Medieval War as Memorial: Thoughts on Battle, LOTR, and Camille’s “Mirror in Parchment”

June 16; definitely time for a post. Since Kalamazoo, things have been pretty crazy. Commencement, a wedding, spring cleaning, dissertation, to name a few. At the end of the day, I just haven’t had the drive or attention span do much of anything with the blogs, either of them.  But, after what has been an especially intense week, I’ve finally got some breathing space, and hope to get back to posting more regularly.  There WILL be a K’zoo write-up, for sure.

The title of this post reflects a question about which I’ve long speculated: why battles (as opposed to wars and warfare generally) have dominated historical memory to the extent they have. Partly, I suppose, it’s a reflection of a patriarchal society, as ancient, medieval, early modern and many modern battles have been fought primarily by men, and the women who participated in them rarely had the opportunity to make their voices heard in the way battles were remembered and commemorated. But that still doesn’t quite get at why, of all human activity (even within the patriarchy), battle has received pride of place in memory and commemoration. Partly, perhaps, it has something to do with rituals of honor and masculinity, but  I see numerous problems in transferring microcosmic rites of masculinity to the macrocosm of the battlefield, not least the well-documented non-heroic aspects of many battles. In other words, if battle is a test or enactment of “masculinity”, it is so very different from most small-scale social enactments as to be a different beast entirely. So many different types of human behavior are comprehended in a battle, such an intense neuro-psychology is involved, and the external stimuli are so extreme, that in many respects I suspect battle stands apart from nearly any other human experience. And that, perhaps, is why “battle” still holds pride of place in collective historical memory and memorialization. Regardless of the overall “importance” of a battle on the larger course of human culture and society.

A couple months ago, I had a small epiphany on this subject, courtesy of J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson. I was ruminating on chapter 5 of the dissertation, trying to see my way clear to something semi-intelligible on where the average East Anglian knight and esquire would have placed his experiences of war, and more particularly what “chivalry” would have meant to him. Where would he have had a chance to participate in “chivalry”? I had been reading Michael Camille’s Mirror in Parchment, an outstanding if somewhat imperfect book (imperfect in that about 80% of his iconographic analysis works for a theory that demands a rather higher percentage…I can go into that later, if you want). Anyway, Mirror in Parchment, which does such a wonderful of job of showing exactly how Sir Geoffrey Luttrell saw himself in life and in history; the placement of the famous arming scene right before Psalm 109, for Sunday Vespers, for example. The dominance of Luttrell’s arms, and their strategic placement viz-a-viz specific Psalms and texts.  To Luttrell, the artistic portrayal of his station, and the knight as warrior, symbolized his reality no matter how many commissions he sat on, no matter how many administrative orders he had to carry out. It’s a pity there aren’t more family psalter survivals from the 1340s, but monuments such as the famous Hastings brass functioned in a similar way–Sir Hugh surrounded by eight of his noble comrades in arms, with him as the ninth (my friend Chris Berard first brought that to my attention).

So we have some funeral monuments, some engravings, the odd book survival, and a heck of a lot of heraldry. But these chaps’ days were filled with so much that was not military, martial, or otherwise warlike, so can we really be sure that this, above all, is how they conceived of themselves?  And at that moment, I had Return of the King on in the background, and we had just reached the Rohirrim charge–probably my favorite part, for a lot of reasons. Most of it not in the books, but Eowyn and Merry’s terror when they are suddenly confronted with the panorama of battle, and realize that they are about to run straight into it, was very well done, I think. And the realization by most troopers there that they probably wouldn’t win, but that they were going to charge anyway. And Theoden’s inspired, and chilling, rallying of his troops.  And at that moment, right before the trumpets sounded the advance, I realized that this was why battle has enjoyed pride of place in memory and commemoration. Because for most of these horsemen, what they were about to do was something many of them had never done before, or had never before known, or had known maybe once or twice. And they would be asked about it for the rest of their lives, and they would define themselves by it for the rest of their lives, because it was so far outside the daily course of human experience. This wasn’t small war, as Clifford Rogers terms it, this was something else entirely.

It is this sort of psychological, neuro-physiological, and physical “otherness” that needs to be taken into account when assessing the impact of the Battle of Crécy in 1346, among other engagements. It was not publicly celebrated to the extent that coins were minted to commemorate it–at least not that I’ve heard. This had partly to do with the fact that the siege of Calais began shortly after, so that there was little time to celebrate the victory in England as, say, Poitiers was ten years later. The battle was quickly used as political currency in Parliament, but the mobilization of resources for Calais soon dwarfed all else. Further, much of the military strength of the northern counties had stayed at home in case of a Scottish invasion, which in due course materialized. The Battle of Neville’s Cross was comparable in many respects to Crécy, so that within the space of a couple months the entire English military–from earl to baron to bannerette to knight to squire to valet to hobelar to mounted archer to foot archer to spearman–had participated in the same experience of massive, close-quarters battle.

All of which then got me wondering about medieval commemoration of battles in general–whether they were memorialized to the extent that modern battlefields, especially American battlefields, are marked off. And the answer, actually, is that by and large they were not. Sure, Battle Abbey springs immediately to mind, but the purpose of the abbey was less a universal marker of commemoration as it was a personal symbol for William the Conqueror. Medieval battles tended to be memorialized when the overall goal of the campaign was extremely important, or when the battle was the scene of especially shocking mass death–death on a scale matched only by plague.  So, for example, the procession in the Latin Kingdom celebrating the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 was closely connected in its scenes with the actual capture of the city (if memory serves). And in England, the battle that seems to have caused the most shock with its scale of death was Towton, Palm Sunday 1461. Despite scholars that have doubted the standard casualty figures given for the battle, the fact remains that it entered English national consciousness as a particularly horrible battle almost as soon as it was fought. Certainly Richard III thought it prudent to start building a chantry there, though he never finished it. Henry VII apparently took a stab at it, but he was more concerned with the mass graves that were apparently still a health hazard and an eye-sore, a visceral material reminder of the reality he was anxious that his subjects forget. Of course, the scale of death could work to suppress the notoriety of a battlefield. At Crécy, as Prestwich notes there are no accounts of the English celebrating their victory, and in any case the death of the king of Bohemia put a damper on high spirits. And at Agincourt it seems quite certain that the French dumped many of their casualties into mass graves as quickly as possible, so that the scale of their losses wouldn’t be definitely known. The battlefield itself was rarely an object of general commemoration in the Middle Ages.

So, the interesting thing then is that, while men like Geoffrey Luttrell, Hugh Hastings, Miles Stapleton, Oliver Ingham, William Kerdeston, Hugh Caveley, and others commemorated their own identity as warriors who had done great deeds of arms, they did not as a rule commemorate specific battles the way the modern age does. It was the personal bonds that were forged on campaign that would have constituted the commemoration, as they would be manifest in many forms outside of the military sphere. Shakespeare’s “Band of Brothers” speech, in other words. And I think I answered my question regarding when and how the average knight and squire would have experienced “chivalry”, as well. He would have experienced it first and foremost in the heraldic display that surrounded him, and above all on campaign and in battle. Tournament was financially out of the reach of many warriors, and there were those, like Gray and perhaps Luttrell, who didn’t much care for it–to quote Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, “I don’t fight in tournaments, because when I fight a man for real, I don’t want him to know what I can do.” [Ok, that wasn’t their reasoning per se, but it was a good quote.]  But men-at-arms all had a right to their heraldic arms (though the precise dates and regulation of gentry assumption of arms is somewhat hazy); the daily symbols of their identity and the centrality of war (and family) to their self-image were all around them. Whether they ever talked much of their experiences in battle, we don’t know, or whether, as often happens, it was those back home who hadn’t experienced the close-quarters combat at Poitiers, or the final English advance in the dusk at Crécy, that asked most about them. But the centrality of war, and battle specifically, as the defining memory in a lifetime, is something that we should remember more often when thinking of the wider impacts of war in the medieval world, and in other periods as well.

4 Replies to “Medieval War as Memorial: Thoughts on Battle, LOTR, and Camille’s “Mirror in Parchment””

  1. Reblogged this on Venti Belli: The Winds of War and commented:

    Ok, so, not having had the time to write a good blog post recently, I’ve stooped to reblogging my own material. Low, I know. But I rather like this post, and as it has a lot of ideas I want to play with in the near future, why NOT reblog… Happy reading.

  2. Daniel, great re-posted thoughts on the prominence of battle instead of wars in medieval memory. I think it becomes difficult for today’s mind to grasp this aspect initially, because we throw around modern terms such as “100 Years War.” The immediate response I always hear is something along the lines of how could people fight for so long in a single war. Thus, Crecy and other battles come off as a blip, which initially makes it difficult for us to conceive how a single battle could hold such prominence.

    As for the medieval commemoration, I think you are onto something as well. We go with the “traditional” location for Crecy, but as far as I know, we have yet to find any archeological evidence for its location. We still have not pinpointed the exact location of Falkirk (1298), another English victory. Yet, in the States, we cherish our battlefields, funding non-profit organizations to fight for the preservation while others remain under care of the government. A monument or a marker would have done wonders for some of these medieval fields that remain only “battle sites.”

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