Friday, December 03, 2010

Charny on retreating and surrendering -- my attempt to understand him

An excerpt from work in progress:

Scenarios involving retreating or surrendering or both appear in a conservative estimate in eleven of Charny's questions on war. It is clear from several of them that anything resembling running away might be interpreted as blameworthy. Question W30 says :
There is a battle …in which many men-at-arms of the defeated party depart and go away. Some consider that these have gone on their honor without being defeated; and many others consider that those who have gone are defeated. How can this be?
Judgments vary, but elsewhere we see that if the judgment was adverse, if one was thought to have been "fleeing" to one's "dishonor," it was so serious that some might think it would wipe out a lifetime of renown (W39). What distinguished dishonorable flight from the "safe and honorable withdrawal" which Charny thought all good men-at-arms needed to learn to execute? Of course we have no correct answer to this, just indications about how serious the dilemma was. For instance, in W31 we have a story that shows what problems arise when good military practice and the perception that one is fleeing conflict:
A captain of men-at-arms rides out in the field and orders some of his scouts to see the situation of his enemies who are in the field; and there are a sufficient number of these scouts. And at the approach of their enemies one party of their enemies pursues them faster than they can go; and the scouts retreat from their enemies and are able to retreat without loss. So there are some of the scouts who turn back and meet their enemies, and perform arms like good people should; and others retreat to their captain and make their report. Which of these are to be more valued and praised: those who went back to their lord or those who are captured?
The scouts who turn back and fight are doing something good and praiseworthy; yet Charny thought that the scouts who returned were also doing something valuable, and were obedient to their captain to boot. Perhaps Charny anticipated a reflexive endorsement of warriors who "perform arms like good people should." This is consistent with scenarios discussed in W7 and W8, where what might seem sensible course of action is contrasted with conventional belligerent courage. In the first we see a captain, the principal leader of one side in a hypothetical war, who
 is defeated but remains on the field so long that he sees and understands that he is unable to recover his fortunes or the day; and the battle has been very well fought. Which is the better thing for him to do: remain and take his chances, or leave so that he can recoup? And if he leaves, should he thereby lose his honor?

We may think that it hardly makes sense that the captain should sacrifice his rights and his person after one serious defeat; and we've seen that Charny did not reject the possibility of honorable retreat. Then we remember that King John refused to leave the field at Poitiers in 1356, even though he understood that the day was lost. This gives the scenario in question W7 a real piquancy. Question W7 also prepares us for the dilemma of the bodyguards in the next question who seriously contemplate abandoning their lord to return to fight in a lost battle. There are good reasons for them to remain with the captain, yet they hesitate:
Which is the better thing to do: lead their master to safety, and in that case, either go with him, or send him outside of the melee alone, and tell him to save himself if he is able? There is a great risk that he will not be able to save himself; and by returning into the battle they take the risk of death or capture. Since they have agreed to be men in his retinue, will they be blamed if they go with him? Which is better, to go or to stay?
Neither avoiding the presumed shame of abandoning their employer, their "master," nor the danger of returning to a hopeless situation are unquestionably preferable to the criticism they might attract for leaving the field. Even if we guess that Charny might have a clear preference himself, he expected debate. This is confirmed by other scenarios, which show that there was an entire terminology of warfare, which was meant among other things to clarify what was honorable behavior. One of the questions I would most like answered, were that possible, is W37:
Since I have heard it said that one is able to leave and retreat (retraire) from a battle from the defeated side (la part desconfite), if he has acted in seven ways without being killed or taken, without being reproached. How can this be and what are the seven ways?
It would certainly be very illuminating to have Charny's list of seven mitigating circumstances, and his comments on them, given that he was twice captured and must have twice surrendered himself, even though he did not consider this something that could be done lightly (W79). Unless Charny is disingenuously preparing to present a list of his own as something he heard from others, the list of seven implies serious discussion, perhaps long debate, that unfortunately never found the pen to write it down.


  1. I thought this passage from Joinville very relevant:

  2. The seven circumstances are written down on the back of a recipe sheet still used by a French family to make fried cheese sticks, the correct way. They have no reason to turn it over and read the back as it has nothing to do with food. ;)