By Danièle Cybulskie
Time and again, I’ve heard medieval knights referred to as “killing machines”, bred for a lifetime of battle and destruction. Difficult as it may be, it’s critical to for us to remember that every one of the men mired in mud and blood on the battlefield was not a machine, but a human being, filled with complex emotions that he did not leave behind if he survived combat. While many of the texts that have come down to us describe warfare simply in terms of honour and glory, there are occasionally some that intimately speak to the trauma of war.
At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo this year, I was introduced by Michael Livingston to a vivid and wrenching account of the Battle of Crécy written by a poet who may have actually borne witness to the carnage. In what seems to be the only known work by Colins de Beaumont (he appears to name himself within it), the poem is framed as a dream vision in which allegorical figures lament the fallen soldiers. Nature, Largess, Loyalty, and Prowess recount great deeds and heroic deaths, such as that of the count of Blois, who Fame says,
…descend[ed] from his horse
With a meager retinue of men.
There was his sword bathed in blood;
There I saw him bleeding and wounded,
Going on, fighting on foot,
Always ahead without turning back,
Until he had brought the standard
Of the Prince of Wales all the way to the ground
And held it in his arms
As he died. (ll.284-293)
Especially lamented in this vivid account is John of Bohemia, the blind king who entered the fray tethered to his knights so that he would not be left behind. Largesse blames Nature for the blindness that led to the king’s death, but Nature’s heartbreaking response is that she blinded him out of love, “So that he would abandon his arms / And last through his later years” (ll.189-190). It is Prowess, she says, who would not allow the king to sit on the sidelines. The ladies take their dispute to Honor, who decrees, “let there be no wailing nor weeping. / It must be abandoned, hard though it is” (ll.366-367), since death in battle is the most honourable death that could be wished for. These sentiments are pretty standard – death on the battlefield brings a knight glory – but when Fame gives Colins the task of naming the dead so that their brave deeds may live on, the poem turns intensely personal.
Fame leads Colins to a place in which any scrap of heraldry that could be gathered from the battlefield has been piled together so that the identities of the slain can be discovered. As Livingston mentions in his notes in The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook, there was indeed a tent used for such a purpose at Crécy, and Colins describes the ruined remains piled high:
There I saw cast in the middle of the floor
Many a ragged standard
And many a defouled coat,
And many a shield so shattered and so scratched
That no color nor hue appeared upon them (ll.424-428)
He recognizes many of the coats of arms, and dutifully describes the heroics of the fallen knights, listing them name by name. But, as Livingston suggested, mourning those he recognizes is not nearly as difficult for Colins as being unable to recognize other coats of arms:
Ah, Lord! I was so anguished
That I was seeing so many insignia there
And none that I could recognize,
Whether it were a little pennant or a standard,
A shield, a surcoat, or a pommel ornament:
All were dismantled and all were broken. (ll.468-473)
As Livingston noted in his talk at the ICMS, the fact that people were forced to make identifications of the dead by something so small as a heraldic sword pommel speaks to the fierceness of the fighting at Crécy, and the desperation of the heralds to collect the names of the fallen so that their souls could be prayed for. Fame does not know all the names of the fallen, so he suggests that Colins speak to two heralds who were there and had likewise suffered on the battlefield:
Guillaume … was discovered
Among the dead, wounded in the face and body,
The night after the battle,
And then indeed Huet Cholet, without doubt,
Was found on the third day after the battle,
… they had been left for dead. (ll.525-533)
Guillaume and Huet were not, it seems, of the knightly class, and yet Colins feels compelled to recount their stories, too. Part of the reason is to apologize for an incomplete roll of the dead – he has not spoken to these two witnesses yet, so he does not have a complete account – but another part, Livingston thinks (and I would certainly agree), is that Colins is writing out the trauma as a way of dealing with it. From the urgency with which he writes, it seems that recording what he has witnessed weighs heavily on Colins. He says that after waking from the dream, he immediately set about writing his vision as a poem. “I have to do this with great speed,” he says (l.554) and in rhyme, both of which will aid in keeping the memory fresh and true. Colins’ detail of the battle is striking, and his intimate knowledge of it suggests he witnessed it closely, not just in a dream. His guilt and anguish are tangible, fresh, and far in excess of what might be normally expected from an allegorical poem. Instead, Colins’ poem stretches across the centuries as a testament to the deeply traumatic nature of war, even for people who we expect to have been prepared for it over a lifetime.
An important and compelling read, Colins’ poem, entitled “On the Crécy Dead”, can be found translated into English for the first time in Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries’ excellent book, The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook.