Monday, March 02, 2009

This is what it was like



A hot moment in Kyrgyzstan's Kok-boru Presidential Cup.

I don't know what the rules of Kok-boru are, but if you like me have read the History of William Marshal, or even read about it, you just know that this is what the 12th-century tournaments recorded in that source were like.

From the Big Picture. And speaking of big pictures, click on the one above.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Greatest Knight: William Marshal on TV in the UK

I've been told that a documentary called The Greatest Knight will be on the series Timewatch, BBC2, on Jan. 19.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

An excerpt from the History of William Marshal (trans. Gregory)


The tournament assembled,

And none that had ever gone before

resembled this,

nor ever before were so many blades and shafts

put into serviced in a single day,

for matters were so arranged

that the winner of a challenge took all,

so that each man was looking out for his own fame and glory.

The opening contests lasted a short time.

The large companies and battalions

came together savagely

and with great ostentation,

neither side fearing the other in the least.

When the companies clashed,

the crush of battle was on such a scale

that the field was soon so covered

with lances and splinters

that there was not so much as a way through

to spur on their horses

without being encumbered.

The tournament was a fully-pitched battle,

and was there a better seen.

In many spots there were skirmishes,

and the land around was so drowned by the sound of lance and

sword, and of helmets resounding

from the hefty blows meted out by both sides

that any man present would not have heard

God thundering, assuming that He had,

nor been aware of it;

there were no weaklings on that field.

The count of Saint-Pol was taken there

by the bridle of his horse,

but the worthy Marshal,

like the valiant knight he was, rescued him

from the hands of seven and more who were striving

to do him injury and were leading him away.

On that field the cowards stayed behind.

There you would have seen many a banner

soiled in the mud and trampled on,

and many a knight trampled on too

when they were knocked to the ground.

But the saying used to go that

the brave and the valiant are to be sought

often between the hooves of horses,

for never will cowards fall down there,

never will they so hate their lives

as to be willing to join the fray;

they take care not to do themselves injury,

they have no wish to get involved in that.

There you would have seen knights taken and horses won and lost.

Any man who was able to take another man's bridle

strove with might and main to hold on to him,

and the other did just as much to stave him off,

to join battle with him and defend himself.

At that point, any man wishing to separate the two

by negotiation would have had little success,

for words would have been no use whatever.

To sum up, so much I will say,

that on that day so many feats of arms were performed

that it was a true marvel;

indeed, all marvelled

where so many excellent knights had come from

to sustain such a tournament.

But it was a well known fact,

and plain for all to see,

that on that day the Marshal

performed many more feats of arms by far in combat

than any other man who had come there.

No matter how many of them were amassed, as soon as he launched himself into the fray,

he overwhelmed them

so with mighty blows

that they all withdrew.


Image: William Marshal in action, as drawn by Matthew Paris (13th c.)

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Monday, July 23, 2007

The History of William Marshal: the future

The Anglo-Norman Text Society has put out a pricey if very good edition and translation of the classic account of 12th century chivalry and 13th century politics, the History of William Marshal. (I've reproduced the order form here.) The question has been asked, will there ever be a cheaper version? According to a note from Ian Short at Birbeck College, London, posted on the MEDIEV-L forum, yes, eventually:

Yes; we do have plans to re-issue our edition and translation of William Marshall in a more accessible form. We need, however, first to ensure that we sell all of our
first specialist print-run, as we are a learned society and not a commercial publisher.

So now you know. When this will happen I suspect even the ANTS doesn't know.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

William Marshal, in my library

I am now the proud owner of the full new edition and translation of the History of William Marshal issued by the Anglo-Norman Text Society. As to why I am so pleased, and why you might want to consider acquiring it yourself, see my earlier discussion of the History.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Chaucer's Knight by Terry Jones


Some years back I read parts of Terry Jones' Chaucer's Knight; only this week did I actually read it through.

I can see why people get slightly unhinged discussing it; nevertheless, I liked it more than I thought I would.

Jones says that the usual 20th century understanding of the figure of the Knight in The Canterbury Tales is as "a personification of the ideals of knighthood," a character presented straight and not at all as the target of satire; also that the tale he tells to the other pilgrims, The Knight's Tale (not the basis for the movie) is also a straight story representing Chaucer's understanding and valuation of chivalry. Jones disagrees. He thinks that the Knight is a roughneck mercenary of low status who presents himself as a crusader but whose military career is marked by participation in campaigns of dubious worth, even by 14th century standards. The Knight's Tale when reconsidered in that light "emerges...as a hymn to tyranny, dressed-up in the rags of a chivalric romance." (What a great line!)

I admit that I find it easy enough to believe that Jones is right, that the Knight is not nearly as respectable as he would like to appear, and that the other pilgrims and the original readers of the book would have seen right through him. I know from my own work and teaching-related research that knighthood and crusading both were controversial topics at just about any time. The real problem with Jones' argument is -- Jones' argument.

For instance, in making the case that the Knight is not quite what he seems, Jones notes that he has few retainers, a Squire and a Yeoman. Does it ever occur to him that maybe Chaucer gave him these two retainers because he didn't want extraneous valets and other servants hanging around the company? Jones comes across as a pretty smart guy, surely this must have occurred to him at some point.

What I really think is weak (and here I follow better scholars) is the way Jones contrasts "mercenaries" like the Knight with "real feudal knights." The division between nobles who fought for religion or duty or loyalty and low-born scum who insisted on being paid cash and had to present horses for inspection lest they cheat the people who paid for well-equipped men-at-arms, this division goes against everything we know about 14th century armies and their organization. In every well-organized army, everyone got paid, everyone had contracts, everyone was subject to inspection of mount and equipment. And noble tournaments were filled with people willing to argue about the rules, even the noblest did it.

Jones' book has caused a lot of excitement over the years because the issue is not just whether the Knight was "a verray, parfit gentil knyght" (a phrase of great complexity) but also whether being a "parfit knyght" was a good thing to be. Jones, as those of you who have seen his Crusades series know, comes down on the skeptical side. Oddly, however, he still seems to have the idea that sometime well before Chaucer's time there were knights with a feudal set of values that was more worthwhile than the plundering mentality of the Hundred Years War. Well, I think that Chaucer's Knight, even as Jones presents him, would have fit very nicely in the world of William Marshal.

Image: Above,Chaucer's Knight as portrayed in one of our earliest and best manuscripts, the Ellesmere ms. Below, the whole first page of the Knight's Tale. What a beauty.



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Thursday, March 08, 2007

History of William Marshal now complete in English translation

William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke is one of history's most famous knights on the basis of an early verse biography that very few people have read.

Despite the fact that the History of William Marshal tells us most of what we know about early French melee tournaments, and that it preserves the memories of a man who knew every English king between Stephen and Henry III, only those who are proficient in 12th century French and have access to a scarce 19th century edition have been able to read the work. The rest of us have had to rely on summaries by various modern scholars. Those scholars include some of the best in the field, but still.

Recently the Anglo-Norman Text Society has been publishing an edition and English translation in three volumes: two of the poem itself as edited by A.J. Holden and translated by S. Gregory, and the third volume of commentary and notes by D. Crouch. Volume 3 has just come out, completing the set.

I bought volume 1 a couple of years back because I'm interested in early tournaments, but I was impressed by the richness of the source. Anyone interested in researching early Plantagenet history will want to read it.

The books are not easy to find. They don't show up on the US version of Amazon, for instance. Therefore I am including ordering information from the form sent me by the publisher:

Anglo-Norman Text Society, Birbeck College
Malet Street, LONDON WC1E 7HX, GREAT BRITAIN

Send me ......... copy/copies of volume I/II/III of the History of William Marshal @ 35 pounds (members of the ANTS) or 49 pounds + 4.50 pounds p. & p. for each volume. I enclose total payment of ......... (cheque payable to "Anglo-Norman Text Society" in sterling only).

Name:

Address:



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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The joy of battle in the History of William Marshal

For next week's Chivalry seminar I had originally assigned a section from the History of William Marshal on the Battle of Lincoln (1217, in living memory for the author). Like the Song of Roland, our main text for next Monday, there is a lot of talking before and during battle, of an encouraging and boastful sort. Going through the History again, though, I was struck by this passage:

16321 [William Marshal] told the bowmen to make sure to

spread themselves out in a long line,

so that, when the French arrived,

16324 their horses would be killed under them.

The Marshal then asked for

two hundred soldiers and ordered them

to be ready to kill

16328 their own horses with their knives,

so as to be able to take shelter behind them,

if necessary, in an emergency.

All those who listened to the earl

16332 displayed their joy

and disported themselves as merrily

as if they were at a tournament.


William is telling his troops that they are in for a real fight. They will be killing horses instead of taking them as prizes, and they'll even slaughter their own if they need to.

The reaction? Joy.


Source for the passage: De Re Militari.

Source for the photo: A Polish reenactment event described here.


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