Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘European’


Nobles Had Little To Do With Their Children

Indeed the medieval magnates had surprisingly little to do with their children. Almost immediately after birth, they were handed over to the care of a nurse whose duties, as described by Bartholomew the Englishman, included not only the physical care of the child, but also the display of affection which is now considered essentially maternal. According to Bartholomew the nurse’s duties were very extensive. She was ordained to nourish and feed the child, to give it suck, to kiss it if it fell, and comfort it if it wept, and to wash it when it was dirty. The nurse was also to teach the child to speak by sounding out the words for him, to dose him with medicines when necessary, and even to chew the toothless child’s meat so that he could swallow it. The mother must have been a rather remote figure. Discipline was always considered the father’s primary duty. Bartholomew specifically insisted that the father must treat his child with harshness and severity. He should teach him with scoldings and beatings, put him under wardens and tutors, and, above all, show "no glad cheer lest the child wax proud". The old adage of "spare the rod and spoil the child" was firmly entrenched in all medieval treatises on the proper upbringing of children.

Margaret Wade Labarge, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, pp. 45-46

Money in Medieval England and France

Like everything else about the Middle Ages, styles of money varied from place to place, and understanding the relationship between denominations can therefore be confusing. In fact, in the thirteenth century [C.E.], there was only one type of coin in existence: a small, silver piece known in England as a penny and in France as a denier. In England, twelve pennies equaled a shilling (although there were no shillings minted, you simply counted out twelve pennies into someone’s hand); in France twelve deniers equaled a sous (although, likewise, there were no sous in existence). There were, in England, 20 shillings or 240 pennies to a pound sterling; in France there were 20 sous or 240 deniers to a livre. Once again, there was no actual coin struck representing a pound or a livre; to payoff the debt of a pound the debtor handed the creditor a sack containing 240 pennies; in France, to pay off the debt of a livre, the sack would contain 240 deniers. In England, just to make the concept as complicated as possible, they also measured silver by a weight measure called the mark. A mark was two-thirds the weight of a pound sterling, so a mark of silver was the same as 160 pennies. But if the debt was in marks, you didn’t have to supply pennies, a person could use any silver he or she happened to have lying around the house, like a silver plate, just so long as it weighed the right number of marks. When [King Henry III of England] and [Queen] Eleanor promised to pay the pope 135,541 marks to fund [their son] Edmund‘s campaign for the kingship of Sicily, they were promising to pay approximately £90,812, or nearly three years’ income, some of which, presumably, could have come in the form of the royal dining service.…

Just like today, French money and English money differed sufficiently so as to require a rate of exchange. In France, the quality and fineness of a denier (and therefore of a livre composed of those deniers) varied so much that the coins were labeled by location, which is why some of the French sums mentioned in [this book] were specified as livres toumois (minted in Tours, of high quality) and others as livres parisis (minted in Paris, of much lower quality).… The exchange rate in 1265 [C.E.] between livres parisis and the pound sterling was 90 sous (or 1,080 deniers) to the pound. To make it easier, there were 4½ livres parisis to a pound sterling, and 3 livres parisis to a mark. The annual French royal income of 250,000 livres (most likely livres parisis) was therefore the equivalent of about £55,556, a much larger sum than was available to their English counterparts. Henry and Eleanor only had an average annual income of about £36,000.

Anyone who wants to go deeper into this subject should definitely read Peter Spufford’s authoritative and comprehensive work, Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1988), and its complement, The Handbook of Medieval Exchange.

Nancy Goldstone, Four Queens, pp. 309-10

Emphasis mine.

Alchemy Is a Very Broad Church

Alchemy is very old. Ancient Egyptian texts talk of techniques of distillation and metallurgy as mystical processes. Greek myths such as the quest for the Golden Fleece can be seen to have an alchemical layer of meaning, and Fludd, Boehme and others have interpreted Genesis in the same alchemical terms.

A quick survey of alchemical texts ancient and modern shows that alchemy, like the [Kabbalah], is a very broad church. If there is one great mysterious ‘Work’, it is approached via a remarkable variety of codes and symbols. In some cases the Work involves Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, in others roses, stars, the philosopher’s stone, salamanders, toads, crows, nets, the marriage bed, and astrological symbols such as the fish and the lion.

There are obvious geographical variations. Chinese alchemy seems less about the quest for gold and more about a quest for the elixir of life, for longevity, even immortality. Alchemy also seems to change through the ages. In the third century [C.E.] the alchemist [Zosimos] wrote that ‘the symbol of the chymic art—gold—comes forth from creation for those who rescue and purify the divine soul chained in the elements’. In early Arab texts the Work involves manipulations of these same Four Elements, but in European alchemy, rooted in the Middle Ages and flowering in the seventeenth century [C.E.], a mysterious fifth element, the Quintessence, comes to the fore.

If we begin to look for unifying principles, we can see immediately that there are prescribed lengths of time or numbers of repetitions for the various operations, the distilling, the applying of gentle heat and so on.

There are obvious parallels, then, with meditative practice and this suggests immediately that these alchemical terms may be descriptions of subjective states of consciousness rather than the sort of chemical operations that might be performed in a laboratory.

Mark Booth, The Secret History of the World, pp. 338-40

More on Hunting as War Training

I have previously posted on Hunting as War Training. Both this and that excerpt reference the medieval European experience, but the concept is not exclusive to that period.

Hunting in all its forms was strongly recommended by chivalric writers as the perfect preparation for military life. The typical argument was put forward in the first half of the fourteenth century [C.E.] by [King] Alfonso XI, who found time between ruling his kingdom of Castile and fighting the Moors to write a book about the sport.

For a knight should always engage in anything to do with arms and chivalry, and if he cannot do so in war, he should do so in activities which resemble war. And the chase is most similar to war, for these reasons: war demands expense, met without complaint; one must be well horsed and well armed; one must be vigorous, and do without sleep, suffer lack of good food and drink, rise early, sometimes have a poor bed, undergo cold and heat, and conceal one’s fear.

Different types of hunting required different skills, all relevant to warfare, including knowledge of the quarry’s habits, handling a pack of hounds, complete control of an often-frightened horse and the use of various weapons, including spears and swords to perform the kill.

Juliet Barker, Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England, Chapter 2

Medieval English Currency

In the fifteenth century [C.E.], [the English] one pound sterling (£1) was divided not just into twenty shillings (20s), or two hundred and forty pence (240d), but also into six parts: one sixth (3s 4d) was known as a crown, a third (6s 8d) as a noble and two thirds (13s 4d) as a mark. To give the reader a rough idea of the current values of these sums, I have used figures supplied by the Office for National Statistics, which equate £1 in 1415 with £414 ($666.54) in 1999.

Juliet Barker, Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England, p. xv

Prepared to Die But Not to Kill

It’s curious, the number of sensible men who steeled themselves to the risk of the duel, came to terms with the possibility of death, hoped to die bravely and well, wrote their wills and a few last letters to their families, said their prayers, and went forth to the meeting, and then were stricken with horror to find themselves still standing and their adversary dead. They’d readied themselves to die but not to kill. The other man lying there bleeding to death caught them by surprise.

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, p. 208

War Was Made to Pay for Itself Through Pillage

…Raising money to pay the cost of war was to cause more damage to 14th century [C.E.] society than the physical destruction of war itself. The governing fact was that medieval organization by this time had passed to a predominantly money economy. Armed forces were no longer primarily feudal levies serving under a vassal’s obligation who went home after forty days; they were recruited bodies who served for pay. The added expense of a paid army raised the cost of war beyond the ordinary means of the sovereign. Without losing its appetite for war, the inchoate state had not yet devised a regular method to pay for it. When he overspent, the sovereign resorted to loans from bankers, towns, and businesses which he might not be able to repay, and to the even more disruptive measures of arbitrary taxation and devaluation of the coinage.

Above all, war was made to pay for itself through pillage. Booty and ransom were not just a bonus, but a necessity to take the place of arrears in pay and to induce enlistment. The taking of prisoners for ransom became a commercial enterprise. Since kings could rarely raise sufficient funds in advance, and collection of taxes was slow, troops in the field were always ahead of their pay. Loot on campaign took the place of the paymaster. Chivalric war, like chivalric love, was, as Michelet said of the whole epoch, double et louche (a provocative phrase which could mean “double and squinting” or “equivocal” or “shady” in the sense of disreputable). The aim was one thing and the practice another. Knights pursued war for glory and practiced it for gain.

Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, p. 84

Emphasis mine.

Mission Tactics: Knowing When Not to Obey Orders

Nothing epitomized the outlook and performance of the [nineteenth-century C.E.] German General Staff, and of the German Army which it coordinated, more than this concept of mission tactics: the responsibility of each German officer and noncommissioned officer—and even Moltke‘s ‘youngest soldier’—to do without question or doubt whatever the situation required, as he saw it. This meant that he should act without awaiting orders, if action seemed necessary. It also meant that he should act contrary to orders, if these did not seem to be consistent with the situation.

To make perfectly clear that action contrary to orders was not considered either as disobedience or lack of discipline, German commanders began to repeat one of Moltke’s favorite stories, of an incident observed while visiting the headquarters of Prince Frederick Charles. A major, receiving a tongue-lashing from the Prince for a tactical blunder, offered the excuse that he had been obeying orders, and reminded the Prince that a Prussian officer was taught that an order from a superior was tantamount to an order from the King. Frederick Charles promptly responded: “His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when not to obey his orders.” This simple story became guidance for all following generations of German officers.

Trevor N. Dupuy, A Genius For War, p. 116

Emphasis mine.

No Match for a Well-Trained Aristocrat

All [medieval Japanese] warriors, regardless of rank, were trained in swordsmanship. Those of the upper ranks, of course, had more time to devote to the pursuit of excellence in this art, and to the pursuit of superior instructors—which explains why a retainer of lower rank, notwithstanding his longer exposure to the hardships of military life, was usually no match for a higher-ranking bushi in a duel. This type of situation…resembles that of Europe during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries [C.E.], when hardened veterans of countless battles were still no match for a well-trained aristocrat with a sword—the noble’s weapon which, with the rise of the bourgeoisie to power at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, became known as the gentleman’s weapon.

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 254-55

The Despised Foot Soldier

Protected by plate armor and the pride of chivalry, the noble felt himself invulnerable and invincible and became increasingly contemptuous of the foot soldier. He believed that commoners, being excluded from chivalry, could never be relied upon in war. As grooms, baggage attendants, foragers, and road-builders—the equivalent of engineer corps—they were necessary, but as soldiers in leather jerkins armed with pikes and billhooks, they were considered an encumbrance who in a sharp fight would “melt away like snow in sunshine.” This was not simple snobbism but a reflection of experience in the absence of training. The Middle Ages had no equivalent of the Roman legion. Towns maintained trained bands of municipal police, but they tended to fill up their contingents for national defense with riff-raff good for nothing else. Abbeys had better use for their peasants than to employ their time in military drill. In any epoch the difference between a rabble and an army is training, which was not bestowed on foot soldiers called up by the arrière-ban. Despised as ineffective, they were ineffective because they were despised.

Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, p. 89

Emphasis mine.

Versatility of the Napoleonic Army Corps

Among the reforms of the army begun before the [French] Revolution was the development of the corps d’armée. Napoleon saw the value of this reform, adopting and developing it into what has been called his secret weapon. The Napoleonic army corps was a well-balanced unit comprising all arms: infantry, cavalry and artillery, with attached engineers, auxiliary trains and a headquarters staff. The corps was in effect an army in miniature, although its size, anywhere from 5,000 to 40,000 men, could rival that of many 18th-century armies. The corps would be made up of a number of infantry and cavalry divisions, each of two or more brigades with attached artillery. As Napoleon’s corps structured army went into battle against a traditionally organized enemy force, each of his corps, being a complete fighting force, could go into action without delay as soon as it arrived on the field. When [Marshal Louis-Nicolas] Davout, one of the pre-eminent corps commander of the period, brought his men by an epic forced march directly into the fray at Austerlitz, he undoubtedly stopped the great Russian envelopment of the French right which would have threatened to cut across Napoleon’s line of communication and make his position untenable. The size of a corps could vary and would depend on several factors, such as its particular task and the ability of its commanding general. To his step-son, Eugéne de Beauharnais, Napoleon in 1809 commented, ‘…a corps of 25,000-30,000 men can be left on its own. Well handled it can fight or alternatively avoid action…an opponent cannot force it to accept an engagement, but if it chooses to do so it can fight alone for a long time.

David Hamilton-Williams, Waterloo: New Perspectives, p. 115

Emphasis mine.

A More Varied Diet Means a Healthier Population

We can dimly make out what seems to have been an agricultural revolution in al-Andalus during this period [circa 1000 C.E.]. An increase in productivity was made possible by more intense exploitation of the land. Irrigation, in particular, enlarged the growing season of the year—you can raise four vegetable crops a year on well-tended irrigated land in Mediterranean Spain—and eased dependence on unpredictables such as the weather. Higher and more stable incomes were the result, and with greater prosperity came greater confidence….

More varied crops did more than just diversify gastronomy. (Think of the bleakness of a world without lemons or spinach.) A better, more varied diet means a healthier population. Hard wheat, the main constituent of pasta, grows in drier conditions than soft (bread) wheat and stores for a prodigiously long time because of the low water content of the grain. Al-Razi (d. 955) tells us that around Toledo it would keep in store without decay for upwards of sixty years; it was transmitted in inheritance from father to son like other property. Crops such as this helped to stave off the threat of famine. Prosperity meant earlier marriage, larger families, diversification, opportunity, leisure.

Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid, pp. 19-20

The Rapier Was the Blade of Choice

The old original war sword was so massive it sometimes required both hands. It had been designed—and worked splendidly if you were strong enough—for knocking an armored knight off his horse, but it was useless at close quarters except as a bludgeon. The duel of honor refined it.

From the mid-sixteenth century [C.E.] through the seventeenth, the rapier was the blade of choice. It was sharp-edged but used primarily for thrusting, not cutting, and it was a formidable piece, often nearly four feet long, topped by an elaborate hand guard, and weighed two and a half pounds. Wearing it advertised how tall as well as how brave you were: Four feet of steel hanging from your waist, and you swaggering around with it, made a statement.

Elizabethan London passed an ordinance against strolling the streets with more than a three-foot blade; if you came into the city with something longer, the gatekeepers were under orders to break off the extra inches. Even so, that’s a lot of blade, and it was often used in combination with a dagger for close work.

In 1599 [C.E.], a gentleman named George Silver published an attack on this newfangled monster, developed, he says, as a purely civilian weapon with no distinguished military history. It was, in effect, a costume accessory, ineffective for serious fighting. Once your opponent is past your point, he complained, it is too difficult to clear your weapon and bring the point to bear again; the length of the blade drags in the hand, and it tends to favor the thrust, which can be turned aside easily, over the cut that takes manly strength to avoid.

Not everyone agreed. Long after the rapier had evolved into lighter, shorter versions, some still swore by it. Late in the nineteenth century, Captain Sir Richard Burton, in The Sentiment of the Sword, wrote of it with passion:

Amongst all weapons the rapier alone has its inner meanings, its arcana, its mysteries. See how it interprets a man’s ideas. and obeys every turn of his thoughts! At once the blade that threatens and the shield that guards, it is now agile, supple, and intelligent; then slow, sturdy, and persevering; here, light and airy, prudent and supple; there, blind and unreflecting, angry and vindictive; I am almost tempted to call it, after sailor fashion, ‘she.’

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 59-60

Emphasis mine.

Only Gentlemen Had Honor

The Italians drew up the earliest dueling codes to protect and enforce honor; Flos duellatorum came out in 1410 [C.E.] and young gentlemen all over Europe studied its delicate ethical matters and the subtle new swordplay more suited to personal encounters than the slash-and-whack of battle. In 1550, Girolamo Muzio’s Il duello succeeded it and was even more popular. Italians opened fencing schools, attended by eager young gentlemen from all over, and sent fencing masters to the rest of Europe. By 1480, Germany had opened dueling schools called Fechtschulen that enjoyed the special protection of the emperor himself and established a tradition beloved by the military and university students well into the twentieth century—some say the twenty-first.

The notion of a gentleman defending his personal honor, the notion that obsessed the Western world for centuries and spilled many gallons of the bluest blood, now seems as remote as the urge to throw virgins down volcanoes. Nobody now cherishes his personal honor or inspects that of others. Short of indictable felonies, nobody cares. We wouldn’t know how to measure it; the concept has vanished. Military valor still lends some luster, though Vietnam cast a shadow on it, and large amounts of money command universal respect, but the word “honor” survives only in a few state documents yellowing under glass. Jefferson was fond of it.

Whatever honor was, only gentlemen had it. Only gentlemen needed to defend it, which made their lives more perilous than those of the lesser beings, who could shrug and laugh off an insult. If a lesser being sent a challenge to a gentleman, the gentleman also could shrug and laugh it off, or send some lackeys to beat the insolent fellow with cudgels.

“Gentleman” has today become a rather idle compliment rarely invoked. It even carries overtones of the sissy, quite the opposite of its old role. Now any upstart lad can spend a couple of days mastering gentlemanly requirements: use the accepted forms of address, hold the door open for a lady, remember to say “please” and “thank you” in social if not in business situations. Use your napkin, not the tablecloth. Don’t bully the waiter. Don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve. Once he’s learned the rules, he’s accepted as a gentleman with no questions asked, but in former times he’d be a scoundrel of the worst order. Aping his betters. Flying false colors.

Manners had nothing to do with it. You could be as rude, surly, and bad-tempered as you liked, beat your wife, rape your servants, strew illegitimate children far and wide, drink and gamble till the cows came home, and let your bills pile up for decades till your tailor and vintner starved, but you were always a gentleman because you were born one, and so was your son. It came down through your family by way of inherited estates and ancient medieval fiefdoms and service to your king. Its privileges were many; its responsibilities were bloody.

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 24-26

Emphasis mine.

Three-Tier System of Administration for Military Orders

In the years immediately following foundation, a [Christian] military order [like the Knights Templar] consisted of a small group of brethren under the leadership of a master. At this stage little governmental machinery was needed. As property and recruits were gained, it became the norm to establish subordinate convents, both in frontier regions and elsewhere. If expansion was considerable, an intermediate tier of government between convents and the order’s headquarters was soon needed, as it became difficult for masters to supervise distant convents. Also, a system was needed by which resources and recruits could easily be channelled to frontier regions from other convents. Orders which fought on several fronts also required a military leader in each district. They adopted the practice of grouping the convents of a region into what were called provinces or priories. Although there were variations in detail, the leading orders adopted a three-tier system of administration.

Jonathan Riley-Smith (editor), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, p. 204

The Rights-Based System of Medieval Society

The medieval system [of Europe] had been a rights-based system. Each member of that society had a particular place that determined rights, obligations, and a well-defined role. It is a familiar but erroneous portrait of the medieval era that depicts its society as uniform and colorless. Rights-based systems can in fact yield enormous diversity, because though conformity may be enforced by law, it is not necessarily enforced by that most pitiless of masters, the individual ambition; thus such systems often encourage creativity, as the natural exuberance of individuals attempts to circumvent the rigidity of their assigned roles and the received wisdom. Yet these systems often strike us as irrational in practice because they do not attempt to match talent and performance with role….

In the medieval period, there had been a universal system of customary law, based on the rights of inheritance, charters, and grants. Customary law is the common law of practices. We are inclined today to think of common law as generated by courts, but this is really an abbreviation: common law is simply the customary law of the judiciary; it grows and is modified by the exercise of court practices. The medieval period was almost entirely ruled by a kind of common law, but the generating institutions of that law were seldom judicial courts….

Precisely because the inherited institutions were rights-based, they could not promote new arrangements that were violative of the customary methods. A prince alone could not rewrite the constitutional rules of his society’s governance to meet his own needs; that would require an institution that objectified the needs of the prince but was distinct from the prince himself[—the future princely state].

Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles, pp. 87-88

Emphasis mine.

Covering a Withdrawal

To ensure that his brigade and its battalion rearguard were neither enveloped nor routed in withdrawing, [Prussian General] Steinmetz dispatched a fresh infantry and cavalry regiment ahead to Gosselies, thereby observing the sound principle that in rearguard actions the withdrawal of engaged units should be covered by troops already in position.

David Hamilton-Williams, Waterloo: New Perspectives, p. 159

Few Pitched Battles But Many Sieges

Medieval strategy does indeed appear to have been dominated by two general principles: fear of the pitched battle, of the confrontation in open country, and what one could call the ‘siege mentality’, in other words ‘an automatic reaction which consisted in replying to an attack by shutting oneself up in the most easily defensible strongholds of the country’. From this emerged the shape which the majority of medieval conflicts assumed—the very slow progress of the attackers, the obstinate defense of those attacked, limited operations both in time and distance, a war of attrition (guerre d’usure), ‘a strategy of accessories’ where each combatant or group of combatants, often in an incoherent and discontinuous fashion, fought primarily for immediate material profit. Contemporaries had an expression to describe this kind of warlike activity on a reduced scale. It was the guerre guerroyante, made up of losses and recaptures, surprises, incursions, ambushes and sallies. ‘War is…above all made up of pillaging, often of sieges, sometimes of battles.’ Moreover, because of a lack of money, men, supplies and provisions, many plans failed to mature: ‘A campaign brought to a conclusion constitutes an exception, an enterprise which defies the rule.

Phillipe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, p. 219

Emphasis mine.

Origin of the Rank and Grades of General

Following tradition tracing back to the Roman title of imperator, a European monarch was always the general of his country’s army. His principal military assistant, in peace and war, was usually called a constable, a member of the nobility renowned for military prowess. Other outstanding noble warriors, particularly in France, frequently carried the honorific title of marshal. When a ruler was present in the field, he automatically exercised command as general. His second in command, who might or might not be the constable or one of the marshals, exercised his military functions as the lieutenant general. In the absence of the monarch, the lieutenant general commanded in the king’s name.

Under the operational command of the monarch or his lieutenant general was a senior administrative officer known as the sergeant major general. An experienced soldier, not necessarily a nobleman, the sergeant major general was in effect the chief of staff. He was responsible for supply, for organization, and for forming up the heterogeneous units of a 16th-century [C.E.] army for battle—a long, complicated process, with much shouting and confusion, considerably helped if the sergeant major general had a stentorian voice. In his administrative functions he was assisted in the subordinate units—national and mercenary—by administrative officers known as sergeants major and sergeants.

There was no permanent military hierarchy or chain of command below king and constable. Lieutenant generals and sergeant major generals were appointed for a campaign only.

R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 459

See also Origins of European Army Ranks.

From Jousting for Glory to Dueling for Honor

Knights and chivalry faded out. The old orders of knighthood and chevaliers stayed firmly in place, as prestigious men’s clubs tend to do, but the original point of the knight had been as a fighting unit, a kind of mounted tank, impregnable in heavy metal, on a big strong horse, lumbering and clanking onto the field of battle peering through a slit in his helmet and poking his lance at enemies similarly encumbered. The idea was to push the enemy off his horse, since once unhorsed he lay helpless as an overturned turtle, ripe to be captured and held for ransom.

Henry V‘s nimble archers at Agincourt beat them easily. Joan of Arc was particularly outspoken on the subject; she said her heavenly messengers had told her that artillery was the wave of the future and knights in armor just slowed everything down.

Gradually they hung up their lances and breastplates to rust in a shed. By the time Cervantes published Don Quixote in 1605 [C.E.], the foolish knight-errant was an affectionate joke from the past. Knights turned into gentlemen.

Gentlemen, being unemployed by definition, needed an emotional outlet, a bit of excitement, and some way to measure themselves against their peers now that tournaments were gone. Besides, as the feudal powers of the landowners shriveled under stronger centralized monarchies, a gentleman needed to shore up his status and prove he still mattered, he was still privileged, he still carried a sword. He stopped jousting for glory and started dueling for honor.

Barbara Holland, Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 21-22