By Steven Muhlberger
The recent translation of the 15th-century work known as Le Jouvencel is going to something that many medievalists will want to read.
People with a serious interest in medieval history can hardly avoid wrestling with multiple languages. The societies of the medieval world were multilingual, more often or not.
Most of us do not know a lot of languages, so if we want to know we have to hope that modern scholars have taken an interest, in what we now want to read, and hopefully have translated source material for us.
Fortunately, professional scholars of the past half-century have been much more interested in transferring source material than their predecessors were. And some of these translations are very good, and do an admirable job of making some of the best medieval histories and literature accessible to a very wide audience.
Craig Taylor and Jane H.M. Taylor have just recently published an English translation of Le Jouvencel (The Young Man), which was written in the Late 15th century by Jean de Bueil, a prominent French soldier. Le Bueil (who in his earliest days as a young soldier was also nick-named Le Jouvencel) wrote about his career and the philosophical conclusions that he drew from his experiences. Specialists in this period know and value Le Jouvencel, because it has so much to say about warfare in the Hundred Years War –and because it’s a lot of fun, if a rather specialized kind of fun.
For instance, take one of the best-known episodes of Le Beuil’s career:
His first enterprise…was to make a bold excursion, alone except for his page to see if he could achieve any small success against the enemy. And after a few outings he managed to capture the goats from the castle of Verset. Not content with this on another occasion he made off with Verset’s washing off the line, out of which he had his jack (cloth armor) made [since he had not had one previously].
How many readers would not have their view of the Middle Ages altered by this anecdote? I find myself particularly interested in the fact that even though he ranked as a gentleman he was quite poor.
The hero of this story, despite his youth and poverty, had the benefit of being taught the practicalities of war from men who knew how things really worked. A man named Pietres instructed him in how they were going to take a stronghold:
There are three things we need to know: whether there is water in the ditch, and how deep it is, and whether there is just marsh and mud on the bottom to make it difficult to get across. If there is water, we need to have woven pallets and bundles of brushwood, or a length of rope, running from the foot of the wall to our side, for a handrail so our men can cross safely and quickly when they are carrying the ladders. If there isn’t any water but there is a hedge, then we’ll need to make a trestle to get over it: two sections of ladder, a staging play, and a trestle.
The ladder sections will have to be long enough to clear the hedge and to make sure crossing can be done in silence. And if there’s mud, we’ll need to run lengths of ladder across it, and we’ll need a billhook to chop back any thorn branches or brambles that are getting in the way.
Another example of the method and content of the Young Man’s education shows how one of his captains put together a successful assault on Escallon, an enemy town. Although the captain is entirely serious in his discussion of the tactical problem, once again there is a strong humorous element.
I know that by the road just outside the boulevard there’s a dung-heap; It’s not a spot that they are likely to be keeping watch on, not as they do on the ditches and the palisades; apart from that, everything will certainly be patrolled. We’ll be able to sneak up under cover of darkness and conceal two hundred men in the dung-heap without anyone seeing us; I can just imagine them lying there lightly covered with dung and straw so that they can’t be seen. Then you’ll fall on the enemy as they open the gates having never paid any attention to the dung-heap; all they’ll worry about is the palisade and the ditch, they’ll never even glance at the dung-heap.
For your part, you’ll have three hundred men in ambush in the little copse at the head of a field on the side of the town away from the dung-heap — and every mounted man will have a foot soldier mounted behind him Then, as soon as your vanguard storms the gate from the dung-heap, and as soon as the inhabitants of Escallon have dropped their guard on the ditch and the palisades you’ll be able to see skirmishes breaking out all over the field. Once the defenders are out on the field, your ambush party will sweep out … with the help of God you’ll defeat the enemy.
If some of the best-known stories told by the Young Man show up in the early pages of his book, many more are found in the accounts of his later career, when he was a respected and mature commander. For instance, the Young Man systematically discussed the nature and usefulness of various kinds of troops in more than one passage. Thus :
In Genoa, when my lord of Calabria inflicted a defeat on my lord Perrin, it was because men on foot are more valuable in narrow streets. That’s why the Young Man, with no more than 108 fighters and 300 archers, was able to defeat the foreign captain with his 600 lances.
There are plenty more long and short analyses of the campaigns of Le Jouvencel and his friends, many of which have a good bit of personality.
A final characteristic of the book Le Jouvencel is the sincere and detailed interest that The Young Man shows in religious and philosophical questions. There are extensive lectures on subjects that should concern a fighting man. The makes it clear that warriors are in no way inferior to other Christians, if they follow their way of living faithfully, under the guidance of both Christian teachers and pagan philosophers.
Further, The Young Man is equally certain that the traditions of men-at-arms, rather than those of the schools, justify the high opinion that men-at-arms had of themselves. As the book says:
Even those [warriors] who are not by birth of the nobility become so by the exercise of arms and by following a martial calling which in itself constitutes nobility. I tell you, armour is so great a badge of nobility that once a man-at-arms adopts a bascinet, he becomes noble and worthy enough to fight a king. Indeed, when a king sees a man-at-arms on the field of battle, he doesn’t wonder who he is: it is enough to know that he’s a man-at-arms. A man-at-arms, after all, can take to the field and save the life of the greatest king in the world.
The book Le Jouvencel has many valuable anecdotes and analyses that allow us into the world of the late medieval warrior in a way that is quite extraordinary.
Le Jouvencel, translated by Craig Taylor and Jane H.M. Taylor, is published by Boydell & Brewer. Click here to view the publisher’s site.
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: An image from a manuscript of Le Jouvencel – Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève / Ms. fr. 187 fol. 22r