Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A review of Deeds of Arms in The Medieval Review

Muhlberger, Steven. Deeds of Arms: Formal Combats in the Late
Fourteenth Century
. Highland Village, Texas: The Chivalry
Bookshelf, 2005. Pp xiii, 247. ISBN: 1-891448-44-7.

 Reviewed by Donald J. Kagay
      Albany State University

Like it or not, one of the major factors in maintaining the importance
of medieval studies to the modern world has been the study of late-
medieval war and research concerning its honored but sometimes
uncontrollable child, chivalry. One of the unfortunate offshoots of
this popularity has been a basic misunderstanding of the medieval
martial ethic by those who unabashedly serve the code of creative
anachronism and by an ill-informed general public that looks on
medieval warfare as a mild game always conducted according to
gentlemanly rules. To offset these misconceptions that have more in
common with the theme park's view of history than any realistic
historical record, Steven Muhlberger sets out in this book to explain
the context of the organized combats that were firmly tied to the
realm of warfare, but eventually found a life of its own within the
orbit of the tournament. To carry out this ambitious project, he
struggles to demonstrate that these bloody exchanges existed within an
evolving code of chivalry that attempted to establish at least a
modicum of order for battlefield and jousting ground alike.

The focus of this work--the late-fourteenth century--is largely
directed toward the era of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). It is
built on the extensive use of the primary sources of the period (many
of which have been translated into English in the last century). These
include the chronicles of Jean Froissart, Jean Le Bel, Gutierre Diaz
de Gomez, Christine de Pizan, and Thomas Walsingham as well as
document collections associated with great chivalric figures as Edward
the Black Prince, Geoffrey de Charny, and Jean II le Meingre
(Boucicaut the younger). Muhlberger's initial direction with the use
of these sources is to demonstrate that the deeds of arms were firmly
connected to the brutal realities of medieval warfare, but also
personified humanizing theories such as just war that the mediator of
medieval society, the Church, had itself attempted to impose on human
conflict. By a minute study of both individual and group combat
sparking into existence inside and outside organized military
campaigns, Muhlberger shows that such contests were every bit as
dangerous as the melée that inundated the battlefield. He also reviews
the quite meticulous rules set up for fairness and the maintenance of
personal honor that came into being for the regulation of such
combats. From his extensive reading of the sources, Muhlberger
concludes that the evolving codes of martial rules did not come from
the jousting arena, but sprang from the impromptu conflicts carried
out by small groups of combatants serving in campaigns of much larger
armies. From this ever-shifting environment came both the regulations
and the larger-than-life heroes who were judged by them.

Much of the remainder of Muhlbereger's book centers on how the
emerging "industry" of individual and group conflicts were carried out
between French, English, Spanish, and Flemish participants. He follows
in great detail the challenge, the conduct of the resulting fight, and
the means by which fair play was supposed to prevent such conflicts
from lapsing into vendettas pure and simple. The highlight of this
discussion is Muhlberger's meticulous review of the Combat of Thirty
Against Thirty, a conflict of French and British knights in Brittany
during 1351. This encounter occurring in a backwater of the Hundred
Years War seemed to stir the imagination of European authors for next
few decades who viewed the small skirmish as a halfway-house of sorts
between the bloodiest aspects of actual warfare and the humane rules
of the tournament. From his discussion of this crucially important
incident of group conflict, Muhlberger moves to trace the influence of
such fighting on fourteenth-century societies. With the great interest
that deeds of arms caused, the chivalric fighter and the painful duty
of honor he swore to uphold became a regular topos in chronicles and
romances down to the sixteenth century. This chivalric imprint on
late-medieval society shaped reality--at least among upper-class
circles--when kings tied tournaments to marriage celebrations and
other episodes of high-level negotiation. The most important of these
public combats occurred in 1390 at St. Inglevert near Calais when
three French knights challenged and bested all comers from the ranks
of the English invaders. Though originally a private enterprise, the
St. Inglevert jousts became a source of French pride and established
the model for "national tournaments" down to the sixteenth century.
These popular chivalric norms that eventually became anachronistic in
the face of European warfare increasingly marked by the use of
gunpowder weaponry provided lucrative careers both on the tournament
circuit and in royal service to many a fourteenth-century warrior.
Muhlberger discusses these super-stars in his last chapter.

In all of his chapters, Muhlberger follows the well-trod path of
chivalric authors led by Jean Froissart. The inclusion of large
passages from their works in English translation (a feat which
Muhlberger has already duplicated online) is helpful to the general
reader as well as to the military and social historians whose study
focuses on the later Middle Ages. Muhlberger's greatest contribution
in this work, however, is the skillful inclusion of the realm of
faits d'armes into a military spectrum that effectively
stretched from the tournament to the battlefield. In some ways, then,
Muhlberger deserves to be placed in the company of the greatest modern
expert on individual and group combat of the later Middle Ages, Sydney


  1. Very nice, sir--congrats on earning some serious praise.