03.09.32, Verbruggen, The Battle of the Golden Spurs

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Steven Isaac

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.032


Verbruggen, J.F. Ferguson, David Richard, trans.. The Battle of the Golden Spurs (Courtrai, 11 July 1302). Series: Warfare in History. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2002. Pp. xxvi, 267. ISBN: 0-85115-888-9.

Reviewed by:
Steven Isaac
Northwestern College

Jan Frans Verbruggen is a name well-known to students of medieval military history, although the familiarity is tempered by recognition of how most of us have barely scratched the surface of his work. Because the majority of his works remain in Dutch save for some articles in French or German, the Anglo community has typically been unable to access his longer works. In the case of his 1954 grand survey, De krijgkunst in west-Europa in de middeleeuwen (IXe tot XIVe eeuw), the partial translation of 1977 was doubly frustrating in terms of the missing sections and the critical apparatus. Thankfully, those problems were addressed in 1997 by a new edition of The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages from the Eighth Century to 1340 in Boydell's "Warfare in History" series. Now, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Courtrai, and the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication, David Ferguson has translated Verbruggen's 1952 study of the battle of Courtrai, The Battle of the Golden Spurs [De slag der guldensporen].

This is battle-history done at its best. Verbruggen has a talent for reconstructing not simply the course of events from contradictory testimonies, but something of what the experience may have been like for the participants. From small details, like the post-battle inability of many Flemish townsmen to release their grip on their weapons, Verbruggen shows the intensity of the infantry's resolve to stand against western Europe's premier cavalry force. Verbruggen's re-creation of the battle itself, which comprises less than a tenth of this study, pales behind his ability to reconstruct the dynamics which intersected at the battle, and perhaps more critically, those which took separate paths afterward.

The study's opening and primary focus is on the historiographical traditions, which sought either to explain away or to memorialize the battle. In this way, Verbruggen begins to introduce the battle through a reconciliation of the quite contradictory accounts we have. Since the Flemish victory at Courtrai meant the war would continue, both sides began quickly to remember the battle according to their needs. The Flemish, as surprise victors, praised the fortitude of their low-born infantry who stood firm in a righteous cause. Such ideas, of course, were antagonistic to the pro-French versions, which emphasized the unfavorable geography of the battlefield, the perfidy of the Flemings, and the role of treachery throughout the French ranks.

Verbruggen begins with the French side, analyzing the backgrounds, bias, and viability of the eleven major accounts. One thread which Verbruggen follows through every version is that of the hidden holes or ditches reputedly dug by the Flemings to entrap the French knights. The Chronique Art├ęsienne mentions them in a narrative Verbruggen found vague and confused. They appear also in Ottokar von Stiermarken, Jean de Winterthur, and Geoffroy de Paris, whose versions are "fantastic," "credulous," and "of no value." As one who participated in later years of the war, Guillaume Guiart left a far more informative account, especially in the details of military life; adjusting for Guiart's anti-Flemish bias, Verbruggen uses him to confirm many details from the Flemish accounts. Verbruggen finds Guiart's omission of any hidden traps a telling one, eager as he otherwise was to exonerate the French performance. The most detailed version of the battle, oddly enough, is that of Giovanni Villani, a Florentine banker whose world chronicle was centered on his hometown. He relied heavily on French sources, thus returning again to the business of a hidden ditch or stream. For Villani, though, the French debacle was as much a result of rash chivalry as it was a judgement of God against the commander, Robert of Artois. The most startling of the French accounts is Guillaume de Nangis's Sequel to the Chronicon, written at the center of official historical production, the abbey of St. Denis. This version of the French defeat makes no mention of any stream or ditch to explain the Flemish victory; it blames instead the rash charge which lacked cohesion. In conjunction with a letter of Philip the Fair that likewise omits any mention of traps for the knights, this document has led Verbruggen to conclude that while popular accounts spoke of a treacherously prepared battlefield, a lost source (which may have influenced the Sequel) gave the sort of reliable report upon which Philip could build needed changes in tactics.

On the Flemish side, Verbruggen continues his analysis, but occasionally he appears a bit more partisan than is comfortable. He freely notes where sources like the Annales Gandenses give the battle too cursory a treatment. Yet, he also points out how the Annales, the rhymed chronicle of Lodewijk van Welthem, and the Chronicon Comitum Flandrensium often give the same version of an event. On the Flemish side this testifies to the truth, but similar synchronicity on the French side is usually dismissed as repetitions of official propaganda. In the end, though, Verbruggen builds a compelling argument for dismissing the charges of camouflaged ditches or holes.

Still, the position of several streams did play a role in the battle, and the positions in 1302 of the Groeninge Beek stream and a connecting waterway have been long contested. Verbruggen's case relies on the evidence in early modern maps of Courtrai, city documents that indicate how and when the connecting stream was built over, and the flow of the battle itself. Once he has the terrain of the battlefield established, Verbruggen is able to make a seamless whole by explaining why the French had greater success charging in the middle while both sides of the Flemish line stood firmer, thanks to the streams' disruption of the cavalry.

Verbruggen next turns to one of the great challenges in studying any medieval battle: the numbers and types of troops involved. Again, the traditional portrayals of the battle are at stake. Just what odds, in fact, did the Flemish artisans and peasants, "the men with blue nails," led by several nobles, face? Tax lists from Bruges for the expedition enable Verbruggen to deduce that relatively few burghers left for Courtrai, although some made heavy loans to the town's military effort. The Bruges' contingent thus numbered between 2440 to 3470 heavy infantry. Guessing at the relative sizes of the other contingents, Verbruggen arrives at an army ranging between 8500 to 11,000, almost all infantry or crossbowmen. He has to sift even more complex evidence (prisoner lists, hotel expenses, conflicting chronicles...) before concluding that 400, perhaps 600, Flemish and foreign nobles fought in the battle. For the French, Verbruggen arrives at a French cavalry force of 3000, which "completely corresponds" for him with the 1260 to 1500 casualties among knights and squires. For foot-soldiers, Verbruggen finds a slight French advantage in crossbowmen, but only 5-6000 infantry. In total, then, the two armies were close in numbers, but the French had, according to the ethos of the era, the clear edge.

By the time Verbruggen actually narrates the battle itself at book's end, it unfolds naturally and rather anti-climactically. His detailed study of the Courtrai Chest preserved at Oxford has removed any real wonder over the Flemish victory. From the chest, it is clear that the Flemish troops were hardly a down-trodden rabble. Rather, the carvings show well-armed infantry in disciplined ranks, armed with a combination of pikes and goedendags. These weapons paired together gave the Flemings the tools first to stop the French charge and then, in the milling chaos, to reach out from their ranks with lethal effect. Verbruggen leaves it to his readers to wonder instead why the French charged this mill of death; the answer resides in the cultural assumptions that impelled Artois to bring his knights forward.

Europe felt the repercussions of Courtrai immediately and for decades to come. For Verbruggen, it is where "the epic story of the Flemish townsmen began." A social and mental gulf was bridged when artisans and peasants found the wherewithal to endure the charge of knights; having withstood the worst, they then transformed into an offensive force, disciplined enough to avoid looting, lethal enough to open a new chapter in military affairs. Success at Courtrai led to the increased pre-eminence of the guilds in the towns. The boost to Flemish nationalism would be virtually incalculable. Verbruggen also argues that Courtrai signaled a tidal change in military dynamics. The 600 golden spurs taken from dead nobles was the start of a wave of infantry victories over cavalry all around Europe. Verbruggen showed the flexibility of military thinking in the Middle Ages, and pointed the way for the next generation of scholars. In the fifty years since this monograph first appeared, historians of even earlier centuries have shown the myth of cavalry's dominance to have been just that.

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Steven Isaac

Northwestern College