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Guerre et société en France, en Angleterre et en Bourgogne xive-xve siècle

H. Maurice Keen
Charles Giry-Deloison
Philippe Contamine


Maurice H. Keen

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1When Jean-Pierre Jourdan first came to Oxford to moot the possibility of the meeting at which the papers collected in this book were delivered, he spoke with Gallic precision not of a conference, but of a Colloquium. The conception was to bring together, under the auspices of the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni, a number of scholars from both sides of the Channel, who were known to be interested in the period of the great Hundred Years War of France and England, so as to enable them to tell each other something about the directions in which their own research was taking them. Hence the strong flavour of individuality, that marks the contributions here assembled, was something expected from the first.

2Initially we had hoped to find some less well-worn title-theme for the Colloquium than War and Society, but in the end we could not hit on any alternative broad enough to encompass appropriately all the topics proposed. Perhaps though the order of the words should really have been reversed. For when we came to lay our contributions before one another and those attending the Colloquium, it became plain that there was a good deal more of society than of war, stricto sensu, in what we had to tell each other. It is only occasionally, and then usually tangentially, that the papers in this collection stray anywhere near those problems of the front line that John Keegan has illumined so vividly in The Face of Battle. Of course in some of them that face is momently there, in Elisabeth Lalou’s tallies of the casualties of Courtrai and Mons-en-Pévèle, for instance, and at the opening of Françoise Autrand’s examination of French responses to the defeat of Poitiers. But in these and most of the other papers here presented too (the exception is Kenneth Fowler’s ‘News from the Front’) the real interest is consistently focussed on what was happening behind the lines, and in civil as well as military society, rather than on what soldiers call the ‘sharp end’.

3In the event, there turn out to be two lines of interest that dominated our considerations. One group of papers concentrates on the problems of organisation for war, of mobilising men, materials and money for operations offensive or defensive. A second group focusses on exploring reactions, social, psychological and practical, to war’s exigences and fortunes. The social and practical aspects of these reactions, as here studied, offer a kind of bridge between these two dominating themes of interest.


4Perhaps the first message that comes over clearly from the seven diverse papers that, in a broad way, confront the organisational problems presented by late medieval war and warfare to kings, captains and governors is this; how slow, groping and painful was the process at the end of which we begin to be able to see national and regular forces where once we used to see feudal hosts (if indeed we really ever could see them, as some have doubted). Thus Malcolm Vale tells of how, in the first phase of the late medieval Anglo-French rivalry (c. 1290-c. 1340), the English kings sought to offset their own slender resources in manpower and territory by recruiting to their cause the princes of the Low Countries and their troops, on the basis of money-fiefs and paid ‘alliances’ (a word with stronger, more technical implications than its modern meaning conveys); and of how that effort collapsed ultimately in bankruptcy. Philip the Fair of France, whose armies of the same era Elisabeth Lalou studies, looked in terms of the extent of the lands he ruled and of the number of his subjects a much more formidable figure than his English rival, Edward I. But when it came to la grande guerre the effort to swell the ranks of his feudal host by means of the arrière ban, the summons of nobles and the hiring of mercenary shipmen and crossbowmen, and to meet the costs of wages of war and of revictualling, put hideous strains even on the precociously developed French royal government.

5A century later things had not changed that much, at least to judge by the Burgundian evidence. Philip the Good, when in 1436 he proposed to gather an army to invest Calais, was served by men with more past experience of raising money and men for large scale war efforts than had the officers of Philip the Fair. Yet, as Monique Sommé shows, his army was still an amalgam of semi-professional soldiers, vassals with their hurriedly assembled followings, and town contingents from Flanders. His bombards were too heavy to pass the bridge at Chalon on their way from Burgundy, and reached Calais only when the siege had broken up. Even Duke Philip’s tried and trusted captains like Jean de Lisle Adam, as Bertrand Schnerb demonstrates in a brief but illuminating paper, looked on taking up a military command on his behalf with the eye of the private contractor, watchful over his let-out clauses.

6Thus far, the papers of our contributors seem to suggest that late medieval princely governments were only at best very barely up to the co-ordinating capacities that war conditions demanded, to bringing hastily mobilised troops, ships and artillery together at the desired moment, to paying men on time, to controlling allies and captains.At a more local level, however, co-ordination of responses could be more impressive. The cities of war-torn Italy in the 1370s, and the towns of southern France in the age of the free companies, developed what Kenneth Fowler aptly describes as a working ‘infrastructure for the distribution of news of military significance’. There was a military significance, Philippe Contamine explains, to the famous iron chains that could be stretched across city streets, whose weight, length, locking systems and precise positioning the authorities of Paris and of a number of the other bonnes villes of France took such care to specify meticulously. Their location was carefully and shrewdly planned, with a strategic purpose, so as to build ‘islets of resistance’ in face of any enemy force penetrating the circuit of the city walls (the well known importance attached to these chains in periods of urban unrest thus appears less central than has usually been assumed). The same meticulousness that characterises the Parisian regulations about chains marks likewise the rolls recording the periodic montres d’armes of the Montbéliard region, which Pierre Pégeot studies. The object of these montres was to ensure that every male of the region between the ages of 20 and 60, in the town and in the surrounding countryside, possessed adequate arms against an emergency, and that his arms were clean and ready for use. Even at the end of the fifteenth century, as Pégeot eloquently reminds us, the service of non-professionals remained vital to military effort (and indeed remained far from entirely distinct from more regular service), and not only in a region such as Montbéliard. The franc archers of fifteenth century France testify to the continuing reliance of greater princes than Montbéliard’s absentee counts on this element in their forces.


7Given the difficulties that medieval princely governments encountered in mobilising and sustaining war efforts in a professional and effective degree, which one group of contributors to this collection explore and expose, it is in a way striking that those others who have chosen to examine mental attitudes and literate responses to war’s exigences should find as little as they do in the way of concrete suggestions about how things might be managed better. What they do find, moreover, remains at a distinctly simplistic level. Various authors stressed the importance of paying soldiers promptly, of fortifying castles, of picking captains among men with experience of war; counsels of common sense, no more. Françoise Autrand’s study of reactions to the defeat of Poitiers opens the way toward understanding this absence of new practical thoughts, stressing as she does the enormous difficulty of shaking free from the shackles of a providentialist conception of the causes of defeat and victory, and from an individualistic, chivalrous set of values for measuring the worth of martial action and activity. It was only slowly that the lessons began to bite. In the early fifteenth century both Jean de Montreuil and the author of the Dialogus inter Francum et Anglum, whose works Nicole Pons discusses, showed that they could view the causes of the war in historical and political terms (the one concentrating on the succession dispute, the other on the complications involved in the King of England’s tenure of Aquitaine). Nevertheless the step from diagnosis of cause in political terms to proposing remedies in the same mode proved a difficult one; the reforms in government that authors like these called for were moral rather than practically innovative. The providentialist view of events, and the knightly view of martial worth, were very hard to displace. The lifespan of ideas, as Professors Duby and Le Goff have often reminded us, is of longue durée, and attitudes ingrained by long habit are not easily disturbed.

8Christopher Allmand can, though, see one important shift of ideas, in the perception of the soldier in France. In writings of Charles VIPs time, of such for instance as Jean de Bueil, the homme d’armes, the plunderer and God’s scourge for his errant people for the age of Deschamps, begins to take on the lineaments of the servant of the public weal, protector of the patria and upholder of the peace. A shift of emphasis is perceptible here, towards a new appreciation of the combination of courage with the discharge of public duty; but the question remains, how far does that take one? In the light of what is told by the two Michael Joneses, whose contributions to this collection are the last that I must mention, the answer seems to be not far enough, in a fifteenth century context. Guillaume de Rosnyvinen, the hero of Michael Jones of Nottingham’s paper, was like Jean de Bueil one of Charles VII’s captains and a veteran of his final triumphant campaigns against the English, but the theme underlying the story of his profitable commands, his political vacillations, his matrimonial ventures and his lawsuits is hardly de Bueil’s principle that ‘ung bien publique est toujours a préférer a ung bien particulier’, rather the reverse. The paper by Michael Jones (of Bristol and Glasgow), written from the point of view of the English in the period of their declining fortunes, helps to explain why – human nature aside – things in practice should almost inevitably turn out thus. Much has been written about shares in spoil and the royal (‘public’) right to a portion in the ransoms of those taken in war; but there was no complementary public obligation to compensate those taken prisoner and put to ransom. So the exchange of prisoners on the basis of value for value rather than body for body, the crediting of sums due on the ransoms of prisoners of one side against sums due from prisoners of the other, and the purchase of prisoners and shares in prisoners for this purpose all became matters of vital and vivid — if not perhaps very uplifting — concern for military men. Those who sought a career in arms in the service of their king and the public weal had a need to think about their private interest, and to balance its demands against public ones rather carefully.


9Does all this suggest any broad, general reflection? Yes, I think it may do, though once boiled down and purged of fashionable words like ‘structures’it may look rather a trite one. Autres temps, autres mœurs.

10The governmental resources available to the nascent states and evanescent powers of the late middle ages were sufficiently sophisticated for them to be able to enter on large scale military confrontation with some sort of rational calculation about the prospects of gain and the risks of loss, based on the resources available to them; that the contributions in this collection from Vale, Lalou and Sommé confirm to us clearly. Equally clearly, those calculations lacked the precision and security that later ages could aspire to. In consequence, once large scale hostilities had commenced, the part played by chance was greater than in later times (think for a moment of the movement of troops before Poitiers or Agincourt; and compare the forethought that went into the troop movements before Alamein, or Austerlitz, or even Fontenoy). In such conditions it was hardly irrational to think more in terms of Providence, and less in terms of God’s natural predilection for the side with the bigger battalions, than strategists would do later.

11The calculating instinct was there aright, but in this period its potential for accuracy increased as the scale of its considerations became more local or more private (witness those chains of Contamine’s, that market of Jones’s in ransoms), rather than decreasing, as later has more often been the case and nowadays seems almost axiomatic. Whence, among other things, the difficulties in sorting out just where that public good, that looked on paper so self-evidently preferable to particular interest, should in practice begin and end; whence also a great deal of seeming confusion and complexity that probably looks more bewildering through the historian’s spectacles than it did to contemporaries. Autres temps, autres mœurs; or to give it an English rendering, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. That is what makes the exploration of its ways so interesting and enlightening.

© Publications de l’Institut de recherches historiques du Septentrion, 1991

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