Sunday, November 12, 2006

One of Charny's Questions on War

Back in 2001-2 I translated and interpreted Charny's Questions on the Joust, Tourneys and War, which I eventually turned into the Chivalry Bookshelf title Jousts and Tournaments (see sidebar for a link to the publisher).

Charny was a French knight of the first half of the 14th century, an active campaigner, a commander of armies, and man who was of some influence in the court of King Jean II. King Jean inherited a losing war from his father, Philippe VI, and one of his efforts to turn things around was the foundation of an early royally-sponsored order of chivalry, the Order of the Star.

In connection with a meeting of the Order, Charny wrote three sets of questions, concerning "the law of arms" as it applied to the three characteristic activities of "men at arms," jousting, tournaments, and war. Some of these questions were philosophical, most were technical discussions of subjects like the proper running of a tourney or the rules governing ransoms, but all of them were raised for discussion without any answer being provided. And indeed for most of them it is difficult to see that there would have been an unambiguous or generally accepted answer. (Charny several times says after outlining a case, "many good reasons are given on either side," or some similar phrase.)

I sometimes think that if there were answers given, this would be among the most famous texts on chivalry, but as it is it's pretty obscure, indeed not properly published or easily available even to scholars. I've done something to make the jousting and tournament questions more accessible, and now I'm going to try to do the same for the more numerous and difficult war questions.

Here's a preview as I start reviewing my draft translation, one of several questions that opens up a whole range of new possibilities. Who would have imagined this scenario would even be a debating point?

85. Charny asks:

A hundred men at arms are in the field all prepared to fight against a hundred others, all of them as good and as well mounted as they are, and the horses on either side are completely armed, and well covered, because they have promised to fight on their horses as long as their horses can last, if they are not killed at the hands of their enemies, and without any advantage from deceit. One of the parties does not have any weapons except for their hands, but they have good spurs on their feet; those in the other party each have a good sword in their hands but no other weapons, but they have no spurs and can’t get any. Which of these would you rather be?

Comments welcome.

I've borrowed the beautiful modern depiction of a 14th-century tournament from the Heraldry Society of Scotland.

Try clicking on the image for a bigger version.

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Blogger Tinisha said...

The actual question of choosing sides of the battle is unfathomable because anyone in the right state of mind would choose the side with the swords. However I have to ask whether the individual sides have armor? I realize that the horses have armor due to their vow to stay on the horses but what about the warriors themselves? And if so what type of armor? It is interesting that the author wrote about chivalry as I was under the impression that chivalry was a set of unwritten rules that applied to all warriors in war like situations such as not attacking an opponent when they lower their draw bridge during negotiations. By the way this is Holly in your Islamic Civilization Class.

1:40 AM  
Blogger Will McLean said...

A hundred years later it was still regarded as an open question. In Tirant lo Blanc, the following exchange occurs:

“….replied the hermit. “Let us see what you, who are young and versed in arms, have to say. Which would you rather be: strong but not skillful, or skillful but not strong?”

There were many opinions among the knights. Then the hermit asked which they would prefer: “To enter battle with sword but no spurs, or with spurs but no sword, for I can tell you I have witnessed such combats. I even saw one, fought before the Duke of Milan, in which two knights chose to joust in equal armor, but one was on horseback with only a sword, while the other was on foot with a lance and dagger. Who do you think had the advantage?”

The obvious implication is that this is a question without an obvious right answer from the 14th or 15th century point of view. I think the initial modern reaction is that being swordless is a crushing disadvantage and however bad being without spurs was, surely being without a sword was worse. But our modern reaction is unlikely to be informed by actual experience of how effective a sword is against an armored opponent fighting in earnest, or how easy it is to get a medieval warhorse to approach other warhorses garnished with men yelling and waving implements of destruction, either with or without spurs as tools of persuasion.

Surviving medieval fighting manuals suggest that even if two armored men start out with swords, the fight is quite likely to come down to wresting in the end: even on horseback. And accounts of mounted deeds of arms suggest that even with spurs getting a warhorse to override its instincts for self preservation is no easy task.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...


Great thanks for that citation. I guess I will have to comb my collection of chivalric literature looking for such references. (I've already found a passage in the Song of Roland that has obvious relevance to a question contrasting sens and prouesse).

On this question, I have long felt that there can't be an obvious choice here. Perhaps the key phrase here is "to fight as long as their horses can last." Whose horses will get fatigued first? Either set of warriors would be in bad shape without the ability to move and maneuver.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

From Ken Mondschein who had trouble posting:

Well, for the first one: Success in mounted combat depends on being able to control the horse. A skilled gen d'armes, particularly one wearing harness, should be able to disarm and dismount a sword-wielding opponent, especially if the latter can not control his horse, by maneuvering to his left side and behind him and bending him back over his saddle-bow. I would therefore choose the side with the spurs. The strategy I would employ (assuming an open field) would be to draw off enemy combatants by forcing them to chase me, then have the strongest fighters on my side pair up to attack the weakest on their side, disarm them, and arm my allies with their weapons. (NB: I personally joust without spurs, but I'm a modern person with modern horses.)

2:34 PM  

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