Collections: A Trip Through Bertran de Born (Martial Values in the 12th Century Occitan Nobility)

This week we are taking another trip through a medieval author, this time the Occitan noble and troubadour Bertran de Born. This trip ought to be read closely with our trip through, Dhuoda of Uzès, as both exemplify the values and thinking of the medieval European aristocracy (though note that Dhuoda writes some 350 years before Bertran). I want to pair them in particular because – while to modern ears, the ideals they express may seem contradictory – those ideals existed side by side within the larger value system of the aristocratic elite of France narrowly and the European Middle Ages more broadly. While in some ways, they are in tension with each other, on the whole they form not a tension but rather two sides of the same coin: it is the fierceness of the loyalties that Dhuoda extols which in turn justify and motivate the fierceness of the violence in which Bertran revels.

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As with last time, I suppose I must also remind everyone that we are reading these sources for the understanding, not for the endorsing. Just because one studies war doesn’t mean one likes it. We study war that we might have less of it. And quite frankly, regardless of one’s view on military history, it is impossible to understand the European Middle Ages without understanding the military aristocrats who shaped it, and it is impossible to understand them without understanding their view on war.

But as a window into the aristocratic values of the 12th century Occitan nobility (and European medieval nobility more broadly), Bertran’s poems can be quite informative.

Background

The Author: Bertran de Born (b. c. 1140- d. before 1215) was the lord of Hautefort from 1178 to his death sometime before 1215. Compared to Dhuoda’s family, Bertran (along with, you will note, being several centuries later; centuries are a long time!) was a bit lower on the aristocratic hierarchy as a viscount (but still quite high!), being lord over a single fortified settlement (read: castle) and its territory. Of course, if you lived in one of the villages around Hautefort, this would matter little: Bertran and his family were the state and probably a fairly impressive state at that. If we want to understand Bertran on his warhorse, it is best to do it looking up at him (albeit quite probably with disdain and frustration) as one of his many subjects on the ground, then down at him from the standpoint of one of his handful of social superiors from their thrones.

(A note on titles: textbook summaries and strategy games tend to feature simplified and streamlined systems of medieval titles (e.g. CKII‘s baron->count->duke->king->emperor system is neat, rigid and regular everywhere, despite that system not quite being right anywhere in particular) when, of course, in practice the system was much more messy, with different and often ad hoc systems in different places. Even the venerable wikipedia can often iron this messiness out in the pursuit of consistency by, for instance, referring to the William VIII of Aquitaine as the ‘duke’ of the duchy of Aquitaine, though some period documents (I have in mind the letters of Hugh V of Lusignan; I cannot claim to have made anything like a systematic sweep of every historical document that refers to him) refer to him instead as the ‘count of the Aquitanians.’ Local systems of titles (earls in England, freiherren and markgrafen in some German-speaking areas, etc.) also don’t always map neatly on to the ‘standard’ French system.)

Hautefort sat on the border between the French territories of the English king and France proper, putting him on the front lines of frequent wars between the two. Moreover, Bertran was also frequently fighting his brother Constantine over control of Hautefort itself and, in his off time, waged some war over the English succession (favoring Henry the Young King over the eventual Richard I leading him into conflict with the father of both of them, Henry II). Bertran was thus almost constantly at war (wars that ranged all the way from small-scale family feuding up to involvement in royal wars), a context that is crucial for understanding the poem.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the map of France in 1180, with the territories held by the English king in shades of red. If you zoom in, Hautefort (not marked on this map) is a bit north and west of Perigueux (under the ‘Q’ in d’Aquitaine).

But, in between his busy schedule of fighting all the damn time, Bertran wrote about forty songs (some of them are of uncertain authorship) and is regarded as one of the major Occitan troubadours of the 12th century. Troubadours wrote and performed a form of Occitan lyric poetry which is striking and interesting for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that they wrote in Occitan (Old Occitan, specifically) rather than in Latin; the fancy phrase for this is they wrote ‘in the vernacular’ meaning in the local language. This is a major shift in this period (the contemporary and somewhat earlier chansons de geste, ‘tales of deeds’ like the Song of Roland were also written in the vernacular, typically Old French).

Troubadour songs could be about a variety of topics, but the topics generally swirled around the concerns of the aristocracy: love, chivalry and war, with the former being the most common. In terms of the poetry, the earliest and most common genre was the canso, a relatively rigid form in which each stansa keeps the same syllable count and internal rhyming pattern. Such songs typically expressed strong feelings, often about love, mixed with powerful imagery. But our topic for today is the second genre, the sirvantes or ‘servant’s song’ – often a parody of the former, sirvantes were often political, with the mocking or parody form being used to soften the political impact of the topic. Our song for this week is at once a hilarious parody of the love imagery of many a canso (I first encountered this song as an undergraduate in the Rosenwein Reading the Middle Ages (2006) reader, where it is presented side-by-side with Jaufre Rudel’s When the Days Are Long in May (1125-1150) which really brings home the parody aspect as Bertan re-purposes the motifs of expressions of courtly love – spring, flowers, etc. – to glorify war) while at the same time a political exhortation and a striking – to say the least! – statement of values.

(Note: there is a third common genre of troubadour song, the tenso, which is structured as a debate or exchange, often but not always by two different poets debating love or ethics. I quite honestly have only read a couple of tensos, and don’t feel very much qualified to express an opinion on them.)

Without further ado, let’s take a look at our song:

The Passage

(trans. Frederick Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères (1973))

I love the joyful time of Easter,
That makes the leaves and flowers come forth
and it pleases me to hear the mirth
of the birds, who make their song
resound through the woods,
and it pleases me to see upon the meadows
tents and pavilions planted,
and I feel a great joy
when I see ranged along the field
knights and horses armed for war.

And it pleases me when the skirmishers
make the people and their baggage run away,
and it pleases me when I see behind them coming
a great mass of armed men together,
and I have pleasure in my heart
when I see strong castles besieged,
the broken ramparts caving in
and I see the host on the water’s edge
closed in all around by ditches,
with palisades, strong stakes close together.

And I am as well pleased by a lord
when he is first in the attack,
armed, upon his horse, unafraid,
so he makes his men take heart
by his own brave lordliness.
And when the armies mix in battle,
each man should be poised
to follow him, smiling,
for no man is worth a thing
till he has given and gotten blow on blow.

Maces and swords and painted helms,
the useless shields cut through,
we shall see as the fighting starts,
and many vassals together striking,
and wandering wildly,
the unreined horses of the wounded and dead.
And once entered into battle
let every man proud of his birth
think only of breaking arms and heads,
for a man is worth more dead than alive and beaten.

I tell you there is not so much savor
in eating or drinking or sleeping,
as when I hear them scream, “There they are! Let’s get them!”
on both sides, and I hear riderless
horses in the shadows, neighing,
and I hear them scream, “Help! Help!”
and I see them fall among the ditches,
little men and great men on the grass,
and I see fixed in the flanks of the corpses
stumps of lances with silken streamers.

Barons, pawn your castles,
and your villages, and your cities
before you stop making war on one another.
Papiols [another troubadour], gladly go
fast to my Lord Yes-and-No [Richard I]
and tell him he has lived in peace too long!

The Message

The song can be read on a number of levels, so we’ll deal with them in turn.

Let’s start with the sirvantes itself – the playful or satirical aspect of the song. Spring imagery – blooming flowers and singing birds – was a common motif for troubadour love-songs and so Bertran’s first stanza is a playful upending of that imagery, transitioning from that spring imagery to the sharp imagery of battle. Bertran keeps a focus on sense perception – sight and sound – keeping the poem concrete, but he never really dips back into that playfulness after the first stanza (called the exordium in poetic structure). Still, I think the song ought to be imagined within its original context – live performance. Imagine the troubadour (Bertran himself, most likely) getting up to sing, and beginning what appears at first to be a sappy love song, only to – in just the last line of the first stanza – reveal a heart-pounding war song to stir the arms to action. It must have been a hoot.

And that playfulness plays into the political aspect of the song as well. Bertran has a very specific political objective in mind here: he wants the listeners – his fellow Occitanian military aristocrats – to go to war. Alas, the current disjuncture keeps me from being able to confirm this, but as I recall, this song is thought to date to the period 1180 to 1183, when rising tensions between Henry the Young King and Richard (‘Lord Yes-and-No,’ eventually Richard I) culminated in a revolt of the Occitanian nobility in favor of Henry; Bertran is thus exhorting the nobility here to commence war against Richard. The playful context, I think, lets Bertran get away with a much more explicitly political call to arms than he might have been able to do in a more serious setting (cf. the current genre of comedy-news-commentary that uses a thin facade of humor to be able to be more overtly political than normal news-commentary; it is much the same device).

And that in turn leads into the main theme of the poem, which is war is awesome and we should do more of it. Like I said, we’re reading to understand, not to endorse. But this is striking because it speaks to the values of the military aristocrats he is singing to. These days, we justify wars with a tone of grim necessity; any politician in a developed country who tried to rally the public to war because it was fun and exciting would be run out of office and rightly so. For Bertran’s appeal to work, it has to conform to the values of his social class – because he isn’t trying to convince them that war is good, but rather that (some kinds of) war being good, they ought to go do some of it. They have to agree with the premise first, before the song starts.

Values in a Military Aristocracy

Bertran really loves himself some war. When I’ve assigned this reading in the past, the initial student response is disbelieving – the most common comment is some variation on the assumption that Bertran must be some sort of chicken-hawk who never did any actual fighting. But – as discussed above – the reality is quite the opposite: Bertran is a career military man whose life is defined by fighting. Moreover, so is his audience – he is calling other military aristocrats to war. Bertran can be at no loss for what war looks like and while his song describes a victorious battle (it is the enemy who shouts for help), he doesn’t spare the audience the grim aftermath, the “unreined horses of the wounded and dead” or the “little men and great men on the grass…fixed in the flanks of the corpses sumps of lances.” These are, all of them, likely men who have little problem picturing that sight – they have seen it themselves. Anyone in these assemblages old enough to actually have a say about going to war is under no illusions about what war is like, and Bertran makes no effort to spare them.

And yet his fundamental argument – which he expects his audience to take seriously boils down to: war is awesome, let’s go do some. And I think this absolutely has to be read as sincere; part of his sirvantes is a playfulness with the art form, but his take on war – because it plays directly into his political point – is uncomplicated (and his general endorsement of war as a good thing also shows up in much of the rest of his oeuvre). The value system presented here is not part of the satire (something that also becomes more clear if you read the contemporary chansons de geste, which express a similar attitude about the general nobility and even morally-constructive aspect of warfare within proper bounds).

What is valued here?

Fol 10r of the Morgan Bible (mid-13th century), showing a combat scene with both knights on horseback and infantrymen on foot. We ought to remember, even when the footmen seem to ‘vanish’ in our literary sources that they were still present on most battlefields (save, perhaps, for entirely mounted cavalry raids, and even then many medieval armies featured ‘mounted infantry’ riding cheaper horses unsuited for direct fighting).

Bertran is explicit – nothing in his view is of more value for a man (because, of course, this is all very gender-specific) than personal, direct martial valor. “No man is worth a thing / till he has given and gotten blow on blow” is a pretty direct statement (note that it is fairly clear from the rest of Bertran’s oeuvre that this extends to a snobby disdain for peasants and non-nobles whose occupation is not fighting). Elsewhere in his songs, Bertran declares “A young man who doesn’t feed on war soon becomes fat and rotten.” This is, of course, a striking view because of how different it is from our own – we generally expect the experience of combat to harm a person, whereas Bertran sees it as wholesome; stick a pin in that for now, we’ll come back to it in a moment.

The sort of martial valor that Bertran is interested in is also fundamentally personal valor. The laying of plans, creation of stratagems, the ordering of men, the motivation of the common soldiers – exactly the sort of tasks that occupy most ancient military manuals (including not just the Mediterranean tradition, but also the Chinese one) – don’t figure in at all. Of course those sorts of concerns were part of the training and culture of the aristocracy of the period (and other period sources bring them out better, though surely not to the degree as classical literature – there is a great deal of difference in the sorts of leadership different societies expect), but they are decidedly secondary. The only leadership Bertran’s ideal lord does is to lead other aristocrats but example in being the first to charge and attacking with reckless aggression.

It is also very much a specific form of valor: that of the armored, mounted aristocratic warrior. The common soldiery – the infantry – exist in Bertran only as targets and victims, and even then not very often! This is a deceptive pattern in medieval European literature: despite the continued presence (and indeed, often importance) of common infantry, the aristocrats who write to us tend to focus on the valor of the cavalrymen (which is to say, the valor of themselves) to the exclusion of the foot soldiers (a pattern which tend leads to atrophy in the infantry arm in many cases, for an overview see Lee, Waging War, ch. 5). For a sense of exactly what that battle experience might be like, I think Hergrim’s battle vignette on Reddit is quite good.

But inside of that specific framework, Bertran is quite clear: he thinks war is good, both that it improves a man, but also that it is simply a positive experience. How much of this is bravado? Some of it might be – it is politically and socially useful for Bertran to advertise his own attachment to war. Both because this is a way for him to drive a strong case in rallying his fellow aristocrats to go to war, but also because he lives in a society where martial valor is a source of uncomplicated positive social value. By advertising his devotion to war, Bertran is also essentially saying ‘I am unafraid, the meanest fellow in the room’ in company that very much values strength and fearlessness. But that stance only works if Bertran’s audience agrees on the first principle that the experience of war improves a person.

War Does Change, It Turns Out

Now, you might be asking ‘how can Bertran think that?’ And, given that battle is supposed to be the formative experience for all of these aristocratic young men, how are there any left? Bertran cannot be in ignorance, after all, and we’ve already discussed why it is unlikely that he is simply painting a false portrait of a reality both he and his audience know far better than we do. And therein lies a number of our answers.

Let’s start with the second question – how are there any aristocrats left? By the 12th century, it isn’t because of massive promotion from outside; the ranks of the aristocracy are in the process of ossifying, with new entrants becoming rarer and rarer in much of Europe. Rather, what seems to be the case is that, for people like Bertran, the chance of dying in all of that war remained relatively low. In the first case, the style of warfare of the 12th century, oriented around raids and sieges, with relatively few large set-battles and relatively smaller armies – tended towards lower casualties in comparison to the warfare of other eras.

(And I know the last time I made that assertion, I got a fair bit of push back, but quite frankly there isn’t much room for argument. If I may use my own period of expertise as a point of comparison, Nathan Rosenstein estimates that from 203 to 168 B.C., Roman Italy suffered something like 130,000-160,000 excess military deaths. Those year-brackets are conservative– extending the brackets to 218 would without a doubt more than double that figure (since it would add the devastating Second Punic War to the picture; the Romans suffer something close to 70,000 combat KIA in the first three years of it). Late-medieval French catastrophes like Courtrai (1302) or even Agincourt (1415) are close to an order of magnitude smaller than their Hellenistic period equivalents in terms of casualties – and still quite a bit more costly than the 12th and 13th century fighting Bertran saw).

At the same time, it seems fairly clear that most of the dying that was happening wasn’t generally being done by the mounted aristocracy. It is easy to miss because the big exceptions like Courtrai (1302), Crecy (1346) or Agincourt (1415) stick so firmly in the mind, but these are both later than Bertran (during a period of significant military change that made such upsets more likely) but also notably by their exceptional nature. Looking at the lives of medieval aristocrats, it is hard not to notice that – compared to say, the Lost Generation – they tend to live a fairly long time despite their constant warfare. Bertran himself, despite fighting almost continuously throughout his adult life survived to retire to a monastery in 1196 (probably in his fifties, age-wise). Now, to a degree, this may well be survivors bias – the aristocratic young men who weren’t very good at it and thus died in early adulthood do not cut memorable figures in our history. But the 12th century Occitan aristocracy was not limitless in size – this was a period where the European military aristocracies were increasingly closed to new entrants (and that aristocracy was never very large in absolute terms). And the degree to which high casualty events among the aristocracy remained shocking aberrations (events on a scale that would have been normal and unremarkable for antiquity or the early modern period) suggest that casualty rates among the mounted aristocrats probably did remain relatively low.

And it’s not hard to imagine why: these men were the best trained fellows on the battlefield, but more to the point, they were the best armored and also the most able to retreat if the battle went badly. Not only because they were on horses (but also because of that), but also because, for the men in the upper aristocracy, they had retinues of their own (less noble) fighting men arrayed around them. If the battle went badly, chances are the fellows being butchered in the retreat are the ones on foot. While infantry was written out from not only Bertran’s poems, but much of the literature of his day, it was still the infantry that did most of the dying in war.

A knight jousting with a snail from an early 14th century manuscript. As aside, the motif of knights jousting with snails, or fighting snails, or snails fighting snails is surprisingly common in medieval manuscript illustration. There is not broad agreement among scholars as to why, but it is hilarious.

Consequently, the idea that ‘war builds character’ is a lot easier to sustain if the sort of warfare a society (or in this case, a class within a society) engages in produces relatively low casualty rates over time. Now, I want to be clear that the word ‘relatively’ is carrying a lot of water in that sentence: these wars, while relatively lower casualty affairs are by no means bloodless, even for the aristocrats, armored on their equine-escape-pods. But the experience is radically different from WWI – which I keep returning to because it shapes our current discourse on the effects of war so strongly – where France saw 16% of its total deployed manpower killed (and another c. 50% wounded) in a four year period.

So while Bertran’s song is an expression of the values of his class, those values are in turn shaped by what the experience of war was like for that class. One imagines the commoners whose villages and towns were about to be plundered had different songs; agricultural raiding and devastation was a key part of the sort of warfare Bertran participated in (it shows up at points in his songs – in Miez sirventes vueilh far dels reis amdos he sings gleefully that once war begins, “never a mule-driver will travel the roads in safety, nor a burgher without fear, nor a merchant coming from France”).

Conclusions

I think Bertran is particularly handy to read against much of the moralizing literature of the Middle Ages (like Dhuoda), because it speaks to the limits of those moral systems. I don’t mean to suggest that Dhuoda and Bertran are in conflict – I don’t think they are. Rather moralizing writing like Dhuoda’s sets the bounds of aristocratic conduct which in turn creates a space where violence is permitted (to avenge a father, or defend a liege, or secure a ‘right,’ for instance). Violence outside of that space is viewed with contempt (“Those who do such are harshly and most unfavorably spoken of” says Dhuoda of vassals who act against a liege unjustly) , but violence within those bounds is seen as a positive good.

Note the contrast with the lionization of soldiers in modern societies, where war is at best a necessary evil and soldiers who go through it are seen as undergoing a noble sacrifice (that is, experiencing an evil or suffering on behalf of others). We do not often think that a boy must experience war to become a man – Bertran not only thinks so, he says so explicitly, and it’s quite clear this was the common view of his social class. After all, these were military aristocrats; fighting was their purpose in society and they were defined by their military role (mounted combat).

Via Wikipedia, a 19th century illustration of Dante’s 14th century Divine Comedy showing Bertran de Born in hell. Dante condemned him as a creator of schism and strife – which given that Bertran repeatedly advocated war both foreign and civil, seems a fair critique.
But it quite evidently speaks to how Bertran’s position, which played well in 12th century France, played differently in 14th century Italy – which to be fair had a radically different culture of war.

All of which speaks deeply to the value of reading the primary source literature of a time period if you want to get a sense of it. There is no amount of secondary literature – including this blog – which will get you there. I am struck by how much medieval or ancient fantasy or historical fiction literature is clearly composed almost entirely from a reading of secondary sources and as a result often misses the values and viewpoints that people held in the past.

In that persuit, a reading of Bertran’s broader oeuvre has two great virtues. First, as presented here, it provides an intense and direct summation of many of the knightly class’ attitudes towards warfare. The same can be gleaned from the chansons (and you ought to read those too!) but Bertran comes with those clear programmatic verses where he just tells you the value-set before illustrating it with vivid language (“for no man is worth a thing / till he has give and gotten blow on blow.”).

Second, Bertran is useful because his outlook – so directly stated – is so contrary to the modern viewpoint that it can serve nicely to shock us out of our complacency that people in the past thought about things exactly as we do now. In the words of L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” It is not enough to merely read histories of events and imagine people with our worldviews inhabiting them. While people in the past were not stupid, they did have different values and outlooks, shaped – as Bertran’s are – by their different life circumstances. Everyone’s worldview looks reasonable from the ground they stand on, but the valley dweller sees something rather different from the mountain man.

And if you want to know how the world looks from behind the eye-slits of a great helm, sitting atop a warhorse, Bertran de Born is well worth a read.

51 thoughts on “Collections: A Trip Through Bertran de Born (Martial Values in the 12th Century Occitan Nobility)

  1. ” We do not often think that a boy must experience war to become a man” – we are not very far of this either. I have encountered often the position that military service is necessary for boys – “It disciplines them”. This is most likely a residuary of mass conscription in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Who knows ? maybe one day one should participate in a hacking war against a rival country to be considered a man.

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    1. In my experience, folks who believe that military service ‘disciplines them’ are speaking of the training and life-style. They do not think that the *actual experience of combat* (why I wrote ‘experience war’ rather than ‘be in the army’) is the emotionally and developmentally positive element.

      Bertran’s blow-on-blow is closer to a a modern person saying “a boy can’t be a man until he has shot a human being.” Which is not a view I hear expressed much in contemporary society.

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  2. My impression, based
    on secondary sources, was that Bertrand de Born was notable for the degree of his pro-belligerence even among his contemporaries. (Though I cannot now track the reference down.)

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    1. Yes, Bertran is the most warlike of the troubadours. But read in light of the chansons, I think he still represents attitudes towards war – he just exemplifies them a bit more baldly. And remember: he was included in the traditional canon of the troubadour ‘greats’ both in his time and subsequently – his songs resonated with his audience. *Someone* agreed with him!

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      1. Some people just like danger. Bill Maudlin discusses the soldiers who liked war in Up Front. They tended to have peace-time occupations of “Mafia bodyguard” or “swamp hunter.”

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  3. Artillery makes a huge difference to the attitude – it is no respecter of birth.

    As a result, modern military are (pretty much) all seen as being done unto, rather than doing unto, as it were.

    The artillerymen could be seen as doing unto, except that the process of loading and firing artillery is pretty mechanical (and therefore not very glamorous).

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    1. David Drake edited a since fiction anthology “Men Hunting Things.”* In the introduction he talked about how pre-modern warfare was like hunting, and how it wasn’t, viewing warriors as hunters.

      Then he noted that in modern warfare, soldiers are much more like prey.

      * Which had two sequels, the first being “Things Hunting Men,” of course.

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  4. For armies that made heavy use of infantry (I’m particularly thinking of England and their many archers and billmen), was there a necessary revolution in cultural depictions that de-emphasized the mounted warrior aristocrat?

    With all this war going on, how did Medieval people understand and experience violence-related psychological trauma like PTSD? I haven’t seen much discussion of PTSD pre-WWI, and a lot of sources seem to treat it as a purely modern affliction and it’s original name (shell shock) implies that it arose because of heavy artillery. However, I personally know some people who have PTSD, despite never encountering heavy artillery.

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    1. That second question may actually be something I chat a bit about in next week’s fireside. I can’t speak to the Middle Ages nearly as much, but speaking of the ancient world, the evidence for anything like PTSD is almost entirely absent. That leads to some really important questions – are they just not telling us? Or is something different in the way they war? Or they way they *experience* war?

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      1. The question of ‘are they not telling us’ is a fascinating one which Jean Norton Cru explores somewhat in his very engrossing introduction to his compendium Witnesses which tried to catalogue French-speaking soldiers’ writings from WWI. He comes firmly on the side of values systems preventing the men who experimented the horrors of war to tell them to an audience unfamiliar with it. He speaks of “indicibilité” or ‘unspeakableness’, illustrated for example in soldiers going on leave and being pressed for tales of heroics by their families who have been lulled into believing WWI is like former wars with plenty of derring-do and afraid of being called cowards if they speak of their fear, their boredom in the trenches, the cold, the wetness, etc. Likewise, he notes that both in his and other soldiers’ letters to the rear, they underreported on the issues that actually mattered to them (except the need for warm clothing and loads of it) so as not to worry unduly their families and friends. He finds the place where soldiers are most honest are their war diaries, and especially if they publish them unedited immediately after their time in the trenches.

        Funnily enough, he found there were still Bertrand de Born-like people in WWI and they were, unsurprisingly to be found in the cavalry, often cycling into aviation as the war went on, as they were annoyed not to find any employ to their liking except possibly on staffs. He expressed some withering contempt at their quest of playing at war and finding it great fun but the attitude was still there (it got lionized too, with each side playing up people like Richthofen or Guynemer) and together with an idea of chivalry towards vanquished foe: you’d fight hard in the air, and that would inflict terrible casualties, but you’d make a grand display of being merciful if the foe survived his crash. I can imagine the infantrymen who recon planes informed on to their artillery were not so broad-minded about the matter.

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        1. I think World War One was the defining point in the evolution of Western culture in a balance between the “happy warrior” and “PTSD” narratives of armed conflict.

          Before World War One, PTSD hardly dared speak its name, as it were. The tradition of talking about war was still firmly in the hands of an aristocracy that had at least residual attachment to its role as military leadership. And this aristocracy rarely if ever had the experience of *helplessness* that seems to cause PTSD as much as anything else; they weren’t huddling in dugouts pinned down by shells and machine gun fire.

          After World War One, the reverse was true. So much of the intelligentsia and the increasingly literate masses had gone through the war as Poor Bloody Infantry and been traumatized by the experience that their efforts to recount this experience utterly drowned out what little survived of the old warrior-aristocratic mindset

          After World War One, it was Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ that everyone remembered, more so than Junger’s ‘The Storm of Steel.’ In almost any previous war, the roles would have been reversed; the guy who had a great time would have sold more copies than the guy who was trying to convey in literature a primal scream at the unspeakable horror of it all.

          With that said…

          I think that in many ways PTSD must have been *endemic* to pre-modern societies, not just to the military class but to people who had lived through famine, or seen loved ones killed by invading armies, or enormous pandemics that wiped out 10-20% of a village at a time. People having a higher level of nightmares, flashbacks, experiences they try to avoid, gloom, anger problems, and so on may just have been… background radiation… for much of the population.

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      2. I would say they don’t tell us because they experience war differently. I’ve read some very interesting stuff about Navajo experiences returning from World War Two vs. returning from Iraq—the former, much more traditional, had much less trouble readjusting to peacetime, because more modern/Europeanized Navajos have a different understanding of how life, including war and killing, works, from their ancestors.

        Should you happen to be interested in South Athabascan war-practices, I recommend Grenville Goodwin’s Western Apache Raiding and Warfare, which is his interviews in the 1930s of the last generation to have gone on raids, and Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial, which is a paraphrase of the portion of their mythology that they use for their main war-blessing, as told by Jeff King, one of the few medicine-men in the 1940s who actually knew the blessing (presumably a lot more of them know it now, since many Navajos are involved in the US military).

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      3. It’s entirely possible to live in a **different country** even today.

        Ethiopians have sensibilities radically different from what we’re used in the West. There’s a very interesting animal documentary by Planete called “Hyenas of Harer” (Harar). Wild hyenas roam the city by night and clear remains left by butchers and local population. They don’t attack livestock or people, and rarely get in conflict with dogs or cats. A woman is seen saying she can’t sleep at night if she doesn’t hear hyenas. A young mother talks to hyenas. A local erudite with very bad teeth explains “Where the are hyenas, there are no genies. If someone is looking for a graveyard of evil spirits, he should check in hyenas’ bellies.”.

        One old man feeds hyenas at night, making a (tourist) show out of it for example by giving them meat on a stick he holds in his mouth. He explains when he was little, he wandered off from his mother and faced a hyena. Not knowing what to do, he picked up a sorgo steam and threw at the animal. It jumped at him, scratched him with a claw on his head, and ran off. As the narrator explains, he wasn’t traumatized by the experience. He felt enlightened and transformed. He dedicated his life to feeding wild hyenas!

        People like him are not alone in Harer. He’s not the first and not the last “hyena man”. According to a local legend, during times of famine hyenas got desperate and entered the city. To deal with the animals, the elders said to feed the hyenas. They even made people make holes in city walls to easily let hyenas in. Hostile hyena behavior stopped.

        My point? Entirely possible that people didn’t feel so traumatized by wars. Maybe the poor ones who had to fight by different rules didn’t have time to learn reading and writing and left no accounts (we have little information about how Roman commoners lived). Maybe wars worked on a completely different set of rules. Maybe it was just a fact of life, like infant death. Also, I imagine it’s much easier to downplay the horrors of war in a society with stagnant economy! War won’t hurt economic growth where there’s no economic growth, or at least where it isn’t fetishized so much. Is economic growth really economic good? So in a society where economy can be more or less stagnant for a long time, maybe war would be a good extreme sport? Seen more like wingsuits, free climbing, parachuting, bungee jumping, and less like a natural disaster?

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        1. OTOH, there are great discussions of whether the plagues of Galen and Cyprian were measles or smallpox, and which one was which, if so. It is unusual in that these plagues were described well enough that we can even guess that closely.

          We’re not going to get a diagnosis prior to “soldier’s heart” from the American Civil War because medicine was not well organized.

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      4. If you haven’t read them already, you should read Achilles in Vietnam and its follow-up Odysseus in America. The Author’s name escapes me at the moment but he’s a doctor who treated a whole lot of returning Vietnam war vets for PTSD and likened their experiences of being in that war to that of Achilles and Odysseus.

        One of his key points was that how you treated your enemy was often a key element of whether or not you suffered from PTSD, and that mutilating an enemy corpse, for instance, was far more traumatic than mutilating a live enemy. A US soldier who desecrated the hanging corpse of a dead Viet Cong soldier was haunted by visions of the dead soldier turning up at social gatherings, until the author told him to regard the “ghost” as an honored guest. He also pointed out that the Greeks in the Iliad did make it a point to praise their Trojan enemies like the hero Hector and Troy itself (“Holy Ilion” they called it) and it’s when Achilles breaks the honorable conduct of war by dragging Hector in the dust behind his chariot that he suffers for it psychologically.

        The point he does make, often turning to the Iliad and the Odyssey as he does so, is that the ancient world was pretty aware of both PTSD and the difficulty of soldiers involved in prolonged wars in coming back home (the stigma of being involved in Vietnam is still bad enough that I’ve known Vietnam War vets to pretend they’re far older World War Two vets than admit they were there). What he does note, is that there were certain ancient standards of conduct for praising your enemies and treating them as human and as equal, and that these were used to ward off PTSD and allow combatants to return home as sane human beings.

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      5. @Thematus
        Treatment of enemies is something I wondered about myself. Treating dead, even enemies with respect is something pretty common in many cultures. Maybe that’s how they dealt with PTSD? Not by healing it, but preventing it? You might be less likely to suffer bad thoughts if you knew in advance you’re going to pay respect to (valiant) enemies and give them proper burials. Many legendary creatures like vampires, walking dead, striga are said to originate from improper burials. You could always console yourself by saying their spirits will rest well because you treated them with respect. If this hypothesis is true, it would mean antique people have made an observation and crafted a supernatural explanation. Vengeful spirits may not only afflict you with visions, but they can also strike you with a disease, so bury that body!

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      6. @Borsukrates – Yes, I’m inclined to agree, it would certainly account for the ubiquity of horror stories surrounding improper burials across cultures and civilizations. I’m of the belief that a great many myths do tend to have some sort of sociological or psychological insight in them, even though those tend to get warped over time as societies evolve, or get lost in the process of telling and retelling. Do read the books I recommended yourself, they’re fantastic.

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        1. Plus, on the other hand, the ubiquity of grateful dead, where the point is that arranging the burial of a total stranger is a Real Good Thing.

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    2. For students in my university cohort, Stephen Greenblatt’s “Murdering Peasants” was a shocking, de-familiarizing intro to L.P. Hartley’s “foreign country.” I don’t know how well Greenblatt’s ’83 essay holds as historical research now. His concluding argument—that the grotesque inequality between an ignoble vassal soldier and the magnificent aristocratic chevalier began to be resolved in the early-modern period by claims that free-holding yeomen and estate lords were *remote* peers in Common Law’s recognition of their property rights—is *one* way of explaining how later literary genre representations of medieval cultures could raise the profile of filthy, looting serfs to proto-citizen subjects who first learned home-spun martial skills (and ‘self-mastery’) by defending their homes and communities from invaders and masterless men. That’s highly flawed interpretation of medieval history but a seminal narrative in Enlightenment and Romantic adaptations of choice bits of medievalism. Arthur Machen picked Welsh bowmen—not Henry V and his knights—to miraculously rescue outnumbered English infantry entrenched at Mons (and so sparked a wave of Anglican “eye-witness” accounts). A century later, Guy Ritchie laboured to de-nobilify King Arthur’s backstory by showing him learning martial virtues from thieves and bravos working security in an urban brothel.

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      1. I doubt any medieval historian would endorse Greenblatt’s views, since among other things the term “vassal” referred to the “magnificent aristocratic chevalier”—”vassal” in its original context means “person who holds land and title in feudal gift from a liege” (a striking parallel with the original etymology of “samurai”), not a commoner at all let alone a serf. And medieval rank-and-file soldiers, the feudal levies, were free commoners, not serfs; their service to their lord was a development of Germanic and Celtic tribal freemen’s duty to follow their chiefs to battle. Before the creation of the mendicant orders, whose lay members were also exempted from military obligations, many people were voluntarily enserfed precisely to escape the obligation of military service.

        Besides, the Early Modern era generally tended to increase the gap between aristocrats and commoners (aside from Late Medieval developments, like the rise of professional mercenary companies, making the wars worse for everyone). Certainly when the French Revolution was going through the records of the liquidated nobles’ estates, they found countless obligations the lords actually owed to their tenants—serfs, not even freemen—that they had been ignoring since the 1500s or 1600s. Things might have gone differently in Britain, but given the main thing about their Early Modern history was aristocrats murdering thousands if not tens of thousands of commoners for not wanting to enter schism from Rome (Edward VI killed as many people in August of 1549, for objecting to the new prayer-book, as died in all 356 years of the Spanish Inquisition), I really doubt it.

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    3. I recall some news story a while back, about a PTSD therapy or support group who had good results with people reading through the Iliad, because it had the right “yes, that is what is was like” flavor.

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    4. Several Norse/Viking sources refer to a condition that sounds to me much like PTSD — but which is considered to be the result of enemy magic/curses, rather than merely the experience of violence.

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      1. Even conditions most favorable to PTSD, which were not typical of Norse warfare, do not produce it in a large percentage of people.

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  5. I kinda feel like it’s a bit unfair to Bertran not to mention that a significant number of his poems—most of the ones mentioned in the Wikipedia article on him (to my recollection all of the ones it mentions, except this one that you quote)—are laments, mostly for people killed during the same wars he praises.

    Besides, the fact someone praises war as such when he favors a particular war doesn’t actually mean anything about how he and his society viewed warfare in general. You get almost as much of a gung-ho attitude in the 1940s—from the very Brits and Americans who, not a decade earlier, had enabled Hitler’s expansionism in the first place with their peace-at-any-cost policies.

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  6. Ah the wonders of primary sources. I have recommended to fellow writers that you just read lots and lots and lots of it even from eras you don’t want to write about. The first step is to knock your block off so that you realize that cultures are different. Then you have a chance of realizing you need to research something rather than just automatically reach for what is familiar to you.

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    1. With the caveat that you have to know what you’re actually reading—a lot of words shift meaning between Classical and Medieval Latin or Classical, Koine, and Byzantine Greek, and you may be at the mercy of a translator who isn’t careful about the differences. E.g. there’s at least one point in Gibbon (“not even a great ape”) where he mistakes the Hellenistic slang “oyster shells”, meaning roof-tiles, for actual shells.

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  7. The same thirst for strife comes through in Irish and Norse warrior poetry, together with the same realistic appreciation that it involves wounds and death. Martial prowess and status are very closely linked in these societies – not just that the aristocrats fight, but that fighting is a way to rise in (and to) the aristocracy. You did not even have to win – a name for valiant death was a heritable asset, conferring prestige on one’s offspring.

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  8. You skipped past something I’ve always thought was part of the medieval aristocratic war package: the ransom. Being armored would usually, mostly, keep you from dying at a distance, and being rich would usually, mostly, keep you from dying at close range.

    Is that more prevalent in theory than in fact, or did you just run out of space?

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    1. And I thought everyone missed that one. I’m glad I read until the very last comment.

      A quora response signed by “Helena Schrader, PhD History, University of Hamburg” said that popularity of ransom depended on period. The crucial bits:

      “By the mid-11th century, however, they were back in fashion, and from the mid-12th century to the end of the 15th they were a dominant feature of warfare.(…)
      It worth noting, however, that the tradition of ransom was strongest in France.
      (…)
      The custom of ransom dramatically decreased casualties, because the prospect of financial gain greatly increased the proclivity of victorious fighting men to show mercy toward those who surrendered to them. This had the unfortunate side-effect, of course, of making the lives of wealthy men more valuable than the lives of the poor. As a result, throughout the High Middle Ages, there was a tendency for those of a class deemed good for ransom to escape death, while their less fortunate followers paid the price of defeat with their lives.

      In modern terms, you could say military nobility were like premium customers in a freemium, pay-to-win multiplayer game.

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      1. I can’t help but notice it’s a bit like wealth and law in our times. Depending on where you live, it can be said:

        “There’s one law for the rich and one for the poor”.

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      2. If it “dramatically” decreased casualties, it must’ve also benefited the commoners, too. The nobility were only about 5% of society. (Did maybe the whole retinue of a surrendered lord get held for ransom with him, or something?)

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      3. Sometimes. A common victory cry in the Wars of the Roses was ‘spare the commons, kill the lords’. The lower class archers and bill-men were aware this was an aristocratic quarrel, not a national or even local issue.

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        1. Which does complicate tactics.

          Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own; if your knight could shuffle himself on to a new square by the sly; if your bishop, at your castling, could wheedle your pawns out of their places; and if your pawns, hating you because they are pawns, could make away from their appointed posts that you might get checkmate on a sudden. You might be the longest-headed of deductive reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your own pawns. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with the game a man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for his instruments.

          George Eliot

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  9. All of which speaks deeply to the value of reading the primary source literature of a time period if you want to get a sense of it. There is no amount of secondary literature – including this blog – which will get you there. I am struck by how much medieval or ancient fantasy or historical fiction literature is clearly composed almost entirely from a reading of secondary sources and as a result often misses the values and viewpoints that people held in the past.

    I’m writing a manuscript of historical fiction and this is some of the most useful advice I could read. I’ve read some period literature here and there, but never in much depth. Yet something’s been missing from the work, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Good shout, Teach!

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  10. As I don’t have Twitter and you don’t provide an email address here (which leads me to assume you don’t want people googling your Institut’s mail contact either), I hope it’s okay I ask a somewhat unrelated question here.

    The recent press releases from Iran that the US started the harassing exercises (rather than the other way around) and the (rather public) incapacitation of the Theodore Roosevelt got me asking myself: Why would anyone want to start a conflict right now? But then I got to the question: Why am I thinking it unlikely for someone to start (or escalate) a conflict right now? Do you happen to know how large scale deceases have historically affected the likelihood of states to start wars or lower level conflicts?

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    1. The Antonine Plague did not deter the Marcomanni, the Plague of Justinian did not pause the Roman-Seleucid Wars and the Black Death did not put a stop to the Hundred Years War.

      I think it is safe to say that pandemics do not, unfortunately, discourage war. Humans appear to be perfectly capable of destroying ourselves at the same time a microbe is also destroying us.

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  11. I first encountered de Born the same place I met Dhuoda, the Gies’ book. The quotes from Born showed not only did he regard war as good but as tremendous fun. And a big part of that fun was looting and robbing those contemptible people who made a living through productive economic activity.

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    1. Looting was definitely an attraction – but it seems so for all participants. When not looting and slaving, Norse leaders were smithing or sowing; the yeomen archers from Cheshire were notoriously enthusiastic for war, as were the Gascon lower classes. At sea, merchants cheerfully turned pirate at the least opportunity.

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  12. I can sort of see where he’s coming from. Unpleasant things can be exhilarating and sought after even if the actual experience sucks.

    The closest thing I’ve ever had to being in war was being at a protest where the police were shoving people down with night sticks. Not something I’d want to do again but the adrenaline, the sense of camaraderie, and the stories you have to tell later can be attractive.

    Same with, say, running a marathon. That HURTS (have done two and am thinking about doing an ultra) but so many people do them anyway.

    Of course a big part of this is being insulated from the consequences so the terror isn’t the same as modern war for these well-armored aristocrats as you point out.

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  13. >For a sense of exactly what that battle experience might be like, I think Hergrim’s battle vignette on Reddit is quite good.

    I’m extremely flattered!

    Actually, I’m very unhappy with what I wrote well over a year ago now and have been meaning to update it with a better understanding of how medieval cavalry warfare worked. I more or less mixed the experience of various 19th century cavalry officers with Verbruggen, but I’ve developed a more medieval picture of how the fighting would work since. Still, so far as it goes, it’s not the worst depiction of medieval cavalry combat.

    >(And I know the last time I made that assertion, I got a fair bit of push back, but quite frankly there isn’t much room for argument. If I may use my own period of expertise as a point of comparison, Nathan Rosenstein estimates that from 203 to 168 B.C., Roman Italy suffered something like 130,000-160,000 excess military deaths. Those year-brackets are conservative– extending the brackets to 218 would without a doubt more than double that figure (since it would add the devastating Second Punic War to the picture; the Romans suffer something close to 70,000 combat KIA in the first three years of it). Late-medieval French catastrophes like Courtrai (1302) or even Agincourt (1415) are close to an order of magnitude smaller than their Hellenistic period equivalents in terms of casualties – and still quite a bit more costly than the 12th and 13th century fighting Bertran saw).

    I don’t remember if I just didn’t write clearly enough or if I got the wrong end of the stick a while back, but I don’t disagree that field casualties were significantly less in medieval warfare (although, on an odd note, 14th and 15th century saw a massively increased number of casualties from fighting rather than flight, with anywhere up to 25% or more of an army killed in actual combat). My main disagreement, even if I haven’t phrased it well, has been the overall levels of destructiveness of the countryside.

    Also, regarding the greater number of casualties among the nobility in the 14th and 15th centuries, a lot of that comes down to the French monarchy developing sufficient control over the kingdom in the 13th century and having sufficient finances to raise armies that were primarily composed of men-at-arms. Whereas French monarchs of the 11th to mid-13th centuries might only have 20-30% of their army made up of knights and mounted sergeants, those of the 14th and 15th centuries reversed the proportions, so that infantry rarely made up more than 20% of an army and tended to be specialised professionals like crossbowmen and pavisiers. Combined with an increased trend in dismounted combat (not solely due to archery, since even as early as 1356 horse armour was sufficient to resist arrows during a charge), the noble casualties dramatically increased because they were in danger more often and were less able to flee it.

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    1. I just read it, but I’m a bit confused by the mention of 6 inch gaps between charging knights. You also mention that horses need more space between them as they build up speed. Wouldn’t 6 inch gaps be too small to maneuver effectively? Bret’s articles stress that /horses are not battering rams/, that cavalry rarely charged directly at an enemy in a very tight formation. Chess knight piece seems to be an evidence of this, because it moves by striking to a side, as if by flanking. What is it that I don’t understand? Was heavy cavalry really “battering rams” for the initial strike with lances and then resorted to ride-by attacks once lances were used up?

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      1. The 6″ gap between the knees of each rider is taken from “European cavalry, including details of the organization of the cavalry service among the principal nations of Europe” (https://archive.org/details/cu31924003360074/page/n217/mode/2up), by George Brinton McClellan, and was used because it was a handy confirmation of what other sources implied but didn’t provide. Joseph Weeler’s “A revised system of cavalry tactics : for the use of the cavalry and mounted infantry, C.S.A.” was also helpful in this regard, providing both the width of a cavalry platoon of 10-15 riders (12 paces/36 feet). The fact that horses require more room to run than to walk comes from Captain Louis Nolan’s “Cavalry: Its History and Tactics” (https://archive.org/details/cavalryitshistor00nola/page/186/mode/2up), as does the anecdote I worked into the story with the person being lifted up off the ground as a result.

        Medieval formations, from descriptions in various romances and chansons de geste, were of a similar density. See, for instance, Raoul de Cambrai:

        >So close the barons rode that if you had thrown a glove on the tops of their helmets it would not have fallen to earth for a good league’s space. The necks of the horses behind lie on the croups of those in front as they gallop along.

        Similar statements (“It was not possible to throw a prune except on mailed and armoured men”, “He led them in such close formation that the wind could not blow between their lances”) crop up in other sources with sufficient frequency that they should be taken as a general guide. This isn’t to say that looser formations were never used, especially in tournaments, but close order seems to have been the order of the day.

        When it comes to actual combat, we know for a fact that two lines of cavalry almost never closed together in the 19th century, and the few instances that did close dropped down to a slow walk before they engaged. The general rule of thumb was that the side with the worst discipline and moral would take one look at the mass of enemy cavalry charging them, become terrified at the possibility of an actual collision, and then turn around and flee before they could come to grips with the enemy. This is what I went with in my narrative.

        Looking at things with the benefit or a few more years, I think it’s more likely that medieval cavalry did actually come together at a walk and essentially fought a standing battle as each side tried to bull their way through the other by knocking their opponents off their horses or killing them, so they could circle back and attack another part of the enemy line from the rear. Raoul de Cambrai serves as a good example once again:

        >On both sides of the valiant count the press is so great that he can neither turn his horse nor strike with his sword as he would. It angers him to be so hampered; he is sweating with his efforts to break through by main force.

        Scenes from the Morgan Bible (eg: https://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/58) and the Holkham Bible (eg: http://manuscriptminiatures.com/4071/7163/) are most likely representative of what the combat looked like.

        Lances would have been retained for as long as possible for use either in an individual joust with an opponent between the two armies, to wound the enemy’s horse at range or, in the best case scenario, to chase down the enemy and stick the lance in their back if they broke and fled before you. Lances (and lancers) are great for pursuing and slaughtering fleeing foes, whether they’re on horse or on foot.

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  14. Your emphasis on reading primary sources to get a sense of people’s worldviews makes good sense. Are there any good anthologies of primary literature from the ancient and/or medieval worlds, particularly ones that contextualize those documents the way you are doing here? I know if I’m reading religious scripture or epic poetry, it’s often easier to make sense of it with scholarly work that explains its context, and I imagine this is true of other primary texts as well.

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  15. I posted a link to this article in an RPG forum I frequent, with a comment on “people in the past weren’t stupid, they were a mix of the same concerns people always have, with some different values and worldviews”.

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  16. Going back to an older topic – intra-military fiction (urban legends, battle stories, regimental histories, “soldier of fortune” style near-military publications) is extremely pro-war to this day (particularly among “elite” troops and volunteers). It’s just that wider contemporary fiction isn’t aimed nearly exclusively at these demographics.

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