Hazards on the Way to the Middle Ages

A historian sets out in search of a “verray parfit gentil knight,” and encounters many surprises along the road.

The problem of writing a book laid in the Middle Ages — specifically in France in the second half of the fourteenth century is that one can never be certain of achieving a likeness that is valid. At 600 years’ distance the Middle Ages gleam like a fairytale castle on a glass hill, and at the foot is an abyss. The gap in received ideas between then and now in habits of thought, conduct, politics, beliefs is so wide as to make it virtually impossible to leap across, impossible for the historian to be sure of understanding what motivated people of that time, impossible to be sure of describing it as it really was.

My object is to try to portray fifty years of a tormented and disintegrating society in which I see reflections of our own. A particular person’s life is used for purposes of narrative and focus. The fifty years are those that followed the Black Death of 1348-1350, the most lethal disaster of recorded history, so far. The person in question is not a king or queen or sovereign or royalty of any kind, because they are too special and too often used; nor a commoner, because commoners’ lives in most cases were not wide-ranging enough, nor individually sufficiently documented; nor a cleric or saint, such as Catherine of Siena, for instance, because they are outside my comprehension. So I am left with a noble; his name is Enguerrand de Coucy VII, and he is ideal for the purpose. Except for a single article published in 1939. nothing has ever been written about him in English, and there is no formal biography in French either, except for a doctoral thesis of 1890 that exists only in longhand manuscript, and French script at that.

I read this in Paris, under the eaves on the top floor of the Ecole de Chartes, somewhat hampered by parsimony with electric light. Actually, while it filled out certain episodes, it did not contain very much that I had not already found, and the one thing I really wanted, the author’s list of sources, was missing. It might not have helped in any case, because one of the afflictions of French history is that certain sources available to earlier historians have since disappeared, many destroyed in the French Revolution and others in World War I.

Some Coucy documents originating with the Crown exist in the national collections, and key documents such as his will and his religious foundations exist in print. But no local Coucy archive survives, partly because Mazarin destroyed most of the castle during the Fronde, and the Germans in 1917 blew up what was left.

Nevertheless, Enguerrand VII is a perfect subject, because from the time his mother died in the Black Death to his own marvelously appropriate death in the culminating fiasco of knighthood that closed the century, his life was as if designed for the historian. He suppressed the peasant revolt called the Jacquerie. He married the eldest daughter of King Edward III of England, thereby acquiring double allegiance of great historical interest. He freed his serfs in return for due payment. He campaigned three times in Italy, conveniently at Milan, Florence, and Genoa, and became the Crown’s Italian expert. He commanded an army of brigand mercenaries, the worst scourge of the age, in an effort to lead them out of the country like the Pied Piper. He picked the right year to revisit England, 1376. the year of Wycliffe’s struggle, the Good Parliament, and the death of the Black Prince, at whose deathbed he was present. He was escort for Emperor Charles IV at all the stage plays, pageantry, and festivities during the imperial visit to Paris. He was chosen for his eloquence and tact to negotiate with the urban rebels of Paris in 1382, and at a truce parley with the English at which a member of the opposite team just happened to be Geoffrey Chaucer. He was agent or envoy to the Pope, the Duke of Brittany, and other difficult characters in delicate situations. He was a patron and friend of Froissart, and owned the oldest surviving copy of the Chronicle. His castle was celebrated in a poem by Deschamps. He assisted at the literary competition for the Cent Ballades, of which his cousin, the Bastard of Coucy, was one of the authors. On the death of his father-in-law, King Edward, he returned his wife and the Order of the Garter to England. His daughter was “divorced at Rome by means of false witnesses” by her dissolute husband. He commanded an overseas expedition to Tunisia. He founded a monastery at Soissons. He testified at the canonization process of Pierre de Luxembourg. At age fifty he was challenged to a joust by the Earl of Nottingham. Earl Marshal of England, aged twenty-three, as the person most fitting to confer “honor, valor, chivalry. and great renowm" on a young knight (though from what I can gather. Coucy was too busy to bother with him). He was of course in the King’s company at the sensational mad scene when Charles VI went out of his mind, and at the macabre Dance of the Savages afterward. If was his physician who attended the King and who later ordered his own tomb effigy as a skeleton, the first of its kind in the cult of death. Finally, as “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France,” he was a leader of the last Crusade, and on the way to death met the only medieval experience so far missing from his record, an attested miracle. In short, he supplies leads to every sub ject—marriage and divorce, religion, insurrection, literature, Italy, England, besides, of course, war and politics. For more about my remarkable friend, you will have to wait for my book, which is a long time off.

I am not happy with history in categories— intellectual, military, economic, or other. C. V. Langlois’ book Connaissance de la Nature au Moyen Age contains a statement of purpose which I should like to adopt: he wanted to find and reveal “what were the aspects of contemporary life; the ordinary and general manner of living, of thinking, acting, feeling? The customs, habits, beliefs, prejudices? In short, what was the material, moral, and intellectual atmosphere in which men of that time were plunged?”

The difficulty is that the mental and moral furniture of the period is so different from ours as to create what seems like a different civilization.

The main barrier, I believe, is the Christian religion as it then was: the air, the law, the matrix of medieval life, pervasive, ubiquitous, inescapable, in fact, compulsory. Chivalry—meaning the set of ideas comprising loyalty, honor, prowess, courtesy, largesse, and so-called courtly love—is another barrier, for chivalry was really the politics and, at least for the noble estate, the manners of the time. Both these sets of ideas were taken for granted— though not without dissent—and, at the same time, were normally and regularly violated every day by everyone to whom they applied. To do otherwise was impossible, because the Church set itself, at

least in theory, against the natural instincts of sensual man and of economic man, and chivalry was a glorious ideal that honored man’s self-image more than it suited his daily habits. The persistent medieval gap between ideas and practice makes a difficult passage for the historian, not unlike a passage through one of those tunnels of distorting mirrors and sliding floors in an amusement park.

That is the overall problem, but I should like to mention some lesser hazards: to begin with, what might be called “swimming data,” that is to say, dates, money, numbers, nomenclature, and other such factors, which ought to be definite, but in the Middle Ages are anything but. People sigh when one mentions dates, but they are basic; if one does not know what precedes and what follows, one cannot know cause and effect, and one cannot tell a story. Medieval records do not make it easy. which

The year began at Easter, which means that the time between January 1 and Easter, whenever that was, is not what we think it was; but whether it was the year before or the year after is a running enigma. You have to know when Easter fell, which might have been at any time between March 22 and April 22; but in the case of official English documents, it doesn’t matter, because they used the regnal year dating from the first year of the current king’s reign (ah, but what month did it begin? There’s a trap). On the continent, some chanceries, but not all, used the papal year. If a chronicler placed an event, let us say, on March 30, 1356 (which, by the way, he never does, for reasons to be explained), and if Easter came before March 30, the year is 1356; but if not, it is 1357. Depending upon what month Edward III began his reign, 1356 is either 29 Edward or 30 Edward, or, put the other way around, if a document is dated 30 Edward, does it refer to 1356 or 1357? God alone knows what year it is in Avignon.

However, a chronicler never does mention March 30 or any date by number, but speaks rather of the day before St. John the Baptist’s Day, or two days after the Nativity of the Virgin, or the Monday after Epiphany, or the third Sunday in Lent. This requires a list of saints’ days at hand as well as a list of the days when Easter fell; the one I used, called the Trésor de Chronologies unaccountably had blanks for 1347, 1356, 1364, and 1369. How come? Did Easter just wander off and get lost?

The result of all this is to confuse not only historians but the inhabitants of the fourteenth century themselves, who rarely if ever agree on the same date for any event.

Let me tell you about money; it is worse. The fourteenth century used the florin, the ducat, the livre, the pound, the ecu, and the franc, all of which apparently were based on the Roman pound, shilling, and pence system, with the pound supposedly containing 3.5 grams of gold. But wait, there is money in coin and money of account, which expresses value, not weight, and they no longer match. What’s more, the various gold coins, florins, etcetera, which presumably once equaled each other, no longer match because one or another gets debased in gold content. They now seem to hover at about one fifth of a pound sterling (but why sterling, when we thought the standard was gold? I can’t answer that), except for the livre tournois, of which six equal one florin. What’s tournois? Well, the French used both a livre parisis and a livre tournois, four of one equaling five of the other, and even occasionally a livre bordelais, meaning, I suppose, from Bordeaux, although Bordeaux was of course held by the English. Compared to French money, as was once said of a particularly slippery statesman, an eel is a leech.

Philip VI and Jean II devalued the currency so often that they wore out the livre and took to coining the ecu, which was worth about two or three sous (or shillings), except that another authority, according to my notes, says it was worth 22.5 sous. No sooner has one become adapted, if not resigned, to the ecu, when out of nowhere appears a new character called the mouton d’or. In the case of a bishop’s ransom in 1358, the sum was fixed at 9000 ecus d’or, plus fifty silver marks, plus one good warhorse valued at 100 moutons d’or. Why, in God’s name, three currencies? Why marks, all of a sudden?

For a while I thought the mouton d’or might be something like today’s—or yesterday’s English guinea: a pound and a little bit more to confuse the tourist, except that this could not be right, because when the word “gold” is attached, it implies an actual coin. Like the question whether the insides of cathedrals were painted, which I pursued for a long time, the mouton d’or was one of those problems about which no one seemed certain.

Medievalists on the whole are kind, helpful, friendly people, except for a regrettable tendency to reply to any question. “That’s not my period.” i am deeply indebted to many of them for answers that genuinely illuminate a problem, but they are tremendous specialists who do not like to peek over the walls of their specialty. They study life in sharply sliced sections— monasticism, land tenure, banking and credit, pilgrimages, or whatever—and in the process they learn a vast amount that is invaluable to those of us who come after. But a hazard of the process. I think, is losing curiosity about life as a whole.

Hazards on the Way to the Middle Ages

One of my questions was about the chastity belt: to what extent was it really a device in normal use, or w’as it, despite the one or two alleged examples in museums. more of a litfancy? I asked the author of a scholarly and indispensable work nominally on contraception but actually covering many aspects of sexual theory and customs. He said he knew nothing about the chastity belt; when pressed, he said that that was not his subject; he was concerned with people who wanted sex. not those who wanted to avoid it. Now there is specialization for you.

In the case of Picardy, where the Coucy dynasty lived for 400 years, what was my distress to discover. in a book by a modern scholar entirely devoted to medieval Picardy, that the domain of Coucy and its region were not once mentioned, not even in the index. On meeting the author later at the Sorbonne, I asked him why he had left Coucy out. Because, he said, it belonged to a region of different soil formation, which did not grow wheat like the rest of Picardy, and so he had not included it. However, when I went to Laon. capital of the diocese, the local archivist indignantly denied that the area had not grown wheat in the fourteenth century. This disagreement is par for any medieval condition, which brings me to the problem of discrepancies and conflicting evidence.

You can take it as an axiom that any statement of fact will be met by a statement of the opposite. Women outnumbered men because men were killed off in the wars; men outnumbered women because women died in childbirth. Common people were familiar with the Bible; common people w’ere unfamiliar with the Bible. Nobles were tax exempt; no they were not tax exempt. French peasants were filthy and foul-smelling and lived on bread and onions; French peasants ate pork. fowl, and game, and enjoyed frequent baths in the village bathhouses. I could extend the list indefinitely. The contraries range over everything from small specifics to the total view of the period, which most people see as decline but which one brave historian calls “Dawn of a New Era.”Take a tiny matter like the Black Prince’s voyage to Bordeaux in 1355. “With a brisk wind in his sails he scudded over in three days,” says one historian, while another states flatly that he was at sea for two weeks. The time in this case is of no importance one way or another, but a ground strewn with these discrepancies makes hard going.

Even the most learned scholar trips. Even Delachenal, the great reliable, whose five volumes on Charles V are an ocean of erudition. Along comes Perroy, dean of the Hundred Years’ War, with the shattering discovery that the alleged peace conference at Bruges of January March 1374, which Delachenal had treated at length and the existence of which Perroy himself had never doubted, never in fact took place! It seems Delachenal was misled by letters of authority issued to the English and French and ecclesiastical envoys who, however, according to Perroy, never met in person. Where Homer nods, lesser folk are bound to stumble. Faced with all these discrepancies, one simply has to make a choice, based on the degree of confidence in the source and on inherent probability.

Numbers are the obvious stumbling block but not the most dangerous, because it is clear from the outset that medieval statistics cannot be taken seriously. Chroniclers are forever numbering arever numbering armies or plague deaths or city crowds in tens or scores of thousands which financial and other records show to have been enlarged by several hundred percent. The English invaders of 1359, said to number 20,000 by Froissart and 10.000 by Chandos Herald, turn out, under examination of pay records, to have numbered 1750 knights and about 3500 foot soldiers, or about one quarter of Froissart’s figure. The plague toll for Avignon in 1348, put by one observer at 120.000, is a figure more than double what has since been estimated as the city’s entire population.

G. G. Coulton, the historian who must have known more about the Middle Ages than anyone who ever lived, offers a guidepost when he speaks of the “chronic and intentional vagueness” of medieval figures. Numbers were intended not as data, but as a device of literary art to astonish and amaze the reader. The reason they so often appear in multiples of six&emdsh;6000 and 60,000—is that, according to Coulton, the figure 600 was commonly used in Roman speech as the equivalent of “limitless” or “countless.” Lack of precision and an affinity for round numbers were, of course, the natural consequence of using Roman numerals. Here you bump into another discrepancy: Arabic numerals are said to have come into use by the twelfth century. Well, if they did, they must have been confined to merchants and bankers, because they certainly did not reach the chroniclers.

Lake dates, numbers are basic because they tell you what proportion of the population is involved in a given situation, and a false idea of this will give a false historical picture. Medieval exaggeration of armies, for instance, led to a misunderstanding of medieval war as analogous to modern war, which it was not, in means, methods, or purpose. In 1381, England’s basis for calculating the poll tax was so far off that returns proved to be only two thirds of expectations, with the result that the government had to impose a second tax, which precipitated the Peasants’ Revolt, the greatest crisis of the English Middle Ages. Such are the perils of careless numbers.

Immediate post-medieval historians repeated without question the chroniclers’ figures, which went on being repeated thereafter. Only late in the nineteenth century, and much more in our own time, did historians begin to re-examine the records. One result has been to change entirely our estimate of the population. Boissonade, in the nineteenth century, gave Paris a population of 300,000 before the Black Death, which J. C. Russell, the pope of modern demography, has now cut down to 100.000. Levasseur, in the nineteenth century, gave France before the Black Death a population of 60 million, which today is thought to be the figure for all of Europe at that time. Agreement stops here. Russell now puts the pre-plague population of France at 21 million, Ferdinand Lot at 15 to 16 million, and Perroy at a lowly 10 to 11 million, exactly half of Russell’s figure. Here’s a clear case of what I mean by hazards. Size of population affects studies of everything else taxes, life expectancy, commerce and agriculture, famine and plenty—and here we have figures by modern authorities which differ by 100 percent.

Names, by comparison, are a minor confusion. The trouble derives from the spelling, which was more or less phonetic. Judging by the different spelling of names on either side of the Channel, pronunciation of French, which was the common language of the English and French upper class, must have been close to mutually unintelligible. For some eccentric reason. Enguerrand becomes Ingelram in English. My nearest mishap came in the case of Arnaut de Cervole, a notorious brigand captain of mercenaries. On coming across frequent mention of such a captain named, or spelled. Canolles, I took this to be a variant of Cervole and put him in Cervole’s place, until after a while the circumstances just did not fit. It turned out that Canolles was actually a French version of Knowles or Knolles, an equally notorious English brigand. not major, tends to This sort of thing, though make one nervous.

The empty spaces in medieval history are pitfalls too. The chroniclers were not interested in, or at any rate paid little or no attention (except in the case of ruling figures) to, personality and appearance appearance or individual circumstance. They ignored the psyche. Biographies, autobiographies, and letters exist in a few cases, mostly for clerics and saints, but rarely for nonroyal, nonliterary laymen, with the bright exception of the Merchant of Prato, marvelously reconstructed as a character from his letters by Iris Origo. Again, except for royalty, portraiture too was nonexistent in the fourteenth century. One is left to piece together a character only from his or her acts, which is possible but chancy.

With Enguerrand a personality is gradually taking shape, like a message emerging from secret ink. of a man of immense savoir-faire, cooler, more level-headed, more realistic than most of his contemporaries, less given to their “furious follies,” more acquainted with common sense. I think this will appear from his conduct and relationships; nevertheless, much is missing. Why, for example, did Coucy twice refuse the offer of the constableship, the most powerful and lucrative lay post in France? His given reason does not seem to me to be adequate, but so far I know no more. I can only hope that when I come to writing that chapter, the process of arranging the material in a logical narrative will produce, as it so often does in my experience, a possible answer.

A hanging fashions in history can be a hazard for any period and especially for the Middle Ages, because an interval of 600 years can nourish quite a few sets of revisionists. With a loud crack, the most violent revision came in the nineteenth century, when historians discovered the common man. “Formerly,”to quote Simeon Luce, whose history of the Jacquerie was a sign of the change, “the common ground of historians was the cult of nobility, as it is now the adoration of the people.”That was written in 1862; worship of the masses was not invented by Chairman Mao.

During the three centuries following the fourteenth, history was virtually a genealogy of nobility, devoted to tracing dynastic lines and connections, and infused by the idea of the noble as a superior person. These works of enormous antiquarian research teem with information, including the item found in Anselm about the Gascon lord who bequeathed a hundred livres “for the dowries of poor girls, especially those whom I deflowered, if they can be found.”I do not think that Père Anselm included that with a sly wink indicating the frailty of nobles, but rather as evidence of noble charity to be expected of a grand seigneur.

Then, with sunburst and thunder, comes the French Revolution and the great reversal . . . the common man is hero, the poor are ipso facto virtuous. kings and nobles are monsters of iniquity, like Chinese landlords in communist history, though perhaps not quite achieving that totality of villainy. In the era of the Great War, nationalism becomes pre-eminent; then, in the ensuing era of disillusion. history becomes sober no more flags, glory, virtue, or villainy. Ideology yielded to the data. We enter the intense fact-finding of the Annales, when every historian marks out his square yard of territory and turns over every particle of dust, every document, every name—and sometimes finds gold. One investigator of religious observance found a town with surviving church records of the number of communion wafers sold over a space of two years, and by comparing these with tax records of the number of hearths, came up with an estimate of the frequency of attending Mass—about once or twice a year. I am entranced by that kind of work, even if this result merely confirmed an existing estimate without proving anything new. The only trouble is that when these historians write books, they manage to conceal whatever gold they may have found in a lamentable failure of synthesis. I admire them all, but I wish they would condense.

Today, while the industrious diggers are still at work, ideology rules over the data again in the revisionism of the New Left. Fortunately, so far. they have not greatly disturbed the Middle Ages, absorbed as they are in the history of last week, not to mention of the day after tomorrow, where I earnestly hope they will remain.

Through all these changing angles of vision, the Middle Ages glimmer like a castle in a fairy tale, never really to be entered, never really known. The gap in assumptions is too wide. Fear of hell, for instance, fear of a real afterlife of the soul, which for the majority of mankind was to be eternal damnation; and, on the other hand, belief that absolution for sin, or what we would call freedom from guilt, could be bought for money like a pound of cheese, that wickedness could be spiritually wiped out by a fee—these are only two of the foundations of conduct that created a life we cannot enter into.

Or take the idea that financial profit beyond a minimum necessary for livelihood was immoral; that buying goods wholesale and selling them without added work at a higher retail price was sinful; that money was in fact evil; that, in short. St. Jerome’s dictum was final; “A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God.”That did not, of course, stop the medieval businessman from doing business, though it is said that he never opened his strongbox without seeing the Devil on the lid, which is a very different state of mind from the conviction that what is good for General Motors is good for the country.

Can the historian transport himself inside minds that held these attitudes? Never completely, I think, but their circumstances can tell us something about our own situation. Here I would add a word of warning. Expect contradictions; do not look for uniformity. No aspect of society, no habit, custom, movement, development, is without crosscurrents. Starving peasants in hovels live alongside comfortable peasants in feather beds. Children are neglected and children are loved. Knights talk of honor and turn brigand. Amid depopulation and disaster, ostentation and extravagance were never more extreme. Irreconcilables clutter the scene. No age is tidy or ever made of whole cloth, and none is a more checkered fabric than the Middle Ages.

Finally, one must be wary of a trap built into all recorded history—the disproportionate survival of the negative. It is a cliché to say that protest and dissent speak louder than conformity, that happy are the people whose annals are blank; or, put another way, that the normal does not make history. What makes a cliché is a general truth, and the effect of this one is to leave an impression of violence, corruption, and decadence blanketing the second half of the fourteenth century without air holes, so to speak.

Unquestionably, the period was, as Sismondi wrote, “a bad time for humanity,” a time which has been variously called out of joint, in moral disarray, of sinking values, of perpetual strife, of general helplessness; of bad government, oppressive taxes, chronic brigandage, scarcity, misery, plague, and menace of revolution; a time with a damaged soul, a time of Satan triumphant. That’s why I chose it. But havoc in a given period does not cover all of the people all of the time. Somewhere someone is enjoying pleasure, beauty, and fun, music and games, love and work. While smoke by day and the glow of flames by night mark burning towns, the sky over the neighboring vicinity is clear; where screams of tortured prisoners are heard in one place, bankers count their coins and peasants plough behind placid oxen somewhere else.

In the midst of the Black Death, with its foul sores and smell, piles of bodies, terror of contagion, parents’ and children’s desertion of each other, abandoned fields and rotting harvests, brilliant tournaments were held with feasting and dancing. In Florence in 1378, after the violent upheaval called the Revolt of the Ciompi, Coluccio Salutati, chief executive officer of the city, wrote, “I am aware that among outsiders there are reports of great disorders, that some are saying that this city is ravaged by fire, sacked for plunder, and disgraced by murder. Rumor is a wordy liar . . . but I, having been an eyewitness of these things, know that some houses were fired but very few; that robbery was committed but on a small scale; that there have been murders but only a few, in fact hardly any. Florence is not in ashes, is not reeking with blood, is not suffering from plunder.”

History is a police blotter recording the murders and robberies, fires and rapes. It is made by the documents that survive, and these lean heavily on crisis and disaster, crime and misbehavior, because such things are the subject matter of the documentary process—of treaties, judicial trials, moralists’ denunciations, literary satire, papal bulls. No pope ever issued a bull to approve of something. Likewise bishops on episcopal visits reported at length on evils and abuses, while the well-behaved, orderly parish merited only a bene stat.

The Church was especially subject to a negative overload, on the principle established in 1401 by Nicholas de Clamange, who, in denouncing unfit and worldly prelates, said that in his anxiety for reform he would not discuss the good clerics, because “they do not count alongside the perverse men” (my italics). What with the Papal Schism and other evils, the fourteenth-century Church was undoubtedly at a low point in prestige, credibility, and (what people minded most) spirituality; hence heresy and ultimately the Reformation. That event blocks our view of the medieval Church, partly owing, I think, to the preponderance, in English anyway, of Protestant historians. H. C. Lea, for example, in his classic History of the Inquisition, unfolds an astonishing record of crimes, frailties, and corruption, all of it true, I feel sure, including the bishop who kept his own daughter as a concubine for twenty years. But Lea was not looking for the positive, as he himself recognized. Even contemporary satire was exceedingly harsh; yet the Church must have had something to retain the hold it did. I came to the point of making a special entry in my card file for “positive side of the Church,” but I have to say that it never grew very fat. Resorting to the Catholic Encyclopedia as a balance was not very helpful either, because in difficult matters it operates by judicious omission.

One must conclude that the fourteenth-century Church deserved a bad press. Yet I try to keep in mind, for the whole of that sad century—and for our own —Salutati’s words: “Florence is not in ashes.”