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Thursday, 9 December 2010

In the Steps of the Black Prince

Early next year Boydell will publish Peter Hoskins’ In the Steps of the Black Prince: The Road to Poitiers, 1355-1356. For his project, the author followed on foot the route of the Black Prince’s campaigns from over 650 years ago. In our recent Medieval Herald (Issue V – December 2010) we interviewed Peter about his exciting and unusual research and he told us about the process of his project and gave some interesting and surprising insights (see an extract of the interview below).

Have you ever followed a trail, visited a battlefield or even re-enacted a major historic event to support your research? Leave a comment and tell us about your findings & share experiences.

To give you an idea of Peter’s project, here is a small abridged extract from his interview:

B&B: Your work emphasises the crucial importance of geography and the need for visiting the scenes of historic events (something our own The Battle of Crécy, 1346 did a few years ago), so do you think accurate history is possible without visiting locations? Or does first-hand knowledge of the ground simply add an extra dimension?

: I was recently fortunate to be given a guided tour of the battlefield of Crécy by Philip Preston, one of the co-authors of the book you cite, and this was an excellent example of how visiting the scene can aid our understanding of historical events. However, history is of course a matter of interpretation and I am hesitant to use the word “accurate” in this context. For example, a visit to the site of the Battle of Poitiers is invaluable to anyone trying to analyse the battle, but whether that gives one an accurate picture is another matter. The location of the armies at Poitiers is by no means certain, and although I have spent many hours there I cannot be sure that my interpretation is accurate. Indeed, the only point of which I can be certain is that many will disagree strongly with my interpretation.
However, even if knowledge of the ground cannot ultimately give us an accurate picture, it does add a great deal to our understanding and there can be no doubt that visiting the sites of military operations is invaluable to an analysis and understanding of events. The nature of the ground is a major determinant in what can, and cannot, be achieved in a military operation, and it is no accident that the British Army makes a considerable effort to inculcate in its officers the need for a thorough tactical appreciation of the ground. Walking the ground shows what is and is not practicable, and also reveals some of the factors that weigh in a commander’s decision making. Of course land use, vegetation, and the built environment will have changed over the years in some areas, but surprisingly little in some cases. However, the underlying topography remains the same, and we can still see to a great extent what the Black Prince saw. Of course we cannot be sure how he weighed the various factors, but we can certainly get a feel for the probability of certain courses of action.
There is nothing new in visiting the site of historic events to aid understanding, but a further dimension comes from following an itinerary on foot. As an example, when crossing the Vienne river in 1356 the Black Prince’s route followed a sharp dog-leg. This doesn’t necessarily catch your attention as being significant when you either look at a small scale map or travel the route in a car. But when you are planning a walk an extra day on foot to follow this apparently illogical route gives cause for thought. I explore this in some detail in the book, but in essence the route chosen seems to indicate a desire to avoid losses in forcing a river crossing. In addition, by no means all of the Black Prince’s army were mounted, and marching day after day across the countryside does promote a certain empathy with those who went before. I vividly remember one cold, clear morning cresting a ridge and seeing the Pyrenees stretched out like a majestic rampart eighty miles ahead of me. I could not help but wonder how such a sight must have impressed an English archer or Welsh spearman, used to the much more modest mountains of the British Isles. ...

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