Late Medieval Attitudes on the Evil in Warfare: Honoré Bouvet’s Arbre des batailles and its Sources

Tree of Battles - Honoré Bonet
Tree of Battles - Honoré Bonet/Bouvet
Tree of Battles – Honoré Bonet/Bouvet

Zeynep Kocabiyikoglu Cecen

Paper given at the 14th Global Conference, held at Lisbon, Portugal (2013)


The French prior Honoré Bouvet’s Arbre des batailles, published in 1387 deals mainly with the laws of warfare as they were found in the late fourteenth century. The book, drawing basically on the Italian lawyer Giovanni da Legnano’s highly academic work De bello, de represaliis et de duello and making it comprehensible to a lay audience, became a guidebook on the conduct of warfare during the fifteenth century. In his work, Bouvet, before laying out the laws—or rather the unwritten codes and morals—that should be observed by knights and other men-at-arms in the conduct of warfare, starts with an explanation of the nature of warfare and why men fight battles with each other. The essential justification for warfare is the evidence found for its origins in the Bible. As war is not only permitted but also ordained by divine law, Bouvet’s maintains that war cannot be an evil thing. Instead, he sees it as a mechanism of justice to put wrong right. These findings are also supported by natural law which presumes the tendency of everything to contradict its evil forms. Hence, it is not the nature of war but only its certain practices that causes warfare to be perceived as evil.

My approach in this paper will be to look at Bouvet’s view on the nature of warfare under these broad guidelines, and to treat them as a part of the greater tradition of medieval thought that was fed simultaneously by both pagan and Christian writings. Thus, I will try to visualise particularly the late medieval outlook on the concept of evil vis-á-vis warfare.

Since the beginning of human existence on earth, warfare has constituted a great threat to human life, safety and civilization. Both civilians and soldiers, women and children were killed, injured, and/or raped; buildings were demolished, and often entire villages, towns, or countryside were destroyed by war. Needless to say, as much as it hindered the prosperity of men, warfare has always been a natural part of their existence. The late Middle Ages was no exception to this.

When the French prior Honoré Bouvet wrote his Arbre des batailles (Tree of Wars) in 1387, the Hundred Years’ War between France and England had been already going on for half a century. Although there were anticipations for a temporary peace between the two kingdoms, which would be established two years later, the memory of the violence of war was still fresh in the minds of contemporaries. Arbre des batailles was a treatise on the laws of warfare largely based on the Italian lawyer Giovanni da Legnano’s De Bello, de represaliis et de duello, written almost three decades earlier in 1360. In its impact, the book surpassed its main source. It quickly became a guidebook to knights and men-at-arms in their conduct of war, in stark contrast to De bello which suffered from the drawbacks of its highly academic language and frequent references to theologians and canon lawyers. Bouvet’s book, in addition to its popularity as reading material, was also one of the principal sources for an equally popular book on warfare and knighthood, Christine de Pizan’s Livre de fais des arms et de chevalerie (1410). It also influenced other books of warfare and knighthood written during the fifteenth-century: Nicholas Upton’s De Studio Militari (c.1440), Jean de Bueil’s Le Jouvencel (c.1466), and William Worcester’s Boke of Noblesse (c.1475) were the most prominent examples.

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