Not long ago, Amazon recommended a book to me that is trending right now: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. At the time, I wasn’t interested in it, but I was interested in another title that Amazon recommended by the same author: Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the Middle Ages. I’ve read non-fiction books like Life in a Medieval City, Life in a Medieval Castle, and The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, as well as selections from Chivalry, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages, and A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. On the fiction front, I’ve always enjoyed fantasy stories featuring a medieval backdrop, including Lord of the Rings, Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicle, The Farseer Trilogy, and Kushiel’s Legacy. Almost every one of my fiction projects, including the novel I’m currently writing, have been set in a medieval context.
So I devoured Harari’s Special Operations with gusto. Though it’s a technical read targeted at scholars and history buffs rather than what I would call the average reader, Harari is an excellent storyteller and careful historian, and the topic is provocative precisely because of its clandestine nature.
- Harari approaches his book by providing accounts of six military incidents for which there is a good amount of historical evidence: the betrayal of the city Antioch (1098), the rescue of King Baldwin (1123), the assassination of King Conrad (1192), the attempted sack of Calais (1350), the royal kidnappings perpetrated by House Burgundy (1467-1483), and the destruction of the mill of Auriol (1536).
- Harari offers the following definition of special operations: “a combat operation that is limited to a small area, takes a relatively short span of time, and is conducted by a small force, yet is capable of achieving significant strategic or political results disproportional to the resources invested in it. Special operations almost always involve the employment of unconventional and covert methods of fighting” (p. 1).
- Special operations posed a deep dilemma to medieval warriors. On the one hand, a spec op could turn the tide of war at a relatively low cost. On the other hand, certain applications of it–deceit, bribes, assassinations, and other forms of foul play–were contrary to the honor code of chivalry whose norms strongly influenced military strategy and individual behavior (p. 9). This tension permeates the accounts that Harari describes.
- None of the armies or royal houses of medieval Europe had full-time special forces groups (p. 34). There were no medieval equivalents of the Navy SEALS or British SAS. While some commanders were careful to choose their best soldiers for an operation, the selection process was often completely arbitrary. (However, some individuals did become specialized in certain tactics like kidnapping, scaling walls, and storming fortified places.)
- One of the most notorious spec ops groups in the Middle Ages was the Nizari sect, a radical splinter group of Shi’ite Islam responsible for assassinations of many high-profile nobles (most of whom were Sunni Muslims). The Nizari were an incredibly successful group of assassins who “possessed superb skill in the arts of infiltration and murder” (p. 97) and struck fear into the hearts of their enemies and allies.
- Some of the factors behind the success of the Nizari were surprising to me. For example, as a persecuted missionary sect, they embraced a doctrine that encouraged them to hide or even deny their faith if it enabled them to better avoid detection and later spread their message, a practice which in turn helped them develop their skills in secrecy (p. 97). Moreover, because the Nizari considered themselves martyrs, they didn’t feel the need to put much thought into designing an escape route. If they managed to escape, great. If not … also cool, I guess.
- Nizari often posed as ascetics to avoid detection, and there were many benefits to this. It was considered impolite to question ascetics; ascetics wandered frequently from place to place; and ascetics were often well educated, allowing them to more easily access the houses of noble targets without too many questions (p. 100).
- In several places throughout the book Harari mentions the strategic importance of theater and propaganda in the Middle Ages to intimidate one’s enemies or to encourage one’s friends or potential allies. Hence the Nizari often used daggers to murder their targets, a far more theatrical method than, say, poison (p. 100-101). And Edward III supposedly praised his enemies in public after his successful counterstrike of the siege of Calais in 1350 and regularly showed magnanimity to his more respectable rivals during his invasion of France (p. 121).
After finishing the book, I began noticing more instances of special operations in fantasy fiction, and I gained some ideas about how to weave what I learned into my own writing. I’ll share some reflections on that in a future post.
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