Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015, 256 pages
Book Review published on: July 14, 2017
When one picks up a book written by an author who is arguably the world’s greatest living expert on the Hundred Years’ War, one should not be surprised to find a considerable amount of detail. Anne Curry is professor of medieval history and dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Southampton. She is also the author of at least ten previous works on medieval history; four of those works address the battle of Agincourt. Agincourt, one of the first in the “Great Battles” series published by Oxford University Press, focuses not only on the battle itself but also on the aftermath of the battle, through a variety of different lenses: historical, literary, fine artistic, performing artistic, heraldic, genealogical, geographical, and diplomatic. That is a wide variety of lenses, particularly when the examination covers a span of six hundred years. Honestly, such an exhaustive examination may seem tedious at times to a casual reader, but to a devoted student of history and historical research, it is a treasure trove.
One of the author’s overarching theses is that much of what we think we know about the battle of Agincourt originates in Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, and it is quite simply wrong. Much like the screenwriters and other dramatists of today, Shakespeare took great liberties with historical accuracy in order to create dramatic moments that lent themselves to dramatic production and would play well on stage. Curry’s most significant conclusion, based on exhaustive research that included original muster rolls, is that the discrepancy between the number of French and English soldiers was not nearly as great as is commonly believed. She also does not downplay or whitewash Henry’s order to kill the prisoners; she describes the series of events and leaves it largely to the reader to decide whether the act was necessary or not, keeping in mind those prisoners had significant ransom value.
For the casual reader, the very detailed discussions of the battle in literature, stage, and film, or in fine art, are likely to be somewhat tedious. Curry points out how historical accuracies were the object of perpetuation and embellishment over the years. Six hundred years adds up to a great deal of perpetuation and embellishment. A reader’s perseverance pays off, however, because a spinoff of this examination includes a study of the fraudulent “I was there” (or my father/grandfather/great-grandfather, etc., was there) claims. Participation in the campaign, particularly the battle, was a path to higher social status, so the incentive was significant. “Stolen valor” is obviously not a new phenomenon.
Overall, this is not exactly a page-turner, but a serious study of a seminal battle and its effect on history, as we know it. As such, it is worth the time and effort for a serious student.
Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas