The Hundred Years War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

The decade of the 1970’s has seen a generous outpouring of historical writing by Desmond Seward—The First Bourbon: Henry IV of France and Navarre (1971), The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders (1972), Prince of the Renaissance: The Golden Life of François I (1973), The Bourbon Kings of France (1976), and Eleanor of Aquitaine (1978). To this considerable list the Paris-born, Cambridge-educated Seward now adds The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453, another popular, which is to say for the general reader, medieval history.

For that general reader who enjoys feasting on rich diction, Seward’s prose offers the sumptuousness of a medieval banquet, giving substance to the world of peers and prelates and paladins; of magnates, dukes and barons; of vassals, seneschals and sorcerers. To enhance the feeling of noblesse, knight-errantry, feudal loyalty, and the Blood-Royal, Seward often introduces an anglicized French word (retroussé, melée) and sprinkles virtually every page with discriminating dashes of French itself, each term carefully explained (bastide, chevauchée, gabelle, seigneurs). Seward’s language alone engenders the aura of the age.

Because the general reader is the target, Seward’s writing is, happily, quite readable. Sentences flow well, without convolution, and paragraphs are reasonable in length. The liberal use of short quotations from contemporary chroniclers, a number of whom actually knew the people being discussed, and the careful integration of those short quotations into the movement of the paragraph not only aids readability but invests the explication with a firsthand feeling. Thus, “The French knighthood—’good chivalry, strong of limb, and stout of heart, in great abundance’—was Philip’s most daunting asset.”

Not that Seward is without some peculiarities of style. His use of “in the event,” for instance, may prove to be a bothersome idiom to Americans more familiar with the phrase, “in any event.” His practice of omitting the comma following a long introductory adverbial clause has the tendency of requiring some second readings. (“When the fortress of Marke in the Calais march fell to the French he retook it the same day.”) And his mannerism of omitting a controlling topical sentence from some paragraphs can leave a reader floundering and uncertain: One paragraph begins on the matter of the armor of the archers, shifts to the origin of the longbow, moves on to the fire power of the weapon, and concludes with a discussion of other sidearms.

Seward obviously revels in ironies, some mined from the chroniclers and some of his own invention, as in his observation that many of the bow-staves stored in the Tower of London had been imported from Guyenne. He also finds a sardonic humor in many of the incidents of war, as when he explains that firearms were seldom lethal, “except to those firing them,” or when he describes Clarence returning to winter quarters, laying waste the land “in the good old style.” It is a grimness of humor not unlike that of early medieval literature.

The author’s sense of irony even infiltrates what one might call personality miniatures, as in his reference to “the Holy (though excommunicated) Roman Emperor Ludwig IV.” Indeed, one of Seward’s strengths as a retriever of the past is his superb ability to propound a thought-provoking characterization with admirable succinctness, combining taut analysis of data and contemporary opinion. He describes John the Fearless, for instance, as “a taciturn little man, hard, energetic and charmless and, to judge from a famous contemporary portrait, singularly ugly. . . .”

The fuller portraits occur at paced intervals throughout the book. The name and exploits of Sir John Fastolf, for example, appear with regularity, but Seward reserves the more ample portrait for almost the end. Such pacing is technically understandable, though one can never be sure whether Seward will settle for physical description, as in the case of...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXV, September 1, 1978, p. 23.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, September 1, 1978, p. 1003.

Library Journal. CIII, October 1, 1978, p. 1981.

New Statesman. XCVI, July 21, 1978, p. 89.

Times Educational Supplement. August 11, 1978, p. 18.