Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Another Charny question?

In my research and translation of Charny questions, I have been working mainly from the Michael Taylor (Chapel Hill) edition. Recently I've been looking more closely at the Belgian edition by Rossbach. Not only does the Rossbach edition have an answer to one of the questions, it has a question unknown to Taylor! If it were in the Taylor edition it would be war question 80A, and if Rossbach had included it in his edition as a confirmed part of the text, it would be question 121A. The fact that Rossbach did not include this question in his main text makes me think he doubted that it was genuine Charny. And after all only appears in one manuscript.

Here is my translation of the question:

Charny asks:

Men at arms fight in the field against their enemies and it happens that one of the men at arms of those who have the upper hand takes another man at arms and he who is taken surrenders to the one who is taken him and gives faith as his prisoner. But very soon the party of the prisoner has the better of it and defeats the others and takes the field, and the prisoner, who sees his party get the upper hand attacks his enemies and takes two or three of them and makes them swear to be prisoners and gives them a day [on which to pay ransom]. Those come on their day and demand of the captain of the one to whom they had sworn by the law of arms saying that they should not be held to be prisoners to him who on that day had [been?] a prisoner, notwithstanding that he is able dispute that because of the rescue he ought to be free; and the first one taken says that they are his prisoners, for he was rescued. And many good arguments are given on one side or the other. How will it be judged by the law of arms?
Note that this is the only Charny question where a captain or other authority figure is identified as presiding over a case by the law of arms.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Froissart lives!

Will McLean says:
Eric Jager's The Last Duel (New York, 2004) is written in the spirit of Froissart. And I don't mean it in a good way. I mean that just like Froissart, Jager likes to present a vivid and compelling narrative full of convincing detail, and he doesn't mind making stuff up to do it.

And then Will goes on, correctly, to critique Jager's account of "the big fight scene" as a modern, uninformed fantasy.

Now I thought the book was OK in general, but I think that representatives of the (major) publisher had a lot of input into its shape. Note the long list of such reps at the head of the book. It's a simple enough story that I don't think it needed so much massaging by people with no particular historical expertise.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Problems and disasters -- and a piece on India's democratic achievement

Sometime in the last few years I came to the conclusion that one's life may usefully be divided into two parts, one where you're beset with a few or many problems which just seemed to soak up all of your time. This is most of your life. Then something really bad happens and that's it.

If this is a useful insight, it means you better enjoy the times when you have lots of problems.

Right now is one of those times for me. Not including family commitments that right now are taking up a certain amount of time and energy -- e.g., a trip to the Big Smoke (Toronto) and back in one day--I have got a lot on my plate. Just this week on the scholarly front, I wrote and had an abstract accepted for a major conference (the creative energy for one day used up, admittedly to good purpose), and then got an acceptance of a chapter I proposed for a book on the history of democracy, just as I was finally writing about, rather than reading and rereading material about, 14th century men at arms for my book on Charny's questions. That acceptance qualifies as a problem because the chapter, on ancient India's democracies, must be done by September 30th.

These are problems, you say? Stop whining, Muhlberger, you say; better yet, stop showing off! You have (you might rightly say) three good projects on the burner. And you are on sabbatical.

All too true. I am just concerned that something might get burned, or undercooked, on that stove. From where I sit, there don't seem to be too many working days before September 30th.

Problems, problems. But at the moment, no disasters.

I have to admit that I'm very pleased to be included in this book, which is entitled The Secret History of Democracy. Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I am interested in current democratic movements. It may be less obvious that I have tried, generally working with Phil Paine, to see democracy as not something restricted to just a few countries in the modern era. I have a World History of Democracy website, which you are welcome to visit; to get a taste of my particular perspective on world history and democratic history, see the short excerpt of a paper I gave in Delhi in April 2005 that I've put it at the end of this post. There is plenty of room to disagree with me or ask for clarification. That is what the comment section is for.

Imagine the world in 1900.

Informed observers examine the prospects of four important regions over the upcoming century: Germany, China, Russia, and India. Which would be picked as the most likely to succeed? And which has, in retrospect? Restrict the criterion of success to “lowest casualty count,” to my mind a more sensible criterion than per capita GDP. Who comes out ahead?

I think it is inarguable that, even keeping in mind the tragedies of Partition, the consequent wars on the subcontinent, and many other incidents of violence and disorder, that the casualty count has been much lower in India than in the other three. This alone is a significant fact of 20th century world history. But of equal importance is the explanation for that fact. Indian aspirations for democracy, and Indian implementation of democratic institutions deserve the credit. Again, do the thought experiment. Take away the aspiration, take away the implementation, what would the subcontinent look like today?

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Friday, September 14, 2007

The Coutumes De Beauvaisis of Philippe De Beaumanoir, trans. by Akehurst

Last month I decided that I needed to see what this book, a summary of legal doctrine and procedure in one north French province, said about warfare. When I got hold of this translation of Beaumanoir's Customs of the Beauvaisis I found that I couldn't put it down. Legal texts of any era are not usually my favorite reading, but this had so much personality. I probably ended up reading two thirds of this heavy tome, without complaint.

One warning: given the scholarly debates around the terms vassal and fief I found it rather unfortunate that the translator was not absolutely clear what Old French terms he was translating when he used these English words.

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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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