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De Re Militari: Online Resources for Medieval Warfare

Society for Medieval Military History
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Reviewed by:
Christopher K. Gardner
George Mason University

Despite the Latin Internet address (”De Re Militari” meaning “About Things Military”) and the traditional—and traditionally masculine—discipline presented there, this website succeeds in offering a broad portal useful for anyone interested in the technical, tactical, social, economic, political, religious, diplomatic, geographic, or gendered aspects of war (broadly defined as any armed conflict, even between individuals in a feud) in the period from the late Roman Empire—5th century through the 15th century. This site offers more than 400 primary sources and 400 secondary-source articles hosted both on and off the site. These sources cover topics from Iceland to Japan and from the Imperial Romans to the crusade of the Imperial Holy Alliance in the early 17th century.

This site is part of the larger De Re Military site, a portal site for Medieval military history. Contributions are mostly from Continental European scholars (and almost entirely in English), although academics from the U.S., Middle East, and Asia have work posted as well. The site even includes a burgeoning discussion of Ridley Scott’s recent (May 2005) film Kingdom of Heaven. Topics include how accurately the director has presented the militaristic trappings of Moslems and Crusaders in the Levant in the 1180s. This endeavors to be a full-service site with notably democratic sensibilities in terms of what is offered and who could profit from the work of the scholars and webmasters who have assembled it.

As such, the Online Resources for Medieval Warfare section of the main site provides a rich treasury of materials accessible to teachers and students. The material is made up almost entirely of texts, which means their perusal can be done fairly quickly, even on a 56K dial-up modem.

The document tree is clear as well. The reader can easily navigate the secondary-source bibliographies: Books, Articles, and Dissertations from the ‘De Re Militari’ website and Books, Articles, and Dissertations from other websites. These bibliographies were kept thoroughly up-to-date through 2003, and the site is clearly working up materials made available from 2004. This format is mirrored in the two groups of translated primary sources: from the De Re Military site and from other websites.

Such breadth, however, comes at a cost. First, the off-site sources are often hosted on websites of enthusiasts who have posted their own interests, ideas, or findings. While the work of amateur (in the classical sense of “those who love”) historians certainly should not be dismissed out-of-hand, some of the sites clearly have not faced review by other experts in the field, and reading them could lead the uninitiated toward disreputable or dismissed theories about Templar conspiracies or the chivalric order of the Holy Grail. Links in Books, Articles, and Dissertations from other websites have suffered from “link-rot” over the months as well.

In the primary sources sections we get a terrific collection of materials, sometimes entire texts (especially of the Crusades) and mostly extended excerpts (from The “Song of Roland” (early 12th century) or Froissart’s “Chronicles” of the Hundred-Years’ War (through 1400). The links tied to the site have about 170 texts, whereas those from other websites have about 100. Again, along the latter branch, link-rot is something of an issue, and many of the translations are quite old (late 19th century) and simply in the public domain. Advanced scholars should be aware of the need to peruse these, given their accessibility, but then seek out (and perhaps pay for) updated translations and scholarly introductions. On that issue, see below.

Perhaps the best aspect of the site is the fact that the resources, both primary documents and the work of scholars and enthusiasts, are also arranged by topics via the All Resources sorted by geographic area or Subject section. This arrangement is especially useful for teachers and students. Groupings are chronological, which means some expertise is required to find what is desired; otherwise, readers are left with a myriad of documents from, say, the 12th century, without knowing where they might get information relevant to Spain or to women.

On the other hand this section allows readers to zone in on such topics as “Naval Warfare,” “Byzantium,” “the Far East,” “women and war,” and the ever-popular subjects of “Anglo-Saxon England,” “the Battle of Hastings (1066),” and “Norman Britain”—subjects alive in the popular imagination since at least the publication of Ivanhoe.

In addition, in this section of the site, primary documents and secondary studies are listed on the same page (separated by their groups), so a teacher could readily assign projects on, say, “The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1255)” or a comparison of war as described in Italian and German sources to students new to such subjects. These groupings can serve as vaible, prepackaged “course readers.” Young students are thus able to concentrate on contemporary sources and on how scholars wrestle with them, rather than on the effort to compile such sources—skills that obviously should be part of an advanced curriculum of history.

Nevertheless, caveats remain. Some sites are notably personal and unchallenged, and a few links lead to (rather than to the text itself) where one could buy an author’s book—whether peer reviewed or not. Moreover, a few hot topics (”Religion and Warfare,” “Chivalry and Knighthood”) have not been linked up yet.

De Re Militari offers a superb site to bring such topics to its audience of students, aficionados, and professional scholars. Its arrangement by regions and subjects is perhaps one of the most convenient tools for a website that offers such breadth of material. I have but one final gripe, one that would admittedly prove to be a years-long project and perhaps worthy of an independent site. Given the phenomenal wealth of images of war from the medieval era, the site makes no mention of them nor does it steer scholars toward sites that present them. These, too, provide excellent and accessible evidence about military things of the Middle Ages.

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