Five Medieval Minutes with Steven Muhlberger

SEPTEMBER 24, 2015 BY 

combat of the thirty

By Danièle Cybulskie

This week at Medievalists.net, we’ve been thinking a lot about The Hundred Years’ War, so we thought we’d bring you five minutes with an expert on fourteenth-century chivalry and combat. Like so many things in the Late Middle Ages, The Hundred Years’ War was deeply influenced by chivalric ideals, like personal honour and prowess on the battlefield. Professor Emeritus Steven Muhlberger, scholar and avid member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, has written many books on fourteenth century chivalry and combat, a full list of which can be found below. Here are five medieval minutes with Steven Muhlberger.

DC: How did you get interested in the fourteenth century and its culture of chivalry and deeds of arms?

SM: First, the entire Society for Creative Anachronism was based on re-creating a tournament, and when that was a lot of fun, continuing to do so. The founders of the SCA were influenced by a number of writers, in particular Jean Froissart, a 14th century historian who specifically wrote to promote chivalry as he understood it. So when I joined the SCA in my university years, I was already being influenced by the 14th century. I started to take a more scholarly interest in the 14th century and chivalry in the late 1990s. Again, Jean Froissart was my main influence. Froissart is an amazing writer. His book is full of vivid stories. Your readers can easily find some of them on the web. [Click here! – DC]

DC: In your work, you’ve looked closely at how chivalric ideals like honour and valour affected medieval identities. How much did chivalry influence people’s sense of self in the fourteenth century, both men and women?

SM: When people talk about chivalry today, they are often talking about relations between men and women. The classic example is, should men these days open doors for women, and if they don’t is chivalry dead? A friend of mine once said, the difference between courtesy and chivalry is that chivalry involves killing people. Chivalry in the 14th century was a warrior’s ideal.

Since most of society was run by warriors in the Middle Ages, the answer to your question is that chivalry was very important, but it affected men more directly than women. Even men who were not of the upper class might imitate the manners of upper-class warriors. In earlier centuries, warriors who were armed servants had climbed up the social scale by inventing the idea of chivalry – which were the virtues and practical skills that a good soldier needed – and promoted it as an ideal that improved their standing. Women participated in this by being judges and observers of the efforts of those men. People acting out chivalry had a number of audiences that they played to and one of them was noble women.

DC: I think it’s so important that you pointed out the interest of non-noble people in deeds of arms. While many (if not most) people think of formal deeds of arms as solely being the domain of the nobility, you’ve said in Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century that “the popular enthusiasm for formal combats depicted in the movie A Knight’s Tale is closer to the facts of the matter”. What do you think drew people from all walks of life to love formal combats like tournaments?

SM: The association between chivalry and ruling meant that activities associated with knights had a special prestige. Formal deeds of arms were an opportunity for one group of people to show off their skills – particularly their horsemanship – and for other people to appreciate how bold and daring they were. If you have ever seen a joust in person, you know how exciting it is just to watch. Today’s tamer horse sports are exciting enough; 14th century horsemanship was even more impressive.

DC: Also in Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century (I love this book, by the way), you mention war as a kind of “trial by battle writ large”, citing Edward III’s challenge to Philip VI to a trial by combat as an essential part of what became The Hundred Years’ War. How much of an influence did chivalric ideals have on The Hundred Years’ War? Did most of the commoners forming the infantry subscribe to these ideals?

SM: The influence of chivalry on different classes of people is an interesting question. One aspect of chivalry is that at least some of the time noble warriors on either side treat each other with respect. The common practice of capturing nobles and holding them for ransom moderated the effects of warfare on the high-ranking warriors. Ordinary soldiers could generally not expect that kind of good treatment. Nobles however in their dealings with each other very often played to the political public by advertising themselves as behaving in line with chivalric ideals.

One example from the 1340s: King Edward of England besieged the French town of Calais and built a fortification outside its walls to keep the French from relieving the garrison. The French king eventually showed up and challenged Edward to come out from his fortification and fight an open field of battle for possession of Calais. Edward refused to do that because he was very close to forcing Calais to surrender and he was safe in his fortified camp. We know that this was criticized by the French as being an unworthy way to fight. Edward was claiming to be King of France, and what kind of king could he be if he would not fight his rival when he had the opportunity? But as a practical strategy of warfare Edward was right to hold back and he took Calais.
DC: Speaking of French chivalric challenges, in Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Centuryyou look at jousts, especially the St. Inglevert jousts, as a way of building bridges between England and France during The Hundred Years’ War. How might combat have brought nations together in friendship?

SM: A joust between people who were on opposite sides in a war could either intensify their hostility or moderate it. In the case of St. Inglevert the French champions began by wanting to challenge the English to a competition in which they could prove that despite serious defeats in the past the French were the best chivalric warriors (warriors on horseback).  Politicians on both sides – and these were nobleman themselves — were looking for an opportunity to negotiate a peace treaty so the challenges were repackaged as a friendly competition between the French champions who proposed it and anybody from any country who wanted to show up. It turned into something of an Olympic competition in jousting.  Since the skill they were exercising in this competition was a specifically noble style of warfare the joust ended up being a very friendly occasion, emphasizing what these nobles had in common despite the war. I don’t know any Olympians myself but I’m sure they come back from the games with stories about how great the people in the other teams were. And I bet the Olympic Village has some great parties. St. Inglevert was a month of parties interspersed by very high level athletic competition.

DC: No wonder it was so well-chronicled! Given your expertise on formal combat and all things chivalric, I have to ask the most important question of all before you go. Who would win at a tournament: Lancelot or Gawain? 

SM: We only know what the storytellers give us, and it seems to me that they unreasonably favor Lancelot. Who would you like to lead your army?  Gawain for sure.

To learn more about fourteenth-century chivalry and formal combats, check out Steven Muhlberger’s many books on the subject (I recommend Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century as a great starting place for Kindle readers). Volume four of the Deeds of Arms series, Will a Frenchman Fight?, will be available shortly from Freelance Academy Press. In the meantime, check out his blog Muhlberger’s World History.

Books by Steven Muhlberger:

Books from Freelance Academy Press:

Deeds of Arms

Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Century 

The Combat of the Thirty

Will a Frenchman Fight?

Charny’s Men at Arms:  Questions Concerning the Joust, Tournament and War

Book from Witan Publishing:

Formal Combats in the Fourteenth Century

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

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