QUESTIONS OF WAR
amazing at mail.utexas.edu
Thu Jul 17 11:37:24 PDT 1997
The following are my responses to questions posed by Earl Brion Thornbird ap
>Questions of War & Chivalry
>Question #1: During the Hundred Years War, knights frequently burnt the
>villages, churches, and crops. How could a knight justify such acts?
ANswer #1: From a SCA perspective, a perspective mirroring much of late
period romance literature, a knight could *not* justify such acts. In
reality, however, the knights saw themselves as members of a superior race,
the gentil, and as such considered their concerns far more important than
those of the peasantry. From the perspective of the English knights (as
well as that of the mercenaries), the villages, churches, and crops were
primarily a support system for the opposition. The fact that such
destruction resulted in the deaths of peasants was of less consequence than
the requisite deaths of cattle used for beef.
>Question #2: Should a knight pay a ransom to a recreant knight?
Sorry, but this question is too broadly worded. Yes. No. Maybe. Recreant
in what sense? In what scenario? How do I know the knight in question is
recreant? Tournament ransom or the real thing?
>Question #3: There is often written in medieval chronicles references to
>the 'laws of war', yet no such laws have been discovered. Do you think they
>existed, and if they did, did they mean anything?
Yes and no. Numerous authors produced books on "chivalry." Until the
fifteenth century, most writers used the term "chivalry" (and such variants
as "chevalerie") to refer principally to "armed, mounted combat." So, yes,
the books existed: Vegetius's _De re militari_, Honore Bonet's _L'Arbre des
batailles_ Brunetto Latini's _Livre du tresor_, and Ramon Lull's _Book of
the Order of Chivalry_, to name just a handful, all purported to be "laws of
war." Of course, none of these enjoyed the true force of a treaty or other
such agreement. The middle ages knew no equivalent of the Geneva convention.
Nor do I believe any encompassed the entire scope of traditional battlefield
ettiquette (if any such actually existed outside of fictional references).
Thus, the French considered the use of yeoman archers and Welsh knifemen to
be unchivalrous, and the Spanish thought the same of the French use of the
escalade. Ironically, both views are quite literally correct--not that the
employment of archers against a superior armed force or of the escalade
against the walls of a castle are unchivalrous in terms of fairness, but
both are unchivalrous in that neither is a chevalier's solution.
Principally, I would contend, the "laws of war" existed only as a literary
>Question #4: What should be done if a knight breaks the laws of war? What
>if a squire does the same? A man at arms?
Now you're dragging us into an ambiguous realm. First, you seem to have
assumed a positive or supportive response to the preceding question.
Second, your choice of tenses sounds like you're asking about SCA combat,
yet the context thus far suggests a concern for appropriate actions in a
14th century European conflict.
In the Hundred Years War, this question was typically meaningless. Even
assuming the truth of Shakespeare's (Hollinshed's, actually) claim that
Henry V forbade the desecration of churches by his troops (e.g.--Bardolf's
hanging in Wm. Shakespeare's _Henry V_), we have neither evidence nor
reliable reports that he actually enforced this limit. If this rule was
enforced, it probably would have entailed hanging for men-at-arms, harsh
physical punishment for a squire, and scrambling to find a scapegoat for a
knight (unless the knight in question was persona non gratis with the king,
in which case hanging would have been appropriate). More probably, this
rule was never enforced.
The question--should knights and fighters of lower ranks receive different
treatment for battlefield misconduct?--becomes ambiguous only in attempts to
apply this question to SCA combat. We are, after all, primarily the
products of societies that believe in individual freedoms and human equality
(yes, I mean Drachenwald, too). Thus, we have a difficult time accepting
that a knight and a man-at-arms--who are, after all, equal human
beings--should receive different treatment for the same malfeasance. In
fact, I believe we are more likely to punish a knight more harshly than a
man-at-arms (i.e.--banishment or revocation of peerage for a knight, tongue
lashing for the man-at-arms) for the same offense against chivalry.
Personally--and I know this is *not* a period aristocrat's attitude--I think
the knight *should* be punished more harshly than the man-at-arms. The
man-at-arms can plead ignorance; the knight cannot.
>Question #5: What is 'chivalry' in the context of a real medieval war?
Armed, mounted combat. I believe this word provides a clue to Chaucer's
Knyght's less-than-sparkling character. The narrator tells us "he loved
chivalrie." I believe this should be read not as, "he loved the courteous
behavior of knights," but rather as, "he loved mounted combat"--not a
belligerent man, perhaps, but certainly enamoured of the martial life.
In a real medieval war, much of what we in the SCA identify as applications
of "laws of war" would have had no meaning, or perhaps not the meaning we
assume. For example, in SCA scenarios, we generally frown on striking a
fallen opponent. If a warrior trips and falls at an SCA knight's feet, the
will likely allow him to stand. If a warrior falls at a man-at-arms' feet,
the man-at-arms will ideally, at least, offer to allow the fallen man to
A mounted warrior of the 14th century might not attack a fallen opponent,
but was this an act of mercy or expedience? An unhorsed knight was not much
of a threat, and stopping to kill him might result in being pulled from his
own horse. Moreover, a wealthy or well-connected, unhorsed knight was worth
more alive than dead. As for the less wealthy unhorsed knights--well,
that's why the English employed the Welsh longknifemen: cleanup.
>Question #6: In war, a knight on the losing side calls for single
>combat--should it be granted by his opponents?
In a medieval context, such a question likely would have drawn no response
In an SCA context, I have mixed feelings about this question. Like many of
my brethren, I prefer single combat to group assaults. I feel a decidedly
joyful swell of adrenalin whenever an opponent calls for single combat.
And, yes, it does seem more honorable than the sort of "overwhelm and
devastate" precept stressed in every major war treatise from Vegetius to
SunTsu. On the other hand, if the Crown commands me to try to win the war,
I feel I am remiss in fulfilling my obligations if I allow men under my
command to accept single-combat pleas.
>Question #7: The medieval laws of war seem to be traditional rather than
>written. Do we have anything similar in the SCA or in your own recreation
>group? How do they work?
As I noted above, I do not concur with your view of the medieval laws of
war. As for "traditional laws of war," I think the SCA has pretty well
codified those: don't take the field in anger, don't pin both an opponents
arms to allow a comrade to strike, etc. The only exceptions I can see are
the differences in practice, largely based upon perception, from kingdom to
kingdom. A year ago, I posted a query to both the Ansteorran and Artemisian
lists concerning "killing from behind" (KFB) in SCA battles. In Artemisian
battles, KFB is accomplished by placing a sword across the opponent's
eyeslots and yelling "YOU"RE DEAD FROM BEHIND." In Ansteorra, KFB is simply
not allowed. To make a long story short, both sides justified their method
as the safest and fairest, partly by describing abuses each had seen within
the other's contexts. Artemisians further claimed their method allowed
closer simulation of realistic battlefield situations, and Ansteorrans
claimed their method to be more chivalrous.
>Question #8: What is the finest expression of chivalry--courtesy or
>prowess--you have witnessed in War?
Prowess--this one's a toss up. In my first Estrella War (IV, I believe) I
watched Duke Brion Tarragon, the last surviving member of the Atenveldt
force, hold off thirty men single-handed for nearly fifteen minutes. He
kept back away from the Caidans in a broad circle. Every few seconds, he'd
stop, kill another Caidan, and then go on. The battle ended when the last
dozen men finally decided to jump him en masse.
In an Artemisian Border Raid on An Tir, I watched Sir Aveloc the
Young take out a line of eight consecutive shieldmen, firing off one shot
per second as he slowly turned along the line, each shot landing firmly on a
face plate or belt. It was like watching Willy Mascone popping billiard
balls into the side pocket. It was a zen moment. I think even Sir Aveloc
Courtesy--sadly, nothing stands out in my memory.
>Question #9: Should archery be practiced in recreated medieval wars? If so,
>how is the best done? If not, why not?
I really hate archers, probably because they're as effective for us as they
were for the English. I'm still not sure about the thistle missiles or
baldar blunts, but I thoroughly loath golf-tube arrows. They're awkward,
inaccurate, slow, and generally ineffective. They're also stupid looking.
>Question #10: Does the chivalric code apply to those who are not Knights or
>who have early period personas?
Since I have been unable to determine that we actually *have* a chivalric
code, I have a hard time answering this. Certainly the written rules apply.
Early period personae often bring with them a more rigid code of honor than
the so-called chivalric code of romance literature.
>Question #11: What do you think an SCA war simulates? Where is it
About the closest we come to simulation is a recreation of Roman/Celtic and
Roman/Gaulic warfare. Our recreation is strongest in that, unlike more
theatrically minded groups, opponents must actually take one another down in
We have numerous weaknesses, and I'm not sure which are the greatest. Our
archery and siege engines are far weaker--less devastating and with less
range--than what we're recreating. Our lack of horses and chariots limits
our ability to recreate. Our livery is less consistent, and our troops are
less well-trained than a roman legion.
lo vostre por vos servir
Sir Lyonel Oliver Grace
University of Texas at Austin
amazing at mail.utexas.edu
Micel yfel deth se unwritere.
Ælfric of York
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