HOISTED FROM THE ARCHIVES: Chaucer on "Chevauchée"
A Shiver in My Spine: Chevauchée
One side effect of having the text of 10,000 books from Project Gutenberg newly-downloaded onto your laptop is that you can read the introduction to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales while proctoring your undergraduate exam.
But I just ran across a passage that puts a shiver in my spine, a passage about the KNIGHT'S son, the SQUIRE:
With him there was his son, a younge SQUIRE,
A lover, and a lusty bacheler,
With lockes crulle as they were laid in press.
Of twenty year of age he was I guess.
Of his stature he was of even length,
And wonderly deliver, and great of strength.
And he had been some time in chevachie,
In Flanders, in Artois, and Picardie,
And borne him well, as of so little space,
In hope to standen in his lady's grace.
"...had been some time in chevauchée..." (as it is usually spelled).
Let me tell you how the Hundred Years War (during which Geoffrey Chaucer was an English government functionary) worked. An English army ventures into France. The French have more knights, more horses, and lots of castles. As long as the French harass the English—cutting off detachments, ambushing vanguards, surprising foraging partie—-the English will (a) fail to take territory (for besieging castles is difficult and time-consuming, and (b) find their army attrited away. Only if the English can induce the French to charge the English longbow archers while they are entrenched behind their wooden stakes can the English win a pitched battle, and in the aftermath of a massive victory like Crecy or Poitiers or Agincourt press forward and pick up the mass surrenders that gain them provinces.
So how can the English kings and princes persuade the French to charge the longbows? The answer the English found was the chevauchee: send your cavalry and your archers (who can march pretty fast) through French provinces, moving as fast as possible, burning and killing everything in their path. Perhaps the destruction will enrage the French enough that they will lose their heads and charge. Perhaps the French will feel that they must fight—whether it is good tactical ground for them or not—out of a sense of duty to their vassals and serfs. Perhaps the English get a pitched battle fought under favorable tactical circumstances. If not, they will come home having suffered few casualties, and laden with at least some booty, having had a merry time burning crops, burning villages, and killing peasants, and extorting valuables from small walled towns that do not want to risk the chance that the English army would halt and attempt a full siege.
That is what's hidden beneath Chaucer's three merry lines:
And he had been some time in chevachie,
In Flanders, in Artois, and Picardie,
And borne him well, as of so little space…
Truly this is the kind of activity after which one can "hope to standen in his lady's grace."
Right now I'm seeing burned French villages and butchered peasants in my mind's eye, and contrasting it with Chaucer's further description of the SQUIRE:
Embroider'd was he, as it were a mead
All full of freshe flowers, white and red.
Singing he was, or fluting all the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May.
Short was his gown, with sleeves long and wide.
Well could he sit on horse, and faire ride.
He coulde songes make, and well indite,
Joust, and eke dance, and well pourtray and write.
So hot he loved, that by nightertale
He slept no more than doth the nightingale.
Courteous he was, lowly, and serviceable,
And carv'd before his father at the table.
The past is truly another country. (Of course, much of the world in the present is another country—all of the world outside the borders of the U.S.A. is another country, in fact. And, indeed, these days the U.S.A. feels like another country.)
Posted by DeLong at December 12, 2003 08:59 PM
Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
PAID-SUBSCRIBER ONLY Content Below…
The comments on this, back in 2003 when weblogging was in flower, were very good. A selection:
Chaucer is great… was very well aware of the devastation of the war, as some of the passages of his Tales show. Look for the passage that mentions the vagabond 'smyler' with dagger under his cloak, lurking to rob and murder unlucky stragglers wandering throught the smoking ruins and feral dogs devouring the dead after one those little English forays through the countryside. I've forgotten what the joke is about with the Squire, but will try to remember and fill you in. He was also quite aware of the devastation of the Crusades. The knight narrator (not the same person as the knight in the Knight’s Tale).. is described as a great hero of Christian victories, but the battles Chaucer mentions were all Christian defeats or disgraceful Christian massacres of Muslims, or whoever was unlucky enough to be there…. Chaucer's good-humor and sometimes incongruous juxtapositions sometimes disguised absolutely savage commentary on his society….
[There was] the knight who dressed himself from head to toe in defensive armor… the famous Sir Topaz…. And described by the narrator of that tale as recklessly brave and noble. The Tale of Sir Topaz was Chaucer's satire on popular chivalrous and romantic ballads, and Chaucer purposely wrote it as such an incoherent mess that the Host was forced to shut it down less than half way through. If you are willing to wade through commentary to get all the jokes, you can see how it would be pretty funny back then. If remember correctly, Sir Topaz was a joke name, and it might have been as simple as a way of calling that knight Sir Yellow. I will have to go check.
I disagree with the posters who think Chaucer must have been completely conventional in his view of war and chivalry. In some ways we all must be people of our time, but that we shouldn't assume that in all ways people of the past were completely of their time. Chaucer did describe one of the Nuns in the Tales as being very devout, but then he dressed her like a Medieval Mae West. And making-sense of the Knight's tale is very difficult, with very drastic contradictions between the Knight's perspective of the story, and what actually happens in the story.
I admit it is important not to thoughtlessly read modern perspectives into writers from other ages, but it also important not to read our stereotypes about the past into them either. So Jeremiah taught that God was the only sovereign for Judah, so he could never have preached accommodation with Babylon. If Mark Twain's later political writings were lost, and we know as little about late 19th century as we know about 14th century Europe, it would be assumed that he was an imperialist, since that was dominant view.
Chaucer served in an English campaign in France in 1360, was captured by the French and ransomed. So he had first-hand knowledge of what the Squire was doing on his expeditions. Read the passages below that I referred to in the last post, and make up your own mind. These are from the description of Mars' Temple in the Knight's Tale. I remember reading that critics consider the passage to be a mix of contemporary stereotypical horror stories of the hundred years war, mixed in with realistic montages of things Chaucer might have witnessed:
The smylere with the knyf under the cloke;/The smiler with the knife under the cloak;
The shepne brennynge with the blake smoke;/The stable burning with the black smoke;
The tresoun of the mordrynge in the bedde;/The treason of the murder in the bed;
The open werre, with woundes al bibledde;/The open war, covered over with blood and gore
Yet saugh I Woodnesse, laughynge in his rage,/Yet I saw Madness, laughing in his rage,
Armed Compleint, Outhees, and fiers Outrage;/Armed Strife, Alarm, and fierce Violence;
The careyne in the busk, with throte ycorve;/The carcass in the brush, with throat slashed
A thousand slayn, and nat of qualm ystorve;/A thousand slain, and not killed by the plague;
The tiraunt, with the pray by force yraft;/The tyrant, with the prey seized with force;
The toun destroyed, ther was no thyng laft./The town destroyed, there was nothing left.
Yet saugh I brent the shippes hoppesteres;/Yet I saw burned the ships tossed in stormy waves;
The hunte strangled with the wilde beres;/The hunter killed by the wild bears;
The sowe freten the child right in the cradel;/The sow devouring the child right in the cradle;
Here is the noble conqueror described, sitting in his place of honor in Mars Temple:
And al above, depeynted in a tour,/And above all, depicted in a tower,
Saugh I Conquest, sittynge in greet honour,/Saw i conquest, sitting in great honor,
With the sharpe swerd over his heed/With the sharp sword over his head
Hangynge by a soutil twynes threed./Hanging by a slender twine of thread.
And here is the wolf eating a man
A wolf ther stood biforn hym at his feet/A wolf there stood before him at his feet
With eyen rede, and of a man he eet;/With red eyes, and of a man he ate
With soutil pencel was depeynted this storie/With subtle brush was depicted this story
In redoutynge of Mars and of his glorie./In reverence of Mars and of his glory.
I got a few other things wrong. Chaucer doesn't mention feral dogs eating dead bodies, rather we have feral pigs eating live children, and wolves feasting on the dead. But stories of animals taking over devastated areas, killing people and eating the dead were a common horror stories from the wars. So, sorry, I got so enthusiastic, seeing the opportunity to discuss Chaucer that I didn't wait to go back and review and was a little inaccurate….
I've just noticed I left out an important line from the Knight's Tale. In the middle of his catalog of the glories of Mars—(you know, the usual chivalrous glories of war: bloody wonds, cut throats, random killing, burning villages, the dead abandoned in the underbrush, people being killed and eaten by animals) Chaucer writes this line:
The cook yscalded, for al his longe ladel/The cook scalded, despite his long-handled spoon.
Now what was the point of this? Was Chaucer blaming Mars of kitchen accidents? When I read some of the critics,it would seem so. Especially the ones who want to force Chaucer into the mold of a very heart, cheerful, bluff conventional old Englishman.
But who and what could Chaucer have been talking about? Why throw in a line about cooks being burned by the soup, despite their long spoons? Could it have been a sly criticism of the authors of some of these wars? But then, people didn't do that back then, did they? I don't know, maybe there is an old English tradition that Mars is responsible for cooking accidents. If so, I would like to hear about it.
The much-disputed argument by (ex-Python) Terry Jones in Chaucer's Knight is that Chaucer intended and expected his readers to see through and condemn the Knight and the Squire…
Actually, I think the French take an afternoon break around 1:00 p.m., and at 2:00 return to insulting the Brits.
I am of Brad's opinion: the past is another country. I think that it is almost impossible that Chaucer meant to condemn warmaking, plunder, and massacre, as such. As a Christian he probably considered it inevitable, given the fallen nature of man. He may have had some ideas about specific limitations or prohibitions, but I think that he regarded war as unavoidable. And further, he genuinely did honor the knights and squires, while accepting that their military activities put them below the monks from a moral and religious point of view.
An experiment worth doing is going through the great writers of European literature and sorting out the ones with blood on their hands and the ones without. The results will amaze you. A very large number of them were proud of their military service. (And Villon and Ben Johnson were guilty of private killings).
Before about 1700 or even 1800 military men from the nobility were honored above everyone but monks and priests—far above scientists and technicians and anyone in trade or industry. And in reality, the aristocracy did not necessarily defer to the clergy either.
We sometimes think of aristocrats as effete, but during their period of dominance they were murderous. (Though some were ALSO effete when not killing people). Interestingly, too, much of European erotic poetry was written by knights. "Make love not war" wasn't their slogan—they loved excitement and wanted both. (This is true even in China, where there wasn't really a knightly class: Liu, "The Chinese Knight-errant".)
Teresa Nielsen Hayden:
I remember one of my college instructors saying that of all the pilgrims whose tales we were going to be reading, the knight was the only one whose description and tale had no ironic undercutting, I also remember thinking that sounded fishy. I was therefore pleased to read, years later, Terry Jones' analysis of the knight as a sinister character.
I'd been wondering where that left the squire. One learns to be suspicious of Chaucer's airy, artless-sounding catalogues of his characters' graces and virtues. There's not a negative word in them, no overt hint of auctorial disapproval. The unwary reader can slide right past someone like the Prioresse, with all her charming little habits and affectations, without noticing that they're one and all improper for a nun.
My good old edition of Chaucer's Major Poetry (Prentice-Hall, 1963, ed. Albert Baugh) glosses chyvachie as "expedition", and observes that the line in Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie fits the English campaign of 1383, but says no more about it than that. I'd mentally pegged chyvachie/chevauchee as a military exercise of some sort, possibly involving horses. It changes everything to know that chevauchee is fast-moving destructive profitable raiding. That's an interesting piece of professional expertise for man as young as the Squire. Consider also that there's no trace of religion upon him, aside from the fact that he's going on a pilgrimage at all; and that there's no evidence of any devotional spirit in his going.
The past is not such a foreign country that slaughtering defenseless peasants for fun, profit, and possible tactical advantage would be thought an inconsequential habit. (It would happen anyway, but that's a different issue.) Commoners weren't the social equals of knights and squires, but they were in theory their brothers in Christ, and fellow inhabitants of that admittedly rather hazily-defined realm, Christendom.
Moreover, the status of the warrior class was in theory tied to their role in the great tripartite division of society: peasants fed all, clergy prayed for all, knights fought for all. Mercenary adventuring abroad had little or nothing to do with that. It was a business, conducted for profit; and an age of rising mercantilism would not have failed to notice that aspect.
I hate to believe it, but there may be something to what you say. I remember one of the Greek Historian (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon—I don't remember which...) wrote: “To Athenians, freedom means the ability to rule rule others, as well as themselves...” Certainly the Athenian League was not at all voluntary for many of its members. And a request of a small city-state for aid in an emergency often turned into permanent servitude.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden:
JML, I'd say the likeliest explanation for "The cook yscalded, for al his longe ladel" is that Chaucer really liked the preceding line, "The sowe freten the child right in the cradel," and needed the rhyme to make his couplet.
Mats, I'll acknowledge that the trading and exploring aspects of viking expeditions have at times been underemphasized, but there's only so far we can downplay the violence. There are just too many contemporary accounts of them raiding and pillaging for that to work.
I'd never call them terrorists, though. That's a serious misapplication of the term. Like any raiders, they were happy to take advantage of the confusion and paralysis that terror produced in those who might otherwise have opposed their landings; but in no meaningful sense were they ideological terrorists.
Zizka et al.: There are people in the world right now who, given a good safe opportunity to plunder rather than trade, will turn pirate without a moment's hesitation. We've still got slavers, too. I'm not saying that the incidence of piracy is a universal constant; just that whatever it says about a culture is more complex than "they had it/didn't have it."
The original issue is whether 14th century England was such a strange other-world that a reasonable man like Chaucer would find nothing at all disturbing about the chevachie. And a few of us are maintaining that that world was not that strange.
Anyway, Chaucer was part of the proto-professional civil servant class. He swy three kings come and go during his adult life. Richard II was not that popular. There was no reason to suspect him of being in the thrall of what a particular king was doing. He was a diplomat, and we know about them. There were Wycliffe and his Lollards, and, heavens, even a few Anabaptists running around. People could and did have their own opinions about things. That doesn't mean Chaucer, was one of those, or would be a good Democrat today, or was running an undercover Peace and Freedom Platform. Just that there is evidence that he might have had a reaction to the chevachie that we would find recognizable.
I like jml's gloss, and have only this to add. I understand that part of the point of the squire's history was to contrast it with the knights. Part of the joke was generational. The knight fought in miserable battles, but was finnicky about fighting Christians. The squire is more "modern" (to Chaucer) in that he is not finnicky, but rather willing to do what needs to be done (to do what his no longer falsely "honorable" nation requires). Thus the knight, though the highest status person in Chaucer's little group, has rust stains on his clothing, while the squire's clothing, even while on the road, is spotless. There is a fine tension between the knight and the squire, but the tension is not between fanciful honor and chivalry on the one hand and the loss of those qualities on the other, but between the necessities of one era's views and virtues and those of another.
Some connected light reading—
One of Dorothy Dunnett's best books is The King Hereafter, the Macbeth story set in the Danelaw-ruled Orkneys.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote two books about the Hundred Years War, Sir Nigel and The White Company. Their virtues, culturally constructed as they are, are most evident if you can get the latter with the N.C. Wyeth illustrations; the yeomen are so clear of eye, so clean of limb, so well-fed on beef! One of them brings home a featherbed, among other loot from France; with or without bloodstains from the bonne femme who made it…