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Religion and the Military: The Good Duke as a Christian Warrior

By Steven Muhlberger

Any reader who pays close attention to the Chronicle of the Good Duke will quickly notice that his biographer, Jean Cabaret D’Orville, was anxious to portray Duke Jean of Bourbon as an extraordinarily pious man, who practiced and supported many of the varieties of the Christian religion which existed in his time. His piety stretched from old traditional ceremonies of his Duchy of Bourbon to his support of the pope at Avignon against his rival in Rome. In later years he became very contemplative is shown discussing what life and death meant to a Christian.

Few people will be surprised by Louis’ piety. During the later Middle Ages, the identification of good rulership and devotion to orthodox religion was pretty normal. Duke Louis was a natural for the role of the devout prince, since he (and his royal cousins) were descendants of the great thirteenth-century French king Louis IX – known as St. Louis.  This king was an intensely religious figure who even though he was a layman followed a life of monastic discipline (insofar as this was possible). The king also thought of himself as the enforcer of strict religious discipline in his kingdom as a whole.  He had persecuted Jews and Christian heretics, lived a personal life of asceticism, and organized not one but two Crusades.

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Duke Louis and his relatives thought of themselves as the leaders of Christian Europe. Charles VI, the king who ruled during Duke Louis’ time, was called by his subjects “the greatest king who now lives” despite the many defeats the French suffered at that time. The French royal family felt an obligation to uphold those pretentions even though they might seem to others to be unrealistic.

Duke Louis was shown by his biographer as a champion of the royal line. He became his father’s heir following the catastrophic defeat at Poitiers in 1356, but he soon was leading one bold campaign after another, mostly against the English and their mercenaries. His many successes and his connections with the other royal dukes of France made him one of the leading members of the French nobility and indeed of Europe. In his later years, he fought in campaigns that were meant as much to aid his relatives’ ambitions as to advance his own narrowly-defined interests. He was one of the leaders who crushed the rebellions in Flanders (1382), organized the Crusade against Tunis (1390), and supported a variety of other wars that took place in Germany, Brittany, Castile and Italy.

17th century portrait of Louis II of Bourbon

As much as Louis was involved in dynastic politics – both the war with England and conflicts with his cousins – Louis was equally active in what could be called holy wars or Crusades. Duke Louis certainly believed in the necessity of holy war and did not hesitate to fight enemies he or his biographer considered “miscreants” (heretics or villains), or otherwise lacking in honor. His soldiers taught him a lesson about the limits of fighting such lowlifes in an early campaign, when the enthusiastic Duke Louis was ready to throw himself into an attack on the illegitimate occupiers of a strategic stronghold in central France.  His men-at-arms told him

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We pray you humbly… that you personally should not go there; For they are excommunicated by the sentence of the Pope, and are men of the companies (meaning, “outlaw companies”) and without absolution, if you please order us to go there… it would be granting too much honor to such people …, that such a prince as you would go there. For they are excommunicated by the sentence.

Louis’ men were thinking of the fact that their enemies were guilty of burning people in “hell” (a firepit which was used as a threat to extort money from the wealthier inhabitants of the countryside.)  It would seem that Louis’ men hoped that Louis would destroy these interlopers and not merely force them to surrender.

The Chronicle of the Good Duke preserves a number of stories that show that commoners, rebels, or heretics might in some circumstances be considered to be fighting on an honorable basis. For instance, when Louis led a siege against the impressive fortification of Vertueil, calculations of honor decided the result. Duke Louis’ reputation by this time was quite high, and he might have used it to destroy the garrison, which seems to have been abandoned by its captain. But the remaining lieutenant, possibly fearing execution as an outlaw, agreed to surrender Vertueil if the duke would grant him the rank of knighthood. The two leaders gained what they wanted, by treating each other with respect.

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Louis categorized another group as miscreants even though they were not strictly speaking heretics: the urban rebels in Flanders who rejected the rule of the Count of Flanders. Relations between the French royalty and the Flemish counts were not usually very good, but the aristocratic regimes nevertheless gave priority to defeating the rich bourgeois. Louis took part in the substantial effort of repression. Louis’ biographers make it clear through rather heated language denouncing “the swarming and murderous Flemings” that Louis and his allies were upholding good order and fighting “rabble.”

Duke Louis was quite willing to contribute men and resources to worthy causes, even if he was too busy to go himself. During one truce with England he allowed and encouraged some of his enthusiastic men-at-arms to take part in the Reise, an ongoing Crusade against the Baltic pagans. Louis’ biographer did not include an account of what worthy deeds Louis accomplished in Prussia—in the end he didn’t go –but instead showed Louis introducing his men to a higher standard of chivalry – he made it possible for them to meet and associate with men-at-arms from all over Europe.

Detail of a miniature of the French army disembarking in Tunisia, led by the Duke of Bourbon holding a shield bearing the royal arms of France – British Library MS Royal 14 D VI f. 84v

Perhaps the most interesting example of Louis as a Christian warrior took place on the Crusade against Tunis. Louis was one of the chiefs of this international expedition, and perhaps one of most serious among them. One of his rivals was the French jousting champion Boucicaut. As the siege dragged on, Boucicaut got bored and decided to arrange jousts against the Muslim defenders of Tunis. Others among the French were equally bored and began abandoning their assigned positions, to either fight or watch others fight. The army began to disintegrate—one lord told Louis that “the people run like beasts over there with Boucicaut.” It was clear to Louis that it was unworthy – and, no doubt, dangerous – for Crusaders to fool around in this manner. Louis took over, gathering the French together to strike at Tunis. Louis saved the day but the Chronicle is quite specific about Louis’s disapproval. Afterwards, “he very violently spoke to Boucicaut, concerning his great follies.” Louis was not able to keep the Crusaders on a short leash, and ostensibly friendly deeds of arms took place later in the campaign. What Louis may have thought of these challenges we just don’t know.

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Louis was, in the eyes of his biographer and his informants, more than a holy warrior. Readers can see for themselves by checking out Louis’ innovations in artillery, his determination to lead the dynasty in defiance of several other members, and his special relationship with Charles VI. Nevertheless, one of the key elements of Louis’ character was his piety – at least in the eyes who considered him a Good Duke.

The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon is published by Freelance Academy Press. You can learn more about it and purchase a copy by clicking here.

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 more tales from Steve Mulhberger

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