Monday, February 22, 2010

A truly worthy teaching from Geoffroi de Charny

There's much to dislike about medieval chivalry, but every once in a while...

From Charny's Book of Chivalry:

...those who have the will to achieve great worth [who] because of their great desire to reach and attain that high honor … do not care what suffering they have to endure, but turn everything into great enjoyment. Indeed, it is a fine thing to perform great deeds, for those who rise to great achievement cannot rightly grow tired or sated with it; so the more they achieve, the less they feel they have achieved; this stems from the delight they take in striving constantly to reach greater heights. And great good comes from performing these deeds, for the more one does, the less one is proud of oneself, and it always seems that there is so much left to do.


A lot of Olympians understand this.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Two more rather odd 14th century names from the Chronicle of the Good Duke

How about: Ciquot de la Saigne and Ortingo de Ortenye?

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Them good old days


From the Chronicle of the Good Duke, describing an expedition against English soldiers in the Bourbonnois country, late 14th century.

So it was agreed to go to besiege La Bruyère in order that, when the Duke their lord came he would have to do only one siege. And in this way La Bruyère was besieged, and that was where the common people of the Bourbonnois they came to the siege, a d2000 of them; and the Count of Sancerre broke its ditches and the water ran out and the good people made so many faggots that they filled up the dishes and they made a "cat" to go to the foot of the wall, which was mined, and after that they threw fire inside, which burned everything. That way the great captains of those inside were all taken, Messire Richard Mauverdin and Jacques Sadellier; and the remaining English in the garrison inside were handed over to the commoners, who turned them into a big barbecue (qui en firent de grosses charbonées).
Another episode in the ages-long war between peasants and townspeople (on one side) and professional warriors.

Image: I don't know if this counts as a "cat" or not.

Update: Will McLean suggests that the movable shed below in the foreground is a "cat."

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Scrope v. Grosvenor

The English lawsuit, Scrope v. Grosvenor has a prominent place in the history of heraldry, since a record of the case before the court of chivalry has been preserved. I am going to be lazy and reproduce part of the Wikipedia entry, mainly because I couldn't do better myself:

In 1385, King Richard II of England invaded Scotland with his army. During this invasion, two of the king’s knights realized that they were using the same coat of arms. Richard Scrope, 1st Baron Scrope of Bolton from Bolton in Yorkshire and Sir Robert Grosvenor from Cheshire were both bearing arms blazoned Azure a Bend Or. When Scrope brought an action, Grosvenor maintained that his ancestor had come to England with William the Conqueror bearing these arms and that the family had borne them since. The case was brought before a military court and presided over by the constable of England. Several hundred witnesses were heard and these included John of Gaunt, King of Castile and Duke of Lancaster and Geoffrey Chaucer and a then-little known Welshman called Owain Glyndŵr. It was not until 1389 that the case was finally decided in Scrope’s favor. Grosvenor was allowed to continue bearing the arms within a bordure argent for difference. Neither party was happy with the decision, so when King Richard II gave his personal verdict on 27 May 1390 he confirmed that Grosvenor could not bear the differenced arms. His opinion was that these two shields were too similar for unrelated families in the same country to bear.


Unfortunately, it is not easy to get beyond modern summaries of this sort. The last time a record of the case was printed was 1832, and the book seems to be very rare; the University of Toronto's copy is on microfilm, with all the inconvenience and lack of readability that that implies. Today, however, it occurred to me that it might be on Google Books, a resource that is extremely useful for out of copyright materials.

At the moment, only half of the two volume work is available on preview. Maybe volume 1 (probably Stanford University's copy) was too beat up to be scanned? Volume 1, I am sad to say, has the actual transcript of the trial -- which I recall was in Latin -- but volume 2 which is a history of a family of Scrope contains a lot of information, and includes short biographies of the witnesses at the trial (who attested to where they had seen the arms borne by the two principals). Somebody out there might be very interested in this material.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Wit and wisdom of the Hundred Years War


I am working on my translation of the Chronicle of the Good Duke and am at the part where the author's informant is remembering the Breton campaigns of the 1360s. Some memorable lines seem to have stuck in his mind.

If we are to believe the Chronicle, Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France and a Breton himself, used this local proverb to convince Duke Louis of Bourbon ("the good duke") to attack the castle of Jugon early in their joint campaign:
He who has Brittany without Jugon
Has a cloak without a hood.

The Chronicle also describes the siege of Brest, also in Brittany, where both sides were in trouble. The French outside could not find anything for their horses to eat because of continuous heavy rain; the pro-English garrison were worse off -- they were eating their horses.

The garrison commander, the famous Englishman Robert Knolles, made this observation during negotiations with his French counterparts :
You have made me eat my horses here in this castle of Brest, as I made you eat yours at the siege of Rennes; so go the changes of fortune and war.
And he didn't surrender.

Image: Brest, showing surviving fortifications, historic vessels, and modern infrastructure

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A medieval murder mystery begging to be written


It has been my experience that many medieval murder mysteries are set in the 14th century, often with the plague in the background. This makes them hardly medieval by my standards, but let that go. What you actually may be interested in is a free plot, which I found lurking on my hard disk. I think it's from a source collection on war in the later Middle Ages, but it is unlabeled. The story as we have it here is not a murder mystery, it's just a murder committed at the orders of important men in one of the great churches of England in a time of political turmoil, the year 1377 when Edward III died and his young grandson, Richard II, succeeded to the throne but not to actual power.

Robert Hawley and John Shakell, two esquires, had captured the count of Denia, a Spanish grandee, at the battle of Nájera [1367]. The count was allowed to go home on leaving his eldest son Alphonso as a hostage. In 1377 the money was said to be ready, and the English government therefore tried to get possession of the hostage. Hawley and Shakell refused to give him up, whereupon they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Some months later they escaped and took sanctuary at Westminster. The Constable of the Tower followed them in force. Shakell was recaptured; but Hawley resisted and was killed in the choir of the Abbey, during the celebration of High Mass. Shakell remained in the Tower until 1379, when he came to terms with the government, and agreed to give up his hostage in return for his own release.

There are actually lots of documents on this case, because it went on and on.

Maybe it should be a movie -- can't you see the two hardbitten squires fighting for the "Treasure of the Count of Denia?"

Image: The Choir of Westminster Abbey in 1848. In the 14th century it would have had no pews.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Congress, 2009

Kalamazoo Congress, that is.

I had more enjoyment, intellectually and socially, this time around than I can remember -- and I am a great fan of the Kalamazoo get-together. When before have I picked all good sessions and all good papers? Whenever have I had so much good companionship? I am not complaining about previous experiences, not in the slightest!

My paper on arms and law in the 1350s had the good fortune to be part of the popular De Re Militari series, and it was well attended. The response made me think that when I do write my book on Charny's Questions on War, there will be a reasonable audience for the work. Reassuring! I am also to have an opportunity to speak on the subject of my choice in two years' time. By that time, perhaps, I will have a chance to reread "The Book of the Good Duke," and come up with something of general interest from it. (Some of you may laugh at that choice, but there really is such a book, and it's good.)

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

Canterbury Tales Prologue: as it really was?



Someone over at the MEDIEV-L mailing list alerted me to this piece of art, which reminds me of the early adventurous days of rap, when I would not have been surprised to hear Plato's Republic on the radio.

It is my personal opinion that since Chaucer was 14th century writer, addressing a 14th century audience, that there is some real chance that this is the original form of the Canterbury prologue. They were weird back that, almost as weird as we are.

There's that much misused "we" word. You know what to do with such statements...

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