On the Battle of Poitiers (1356) as a failure of implementation

There were three noteworthy English victories over France in the Hundred Years War. The best-known is the final one, the Battle of Agincourt (1415), but the earlier battles are just as historically and strategically interesting.

The second of these was the Battle of Poitiers (1356) in which a combined English and Gascon army led by Edward, Prince of Wales (later known as the Black Prince) defeated a much larger French force. The French had a number of apparent advantages: they were on home territory, they had many more men (probably around 16000, twice the size of Edward’s force of around 8000), and they were eager to drive the English out of France because English forces had been at large for years and had pillaged and killed widely. Yet the French lost, and lost badly: their King, Jean II, was taken prisoner and the Oriflamme, the sacred French battle standard, was captured. The defeat was met with surprise across France and Europe and marked a turning point in the status and authority of the French nobility.

Historians have proposed a number of reasons for this unexpected loss. I think that our current understandings of implementation can be used to understand some of the failures of the French army. I suggest three implementation issues were involved and in relation to each we can see how Edward’s forces were successful in making beneficial changes that the French army failed to enact.Battle-poitiers(1356)

First, English longbowmen were made central to their army. Archers were an important contributor to the English victory at Poitiers, first firing upon the French cavalry head-on and then, when the knights’ armour proved too tough to penetrate, moving to one side and felling the horses with an attach on their flanks. The successful implementation here lay first in the English recognition of the power of the longbow and second in ensuring that the archers were effectively deployed in practice. The French also had archers and knew their power: they had suffered under the fire of English longbows in the Battle of Crécy ten years earlier. But they failed to integrate the archers into their fighting force as the English did, a failure that Barbara Tuchman ascribes to established social and cultural norms on the part of the French nobles: the French archers “were never properly combined in action with knights and men-at-arms, because French chivalry scorned to share its dominance of the field with commoners.” (153) In the English side this attitude was less dominant and they were able to benefit from the ranged power of the longbow.

A second factor played out in the tactics adopted by the French during the battle. The English force was very short of water and had dug in on a hill. Marshal Clermont, an experienced general and one of the senior French nobles present, proposed blockading the English and starving them out. Edward feared that the French would try this and the approach would likely have had an excellent chance of success. However, King Jean opposed the idea because it was at odds with the rules of chivalry. He chose instead to engage with the English and Clermont was among those killed in the fighting that followed.

Third, Edward had been able to organise his forces in a new way with some semblance of what we might recognise as a military hierarchy, with soldiers answerable to officers and officers to more senior commanders (this is not strictly true but captures the general idea). The French had no such structure and their commanders were at risk, as was often the case in medieval armies, from the fact that individual nobles and their followers might decide at any point that they had had enough and make a unilateral decision to leave the field of battle. With no notion of military discipline and troops’ loyalty in the first instance to their feudal overlord, the turning tide of the battle eventually led to a rout with surviving French nobles and foot soldiers fleeing before the rampaging English.

These were not the only things that contributed to the French defeat but they were important. The French lost, in part, because: their prevailing culture did not permit the effective implementation of a new technology (longbows); sociocultural factors prevented them from acting in a tactically beneficial way in reaction to the course of the battle; and they were tied to a harmful and outmoded organisational structure.

If we turn to contemporary writing on facilitators and barriers to implementation we find similar barriers to implementation recognised. Implementation science has been described as a discipline that focuses, in part, on “the discovery and identification of social, organizational, and cultural factors affecting the uptake of evidence-based practices and policies” (Luke 2012). The “evidence” available in the fourteenth century was not the type of evidence we might want to inform policy decisions today but it seems clear that social, organisational and cultural factors were key aspects of the French failure to implement new ways of thinking and acting that became major contributors to a French military disaster. Then, as now, social, organisational and cultural factors are central elements of what we have to recognise, consider, and address when considering implementing new practices or ways of doing things.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

REFERENCES

My understanding of this topic has been informed by Barbara Tuchman’s outstanding A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Knopf, 1978).

Luke DA. Viewing Dissemination and Implementation Research through a Network Lens. In Brownson RC, Colditz GA, Proctor EK. Dissemination and Implementation Research in Health: Translating Science to Practice. (Oxford: OUP)
Iain

Iain

NIHR Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellow at PenCLAHRC, University of Exeter
I am a researcher and public health practitioner with interests in dementia, older people's health and wellbeing, and especially in implementation science.
Iain

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Iain

I am a researcher and public health practitioner with interests in dementia, older people's health and wellbeing, and especially in implementation science.

One thought on “On the Battle of Poitiers (1356) as a failure of implementation”

  1. What I like about this example, apart from the fact that there simply aren’t enough dissections of 14th century warfare in the implementation literature, is the way that the constellation of cultural and organisational factors are woven together into a mid-range explanation. And one with relevance to present day implementation issues. Wonderful.

    But I can’t deal with all of that complexity at once, so please humour me if I drill down a little into the introduction of a new technology (longbows) into a pre-existing cultural system – as indeed all (health) interventions are. Davina Allen (Allen 2013) has drawn on work in Science & Technology Studies, in particular Berg and Latour, to research the introduction of Integrated Care Pathways (ICP) into health care systems. Allen shows how an apparently innocuous and straightforward documentation system (the ICP) plays out very differently – a brute summary would be that where pathways are short, focused, high-risk and standardised then implementation takes place. For long, fuzzy, distributed risk pathways with considerable grey areas, implementation is a rocky path. The point being that a new technology requires realignment of interests in a network, and this realignment is dependent on pre-existing interests (Latour 1991).

    What Allen’s research doesn’t address is: If implementation takes place when pre-existing interests are aligned, then what do we do when those interests aren’t aligned?

    Allen, D. (2013) Understanding context for quality improvement: Artefacts, affordances and socio-material infrastructure. Health 17 (5) 460-477
    Latour, B. (1991) Technology is society made durable. In: Law, J. (ed.) A sociology of Monsters: Essays on power, technology and domination. London: Routledge, pp.103-131

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