How accurate were medieval chroniclers in describing warfare?

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 The Battle of Margate is one of the lesser-known episodes of the Hundred Years’ War, but a historian has recently analyzed this naval campaign to see how accurate the accounts of medieval chroniclers were.

In his article, “Medieval Chroniclers as War Correspondents during the Hundred Years War: The Earl of Arundel’s Naval Campaign of 1387,” Adrian R. Bell compares what can be learned from this episode from English government records and from the reports of four chroniclers, including Jean Froissart.

The naval campaign was led by Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, who assembled a fleet and 2500 men in early 1387. The main event of their campaign that spring was to attack a fleet of French, Flemish and Castilian ships that were taking wine to the Low Countries. Froissart describes the battle, which took place off the English coast near the port of Margate in Kent:

The battle was very long and obstinate, for it continued three or four hours, and many of the vessels were sunk by the large bolts or iron, sharply pointed, that were cast down from the tops, and drove holes through them. When night came on, they separated and cast anchor, to repair their damages and take care of the wounded; but, on the return of the tide, they set their sails and renewed the combat…

The English force was ultimately victorious, and were able to loot close to 8000 tuns of wine – a huge amount of the drink, and for the next year the price of wine fell by more than half in England because of the glut. Bell not only notes that all the chroniclers who reported about this campaign noted this fact, but also that those Flanders, where the wine shipment was headed, called it the worst disaster to beset that area since the Black Death.

Bell, a professor at the University of Reading, focuses his research to see if the chroniclers and various government records, like muster rolls, agree on the facts of the campaign, and discovers that while they do sometimes concur, in other things like the number of troops present, they do vary, and that some events described by chroniclers don’t appear in any government records.

Bell explains, “it is important to consider the governmental records in order to be sure we are accurately reporting events. The chroniclers embellish the story for us, adding much drama, but taken alone, even if compared with other chronicles, may provide a misleading basis for research.”

The article appears in Fourteenth Century England, volume 6, which is published by Boydell and Brewer.

Sharan Newman