Friday, January 11, 2008

My review of Yuval Harari's Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry

What follows is my review for The Medieval Review, the free, scholarly reviewing forum for medieval studies. It was just sent out this afternoon, and will at some point in the future be posted to the web archive.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550. Woodbridge, U.K.: The Boydell Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 224 $80.00 ISBN: 1-84383-292-5, ISBN: 978-1-84383-292-8.

Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger
Nipissing University


I had my doubts about this book when I heard its title: is "special operations" a term appropriate to the "age of chivalry?" And what might the author mean by "age of chivalry?"

Having read the book I am still unsatisfied with Harari's use of the terms "special operations" and "age of chivalry," but that dissatisfaction has not prevented me from enjoying this book or
appreciating the perspective that Harari has brought to medieval military history. Special Operations is written in such a way that it will inform and entertain the elusive "general reader" while still giving scholars material to think about.

Harari's book has an unusual structure. Chapter one, about a quarter of the book, is an analytical overview of special military operations, their place in medieval warfare and their historiographical treatment to date. The next six chapters each treat a noteworthy land operation or set of land operations in detail, ranging from the taking of Antioch in the First Crusade to the destruction of the mill of Auriol in 1536, in an effort to illustrate analytical points made earlier. Chapter eight provides a short conclusion. Harari states in his preface that the second part of his book, the six chapters devoted to operations, is "aimed at a non-professional readership and consequently forgoes analysis in favour of narrative," adding that in
that section "footnotes and discussion of the sources are kept at a minimum." (x). The author is too modest; his clear, decisive narrative will benefit many readers, and not just amateurs. I found his discussions of the assassination of King Conrad of Jerusalem and the multifarous plots that surrounded the Valois dukes of Burgundy not only interesting but provocative of much thought on how the political environment can shape military behavior.

Harari's narrative chapters, then, make his analysis far more vivid than if he had presented it as a review article in a journal. But what about the argument itself? Were there special operations in the Middle Ages and has Harari added significantly to our understanding of medieval warfare by writing this treatment?

The author gives us the courtesy of putting his definition of "special operations" in the first paragraph of chapter 1:

A "special operation" is a combat operation that is limited to a small area, takes a relatively short span of time, and is conducted by a small force, yet is capable of achieving significant strategic or political results disproportional to the resources invested in it. Special operations almost always involve the employment of unconventional and covert methods of fighting. (1)


"Special operations" thus are defined in, part, by the use of small means to produce large effects. This is a definition derived from language that modern practitioners and theorists have used to
distinguish small, smart, and tricky tactics from "conventional," full-scale warfare using normal weapons. This distinction has hardly ever been used, Harari tells us, to describe warfare before the Second World War, and it is his goal to show that similar tactics, notably efforts to capture fortifications and other infrastructure by stealth, or the kidnapping or assassination of commanders or political leaders, were used in the Middle Ages, were indeed common, and were sometimes extremely important in shaping events.

No reasonable reader would disagree that he has achieved this goal. However, one may question whether tactics and methods that in the late 20th century were called special to distinguish them from "regular combat" were indeed "special" or "unconventional" in the medieval context.

From his usage we can conclude that Harari's "special operations" were unconventional in two ways. First, they used "deceit, treasons, bribe, assassination and other forms of foul play" (9) that violated the standards of chivalric fair play. Special operations were dirty warfare, while chivalric warfare was defined by honor and fair play. Yet Harari never really goes beyond the widest generalizations of this sort. If "chivalry" required "fair play" in war, what constituted
"fair play" and what was, in concrete terms, "chivalry?" Granted, Harari has not written a book on the definition and content of the word "chivalry," (and those who have, have had problems with this difficult issue), but if "special operations" are to be contrasted with the normal warfare of the "age of chivalry," we might expect a little more discussion of "fair play," a phrase, one should note, that is derived from modern sporting terminology.

Harari also distinguishes medieval "special operations" from "full-scale campaigning" (e.g., the Black Prince's chevauchees) without stopping to ask whether the big campaigns were the norm for medieval warfare, or whether the "special operations" were in fact more typical. Certainly there were large armies and large campaigns; some of the best of recent scholarship has derived from systematic digging into the documentation left behind by the most impressive
military establishments. But as a famous story by Froissart points out, even a militaristic era like the Hundred Years War it was not impossible for a leading general to rise to the top of his profession without ever having taken part in a set-piece battle. Those decisive set-piece battles, fought between armies of the leading powers of the time, were a major preoccupation of the scholars who invented modern military history. But does that standard tell us much about what was "conventional" in medieval military experience? Indeed, if Harari categorizes using trickery or sneakery to take a fortification as a type of "special operation," which he does, and for good reason, then this "special operation" must have been in potential and perhaps in actuality, one of the most common military operations of the era, far more than "conventional" battles and "conventional" sieges. This is in fact a point that Harari concedes in the somewhat analogous case of piratical attacks which he excludes from analysis even though they fit his definition of "special operations" because they were too common in naval warfare; "[they] comprised a very significant portion of all naval operations, [which] would mean that many medieval and early
modern naval struggles…were in fact 'special operations wars.'" (2)

Harari seems in a bit of a muddle about what was "chivalrous" warfare, and what was "conventional" medieval warfare. This is perhaps due his acceptance of terms and classifications applied to modern warfare by modern specialists as normal and universally relevant. One suspects that Harari's reason for doing so is that he sees himself as addressing students of modern warfare as much if not more than medievalists; he is reaching out across the usual barriers that divide sub-specialities. How much his use of terminology affects the value of
his analysis will depend in large part on the purposes and needs of individual readers.

Undoubtedly, however, Harari has cast light on a whole class of small-scale but potentially decisive military tactics that have lacked a good recent treatment. It now has one.

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