. Instead of the front lines the author covers grand strategy, campaign goals and possible interpretations for the course of the Battle of Ashdown, the Battle of Maldon and the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

As mentioned above a paucity of written works restricts the scope of the book. Whereas in other Versus books it is possible to observe the experiences of “voices from the ranks” the sparse sources to be found for these centuries of warfare makes even the detailed reconstruction of major battles a challenge. More perhaps could have been done to attempt to flesh out the way warfare was conducted and a greater discussion of possible and theoretical tactics could have been mounted. There is for instance three diagrams that illustrate shield-wall tactics. However the relative complexity of the formation isn’t mentioned even though there is a discussion to be had about the old fashioned idea of the walls, which show simplistic arrays of men standing shoulder to shoulder, and the newer interpretations which show a highly organised system of projecting spears and in places, stacked shields that have a distinctly Roman or Greek flavour.

Peter Dennis provides mad melee’s, and an interesting interpretation of the famous incident at Stamford Bridge, in which the famous axe-man, often called a berserker, is killed while delaying the Saxon pursuit, not by a spear between the legs, but by a javelin hurled from the riverbank. His lone figure studies are excellent detailed, and it’s always satisfying to see the Seax dangling within easy reach.

All in all, this is a good overview of early medieval warfare in Northern Europe and its broad dynamics, but presents only a limited view of the ways in which battles were fought in terms of nuts and bolts combat.

Josh.

Book Review: Viking Fire by Justin Hill.

Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Abacus (7 Sept. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 034912339X

In terms of visuals the Paperback is as one would expect, a good product with an interesting design, but publishers will continue to put faux gilt onto the front cover, on hardbacks that is OK you can avoid rubbing it off with use by removing the dust jacket but with paperbacks this isn’t an option and the result is a much less fancy cover when you get through with it.

Inside, I must say I’m very impressed with Justin Hill’s new novel Viking Fire. Don’t be fooled by the typically HistFic title, this is a strong, literary, retelling of the Harald Hardrada saga. Everyone thinks they know what a Viking is, and because of that, probably the most interesting figure of the 1066 epic is also the most misunderstood. This book presents the story of a man who might not be very familiar to readers who are used to unimaginative and bland descriptions of Hardrada as a opportunistic looter. Continue reading