Sunday, February 21, 2010

"The customer is always right" goes out the window in France

Or to be fair to what is really a very large country, one corner of France.

I have to admit I was somewhat shocked by the stupidity/rabble rousing revealed in this news report from Al Jazeera English. When you hear that Muslims in Europe will not integrate with the older population, remember this.

Where are those terrifyingly threatening backward baseball caps, anyway?

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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

Celebrity intellectuals

If you want to be known world-wide as wise and insightful, being wise and insightful is not enough -- or maybe even necessary. Consider the case of Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosopher currently being pummeled for making a dumb mistake in public. From Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed.: :
Ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu coined a term for certain French intellectuals whose writings counted for less than their TV appearances. He called them “ les fast-thinkers.” Everyone knew who the sociologist had in mind as the prototype of this phenomenon. Long before the American public got used to hearing references to J-Lo and K-Fed, the French press had dubbed him BHL. His books, movies, TV appearances, political interventions, and romances have been a staple of the French media for more than three decades. But only in the past five years has he become as much a fixture in the U.S. media as the French....

The role of the intellectual as famous, full-time spokesman for the Universal is well-established in France. It began with Voltaire and culminated in Sartre, its last great exemplar. (Not that other philosophers have not emerged in the meantime, of course, but none has occupied quite the same position.) From time to time, Lévy has mourned the passing of this grand tradition, while hinting, not too subtly, that it lives on in him. Clearly there is a steady French market for his line in historical reenactments of intellectual engagement.

It seems surprising, though, to find the BHL brand suddenly being imported to these shores after years of neglect -- particularly during a decade when Francophobia has become a national sport.

But like the song says, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Lévy has capitalized on American ambivalence towards France -- the potential of fascination to move from “-phobia” to “-philia” -- by performing a certain role. He is, in effect, the simulacrum of Sartre, minus the anti-imperialism and neo-Marxism.

“Lévy plays on both registers,” explains Goldhammer. “At the height of anti-French feeling in the U.S., in the period just before the Iraq War, he positioned himself as a philo-American. He made himself the avenger of Daniel Pearl. Arrogant he might be, airily infuriating in just the right way to confirm the philistine's loathing of the abstract and abstruse that philosophy is taken to embody, and yet there he was, pouring scorn on "Islamofascism" and touring the country with the New Yorker reader's nonpareil Francophile, Adam Gopnik.... Lévy chose his moment well. He insinuated himself into the American subconscious by playing against type.”

"Historical reenactments of intellectual engagement." Wow! That is the most cutting thing I've heard since...ever. This implicit characterization of life at the "top" of the intellectual "heap" (or is it "intellectual" heap?) may console you for not being part of this particular club.

Image: Voltaire -- bad example?

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Unhappy; or, what's the matter with kids today?

A certain number of people in France think they are unhappy about Muslim immigrants and their children for not fitting in to the French way of life. I am not so sure that their self-diagnosis is correct.

The issue that everyone is talking about is the government policy forbidding women -- Muslim women -- from wearing in many public places veils of various sorts and more concealing garments like the burqa. Although there are about 5 million Muslims in France, it is estimated that only a few thousand or maybe even a few hundred women actually wear these things. Yet the government is rolling out the big guns against them.

It was when I read the Globe and Mail report about the wider context of this move that I began to doubt that Islam is really that central to this feeling of France is on the wrong track. Look at these quotations and you tell me:

The public hearing [part of a government-sponsored national debate] was called to discuss one question: What does it mean to be French? It got off to a rocky start...

The next speaker wanted to talk about globalization. “Kids today,” he said, as people around him rolled their eyes, “identify more with Michael Jackson and Madonna than with France."


The French have also been uninhibited in their response to the call for debate, with more than 40,000 comments posted in the first month on the government's national identity website. About 6 per cent, according to the Immigration Ministry, were racist or hateful enough to be removed.

The posts that remain run the gamut from quotations from 19th-century French philosophers to rants about immigrants.

“France has become a colony of Africa,” wrote one contributor. To be truly French, wrote another, one must have “French blood” from both parents “and going back several generations.” Others said all schoolchildren should be required to memorize the Marseillaise and to sing it, on pain of punishment, at least once a week.


Nadine Morano, the junior minister for family affairs, has tried to backtrack for days after she was filmed at another debate advising young French Muslims how to fit in. “What I want,” she said, “is that they love France when they live in this country, they get a job, they not use slang … and not wear their caps back to front.”

I absolutely love the junior minister's remarks about the characteristics of all powerful, unstoppable, heritage-endangering Islam. If you somehow missed that in the last paragraph, that dangerous foreign religion apparently consists of:

Hating France

Not getting a job

Using slang

Wearing [baseball] caps back to front.

Straight out of the Arabian desert in the seventh century! I might buy some of this had I not been a teenager in the 60s, when I was told that wearing jeans to school and growing your hair too long made you some kind of outlaw. Same, same.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Squires or esquires?

Here is an experiment in polling your potential audience, expert and amateur.

I am currently writing a book on 14th century military affairs. I talk a lot about "squires" or "esquires." I am not sure which word to use.

The early 14th century was a period when "squire/esquire" went from meaning "a military servant, usually lightly armed" to meaning "a lesser gentleman warrior" of the kind who had substantial equipment and might have been a knight bachelor in an earlier era. At least this seems to have happened in the Anglo-French world. Although there seem to have been a few squires/esquires hanging around in the mid-14th century who were not considered gentlemen, my sources show that they mostly were gentleman, quite distinct from other military servants like sergeants or valets, even when the latter had some armor and were considered effective fighters.

I am very interested in hearing from you about which word seems more suitable to you, and why. I would appreciate it if you answered in my comment section here, rather than on Facebook.

I would appreciate expert opinion, but if you consider yourself an ordinary reader don't hold back.

goofy gamer squires.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Now that I'm back from a family trip to Oklahoma, I've managed to push chapter 2 of Men at Arms up past the 4000 word mark. Wish me luck for tomorrow...

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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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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Word frequency in Charny's Questions on War

Courtesy of Wordle ( I made a word cloud showing what words Charny used in his war questions. Click on the image to see the Wordle at proper size.

I am not surprised that "Charny" and "arms" are big; but I am rather taken aback by the size of "prisoner" and the near invisibility of "knight."

Wordle: Charny's Questions on War

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A new translation of the Menagier de Paris

An excerpt of the review on the e-mail list, TMR-L (The Medieval Review), a useful and timely resource you can subscribe to free.

Greco, Gina L. and Christine M. Rose, translators. The Good
Wife's Guide (Le Menagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 384. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-

Reviewed by Kate Kelsey Staples
West Virginia University

According to the fourteenth-century Le Menagier de Paris, the key to being a good wife included these edifying directives: "be your husband and to his commandments, whatever they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest" (104); "choose rather to please your husband than yourself, because his happiness must come before yours" (104); "it is through good obeisance that a wise woman
obtains her husband's love and, in the end, receives from him what she desires" (119); "protect [your future husband] from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant, and peaceful with him"(139); "steer clear of swaggering and idle young men who live beyond their means and who, possessing no land or lineage, become dancers" (94). While perhaps shocking to modern sensibilities, or comical in turn, this fascinating and relatively understudied text overflows with suggestions for a woman's obedience, attention to reputation, proper piety, and correct conduct. The anonymous author also advises his audience, presumably his young wife, on the practicalities household management: when to transplant cabbage (212), how to delegate tasks to servants (section 2.3), in what ways to tend to ropy, musty, and moldy wine (221), and how to care for horses (223-228). Completing the manual of instruction is a rich selection of cooking menus and a guide to buying spices and foodstuffs, continuing the practical nature of the guidebook.

As the first modern English translation of Le Menagier de Paris, this edition makes a gem of a text accessible beyond French literary courses. With their clear translation, Gina Greco, Associate Professor of French, and Christine Rose, Professor of English, both at Portland State University, open spaces for discussion of the composition of the late medieval household, the reading practices of the bourgeoisie, late medieval culture, culinary practices, and women's history, more generally.

One of the greatest attributes of this edition is that Greco and Rose present Le Menagier de Paris as we may expect it to have originally appeared. There are only three surviving fifteenth-century manuscripts and one early sixteenth-century manuscript; the original is lost (2). The modern scholarly Middle French edition (Brereton and Ferrier, 1981) omits three sections of the text that appear in the
manuscripts: the Griselda tale, the Melibee tale, and Jacques Bruyant's Le Chemin de povrete et richesse (here, too, appear the first modern English translations of the latter two texts). Karin Ueltschi's Middle French and Modern French facing-page translation (1994) includes the tales of Griselda and Melibee, but consigns Le
poem to an appendix. As the translators rightfully point out, presenting it without these texts or in an alternate order, even if they were not originally compiled by the author, does a disservice to understanding reading practices, the author's goals, and household composition in late medieval France (5)...

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Geoffroi de Charny, VIP

Those of us who have read and enjoyed Geoffroi de Charny's 1350s treatise The Book of Chivalry quite naturally think that he was a pretty important guy. But while writing the introduction for my book Men at Arms it really hit home to me how an extraordinary a figure he was.

In evaluating the past it is sometimes hard to avoid overrating people who wrote or were written about in surviving, high quality works. Plato's had lots of followers; but what would you think if you were in a position to meet him in 4th century BC Athens? Just another "I am not a sophist" rich boy crank? (Am I giving away too much here?)

So in thinking about Charny I have sometimes leaned towards thinking that he was a sometimes-tiresome pedant whom the other knights and courtiers used to tease by asking him hard questions about chivalry, and then not listening to his sometimes overlong answers. That could be Charny.

However, looking closely at the not-very-extensive evidence for his life, I have come to the conclusion that not too many people ever ignored G. de C.

First, everyone agrees that Charny started out as an "obscure" knight and not a rich one. His early campaigns, starting around the age of 30 (in other words, not a raw kid), saw him leading a small retinue made up only of squires. He himself was a bachelier who did not quite dare to call himself a chevalier and the title does not seem to have been offered him for some years. He may have had a certain amount of good will among the more important people due to old family connections, but as William Marshal had found out earlier, this does not reliably pay the bills.

Nonetheless, consider these facts. Starting about 1347-8, Charny was given high command on the northern front (the region of Calais), a role he played off and on until fall of 1352. At one point he was called Captain General of the wars of Picardy and the frontiers of Normandy, a pretty exalted title and a pretty exalted role. Correct me if I am wrong, but this is the kind of position you might put a prince in. If you, as king, had a good reliable prince.

Another fact: When in the course of his duties Charny was captured and carted off to England, the King of France (eventually) bought him back for 12,000 ecus, one heck of a lot of money when the French crown was strapped for cash and always on the lookout for ways to save money. My conclusion: King Jean II felt he desperately needed Charny back.

Finally, the clincher. In the mid-1350s, the King's cousin Charles the Bad of Navarre, a man who thought he had as good a claim to the French throne as Jean, was making a lot of trouble, relying on his royal descent, his strong position in strategic Normandy, and his natural talent for intrigue. He was hard to handle -- that family conflict thing, acted out by two guys with crowns on their heads. When this touchy situation had to be resolved, who did Jean send to talk to Bad Charles? Who got to hear all the dirty secrets of the dynasty retailed? Well, a whole delegation, but among them was the formerly obscure Geoffroi de Charny.

You see what I mean.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Women and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Jonathan Jarrett directs me to the blog Bavardess, which I have missed up till now. Its author has an interesting post on the role of women in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, saying, among other things:
While most historical accounts up until the 1980s (at least) discuss the revolt as an almost wholly male enterprise, source documents including trial records and pardons show women were very much active participants, and even instigators and organisers of rebellion.
At left, for example, is an extract from a commission of Oyer and Terminer (‘hear and determine’) held in Essex directly after the revolt to seek out those responsible. Amongst the people accused of riding armed through the countryside and inciting the commons to rise against the king is one “Nichola Cartere who was lately taken as wife by William Dekne of South Benfleet”*. In another case, records from the court of King’s Bench describe Johanna Ferrour as the “chief perpetrator and leader” of a rebel group from Kent who burnt the Savoy and executed Sudbury and Hales**[an extraordinarily important episode--SM].
A good insight -- and there is more good stuff about the gendered language of revolt in the original post. When it comes to women's participation, I am reminded of how much the Peasants' Revolt reminds me of the earliest stages of the French Revolution of 1789. John Ball's list of demands makes me think that he would've loved The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And of course 1789 was famous for the inspiring/scandalous political participation of women, which was not unprecedented even if they went much farther in 1789.

Then there is Tehran, 1979 and 2009, both times when women's initiative was/has been a key factor...

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Machaut: a 14th century poet/composer remembered on Mercury

A towering talent, Guillaume Machaut dominated French poetry and music in his time. (Bigger than the Beatles?) This is a new, more detailed view of the crater on Mercury named after him, taken by the MESSENGER probe, part of a new picture collection on the Big Picture.

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Men-at-arms and flags: the trial of Joan of Arc

One purpose of the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431 was to convict her of sorcery or heresy. I am not sure what the following questions were meant to prove but it seems likely that the court was trying to find some superstitious practices associated with banners that they could use against her. Joan sharply rebutted all of these questions, so it is hard to say that any such practices took place in her case. However, the ecclesiastical court must have got their ideas from someplace.

All the question that follow were put to Joan by court officers or judges.

Asked if, when her King set her to work and she had her standard made, the other men-at-arms did not have pennons made in the manner and following the example of her opinion, she replied: "It is well known that lords use their own arms." Item, she also said that some of her companions-at-arms did have pennons at their pleasure but others did not.

Asked of what material they had them made, whether this was of linen or of woolen cloth, she answered that it was of white satin, and on some there were fleurs-de-lys. And Joan only had two or three lances in her company, but her companions-in-arms sometimes had pennons made resembling hers and they did this only to distinguish their men from others.

Asked if the pennons were very often renewed, she replied: "I do not know. When the lances were broken, new ones were made."

Asked if she had sometimes said that the pennons made to resemble hers were more fortunate, she answered that sometimes she certainly did say to her men: "Drive boldly into the English," and she herself would go there.

Asked if she had told them to bear the pennons boldly and that they would have good fortune, she replied that she had indeed told them what happened and what would happen again.

Asked if she put, or had holy water put on the pennons when they were first taken up, she answered: "I do not know anything about that. And if was done, it was not by my command."

Asked if she did not see them sprinkled with holy water, she replied: "That is not part of your trial [i.e. this is irrelevant to the case -- SM] . If I had seen it done, I am not now advised [by her voices -- SM] to answer."

Asked if her companions-in-arms did not have the names "Jhesus Maria" written on their pennons, she answered: "By my faith, I do not know anything of this."

Asked if she went around an altar or a church with pieces of cloth to be made into pennons, or had others go around in a kind of procession, she replied no and that she had never seen it.

Asked what it was she wore at the back of her helmet when she was before the town of Jargeau, and if it was something round, she answered: "By my faith, there was nothing."

Taylor, ed. Joan of Arc: La Pucelle, pages 168-9.

Image: Joan's Standard (top) Pennon (left bottom) and Banner (right bottom) from the St. Joan Center.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Joan of Arc and military prudence

Another anonymous clerical writer uses arguments from her military performance, and of those following her, to support the miraculous nature of her victory (1429).

The following circumstances may be added in favor of our cause.

Firstly that the Council of the King and the men at arms could have been led to believe in the voice of this Pucelle in such a manner, and to obey her in such a way that, under her command and with one heart, they exposed themselves to the dangers of war, ignoring all fear of dishonor. What could have happened if, fighting under a young woman, they had been vanquished by such audacious enemies and they had been derided by all who heard of this?

Let us consider at the end the fact that this Pucelle and her military followers do not dismiss the path of human prudence; they act according to what is in them, so that it appears that they did not tempt God more than is necessary. From this it follows that this Pucelle is not obstinate in her adhesion to her leadership and also that she does not go beyond the instructions and inspirations that she attributes to God.

Taylor, ed. Joan of Arc: La Pucelle, pages 80-1.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Geoffroi de Charny to the courtesy phone!

So we can get him to comment on this slam by an anonymous clerical lawyer against Joan of Arc for claiming divine revelations. Aimed at Joan, there is plenty of sting left for other men-at-arms.

... if the mission of this young girl is prophetic, she should be a person with excellent saintliness and [have] a divine soul inside her; and it would seem indecent that such a person should transform themselves into a secular man-at-arms.

The writer is mainly talking about Joan dressing as a man, but I think old Geoffroy would take offense anyway; unless, of course, he too got distracted by the clothing. Readers of his Book of Chivalry will have to admit that this would be possible.

Taylor, ed. Joan of Arc: La Pucelle, page 117.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Jean d'Aulon's testimony: a story of Joan of Arc

Three years ago, Craig Taylor of the University of York published a book of translated sources on the life of Joan of Arc (Joan of Arc: La Pucelle). I am now reading that book for a variety of reasons -- I may try to teach from it the year after next.

Here is a story of Joan at the siege of Orleans of 1429, as told by one of her companions at her second trial (the "nullification trial" of 1456, which overturned the verdict of the first one in 1431). This is not exactly verbatim testimony, since it was summarized and turned into Latin by a court clerk, but I think those of you who are interested in accounts of medieval warfare will like this.

Aulon was the standard bearer of Joan [La Pucelle, or "the Maid"] and the fighting took place in front of a bulwark or "boulevard."

... the lords and the captains who were with her, seeing that they could not well gain it this day, considering how late it was and also that they were all very tired and worn out, agreed among them to sound the retreat for the army. This was done, and, at the sound of the trumpet call, each one retreated for the day. During this retreat, [Aulon] who had been carrying the standard of the Pucelle and still holding it upright in front of the boulevard was fatigued and worn-out, and gave the standard to one named Le Basque, who was with the Lord of Villars. And because [Aulon] knew Le Basque to be a brave man, and he feared that harm would come from the retreat, and that the fortress and the Boulevard would remain in the hands of the enemy, he had the idea that if the standard were pushed ahead, due to the great affection in which it was held by the soldiers, they could by this means win the boulevard. And then [Aulon] asked Le Basque if he would follow him when he entered and went to the foot of the boulevard; he said and swore he would this. And then [Aulon] entered the ditch and went up to the base of the side of the Boulevard, covering himself with a shield for fear of the stones, of discontent on the other side, believing that he would following step-by-step Boulevard, covering himself with a shield for fear the stones, and left his companion on the other side, believing that he would follow him step-by-step. but when the Pucelle saw her standard in the hand of Le Basque, because she believed that she had lost it, as [Aulon] who had been carrying it had gone into the trench, she came and took the standard by the end in such a way that he had to let it go, crying, "Ha! My standard! My standard!" And she shook the standard in such a way that the one who is testifying imagined that others might think that she was making a sign to the others by doing this. And then he who was speaking cried: "Ha, Basque! Is this what you promised me?" And then Le Basque tugged at the standard that he dragged it from the hand of the Pucellw, and after this, he went to [Aulon] and brought the standard. Because of these things, all those in the army of the Pucelle gathered together and rallied again, assailed this boulevard in such great fierceness that, a short time afterwards, the boulevard and the fortress were taken by them, and abandoned by the enemy, and the French entered the city of Orleans by the bridge

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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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