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By (September 1, 2014) No Comment

A Great and Glorious Adventure: A History of the Hundred Years War and the Birth of Renaissance England
By Gordon Corrigan
Pegasus Books, 2014

corriganglriousadventureAlthough the Hundred Years’ War was fought to unite the English and French crowns, Gordon Corrigan notes in his new history that it “might more accurately be described as the series of events which transformed the English from being Anglo-French into pure Anglo.” The war consisted of numerous English chevauchées, Viking-style raiding expeditions through the countryside of France, punctuated by massacres of French chivalry on the fields of Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. This one-sided conflict continued for so long because the French couldn’t cope with the English super-weapon – the longbow – and the English couldn’t hold the extensive lands they conquered with their small armies. The war forged an enduring enmity, but also the identities of each nation. On one hand, the war enabled the English to perfect their professional military, gave them a strong sense of national pride, and distracted them from an otherwise rampant tendency to civil war. On the other hand, the conflict slowly strained out the seditious aristocracy that divided the French monarchy, and ultimately gave the nation a unifying hero-martyr in Joan of Arc.

Corrigan sets out to tell this story in an accessible narrative. This simple goal may surprise those who first acquaint themselves with the description on the back cover of his book. There, we are told that Corrigan will give the events and personalities of the war “the full attention and reassessment they deserve.” A total of exactly 46 endnotes and the lack of a full bibliography quickly deflate this expectation. But authors should not be blamed for what their publishers get up to on back covers. Corrigan’s style and verve immediately reveal his true intentions.

As an accessible narrative, A Great and Glorious Adventure succeeds very well – perhaps too well. The story is memorably told, but some of the devices, unnecessarily deployed to render an already gripping tale more gripping still, range from the tedious to the disturbing.

Corrigan begins and ends, as any chronicler of this feud should, by pointing out that France and England had a long history of hostility both before and after the Hundred Year’s War: “on average England and then Britain has spent one year in every five since the Norman Conquest at war with France.” France might be said to have inaugurated the feud when it pulled off, back in 1066, the last really successful invasion of England in the person led by William the Conqueror. Because the first kings of England justified their right to the throne by descent from the Conqueror, France was was intimately involved in the self-definition of England from the beginning.

So Corrigan’s first chapter takes a running start at his subject, from the Norman conquest through all the subsequent monarchs to the ill-fated Edward II and his feisty Queen Isabella, the “She-wolf of France.” Then the pace slows and we are given a fascinating blow-by-blow account of how Isabella supplanted her husband on behalf of her son.

As her sobriquet implies, Isabella was a French princess, daughter of Philip IV. She initiated her play against Edward by traveling to France, ostensibly as a negotiator, with her son, the future Edward III. There young Edward did homage to the French monarch on behalf of his father for English possessions in France. Because of his mother, Edward would later claim a right to inherit the crown of France; because of his homage, his right would be scorned. So an episode in the English struggle for succession was a prelude to a much longer, much larger, much bloodier contest.

After this excellent prologue, Corrigan proceeds as one would expect: through the consequences of the English claim to France’s throne, with special emphasis on the military aspects of the war and loving attention to the three great English battles that divide it. Unfortunately, the vigor and interest which his remarkable prologue give to the first actors in this great drama fades as the war drags out, new opponents carry on old arguments, and the repetitive cycle of chevauchées continues. Moreover, it quickly becomes apparent that Corrigan’s real interest is in the details of military action and the development of military organization. This fascinates in its own right, but marks a disappointing shift in emphasis after the personality-filled first chapter.

Nonetheless, the story can never be said actually to drag. There are less than gripping moments, but Corrigan manages to invest with interest even such minutiae as the importance of goose-herders to a longbow-based war economy. During his accounts of the three big battles, Corrigan’s voice rises back up to its full early strength and provides us with vivid passages like this, about Agincourt:

A horse will not normally bolt, whatever the situation, and the medieval bit would have pulled up a charging elephant. But these horses were terrified and in great pain; arrows were stuck in their rumps, breasts and necks, and blood was streaming from their wounds. Heads thrown in the air, riders sawing ineffectually at their mouths, they panicked and charged wherever they could to escape the hail of arrows, and in many cases this meant bursting through their own infantry still plodding down the slope.

Passages like these show Corrigan’s strengths: vigor in dramatizing straightforward narration, special insight from battlefield experience (and in this case from his time working at a racetrack), and knowledge of interesting military minutiae. He brings these same virtues to his description of the accoutrements and preparations for war. Unfortunately, when confronted by the need to exposit social, cultural, political, and biographical information (really anything non-military), Corrigan often resorts to less successful expedients to make things interesting.

Agincourt

His three expedients are these: oddly forced humor, salacious detail, and a jokey bigotry that comes to seem too sincere.

The eccentricities of history need little help to get a laugh. The good historian has a light touch. It is enough, to make me chuckle, to note that the insanity of the French King Charles VI manifested itself in the belief that he was made of glass. But Corrigan has an awkward habit of going the extra mile to explain his jokes. Which has the effect, naturally, of killing them.

Charles VI, the Valois king, had gone barking (literally) mad, the first manifestation being his setting on and slaying members of his entourage, this followed by his wandering around the palace howling like a dog and forming the conviction that he was made of glass. While casual killing and the occasional bark might not matter overmuch, a belief that one is made of glass rather militates against taking the field in battle, or indeed doing anything very much, in case of becoming a breakage.

A wittier use of such anecdotes, as he himself demonstrates later on, is simply to allude to them at the proper point and allow the reader to fill in the funny. Like this, pages later: “the king, Charles VI, could not be present, being made of glass.” Brevity remains the soul of wit.

When Corrigan’s subject is not funny, he resorts to the gruesome. The details of executions fascinate him. This is fine in principle – what would a war history be without guts and gore? – but occasionally the book’s central purpose, to narrate the war and its effect on England, feels distracted by his morbid interests.

Corrigan’s obsession with creative executions and his urge to wring the last drop of humor from his story can sometimes converge in a necrotically offbeat bit of apocrypha. He dwells lovingly, for instance, on an unlikely rumor about the demise of Edward II:

A lurid account – written thirty years later but probably circulating orally shortly after the king’s death, and sniggered over by schoolboys ever since – says that he was killed by having a red-hot poker or spit shoved up his bottom. This too seems unlikely and was more probably intended as a cautionary tale against homosexuality (Edward was reckoned by contemporaries to be the buggeree in his relationships). But in any case, why bother?

Good question. Why bother? There is surely a history book somewhere into which this anecdote fits. But it isn’t this one.

Finally, Corrigan’s favorite expedient for spicing up the boring parts seems to be lighthearted jingoism.

Already from the title of the book, the reader knows he is in for either an ironic or else an extremely partisan narrative. From the perspective of France the war was neither great nor glorious. And even if one is British, surely contemplating a war so devastating to common people, all for the tawdry prize of feudal hegemony, can only be appalling. So the reader hopes for irony.

Corrigan begins to undermine these hopes in his introduction:

I cannot hide my conviction that England’s demands on France were lawful and justified, and, even where they were not, I feel pride in the achievements of Edward III, the Black Prince and Henry V.

A certain amount of patriotic pride in the ancient military exploits of their nation can be tolerated in historians. But by the end of the text, it becomes apparent that Corrigan’s pride verges on bigotry. Comparing this egregious last line of the book to the at least tolerable assertion of patriotism I have just quoted pretty well sums up Corrigan’s book-length transformation: “the Hundred Years War was a great adventure, and a great and righteous cause.”

Righteous? One can take this or that position on the legality of Edward’s claim to the French crown, depending on one’s construal of the relevant feudal laws and traditions. But “righteous” is a strong word: strong for a war that destroyed the lives and property of French peasants for generations at a time; strong for a war which so routinely transformed men into beasts that the best defense of English soldiery known to Corrigan is that they reversed the usual military lusts and drank their looted rum before they raped their captured village girls. All this, to aggrandize a series of grabby monarchs with tenuous claims to bi-national authority.

His conviction expresses itself in an almost comical partisanship. Every British hero is praised, his crimes excused or historicized. Henry V may have murdered his prisoners to protect his baggage train, but that was just the done thing. Meanwhile, the French are denied any heroes at all.

Bertrand du Guesclin – France’s one claim to genuinely military prowess in the whole war – is denigrated: “He had come to the attention of the dauphin during the earlier fighting in the Breton wars, and eventually – although with no great ability as a general – he would become a great French hero in a land badly needing heroes.” In what sense was du Guesclin a hero, if not the military? He Jeanne d'Arcis known to have won every pitched battle in which he commanded (four of the six he fought in), and to have developed for French use the Fabian strategy of avoiding pitched battles and wearing down the enemy through attrition of troops and money. In fact, precisely this strategy, enforced by the sheer land-mass of France, even when neglected by its leaders, eventually ended English pretensions.

As for Joan of Arc, with perhaps more justice than in the case of du Guesclin, Corrigan insists that her role was to be luckily identified with an inevitable English retrenchment. “The French resurgence would have happened anyway, once the dauphin’s supporters stopped fighting among themselves and concentrated on raising the funds to prosecute the war.” It may, certainly, be true that Joan was not a military genius, but to dispense with her in a scant few deprecatory pages is unaccountable in a book willing to spend so many words exploring topics like the apocryphal intersection of Edward II’s bottom and a red-hot poker. The goal of the book is a dramatic story – why waste such golden material as the Maid of Orleans?

Corrigan even finds it necessary to deflate the hype around the beard of the French King, Jean II: “He is described as being handsome and with a fine red beard, although in his portrait in the Louvre it looks more like designer stubble that has got out of control.”

But sometimes his partisanship goes beyond moral misjudgment or laughably partiality; sometimes it strikes at the very foundations of the historian’s vocation. For example, in determining from sparse sources the most likely events in a battle, Corrigan likes to rely on the theory of inherent military probability. This theory states that “when the student of warfare has no idea what actually happened, he should put himself in the shoes of the commander at the time and decide what he would have done.” Fair enough – but what his adherence to this theory seems to give Corrigan license to do is beyond the pale of historical objectivity. Every English commander, simply for applying the standard, longbow-supported line of dismounted men-at-arms, is a genius. But every successive French defeat, in which the commanders fail to adapt to the English longbow army, shows the stupidity of their commanders, who should see what’s in front of them. In other words, for Corrigan the theory of inherent military probability means that he can use the clarity of hindsight as an excuse to aggrandize victors and belittle losers. Ironically, Corrigan has been praised for his rehabilitation, in other books, of the reputation of seemingly obtuse, unsuccessful British generals in WWII.

Corrigan’s book makes for fun reading. Even his jingoism spices the narrative. But the virtues of even-handed historical scholarship and of good storytelling are not necessarily incompatible. Sadly, Corrigan’s lust for drama too often overcomes his aspiration to probity.

____
Robert Minto is a writer living in Boston. He is a teaching fellow and PhD student in philosophy, and he writes about life and literature at www.robertminto.com

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