Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fourteenth-century chivalry, as seen by various military men

People often think that in the later Middle Ages there was such a thing as "chivalric combat." What constituted "chivalric combat is not entirely clear to scholars today; indeed, it may have been unclear to knights and other men at arms in the Middle Ages.

Today I am posting a passage from the Chronicle of the Good Duke (written in 1429, describing here an incident of the 1390s) where some apparent disagreement about one point of "chivalry" is discussed. It is an account of the African crusade led by the Good Duke, in which he, or the author of the chronicle criticizes a famous French knight, Boucicaut the Younger. Boucicaut was known at this time for his strong desire to fight deeds of arms against anyone (of sufficient status) he could. Boucicaut travelled all over Europe while fulfilling this quest, and eventually attained such fame that he was made a marshal of France.

But I've always been rather dubious about Boucicaut's reputation. For one thing, he was the French commander in two of the worst French defeats of the Middle Ages, Nicopolis and Agincourt. Further, there is a lot of somewhat skeptical commentary about Boucicaut in the medieval sources. Have a look at this discussion of how Boucicaut, apparently taking his turn commanding the guards of the Crusaders' siege camp, got distracted from that routine assignment by the endemic skirmishing that took place throughout the siege and tried to arrange a challenge with the opposing Muslim forces.
Boucicaut was a chivalrous man who, through some interpreter, made a request in the skirmish where he was whether there was any Saracen who wished to combat him on foot or horse. They replied no. Then Sir Boucicaut said if they wished to perform arms 10 against 10 or 20 against 20 he and his company would be ready. So the Saracens responded no, not if the kings their lords did not want them to. When Boucicaut saw their refusal he said to them that he would fight them in a secure field, 20 Christians versus 40 of their Saracens.

As long as this conference lasted it was ordained that they should not make war on each other. With difficulties were these negotiators, Christian and Saracens, brought together, which astounded the duke of Bourbon, the Lord of Couci, the count d’Eu, the Souldich of Estrau, and the other barons, for the whole army ran to this assembly so that the Lord of Couci, the count d’Eu and others who saw the army taking leave of its senses said to the duke of Bourbon, “My Lord, the people run like beasts over there with Boucicault and they are not able to keep guard and it seems to us that if you do not order some to retreat, things will turn out badly for us.”

Then replied the duke of Bourbon: “I can’t then send a better message than one from me. I’ll go there myself.” So he asked for a mule he always had and it appeared good to the lords that he was not able to send a better message to make them retreat. So the duke mounted his mule left his tent and went off with the people of his household.

It was not long before more than 300 gentlemen were following him. The Saracens who saw that the duke of Bourbon whom they recognized by his coat of arms, came to join Sir Boucicaut with many men at arms, began strongly to retreat towards their tents, and Boucicaut and those with him to chase them. Boucicaut who saw the duke of Bourbon coming, gave himself over to pride and chased the Saracens more boldly and the duke of Bourbon with his company went after to bring about a retreat. When Boucicaut was at the tents, the Moorish kings and their Saracens put themselves in formation for battle outside their lodgings, and Boucicaut put himself in battle formation with his men, awaiting the duke of Bourbon and those who came with him. The duke of Bourbon caught up with those whom he wished to make retreat, and he very violently spoke to Boucicaut, concerning his great follies.

But the duke of Bourbon seeing that there was with him a good 2000 combatants following him, and seeing also the Saracens who had abandoned their camps and put themselves in battle order all outside, said, “My friends, since we see the lodgings of the Saracens abandoned, let us go by God and charge among their lodges and if the Saracens are worth anything they will come and defend them .” The duke forbade anyone should be so bold as to ignore his order nor think about pillage, but should fight forcefully and at the first sound of the trumpet which he would have sounded, everyone should pull back to his standard.

Then the duke of Bourbon first and the lords and the captains each in his place, with their men at arms and arbalestiers of Genoa charged among the tents of the Saracens, attacked all the lodgings and cut the ropes of the tents and set fire to the lodgings of straw and the duke of Bourbon remained for an hour in the middle of the Saracen lodgings with his standard of the belt of hope. During this the count d’Eu arrived with a good seven score combatants who came from the other side, by the shore, which made those who were already there very happy and joyous.

Because he was late, the count d'Eu said to the duke of Bourbon, “My Lord you see the finest thing one can see, and I thank God that I am found in your company, but for God’s sake, let’s go back, for it is evening and if the Saracens attack the lodgings there’s only the Lord of Couci with a few men, and a bunch of those are ill: so he will be completely lost.” So the duke of Bourbon said to the count d’Eu, “We will go there immediately, please God.”

Now imagine you are sitting at a campfire in a French siege camp in the 1390s. Someone says "Boucicaut is the greatest living knight." What might you say?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A memorable time in the life of Jean de Chateaumorand

I love the Chronicle of the Good Duke.

The Chronicle is a biography of Duke Louis of Bourbon, who was a close relative of the French kings during the Hundred Years War. In 1429, when bad dukes had prostrated France before the English invaders, it became useful to remember what Good Dukes were like, and this text was commissioned. The writer was no genius, but he had access to an old French soldier, Jean de Chateaumorand, who fifty years earlier (!) had fought as part of Duke Louis' military hospital, and who remembered well what it was like in the Golden Age of Chivalry, which I have no doubt he thought the wars he fought next to the Good Duke were. I have been translating the Chronicle for a good long time, and I am almost done. As I review my translation, I keep running across passages that remind me of why I like this book. The Chateaumorand sections are particularly evocative. Here are a couple of passages that show the ups and downs of late 14th century warfare. We begin with a short notice of the death of Jean de Chateaumorand, bastard. The brother of the other Chateaumorand? Perhaps. But this tragedy did not overwhelm the memory of Jean the squire, who as banner-bearer for the Good Duke, played an important leadership role in the taking of the strategic castle of La Roche Senadoire, which was held by Englishmen who ravaged the countryside.
Chapter XXXII Then the duke went before Amburs, a very fine place, where there were a good 80 combatants, and on arrival he fought a big skirmish, for those inside came out, and there was a fine skirmish with lances and swords between the two sides; and there Sir Girart de Grantvau, a good man of his body, was wounded and Jean the bastard of Châteaumorand was killed. But in this skirmish there were /(95)taken eight men at arms from those of the fort who had more authority, and four killed; and the duke of Bourbon on the morrow had those eight led before him to have their heads cut off, if they did not surrender the place, and they were quite able to do it, for they had it under guard and preferred to live than to die in such a manner. So they surrendered Amburs to the duke of Bourbon, both their bodies and the place.

Inside of one hour the duke of Bourbon and his men made to leave and go to Tracros; and those men who he sent before encountered the English of Tracros, great adventurers who had come to defeatethem and were overthrown by the duke's men, who came in haste before the place, and it was late when they arrived there. That night the duke of Bourbon, who had come there, set the guard from the men of his household and said to Jean de Châteaumorand: 'Take my pennon, and go all around the place so that no one sallies out." He carried out his order, and that night had many a talk between the dukes people and those of the fort that they should surrender, or when they were taken they would be hanged by the neck because they were men of evil renown.

So they talked until Gourdinot warden of the Place surrendered to Jean de Châteaumorand, squire, who carried the pennon of the duke of Bourbon; and at this hour, which was not the day, it was announced to the duke, so it please him, the treaty which the men of his household had made; and he answered that it pleased him well, because he still had great deeds to do. The one who spoke about this to the duke was Châteaumorand, who asked him to be willing to give the movable goods in the fortress to the people of his household, which the duke did freely and that/(96) Gourdinot, who had surrendered to him, should remain his prisoner and this he granted to him. On the morrow Gourdinot and his men of Tracros, who were not but 16 men at arms, were all prisoners. Inside were 200 marks of silver, of which 100 were in chalices from churches which they had thoroughly robbed. So the duke said that he wished to have the chalices, and he would generously recompense the companions. The duke of Bourbon moved by pity sent the chalices to the city of Clermont and had it announced to all the churches which had lost their chalices, that someone should come to Clermont, and they would be given back, and it was done.

... Chapter XXXIII There the duke of Bourbon seeing his knights and the squires of his household and country, and all the men at arms, who were ready to undertake any risk, destroy the palisade and garrison and proceed in force triumphantly, was overjoyed. During this melee, the pennon of the duke of Bourbon continually carried by Jean de Châteaumorand passed through the breach in the palisade, with those who followed him. Then the English who saw this, did not know what to do, outside of retreating into the fort/(102) and while they retreated the pennon rushed forward with the valiant men; and in this retreat of the English, who ran away, there were killed and taken a good fourscore of the better men at arms from inside, for the captains, of whom in one of the two places Nolimbarbe retreated on the right-hand and the other on the left-hand which was stronger, led to retreat the captain Sir Robert Chennel, Jacques Bardenay, the son Sir Jehan Jouel, Thomelin Maulevrier, Sir Richard Credo, son of the mayor of London. While they retreated from certain lodgings which were high up, to go to their fort, the pennon of the duke of Bourbon and the people of his household charged them so close that as they entered the tower, the pennon of the duke of Bourbon rushed among them very well accompanied, so that those Englishman were not able to close the door of the tower, and so they surrendered to the one who carried the pennon of the duke of Bourbon. The prisoners who surrendered to him were Sir Robert Chennel, captain, and so that very strong place was delivered.

In this way the pennon of the duke of Bourbon with his companions namely Sir le Barrois, Bonnebault, Sir Gaulchier de Passac, the lord of Cordebeuf, the Borgne de Veaulce, Sir Odin de Rollat, Sir Phelippe Choppart, the lord of Billy, Jehan lord of Chaugy, Phelippe Berault, Michaille, the bastard of Glarains and five or six others of the household of the duke of Bourbon, with his pennon, headed over to one of the other /(103) towers where they found already before it a great party of people of Auvergne who were climbing up there, and the Lord of Montmorin who was a valiant knight, and who had a fine company, and Geraud, Lord of Laqueuilhe, accompanied by good people and who was a valiant man, the Lord de Lafayette and others who were advanced by the advice of the lords who had held very close to the English when they had arrived there so that the English could not flee.

But when the English saw the pennon of the duke of Bourbon approach them, the captain Nolimbarbe surrendered with all of his companions to the duke of Bourbon. So was La Roche Senadoire taken without a word of a lie.

Leaving there, the duke of Bourbon sent to Clermont six English captains to hold them as prisoners in the tower of Monnoye, about which the people of Clermont were very happy and joyful and the Duke and his people and those of Auvergne rode to Saint Angel, a place which had done much evil. They remained there a day, thinking to treat with them, but those in the castle did not want to listen. Then it was noticed that the abbey was covered by wooden shingles, thereupon they fired several incendiaries, so that it spread throughout its buildings, and all the English horses were burned up and some of their valets. The men at arms retreated into a tower that was there, where they had nothing to eat. It was impossible to take it by force, for it was very well built; in which attempt a young knight, whom the Duke of Bourbon loved well, was killed: Messire Jean de Digoine, who hailed from Clermont. In the end, those of the Tower surrendered to the Duke of Bourbon on the condition of keeping their lives. So the Duke vouchesafed them, sending Châteaumorand with his pennon to the tower, and each of the English came out with their weapons in hand.
Note how Jean -- who later on became quite an important man -- identifies himself with the Duke and the Duke's pennon. He still is enormoously proud of his association with the Good Duke.

Image: This is NOT Jean de Chateaumorand with the Good Duke's pennon.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Military humor of the 14th century: Robert Knowles

The Chronicle of the Good Duke:

The duke of Bourbon the Constable of France, Sir Bertrand and the marshal Sir Louis de Sancerre remained before Brest for 40 days. In that time it rained continually so hard that no one had ever seen so much rain fall, and in the country of the Breton Brittany there was no provision for horses, from which the lords had a great loss, and the same M Robert Knowles had nothing to eat in Brest except his horses, and spoke to a Constable of France about how he held himself discontent that he was not able to raise the siege which the duke of Bourbon, himself, and the marshal held before Brest where they had besieged him, but he counted it for little, because he knew that the horses and the army were much weakened by the rain and this he was consoled that the lords also had very little to eat; just like him and that he was not at all afraid of their assault. He sent a further message to the Constable: "You have made me eat my horses here this castle of Brest, as I made you eat yours at the siege of Rennes; and so go the changes of fortune and war."

Politics and religion: a past post on Iran and everyplace else

Here's a post from 2009 which I think has something to say -- more than a bit to say -- about democracy's cultural dimension (see my last paragraph):

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):
The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).
If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:
So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Trump and democracy

Josh Marshall at talkingpointsmemo:


But the real message from the President, one that’s clearly been a topic of conversation between him and his aides, only came in the flurry of interviews he did in which he had a chance to expand on his remarks. His dour mood reaches well beyond the filibuster.

Listen to these comments from his interview with Fox News …

I understand what has to be done, I get things done I’ve always been a closer. We don’t have a lot of closers in politics and I understand why. It’s a very rough system, it’s an archaic system. You look at the rules of the senate, even the rules of the house, bit the rule of the senate and some of the things you have to go through, it’s really a bad thing for the country in my opinion.
There are archaic rules and maybe at some point, we’re going to have to take those rules on because for the good of the nation things are going to have to be different. You can’t go through a process like this. It’s not fair, it forces you to make bad decisions. I mean, if you’re forced into doing things that you would normally not do except for these archaic rules.
Trump knows what needs to be done. And he gets things done. That’s who he is. But having been revealed as someone who almost literally can’t get anything done, he’s turned against the “rough … archaic system.” The system will need to change “for the good of the nation” because “it’s not fair, it forces you to make bad decisions.”

We’ve had this system for a while. But three months in, Trump’s decided it’s time for a change.

This wasn’t off the cuff. Trump said much the same thing, actually used the same catchwords with CBS’s John Dickerson.

Why wasn’t anything getting done, Dickerson asks?

Just a system. It’s just a very, very bureaucratic system. I think the rules in Congress and in particular the rules in the Senate are unbelievably archaic and slow moving. And in many cases, unfair. In many cases, you’re forced to make deals that are not the deal you’d make. You’d make a much different kind of a deal.
You’re forced into situations that you hate to be forced into. I also learned, and this is very sad, because we have a country that we have to take care of. The Democrats have been totally obstructionist. Chuck Schumer has turned out to be a bad leader. He’s a bad leader for the country. And the Democrats are extremely obstructionist.

It’s pretty clear the President is thinking a lot about this and talking about it a lot with his advisors. I mean no disrespect but “archaic” does not strike me as one of the President’s go-to words.

The President’s fondness for foreign dictators is no secret. It won’t surprise you that I think that fondness and envy is tightly connected to the attitudes I’ve noted above. But many of us console ourselves with the notion that Trump is just demonstrably too inept and incompetent to be a strongman or push towards some kind of Americanized authoritarian rule.

This is a misunderstanding.

Incompetence and authoritarianism aren’t incompatible or even in tension. Historically they tend to go together. Incompetence and failure borne of ineptitude tend to show up both as a cause and outcome of democratic breakdown and collapse. Small-d democratic government is hard, by design. It’s meant to be. It should be. But it’s not just hard. It relies on a particular package of skills: persuasion, inspiration, patience, canny use of patronage, threats, carrots and sticks, both consensus building and fight.
Look at a Lincoln, an FDR, a Reagan – whatever you think of the different men’s politics, successful presidents are almost quite good at using this toolkit.
Just running down the list, virtually none of these are Trumpian traits. So in addition to the other obstacles he faces, it’s hardly surprising that he’s been such a flop as a chief executive. As any political scientist will tell you, the formal powers of the Presidency, outside of war-fighting, are quite limited.
The lack of patience, focus and skills appeared immediately with Trump as he gravitated toward the easy and mostly meaningless sugar high of executive orders over the hard work of legislating. It’s no mystery why he’s failed so miserably. It’s no mystery why he’s now so focused on how … basically democracy, the machinery of democratic government is the problem, how it’s not “fair”.
Not fair to who exactly? Trump, of course.
Even Trump’s rants against the secondary enemy of the ‘obstructionist Democrats’, who don’t control anything, tells a similar story. It’s true that the legislative filibuster is a significant tool for the Democrats right now. It is their only tool. But the real story is that they haven’t gotten really any chance to use it. Trump has failed before that even came into play. The on-going Trumpcare debacle is the best illustration of this. Trump keeps ranting at the Democrats about the failure of Obamacare repeal. But the Democrats have literally not done anything legislatively. I’m sure they would force Republicans to get 60 votes to repeal Obamacare. And they should.
But that hasn’t happened.
What’s held Trump back are the invisible hands of public opinion. He can’t get his bill or Ryan’s bill or whomever is claiming it at this point out of the House because Republicans are afraid of the electoral consequences of voting for it. They are afraid they will lose their seats if they vote for it.
That’s democracy in its most immediate form. It has nothing to do with the Democrats – unless we’re talking about the Democrats’ relative success at public persuasion about the awfulness of the President’s bill.
We’re talking about this failure in the House right now but the same pattern is ready to play out in the Senate. I think any reporter covering Capitol Hill would back me up when I say that there’s virtually no way Trump could get 50 votes for this bill, let alone 60 in the Senate.

He probably wouldn’t even get close to 50.

In other words, Democrats are ready and eager to obstruct using their one tool. But they’re not getting the chance because Trump is failing within his own party. Trump is ranting at the Democrats but what he’s talking about is public opinion. Democrats are responsible for making people not like him and not like his bill.

Democracy, of course, isn’t simply responding to the whims of public opinion. Sometimes it’s the height of democratic self-government for legislators to make decisions they know are unpopular for the public good. Needless to say, I think think Trumpcare is a moral as well as policy disaster. But for those who disagree, again, that’s part of democratic leadership: persuading legislators to take tough votes. And again, it’s one at which Trump has completely failed.

I am an optimist on American institutions. Adam Smith wrote that there’s “a lot of ruin in a nation”, by which he meant that countries and by analogy governments and institutions are more resilient than you’d think. I think America is stronger than Trump. I don’t think he’s going to be able to tamper with the 1st Amendment because it’s hard and he’s clown. But he is President. A President has vast powers, in many ways far more for destruction than construction. So the fact that he wants to matters a lot. The fact that three months in he’s already decided that the basic mechanisms of American government are ‘archaic’ and ‘unfair’ matters a huge amount too.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Busy, busy, busy

I contibuted very little to this blog in April, not because I was lazy, but because I got lots of work done on some of my projects.  (Others of course are stalled.)

My collaborator Phil Paine and I spent most of the weekend working on the Chronicle of the Good Duke and we made significant progress.  I hope we can have a draft suitable for submission by the end of the year.  A draft of the "Deeds of Arms" volume on judicial combat already sits on the desk at Freelance Academy Press.

Something that is really done:  I have a chapter in the book "Game of Thrones vs. History:  Written in blood" which volume is now out.  I haven't seen it yet, but am waiting for my contributor's copy to show up.  I want to sit down with a paper copy and enjoy reading the whole book!

I had an interesting book-related experience this weekend, and a cheerful one.  I went to an SCA event near Ottawa and while I was there I had three people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed my book.  I think each of them had read more than one, though which books was a little unclear:
"I enjoyed your book!"
"Which one?"
"The one on chivalry!"
Vague, yes, but pleasant nevertheless.  And get this:  one of my enthusiastic fans bought lunch for me and my lady!


Friday, April 07, 2017

Favorite obscure countries: Laos

I have always loved maps and history.  Growing up in the USA in the early 60s, the Southeast Asian war gave me the opportunity to learn geography that the vast majority of Americans knew nothing about.  Laos was one of the obscure countries that was promoted to the first section of the newspaper (I doubt that it ever made page 1)

Sometime in 1961 or 1962, a map roughly like this appeared in my local paper, showing not only the exotic international boundaries of Laos but also indicating who controlled what on the ground (or so it claimed).

Despite the considerable strategic importance attributed to Laos at that time, not much news of Laos everappeared in the papers. I have to admit I never systematically explored Laotian history.  But today when I was leaving our local public library, I spotted a book by Joshua Kurlantzick.  A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.  

Interesting that Kurlantzick has also written a book on "the world-wide decline of representative government."



Image: The mysterious "Plain of Jars." Named and designed by Jack Vance?



Sunday, April 02, 2017

Richard Watson Gordon parades an amazing ignorance

Gordon is talking up an art exhibit on the subject of 19th century prostitution in Paris:
 It was a subject that interested them. Why? The obvious answer is that they were men, but another reason was that prostitution was linked to the idea of modernity. People had moved to the city, which was in itself a new concept, where the moral strictures of the village had disappeared. 
Gordon is a professor of fine arts.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Another oddball medieval name from the Chronicle of the Good Duke

During my years with the Good Duke I have run across a number of surprising and amusing personal names: Bliomberis Loup and his brother, for instance (follow the "names" label to find him).

I don't recall this classic name of an English knight involved in the Duke of Lancaster's chevauche in 1373:

Sir Jean Bulle.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

If walls could talk: A BBC history of the home

My friend Nick Russon alerted me to the existence of a BBC 4 History of the Home now showing on Youtube. I have just watched the first of four episodes and I really like it. Part of it of course is the entertaining Lucy Worsley, who was made to be a TV presenter, but there's also the fact that the production quality is very high and we get to see a wide variety of (in this case) living rooms from many different angles. I don't doubt that other experts than Worsley and those who actually appear might disagree with some of the interpretations offered here, but at least you get a good detailed look at what they are talking about.

Fun!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Some people you just don't want to fight...

...because some people are just scum.

During the first half of the Hundred Years War, when France was in chaos, disbanded soldiers often struck out on their own to fill their purses and their stomachs by capturing both warriors and civilians and ransoming them back to their lords or families.  These were not nice people, as this story of the Good Duke makes clear. Duke Louis, who had himself been captive in England for seven years, was determined to rout out these outlaws.  Duke Louis' men had if anything a lower opinion of these "English" (who may not have been English in fact).

Duke Louis told them:

They have made a pit at Beauvoir , and when they have taken someone who they do not wish to or cannot ransom, they say " put them in hell" and they are thrown into this pit full of fire, of which everyone was so terrified, so that when anyone became a prisoner, he gave out that he was rich for fear of being thrown in hell. Therefore Duke Louis required, that all of his company should take part in the attack.

They all replied "Most redoubtable Lord, we are ready to go where it pleases you and we desire nothing else. But we pray you humbly, that it please you that you personally should not go there; for it would be too much of an honor to such people as they are, that such a Prince as you are ought to go there. For they are excommunicated by the sentence of the Pope, and are men of the companies, and without absolution; but if you please order us to go there." Therefore the Duke agreed with them and with great pain, as to him who always wished to be with them.
They won...
all those at Beauvoir were killed except the captain, Le Bourg Camus, who was taken to Molins, and the others were thrown into their hell.
Image: This might be a later version of Beauvoir castle.

Back to the Good Duke


After some months of writing other material, I am back to translating The Chronicle of the Good Duke, Louis II of Bourbon.  (I am astonished to see, by the way, that I started this translation in 2010.)  It's a fascinating view of one of the great warrior-princes (no, not Xena) of the first half of the Hundred Years War.  The best part of the chronicle is, however, what it says about the knights and squires who fought in Louis' service.  I've written an article about the Chronicle in the Journal of Medieval History, if you are fortunate enough to be near a library that carries it.

The Chronicle has its challenges.  It was written by an obscure hanger-on of the Bourbon family, one Cabaret d'Orville, who doesn't seem to be the master of the French language that he might be.  He is excessively fond of sentences that begin with "and."  I once told a friend that if I simply eliminated every "And" that began a sentence -- just the "and" not the sentence -- the Chronicle would be a third shorter.

Well, I tested that theory yesterday when I set up MS Word to search for an initial And.  And it told me that in 240-some pages there were 707 Ands I could get rid of.

Done and dusted.  Simplest bit of editing I've ever done.

Image:  Yes, that's him, as the 15th century remembered him.

Friday, March 24, 2017

A flash of truth cuts through the overheated rhetoric

A Guardian column on "alt-right" celebrity Katie Hopkins' carpetbagging critiques of London stumbles into an important truth. Marina Hyde:
For now, it falls to her [Hopkins] to explain London to the Americans. “Londoners can’t even be honest about these attacks,” she told Fox News. “Because it would mean everything they believed in was false.” >Ah, the false idols of the decadent metropolis! Had Katie spent more than 10 minutes in the World History aisle of Wikipedia, she would know there have always been people who hated cities for what they stood for. The metropolis has at many times served as shorthand for a kind of moral decay and wicked permissiveness that requires (usually forcible) regression.

“This place where monsters lurk and steal lives away in an instant,” thunders Katie of the capital’s wickedness. “For nothing.” Dear, dear – it does all seem rather terminal. I wonder what Katie would do with the failed, corruptive experiment that is London? The Khmer Rouge decided that the only solution was to empty the cities, and send their suspiciously educated denizens to the countryside. Come Katie’s revolution, perhaps Londoners will be forcibly migrated too.
Quite right, Marina. Don't forget that anyone wearing glasses will be labeled as a dangerous intellectual and eliminated.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

La fin de l'Empire romain d'Occident. Rome et les Wisigoths de 382 à 531, by Christine Delaplace,

I return to my old interest in Late Antiquity today, thanks to Michael Kulikowski, who has written an illuminating review of Christine Delaplace's La fin de l'Empire romain d'Occident for the Medieval Review. A boring title, says Michael, and one would not be surprised if the interpretation offered was a hundred years out of date.

Ah, but it's not. Says Michael:
Perhaps the single most important thing here is the authorial willingness to define terms and exercise a realistic parsimony of interpretation with the evidence. For instance, her exhaustive treatment of treaties and their related vocabulary (pax, foedus, deditio, amicitia) usefully demonstrates that the frequent scholarly attempts to normalize the semantic content of that vocabulary are completely untenable; so too is reading back a normative definition from Procopius and Jordanes into the fourth and earlier fifth century.

Such observations are not wholly new, but actually applying their analytical insight to the narrative evidence exposes the role that fixed definitions of Roman treaties/foedera play in traditional narratives of Gothic history--thus producing a spurious aura of inevitability stretching from 382 to the settlement of some Goths in Aquitaine forty years later and on into the sixth century. In a similar vein, Delaplace correctly notes that Alaric and all the barbarian generals and condottieri of the late fourth and fifth centuries were primarily leaders of armies; their royal status was secondary, indeed often quite notional, and rarely a meaningful factor in their power. In this approach she strengthens Guy Halsall's demonstration that only Roman military office and magisteria constituted success for such people. To fall back on claims to royalty signified failure.

Perhaps the most insightful part of Delaplace's account of the early fifth century follows from the recognition that--whether or not you read Alaric's following, or those of other barbarian leaders of the time, in ethnic terms or instead as relatively heterogeneous mercenary armies--you cannot read them in terms of external diplomacy, or foreign foes. The more precise historical analogy is the late Roman Republic, when the Senate had to deal with rival armies loyal primarily to their generals rather than the state. Mutatis mutandis (for "Senate," read "imperial court"), the endless back and forth of 395 to 418 operated according to the same dynamic. Ethnic difference, still less "foreignness," are not what was at issue.

The book's systematic successes are in a similar vein. A ruthless refusal to retroject later evidence means that the Gothic settlement in Gaul is judged at its correct worth: there was nothing new about 418 that had not been at least implicit in the treaty of the king Wallia and the magister militum Constantius in 416. Wallia's (and then Theoderic I's) Goths were in effect a mercenary army, contracted by the Roman state because they were less likely to slip into the usurpation to which rebellious Gallic armies had long been prone. The Gothic zone of action effectively displaced the western Rhine limes south to the Loire, where, from Aquitaine, the Gothic army could operate in any direction necessary, against barbarians and potential usurpers alike. Thus, there was no kingdom of Toulouse for the better part of a century. There was a Gothic rex (who very rarely used that title) and there were sortes Gothicae, but there was no regnum till the fifth century had run its course.

Again, Delaplace has a firm grip on later fifth-century events. In particular she rejects the lionisation of the general Aëtius as "the last of the Romans," a sort of incomparable bulwark against the encroaching barbarian tides. Aëtius, she demonstrates, fundamentally weakened the Roman state, perpetuating constant rivalries in Gaul and Italy that militated against coherent policy. She shows how the "Gothic wars" of the 430s and 440s should not be read as a Roman defence against aggressive barbarian expansion, but rather as an extension of the civil war that brought Aëtius to power, the initial rivalry of Boniface and Aëtius, allied respectively with Theoderic and the Amal Berimond, was perpetuated in the next generation by Sebastianus (son of Boniface) and Witteric (son of Berimond), supported respectively by Theoderic and Aëtius. The peace of 439 is not a Romano-Gothic peace, nor a taming of the unruly federates by Rome, but rather a final settlement of two decades of rivalry: Sebastian was expelled by Theoderic, Witteric disappears from the pages of history (murdered, one imagines), and Aëtius married a daughter of Theoderic, having repudiated his second wife Pelagia, herself the sister of Berimond and widow of Boniface.

... The book concludes with a more cursory survey of the period from 477-531, but here too, the guiding principles are correct. In particular, Delaplace considers the battle of Vouillé as a stage in the sorting out of post-imperial factions that characterizes the earlier sixth century, rather than as a caesura in Gothic history. Greater detail in this section would have been welcome, but that was not the author's primary goal. One would not have thought it possible to write a strikingly novel history of the last century of the western empire, but that is precisely what Delaplace has done. It is a grand accomplishment.
Think of Attila as John Hawkwood!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A newspaper series you might want to know about

Keen-eyed reporters at the Globe and Mail became aware that a lot of sexual assault cases in Canada were being dropped as "unfounded." Unfounded is supposed to mean that nothing happened. That sometimes 40% of complaintants, people who went to the police knowing that such complaints often go nowhere, were being turned aside and not believed -- this made the reporters suspicious that the category "unfounded" was being misused.

Sure enough, a large-scale investigation has established just that. Likewise the Globe and Mail's efforts have cast new light on the issue of consent. Well worth reading.