What is War? A medievalist’s perspective

In a recent online quiz (bit.ly/Vzybzk), devised by the good people at the BBC History Magazine, the first question asked how many wars Britain fought during the reign of Queen Victoria? The answer? Apparently a staggering 230! The answer has made me think again about what war actually is.

Here, I have to be honest. I had no idea that Britain fought 230 wars during the reign of Queen Victoria (and the irony of the period being known as Pax Britannica is not lost on me either). In attempting to answer the quiz question, I quickly managed to think of three wars and after some further deliberations felt that I might have been able to name five. But, 230?! As a medievalist I have to say that I would struggle to name 230 wars for the whole of the Middle Ages, that most violent and bloody of periods.

Partly the issue of the number of wars is one of definition. Most dictionaries define war as an armed conflict, often prolonged, between different states or nations or different groups within a nation or state. In the modern world this is a perfectly workable definition that can be used when we think of conflicts such as the Second World War or the American civil war. However, for the medieval period there is an immediate problem with the dictionary definition, and it is one which I have touched on many times in writing about peace and diplomacy in the earlier Middle Ages. At a time when princes generally defined themselves as ruling over peoples and not over a defined territory with a permanent population – that is, a state – wars cannot be defined as being fought between these different entities. Hence, war in the Middle Ages is often referred to through a number of related words, including warfare, conflict, struggle, battle, raid, and siege, which perhaps better reflect the series of small scale attacks that were the most basic form of war in the early medieval period. That’s not to say that medieval historians do not use the word ‘war’ – we clearly do – but merely to highlight that the word has slightly different connotations for the Middle Ages compared to more modern periods.

Having said this, it is evident that the compiler of the quiz question must have used a wider definition of war, one that is closer to that of those studying the Middle Ages than those writing the dictionary entries, in order to come up with the figure of 230.  And, I think that this wider definition is perhaps one that will take root in the public perception of what war is over the next few years, because war and diplomacy in the 21st century is increasingly becoming dominated not by states but by individuals or groups operating concurrently or outside the structures of nation states.

Regardless of how one defines war, I shall always be very grateful to the compiler of the question because I will now be able to tell my undergraduates that the Middle Ages, contrary to public perception, was a less violent and more peaceful period than the Victorian era.

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