By Steven Muhlberger
The Hundred Years War was a huge historical event which compelled some participants to record their experiences, heroic and horrible. How did those individual experiences get passed down? In the case of men at arms we might answer “gossip.” We know that warriors gathered in taverns, courts or camps, spreading their stories around by word of mouth, until some would-be literary man wrote them down. A surprising number survive, and they get us as close to warriors’ experience as we are likely to get.
One well-known collection comes from the famous chronicler, Jean Froissart (1338-1410). Although officially a cleric, Froissart lived the life of an ambitious poet, hanging around aristocratic courts where he entertained with writing on fashionable subjects – love and chivalry! Aristocrats were also warriors, and Froissart appealed to their military interests by creating a huge history of the war, the Chronicles. It contains material clearly derived from warriors’ tales; indeed in some places Froissart shows himself taking part in story-telling sessions.
One of his tales comes from the year 1380, when Thomas Earl of Buckingham, the youngest son of Edward III, launched a chevauchée or large raid against northern France and Brittany, whose duke had signaled a willingness to help fight the French if England sent an army. The expedition was a failure; many of the English who took part found it very frustrating because the French armies, following royal command, did not engage with the invaders. There were exceptions. Someone told Froissart a tale praising Gauvain Michaille for his boldness.
Gauvin Michaille was with the French army when the English army got to Beauce. They found the countryside there well defended. All the castles and fortresses were full of men at arms.
The English attacked Toury. At first it was nothing more than some skirmishing. Then a squire named Gauvin Micaille emerged from the gate and came to the barriers. He was well-known among the French as a man who had advanced himself by his own merit. He spoke to the English quite boldly:
“Is there among you any gentleman who for love of his lady is willing to try with me some feat of arms? If there should be any such, here I am, quite ready to sally forth completely armed and mounted, to joust three blows with the lance, to give three blows with the battle-axe, and three strokes with the dagger. Now look, you English, are none among you in love?”
He was much looked at by the English, for they did not think any Frenchman would have engaged body to body. A good English jouster called Joachim Cator, stepped forth and crossed the barriers at the gate. “I will deliver him from his vow: let him make haste and come out of the castle.” Gauvain Micaille quickly prepared himself and emerged with two others, two valets who carried three lances, three battle-axes, and three daggers. There were besides to be three strokes with a sword, and with all other sorts of arms. Gauvain had three of each weapon brought with just in case any should break.
The English were so interested that they all gave up attacking Toury, and even the commanders, even the earl of Buckingham, rode over to where the fighting would take place.
It was something of an anticlimax. The horses were so excited that on the first course of jousting neither man hit the other.
The second course was somewhat better, but the Earl looked around and decided that it was time to set up camp for the night. Buckingham shouted out “Hold there! It grows late; we have an army that must set up camp.”
To give the Earl credit, he was unwilling that the rest of the challenge should go unanswered. He continued, saying “We will have these gentlemen finish up when we have more leisure. Take as much care of the French squire as to our own; and order someone to tell those in the castle not to be uneasy about him, for although we shall take him with us, he won’t go as a prisoner; and that when he has finished his challenge, if he escapes with his life, we’ll send him back in all safety.”
Michaille was taken aback by that and somewhat apprehensive. “God help me!” he exclaimed.
A few days later Buckingham and his men were camped in Marchenoir, and were secure enough there that the Earl ordered preparations to be made for Micaille and Cator to finish their enterprise. Both English and French men at arms came to see it.
Once again, however, the enterprise was not finished. In the first course, although the French squire jousted well: but the Englishman kept his spear too low, and struck it into the thigh of the Frenchman.
The Earl of Buckingham was enraged with Joachim Cator, who had made his people look bad, and said it was jousting dishonorably; but Joachim declared that it was solely owing to the restiveness of his horse. After the two squires had fought with swords the Earl saw at the French squire was bleeding badly.
The Earl then had Gauvain Micaille disarmed and his wound dressed. The Earl sent him home with a gift of one hundred francs and a herald to lead him safely through the countryside, back to his own army.
Gauvin Michaille is a good example of how men of moderate skill could gain fame through a combination of prowess and determination. Michaille was associated with one of the most famous fighting households of the late 14th century, the company of Duke Louis of Bourbon. He was remembered with respect by the author of the Chronicle of the Good Duke. Michaille left his fighting career behind when he was seriously injured.
Steven Muhlberger, before his recent retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include the “Deeds of Arms Series” published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: BNF Français 356 Fol. 113r