The Medieval Review 11.01.04

Muhlberger, Steven. Deeds of Arms, Formal Combats in the Late Fourteenth Century. Highland Village, TX: The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005. Pp. xiii, 247. 32.95 ISBN 1-891448-44-7. .

Reviewed by:

Don Kagay
Albany State University

Like it or not, one of the major factors in maintaining the importance of medieval studies to the modern world has been the study of late- medieval war and research concerning its honored but sometimes uncontrollable child, chivalry. One of the unfortunate offshoots of this popularity has been a basic misunderstanding of the medieval martial ethic by those who unabashedly serve the code of creative anachronism and by an ill-informed general public that looks on medieval warfare as a mild game always conducted according to gentlemanly rules. To offset these misconceptions that have more in common with the theme park's view of history than any realistic historical record, Steven Muhlberger sets out in this book to explain the context of the organized combats that were firmly tied to the realm of warfare, but eventually found a life of its own within the orbit of the tournament. To carry out this ambitious project, he struggles to demonstrate that these bloody exchanges existed within an evolving code of chivalry that attempted to establish at least a modicum of order for battlefield and jousting ground alike.

The focus of this work--the late-fourteenth century--is largely directed toward the era of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). It is built on the extensive use of the primary sources of the period (many of which have been translated into English in the last century). These include the chronicles of Jean Froissart, Jean Le Bel, Gutierre Diaz de Gomez, Christine de Pizan, and Thomas Walsingham as well as document collections associated with great chivalric figures as Edward the Black Prince, Geoffrey de Charny, and Jean II le Meingre (Boucicaut the younger). Muhlberger's initial direction with the use of these sources is to demonstrate that the deeds of arms were firmly connected to the brutal realities of medieval warfare, but also personified humanizing theories such as just war that the mediator of medieval society, the Church, had itself attempted to impose on human conflict. By a minute study of both individual and group combat sparking into existence inside and outside organized military campaigns, Muhlberger shows that such contests were every bit as dangerous as the melée that inundated the battlefield. He also reviews the quite meticulous rules set up for fairness and the maintenance of personal honor that came into being for the regulation of such combats. From his extensive reading of the sources, Muhlberger concludes that the evolving codes of martial rules did not come from the jousting arena, but sprang from the impromptu conflicts carried out by small groups of combatants serving in campaigns of much larger armies. From this ever-shifting environment came both the regulations and the larger-than-life heroes who were judged by them.

Much of the remainder of Muhlbereger's book centers on how the emerging "industry" of individual and group conflicts were carried out between French, English, Spanish, and Flemish participants. He follows in great detail the challenge, the conduct of the resulting fight, and the means by which fair play was supposed to prevent such conflicts from lapsing into vendettas pure and simple. The highlight of this discussion is Muhlberger's meticulous review of the Combat of Thirty Against Thirty, a conflict of French and British knights in Brittany during 1351. This encounter occurring in a backwater of the Hundred Years War seemed to stir the imagination of European authors for next few decades who viewed the small skirmish as a halfway-house of sorts between the bloodiest aspects of actual warfare and the humane rules of the tournament. From his discussion of this crucially important incident of group conflict, Muhlberger moves to trace the influence of such fighting on fourteenth-century societies. With the great interest that deeds of arms caused, the chivalric fighter and the painful duty of honor he swore to uphold became a regular topos in chronicles and romances down to the sixteenth century. This chivalric imprint on late-medieval society shaped reality--at least among upper-class circles--when kings tied tournaments to marriage celebrations and other episodes of high-level negotiation. The most important of these public combats occurred in 1390 at St. Inglevert near Calais when three French knights challenged and bested all comers from the ranks of the English invaders. Though originally a private enterprise, the St. Inglevert jousts became a source of French pride and established the model for "national tournaments" down to the sixteenth century. These popular chivalric norms that eventually became anachronistic in the face of European warfare increasingly marked by the use of gunpowder weaponry provided lucrative careers both on the tournament circuit and in royal service to many a fourteenth-century warrior. Muhlberger discusses these super-stars in his last chapter.

In all of his chapters, Muhlberger follows the well-trod path of chivalric authors led by Jean Froissart. The inclusion of large passages from their works in English translation (a feat which Muhlberger has already duplicated online) is helpful to the general reader as well as to the military and social historians whose study focuses on the later Middle Ages. Muhlberger's greatest contribution in this work, however, is the skillful inclusion of the realm of faits d'armes into a military spectrum that effectively stretched from the tournament to the battlefield. In some ways, then, Muhlberger deserves to be placed in the company of the greatest modern expert on individual and group combat of the later Middle Ages, Sydney Anglo.