Medieval chronicles are filled with examples of deception and trickery, with their perpetrators seen as everything from admirably cunning to despicably treacherous. This book looks at a wide range of different types of deception, and attempts to see if there is any consistency to the chronicler’s attitudes to it.
The focus here is on the Francophone world, which during this period covers France, the Low Countries and Norman England, and also allows the author to include examples from Italy and the Crusades. The types of deception covered vary from simple battlefield tactics such as the feigned retreat to major breaches of oaths and truces,
There are quite a few different questions to be answered here, starting with the most basic one of ‘did these examples of deception actually happen?’. In most cases it’s quite hard to be sure – especially where there is only one source for a particular incident, or the same basic story is retold with different historical figures. This is especially frequent with tales of cunning, so several leaders are credited with taking different fortresses by feigning a death – their own or a retainers – and asking for the ‘corpse’ to be admitted before leaping back to life to defeat the bemused defenders. In this sort of case it is reasonable to assume that the chroniclers were placing the subject of their work into a standard story to demonstrate their cunning. At the author points out this was especially likely if the original story came from the Classical world, with the educated chroniclers using the story to compare their subject to the heroes of Rome and Greece.
In other cases, such as the famous feigned retreat at Hastings in 1066 some historians doubt that the Norman army was actually capable of the tactic being described. In this sort of case the author has been able to examine the wider record of Norman armies and we can be fairly sure that they were indeed capable of such actions.
The second key question is ‘what did people think about these deceptions?’, and did that vary depending on who was involved? In some cases we can see clear cases of bias on the part of particular chronicles, who tend to favour one side in a conflict, and describe their own sides deceptions as worthy cunning and their opponents as devious trickery. However there are also plenty of examples of chroniclers admiring cunning in their opponents. A further question that is examined is how those attitudes change when the opponent is seen as ‘other’ – English attitudes to the Welsh, Scots and Irish, Crusader attitudes to the Muslims, Norman and Crusader attitudes to the Byzantines etc. There are also plenty of examples of cunning on the part of the ‘other’ being admired by Francophone chroniclers (possibly with the exception of deception by the Byzantines, who appear to have had a rather poor reputation)
Here we can clearly see how each side would see some issues very differently. There is an interesting discussion on the Welsh attitude to oaths, which they gained a reputation for breaking at will. However it was generally accepted at the time that any oath that was made under duress wasn’t valid (an argument used by many monarchs to repudiate agreements with their own subjects), so while the Anglo-Normans saw the Welsh as vassals breaking oaths, the Welsh would have seen themselves as series of independent powers being forced into invalid oaths by foreign invaders (the same difference in attitude is also seen in the Anglo-Scottish Wars.
This is a fascinating examination of what was clearly a key part of medieval warfare, giving us a good idea of how deception was seen at the time, how common it was, and how varied the types of deception used were.
1 – Trickery in Medieval Culture: Source and Problems
2 – Military Intelligence: Misdirection, Misinformation and Espionage
3 – The Element of Surprise: Ambushes and Night Raids
4 – The Feigned Flight
5 – Disguises
6 – Bribes and Inducements
7 – Oaths and Truces
8 – The Language of Deception
9 – The Morality of Deception
Appendix: Taxonomy of Deceptions in Medieval Chronicles
Author: James Titterton