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Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry 1100–1500

John France is impressed and entertained by tales of devious exploits by medieval warriors

Published: August 10, 2009 at 6:09 am

Reviewed by: John France
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Publisher: Boydell
Price (RRP): £14.99 (paperback)


‘Special Operations’ conjures up an image of highly trained professionals devoted to the black arts of secret warfare and assassination. Somehow the very ethos of chivalry seems opposed to the shadowy world of Andy McNab and Bravo 2 Zero. But as early as c350 BC Sun Tzu had declared “all warfare is based on deception”, and Vegetius, the classical writer whose work was well-known to medieval soldiers, advised that “surprises alarm the enemy”.

In fact, dirty tricks were perfectly acceptable in the age of chivalry. In 1160, after the battle of Carcano, one of the Milanese knights was ambushed, dragged off his horse and suffocated on the ground in the earth. This book recounts six exciting episodes, dating from 1098 to 1536, which can be called ‘special operations’ and provides essential maps and lively illustrations, with further reading for those wishing to pursue the subject further.

Three of these tales are drawn from the crusading experience, and one, the capture of Antioch by treachery after an eight-month siege, is redolent of a commando operation. Firuz, commander of a group of towers on the city walls, was bribed to let the crusaders into the city. Much of the besieging crusader army ostentatiously marched off to forage, lulling the rest of the garrison.

That night a select group of knights, which included one of the chroniclers of the crusade, mounted the wall on their ladder. Then disaster, as the ladder “happened to break, so that we were plunged in great despair and grief”. But those within found a hidden gate, admitting the rest of the crusaders. This tale is excitingly told, but based carefully on the sources and this exemplifies Harari’s approach.


An entertaining but also learned book, from which it is possible to glean much about medieval military history.


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