Nicolle, Byzantium, the Islamic World & India AD 476-1526
Annotation author: Schoneveld, Katharina
Book author: Nicolle, David

David Nicolle, Byzantium, the Islamic World & India AD 476-1526 (New Vanguard 69), Oxford 2003

David Nicolle is a military historian who focuses on the Middle Ages and the geographical area of the Middle East. He has published several books, many of which deal with warfare during the times of the crusades. He has also collaborated with J. Haldon and S. Turnbull on the book The Fall of Constantinople (published in 2007). The book reviewed here is actually part of a pair of books that deal with medieval siege weapons and have both been published in Osprey’s New Vanguard series, which the publisher describes as “a valuable resource for model makers, wargamers, and military history enthusiasts”  However, in some regards it can also prove useful for military historians.

The first book is about weapons from Western Europe, while the second addresses the weapons of Byzantium, the Islamic world and India. Thus, the book relies to a large degree on sources such as Byzantine poliorcetic manuscripts and their illustrations, which is of special interest to those dealing with Byzantine siege warfare.The book begins with a summary of the technological progress the different cultures made over time and the knowledge transfer that took place between them. Later chapters deal with specific types of weapons, e.g. stone-throwing machines. One chapter is dedicated to crossbows and another to pyrotechnics, which of course includes the Greek Fire. A few pages at the end finally deal with devices that are exclusively used during sieges: tortoises, protective sheds and mantlets. However, Nicolle does not discuss any other devices.

Nicolle David writes mostly about the terminology used for such weapons, and occasionally quotes historiographical and technical sources. It has to be mentioned that whenever Nicolle works with Byzantine sources, there is a lack of footnotes and proper referencing, which is not the case when he uses Arabic sources. The overall impression is that the Islamic World is David Nicolle’s field of expertise.An extraordinary feature of this book are the many pictures and color plates drawn by the illustrator Sam Thompson. There is a commentary to the color plates at the end of the book. As for the other pictures, unfortunately they often do not work together with the text and are sometimes randomly placed. However, small explanatory texts that offer some insight accompany them.

One might also notice that – despite the fact that the book is filled with illustrations of all sorts of devices, both images taken from medieval sources as well as modern reconstruction drawings – the text overall focuses on artillery, e.g. stone-throwing machines, both torsion-powered as well as the traction and counterweight trebuchet, crossbows and pyrotechnical devices, such as grenades. This focus on weaponry (which can be used in both offensive and defensive ways) presents a one-sided aspect to siege technology that except for the passages at the end of the book mostly leaves out protective devices, such as tortoises, protective sheds and mantlets. There is also only very little information about towers, lifts, ladder constructions, undermining techniques and rams.

The bibliography references books and articles that will give further insight into the subject matter. Overall, the book provides a useful overview, and especially the inclusion of some manuscript illustrations gives a good insight into what kind of illustrated technical treatises existed in these cultures. I would like to say that the book addresses a more general audience that is interested in siege weaponry, but the parts that focus on terminology might actually be a bit too demanding for laymen who might be more interested in the technical aspects of such weapons, and be more interesting to an academic audience.