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Lust for Glory

To the Editors:

Steven Weinberg’s glorious article “What Price Glory?” [NYR, November 6] advances the notion that military leaders choose technology less for effectiveness than for the glory it brings. Weinberg’s analysis of the Bayeux Tapestry and the medieval tactic of the stirrup and couched lanced is, however, wrong. The Battle of Hastings was a clash of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and Scandinavian civilizations. But it was also a clash of two technologies of war—the Danish or “bearded” axe preferred, along with the packed shield wall, by the Anglo-Saxon army of Harold and the Norman shock tactic of light cavalry and couched lance. The Normans had tested the couched lance in southern Italy well before the Conquest, most dramatically in their defeat of the Suabian elite of the papal army with its two-handed swords at Civitate in 1053. Further proof of the Norman belief that cavalry equipped with stirrup and lance was superior to infantry with axe and shield lies in the fact, as the chroniclers note and the Bayeux Tapestry shows, that William brought horses with him in the ships that crossed the Chan-nel on the night of September 27, 1066, instead of relying upon those he might pillage on the other side, on infantry, or on the lucky archer who managed to hit, in the words of Salman Rushdie, “old Harold arrow-eye.”

R. Howard Bloch
Augustus R. Street Professor of French
French Department
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Steven Weinberg replies:

Though I am grateful to Professor Bloch for his compliment about my article “What Price Glory?” in the November 6 issue, I can’t agree that I was wrong about the Battle of Hastings. I didn’t argue one way or the other about whether Duke William thought that cavalry attacks with couched lances would be effective against infantry. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did. There can’t have been many military commanders or organizations in history who decided to adopt tactics or weapons that they knew to be ineffective because they thought it would maximize their glory. My point, which perhaps I should have made more explicitly, is that the lust for glory can distort judgments about what tactics or weapon are effective. My article offered evidence that the cavalry charge with couched lance did not play a significant role at Hastings, perhaps because the hilly terrain would have made this tactic ineffective. I discussed Hastings not because it gives clear evidence one way or the other about the effectiveness of the combination of lance and stirrup, but because this was the one battle that had been mentioned as an example of its effectiveness in Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change.

The remark by Professor Bloch about the Battle of Civitate in 1053 raises a more serious challenge. Did this battle (unlike Hastings) really provide an example of the effectiveness of cavalry charges with couched lances? It is generally agreed that at Civitate a Norman army consisting chiefly of about three thousand cavalrymen defeated a larger papal army composed mostly of infantry. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Normans charged with couched lances, the one tac-tic for which the stirrup is indispensable. The most frequently cited primary source on the Battle of Civitate is the Deeds of Robert Guiscard by William of Apulia. Professor Bloch may have been misled by a 1961 French translation of this work, which tells how the Norman paladin Robert Guiscard pierced through a papal soldier with his lance. I am told by a fac-ulty colleague in the Department of Classics at the University of Texas that the original medieval Latin text only says that the soldier was pierced with a sharp point (cuspide), not necessarily the point of a lance.

Later, William describes Robert as fighting with a lance in one hand and a sword in the other, which doesn’t suggest a charge with couched lance. Also, whatever tactics were used by the Normans, their victory proves little. The papal army was a rabble, described by Gibbon as a “vile and pro-miscuous multitude…who fought without discipline and fled without shame.” It is true that the papal army had a hard core consisting of seven hundred well-trained Swabian foot soldiers, but they withstood one Norman cavalry charge after another until they were overwhelmed by superior numbers. A tactic by which three thousand cavalry can only with difficulty defeat seven hundred infantry can hardly be said to be effective, let alone cost-effective.

I will take this opportunity to update one point in my article. Since the article was written, the US Army has reversed its decision to close its Peacekeeping Institute.

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