Which medieval battle would you like to witness? - Episode 7 of the Medieval Warfare Podcast

We bring Michael Livingston and Kelly DeVries to talk about which battles from the Middle Ages we would have really liked to have seen firsthand. It’s a wide-ranging conversation that takes from Hattin to Bruges and from Rhodes to Crecy. Unsung heroes, amazing encounters, and a little Monty Python in this conversation that we recorded at the International Congress on Medieval Studies.

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Transcript of this episode:

Peter Konieczny: This is Peter Konieczny of Medieval Warfare, and this is the Medieval Warfare podcast. I’m here at the lovely International Congress on Medieval Studies, where we have all the blankets we need. I’m being joined today again by Michael Livingston, which you might remember from episode one, from the Citadel. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Livingston: Thank you.

Peter: And to bring in you, Kelly DeVries, of Loyola University in Maryland. Welcome to the podcast.

Kelly DeVries: Thank you.

Peter: For this wonderful little podcast we are discussing with medieval battle would you like to witness.

Michael: We’re in Medieval surrounds, it should be noted. We’re in one of the dorm rooms here at Kalamazoo.

Kelly: Medieval cinder block.

Michael: It’s medieval cinder block. We’re in the mood, getting in the atmosphere. So what battle would you most like to witness? Setting aside the fact that it’s horrible carnage, what do you think, Kelly?

Kelly: It is true. The bloodshed, the trauma… I think that almost anybody’s who’s seen at that time period, man, you would have been traumatized by it. We can look back today and it’s hard to recognize that we’re studying people who died a long time ago in a very, very bloody, violent way for sometimes the most obscure and stupid means. Wait, that’s modern war, too.

Michael: That’s the war on pig’s ear.

Kelly: Witnessing spectacle, which is what we’re talking about. Witnessing theater, witnessing spectacle, I think there’s two incidents but one is after the battle. I’ll mention that first because the other one I think is more dramatic. The one after the battle would have to be Saladin after the Battle of Hattin. When Guy de Lusignan, the king of Jerusalem, and Renaud de Chatillon, one of the worst individuals who ever crossed this earth, and certainly stupid individual. The guys behind the battle just led them to a huge defeat. They go in and they’ve been thirsting for three days. There’s Saladin first giving thanks to Allah for victory, and then turning around and grabbing a bowl of ice cream.

Michael: Important!

Kelly: Camel teams bringing huge ice blocks off the top of the mountains in Palestine, melting all the way, but having that last little bit at the end. He’s eating the ice cream as he talks, as he looks at these individuals. Then picking up a cup and dipping it into water that has ice bits in it, and handing it to Guy de Lusignan, which the custom would suggest that Guy was going to be spared. Guy taking a drink of water he hasn’t had for three days and then putting the cup into Renaud’s hands and Saladin knocks the cup out and says, “I did not give that to you.” He takes out his sword and beheads Renaud de Chatillon because he said he would do so. That, who would not have wanted to see the theater that was there? It was reported by everybody on both sides that it was meant to do. But I think that as far as conflict is concerned, it would be the Siege of Rhodes in 1480 when across 220 yards of open water from the shore where the Ottomans had their bombards and their men over to Fort Saint Nicholas, this fortress out on a mole and into the Mediterranean from Rhodes. The knights who were in this had been bombarded by cannon for several days. Half the tower is gone. The cannons are not strong enough to hit more than half. We’re told that half the tower is gone. You can see it today. You can actually see the half that remained because they simply rebuilt on it. The knights had taunted them for the floors across the way. Now they looked down, they see that Mehmed's forces – he’s not there, but the Ottoman Turks are pulling a bridge into position to cross the water, going 220 yards. Wide enough we’re told that three or four men can cross it. They pull it into position, send two men out there, still nobody knowing what happened. They pulled it across. Two men out there who then secure it to the side. There are two boats that have come up and anchored it to the base of the bay there, of the harbor there. Then the Ottomans start marching across this bridge to attack this unattackable fortress. The knights only realize when it’s happening.

Michael: The best part of the story...

Kelly: The best part of the story – so after what probably was no more than an hour and the knights have been defending the end with the rocks colored in red and the bodies of the Ottomans facing them, but they’re starting to lose. A man, we’re not told who he is, somebody, sneaks into the water on the Ottomans’ side with a knife. He’s a swimmer, which of course isn’t everybody at this period of time. He dives under the water, out of observation on the Ottoman side. He at least surfaces once but he starts cutting the rope on these anchors. Cuts it through. He has to surface at least once because the Ottomans see him start trying to stab in the water. They don’t know what’s happening. Goes down the and unloosens one and they start talking about the bridge started to shake. Then he swims over and cuts the other side. The tide coming into the harbor that sweeps this bridge and breaks it in half. This is dramatized by an illumination, young ... book and by a painting that is contemporary, showing this bridge broken and the Ottomans who are one it now are trying whatever they can to keep on the bridge and they’re falling the water. It’s sad that it’s defeated. The bridge ends wash up against the harbor. The Ottomans are lying dead in the water so they that they could hardly see water from the bodies that are around. It goes absolutely silent on the Ottomans’ side, and of course absolute cheering on the Hospitaller side. They haven’t defeated the side – last engagement, but man, what drama.

Michael: And we don’t even know that guy’s name?

Kelly: We don’t know that guy’s name. We don’t know anything about him. That’s the only time he’s mentioned. We don’t know is he a Hospitaller? Who is he? He’s clearly on their side. The bravery of that sort of thing is amazing because who knows if he’s going to be seen or if he’s going to be taken out. He’s got to keep his breath swimming underneath and cutting, in water he couldn’t have seen. He would have had to feel down the rope and then cut it at the anchor to do it. What a scene. What an absolute scene. And it’s confirmed. We know it. It’s confirmed by several sources and these two contemporary paintings. That would be an amazing thing to see.

Peter: Unsung heroes.

Kelly: Unsung hero, they will eventually win. We don’t know if he doesn’t, they don’t eventually win, but what good is this display? It’s always the stories we get from the winners, I guess. Unsung hero who is not the guy. We’re talking about full plated armor out there. These Knights Hospitallers are experienced warriors against the Ottoman Turks who are experienced warriors. It’s the guy in probably a breechcloth or whatever with a knife going down.

Michael: I think it’s a teenager.

Kelly: I like to think it was an old man, but that may be. But which one? Could any of us have done that? We’re not told that he’s sent there by Pierre d’Aubusson, the Hospital leader who is involved in the fighting. He’s not actually in it, but he’s run to them all. All the other Knights Hospitaller wouldn’t even be something you’d think about. The bravery of the guy who’s going to say, “I don’t know, got to do something.”

Michael: He changed history.

Kelly: Yeah, certainly that day.

Michael: That would have been a cool one to see. I would have liked that. What would I want to see? The Battle of Nice. I think the Battle of Niså would have been quite something to see. Vikings are cool. We all know that. We’ve seen the television shows. Vikings are awesome.

Kelly: They’re exactly like that.

Michael: Totally, totally. They’re all completely realistic. So the Battle at Niså – Vikings are quite something, and here you’ve got a battle of Vikings on the sea, fighting each other ship to ship. They strap together the ships so they can fight from boarding from one to the next across, going down the line. It’s at night in the open sea. That had to be cool to see, I think.

Kelly: Jean Froissart talks about battles. He says, it’s hard to write about these things, because medieval battles, you can’t surrender. You can’t give up.

Michael: It’s just got to be frightening.

Kelly: It was interesting – both our examples too have the sea as part of it.

Peter: I’m reminded of a battle in Iceland where they strapped the ships together and were throwing rocks at each other. They were fighting it out. I’m going to take you out by just jumping on you and pulling you into the water and neither of us are coming back.

Michael: Yeah. It’s not like naval battles, Napoleonic or something where it’s ranged and all this kind of stuff. You’re on Viking longships – what are you going to do? We need to make this a land battle, and at sea. And you can’t run away.

Kelly: It’s not like land where at a certain moment in time you say, “F this, we’re gone.” You know what they said after Sluys? One of the English chronicles has the French don’t know how to mention that they’ve lost the Battle of Sluys in 1340 to the English. So they send in a court jester in to tell them. He doesn’t know. The guy’s liable to lose his head. So he says to the king, “Can our men dance on water?” And the king says, “What, you fool? What are you asking? Of course they can’t dance on water.” He goes, “Well, that’s a real pity because they should have been able to.” Those are the stories you hope it’s true.

Michael: I hope it’s true because that pretty much is the answer he needed.

Kelly: One of the other English chronicles said that there were so many Frenchmen killed that day that the fish that were caught over the next few months spoke fluent French.

Michael: Which you hope is true. It would be fun to see Agincourt, just to have seen it, as horrific as it must have been. Just to witness something that has that kind of cultural impetus.

Peter: There are massive battles. The one battle though, it wouldn’t sound massive, was the Siege of Bruges in 1127.

Kelly: Everybody kind of in the town, just more of a bar-room brawl across towers.

Peter: I like it because it was the first chronicle I really read as a student. They had given us a reading from it, and I was kind of so intrigued I had to go and get this book. It was called The Murder of Charles the Good. So you read about this murder, which is so much detail and the writer, Galbert of Bruges, he wrote it almost like a journalist – an opinionated journalist, which I guess is a journalist. You get this kind of fighting that’s so all over the place and things are happening. You have to remember that these are people that know each other, people on both sides. There’s talk that they were blowing the trumpet at night. We’re still here! And then the incredible ending where they get thrown off the tower. That whole kind of little chronicle is just a fascinating read.

Michael: That was the first thing?

Peter: That was the first chronicle, the first medieval source I ever read was that.

Kelly: It’s a miracle you got that, too, out of James Ross who translates it found that, a single manuscript somewhere in Belgium. Just found it and said, wait a second – this is amazing. What a great read. We get the pious Charles sitting at the alter when he’s attacked by these people. That may be a little theater there, a little bias.

Michael: It’s interesting to me that that’s the first thing that you read. There can’t be many people that that’s the first thing that they read.

Kelly: It’s a pretty dramatic entrance in the Middle Ages.

Peter: It was the first year in university and we had read a charter that was given by his successor. It was like, let’s read this charter. The prof said, it’s from this Murder of Charles the Good, and there was this battle and things like that. You can get this book. It’s good. So I went and picked it up.

Michael: No wonder you got hooked.

Kelly: Yeah, you didn’t notice the professor was giving the dull charter to read, he goes out and reads the interesting… He was really saying, that’s it. Let me get to that blood and guts thing. That’s the good stuff.

Peter: There’s some things I’ve read that we have so little information. I remember reading about the Conquest of Spain by the Umayyad’s in 711. I read all the sources, I believe. There’s so little information on what actually happened. He got killed, the Visigoth king That’s all we know.

Kelly: Let’s go to the Pyrenees and leave the rest of Spain alone. No problem. That will leave us no problem over the next little bit.

Michael: That’s true, too. There’s things you’d want to see because we have such gaps.

Kelly: There’s tons of that. I was once asked to write about the battle that Attila won, the Battle of Catalaunian Plains. I said, we’ve got accounts. I can do it. “No, we’re talking about the ones where he wins beforehand.” I go, “You know there’s nothing out there. What do you mean? I can do a campaign because we followed his movement.”

Michael: Follow the path of destruction.

Kelly: In fact, if you go to Aquileia, which we know he rolled over, the first time I went – it was kind of a funny story. I got there and I was absolutely astounded at the size of the city that he took on. Nothing – the archaeology alone suggests that major conquest of all this and everything, and that what must have happened to a fairly large-sized city, although all the rich people have gone to Ravenna around the other side, but the poor all wait for Attila and they know he’s coming with the hoard. He rolls over the city. Military historians and war medievalists have said, “Why would have Attila done this?” I said, “He wouldn’t have had to pay his army for two years.” That’s the type of not a word written. The Huns don’t care to leave a written record. There’s not a lot of people left on the other side saying, “Let me tell you about this…” But for the archaeological record I look at it and nothing really happened after this, and you think, wow. One of the students said to me, “What would you have thought if you were sitting there waiting for this to happen?” I said, “Well, I’d be scared shitless, wouldn’t you?” You can’t move. You’re not wealthy enough to move anywhere. You’re hoping that maybe Attila won’t notice you’ve got a token in the closet.

Michael: That’s hard to imagine. Would have been something to see that hoard, though. From as far away as possible.

Kelly: It would have been great if you were a Hun.

Michael: “Hey, look at the size of this! Isn’t that something?”

Kelly: That’s a little more [INAUDIBLE 19:18]. What about [INAUDIBLE 19:20] 55,000 skulls that he piles up after his conquest at [INAUDIBLE 19:25]? What would it have been to see that? Well, you probably would have said, “There’s a lot of skulls around, Mike.” Unless you were on his side. “What, only 55,000? Come on!”

Peter: You’re not living up to Genghis Khan.

Michael: What are you, lame?

Peter: One other battle – it’s just because I’ve been reading about it of late, is the Combat of the Thirty, which is all theater in a sense. Sixty or sixty-two men fighting it out.

Michael: I had sixty-one. I don’t know where, but he’s Canadian.

Kelly: The one guy who’s like, where’s my partner? Like in an elementary school and you’re left out. You’re not picked for the team.

Peter: I remember one of the comical accounts that I was reading said one of the French soldiers goes down. The chronicler says, well, now they’re outnumbered. But they won.

Kelly: How many go down total on that? Not many.

Peter: No, not many. A few die.

Kelly: It’s like two. Two groups of these guys, young men, out there, they’ve been trained to fight. Now we’re in a time of peace. So dad’s been fighting against the English or against the French. Maybe granddad’s been fighting against the English and French. And now you’re sitting because nobody wants to fight. You see another group and you go, thirty on thirty, let’s do it, man. They go, oh yeah. It must have been a turn.

Peter: People were watching. They weren’t allowed to interfere. They would be attacked if they did, like the audience. I’m not surprised that people in the Middle Ages loved watching tournaments and watching that kind of action.

Kelly: We do our own martial games. We watch football, which is there’s armor on them. There’s so many on so many. There’s the melee and then there’s the joust. That’s that. Martial games, martial games. Through the ancients, Byzantines, [INAUDIBLE 22:01]. Muslims had some really weird martial games that did a lot of horsemanship. Especially the ancient [INAUDIBILE 22:09]. They didn’t have as many horsemen. Archery contests, everything. There’s not a lot different than modern spectacles and games. At least they’re not bears and Christians against gladiators, let’s face it.

Michael: Yeah. But we do like the spectacle, don’t we?

Kelly: Let’s face it, they did. By the thirteenth century you’ve got these dynamic, especially the tournaments, but even in battle you’ve got heraldry and bright colors and so forth. Somebody asked me the other day, “But would these guys on the other side have known who the knights are?” I said, “Well, they’re carrying a billboard. I am me.” You would have known. You would have known the big ones. The little ones are out there trying to make their way. Who’s that guy with the three fish up there? Look at the lion over there – he’s the big guy.

Peter: There was that individual sense in some of the warfare. You’re not just fighting as part of a group. You’re fighting for your own chivalry, your own honor and things like that.

Kelly: Mike and I were talking about this the other day and I mentioned the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. Nobody wants to fight. The English were besieging the Scots at Berwick Castle and the Scottish army shows up. But everybody knows at this point that whoever’s on the defensive is in control. So the two armies sit there, and we’re given the impression by the chronicles that they’re sitting there for a few hours taunting each other. Your mother wears army boots, sort of thing, back and forth. Monty Python. We can’t think of any taunts except for theirs. It says that finally that they decided that an English champion and a Scottish champion would go out and face each other. The English champion is not described. It’s just the English champion, because it’s an English chronicle. But the Scottish guy is like envision the biggest man you’ve ever seen, and a big, huge, black dog. So I’m thinking, it can’t be a German Shephard – we’re in England, so what do you have? A big, huge mastiff out there. All the chronicle says is, first the English knight killed the dog and then he killed the Scotsman. Then the Scots get mad and they come charging down and lose the battle. So there’s the approach on that one. Again, no names at all. Who will get the names at Bannockburn example when Hereford goes rushing out and Bruce. You get this dynamic theatrical moment when Bruce has a hand axe or something. Who carries one of those? I guess a Scottish noble. He caves in Hereford’s head.

Mike: It is interesting to think about those heraldry and things. What a spectacle that in itself must have been, just as theater, the color of it and how beautiful that would have been. You would have known obviously the big folk, but so many of these people you wouldn’t have known. We have like at the battle of Crecy with the herald columns of Beaumont who’s trying to identify the men who’ve died by what’s been left behind, by all their insignia on anything that he could find, whether it was on a banner or on a shield or on a sword pommel. He identifies 33, out of 1500 knights. Obviously there’s thousands and thousands more dead, but that’s the most that anybody was able to identify, was 33. He talks about how horrified he is that he can’t identify these others. He doesn’t know them. Even though he’s a French herald, he doesn’t know who these guys. That’s a problem because you can’t pray for their souls.

Kelly: You can’t pray for their souls, and on top of it all they’re almost all big names. There’s a few that we don’t have any other accounts, but the rest of them are like the Count of Bois, the Count of Flanders, the King of Bohemia. They’re big names that are going to be recognized. If you look at, say, the Battle of Corcyra, the Battle of Campaldino, Battle of Courtrai in 1302,Courtrai the Flemish city. The current Flemish citizens are out there. Campaldino is the Guelph Florentine citizens, and the citizens around the towns. They’ve got banners. They’ve got heraldry. You look at it as a loom of flags for the weavers. Come on, dudes, that’s not scaring anybody out there. We’ve got a raving lion, even we’ve got three fish on hooks over there. You got to live them, dude. Don’t hit me with that whiffle.

Peter: One last topic with the battles is ones where kings died, like a king versus a king. One ruler versus the other.

Kelly: We don’t actually see that.

Mike: There’s not many like that.

Kelly: Part of that is you don’t want to face up against – Edward III is not going to face up against Philip VI at the Battle of Crecy. But anybody with the Black Prince is going to be faced up by it. They do choose at the Battle of Crecy what they’re going to do. They’re going to call out, that’s my guy. It’s clear that in one instance it appears that somebody has taken prisoner a person who was above his rank. The guy who says, “No, that’s my rank.” He goes up there and challenges him. He just kills him. We’re going to knock you down. Somebody else reacts, “You can’t do it!” Cuts him down and he’s like, wait a second, you guys are all on this side. By the way, you’re losing.

Mike: And meanwhile the Bishop of Durham comes in and get the Black Prince out. It’s almost Monty-Python-esque.

Kelly: There are obviously deaths of very interesting people, usually not by particularly noble individuals or so forth, and often obscure. Harold Godwinson has to be identified by his mistress/common-in-law wife Edith Svanehals because his face is so mangled they can’t notice it. And there’s no heraldry in 1066 so they wouldn’t have recognized him. She had to come in and identify his body. In fact, Harold’s done that with his brother Tostig at the Battle of Stamford Bridge just a few weeks before, by a wart on his back. It’s kind of interesting when you think about that. Frederick Barbarossa disappears. The guy wins the battle now, big one. Nobody knows if he’s dead or alive. They don’t know who’s among the German dead, the northern Italian cities, especially Milan had defeated him. That’s pretty traumatic indeed. The story at the Battle on Mons-en-Pevele the leader on the Flemish side is killed. Philip IV who’s on the battlefield doesn’t believe it. So the guy who kills him cuts off his head and brings it to him and says, it’s here. Philip was so upset at them that he kills the guy himself. That was the only proof I need. This guy was a noble and you cut off his head. You can’t do that. So this sort of moment like, wow, good on you, dude. You’ve kept the laws of war, so to speak. Sometimes the obscure battles like Mons-en-Pevele which we don’t think about, Mons-en-Pevele lasts all day. The soldiers are sucking on the hilts of their swords to get liquid. They’re under sun for the entire day. Those disappear because it’s the Battle of Courtrai where the Flemish townspeople knock off the French.

Mike: It’s like the Battle of Blanchetaque getting completely overshadowing by Crecy or whatever. That happens far too often. There’s always cool battles.

Kelly: There is one thing – Jean Le Bel says after the siege of Tournai so the English have lost. The French were never engaged and England lost, they’ve left for whatever reason. Le Bel says that he’s so mad because there are men in Paris salons that are taking the credit for the defeat and they were not there.

Peter: With that, I will call this podcast to an end. Thank you, Kelly. Thank you, Michael. Thank you Angus Wallace, for producing this episode. Thank you for listening to Medieval Warfare podcast.

Our thanks for the transcription from Kabro Co.

The Medieval Warfare Podcast is hosted by the History Network

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