Secret services in the Middle Ages

Here is an intriguing title that smacks of anachronism but which hides a very nice synthesis on a subject very little known and treated: Secret services in the Middle Ages. And one of the intrinsic interests of this book, written by two experts in the field, Éric Denécé and Jean Deuve, is precisely to give us a new general public vision of the Middle Ages and especially of war.

A vast overview

One of the first qualities of this book is that it gives a broad overview of what the secret services may have been in the Middle Ages. Even if this synthesis appears more like a compilation of articles on this theme, it is particularly effective in terms of the various subjects it addresses in order to give a panorama both concise and complete on the practice of this "art" in the Middle Ages. After a reminder on the history of intelligence and special operations during Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages by mixing a very vast territory going from Europe to Asia, each chapter then generally deals with the subject in a given space and period. Thus, we discover these "secret services" of the Middle Ages through the diplomacy and intrigues of the Byzantine Empire to the intelligence techniques of the Vikings without forgetting the spy services of the Normans in full Sicilian adventure. The highlight of the book is more than ever the account of William the Conqueror's covert operations preparing for the Battle of Hastings (1066) and de facto, the conquest of the kingdom of England.

Another vision of war in the Middle Ages

Medieval warfare is not just about angry and indiscriminate charges of knights clad in heavy armor, it is far more tactical and complex than that. This book allows you to discover another vision of war during the medieval period. It allows you to discover the secret war where, according to the authors, we find the different techniques and methods of modern intelligence: clandestine operation, disinformation and intoxication, interception of mail, guerrilla warfare, and many others. Consider, for example, the use by the Normans of secret and coded writings or the meticulous preparation of Viking expeditions leaving no room to chance during their raids. Moreover, the authors do not skimp on anecdotes in order to illustrate and enrich their point, so it is a pleasure to discover the tricks of brilliant strategists like the Byzantine Belisarius.

To conclude

Written by soldiers, Secret services in the Middle Ages provides a clear and easily accessible summary for the general public on this little-known "art". Contemporary comparisons can provide the reader with valuable points of reference - although the historian may be embarrassed. We will simply regret the absence of a real bibliography in the face of the few footnotes. We could also have liked more details on practical cases like the chapter on preparing for the Battle of Hastings, resembling a little Sun Tzu art of warfare and sounding like a real lesson in medieval strategy.

Éric Denécé and Jean Deuve, Secret services in the Middle Ages, Éditions Ouest-France, Rennes, 2011.

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