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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