Knights and Peasants -
Michael K. Jones reviews a book by Nicholas Wright.
Knights and Peasants - The Hundred Years War in the French Countryside
The Boydell Press xiv + 144 pp. £30 ISBN 0 8511 5535 9
Nicholas Wright's exciting and provocative book eschews the conventional political narrative of the Hundred Years' War, that of a struggle between the rival houses of Plantagenet and Valois. Nor is this a study of the big battalions and well-trodden campaigns, the tales of chivalric derring-do immortalised by the chronicler Jean Froissart. Instead, a new interpretative framework is set up, defining an entirely different, underlying dimension: a series of highly localised clashes between military adventurers and the rural population (the "knights" and "peasants"of the title). It is the harsh reality of this often unseen and largely forgotten war that Wright vividly brings to life.
The author's freshness of approach offers us a stimulating re-evaluation of the conflict. At its centre are an ill-paid and poorly disciplined soldiery engaged in a brutal struggle for survival. Their victims are a numerous and impoverished peasantry. National identity, the "Englishness" or "Frenchness" of the combatants is, in Wright's account, less a reason for this struggle and more a justification. The real motives of the participants are seen as primal and barbaric – hunger, greed, primitive group loyalty and a desire for revenge – and their ramifications are unflinchingly examined.
Wright begins his survey with an appraisal of the chivalric ethos of the martial class. He argues that notions of a just warrior failed to provide any effective immunity for the non-combatant and that a sense of responsible lordship did not come naturally to men-at-arms. His view that the late medieval knightly code never extended seriously to the rural population leads to a consideration of warlords, whose "borrowed lordship" oppressed the local peasantry. We are introduced to a twilight world, where royal control or supervision was minimal, and the lack of regular wages provoked its own harsh expediency. Freebooting captains like Enguerrand d’Eudin, who held Loches as his own personal fiefdom in the 1360s and boasted that the kings of England and France could "boil their pots outside his gates", were able to terrorise the regions under their sway with impunity.
The war's impact on the peasant community is then considered more thoroughly. The grim degeneration of chivalric practice, as marauding soldiers exploited the countryside, found both hapless peasants and their livestock being held for ransom and young village boys forced into service as pages to the men-at-arms. The author's judgements are alert and nuanced, and always allow for exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, the broader argument is unremitting. Castles become symbols of oppression rather than refuge, under the ghastly rule of the "great she-devil war". The peasantry is portrayed utterly bereft of defenders, a plight expressed by one observer, the Carmelite friar Jean de Venette, in the form of a chilling parable where the sheep-dog now ran with the wolves. In these desperate times the rural population were forced to fend for themselves. Wright considers their reaction: sporadic uprisings, resort to brigandage and, in a particularly interesting chapter, the construction of communal defences.
Wright's work is lively, thoughtful and carefully researched. It makes particularly good use of a body of documents known as lettres de rémission to illustrate the interface between village communities and armed outsiders. Its weakness lies in a failure to allow the knightly class the same flexibility and evolution of response explored for the peasantry. The concept of Roman military discipline, in the service of the public good, was not alien to all soldiers of the period and the treatise known as the Boke of Noblesse makes clear its applicability to at least some of the participants in the fifteenth century. Rural uprisings were not always harshly suppressed, and one example given, that of Lower Normandy in 1435, was in fact treated with notable clemency. Wright has produced telling material on the disorder that characterised the aftermath of the Treaty of Brétigny and the activities of the free companies. It is less clear whether his interpretation of a violent antipathy between military lordship and local community holds true over the period as a whole. Castles certainly remained important for the protection of the rural community, and the destruction of fortresses in the Pays de Caux towards the end of the war caused considerable depopulation.
Overall, this courageous, well-written book provides us with a ground-breaking survey. It brings out a story of the Hundred Years War that has long needed to be told, and as such will deservedly form an essential addition to our reading on the subject.
Michael K. Jones is the co-author of The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (CUP, 1992)
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