Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"Divided Houses, The Hundred Years War III ", Jonathan Sumption

British QC Jonathan Sumption has been writing his monumental history of the Hundred Years War for over 20 years now, and there's still probably another couple of volumes to go, which at his current rate of writing, will see us through to 2030 or so, a writing project that will have taken almost as long as its subject matter to complete.

The first volume was a surprising gift from a friend's father in 1990 - I'd been the beneficiary of his generosity in the past, as he disbursed the books he accumulated in a career at Irish broadcaster RTE, but I remember being struck that this was a rather more impressive gift than usual. Sadly it remained largely unread through university years - somewhat ironic given the courses in medieval history I took, only picked up when working life and exigencies of a commute impelled me to raid the large unread pile that a decade in higher education can leave you with, and the publication of the 2nd volume reminded me of the first's existence.

Size makes these books daunting, but right from the start, with the lavish description of the funeral of Charles IV in 1328 you realise that this is something deserving of your time. Reading weighty hardback tomes isn't easy on South London commuter trains, especially when you're also trying to juggle a cup of coffee, but some efforts are worth it.

The work is rooted in a traditional highly narrative form of history. As such it may not be scholastic, and academics may legitimately question whether it says much that's genuinely new, but it's probably better for it. Much in the same way as I prefer Runciman's somewhat discredited history of the crusades to more modern interpretations of the Latin East, Sumption's treatment is capable of immersing the reader in the 14th century world, and sweeping you a long with the period's inherent drama.

In terms of location it reminds you that France really is very big, but also that through much of the terrain familiar to British visitors to the continent there runs a rich vein of history when France and England were inextricably linked. It's also a timely reminder that the Hundred Years War was not just a Franco-British affair but in reality a much wider European conflict dragging in the low countries, Spain, and Italy and serving to shape the continent in many ways.

It does also reinforce some key points. Medieval warfare was not perpetual combat - financial realities meant it couldn't be so, and for those whose familiarity with the period is driven by the (admittedly rather good) Medieval Total War computer game or the more elaborate battle scenes in "Kingdom of Heaven", it comes as a surprise to be reminded that warfare was not conducted with a cast of thousands, instead small handfuls of fighting men would in the main shape the course of battle - cataclysmic confrontations such as Crecy or Agincourt (the latter still far from being covered in Sumption's work) very much the exception.

Despite this, it's probably not popular history - it's far too weighty for that, and this is a real shame. History such as this, talking about Kings, Queens, and battles, isn't trendy today, but it's the sort of story that can get people interested and excited. The French to their credit have grasped this with the magnificent visitor centre now at Azincourt, one can only wish that more of this would percolate through in Britain.

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