Map. The Carolingian Empire in 843.

HRE vs. France: Political Structures, Emperors & Kings

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

How were the Holy Roman Empire and Middle Ages France different in term of political structure? What led to those differences?

I always hear about HRE being a loose confederation of minor kingdoms (for lack of a better word). But wasn’t middle age France much the same? Strong dukes often controlling the king? How did the HRE and medieval France differ and how where they same? Why did the HRE becomes a looser confederation of minor kingdoms than France?

~ posted by u/daimposter on the r/AskHistorians subreddit.

My Answer

The political structure of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) and the Kingdom of France both derive from the political structure of the Carolingian Empire. So let’s have a quick look at that first 😉

A Very Short History of the ‘Origins’

Our contemporary society recognizes three forms of power: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The Carolingian Empire only had two: the temporal and the spiritual (the executive, legislative and judicial powers were all bundled up together). The emperor ruled over both. Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious, had a total control over the lords and the Church. They could grant lands, titles, bishoprics or revoke them as they see fit.

On the one hand, Charlemagne only had one heir: Louis the Pious. On the other hand, Louis had to split his Empire, according to the Frankish customs, between his three sons. He also didn’t have the charismatic aura of his father, who went from conquest to conquest, and he was left with an Empire practically impossible to rule. It all concluded in Louis’ three sons (Charles, Lothair and Louis/Ludwig) splitting the Empire into three parts. Lothair’s share was ultimately absorbed into his brother’s realms and from that point onward, West Francia and East Francia evolved into very different countries.

In the meantime, the Church which had greatly benefited from the leadership and protection of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and their predecessors gradually became an independent political body. The Church had obeyed and served the Carolingian emperors, but it had grown so much that it was now able to confront their heirs and come up with its own political agenda. The spiritual power was free from the temporal power by the end of the 9th century and the pope became a major political player by the end of the 10th century.

The Implementation of the Feudal System in West Francia

It is often written that Charles the Bald, who inherited and ruled West Francia, gave birth to the Feudal System with the Capitulary of Coulaines (available online on the marvelous MGH website). Though the direct effects of the capitulary were not as dramatic as historians used to say, it nonetheless recognized that lands given by the King to his vassals could be inherited by their progeny. It meant that not before long every region of the realm had its own local blue-blood dynasty. Therefore the Capitulary of Coulaines was a substantial stepping stone for the implementation of the Feudal System (reminder: the word ‘feudal’ comes from the Latin word ‘feudum’ which is a type of ‘beneficium’ (a gift from a king or prince to a faithful ally) that implies the gifting of a piece of land). By the 10th century, it became obvious that the aristocrats held the real power over most of the land, ensuring it by the building of motte-and-bailey castles and by getting the Church on their side through charity. Founding and donating to monasteries became a regular political play for powerful laymen although it greatly benefited to the rise of the Benedictine Order and the network of the Cluny monasteries more than anything. Nevertheless, anyone inheriting a fief still had to pay a ‘homage’ (Latin, homagium; German, huld) to the king and formally recognize his temporal authority. It was a very significant ceremony that reminded everyone their role and the proper hierarchy within the structure of society.

The Capet Dynasty

The progressive loss of a central and strong seat of power rendered the Carolingian dynasty of West Francia unable to enforce the peace in the realm and to properly protect the northern coasts from new invaders: the infamous Vikings. It became clear to the magnates that they were better off without a king. However, they had to maintain some kind of puppet on the throne to prevent the Carolingian kings of East Francia to march on Paris and conquer the kingdom whole. Several attempts had already been made in the past to reunite the West and the East Francia. While invoking the old Frankish principle of elective monarchy, the great vassals of the realm put a new dynasty on the throne: the powerless House of Capet.

The Capet, however, followed a clever strategy. They would always make sure that two kings were simultaneously elected and anointed, the rex coronatus and the rex designates, so that matters of succession were always settled from the start and there was never any leeway for another dynasty to rise on the throne. Moreover, the Capet gradually extended their personal demesne so that they could eventually compete with their vassals and enforce their law. At the very start of the 14th century, Philip IV the Fair even instituted the ‘États Généraux’, a general assembly of the people gathering representatives of the three orders, to counter the meddling of the pope over the spiritual matters in their realm. It also served him to kill the Order of the Knights Templar and confiscate all their possessions. The kings of France therefore became strong political figures, capable of handling both the temporal and the spiritual power of their realm. They were feared and respected by their vassals and treated on an equal footing by the emperor of the HRE and the pope.

The Plantagenet Problem… and the Valois Solution

The Capet, however, were far from all powerful. Remember those Vikings I mentioned above? They had carved a duchy for themselves, the duchy of Normandy, and no one dared to oppose the duke of Normandy. The guy minted his own money. He was so powerful and relentless, in fact, that he conquered a kingdom. I’m talking of William the Conqueror and the 1066 conquest of England, of course. Eventually, all his possessions were inherited by the Plantagenet dynasty, who also inherited the duchy of Aquitaine through clever matrimonial alliances. At some point, the Plantagenet ‘empire’ included half the kingdom of France! And the Capet kings were totally powerless against such a mighty force, until King John of England rose to the throne, faced revolts at home, bad luck abroad, was dragged into signing the Magna Carta (1215) and saw most of his French possessions confiscated and redistributed by the king.

Nevertheless, the king of France retained a vassal who was a king and everywhere he went he was faced with fierce resistance from the great dukes of the realm. The royal demesne was slowly expanding but the Parliament (the highest court of Justice in the land) had to relentlessly keep on fighting against its dismemberment by the king himself, who often wished to grant a land or two to any of his courtier or captain who provided him a great service. Eventually, after many political intrigues, the king of England said, “Enough!” and claimed the throne for himself when the Valois succeeded to the Capet.

What is really interesting is that at that point, the idea of electing a new king crossed no one’s mind. The quarrel was a quarrel of succession. The realm was an inheritance. It was traditionally passed down from one generation to the other. Since the straight line of male successors was extinct, the only question to answer was to know if a woman could inherit and pass down a kingdom or not. The long game Capet strategy had worked like magic!

Eventually, the Valois stood strong on the principle that the kingdom itself could only pass through male hands and could never be inherited or transmitted by a woman. The Hundred Years’ War came close to an end when Charles VI and Richard II became best buddies, but their terrible fate precipitated the start of new conflicts. Henry VI of England legally and effectively became the king of France but he had a strong opponent, who held on and kept the fight alive mostly despite himself, Charles VII. The latter ultimately passed on heavy taxation reforms and instituted the first permanent non-feudal but professional royal army. He won the war. His son, Louis XI, killed the dreams and ambitions of the great vassals with that very army. No one could contest the king’s authority anymore, but his own Parliament.

The Holy Roman Elective Empire

Whereas the Capet managed to turn the kingdom of France into a hereditary monarchy, which would become the most powerful centralized state of Europe, Germany remained a conglomerate of semi-autonomous states. Maybe it is worth being reminded that Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor, only took on the title to challenge the authority of the emperor of Constantinople, especially on spiritual matters. First and foremost, Charlemagne was and stayed the king of the Franks. He never had the centralized administration capable of holding an empire together. He only became a powerful imperial figure through his military charisma but the institutions of the old Roman Empire had since long collapsed and what was left of them couldn’t carry the political weight needed for an actual empire anymore.

Louis the German, Charlemagne’s grandson and Charles the Bald’s brother was not able to keep the dream alive. His dynasty was very short-lived and the imperial title quickly fell out of use. The political crises of the 9th and 10th centuries, the expansion of Christianity and the Magyar and Viking violent immigration waves prompted a ‘strong man’ to take charge and restore the imperial charge around the same time that the Capet were elected on the throne of France. This man was Otto I ‘the Great’ and he was the actual founder of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’. However, unlike the Capet, the Ottonian didn’t implement a hereditary system of succession. Too many people were fighting for the honor to wear the imperial crown. Otto III, Otto I’s grandson, was already faced with an ‘anti-king’, elected by his political rivals! The Staufer tried to make the imperial title a hereditary one. Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’ had his son elected to the imperial throne at the same time as him, which made him his uncontested father’s successor but it remained an absolute exception and the general rule was that stuck through the centuries was that the emperor was elected. It was also interpreted as a direct intervention of God in political matters and it helped to keep unworthy heirs away from the throne.

The HRE around 962

The emperors had little to go with, however, when their authority was challenged. They didn’t have access to an “imperial army” or to an “imperial administration” to help them out. The very idea that the HRE could ever become a centralized state actually scared all its neighbors and many attempts were made to prevent it from happening, though Germans hated foreign political meddling more than anything.

Several cities were placed under the direct rule of the emperor, but it was more of a way for those cities to manage themselves. Therefore the emperor could only rely on his personal demesne and diplomatic wits to assert his authority. However, contrarily to the French situation, it was not like an Imperial demesne could grow like the French royal demesne since a new dynasty could be put on the imperial throne every time an emperor would die. That’s why emperors ended up mostly benefiting of their title to boost up their personal demesne, instead of sacrificing their own resources to pass on any imperial reforms.

The Cezaropapism Crisis

The temporal power of the Holy Roman emperors was very limited and the feudal system was slowly implemented in Germany, although it developed its own specificities. In 1037, Conrad passed the Constitutio de feudis and extended the benefit of hereditary possessions of fief to the lesser lords. The 11th century also saw the emergence of the ministeriales, a group of unfree knights and vassals promoted by the imperial clergy that had no matching concordance in France, where all vassals were free men with hereditary rights and claims.

Bishops and abbots selected able men of unfree status and enfeoffed them with resources to enable them to serve as knights or administrators. The Salians also began employing ministeriales to administer royal domains and garrison the new castles built in the 1060s. The ministeriales gradually acquired other privileges, embraced an aristocratic ethos, and eventually converted their relationship based on servitude into one of more conventional vassalage to fuse with other lesser nobles as knights and barons by about 1300.

It would be wrong to interpret the ministeriales as the potential staff required to create a centralized monarchy. They were indeed used to verse more intensive management of royal domains, notably in Saxony.

Source: Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Roman Empire (2016).

The HRE around 1050

Meanwhile, the pope had become a real political player. The rise of the Benedictine and various religious orders resulted in many reforms within the papacy. The pope was no longer elected by the most powerful Roman families, for a start. Monks also got elected as pope, and popes that were formerly monks loved to live by strict rules. The papal chancery also became a proper administrative center of power: every king or prince soon flocked towards the pope or sent emissaries at least to see their privileges and titles granted and renewed. It is with a papal banner that William the Conqueror battled at Hastings.

It had to happen that the emperor, faced against rebellious vassals, turned to the pope for help and that the pope asked for something in return. In particular, the pope didn’t like that the emperor could still appoint bishops personally and it was interpreted as a violation of the Church. Henry IV (HRE) and Gregory VII (papacy) couldn’t see eye to eye on that matter. This led to the Investiture Dispute that the emperors ultimately lost. What was left of his temporal and spiritual power? Not much…

The Rise of the Hapsburg Dynasty

The imperial electoral college remained undefined until the 13th century. Eventually, three ecclesiastical electors came on top of the others: the archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne. As for the secular electors, they were settled by Emperor Rudolf who chose his four sons-in-law: the count Palatine, the margrave of Brandenburg, the duke of Saxony and the king of Bohemia. In 1356, Charles IV, from the Luxemburg dynasty, who had a great personal relationship with the papacy, fixed those electoral votes with the Golden Bull.

Thanks to a very thorough matrimonial strategy, the Hapsburg dynasty managed to lock on to several of the electoral secular fiefs. It also gave birth to some of the most inbred rulers of Europe, but by the election of Maximilian I to the throne in 1486, the Hapsburg maintained a firm grasp over the imperial title.

Nevertheless they were never able to create a centralized state like the Capet and the Valois did and the HRE never had a regular and professional army of its own. Charles V himself, who owned the kingdom of Spain, the former Burgundian dominions and all of the Hapsburg lands, proved unable to face the rise of the Protestant Reform whereas it was murderously quashed in France.

The dominions of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain and Bohemia, etc.

In Conclusion…

I hope this short overview has helped to figure out how different the HRE and the kingdom of France were in regards of their political structure. The principle of a hereditary monarchy helped the French kings a great deal to progressively implement a centralized state. Meanwhile, the elective imperial title and lack of proper imperial institutions made the German emperors often powerless to shape Germany into according to their political views. That is why the HRE is often described as a ‘loose confederation of minor kingdoms’ that share a same common Germanic culture, whereas medieval France is a properly united kingdom despite the impulse of autonomy expressed by the great dukes of the realm.


Summer Readings on AoE2 Heroes

Book suggestions for Barbarossa/Attila/El Cid?

I love reading about history, …

…and especially about great historical figures, I believe the spark was lit by AoEII especially, since I love both that period and the game (which I still play). I have read the following books and would love to hear suggestions on nicely written books on Barbarossa, Attila, or El Cid, since the AoC are the best campaigns in my opinion.

The books I have read thusfar if someone is interested to read themselves:

  • Joan of Arc by Helen Castor. Bit drier than the other ones, but still a nice read.
  • Saladin by John Man, very nicely written book on how Saladins life played out.
  • God’s Wolf by Jeremy Lee about Reynald de Chatillon (Saladins nemesis which can be found in campaigns 2 and 3 if I am not mistaken). Tells the story of the second crusade from a Western perspective, great read.
  • Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world by Jack Weatherford. Out of all these books the best in my opinion, with not only focussing on Genghis’ life and conquest but also about Mongol life in general including laws, food, customs etc.
  • Attila (3 books) by William Napier, which is historical fantasy, overall a great read but would like to have more of an overview and historically sound read.

Thanks in advance if someone has any suggestions!

[Question from u/xGalen on the AoE2 Subreddit]

The hype is real

My answer

Hi there!

Here are the books I can recommend about our AoE2 heroes. (Thank you u/nimanoe for tagging me in.) Those books are all referenced in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010) so they are quite up to date and provide very solid information. There should be little trouble to find freely available book reviews written about them on JStor, to help you get a summary and a sense of their content 🙂 I will limit myself to one book per historical character, but don’t hesitate to ask for more books if what I suggest doesn’t meet your tastes or expectations! In case you couldn’t find them in retail, don’t hesitate to browse WorldCat to find the library closest to you that has it!

You might think some of those books are ‘old’ because they date back from the 70’s of the 80’s. Don’t worry, History is a slower science than let’s say Physics or Chemistry. 70’s or 80’s monographies can still remain very authoritative secondary sources. You should generally take books from the 19th century with a grain of salt, though… They’re often easily available on Google Books or, and they generally offer a very solid fact-driven narrative, but the analysis they bring about the past is most of the time lacking if not totally outdated. Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology hadn’t made their way quite yet within the study of History. Also, the writing of History has shifted post WW2 from the study of “great men” to the study of the economical long-term patterns, the history of cultural representations, and more broadly the study of the masses and/or the minorities (gender studies comes to mind).


1. William Wallace

  • Fisher, Andrew. William Wallace. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1986.

2. Joan of Arc

  • DeVries, Kelly. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999.

/!\ /!\ /!\ Actually, I have that last book at home and I don’t really like the positions taken by the author for several reasons, including over-simplification. Therefore I would go for something ‘safer’ and maybe even more entertaining: Pernoud, Régine & Clin, Marie-Véronique. Joan of Arc: Her Story. trans. Jeremy Duquesnay Adams. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

The Joan of Arc campaign weekend is coming to the AoEII:DE Beta early August! Prepare yourselves for exciting news!

3. Saladin

  • Möhring, Hannes. Saladin: The Sultan and His Times, 1138-1193. Translated by David S. Bachrach. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009.

This book was originally written in German if I’m not mistaken. German historians are just pure nerds. It might be a bit dry to read, I don’t know, but this book is a very safe bet!

4. Genghis Khan

  • Ratchnevsky, Paul. Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Translated and edited by Thomas N. Haining. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

5. Barbarossa

The Oxford Encyclopedia only suggests German monographies about Barbarossa. I’ll write them down since I know many AoE2 players are from Germany 🙂

  • Eickhoff, Ekkehard. Friedrich Barbarossa im Orient: Kreuzzug und Tod Friedrichs I. Tübingen, Germany: Wasmuth, 1977.
  • Opll, Ferdinand. Friedrich Barbarossa. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenshcaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994.

Now, what I do to find scholarly books easily in any medieval matter is that I browse the Regesta Imperii and if you type in what you search correctly, you’ll just find wonders:

  • Freed, John Beckman. Frederick Barbarossa: the prince and the myth. New Haven, 2016. (This book is from 2016, so it’s normal that it wouldn’t be referenced in the 2010 Oxford Encyclopedia.)

Don’t hesitate to try the Regesta Imperii yourself to find many other titles: books, articles, etc. Then head to JStor to find book reviews, the article themselves sometimes, when they’re not free to download from their author’s Academia page.


6. El Cid

  • Clarke, Henry Butler. The Cid Campeador and the Waning of the Crescent in the West. New York: AMS, 1978.

7. Attila

  • Thompson, E. A. The Huns. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

If you’d like shorter books with still a great scholarly value, you should turn yourself towards ‘collections’ of vulgarized books published by authoritative institutions. There is the “Que Sais-Je ?” collection in French, for example. The “C.H. Beck” in German. Finally, the “Very Short Introductions” from the Oxford University Press are a great read.

Enjoy your summer! 🙂

The purpose to read is to argue. Wololooo!

Why you should NEVER trust your government when it comes to Medieval History—I’m looking at you, Czech Republic!

What you’ll find in this post

So my good friend Brother_Judas texted me on Reddit about some oddity regarding Czech history. He’d been doing some more reading to draw more of his beautiful maps, when he came upon this information:

In 1002, Duke Vladivoj was enfeoffed with the Duchy of Bohemia from the hands of King Henry II of Germany. With this act, what had been a fully sovereign duchy became part of the Holy Roman Empire. After Vladivoj died the next year, the Polish duke Bolesław I the Brave invaded Bohemia and Moravia. In 1004, after the Poles were expelled from Bohemia with help from Henry II, Duke Jaromir received the duchy in fief from the king.

It puzzled my good friend, you see, because I had showcased a map depicting the Holy Roman Empire in 962 that included Bohemia as part of the Empire. Brother_Judas had seen and studied that map. So he came back straight to me, demanding answers in the most gallant fashion.

The Holy Roman Empire in 962

He wrote the paragraph I quoted then reported that he’d found this information on a website belonging to some department of the Czech Ministry of the Interior. It’s a good thing he translated the thing for me because I sure couldn’t have been able to read it! That’s why, dear children, making friends from foreign countries is a most valuable thing.

Well, I was in a pickle, wasn’t I? I mean, you trust me to upload solid and trustworthy historical information on my blog. Then comes along a government full of officials that contradicts me. This is upsetting. If I had lied brazenly, you’d unfollow right away and I wouldn’t blame you.

Now, wait a minute. Who told you any government was trustworthy when it comes to sharing historical information? Have you not read 1984?

I went back to that book I found the HRE 962 map that I had shared. It was published by Harvard University Press. That only should vouch for its intrinsic value. However, it happened more than once that an academic rushed his writing, didn’t check his sources and oversimplified things. Beyond the map itself, what did the text say?

The emperor was rarely able to help missionaries once they set off into the wild north and east. Those sent to Denmark were expelled in the 820s and Christianization made no headway there until the conversion of Harald Bluetooth in the mid-tenth century. The cooperation of local elites proved indispensable, especially as conversion entailed simultaneous acceptance of imperial suzerainty and payment of tithes. The Bohemian leader (and later saint) Wenceslas had been educated as a Christian and accepted imperial overlordship, only to be murdered on his brother’s orders in 929. Bohemia was forced to acknowledge imperial suzerainty in 950, though resistance to Christianity persisted into the eleventh century. Nonetheless, conversion of much of its elite proved significant in spreading Christianity and imperial influence to the East Elbian Slavs and to the Poles and Magyars. Vojtech (Adalbert), a missionary martyred by the Prussians in 997, came from the Bohemian ruling family.

Then I read a bit further down:

Otto III was subsequently criticized for converting tribute-paying princelings into independent kings. It is more likely that Boleslav and Istvan considered themselves the emperor’s primary allies, while Otto regarded himself as king of kings. The relationship remained fluid because of internal changes in the Empire, Poland and Hungary. Boleslav’s successors were not crowned kings, and his son Mieszko II returned the royal insignia to the Empire in 1031. A royal title could mark temporary ascendency over domestic foes, while submission to the Empire was a favored tactic of weaker rulers seeking external backing. In practice, Poland remained a tributary of the Empire from the 960s until the late twelfth century without this infringing its internal autonomy or requiring its ruler to participate in German politics. In this sense, it remained more distinct than Bohemia, which was clearly an imperial fief by 1002.

The author, Peter H. Wilson, is a history professor at the All Souls College of Oxford. I should take his word but I didn’t. I spotted a reference of his: Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. I decided to check that book out too. On the one hand, Nora Berend herself is a professor at the St Catharine’s College of Cambridge. On the other hand, her book is a marvel. The following stellar review had even been written by Christian Raffensperger in Speculum, a top-notch historical review centered on Medieval History:

The arrival of this book is more than welcome for those of us teaching medieval history beyond Western Europe … The work required to produce this must have been immense and the payoff is tremendous for the reader … Central Europe in the High Middle Ages makes the medieval histories of these three incredibly important medieval polities available to an English-language audience of students and scholars, and it will hopefully facilitate the expansion of the idea of medieval Europe throughout college classrooms.

So, basically, Nora Berend’s book is the shit. No surprise there, it’s a Cambridge history book. Therefore I took upon myself to peruse its third chapter on ‘formation of polities and Christianization’ and here’s another quote I can hit you with:

Boleslav I attempted to counterbalance the growing political power of Germany under Henry I by tightening Bohemia’s traditional relations with Bavaria, leading to a long-standing alliance. Boleslav continued his father’s policy of strategic co-operation with the Polabian Slavs, which lasted for more than two centuries. He also tried to take advantage of German–Hungarian conflicts, and allowed the Magyar plunderers to pass freely as they made their way to Thuringia and further west. Nonetheless, he was forced to accept the suzerainty of Otto I in 950, and resume tribute payments. Bohemian assistance was provided to the German king to defeat the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955. Bohemia fell under the permanent control of the Empire, albeit indirectly.

Let’s conclude. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What the hell happened? What the story behind all this? Well, you kind of know it by now. Nonetheless, make sure to check out my short history of the early Dukes of Bohemia, from Vratislav to Bretislav, in my next post!


About maps of the early Holy Roman Empire

What caused the political fracturing of Italy following its ascension into the German Empire in the mid 10th century? Also, is it true that Germany became messed up becasue of the old Germanic sucession law?

[A question by u/Brother_Judas on r/AskHistorians: link to the original post]

Right so a while back, I was making a map of the early HRE, eventually after doing research, I made the map that looked like this:
As we can see, it was actually very orderly.
Now I have come to understand that the reason German part of the Empire became so messed up was because of the outdated Germanic succession law which split the sub-realms between all sons of the ruler equaly. As we have seen with the Frankish realm, while in theory it remained one realm, funcionaly it was divided between indepedent kingdoms ruled by Carolingian brothers, who were more often than not at each others throats. Sometimes, if other brothers die, before having childern themsleves, the realm became more unified as one of the other brothers would inherit. However given the extended time period, in Germany, I assume that sometimes succesor realms simply never got together and split apart permanently. Question: Is what I have just wrote actually the reason Germany became so fractured?
Question number two, as I understand, Kingdom of Italy remained relatively centralised, atleast around its core center in Pavia and north Italy. At the time of its ascension into the German realm, there were 4-5 sub realms which constituted it. However, overtime in some 150 years, the once cohesive regions of Lombardy and Tuscany became a patchwork of tiny states, principalities and city republics. Why? It is my understanding that the Germanic succesion laws didn’t apply to Kingdom of Italy? Can someone expain this process of political fragmentations in more detial?
Thanks in advance!

Ottonians: the Empire in 962 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

My answer

As a matter of fact, the traditional Germanic custom of splitting one kingdom into several depending on how many sons a king had fell out of use during the Ottonian era. It came a bit as a problem to Otto I. His brothers were jealous of his inheritance. However he managed to fight them off or to rally them to his cause and from then on, the succession law that turned the Carolingian Empire into a mosaic was no more.

So, how did we go from compact stem-duchies to a myriad of principalities from the Ottonian to the Hohenstaufen era? Well, first, we cannot escape some good old source criticism.

Early medieval Germanic history is deeply rooted in oral traditions. Lords, Bishops and Kings were talking directly to one another and their word was their bond. It had a heavy judicial weight. When we think of trials by ordeal we picture people drowned, put on fire, or sworn to fight each other off. Yet we often forget that several men “of good faith” swearing on the Bible were deemed as enough of an evidence to discredit or exonerate someone.

Salians: the Empire around 1050 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

From the second half of the 11th century onwards however, charters and written documents multiplied. They are heavily guarded and protected. They are sealed and put into heavily defended towers. The written word now carried the value of tangible proof. Oral traditions were far from dead yet and regal administrations were still at an embryonic state, but we do have much more as historians to go on and to help us understand how power was structured and yielded in those centuries.

Therefore maps depicting the “evolution” of the early Holy Roman Empire tend to be deceiving. We have fewer records for the Carolingian and Ottonian eras than we have for the Hohenstaufen era onward. We should then consider pre-Hohenstaufen maps as “blurred” or at least over-simplified. Nonetheless we can actually assume that principalities and seats of power multiplied for several reasons.

Staufers: the Empire in 1195 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

Let’s start with Northern Italy. By the end of the 10th century, Italy was still the richest region of the former Western Roman Empire, before West Francia and the iberic peninsula. Italy also had inherited a long, very long tradition of urban culture from the Classical Era. Many cities had been ransacked or even razed by the Huns, the Goths, the Byzantines themselves and the Lombards from the 4th to the 8th century, but it doesn’t mean that the Italian urban culture totally died out.

The 9th and 10th centuries saw new waves of migration threatening the peace in Italy. Saracens from the South and Hungarians from the East were setting foot on the Italian peninsula and a quick succession of weak Carolingian Emperors didn’t help to defend the country. The pope was not yet the fearsome overlord rivalling Kings and Emperors that he would become a few centuries later. Italians could only rely on themselves and so they did.

There is a historical process that we call the incastellamento to describe how Italians moved in or bolstered up their fortified settlements. The città (or city) became a centre of local power closely attached to its contado (or countryside)—a city and its country were economically and politically tightly tied together. Some cities emerged as more influent or powerful than others, like Milan or Firenze, and exercised their authority over several less potent cities. On the long run that’s how the Duchies of Milan and Toscana were eventually formed thanks to the political intrigues of shrewd families like the Visconti, the Sforza or the Medici.

The Imperial Church, c. 1020 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

Late migration waves also hit the early Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Hungarians, Slavs and Vikings posed serious threats on the stability of the Empire. It took skilled Emperors like Otto I and his successors to safeguard the peace and expand their borders further North, East and South. They proved unsuccessful to march on Paris, though. Yet, contrarily to the King of West Francia that became the powerless King of France, the Emperor, who inherited East Francia, stood tall and long remained the most powerful man on his half of the late Carolingian Empire.

Nonetheless the feudal system was slowly implemented to a degree that would necessarily fracture the wholesome unity of the Empire. Personal feuds opposing Lords started to fester the country and it became an all-time job to repress such acts of uncontrolled violence. Privileges were granted to some cities to keep some if not all of the money made from their taxes to insure their defence. The process of incastellamento therefore spread to the HRE. Castles were built instead of roads. Episcopal cities and principalities became very powerful places and as the pope rose from his ashes the Emperor had a new adversary to challenge his authority by the end of the 11th century. Who could appoint bishops? The pope told one story and the Emperor another.

To help him rule his large empire the Emperor also appointed ministeriales to carry out special missions or to supervise certain chunks of land. Those ministeriales progressively carved their way into the Feudal system and this process added to the complexity of the Imperial power network. All of those elements contributed to fracture the HRE in many somewhat autonomous principalities and to weaken the Emperor’s might.

Royal Palaces (showing Conrad II’s Royal Progress, 1024-25 ~ from Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe (2016).

Further readings:
~ The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010)
~ Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe. A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge [MA]: Belknap press, 2016.
~ J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Barbarian West. A.D. 400-1000. The Early Middle Ages. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
~ Urban Identities in Northern Italy (800-1100 ca.). Edited by Cristina La Rocca and Piero Majocchi. Brepols: Turnhout, 2015.


Medieval Economics 101. How to make a profit out of a ransomed knight?

Wild Reddit Question Appeared!

“If I were a medieval knight and I captured another highborn warrior in battle, a tournament or in single combat, how specifically would I go about ransoming him to make sure I got the money before releasing him?”

[A question by u/fattubaplayer1 on r/AskHistorians: link to the original post]

“And on the other side of the coin, how would I make sure my relative is safely released for the funds I am handing over. Was there a common method of exchange in these situations ?”

My Answer

You may wonder… How did the Lords of Coucy raise the money to build the most impressive castle of whole Christendom in the 13th century? The answer may shock you…

You can go at it ‘Coucy style’ and hang your prisonner by his genitals as an incentive for a higher ransom. Not kidding. Thomas de Marles, Lord of Coucy (d. 1130), reportedly did so.

Now, on a more serious note.

Derived from the concept of Roman law, the custom of ransoming captives taken in battle developed alongside notions of knighthood and chivalry in early Capetian France. […] Though originally a purely personal obligation between captor and captive, by the fourteenth century prisoners’ ransoms were generally recognized as a form of heritable property. As such, the ransoms could be sold to third parties, and the trade in ransoms could be a profitable business for those with the right international connections. […] To a great extent the system relied on trust. It was common to allow a prisonner to go free on parole so that he could organize payment of his ransom, though he would usually be required to provide pledges as a safeguard against bad faith. […] The more effective sanction was the dishonor and notoriety that accrued to defaulters. […] The effectiveness of honor as a constraint is best demonstrated by John II of France. Released on parole in 1360, he returned to England in person four years later when one of his replacement hostages absconded and it had become clear that he could not pay the next installment of his ransom.

Cf. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010), vol. 3, ‘Prisonners and ransoms’.

In order to illustrate this general statement, I’d like to present three cases of ransom, counting one that had already been discussed on this sub 😀 [or previously on my blog]

Bertrand Du Guesclin, Count of Longueville

Captured at the Battle of Auray (1364)

London, British Library, Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 47v ~ Death of Bertrand Du Guesclin

When he was captured at the Battle of Auray, Bertrand Du Guesclin was ransomed alongside Girard Chabot for an astronomical amount: 100,000 golden francs. The King of France was able to pay some of it upfront, yet there was still a lot to cover. Therefore Bertrand Du Guesclin was freed so that he could gather some of the money from his war benefits and other means. In a letter from the 18th January 1365, Du Guesclin acknowledge his debt in the most official fashion, having it written down that he personnaly swore on the Bible. That letter was sealed by the chancelor of the ‘prince of Aquitaine’, meaning Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, who was heir to the kingdom of England. Du Guesclin and Chabot swore that they would pay up 20,000 francs by the next year’s Pentecost or willingly return to captivity. As we saw with the example of John II, that kind of pledges were actually trustworthy.

So here you have your first mean to insure a payment: release the knight against a formal written insurance that he will eventually pay up, otherwise expect him to come back to your custody from his own free will. If he doesn’t come back to you or come short financially, infamy will do its dirty job and tarnish his good name, making it very difficult for him to pursue his military career. It seems counter-intuitive but it is yet effective.

Arthur of Britanny, Count of Richemont

Captured at the Battle of Agincourt (1415)

Paris, BnF, fr. 20360, f. 316v ~ Depiction of the Battle of Agincourt in a 16th century manuscript

This story is one of the most fascinating in my opinion. Hang on to your family tree though! Arthur of Britanny was the third son of Jean IV of Britanny and brother to Jean V. His mother, Joan of Navarre, had remarried Henry IV of England: therefore Arthur was Henry V’s brother-in-law. This is quite remarkable because Henry V of England is the one who won the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415! Yet, for more than five years, the King of England refused to further any negociation regarding the release of his brother-in-law. In this case, political interests got in the way of economical profit. It is also worth of note that Henry V imprisoned in mother-in-law under the suspicion of witchcraft after the passing of his father.

Arthur (and his mother) being held hostage meant that the Duke of Britanny had to think twice before siding with the Valois. In a curious turn of events, though, the Duke of Britanny and his other brother, Richard, were captured by local political rivals, in 1420. The Duchess of Britanny, Joan of France, then sent a letter to Henry V, asking him to release Arthur or to ‘lend’ him so that he could lead the troops that would rescue his captive brothers. Henry V denied the request yet sent some troops of his own to help out.

A few months later, Henry V would marry Katherine of France, Joan’s sister, and sign the Treaty of Troyes, making him heir to the throne of France as per the ‘authority’ of Charles VI, who was known to be crazy since the 1390’s. John V and his brother Richard were eventually freed, yet the Duchess of Britanny decided to hide this information for a few days to help speed up Arthur’s release. Henry V caught up with the events from John V’s personal envoys, who stated that the Duke of Britanny would come and visit him himself, and only then did Henry V agree to release Arthur for two years. There was no talk of any ransom, still, so Arthur would only be ‘on parole’ according to certain terms until september 1422.

Brought from the Tower of London to France in October 1420, Arthur was lead to Henry V in Corbeil where he met his childhood friend, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. From then on, Arthur was put under the custody of the earl of Suffold and followed him a bit everywhere. When lords from Britanny went to meet him in Pontorson and found themselves more numerous than the English, they offered Arthur to help him escape. Arthur refused their help. Suffolk valued Arthur’s sense of honour and allowed him to meet his brother, the Duke of Britanny. From then on it looked like Arthur embraced the party of Henry V and he even received the county of Ivry from the latter. It was even agreed that as long as he respected the terms of his parole he would be freed without ransom. Arthur turned out to become the perfect prisonner: the managed to convince his brother, John V, to join Henry V against the Valois! The Duchy of Britanny, just as the Duchy of Burgundy, was now siding with England in the Hundred Years War…

The sudden passing of Henry V in 1422 didn’t change anything for the Anglo-Brito-Burgundian alliance. However, Arthur took it as granted that he didn’t have to return to London according to the terms of his parole. And he neved did so. He was even granted the Duchy of Tourraine. In 1423, Arthur married a Burgundian princess and he proved eager to serve under the Duke of Bedford, who had been appointed Regent of France on behalf of Henry VI.

Yet, Bedford would only frustrate Arthur’s ambitions, still treat him as a prisonner of war, which suddenly led Arthur to switch sides! He rallied the Valois party and very shortly obtained the highest military title of the Royal French Army, in 1425. He was given the rank of Constable, that Du Guesclin had held a few generations before him. From then on, Arthur was instrumental in the eventual French victory over the English and the definitive closing of the Hundred Years War. Shrewd as he was, he insured that his brother rallied Charles VII very quickly and then he reconciled the Valois party with the Burgundians, in 1435.

This story illustrates very well that a ransom was not always what you could hope from a prisonner. Having a prisonner could also serve political interests. Now, however, you had to beware of your prisonner! Arthur was the perfect hostage up until the point where he felt free from any further obligation to the English crown. Then he quickly turned his jacket and even turned the tables…

John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsburry

Captured at the Battle of Patay (1429)

Almost ruined by the ransom put on him, Talbot still managed to offer a lavish manuscript
to Margaret of Anjou, on her betrothal to Henry VI, in 1445 ~ London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2r.

After the death of Thomas Montaigu, earl of Salisbury, John Talbot became one of the most important leader of the English army. Yet, he couldn’t hold on the siege at Orléans and was captured at Patay. His ransom was set at an absurd amount. Paying it on his own would have utterly ruined him. A ‘public subscription’ was even organized in England and the King paid an advance on the ransom (the same way Charles V had helped Du Guesclin). Yet Talbot would not be released until Poton de Xaintrailles got himself captured by the earl of Warwick, who was Talbot’s father-in-law. Then a prisonner exchange was negociated which allowed Talbot to be released on parole, in 1433. John V, Duke of Britanny, gave Talbot 2,000 mewes of salt to help pay his ransom, in 1432: Talbot would still be selling that salt in 1439!

This last story also expose that it was sometimes more profitable to release your prisonner so that he could gather money to pay his ransom. In Talbot’s case, the capture of Poton de Xaintrailles certainly helped to speed up his parole.

Depiction of Saint George, patron of the Order of the Garter, to which John Talbot belonged ~ London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 439r.

I also found out that it that it could be customary to forbid a knight to engage is certain fights or to join this or that allegieance while on parole. Most men-at-arms and knights would respect such pledges.

In conclusion, it was customary to release a prisonner of war even before his ransom had been totally absolved. Moreover, money was not the only thing you could get from a prisonner of war. Political and strictly military interests also weighted in the balance and could tip the scale in favour of an early release, if not quite the opposite. Henry V had instructed his brothers never to free Charles of Orléans. Captured at the Battle of Agincourt like Arthur of Britanny, he was only released in 1443 through the intermediary of Philip the Good.

I hope that I helped you to better understand the complexity of the ransom system in the Late Middle Ages 🙂 Don’t hesitate to ask follow-up questions.

Further readings:
~ Letters, Orders and Musters of Bertrand Du Guesclin, 1357-1380. Edited by Michael Jones. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004, p. 36-37
~ Eugène Cosneau, Le Connétable de Richemont. Paris: Hachette, 1886, p. 45-76.
~ A. J. Pollard, John Talbot and the war in France, 1427-1453. London: Royal Historical Society, 1983, p. 112-115.


What could 100,000 francs get you in the 14th century?

A franc dating from Charles V’s reign, that you can buy on Numiscorner!

A famous medieval knight called Bertrand du Guesclin was ransomed for 100,000 Francs. What could you buy in 14th-century France for 100,000 francs? And was it considered to be a large ransom or quite the opposite?

[Question by u/TheyTukMyJub on r/AskHistorians: link to the original post.]

“I’m reading the chronicles by Froissart and there’s this bit about a ransom that confuses me. It’s not immediately clear for me whether or not the ransom was high or rather too low but politically inopportune. Because both the Prince of Wales as well as his counsel regret the decision to ransom the knight for 100,000 Francs (or rather, regret ransoming him at all – since he would raise 2000 men at arms). Also, it took Bertrand a month to raise the money from the King of France and the Duke of Anjou. Would this be a long period or were they amazed at how fast his ransom was paid?
The text is kind of ambiguous.
So, what could you buy in 14th-century France for 100,000 francs, the ransom of Betrand du Guesclin? Was it considered large for a ransom? If so, how did the French during the Hundred Years’ War pay a large ransom like that?”

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2609, f. 354v ~ Bertrand Du Guesclin fights in Normandy, wielding his hammer.

My answer

This ransom was quite high. Du Guesclin had made quite a name for himself and the more he was captured the higher his ransoms became. Those 100,000 doubloons (not francs!) weighted around 460kg of gold (roughly 1,014 pounds), which was a massive fortune.

We also need to keep in mind that on one hand a substantial amount of gold and silver mines were discovered in the 16th century, meaning that the value of those precious metals went down after that point in time. More gold is needed today than it was in the 13th and 14th century to buy—let’s say—a horse or a cow, because gold was much scarcer. Therefore it is almost impossible to really evaluate the value of 100 000 doubloons only by its gold value.

On another hand the 14th century saw several monetary crisis because of the Hundred Years War. From 1337 to 1360, the value of gold sunk compared to the value of silver. It is a fact that there was a shortage of silver in France. This shortage resulted in hoarding. Therefore we observe a drastic slowdown in monetary circulation which didn’t help the situation. The Kingdom of France yet regained some economical health during the next period (1360-1385) under the rule of Charles V. However, the value of coins had still a lot diminished compared to what it was in 1330. Nonetheless we can still state that a franc in 1364 weighted 3.885g at 24K. In conclusion, Du Guesclin ransom was worth 118,404 francs.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 6465, f. 434v ~ Bertrand Du Guesclin is appointed Constable by Charles V, making him the highest ranked officer of the Royal French Army.

Now, we can find a precise account on JStor (links below) of how much Charles V invested in renovating the Louvre between 1364-1368—let’s not forget that Du Guesclin was captured at the battle of Najera, in 1367. To give a very rough idea of how elevated Du Guesclin’s ransom was, Charles V paid the binding of a single book 20 ‘sous parisis’. That was barely more than a franc, yet that was already a lot of money since it was for a very precious book! Also, as one of the construction worker died during the renovations of the Louvre, he’d left behind him a poor widow with paralysed limbs. She received only 6 francs as compensation. 6 francs were also the price for 5 sculptures that were put in a new staircase.

On a side note, we know that Charles V had amassed around 400 000 francs by 1368. It took him a lot of time to hoard it but most of it would be spent by the end of the next year. In that time frame, in a single year, 248,630 francs were used to finance the war and defend the kingdom. Therefore, yes indeed, Du Guesclin’s ransom was astronomic. He was only lucky that his king had quite a fortune precisely when he was captured.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 6465, f. 456r ~ Death of Bertrand Du Guesclin.

~ Valérie Toureille (ed.), Guerre et société. 1270-1480. Paris: Atlante, 2013, p. 347.
~ Raymond Cazelles, “Les Trésors de Charles V”, in Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1980), 124/1, p. 214-226; in particular p. 218; online.
~ E. Fournial, Histoire monétaire de l’occident médiéval. Paris: Nathan, 1970, p. 8, 103, 113-114, 117-119.
~ Marc Bompaire, “Compter au XIIIe siècle avec la diversité des monnaies : livres, sous et deniers”, in Comptabilité(S) (2015), 7, online.
~ M. Le Roux de Lincy, “Comptes des dépenses faites par Charles V dans le Château du Louvre, des années 1364 à 1368”, in Revue archéologique (1851-1852), 8/2, p. 670-691, 770-772; in particular p. 690, §57; p. 766, §113, §115; online link 1, link 2.


Follow up on Knight v. Knight

This post is a follow up to the former “Knight in Game of Thrones versus Knight in Medieval Europe”. Don’t miss it!

[1] u/sarkos asked

In what way was it a requirement to be wealthy? Is that just to afford the plate armour, or did they have to pay something to someone? Could plate armour be pilfered from a battlefield to make someone a knight?

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2644, f. 135v ~ When left to their own device, men-at-arms would ransack cities and ruin the countryside to amass wealth. Those rogue “companies” proved to be very difficult to regulate untill Kings maintained permanent armies.

I answered the following

A knight (or any man-at-arm for that matter) was never expected to go alone on the battlefield. He had auxiliaries such as mounted archers, a “coutilier”, a page, and more. He would also have servants or maids to take care of him and his belongings. Back on the battlefield, his archers would take custody of the enemies he could put to ransom, he also needed someone to bring him a fresh horse if his steed died, and so on. A medieval battle was a much messy affair. Therefore, if you count that a knight needed a personal retinue, an actual household, in addition to his personal equipment, he required some substantial wealth.

The only knight with pilfered armor to have ever existed was Don Quixote. And that is a novel character 😉

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2644, f. 142r ~Knights were expected to protect the Church and ecclesiastical communities. However, it was not always the case: more than often churches were burnt down and their riches spoiled.

[2] u/FacesOfMu then asked

Thanks for your awesome comments. I had this (mistaken?) idea that being knighted bestowed a steady income of sorts, but what you’ve said is that would only be the case if the Prince felt the need and generosity to provide it.

Was there much of a tradition of Princes providing income to knights? Were knights often given land to oversee and defend that they didn’t own or inherit previously?

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2644, f. 265r ~ Knights and more broadly nobles were never travelling alone; they were always followed by members of their household and when arriving to a new place they’d often find new people spontaneously proposing their service.

I answered the following

Unfortunately being knighted bestowed no such thing as a steady income. A medieval army typically was not supposed to be permanent. It was only called upon for a limited amount of time. However, Charles V of France, then Charles VII, his grandson, instituted permanent armies to put an end to the Hundred Years War. The latter furthermore insured that his permanent army would outlive him. In doing so he laid of the foundation of the modern State.

A permanent army needed a full-on taxation system. However taxes were incredibly impopular in the Middle Ages. Moreover the King or the Princes were expected to live from the wealth generated by their own lands. They could call on the help of the people through the representative assemblies, but they proved relunctant to do it since it would only diminish their prestige and power on the long run (which is exactly what happened to the King of England).

If we look at the revenue of the captains that waged war for France or England in the 14th and 15th century, we can only observe how irregular they are. Someone like La Hire tried to make money from any way known to man. (This statement is an obvious exaggeration, but still…) Extorsions and ransoms made up for his daily bread. He couldn’t rely solely on the king’s generosity. Sometimes the king would grant him a land and then the Parliament would refuse to proceed the donation. La Hire took money from other princes, and back in 1419 he was even allowed to mint money himself! As Antoine de Chabannes, his former student, would later observe, La Hire nevertheless died poor. “La Hyre never gained from the kings the wealth he deserved. He died full of debts, so much that the year he died he borrowed 100 golden crowns from Antoine de Chabannes, count of Dammartin. The latter took it as a warning for he had been La Hyre’s page.” [J. Le Clerc, Cronique martiniane. Edited by Pierre Champion. Paris: Champion, 1907, p. 51]

[Further readings: Francis Rousseau, La Hire de Gascogne. Étienne de Vignolles. 1380-1443. Prefaced by Régine Pernoud. Mont-de-Marsan: Lacoste, 1969; D. Lemaire, « Guise et son atelier monétaire », in Revue numismatique, 165, 2009, p. 307-339]

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2643, f. 60r ~ Contrarily to popular belief, knights didn’t disregard cannons or fireweapons, they were quite fascinated by it. Firing a cannonball would become customary to mark the beginning of a siege. However, it only meant more expenses to keep up with the military techonology.

And I’m only speaking here of La Hire who was not even a knight! There is no doubt that Charles VII liked him a great deal and thought of him as one of his best captains, yet he proved unable to afford him (he would only set up a permanent taxation system and institute a permanent army a few years after La Hire’s death).

In addition to their personal wages, all captains were responsible for paying the men in their retinue. The more senior the command and the more captaincies held, the greater were the sums which the crown contracted to pay to an individual captain. This gave opportunities for personal enrichment at the expense of either the crown or soldiers, but at the same time created the risk of loss if the crown failed to honour its obligations.” [Quote: A. J. Pollard, John Talbot and the war in France. 1427-1453. Londres: Royal Historical Society, 1983, p. 108-109]

Knights were often chosen as captains, therefore they could expect a lot of expenses, especially more so if their men or themselves were captured and put to ransom. This almost totally ruined John Talbot, knight of the Order of the Garter: “When Talbot was taken prisoner at the battle of Patay in 1429 he was set to ransom at a sum considered to be exorbitant. […] The reaction in England in 1429 including the establishment of something like a public subscription and petition by the commons on Talbot’s behalf in view of the ‘unreasonable and importable rauceon’, suggests most strongly that convention had been broken by the demand for a sum way beyond his means.” [Ibid., p. 113]

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2643, f. 180r ~The capture of a valuable enemy could generate a lot of revenue if he proved able to pay his ransom. Knights belonging to a particular Order of knighthood were often expected to help each other financially in case one of them was put to ransom.

However, Talbot was also the kind of man who’d ride in with a golden cape on the battlefield… And as Chastellain reports it, La Hire was no less extravagant.

Yet, if La Hire and Talbot were fiercely loyal to their respective parties, other captains of men-at-arms proved more free-willed when it came to make their living and they didn’t mind to switch their allegiance when needed. Kings and princes had to come up with a budget and it is of little surprise that Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, forecasted a substantial sum of money to arming, equipping and providing horses to his men. It was exactly the same amount that he expected to spend in charity to the Church. [Read: M.-A. Arnould, “Le premier budget du duc Charles de Bourgogne (1467-1468)“, in Bull. de la Commission royale d’Histoire, 1984, p. 226-271]

From the 13th to the 15th century knights could also expect an indemnity for everyday they were waging war for their king or lord. Their payroll was better than those of simple men-at-arms and archers, though it wasn’t much, but that privilege would fade away with the institution of permanent and fully professionalized armies.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2643, f. 174r

More on the topic:

Christopher Allmand, The Hundred Years War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Philippe Contamine, Guerre, état et société à la fin du moyen âge. Études sur les armées des rois de France. 1337-1494. Paris: Mouton, 1972.

I. Heath, Arms of the Middle Ages, vol. 1. The Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses and the Burgundian Wars, 1300-1487. Wargames Research Group, 1982.


Knighthood 101. Is The Knighting Ceremony in Game of Thrones Anywhere Near Historically Accurate?

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

Who had knighting privileges in medieval Europe?

A popular series set in a medieval/fantasy universe had a knighting scene and the one doing the knighting claimed “You don’t need to be a king to Knight someone, you only need to be a knight”.

This just doesn’t sound viable since there would be insane knighting inflation. I imagined only a king or the leader of a Knightly Order could Knight someone.

What exactly were the rules around knighthood?

A question by u/TelegraphBlues on r/AskHistorians

My Answer

I really wanted to answer to that question on the AskHistorians subreddit. For two reasons: first, the scene referred to in the question really struck my feelings when I watched it because of how well acted and written it was; second, I had the knowledge and the necessary books at my disposal to answer in a fashion that would respect the AskHistorians community rules and expectations. Enjoy!

The Very Short Version

The short answer is that any knight could dub a squire to elevate him to knighthood. The long answer offers more contrast. The dubbing ceremony came into fashion in the 11th century. Originally it constituted in very little: a lord gave arms and armours to his vassals to help him into battle. This would also serve as a rite of passage into adulthood and to some extent, we can trace that rite all the way back to Germanic tribes (Keen, 1984, 66-67).

Early Mass Promotions to Knighthood

In the 12th century we observe ceremonies of mass promotions to knighthood. Therefore the knight becomes really distinct from the vassal. The dubbing ceremony gains in complexity and the multiplication of knights give them the feeling to belong to a social order apart from the rest of society. The techniques of warfare would however evolve drastically from the 13th to the 15th century. Crossbow became deadlier and firearms made their introduction. The knights therefore improved their physical protection and adopted the plate armour, which kept on being improved generation after generation.

Only the Best and Wealthiest

To be made a knight became a very pricy thing. Moreover the idea of knighthood was the object of more and more sophisticated theories. The behaviour expected from a knight, in and out of the battlefield, was codified to an extent that made it impossible for anyone to be randomly dubbed. At this point, I’d like to quote the Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010, vol. 2, p. 468-469):

All knights were warriors, but not all warriors were knights. […] The concept of the knight as a distinct elite group of warriors began to emerge in the eleventh century. The words used to designate members of this group indicate that the origins of this class lay with the armed and mounted servants who formed a lord’s entourage, or comitatus. The latin word used for a knight from the eleventh century on was ‘miles,’ which in classical Latin meant a soldier and by the tenth century a servant. […] As church attitudes toward violence changed and certain sorts of warfare became theologically acceptable, the warrior rose in status, provided he fought for the right cause. Kings and other rulers made increasing use of knights as administrators. […] Knights regarded knighthood as a separate order in society. Knightly status became a sort of institution, with its own literature, ideals of behaviour, and rituals, such as the tournament and the ceremony of dubbing into knighthood. Initially, dubbing was simply a ceremony in which the lord presented his warriors with weapons and armor, but during the twelfth century the ceremony expanded to include a blessing of the new knight’s sword. […] As the defining characteristics of knighthood developed, the numbers of those entering this elite class of men declined. By the mid-thirteenth century in England and northern France, warriors of lesser means could no longer afford to undergo the public ritual that would make them knights. The social expectations of knights and the public responsibilities that they were expected to take on exceeded their means. Knighthood became an exclusive caste, limited to those who were descended from knights and had the means to maintain the status.

A Knight Always Pays his Debts

Wealth became a capital requirement for anyone to be elevated to knighthood. In a 15th century manuscript that describe how emperors and kings must be enthroned to power, we also find a paragraph on the making of knights (Paris, BnF, MS fr. 5930, f. 3r-4v):

Comment se doit faire ung chevalier

Escuier quant il a  bien voyagie et esté en plusieurs fais d’armes et qu’il a bien de quoy maintenir | son estat ou qu’il soit de grant hostel et de riche et qu’il se tienne en une rencontre ou bataille doit adviser le chief ou ung vaillant chevalier de la compaignie et lors doit venir à luy et lui demander et requérir chevalerie ou nom de Dieu et de saint Gorge. Et celui doit tirer son espee et le doit faire chevalier en disant : « Je te fay chevalier ou nom de Dieu et de saint Gorge, pour la foy et justice loyaulment garder, et à juste querelle soustenir loyaulment à ton povoir, en gardant l’Eglise, femmes, veusves et orphelins. » Et s’il advient qu’il soit noble homme ou vaillant et qu’il soit povre, le prince ne le doit laisser estre fait chevalier s’il ne lui donne de quoy il se puisse vivre honnestement pour l’onneur de l’ordre de chevalerie

How to dub a knight

When a squire has travelled much and been part of feats, if he has enough to provide for himself or if he is part of a great and wealthy house, he must advise his commander or a valiant knight at the beginning of a battle and request to be dubbed in the name of God and saint George. The latter must then draw out his sword and say: “I elevate you to knighthood in the name of God and Saint George, so that you would loyally defend the faith, fight honourable causes, and protect the Church, women, widows and orphans.” If the squire is a noble or valiant man but has no money for himself, the prince must not let him be elevated to knighthood unless he grants him enough to live a decent life.

Who’s Knighting Who?

This text also confirms that any knight could dub a squire. However, as Keen notes, “We have noticed in many early texts the anxiety of aspirant knights to receive knighthood at the hands of some lord of particular distinction or repute. In the later middle ages a still more particular dignity was associated with receiving knighthood at the hands of one who had established a name for himself as a knight of prowess by deeds recognised as outstanding.” (Keen, 1984, 77) My personal favourite promotion to knighthood is the one held for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Since his father had passed away, he turned to the most skilled, feared and respected knight of his court: John of Luxembourg, lord of Beaurevoir.

I will translate Chastellain directly on that one: “The Duke required the order of knighthood to John of Luxembourg while riding next to him, showing no emotion and talking in a cold manner, handing to the latter his sword: ‘Dear cousin, in the name of God I ask of you to grant me the title of knight.’ The foresaid Luxembourg received the request as a high mark of honour. He dubbed him, saying: ‘My Lord, in the name of God and Saint George, I elevate you to knighthood; may your Grace therefore become a knight as you and all of us will need you to be.” (George Chastellain, Oeuvres. Edited by the Académie royale de Belgique. Brussels: F. Heussner, 1863, p. 259) Afterwards, Philip the Good went on his way to dub other valiant squires in his ranks.

A Dubbing Was Pretty Much a Christening

We tend to forget however that the Church could also dub knights. Monstrelet’s son was dubbed knight of the Order of Jerusalem by the canons of Cambrai in 1444; read J. B. Dacier, « Mémoire sur la vie et les chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet » (1826). Keen addresses that matter quite extensively in his chapter “The ceremony of dubbing to knighthood”. He explores as to why and how the Church became the sole institution to anoint kings and emperors, but failed to monopolize the dubbing of knights. Yet, he observes: “The fact that so often knights were dubbed in church impressed on all minds that knighthood was a Christian calling, imposing broad obligations of Christian observance and morality, whether it was given in a church or not. Under the church’s influence, crusading, the martial pilgrimage, established itself firmly as the highest mode of expression of the chivalric virtues of courage and endurance. Ecclesiastical teaching also gave definition to the idea of chivalry as an order, possessing, as every order should, its rule of life, and instructed the knight about how he should view his individual discharge of his office as a Christian duty.” (Keen, 1984, 76)

When is it Good to be Knighted?

Any knight could therefore dub another knight, but the prerequisites to become a knight made it impossible for any “insane knighting inflation” to ever happen. Matters of wealth, moral code and lifestyle strictly limited the access to knighthood, more and more so from the 12th to the 15th century.

I’d like to end this post as it should with a last observation made by Keen: “A number of late medieval sources mention three normal occasions for receiving knighthood. It may be given, they say, when the emperor or a king holds a solemn court, or at his coronation; usually the ceremony will take place in a church, after the bath and vigil, and the prince himself ‘or some other lord who is a knight’ will gird the aspirants. […] The second occasion for taking knighthood that they mention is on pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, the rise of which practice we have also traced. The third occasion for taking knighthood that they all mention is on the eve of battle, or of the storming of a city, when men seek knighthood ‘in order that their strength and virtue may be greater’. From the latter part of the thirteenth century on, this became a very common occasion for the taking of knighthood. […] In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the making of knights became almost a regular feature of the eve of battle, and the pages of such chronicles as Froissart [and Monstrelet] are in consequence full of references to such creations.” (Keen, 1984, 79-80)

Medieval Literature on Knighthood:

Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of new knighthood (1129)
Ramon Llull, The Book of the Order of Chivalry (1279-1283)
Honoré Bonet, The Tree of Battles (1382-1387)
Christine de Pizan, Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410)

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2678, f. 364r ~ Knights had the strict interdiction to flee the battlefield.
It was regarded as a great dishonnor and chronicler seldom make up excuses
for such behaviour when they write on knights that they know personnally.

Modern Studies on Knighthood:

Peter Coss, The Knight in Medieval England, 1000-1400. Stroud, U.K.: Alan Sutton, 1993.
Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society. Translated by Cynthia Postan. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
Maurice Keen, Chivalry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.
Malcolm Vale, War and Chivalry. Warfare and aristocratic culture in England, France and Burgundy at the end of the Middle Ages. Liverpool: Duckworth, 1981.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2678, f. 372v ~The best tactic was often to charge an enemy caught off guard.
There was no shame in defeating an enemy that was unprepared for battle,
it showed shrewdness, a quality most valuable to knights.

“Why is the rule by William the Conqueror seen as such a turning point in English history instead of Cnut the Great’s rule?”

I have heard of the date 1066 so much but not 1016 when Cnut became king of whole of England – Why is it so?

[Question by u/littlesaint: link to the original reddit post]

My answer

I see many discussions on historical facts, but I think the best approach to answer this difficult question is with historiography: the writing of history. Also I’m pretty happy because I can provide some light on the subject. I hope you’ll like it.

I read in J. Bellis’ monography (The Hundred Years War in Literature. 1337-1600, 2016) that “in 1754 David Hume held that ‘William had even entertained the difficult project of abolishing the English language’, persuaded by the fabrications of the chronicle of pseudo-Ingulf, not until 1826 demonstrated to be a fifteenth-century forgery not an eleventh-century original. […] In their emphases on the conquerors’ alleged attempts at total linguistic abolition, the emotive invective of the French conflict of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was surely rearing its head: Hume and Scott were (unwittingly, perhaps?) the Gloucester and Castleford of their generations.” (p. 28)

A few pages before, J. Bellis writes on Gloucester and Castleford’s works.

“Early in the thirteenth century, Lazamon described the Normans as ‘unnatural people’, the dominance of their language as ‘malicious practice’ and ‘an immoral act’. […] He represented conquest as a specific act of linguistic vandalism, an overwriting of the precious and precarious textual landscape that encoded British history.§ Such romanticized reconstructions became more exaggerated as the events became more distant. In the early fourteenth century, the Metrical Chronicle (historically attributed to Robert of Gloucester, although this is debated) inveighed against the fact that ‘the English people have been dragged down to the ground, on account of a false king, who had no right to the kingdom.’ […] Two whole centuries after 1066, it projected an image of the conquerors as an unassimilated, unwelcome group, and the English as a racial subset living among invaders. […] Thomas Castleford took the topos further, writing of the Conqueror, ‘he cleft the land of England from English blood’. […] He depicted the dominance of French in the legal system as a deliberate ploy to condemn the English in a language they could not understand.” (p. 21-22)

J. Bellis concludes:

“This romantic exaggeration, itself inherited from the later Middle Ages, was in turn inherited by criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Edward Freeman (1876) held that ‘the tongue of the Norman conquerors … utterly displaced the national tongue’. He called ‘the abiding corruption of language’ ‘the one result of the Norman Conquest which has been purely evil’, lamenting that ‘the tongue which we brought with us from the elder England … has become for ever the spoil of the enemy’. Again, this reflects thirteenth- and fourteenth-century constructions (conducive to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reconstructions), not the reality; it neatly illustrates for just how long the depiction of ‘linguistic conquest’ went on gathering momentum.” (p. 28)

We can therefore trace back a long chain of texts that construct the 1066 Norman Conquest as a total disaster for England and the English language in particular. It all begins in the 13th century with Lazamon point of view on the matter, which is then inflated by Gloucester and Castleford’s writing in the 14th century. This leads to the writing of the pseudo-Ingulf chronicle in the 15th century, “that purported to be an eleventh-century monastic chronicle” (Bellis, 2016, 25), but that is nothing but a forgery and has been written to sustain the war propaganda against the French. That last text was taken very seriously, however, by Hume and Scott, who romantically exaggerated the impact of the Norman Conquest on the 11th century Anglo-Saxon England. Their point of view was then carried on by the honourable scholar that was Edward Freeman and the impact of the Norman Conquest has been discussed ever since.

On the other hand, there is no such historiographical debate, spreading through several centuries, about Knut’s conquest. Partly because, “as Pearsall holds, ‘Englishness had always been constructed’ negatively, ‘out of opposition to Frenchness’, which ‘had been the whetstone of English national sentiment from Norman times and … was always capable of being reinvoked’.” (Bellis, 2016, 64)

The marking of 1066 as a point of “no return” was, however, not rendered obvious by former chroniclers. Among them we should mostly consider the anonymous author of the prose Brut. Before diving into that I’d ask you to allow me a short excursus about the Brut literature.

The Brut is a medieval narrative source that can be written in Latin, Old French (anglo-norman) or Middle English. Its literary tradition, as far as we can trace it back, starts with Monmouth own Historia Regum Britanniae (a most important historical chronicle that also lays the foundation of the Arthurian literature). That first Latin chronicle was written in the 12th century. It was then translated and adapted into Anglo-Norman verses by Wace, a few decades later. Those two massive works had a very clear and single objective: legitimize the Plantagenet kings as the rightful rulers of England.

Wace’s Roman de Brut—as it is called—was later on adapted into prose: the prose Brut. Now, we do have an awful lot of manuscripts containing different versions of that Anglo-Norman prose Brut. They were for most of all listed and described by the eminent scholar who was Lister M. Matheson.

A medieval chronicle was a “living text”, meaning it could be altered every time it was copied. Many things could change: from the content itself to the apparatus. The prose Brut was particularly popular because many chroniclers decided to add to it, generation after generation.

Circling back to the topic at hand, J. Marvin observed in her masterful monography (The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Normand Prose Brut Chronicle, 2017) that “the [prose Brut] chronicle also handles the Norman Conquest to minimize the appearance of a dynastic shift, taking pains to delegitimize Harold while legitimizing William as much as possible. It carefully notes William’s relationship to Edward the Confessor and his brother Alfred. […] It also emphasizes Harold’s unfitness, as a greedy and prideful oath-breaker, to rule. […] William’s victory becomes a triumph of right as much as might.” (p. 121-122) However, funnily enough, the apparatus of some prose Brut would later deconstruct that carefully crafted presentation of continuity.

“In London, Inner Temple Library, Petyt MS 511, vol. 19 (P511/19) the presence of the Latin genealogical poem that starts with William the Conqueror – ‘rex est anglorum, bello conquestor eorum’ – emphasizes his significance, and the sense of his beginning a new epoch in English history. For good measure, P511/19 also contains the Latin link between the prologue and the main text, and in the blank space left below the Latin link a fifteenth-century user has briefly repeated in Latin the information found in the earlier French note, including William’s conquest. This framing of the narrative is thus strongly reinforced for readers. And it appears to have had an effect. […] A fifteenth century annotator, probably the same person who added the Latin note, has provided a lengthy French note on the conquest of Britain and the change of the realm’s name, and there are also two manicules, one at the passage in the text acknowledging ‘la grant mescheance’ and another in the top margin beside the note.” (Marvin, 2017, 180-181)

The P511/19 contains what Lister M. Matheson classified as the Short Version of the prose Brut, which present a continuation of the chronicle up until 1333. It is therefore a 14th-century text and manuscript. The specific layout of the manuscript added to the 15th-century hand that wrote annotations in relation with the Norman Conquest further demonstrate the historiographical shift I was presenting in the first paragraphs, especially since the author of the prose Brut had particularly written his chronicle to showcase a rightful continuity between Edward and William’s reigns.

K. A. Murchison also demonstrates in her article about Le Livere de Reis de Engleterre (LRE), “Piety, Community and Local History: Le Livere de Reis de Engleterre and it’s Context in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.7” (2016), another early 14th-century chronicle, that the Norman Conquest wasn’t presented as a major shift by its author. “The chronicle is principally occupied with conveying the history of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. […] The author draws primarily on Geoffrey of Monmouth and Bede. […] Compared to its sources, LRE generally puts greater emphasis on the Church than the nation, and this creates the illusion of a transnational community of ethics, which deemphasizes national differences. […] As [John] Spence points out, England’s French prose chronicles typically justify the switch from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule by emphasizing the legitimacy of William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne and by celebrating his reign. In contrast, LRE distributes praise or blame for William and other Norman rulers based on the way they treat religious individuals and institutions.”

These different observations help us to understand how the “Norman Conquest” gradually became a myth that served a purpose. Indeed, during the Hundred Years War “it was politically useful to keep insisting on the possibility of French aggression, and stoking the idea that its particular object was the English language. These allegations […] deliberately associated the French in the late fourteenth century with the Normans in the late eleventh, eliding present aggressors with former conquerors to depict a dubiously just, territorial skirmish as a defence of the realm (and the language) against its ancient and perennial menace. Perhaps it was not for nothing that the French are repeatedly described by the chronicles as ‘the Normandys’.” (Bellis, 2017, 63)

From that point onwards, 1066 became a very strong literary topos.

In conclusion, I’d like to add that I’m not stating, in any way, that William’s conquest of England as in and for itself is any more or less important than Knut’s. However I can safely assert that it became a much bigger deal for later historians. It was severely more discussed, it rose and brought on a lot more emotions (especially in connection with national pride and sense of identity), and that is why, in my opinion, William’s rule of England is seen “as such a turning point in English history”.


Fantastic Beasts 101. Bacchus, the Tiger and the Griffin.

Wild Reddit Question Appeared!

When monks and scribes draw a bestiary, do they believe the animals depicted all existed? Were horses, zebra, unicorn and giraffe considered essentially the same class of beasts? [Question by u/Aoditor: link to the original reddit post]

My answer

It all started with the Physiologus…

The literature of bestiaries evolved substantially from the 5th to the 15th century. The founding stone of this literature is nonetheless the Physiologus, written in Greek in the 2nd century and translated into Latin in the 4th or 5th century. This work consisted in 48 descriptions of animals, real or imaginary, such as the lion or the unicorn, mostly based on fables and literary tales. The success of this book cannot be underestimated. It was only rivalled by the Bible. It also counted amongst the first work translated into vernacular language around the 11th century.

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1290. Bacchus. Tiger. Lion. Wild Boar. Monkey. Grapes. Wine.
Bacchus riding a tiger – Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1290, f. 5v

Then Isidore of Seville pitched it…

Though the Physiologus was read generation after generation as surely as the Bible or saint Augustine’s works, and even though the Physiologus was translated and adapted to many literary format (an unknown “Thetbaldus” made a metrical Latin version of 13 of its sections), scholars slowly added on it and developed a literature of bestiaries that became a genre in itself. It all began, of course, with Isidore of Seville (c. 556-636) and his renowned Etymologiae, and etymological encylopedia that was a sum of knowledge every scholar deserving the name would study and learn by heart in the next centuries. The Etymologiae had a very specific goal: explain the nature of every single thing known to mankind by looking at the origin of the words used to designate them. This tend to offer somewhat funny statements: “The Tigris is so called because the fowl of panic and flight, for this is what they call the Persians and the Medes at an arrow. It is a beast with various markings, and the speed of the power of wonderful by whose name the river is called the Tigris, and it is the most rapid of all rivers.” (Isid. Etym. 12:2,7) [link to source] Isidore describes indeed the tiger as one of the fastest animal there is and justify this assertion by stating that its name derives from the Tigris river (located in the Middle East), which is “the most rapid of all rivers”. But more on the tiger in a moment…

Paris, BnF, français 137. Ovide moralisé (prose bourguignonne). Hercules. Bacchus. Louis de Bruges.
Hercules and Bacchus – Paris, BnF, fr. 137, f. 182v

And later medieval scholars pretty much repeated what Isidore wrote…

When writing on animals, Isidore used the Physiologus but multiplied his sources, quoting Pliny and many others. Scholars writing after Isidore would only reinforce that method. By the 13th century, Thomas Cantipratensis wrote a sum of his own, the De Natura Rerum, which renders Isidore’s work totally obsolete. Thomas names his sources systematically and adds many to those used by Isidore. Meanwhile, he also pushes the symbolic interpretation of animals much farther.

A common trait of medieval scholarship was to assume that our world was only the reflection of a higher reality: God’s own realm. This idea was summed up in the concept of “speculum” or “mirror”. Therefore intellectuals had the difficult task to uncover the hidden meaning of everything around us, through some sophisticated symbolic reasoning that was guided by faith and the word of God.

Paris, BnF, français 143. Evrart de Conty. Échecs amoureux moralisés. Bacchus. Grapes. Tiger. Mirror.
Bacchus riding a “tiger” – Paris, BnF, fr. 143, f. 151v

Meanwhile the tiger became a forgotten animal!

More on the tiger now. And I will basically sum up Clara Wille’s article “Le Tigre dans la tradition latine du Moyen Âge”, adding here and there some information of my own. This will help us understand how the literature of bestiaries evolved from the 5th to the 15th century.

The tiger was a well-known animal in India and it is notable that the Physiologus has a distinct Indian influence. The animal was introduced to the Roman world in the first century when Augustus received some tigers as a gift from an Indian embassy. It quickly became a famous pattern for mosaics and we often find it depicted as Bacchus’ personal steed.

Paris, BnF, français 9197. Bacchus. Griffin. Vineyard.
Bacchus riding a wingless griffin in a vineyard – Paris, BnF, fr. 9197, f. 181v

Tigers totally disappeared from Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. We have to wait 1475 for Greeks to showcase tigers in Italy. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if medieval scholars totally misrepresented the tiger in their works. By the 12-14th century, the tiger is either depicted as a kind of dog, big cat or some fantastic creature, but looks nothing like the actual animal we know (and love).

And he got depicted as a fantastic beast

I’ll let you be the judge of it. In the famous Aberdeen bestiary, the tiger is a blue creature with white and red spots. However what I uncovered myself were the very diverse depictions of the tiger in manuscripts that all derived from a single same source: Petrus Berchorius’ De formis figurisque deorum, written in the 14th century. This introductory chapter of the Ovidius Moralizatus indeed describes Bacchus and sits him on a tiger. Plus, the De formis figurisque deorum quickly became a manual in itself for every artist that wanted to depict the pagan gods of old. Therefore, many manuscripts somewhat related to Berchorius’ work and depicting the pagan gods display the picture of a “tiger”, Bacchus riding it. You’d expect all those tigers to look alike since they are all derived from the same written source. Think twice.

Aberdeen, University Library, 24, f. 8r.
Aberdeen Bestiary.
Tiger. Mirror.
Aberdeen, University Library, MS 24, f. 8r. A tiger being lured by a hunter.

The tiger looks like an exotic our monstrous horse in this wonderful Vatican manuscript (go to folio 5v), in Conty’s Echecs Amoureux moralisés and in the Bible des Poëtes. It is obviously a wolf in the Chronique de Hainaut (sorry, I got no link for this one). But more surprisingly it is either a monstrous dog or cat, a hippogriff, or a regular horse in the various manuscripts of Ovide moralise (links: Citta del Vaticano, BAV, MS Reg. lat 1480, go to the folio 176r; Geneva, BM, MS fr. 176, f. 177r; Paris, BnF, fr. 137, f. 182v).

However, by then, the zoological aspect of the tiger had less importance for medieval scholars than the symbolic interpretation of its assumed characteristics. In the very same manner, legendary creatures were studied very seriously even if their physical aspect were deemed of little or no importance. The phoenix was certainly very popular, but mostly because of its Christological interpretation. To my knowledge, no one ever claimed to have seen or hunted one.

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1480. Bacchus. Tiger. Mirror.
Bacchus riding his tiger – Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1480, f. 176r

This leads us to the core of the question: did medieval scholars actually believed that fantastic animals existed?

For one thing, we have already stated that they had lost touch with a lot of actually existing animals. The tiger was as fantastic to them as the unicorn, even though we know today one to be real and the other to be imaginary.

It didn’t really matter though because animals were seen as “symbols” to understand a higher reality

In fact we need to consider how medieval scholars and clerics acquired knowledge. Any artisanal or physical work was forbidden to them. They were not expected to conduct experiments to validate or deny scientific hypotheses. They could only learn from books and develop their critical mind through faithful contemplation. Therefore they saw the written text as sacrosanct and they especially revered the notable authors of old. What they knew of the eagle they read it in Aristotle, Pliny, Isidore and Gregory. They never mounted or financed any expedition to track down and observe the behaviour of eagles.

Paris, BnF, Réserve Livres Rares, Vélins 559. Bacchus. Tiger. Mirror.
Bacchus, next to his “tiger” – Paris, BnF, Rés. Livres Rares, Vélins 559

Albert the Great is maybe the most interesting medieval scholar in that regard. When he wrote his own sum of knowledge on animals, called the De animalibus, he grabbed a lot of information from his student, Thomas Cantipratensis. However, whereas Thomas somehow slavishly compiled what former authors wrote on different animals and natural manifestations, Albert the Great slipped a few personal remarks in his work. Here and there we can read how he corrects Pliny or other authors according to his own personal observations. Albert the Great travelled a great deal and he had many encounters. Nonetheless his work is riddled with typically superstitious affirmations. Indeed he writes, for example, that a musical instrument with cords made of sheep and wolf bowels would never make any music for the hate between the two animals is too strong and would mute any sound coming out of it (De animalibus, book 12). Empiric knowledge was therefore not even a concept back then.

Geneva, Municipal Library, français 176. Bacchus. Griffin.
Bacchus, riding a griffin – Geneva, Municipal Library, fr. 176, f. 177r

Fantastic or not, beasts had magical properties

I will conclude this overview with an early modern archbishop: Olaus Magnus. He wrote a History of Northern People that would become very influential in the 16th century. In the book 18, chapters 45-47 of this work, he writes about werewolves and one thing clearly transpires from the text in my opinion: he actually believed they existed.

In conclusion, the lack of practical zoological knowledge and the tendency to think extensively through symbols totally made it possible for medieval scholars to believe in unicorns, phoenix and werewolves, or many other superstitions related to the animal kingdom. However, it needs to be stated that they rarely expressed their own opinion openly in their works. It is therefore very difficult to assess their definitive mind-set on the subject.

And we didn’t even consider hunting manuals! However in those books there were only animals that the aspiring hunter could actually encounter that were described.

For more insight on animal knowledge in the Middle Age, I’d advise to have a look at the wonderful website that is Animaliter (even though it is still a work in progress). The articles written on this online encyclopaedia are signed by the best and brightest of animal history in the Middle Ages.

London. British Library, Royal MS 12 C xix, f. 28r.
Tiger. Mirror.
London, British Library, Royal MS 12 C xix, f. 28r. A tiger being lured by a hunter.