Historians like labels and categories. In part this has been driven by the needs of pedagogy. It cannot be a coincidence that an early use of the term “La Guerre de Cent Ans” was in Chrysanthe-Ovide Desmichels' Tableau Chronologique de l'Histoire du Moyen Age published in 1823. This work was symptomatic of the expansion of schooling in early nineteenth-century France in which competitive examinations stimulated publication of aides-mémoire. Other nations followed suit. Even in the 1970s teachers in Britain were still using William Edwards' Notes on British History and Notes on European History, cribs published almost a century earlier, which crammed the heads of unsuspecting students with “the so-and-so system,” “the age of whatsit,” and “the thingummy ‘revolution’” so that it could all be spewed out again in the examination room.
Such labels and categories can be valuable communication tools. They also give shape to our research and facilitate comparison and debate. But they can operate as straightjackets and encourage tunnel vision. Take the expression “Hundred Years War.” At one level it is useful because it emphasizes the insoluble nature of Anglo-French conflict once an English king had claimed to be the rightful king of France. Yet it is also misleading since it gives the wars fought between the 1330s and 1450s an artificial unity, a problem which links to the topic of this essay. Then there is the expression, “the military revolution.”
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