Friday, September 12, 2008

My article on The Combat of Thirty against Thirty is out

This week I was informed that my article "The Combat of Thirty against Thirty," which is based on a conference paper of 2005, is now available from Brill in the collection
The Hundred Years War (part II): Different Vistas, edited by Andrew L.J. Villalon and Donald J. Kagay. It's always nice to be published, but being included in a classy Brill collection has its drawbacks. Brill aims at the research library market and their books are priced accordingly: $175 US in this case.

This pretty much guarantees the book will not find its way onto the shelves of private individuals.

If, however, you are desperate to hear the latest word on the Combat of the Thirty against Thirty, you have two alternatives. You can buy my recent book Deeds of Arms, which has a whole chapter on the same incident (or get your university or public library to buy it). Or, quicker and cheaper yet: follow the tag "Combat of the Thirty" at the end of this post and see what I've already said here.

Image: I failed twice to paste in an acceptable image of "Different Vistas" so I'm just going with Deeds of Arms.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Pennsic War

During my recent vacation I attended, as I usually do, the SCA's Pennsic War. The Society for Creative Anachronism or SCA is a very large medieval re-creation group -- not a reenactment group because it does not reenact specific events of the Middle Ages, but has created its own Middle Ages for fun. The Pennsic War to give an example is fought between two SCA kingdoms, the Middle Kingdom and the East Kingdom, and their allies, none of which you will find on a map of Europe in any era. Wrapped around this war, which is by far the largest SCA event on the calendar, are a large number of organized and spontaneous activities, martial, educational, and artistic -- not to mention the parties and the various efforts to survive in what is essentially a tent city of 10,000 people or more.

I could go on for a long time trying to convey the Pennsic experience, but I will restrict my remarks to a few. First, reenactment. If neither Pennsic nor the SCA are primarily meant as reenactments, a fact that earns them scorn from many people who are aiming at reenactment, there are moments of reenactment nonetheless. At this Pennsic war I was able to witness attempts to re-create or reenact, with differing levels of accuracy, to deeds of arms of the 14th century which I have written about in scholarly venues, the Combat of the 30 against 30 that took place in Brittany in 1351, and the deeds of arms at Vannes, also in Brittany, of 1381. (The image above shows a few of the French 30 preparing for the combat.) Though one could easily stand back and list deficiencies in these reenactments, I found them enjoyable and even educational. (Here's my kvetch: Armor fans will note in the image above that the participants in this annual event tend to favor late- rather than mid-14th century armor. And many of them seem to be armored like princes instead of mercenary scum.)

More interesting even than the recreations and reenactments of the Middle Ages is the is a freewheeling modern-medievalist (?) culture of Pennsic. Two small examples will give an impression, I hope.

The first is the Pennsic rune stone. Long ago (1981), some SCA members from the American Midwest tried to express what the martial competitions at Pennsic, which are vigorous and sometimes painful but seldom really dangerous, meant to them. They did it in mock- Viking style by erecting stone monument. It is pictured above. The inscription, which I offer without comment, says:

In memory of Pennsic X.
In war we test our honor, courage and strength.
Let no man strike in anger.
Let no man lie in pain.

The work was done by Lars the Fierce, now a professional potter, who still attends Pennsic.

My second example is newer than the rune stone: it is a Turkish-style coffeehouse called Your Inner Vagabond, which is dedicated to the pleasures that can be achieved with such legal stimulants as coffee, sugar, chocolate, and all the spices of the silk road. Not to mention occasional music and dance. The IV, as the worst addicts call it, has been such a success that it now has a permanent location in Pittsburgh, about an hour from Pennsic site. The on-site location is now considerably bigger than shown in the picture above, which is two years old.

Usually my time at Pennsic is entirely devoted to nonliterate pursuits. I tend to avoid the printed page, and I entirely avoid the glowing screen. But this year I did something I've never done at Pennsic before: I wrote a lecture (on the Second Crusade). And I did it while sitting in the Inner Vagabond and sampling its wares. It was pure pleasure.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Combat of the Thirty against Thirty re-enactment

At the recent SCA Pennsic War, there was a re-enactment of the 1351 challenge between 30 French/Breton men at arms and 30 English. An entire chapter of my book Deeds of Arms is devoted to this episode, and a 19th century translation of a contemporary Breton account , Froissart's somewhat later account, and a 15th-century Scots version are available at one of my web sites.

This site by Eirik Andersen has a very impressive collection of portraits of the re-enactors,
shots of their armor, and action shots. Since there are 160+ photos, I suggest you use the slideshow function and go back to individual pictures you might be interested in.

Thanks to Will McLean for inspiring this post. I'll add to his comment by saying that none of the re-enacting "Bretons" who in real life won the combat seem to have identified themselves as such.

Image: an interpretation of a mid-fourteenth century English squire, "Richard Larmer."

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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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