Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Summer books for students

I have very limited expectations that students for my fall courses are checking in on a daily basis to see what I think they should be reading this summer. But on the off chance and remembering that is not just students who drop in here, I am going to mention a couple of books that are worth knowing about.

For those who are interested in chivalry perhaps the best book on the subject, one that has been credited with reviving scholarly interest in the subject is Maurice Keen's 1984 work, Chivalry. It is one of those books that make scholarship look really good: well-organized, well-written, and full of ideas.

So you say, if this book is so darned good, why is it not on the reading list for the chivalry seminar? I'm not sure how this will sound, but when a book is this good, basing a seminar on it might be counterproductive. I'm hoping to spend most of the time in class discussing primary sources in all their variety and contradictions, rather than admiring Keen's elegant formulations based on his extremely wide reading. I am keenly (!?) aware that my students don't have unlimited funds. Our course pack and other books will cost quite enough thank you, and I'm not going to have you buy this book just because I think it would be good for you.

On the other hand, this book will be good for you, maybe, there's a good chance, so if you have it available to you, or feel like buying it, don't let me hold you back.

I have another recommendation for students think they are not going to have enough material on the Crusades in the three books required for the course on Crusade and Jihad: it's the most recent survey of all the evidence about the Crusades to the Holy Land before 1300, God's War by Christopher Tyerman. The one review I saw criticized this book for not being a suitable replacement for a 50-year-old three-volume work by Steven Runciman, whose prose and analytical skills were astonishing. That reviewer predicted that the Runciman book would continue to be assigned to students despite the virtues of Tyreman's up-to-date review of the evidence.

Me, I don't think I would recommend either Runciman or Tyerman as the primary text for an undergraduate course. Both works are just too long (Tyerman's book has nearly 1100 pages) if we really expect students to be reading a variety of materials. Nonetheless, Tyerman's work, like Runciman's, is interesting, detailed, and full of ideas. I think the real weakness of Tyerman's book, if you're thinking about a general market, is that it seems to assume a fair amount of knowledge about the general course of the Crusades to the Holy Land. This would work better as a second or third book about the Crusades than it would as an introduction.

One nice thing about Tyerman's book is that it is very cheap for a hardback of its size. If you would like to just completely immerse yourself in the Crusades, look it up at a bookseller's site and be pleasantly surprised.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Combat of the Thirty against Thirty: Cheaters?

I have just finished reading for the second or third time Maurice Keen's first book, The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages (1965). It is a testament to what a brilliant, well-trained scholar with access to the most important archives and libraries can do. Forty years later, I am unaware of any comparable book on the subject. (I'd be glad to hear of another.)

The book's title, as Keen might admit if asked, is a bit of a misnomer, at least if one is interested in the later Middle Ages themselves. The Laws of War has quite a bit to say about medieval theory and practice as a prelude to the more modern era, from Grotius on, when a recognizable "law of war" developed. The emphasis, however, is on the law of arms, which in some respects was quite a different beast. The law of arms visualized a world where Christian warriors of noble background were the protagonists in war -- not just sovereigns as later on, and the focus of the law of arms was the rights of those warriors. I've discussed this myself in the books Jousts and Tournaments (an analysis of Charny's questions about the law of arms concerning those two "sports") and Deeds of Arms (on late 14th century formal combats); see the sidebar on the home page of this blog if you are interested in the books.

Reading Keen's book again reawoke a couple of question about the famous Combat of the Thirty (against Thirty) in Brittany in the early 1350s. Two garrisons, one pro-English, one pro-French (the majority of the 60 being Bretons in any case) challenged each other to a straight-up fight in which there would be 30 on a side, no more, and no one would run away, but rather stay to be captured (for ransom) or killed. The pro-French side won, and writers in Brittany and around Europe praised them for their fortitude (in contrast for instance with the French who ran away at Poitiers a few years later).

It's a famous episode of chivalry, which many people take to mean war pursued fairly and honorably.

I've always had my doubts that the combat was as fair as modern observers would like to think. First there is the matter of the guy on horseback. The pro-French side won, when things looked grim, when one of their members mounted a horse and broke up the tight infantry formation the English had adopted and which seemed impenetrable to their opponents. It seems to me that bringing in a horse late in the game would not be "best practice" today; and indeed, as I showed in Deeds of Arms even at the time fans of the event may have thought that this was a bit dicey.

Another thing that has bothered me for a while is the return of some of the pro-French captives to the fight when the man who captured them, the opposing captain Brandebourch, was killed. This is noted without comment in a Breton account of the episode as if nothing were more natural -- the man was dead, those who had surrendered to him were free of any obligation.

The problem is that as Keen shows, that was not standard practice. If you had surrendered, even if you were rescued, you were obliged to satisfy your captor. If your captor died, his heirs inherited his rights in you.

So were these captives cheating?

It's possible that in this earlier stage of the development of the law of arms, ransom law worked differently than later, or it worked differently in Brittany, something of a wild frontier.

But I don't believe it.

The other possibility that occurs to me is that the captives were exploiting a loophole. The usual thing that happened after the immediate surrender was that a written contract setting terms for ransom was drawn up at the next opportunity. Here, that had not taken place yet. Perhaps the captives used that circumstance to justify in their own minds that a real capture hadn't been consummated. Their friends and their Breton neighbors didn't object, and we actually have no idea what anyone in England thought.

Finally, it should be said that there was a lot of room for sharp practice in medieval chivalry; your own view of what your honor (= reputation) required might give you more or less room to play with the rules -- and the men at the Combat were mostly pretty modest men.

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