Short Reads

John the Blind, count of Luxembourg and king of Bohemia (1296-1346)

Who’s John the Blind, Who Died At Crécy?

John of Luxembourg, father to Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire, was among the first to make the Prussian crusades a highly fashionable adventure among western knights.

That man had a finger in every pie.

He helped Louis the Bavarian to be elected emperor (before he fought against him once his own son was crowned King of the Romans and got the support of the papacy). He fought the Lombards in Italy. He died at Crécy while assisting his good friend, King Philip VI of France, but first and foremost he married a Bohemian princess and also claimed the throne of Poland, only relinquishing it for a very high tribute in money.

A few months before Crécy, he was yet still in Prussia helping out his good friends the Teutonic knights! John of Luxembourg was highly admired in France and the trend he set, as a knight always beating the road and roaming Europe, was followed by many. He was also among the first to use artillery to win over a siege, which is quite noteworthy.

Though adored by French poets and knights, he was heavily despised by the Bohemian clergy. He didn’t support or helped to finance the church and rather went to Bohemia only to gather the money to finance his international warfare activities while his son was left behind to rule and govern the country (when he wasn’t dragged along on some of his father’s epic quest: Charles IV participated himself to the battle of Crécy!).

One Story to Remember Him By

The Prince of Wales’s feathers

The legend would have that the Prince of Wales’s feathers date back 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, snatched his feathers and even went as far as to adopt his motto: ‘Ich Dien.’

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”.

John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, charged the English heroically at Crécy, on August 26th, 1346.

Following the Duke of Alençon, he and his men 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 charged nonetheless. His horse was tethered to those of his companions, among who sir Henry the Monk of Basel, 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–for which I found no reliable source–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 their men 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.

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.

Short Reads

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 Rash. 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 had pretty much everything left to prove. No surprises 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 public 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. She wanted her son to be safe. Jousts were not always the merriest business. Nevertheless, the duke wished his son would prove his strength. The noble couple even argued in front of everyone.

However loud the duchess protested at her husband’s notions of manhood, Jacques of Lalaing fulfilled his Lord’s command. The second time he charged the young Charles, he lowered his spears.

The heir of Burgundy showed no fear. Spears shattered on both Charles’ and Jacques’ mutual shields and neither of them fell from their 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.

This story isn’t an isolated incident. At the battle of Crécy in 1346 (about a century before the aforementioned joust), Edward III, king of England, denied to bring reinforcements to his son and heir saying: “Let him win his spurs!” There was a very long standing culture regarding how aristocratic men where expected to behave. The legend has it that William Marshal, when he was yet a child, saved himself from execution, back in the 12th century, as the king suddenly grew fond of him because he was toying with a weapon.

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 !

Source:
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.