By Matthew Bennett
British Commission for Military History Newsletter (undated)
Introduction: But if on both sides war is decided upon and begun by the Councils of the two kings (of England and France), the soldiery may take spoil from the kingdom at will, and make war freely; and if sometimes the humble and innocent will suffer harm and lose their goods, it cannot be otherwise; … Valiant men and wise, however, who follow arms should take pains, so far as they can, not to bear hard on the simple and innocent folk but only on those who make and continue war and flee peace.’ (Honoré Bouvet, The Tree of Battles, Part Four, ch. 48)
This statement in a French vernacular law book, written in the late 14th century and dedicated to the young King Charles VI of France sums up the problem of how to be a responsible warrior. A generation later, a court poet envisaged that ‘Great She-Devil War’, ‘goddess of the infernal regions’ who brings nothing but pain and destruction to the poor inhabitants of the kingdom. He was not the first to identify how ravaged was France by the intermittent but long-lasting series of conflicts known since the mid-19th century as the Hundred Years War. Jean de Venette, a Carmelite Friar and senior member of that Order wrote feelingly about the disorder in France following the defeat and capture of King John at the battle of Poitiers in 1356:
‘From that time on all went ill with the kingdom and the state was undone. Thieves and robbers rose up everywhere in the land. The nobles despised and hated all others and took no thought for the mutual usefulness and profit of lord and men. They subjected and despoiled the peasantry and the men of the villages. In no way did they defend their country from its enemies. Rather they did trample it under foot, robbing and pillaging the peasants’ goods.’
It was hardly surprising that within a couple of years there began a series of peasant rebellions known as the Jacquerie. These were named after the archetypal French peasant Jacques Bonhomme; but that should not hide the fact that many people of gentry class and town dwellers found themselves equally at odds with their supposed social betters in the seigneurie.
‘In the same year of 1356, the citizens of Paris, fearing the enemy and putting little trust in the nobility, placed iron chains across the streets and crossroads of their city. They dug a ditch around the walls in the west and the suburbs in the east where no walls had been before, and they built new walls with gates and towers … They fortified the towers with giant crossbows, cannons, and other artillery. They destroyed all the houses which adjoined the wall and splendid dwellings both inside and out were completely demolished… I myself saw (all this happening)’.
This eyewitness testimony is again that of Jean de Venette. Also, when later the Parisians fell out with Charles, Duke of Normandy, acting as regent for his captive father, they found themselves besieged by their own countrymen as:
‘In all the country round about, misfortunes and losses due to certain nobles and freebooters were increasing more and more. Foulques de Laval with many Bretons plundered the Beauce and set fire to many villages. He pillaged Etampes, which had already been taken and burned once by freebooters like him, for the second time. The robbers came as far as Orleans and beyond, so that no one dare take the road between the two places. Neither was the road to Compiégne or anywhere else safe or secure.’
‘Losses and injuries were inflicted by friend and foe alike upon the rural population and upon monasteries standing in the open country. Everyone robbed them of their goods and there was no one to defend them. For this reason many men and women, both secular and religious were compelled on all sides to leave their abode and seek out the city … there was not a monastery in the neighbourhood of Paris, however near, that was not driven by fear of freebooters to enter the city or some other fortification, abandoning their buildings and, ‘Woe is me!’ leaving the divine offices unsung. This tribulation increased in volume, not only around Paris but also in the neighbourhood of Orléans, Tours, Nantes in Brittany, Chartres, and Le Mans, in an amazing way. Villages were burned and their population plundered. Men hastened to the cities with their carts and their goods, their wives and their children, in lamentable fashion.’
There is much here that is familiar to modern student of ‘total war’: the supportive structures of Church and State have collapsed; trade has been stifled; what would now be called Internally Displaced People roam the land and flood towards the apparent protection of towns; civil war and brigandage is rampant in the ensuing chaos; and even the quotidian comforts of communal religious services have been lost amidst the confusion, adding to a sense of moral collapse and loss of confidence in the social order. This situation goes to show just how vulnerable was medieval society to the disorder that warfare often brings in its train. So this begs the question just how common was this state of affairs, whether there was anything distinctive about the nature of warfare half-a-millennium ago, and whether there are any lessons that might be learnt from it today.