Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Knightly Essays

Maurice Keen is one of my favourite medieval historians, not least because he takes the knightly class seriously. He is particularly good at building a picture by assembling a series of illustrative cases. Medieval history is somewhat less prone to some of the foibles of modern academic history, as medievalists are much more likely approach the people they write about in their own terms, rather than as props for moral display. The distance—in time, outlook and social forms—from our own time no doubt helps.

Keen’s Nobles, Knights and Men-at-Arms in the Middle Ages is a collection of essays largely centred on France and England and marked by a fine sense of practicality—what problems were people trying to deal with?—and the need to see how the participants saw things.

His discussion in the first essay (War, Peace and Chivalry) brings out quite well what might be called the spiralling pattern of order and disorder through the medieval period, whereby one sees somewhat similar responses to somewhat similar problems—such as crusade-preaching Popes Urban II and Urban V both reacting to high levels of disorder (p.9), but the context has shifted somewhat.

Maintaining public order was the problem of the medieval period, just as religious dispute and public order was the problem in the next two centuries. So it made perfect sense for Charles VII, in recruiting his standing companies, to concentrate on recruiting:
captains who were of some standing, knights and esquires of noble blood, eschewing the bastards and men of no means who had risen to command from nothing but their strength and the shrewdness of their pillaging (p.17)
because folk who had stake in the social order, and were socialised into its mores, were safer bets. The standing army could also (given the income now existed to support it) absorb energies and talents that in previous generations were directed to crusading (p.17). The Christianisation of Lithuania in 1387 having taken away one of the main venues for crusading activity, the disaster of Nicopolis rather discouraged venturing to the Turkish frontier, as did the Orthodoxy of most of the Christian border states, while in Spain the small kingdom of Granada, the last survivor of al-Andalus, was a Castilian tributary.
By examining the career of various knights and nobles—for example in his essay Chaucer’s Knight Keen brings out quite clearly the continuing power of the crusading ideal in the C14th and early C15th, as Riley-Smith also does. Though now it is more a matter of making one’s way to contested frontiers (such as Spain and particularly Prussia) rather than major expeditions on the old form (the Nicopolis campaign being a disastrous exception, the Alexandrian crusade a much more profitable but inconsequential one).

Keen also has a particularly nice discussion of how Aristotle’s terms were “adjusted” by medieval commentators so as to fit the social context they were familiar with (Pp 146ff). The importance of martial activity to citizenship (i.e. political decision-making) in the Roman Republic and the Greek polis making that easier than one might otherwise expect (p.201).

In his discussion of a largely forgotten knight errant, Gadifer de La Salle, who led (for him) a somewhat ill-fated expedition to the Canary Islands we can see, as Keen says, the morphing of the crusader impulse into the later colonising one. This is Bartlett’s point: it is hardly surprising that it was the successful crusading states of Portugal and Castile-Aragon which led the European expansion (much of which was explicitly aimed at “getting around” and “outflanking” a still advancing Islam). Though the crusading impulse had a particularly disastrous late resurgence for Portugal.

I found the last two essays, on Henry V’s diplomacy and the end of the Hundred Years War, particularly enlightening. Keen gently makes the case that Henry’s tactical ability and ambition rather exceeded his strategic perception.

His discussion of how the granting of land to English nobles and knights in conquered Normandy, and the loss of looting opportunities, created a division between those with lands in France (and so an incentive to maintain the war effort) and those who did not (and so did not), is very enlightening. Both in why the English position in France collapsed so suddenly and completely and what followed. The holders of French (particularly Norman) lands were the core of the Lancastrians, the non-holders of the Yorkists. The Wars of the Roses make more sense as coming from already existing divisions. Keen is surely correct to point out that the Wars of the Roses indicate that it was not lack of martial spirit which led to the failure to maintain the English position in France (p.255).

Keen makes an explicit comparison between the settler interest in Normandy/France and the Anglo-Irish in the Pale as being in the same situation—except that the latter were more easily abandoned. Still, the examples do show a continuing weakness in the plantation strategy (used by the English successfully in Wales, without success in Scotland and with varying success in Ireland and then in the later Empire). It did create a local pro-English interest in the relevant territory but not necessarily a matching pro-settler interest in England itself—Wales being a somewhat different case because it was more easily dominated and a cessation of Welsh raiding was a widespread English interest.

That Keen can stimulate thought and enlightenment way beyond his specific topics indicates the value of his work.

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