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The Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War

By Steven Muhlberger

If you asked anyone to name ten disasters of the European Middle Ages, or even five, their list would certainly include the Black Death, the most famous pandemic, which was most active between 1347 CE and 1352, and the Hundred Years War (1337- 1452). These two events overlapped in time and space, and those who suffered that vicious one-two punch undoubtedly had to deal with unprecedented mortality and confusion.

Th bubonic plague killed an astonishing number of Europeans.  We can’t be sure what the final toll of COVID-19 will be, but the possibility that as many as 500,000 may be seriously affected, resulting in economic chaos, is alarming enough. These estimates pale in the face of Black Death casualties.  It is quite possible that the Black Death killed roughly 25 million, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the European population. The modern states forced to deal with COVID=19 are facing tremendous difficulties in maintaining economic activity at the 5% casualty level.  If we now had to deal with 14th century levels, it is near impossible to visualize what could be done to feed and protect the population at large.

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Nevertheless the combination of Black Death and Hundred Years War had major effects on how war was waged in the fourteenth century. They were quite complex and resulted in some rather fascinating changes.

Despite the vast mortality of the era, military institutions and practices did not collapse. A basic fact, if we want to understand the evolution of warfare in this period, is that the fourteenth century was the end of a long era of growth – growth of population, of trade, of agriculture. This was not an unalloyed blessing. The profits seldom went to the people who did the work, even when those profits were increasing. Princes and kings had acquired more power to tax and demand military service. Subjects resisted these impositions when they could, but military capability and increased financial gain made possible the growth of some military establishments, notably the Plantagenet dynasty of England (Edward I, II, III and Edward the Black Prince). New techniques, new resources, combined with a long-standing and growing ideology of chivalry made the English armies, when good leadership was available, increasingly effective. See how an English knight justified himself at the Battle of Poitiers, a few years after the first outbreak of the plague.

The lord James Audley …said to [Edward the Black Prince]: “Sir, I have ever served most loyally my lord your father, and yourself, and shall continue to do so, as long as I have life. Dear sir, I must now acquaint you, that formerly I made a vow, if ever I should be engaged in any battle where the king your father or any of his sons were, that I would be the foremost in the attack, and the best combatant on his side, or die in the attempt. I beg therefore most earnestly, as a reward for any services I may have done, that you would grant me permission honourably to quit you, that I may post myself in such wise to accomplish my vow.”  The prince granted this request, and, holding out his hand to him, said; “Sir James, God grant that this day you may shine in valour above all other knights.” ~ Jean Froissart, translation by Thomas Johnes, Book 1, ch. 161:1.

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Sir James not only fulfilled his oath, with its strong emphasis on his personal honor, but was acknowledged as one of the architects of the English victory. The chronicler Froissart adds that:

this lord James was a prudent and valiant knight; and by his advice the army had thus been drawn up in order of battle.

James Audley was an establishment figure, undoubtedly one of the knights trained up by Edward III over a number of decades to be leaders in his wars with Scotland and France.  His career was a successful one. But it is precisely at this time, in the years when the bubonic plague hit for the first time, that lesser soldiers started taking things into their own hands. As kings became saddled by debts, their soldiers were forced to support themselves by plundering the surrounding countryside. Such groups would not admit to being bandits, and some of them could claim some kind of authority.  But in fact these “companies” instigated new wars, mostly small-scale but lucrative nonetheless. They had been attracted to chaotic France from such places as Germany, and when they learned the appropriate skills, or had their pay cut off (or both), they took it upon themselves to dismantle the local society.  Neither Edward III nor the Valois kings (both of which saw the other as their chief rival) were in a position to roll back this “invasion.” What they could do was wage war on the common people, justifying their behavior as best they could.

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Combat of the Thirty

In March 1351, the leader of an “English” garrison in Brittany offered this excuse for fighting a nearby “French” garrison, even though the two companies may have been at truce:

Montfort will be duke of this noble duchy,
From Pontorson to Nantes and right up to St. Mahé.
Edward will be crowned king of France,
The English have the mastery
Despite all the French and all their allies.

The pro-French Bretons, led by Beaumanoir, presented themselves as defenders of the good people of Brittany from these brutal outsiders, who were robbing and ransoming the peasantry:

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The Bretons saw the small folk suffer,
And for them they had great pity.
One was in shackles, another was put in irons,
One in handcuffs and another in dungeon.
Two by two, three by three, each one was bound
Like cows and oxen which are led to market.
When Beaumanoir saw them his heart sighed,
And this is what he said, with great boldness to Brambro

Knights of England, you do great evil,
To torment the poor people, those who sow the grain
And provide the meat and the wine that they raise.
Without such workers nobles would have to labor
In the fields with the flail and the hoe.
They would suffer poverty, and this would be
A great and unaccustomed toil.
Those who have endured so much should have peace…

The two sides made big claims for their positions, but in fact restricted themselves to staging a deed of arms of thirty men against thirty. The participants were famous not for their success in forwarding the announced war aims, but for their courage in refusing to run away. Did the Combat make any difference to the course of the Breton war or the Hundred Years War? No, but the Combat did become an early example of the kind of small wars that would afflict France for decades to come.

Two characteristics of the Combat of the Thirty reflect the evolution of the Hundred Years War. The peasantry, the lesser clergy and other non-combatants were the victims of the companies and armies that should have been protecting them. An anonymous Breton poem also identifies two of the English combatants, Robert Knowles and Hugh Calverley, as losers. But the poet almost certainly was quite aware that they went on to great success. Despite their “base extraction,” which prevented them from ever acquiring aristocratic titles, their successes on campaign were impossible to ignore, and they became very rich men. Their careers illustrate how the making of war was being transformed. The very structure of the aristocratic state now often depended on men who hardly counted in earlier wars.

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Commoners and war

A final change that took place was the increasing participation of commoners in the funding and participation of commoners in war. The idea that rulers needed the consent of the governed before extraordinary taxes for war could be collected was a practical factor in politics before the beginning of the fourteenth century. Regional assemblies in France and parliaments in England, Scotland and Ireland did not have the same role as later assemblies, but they became the site of debates on defense and offense, the most important business of the king. By the late fourteenth century the English parliament was a unique forum where royal ministers, experienced war leaders, and rich merchants and landlords thrashed out plans acceptable to all parts of the community – or at least attempted to do so.

During and after the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death, the complexities produced by these great crises often could not be solved. Too many changes in long-established economic and social relationships were rejected by one party or another. With the drop in population, for instance, land rents became cheaper – or at least were expected to do so. Wage earners looked forward to better wages. Urban leaders, a prime source of taxation for war, felt they were being exploited. At various times anger swelled up in cities or the countryside, resulting in dramatic rebellions, some of the largest in the Middle Ages. Peasants in southeastern England, the richer inhabitants of Paris, the dissatisfied people of Flanders all organized for war – wars that had as their justification the belief that the military class was not doing its job of defending the realm. Thus the commoners picked up their own weapons – and they had plenty — and trained for battle.

We see then, how determined men would fight even in difficult situations.  That willingness to “soldier on” is found in many historic campaigns and battles, and was not lacking in the war-torn fourteenth century.

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.

Click here to read his column Tales from the Hundred Years’ War

Further Reading:

Froissart, Jean.  Chroniques.  ed. Thomas Johnes (various editions, 1805-).

Muhlberger, Steven, trans. and ed.  The Combat of the Thirty (Freelance Academy Press, 2012).

Sumption, Jonathan.  The Hundred Years War., 3 vol. to date (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990-).

Wright, Nicholas. Knights and Peasants: The Hundred Years War in the French Countryside (Woodbridge, 1999).

Top Image: English and French at battle – BnF MS Français 87 fol.158v

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