Follow up on “What 100,000 francs”: why writing history requires attention to details and constant self-criticism
The question was about Bertrand du Guesclin’s ransom after the battle of Najéra (1367), elevated at 100,000 castilian doblas, which was an insane amount of money for only a captain of the French army. Now the thing is that I was not the only one who had answered. Darwinfish86 also honoured us with a well-constructed answer that awoke my jealousy, not only because it was well written but because he answered first and got more likes because of it. I’ll admit can be very vain that way.
Out of sheer wicked pettiness, I went through his post and saw that he stated that du Guesclin had been ransomed in 1364 ransom for 100,000 francs. My brains went like… “Wait a minute buddy!” I clicked on a link he had put in and boom I landed on the Wikipedia page of the battle of Array, where it is also stated that Bertrand du Guesclin had been ransomed for 100,000 francs.
The devil within me laughed maniacally.
See, I had seen in a book that du Guesclin had only been ransomed for 40,000 florins at the battle of Array. If his source was only Wikipedia, my source trumped his and I could humiliate him. But nicely. Because I’m a kind well-educated too-gentle-for-his-own-good I-never-got-into-a-real-fight person.
So here’s what I wrote:
“Brief fact-checking. When Du Guesclin was captured by John Chandos at the battle of Auray (1364) he ‘only’ owed him 40,000 florins. The infamous ‘100,000 francs’ that were in fact 100,000 castilian doubloons were only due by Du Guesclin when he was captured in 1367 at Najera by the Black Prince. Trusting Wikipedia on that one was a little mistake.
The first 40,000 florins ransom was almost entirely paid by Charles V. He requested or obtained his brother help though for the 100,000 doubloons ransom (the King’s brother being the Duke of Anjou).
Cf. Valérie Toureille (ed.), Guerre et société. 1270-1480. Paris: Atlante, 2013, p. 346-347.”
I was beaming with pride. Glowing, literally. I felt like a grammar nazi who had corrected his first “your/you’re” confusion.
But then my enemy wrote:
“I actually got the 100,000 francs from Ambuhl.” He meant this book: Ambuhl, Remy. Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years’ War: Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013.
Then my brain went like “Oh shit!” Because any historian worthy of the grade knows deep in his bones that nothing trumps a Cambridge book but an Oxford book. And the book I was relying on, well, it was travesty. I had spotted mistakes in it in the past. It had been rushed to publication and was crippled with flat out errors. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I shamelessly threw it under the bus. I showed no courage. I even went as far as to insult the French—because after all I’m Belgian.
“Could it be that Tourneille & co mixed up their numbers? I wouldn’t be too surprised about that. […] As always, apart from Contamine, never trust any French historian…”
When I blow low, I blow low. Under-the-belt-on-your-kneecaps low. With a crowbar. Then I run away because I’m a skittish little squirrel. Or a cat. Cats do run away when they’ve been mischievous.
So, what happened? Who was right and what are the real numbers for du Guesclin’s ransom from the battle of Najéra?
As it happens, in Toureille’s book we can read that du Guesclin had been ransomed for 40,000 florins, but that is wrong. Bertrand du Guesclin acknowledged himself in a very official fashion that he owed 100,000 francs to the man who captured him at Najéra, aka John Chandos; see: Letters, Orders and Musters of Bertrand Du Guesclin, 1357-1380. Edited by Michael Jones. Woodbrdge: The Boydell Press, 2004, p. 36-37. However, Kenneth Fowler who never came across that piece of evidence though it had been published twice in the 19th century, wrote in a 1987 article (see page 245, note 8) that du Guesclin “was liberated on September 30th, 1365. We ignore at what price. Chandos received an account of 40,000 florins from Charles V.”
Sweet mother of Jesus, here we find the infamous 40,000 florins that put me my good name to shame. In Toureille’s book, the authors had read that article by Fowler and they had slavishly copied the information without fact-checking it! Oh. My. God.
So we have a historian who doesn’t do his homework back in 1984 and makes a mistake that is unhesitatingly copied in a 2013 publication, and then I pass for a fool!
Never trust your own books.
At Auray (1364), Wikipedia is right on that one, Bertrand du Guesclin was ransomed for 100,000 francs, and Charles V advanced 40,000 florins to help his captain in obtaining an anticipated liberation. Then at Najéra (1367), that same captain not yet constable was ransomed for 100,000 castilian doblas, and according to my calculation (based on a book that I certainly think is more trustworthy than the other), it was worth around 118,404 francs. Du Guesclin value had inflated in three years. We need to point out though that he helped to make it happen by telling everyone how priceless he was.