If you follow me on Twitter you’d know that I’ve been on a little book shopping spree. I went to the second hand bookshop to sell youth novels that my fiancé had lying around. I came back home having sold almost none of them… plus carrying in a bag some history books that caught my eye. I mean, I just can’t help myself.
One thing lead to another. I showed my new findings on Twitter. One book was about the earl of Warwick. Not Richard Beauchamp as I first expected, but his son-in-law, another Richard, son of a third Richard who’d been earl of Salisbury after Thomas Montagu passed away at the siege of Orléans, in 1428. How can you not be easily confused when shopping compulsively?
My sickness followed me home. Once on my computer and looking for a manuscript that I knew had been made for Richard Warwick Jr. by his mother and displayed the story of Richard Warwick Sr., I found out that it hadn’t been digitized yet by the British Library. At which point my heart almost broke. I looked online for the Cotton MS Julius E IV, or the “Warwick Manuscript” as it is also called, and found out that some of its illuminations were reproduced in a 2017 monography on male education in the Middle Ages: From Childhood to Chivalry, by Nicolas Orme. Some extracts were available on Google Books and, since I was still hazy from my shopping spree, I freaking bought the damn book. You’re right I did!
As a matter of fact I’m annoyed with a statement found in the Age of Empires 2 in-game encyclopedia about Chivalry. It reads as follows:
Becoming a Knight
At the age of 7 or 8, boys of the noble class were sent to live with a great lord as a page. Pages learned basic social skills from the women of the lord’s household and began basic training in the use of weapons and horsemanship. Around the age of 14 the youth became a squire, a knight in training. Squires were assigned to a knight who continued the youth’s education. The squire was a general companion and servant to the knight. The duties of the squire included polishing armor and weapons (prone to rust), helping his knight dress and undress, looking after his belongings, and even sleeping across his doorway as a guard.
At tournaments and in battle, the squire assisted his knight as needed. He brought up replacement weapons and horses, treated wounds, brought a wounded knight out of danger, or made sure of a decent burial if needed. In many cases the squire went into battle with his knight and fought at his side. A knight avoided fighting a squire on the other side, if possible, seeking instead a knight of rank similar to or higher than his own. Squires, on the other hand, sought to engage enemy knights, seeking to gain glory by killing or capturing an enemy knight of high rank.
In addition to martial training, squires built up their strength through games, learned to at least read, if not write, and studied music, dancing, and singing.
By the age of 21, a squire was eligible to become a knight. Suitable candidates were “knighted” by a lord or other knight of high standing. The ceremony for becoming a knight was simple at first, usually being “dubbed” on the shoulder with a sword and then buckling on a sword belt. The ceremony grew more elaborate and the Church added to the rite. Candidates bathed, cut their hair close, and stayed up all night in a vigil of prayer. In the morning the candidate received the sword and spurs of a knight.
What bothers me with this statement is that it displays a very linear step-by-step narrative of how young aristocrats became knights. It’s much too easy. History is messy. Medieval History especially. Knighthood is a concept that evolved over time. It wasn’t even a thing before the 12th century. It became a heavily ritualized process by the end of the 15th century. It was loaded with religious meaning. Plus, I’m really not sure about that classic 7-14-21 years old progression. I know that I’ve read about it myself when I was a kid, and not only on the Age of Empires 2 in-game encyclopedia.
To keep it short here I’ll simply quote Nicolas Orme on the matter, to bring more perspective and nuance:
[Giles of Rome] reproduces the outlines of Aristotle’s threefold scheme of movement for babies, light exercises for boys and strenuous training for adolescents. But he has little to say about boys, except that they should play at ball, and centres his treatment of physical education almost wholly on military training in adolescence. This begins at 14, earlier than Aristotle had recommended for strenuous exercises. It lasts for four years and involves learning the kind of riding and fighting required for a knightly career, before embarking on the career itself at 18.
To keep quoting Nicolas Orme, he wrote down a little further something that really grabbed the attention of my 2019 post-gender studies and LGTBQ+ rights mind.
Medieval writers criticized children for indolence, oaths and insubordination, but not for aggression.
He carries on to tell us a few stories that exemplify that statement. Those stories are the purpose of this blog post. Enjoy!
Charles the Bold
First of all, I cannot not remind my dear and attentive reader of a former blog post of mine, in which I explain how Philip the Good wished for his son, Charles, to prove his manhood by risking his life jousting against the most renowned knight of their time: Jacques de Lalaing. I thought it was “funny” because whilst Philip the Good was pushing his son to take deadly risks, Isabella of Portugal, Charles’ mother, heavily frowned upon it and argued with her husband. It looked like a typical “boys will be boys” story.
The story that Nicolas Orme tells is another one yet. And a pretty much enlightening one!
Fast track back to the 12th century and meet William Marshal, the best knight of his own time, because there is a Jacques de Lalaing for every new generation of knight. Just as a book was written to narrate the life and deeds of Jacques de Lalaing, William Marshal saw his life turned into an epic poem. This biographical poem starts with William’s childhood and tells how he became King Stephen’s hostage while his father, John FitzGilbert, lead a rebellious life. King Stephen was ready to kill the young boy, who was only 5 or 6 years old, in order to teach his treacherous vassal a lesson. John answered that he could forge a better son if needed with an anvil and a hammer. Talk about toxic masculinity!
Yet, as he was unknowingly lead to his most certain death, a weapon caught the eye of young William Marshal. It was a javelin that the earl of Arundel was toying with. “Sir! Give me that arrow!” pleaded William.
Nicolas Orme concludes:
The kindly Stephen was so touched by this that he changed his mind, and led William back to his camp where they played ‘knights’, each holding a plantain and trying to knock off the head of the other’s.
I can’t resist the urge to share you the poem itself (I don’t really care if you don’t understand a word of it—maybe you do!—it’s just too damn pretty):
E li emfes ke l’on portout,
Ki de sa mort ne se dotout,
Si vit le cunte d'Arundel
Qui teneit un bozon molt bel;
Si li dist o simple reison:
"Sire, donez mei cel bozon."
Quant li reis oï ceste enfance,
Por trestot l'or qui est en France
Nel laisse[s]t il pendre cel jor.-,
Mais par simplesce e par doçor,
De quei sis cu[e]rs esteit toz pleins,
A pris l'enfant entre ses meins.
We cringe today when we see young boys playing with make-believe fire-weapons in kaki suits right in the middle of the school yard. It was already the case when I was a kid in the 90’s, here in good old Belgium. It must most certainly be the case in many U.S. schools! However, boys and young men were more than heavily encouraged to play with weapons in the Middle Ages. Royal rolls actually testify that my all-time favorite medieval figure, the bad-ass-poleaxe-berserk-gallant-husband-and-patron-of-the-arts-founder-of-the-university-of-Caen John Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, Regent of France, was given swords at the prime age of 11 years old in 1400-1401. His elder brother, Henry V of England, received his at 9 years old, in 1397. No wonder they beat the shit out of the French from 1415 to 1435.
Louis de Saint-Pol
I will conclude this fun fact with another 15th century figure: the most infamous Louis of Saint-Pol, who became no less than ‘Connétable de France’ and yet was beheaded for high treason.
Louis learned the art of war from his uncle, John of Luxembourg. This one was not blind, we shouldn’t mix him up with the King of Bohemia, yet he lost an eye in battle and we could call him “One-Eyed John”. He’d been La Hire’s fiercest foe if we don’t take John Talbot into account. I like to call them the Three Hounds of War. I swear I’ll write about them one day. They were just too epic to be overlooked.
Here is one of the most shocking sentence I read in Monstrelet’s chronicle:
That day the young count of Saint-Pol was introduced to warfare for his uncle, the count of Ligny, had him kill a few men. The young count took great pleasure in it.
When I first read this line in 2015, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Monstrelet was not even the kind of chronicler to promote violence. He laments several times about the state of the kingdom and the misery of the little people. He brazenly blames the Flemish urban militias to be too hasty in matters of war. What the hell? A few years later down the way, though, I understand Monstrelet better.
I will conclude this fun fact on the following oversimplified statement.
Young men were encouraged in the Middle Ages to develop a taste for war from a very young age, but only as long as they were aristocrats (and there was such a thing as going too far).
Next time I should also present you a few anecdotes about noblemen that turned away from violence and embraced more peaceful or spiritual ways of life, much like Henry VI of England or Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire, who were both sons to great warriors, respectively Henry V and John the Blind. Because as always, with History… it’s messy!