09/10/07 - blind king john

In today's excerpt - noblemen's love of fighting circa the fourteenth century:

"In the performance of his function, the knight must be prepared, as John of Salisbury wrote, 'to shed your blood for your brethren'—he meant brethren in the universal sense—'and, if needs must, to lay down your life.' Many were thus prepared, though perhaps more from sheer love of battle than concern for a cause. Blind King John of Bohemia met death in that way. He loved fighting for its own sake, not caring whether the conflict was important. He missed hardly a quarrel in Europe and entered tournaments in between, allegedly receiving in one of them the wound that blinded him. ...

"As an ally of Philip VI at the head of 500 knights, the sightless King fought the English through Picardy, always rash and in the avant-garde. At Crecy, he asked his knights to lead him deeper into the battle so that he might strike further blows with his sword. Twelve of them tied their horses' reins together and, with the King at their head, advanced into the thick of the fight,  'so far as never to return.' His body was found next day among the knights, all slain, with their horses still tied together.

"Fighting filled the noble's need of something to do, a way to exert himself. It was his substitute for work. His leisure time was spent chiefly in hunting, otherwise in games of chess, backgammonm, and dice, in songs, dances, pageants, and other entertainments. ... The sword offered the workless noble an activity with a purpose, one that could bring him honor, status, and, if he was lucky, gain. If no real conflict was at hand, he sought tournaments, the most exciting, expensive, ruinous, and delightful activity of the noble class, and paradoxically the most harmful to his true military function. ...

"Originating in France and referred to by others as 'French combat' (conflictus Gallicus), tournaments started without rules or lists as an agreed-upon clash of opposing units. Though justified as training exercises, the impulse was the love of fighting. ... Tournaments proliferated as the noble's primary occupation dwindled. Under the [recent] extended rule of monarchy, he had less need to protect his own fief, while a class of professional ministers was gradually taking his place around the crown. The less he had to do, the more energy he spent in tournaments, re-enacting his role. ...

"[Jousting tournaments] were the great sporting events of the time, attracting crowds of bourgeois spectators from rich merchants to common artisans, mountebanks, food vendors, prostitutes and pickpockets. ... Because of their extravagance, violence, and vainglory, tournaments were continually being denounced by popes and kings, from whom they drained money. In vain. ... When the formidable St. Bernard thundered that anyone killed in a tournament would go to Hell, he spoke for once to deaf ears. ... Although St. Louis condemned tournaments and Philip the Fair prohibited them during his wars, nothing could stop them permanently or dim the enthusiasm for them."


Barbara W. Tuchman


A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century


Ballantine Books


Copyright 1978 by Barbara W. Tuchman


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