By Danièle Cybulskie
In the fifteenth century, an elite French knight named Jean De Bueil wrote a thinly-veiled autobiography, detailing his life and career as a warrior through the character of a young man called simply “Jouvencel” (“Young Man”). In this fascinating book, De Bueil, once called “the plague of the English”, describes raids, tactics, and even deceptions in order to allow any readers who were to follow in his footsteps to become successful knights in their own right.
Along the way, De Bueil dispenses considerable chivalric wisdom, gathered from a lifetime on the battlefield. Here are ten of De Bueil’s best pieces of advice for those who wish to become renowned, honourable, and victorious knights.
1. “The warrior’s calling is to defend those who speak for all, those who labour, those who are oppressed.”
Despite – or because of – his knowing all too well the everyday ugliness of warfare itself and the toll it takes on non-combatants, De Bueil reminds his readers that being a true chivalric warrior is not about seeking battle for its own sake. Instead, it’s about defending those who cannot defend themselves, no matter what their rank in society.
2. “Hot-blooded reaction must be based on cool reflection.”
While most medieval movies contain quite a lot of hot-blooded reactions, in the actual Middle Ages, rashness was not something to be admired. Instead, a knight was to show rationality and calmness at all times – even if his aim was revenge.
3. “In war, you need to celebrate defeat as much as victory; you have to expect setbacks.”
As an experienced warrior, De Bueil knew that not every battle ends in victory, and not every defeat is the end of the war. By celebrating defeat, De Bueil means taking stock of what worked and what didn’t, celebrating coming out of battle alive (as well as any valiant deeds performed), and learning the lessons meted out. He says, “After any battle, it’s customary for all the combatants to get together and discuss who did well and who badly; what happened and what didn’t.” Learning from defeat means a better chance of victory next time around.
4. “It’s precisely when you’ve defeated an enemy that you’re most vulnerable, so that’s the time to launch an attack.”
De Bueil’s life on the battlefield has taught him that it’s never safe to rest on your laurels. While chivalry entails mercy, at the scale of armies it’s dangerous to allow your enemy the chance to regroup. A defeated enemy (as we saw) is an enemy that has new knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as a firmer resolve. Better to be sure your enemy is powerless, as De Bueil quips, “There’s many a slip between cup and lip.”
5. “Everyone benefits from fairness.”
There are many points in Le Jouvencel where the victorious get together to rehash a battle in the manner De Bueil describes above, and the spoils of war are meted out. When distributing any honours, titles, or spoils, De Bueil emphasizes the value of fairness for one and all. To fail to reward people properly is to damage pride and sow dissent among the ranks, acts which can erode an army from the inside out to devastating effect.
6. “A leader shouldn’t put himself in safety when his men are in danger.”
Along the lines of fairness, De Bueil insists that a good leader is one who doesn’t send his men into any situations he wouldn’t take on himself. Courage is a core tenet of chivalry, which makes it difficult for knights to respect or follow anyone who doesn’t display it in his own actions.
7. “A general council is better informed than one or two trusted advisors.”
Several people in Le Jouvencel are badly advised, so there is a definite emphasis on the value of receiving good advice. For De Bueil, this means collecting the opinions of all your best men, no matter their rank, in order to have a full view of the situation, rather than trusting to the one or two people who tell you you’re right. Once a leader has heard all advice, however, it’s essential for him to make a decision and stick to it.
8. “It’s the nature of war that you seize your opportunities whether things look good or not – but it’s a very important thing in war to understand the intentions of the enemy.”
The acknowledgment that no stratagem or conditions will ever be perfect is a testament to De Bueil’s speaking from hard-earned experience. Sometimes, a knight will have to fight under suboptimal conditions, to say the least. However, De Bueil insists that gathering intelligence, thinking from the enemy’s point of view, and pre-planning are paramount in order to be flexible enough to deal with the unexpected. He attributes such wisdom to Scipio Africanus when he says, “in war, there is nothing so shameful, after things have gone wrong, as to say: ‘I never thought it would happen.’”
9. “In accomplishing great things, the more you plan the luckier you get.”
Planning, as we saw, is essential to warfare, and to De Bueil’s mind, so is luck. He says, “There’s a lot of luck involved in war – and God’s rain falls where it lists.” To have the best shot at good luck, in warfare or in life, De Bueil suggests having an even better plan.
10. “Win or lose, do it with style.”
Attributed to the constable of France, Louis de Sancerre, De Bueil explains that this most quotable of quotes means “whatever the outcome of war, a man-at-arms should never lose sight of his honour.” In war, as in life, it’s how you conduct yourself that determines how you will be regarded in your lifetime, and how you will be remembered long after you’re gone.
For more great advice, as well as the compelling story of Le Jouvencel, based on De Bueil’s own career, check out Jean De Bueil: Le Jouvencel, translated by Craig Taylor and Jane H.M. Taylor.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.
Top Image: Scene from Le Jouvencel – BNF MS Francais 24380