‘Historians reassesses the battle of Agincourt’ (New York Times, 24 October 2009)

The article concerns changing interpretation of one of the most famous battles in medieval history between the English King Henry V and the French.

Historians reassesses the battle of Agincourt‘ (New York Times, 24 October 2009)

For centuries, the battle of Agincourt has been portrayed as a heroic battle in which the English longbow archers, led by their gallant king Henry V, vanquished their numerically superior French enemies.  It was a battle memorialised in paintings (see below), and celebrated by playwright like Shakespeare as the ‘band of brothers’.


It has formed a part of the English self-identity as the ones who could triumph against overwhelming odds.  The view has even filtered down to a recent computer game called ‘Medieval: Total War’.  (See below)


However, this view has recently been challenged by both English and French modern historians.

But Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.

The historians have concluded that the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one. And depending on how the math is carried out, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight, said Anne Curry, a professor at the University of Southampton who is leading the study.

This revisionist approach comes from a group of modern historians well versed in modern military science.  They read the primary sources more skeptically, and are more attuned to the “political, cultural and technological factors” as well as “the experience of the common soldier“.  They generally either have military backgrounds or are connected to people with strong military background.  In this case, academic historians have worked in close collaboration with the General David Petraeus in the writing of the Counter-Insurgency Field Manual, which is now recommended reading for commanders fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With regards to the Battle of Agincourt, Dr. Anne Curry has done what many historians have not done in the past.  She consulted a wide range of sources, including quantitative, statistical records.  These included

military pay records, muster rolls, ships’ logs, published rosters of the wounded and dead, wartime tax levies and other surviving documents.

Based on her calculation, she was able to work out the likely number of troops available to both sides.  She was also able to work out the background of the soldiers who served at the Battle of Agincourt.

…an extraordinary online database listing around a quarter-million names of men who served in the Hundred Years’ War, compiled by Ms. Curry and her collaborators at the universities in Southampton and Reading, shows that whatever the numbers, Henry’s army really was a band of brothers: many of the soldiers were veterans who had served on multiple campaigns together.

This is the first point I would like to make about this.  Ranke would like to imagine historians to be objective interpreters of primary evidence with no a prioriassumptions.  However, as this article has shown, the background of a historian matters.  Because Dr Anne Curry has keen understanding of military science, it influences her research team in deciding what evidence to focus on.  It is almost like what E H Carr said, the fisherman’s bait that determines the kind of fish one catches.

My second point is that.  Re-interpretation of the past quite often happens because different historians have different background.  These divergences background influences how one interprets evidence from the past, what evidence to focus on, and what questions to ask.

Also, re-interpretation does involve ‘tackling’ the dominant version of the past, because sometimes they become so entrenched in a community’s self-identity.  The English have centuries have celebrated and memorialised the Battle of Agincourt.  For Dr. Anne Curry, to challenge this ‘myth’ means to tackle the popular ‘memory’ of a community, a nation, head on.


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