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?

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