By Steven Muhlberger
Over the last few years, I have been working on a translation of a 15th-century biography of Louis II, Duke of Bourbon. Now that it is published, I wanted to explain why this work is so interesting and a valuable insight into the Middle Ages.
Late medieval writers had a strong interest in chivalric biographies which were devoted to demonstrating that their subject was the best knight and warrior of recent times. This was a period of literary energy – we’re talking about the early Renaissance here – and dramatic warfare. Writers of ambition found a worthwhile subject in the careers of great knights and warlords.
The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon was one of these contemporary accounts. It was devoted to memorializing the accomplishments of one of the great French warlords of the middle years of the Hundred Years’ War, Duke Louis II. The Chronicle was focused on his extensive military career, but had much to say about Louis as a leader in many fields – politics, religion, even organizing naval and siege warfare. When we moderns pick up this book we benefit from the knowledge of working soldiers and commanders, much of it acquired from experience on the battlefield.
The Chronicle is a valuable collection of stories from a variety of sources: material that may have come from Duke Louis’ grandfather’s court (since Duke Charles of Bourbon was responsible for commissioning the work), and many stories were handed down from soldiers who had been trained and led by Duke Louis. Men who had fought with Duke Louis might naturally have much to say about how wars were fought and should be fought. Certainly, a warlord of the stature of Duke Louis would either be a trained general or be surrounded by such generals. In fact, from the time Louis succeeded to his father, following the at Poitiers, he was involved in various campaigns, mainly against the English almost without a break.
Louis was one of the highest-ranking nobles in France and as Duke of Bourbon one of the key figures in the defense of central France, a strategic area where English troops and freebooters defied the King of France. Louis very quickly took on the responsibility for reestablishing royal authority in Bourbon, largely by insisting that those who owed him service should honor the traditional bonds between them. Soon after his return to Bourbon Louis called them to their duty in a stirring speech:
“I request your affirmation that you will help me to make up the time I have lost, and to restore my place in the house from which I have been cast out. … I pray that, along with the other boons you have granted me, you will help me in this. For I want to live and die with you, and I suspect that you feel the same towards me.”
And they responded, weeping with joy: ” God be blessed! For we have our lord and master.”
This was the beginning of Louis’s decades-long military career, in which he led his troops in person, or provided his king with men for offensive operations. For instance, after only a few years of Louis successfully retaking French strongholds, the royal government borrowed his men to support a daring Bourbonnais raid on England, thus reversing the usual pattern of 14th-century conflict between the two major powers. Here and later, Louis’ men gained a reputation, thanks to the performance of his well-organized companies. Many of these “companions” were listed and praised in the Chronicle. It is clear that the biography was not simply the story of Duke Louis, but also a record of the accomplishments of the Bourbon military household.
In later life, Louis aided his cousin, King Charles VI, in following an ambitious diplomatic and military policy. This policy was not very successful in English-occupied France but Louis was able to use his resources as the Duke to extend French power in such places as Prussia, Castile, Italy, Germany and the coasts of the Mediterranean. In different places and times, things were not so good- compare these victories to the later defeats at Nicopolis, Tunis and Agincourt. Yet the author (Jean Cabaret d’Orville), the next-generation leader (Jean de Châteaumorand) and the patron of the biographical project (Duke Charles of Bourbon) found much to be worthy of inclusion in the Chronicle.
Louis was a good duke to his men and in the judgment of his followers, whom he had done so much for deserved his reputation, military and otherwise. and the effort he put into creating his own army is a great story that tells the modern reader so much about what late medieval men-at-arms valued.
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.