Paris, BnF, français 134. Enluminure. Illuminated manuscript. Bartholomeus Anglicus. De proprietate rerum. Jean Corbechon. Propriété des choses.
Fun Fact

Medieval Gender Roles: Boys Will Be Boys. How A Boy Saved His Life By Toying With A Weapon

The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11, f. 235r.
Augustine, City of God. Raoul de Presles
Gender Roles. Falconer. Weaver
Photo montage of the Gender roles as defined in the City of God, translated and edited from Latin into French by Raoul de Presles in the 14th century. (The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11, f. 235r)


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.

Paris, BnF, fr. 134, f. 92v.
Bartholomeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus rerum. Jean Corbechon
Childhood. Teenage years. Adulthood.
The four steps of a man’s life, illustrated in the De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomeus Anglicus, translated from Latin into French by Jean Corbechon in the 14th century. (Paris, BnF, fr. 134, f. 92v)

I have yet to break down that statement and I will surely do it in another in-depth blog post. But this is a fun fact. Let’s only scratch the surface on this one.

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.

This… used to be funny? I laughed at this piece for what seems to be a lifetime ago…

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.

William Marshal

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!

How boys became men, in a galaxy far… far away.

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.

London, BL, Add. 18850, f. 5r.
Bedford Hours. 
Month of May. Gemini. Falconer
Another gender scene? A falconer on the right, two naked women bathing on the right. This illumination illustrates the month of May in the Bedford Hours: the two women are a representation of the Gemini. (London, BL, Add. 18850, f. 5r)

Last Words

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!


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.

Fun Fact

One man’s death is another man’s trophy ~ John the Blind’s death at Crécy (1346)

The Prince of Wales’s feathers

The legend would have that the Prince of Wales’s feathers date from the Battle of Crécy. Once the French army had been routed, the Black Prince came across the dead body of John the Blind, King of Bohemia. Froissart do actually state that the Prince of Wales and his father, the King of England, dressed in black to pay their respect to their honourable foe. Yet another tale reports that the Black Prince, to pay tribute to the King of Bohemia, took the feathers from the latter’s helmet for himself then even went on to adopt his motto: ‘Ich Dien.’

This romantic version of the story is counterbalanced by a more ludicrous one. The King of Bohemia being blind, it’s believed that he was told when and where to strike with this sword. ‘To the left, Your Majesty! Now, to the right!’ As the joke goes, Henry the Monk of Basel shouted those words to John the Blind once they broke into the English ranks.

Great scene from Orange is the New Black, season 06 – episode 02, bringing back the Cha-cha slide! From today’s standard, it would be easy to deem John the Blind as mentally unstable as “Crazy Eyes”.

Both knights heroically charged the English at Crécy, on August 26th, 1346. Following the Duke of Alençon, they pierced through the fleeing Genoese crossbowmen, maybe trampling a few. A downpour of arrows rained on them. John the Blind couldn’t see anything but he had been advised of the danger. With no regard for his life nor his safety, he had charged nonetheless. His horse had been tethered to those of his companions to help him steer his steed onto the right direction.

‘To the left, Your Majesty! Now, to the right!’ Basel sounded as if he was instructing John the Blind the basic steps of the cha-cha slide. Yet he was telling him when and where to bash his sword on enemy heads. This alleged quote is supposed to deride John the Blind’s last moments. He died at Crécy while charging head on an enemy he couldn’t see. Sure! From a modern point of view, it makes no sense. Why would anyone do that?

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2643, f. 165v ~ Depiction of the Battle of Crécy in Froissart’s chronicle. As the Genoese crossbowmen get slaughtered by the English longbowmen, we see French knights charging through while the rest of the army already turns back.

The fact is that the modern rules of warfare don’t apply on a medieval battlefield. It was expected from Kings and their commanding officers to step on the frontline and to lead from the very front row. It was up to them to behave the way superheroes do today in movies and honour a long literary tradition of valour, bravery and gallantry. I mean, they had the suit and everything. Who could be more dashing on the battlefield than a knight in shining armour dressed up with the coat of arms of his family? They craved to become the fabric of legend and to get a tenth spot among the the Nine Worthies, alongside Alexander, David and Arthur. We need to remember that back then, written history was barely anything but tales of war. There was no study of the economical impact of the Cistercian order in eastern Europe. Only tales of Teutonic knights slaying pagans in the name of God. Tales to which John the Blind contributed himself, by the way.

Sure, when John the Blind does it it’s stupid. But when Captain America and Black Panther go at it, it’s epic. Double standards much?

John the Blind’s death reminds us that mankind isn’t the most level-headed of species. We do tend to act on impulse rather than reason. However it would be wrong to assume that as he charged at Crécy, John the Blind drowned himself in some ‘collective dream’ fixated on an outdated and nostalgic idea of chivalry.

More on that in my next post!

Disclaimer. Sources and further readings to be found at the end of the John the Blind’s series


I’m an ass. As advertized!

Follow up on “What 100,000 francs”: why writing history requires attention to details and constant self-criticism

This article will tell you why I deserve a good old fashion spanking (Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2644, f. 142r)

Most recently I answered a question on the AskHistorian subreddit. You can read it here.

The question was about Bertrand du Guesclin’s ransom after the battle of Najéra (1367), elevated at 100,000 castilian doblas, which was an insane amount of money for only a captain of the French army. Now the thing is that I was not the only one who had answered. Darwinfish86 also honoured us with a well-constructed answer that awoke my jealousy, not only because it was well written but because he answered first and got more likes because of it. I’ll admit can be very vain that way.

Out of sheer wicked pettiness, I went through his post and saw that he stated that du Guesclin had been ransomed in 1364 ransom for 100,000 francs. My brains went like… “Wait a minute buddy!” I clicked on a link he had put in and boom I landed on the Wikipedia page of the battle of Array, where it is also stated that Bertrand du Guesclin had been ransomed for 100,000 francs.

The devil within me laughed maniacally.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2644, f. 142r

See, I had seen in a book that du Guesclin had only been ransomed for 40,000 florins at the battle of Array. If his source was only Wikipedia, my source trumped his and I could humiliate him. But nicely. Because I’m a kind well-educated too-gentle-for-his-own-good I-never-got-into-a-real-fight person.

So here’s what I wrote:

Brief fact-checking. When Du Guesclin was captured by John Chandos at the battle of Auray (1364) he ‘only’ owed him 40,000 florins. The infamous ‘100,000 francs’ that were in fact 100,000 castilian doubloons were only due by Du Guesclin when he was captured in 1367 at Najera by the Black Prince. Trusting Wikipedia on that one was a little mistake.
The first 40,000 florins ransom was almost entirely paid by Charles V. He requested or obtained his brother help though for the 100,000 doubloons ransom (the King’s brother being the Duke of Anjou).
Cf. Valérie Toureille (ed.), Guerre et société. 1270-1480. Paris: Atlante, 2013, p. 346-347.”

I was beaming with pride. Glowing, literally. I felt like a grammar nazi who had corrected his first “your/you’re” confusion.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2644, f. 256r

But then my enemy wrote:

“I actually got the 100,000 francs from Ambuhl.” He meant this book: Ambuhl, Remy. Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years’ War: Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013.

Then my brain went like “Oh shit!” Because any historian worthy of the grade knows deep in his bones that nothing trumps a Cambridge book but an Oxford book. And the book I was relying on, well, it was travesty. I had spotted mistakes in it in the past. It had been rushed to publication and was crippled with flat out errors. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I shamelessly threw it under the bus. I showed no courage. I even went as far as to insult the French—because after all I’m Belgian.

“Could it be that Tourneille & co mixed up their numbers? I wouldn’t be too surprised about that. […] As always, apart from Contamine, never trust any French historian…”

When I blow low, I blow low. Under-the-belt-on-your-kneecaps low. With a crowbar. Then I run away because I’m a skittish little squirrel. Or a cat. Cats do run away when they’ve been mischievous.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2643, f. 18r

So, what happened? Who was right and what are the real numbers for du Guesclin’s ransom from the battle of Najéra?

As it happens, in Toureille’s book we can read that du Guesclin had been ransomed for 40,000 florins, but that is wrong. Bertrand du Guesclin acknowledged himself in a very official fashion that he owed 100,000 francs to the man who captured him at Najéra, aka John Chandos; see: Letters, Orders and Musters of Bertrand Du Guesclin, 1357-1380. Edited by Michael Jones. Woodbrdge: The Boydell Press, 2004, p. 36-37. However, Kenneth Fowler who never came across that piece of evidence though it had been published twice in the 19th century, wrote in a 1987 article (see page 245, note 8) that du Guesclin “was liberated on September 30th, 1365. We ignore at what price. Chandos received an account of 40,000 florins from Charles V.”

Sweet mother of Jesus, here we find the infamous 40,000 florins that put me my good name to shame. In Toureille’s book, the authors had read that article by Fowler and they had slavishly copied the information without fact-checking it! Oh. My. God.

So we have a historian who doesn’t do his homework back in 1984 and makes a mistake that is unhesitatingly copied in a 2013 publication, and then I pass for a fool!

Never trust your own books.

At Auray (1364), Wikipedia is right on that one, Bertrand du Guesclin was ransomed for 100,000 francs, and Charles V advanced 40,000 florins to help his captain in obtaining an anticipated liberation. Then at Najéra (1367), that same captain not yet constable was ransomed for 100,000 castilian doblas, and according to my calculation (based on a book that I certainly think is more trustworthy than the other), it was worth around 118,404 francs. Du Guesclin value had inflated in three years. We need to point out though that he helped to make it happen by telling everyone how priceless he was.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2643, f. 18r

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.

Fun Fact

How Philip the Good wished that his son proved his manhood

Comment Philippe le Bon espéra que son fils prouvât sa valeur
[Version française ci-dessous / Read the story in French below]

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, had quite a string of bastards, but only one legitimate son, who would later be known as Charles the Bold. The latter’s mother, Isabel of Portugal, cherished him. He was the only son she had who survived beyond infancy.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2644, f. 265r

Charles would later on prove to be a very skilled tactician and fighter. Yet, at the prime age of seventeen, he still pretty much had everything to prove. No surprise there, young noble lads were only supposed to start their proper military training between fourteen and sixteen years old. They usually didn’t launch their chivalrous career before they reached eighteen.

Nevertheless, as Charles was in Brussels with his father and mother, it was decided he would engage in his very first official jousting event. That was well beyond what was expected from someone his age.

One question was on every lips. Who would face the heir apparent to Philip the Good, the mightiest Duke of Christendom? It had to be an honourable knight, for sure. Yes, well, certainly someone of note!

After much deliberation, it was concluded that the young Charles would face Jacques de Lalaing, the most adored knight of the court, but not only that, Jacques was the best knight of his time. His skills were so unparalleled that no-one, in the whole kingdom of France, dared to challenge him when he had called out for people to meet him on knightly venues.

Jacques de Lalaing had had to go all the way to Spain to find worthy opponents!

That day on the Grand’Place of Brussels, which was very different to the one we know today —for the French hadn’t bombarded it yet—, Charles of Burgundy met Jacques of Lalaing on the jousting field.

Paris, BnF, fr. 2644, f. 142r

Jacques of Lalaing was a careful man. On the first charge he didn’t lower his spear, yet the heir of Burgundy shattered his on Jacques’ shield. When he witnessed such a thing, Philip the Good was much displeased. “Don’t spare my son, go at it!” The Duchess Isabel didn’t like such an idea. On one hand she wanted her son to be safe. Jousts were not always the merriest business. On the other hand the Duke wished his son to prove his strength. The noble couple argued. Nevertheless, Jacques of Lalaing fulfilled his Lord’s wishes. The second time he charged the young Charles, he lowered his spears. The heir of Burgundy showed no fear. Both spears shattered on Charles’ and Jacques’ mutual shields. None of them fell from his steed. Philip the Good gloated with pride and everybody applauded at Charles’ prowess, happy to see that their Duke had a strong and healthy successor.

Charles the Bold, depicted by Rogier van der Weyden

Version française

Philippe le Bon, duc de Bourgogne, eut une ribambelle de bâtards. Toutefois, il n’eut qu’un seul fils légitime – que l’on surnomme aujourd’hui Charles le Téméraire. La mère de ce dernier, Isabelle de Portugal, le chérissait particulièrement. Deux de ses fils étaient morts en bas âge, Charles était le seul à avoir survécu.

De son vivant, l’héritier de Philippe le Bon démontra à maintes reprises ses talents de combattant et de tacticien. Néanmoins, au jeune âge de dix-sept ans, il avait encore tout à prouver. Alors qu’il se trouvait à Bruxelles avec son père et sa mère, il fut décidé qu’il se lancerait dans sa première joute officielle. Une question pendit toutefois à toutes les lèvres. Qui aurait l’honneur de l’affronter en premier ? Ce devrait être un preux chevalier, quelqu’un de remarquable. Après moult délibérations, il fut arrangé que le jeune Charles affronterait Jacques de Lalaing en personne, le chevalier le plus adoré de la cour de Bourgogne, un chevalier tel qu’aucun, en France, n’avait osé relever ses défis. Il avait dû se rendre jusqu’en Espagne pour trouver des adversaires dignes de l’affronter. Enfin, donc, Charles de Bourgogne rencontra Jacques de Lalaing sur la Grand’Place de Bruxelles, prêt à en découdre.

Jacques de Lalaing était un homme prudent. Quand il chargea la première fois, il ne baissa pas sa lance, bien que celle du jeune héritier de Bourgogne se rompît sur son écu. Quand il constata la chose, le duc de Bourgogne s’avéra bien mécontent. « N’épargne pas mon fils, va donc ! » La duchesse Isabelle n’appréciait guère une telle idée. Elle eût préféré que son fils restât en parfaite sécurité, mais le son époux désirait que son fils prouvât sa valeur. Le noble couple se disputa. Cependant, au second envol, Jacques de Lalaing respecta les vœux de son suzerain et abaissa sa lance. L’héritier de Bourgogne de montra aucun signe de faiblesse. Les deux lances se rompirent sur les boucliers respectifs de Charles et Jacques. Aucun d’eux ne chut de son destrier. Philippe le Bon exulta de fierté et tout le monde applaudit la prouesse du jeune Charles, bien heureux d’observer que le duc avait pour lui succéder un héritier aussi vaillant qu’en parfaite santé !

Olivier de la Marche, Mémoires. Edited by Henri Beaune & J. d’Arbaumont. Paris: Renouard, 1883-1888. Cf. t. 2, p. 214-215.

Further reading:
Martin de Riquer, “Les chevaleries de Jacques de Lalaing en Espagne”, in Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1991), 135/2, 351-365.


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.