Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Cult of the Warrior

Perhaps I should more accurately call this 'Don Quixote' since in Barbara Tuchman's book, A Distant Mirror, the knightly ideal is what the upper class strove for. It seems the harder they clung to the ideal, the less their behavior resembled it but they admired bravery and glory as ends in themselves and so it is a cult of the warrior.
Herodotus wrote something like this: "In the course of that fight Leonidas fell, having fought most gallantly, and many distinguished Spartans with him - their names I have learned, as those of men who deserve to be remembered; indeed, I have learned the names of all the three hundred." (as translated by Aubrey de Selincourt) It reminds me of a statement by Jean Froissart about the Thirty: "since that time I have seen sitting at the table of Charles king of France a Breton knights, sir Evan of Charuel who had been there; and he had his face so cut about and hacked that it plainly showed how that the encounter had been nobly fought. And in many places was the adventure related and recorded. and some thought it prowess and others foolhardiness."
It has a ring to it just like the 300 of Spartan fame. The Combat of the Thirty took place in 1351. It started with Robert de Beaumanoir, a Breton nobleman fighting for the French in the Hundred Years War, issuing a challenge to a single combat to Bramborough who was fighting for the English. At first it was thought to be a waste of effort to risk death for one single joust but then their friends heard of it and wanted in. So they got a group of thirty on each side to meet in a field near an oak halfway between Ploermel and Josselin, later marked with a stone. They fought for three hours. Froissart does not report it but it was later said that when Beaumanoir called for a recess to get a drink, Bramborough told him to drink his own blood and his thirst would pass. Bramborough should have kept his mouth shut because he was one of the later eight English casualties. The French won the battle, there were several dead on both sides and everyone was wounded. They fought with spears, swords, daggers and axes.
Froissart also wrote "Ernauton Biscete and le Mengeant de Sainte Basile fought hand to hand, without sparing themselves, and performed many gallant deeds, while all the others were fully employed; however, they fought so vigorously that they exhausted their strength, and both were slain on the spot." idiots.
It puts one to mind of what Dieneces said upon hearing that the arrows shot by the Persians would be so numerous that they would block out the sun,"This is pleasant new that the stranger from Trachis bring us: if the Persians hide the sun, we shall have our battle in the shade." Or when Leonidas was asked by Xerxes to surrender his arms, he replied "Come and get them." Except the Three Hundred were fighting to defend their homeland, they were not simply bored by a lull in the fighting. Leonidas knew they would not be coming back due to a prophecy that Sparta would not prevail unless they sacrificed their king. He chose only men who had sons who could take over as head of the family. It was not a silly game; they were laying down their lives for their homes and their families.
The famous Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a novel about the Thirty. It is no longer in print but it can be read here.

And it might be worth it, too.

3 comments:

anachronist said...

"y Xerxes to surrender his arms, he replied "Come and get them." Except the Three Hundred were fighting to defend their homeland, they were not simply bored by a lull in the fighting. Leonidas knew they would not be coming back due to a prophecy that Sparta would not prevail unless they sacrificed their king. He chose only men who had sons who could take over as head of the family. It was not a silly game; they were laying down their lives for their homes and their families."

Exactly. Dueling just to prove how manly and courageous you are is really a silly and thoughtless thing. Small wonder duels were promptly made illegal from the early 17th century in Europe. From Wiki:

According to one scholar, "In France during the reign of Henry IV (1589–1610), more than 4,000 French aristocrats were killed in duels in an eighteen-year period..

Kings wanted their best men die on battlefields, not as a result of a private duel.

Tracy said...

At first it was thought to be a waste of effort to risk death for one single joust but then their friends heard of it and wanted in. So they got a group of thirty on each side
Sounds like the number thirty was chosen in direct emulation of the 300 - can imagine them badgering their friends 'come on, we only need two more!'

The Red Witch said...

@Sounds like the number thirty was chosen in direct emulation of the 300

Few people could read Greek in the Middle Ages. Abelard could not and Heloise could. It was part of her fame. Few of these works existed in translation so it is doubtful that a bunch of 'men of action' would have been well read enough to know about the 300, although I could be wrong.

Duels do seem useless. Especially when you consider the Combat des Trentes had no effect on the outcome of the war. There was no prize to be won, nothing decided by the outcome of the contest. They did it simply for the heck of it or glory.