Avid followers of the television series Game of Thrones (based on George R R Martin’s books of the same name) may not realise that the show has a medieval precedent: Jean Froissart’s Chronicles.
In the 14th century, Europe was replete with intrigue and internecine conflict, with cross-continental feudal alliances fuelling savage, bloody wars that lasted for decades. Yet the events of this tumultuous period would be known in far less detail if it wasn’t for the writings of the peripatetic court poet Jean Froissart.
Born in what is now the Netherlands c.1333, Froissant travelled the continent seeking patronage among its royal houses – and he claimed to have born witness, during his travels, to many of the battles that took place during the Hundred Years War, committing all he had seen and heard to writing in the form of elaborate illustrated manuscripts.
CHIVALRY and WAR
Originally from the County of Hainaut (an area split between modern Belgium and France), Froissart – like all the nobility across Europe – spoke and wrote in French. He is most famous for his poetry, which praised medieval chivalry, courtly culture, and knighthood.
His penchant for glorifying the lives and habits of feudal lords meant patrons across Europe lapped up his works. Many of these royal houses were vying for control across the continent, and patronising a skilled writer was imperative for projecting soft power.
Thus the talented Froissart found himself, aged 24, in the employ of Philippa of Hainault, Queen of England and wife of Edward III. Determined to chronicle the bitter conflict between the English kings, who staked claim to lands in northern France, and the French kings, who were forever battling to free themselves from the grip of the English, Froissart wrote one of the lengthiest works of medieval prose produced in the 14th century.
His Chronicles are almost 1.5 million words long, and have been preserved in over 100 illuminated manuscripts. They are an intensely rich source not just for the Hundred Years War, but also the wars between Edward II of England and Robert the Bruce of Scotland, as well as the machinations that led to Froissart’s patron, Edward III, being installed on the throne after the deposition of Edward III’s father at the hands of his mother. (There is a chapter in Book I of the Chronicles entitled, ‘The queen of England besieges her husband in the city of Bristol’).
Detailed and extensive, Froissart’s works recount events that took place in the British Isles, France, the Low Countries, Iberia, Italy, Germany, Cyprus, Turkey, and North Africa.
Froissart’s stated aim was to write a history of the ‘chivalric exploits that took place between France and England’, and he begins his narrative with the great Battle of Sluys (1340) which inaugurated the Hundred Years War.
Here Edward III engaged the French navy off the coast of Flanders and brought it to resounding defeat, cementing English dominance over the channel and ending the threat of a French invasion.
Froissart’s description of the action itself is lively, accurate, and engaging. The battle, according to Froissart, started with ‘each side opening fire with crossbows and longbows, and hand-to-hand fighting began. The soldiers used grappling irons on chains in order to come to grips with the enemy boats.’
Though detailed, his narrative does not lack pathos: Froissart describes the battle as très horrible (very horrible) and ‘cruel’, writing,
Sea battles are always more terrible than those on land, for those engaged can neither retreat nor run away; they could only stand and fight to the bitter end, and show their courage and endurance.
It was not just the exploits of Edward III that Froissart had the privilege of chronicling: he also appears to have travelled with the notorious Black Prince, Edward III’s son, to the famous Battles of Crécy and Poitiers.
These legendary battles are described in detail in the Chronicles – with clear English bias. While he sometimes wrote with pathos, at other times Froissart almost revels in the bloodshed, as in this account of Crécy:
The wonderful effect of our archery and arrows was such that, flying through the air as thick as snow… they did leave no disarmed place, of horse or man, unstricken and not wounded.
While Book I of the Chronicles focuses on the Hundred Years War, Book II also contains descriptions of the medieval peasant revolts that shook Europe during the 14th-century, and which struck terror into the hearts of the feudal lords.
Froissart and other medieval chroniclers are considered by contemporary historians to have shown strong hostility to the rebels who instigated popular insurgencies. Of his writing, Scottish novelist and historian Sir Walter Scott stated that Froissart had ‘marvellous little sympathy’ for the ‘villain churls’.
This attitude was unsurprising, given that most literary and artistic figures during this period earned their livings as spin doctors for the feudal elite. The emphasis on chivalry and courage in battle only applied to those who fought loyally for their feudal lords.
Indeed, strong ideological motivation was necessary to persuade the bannermen to risk their lives just so their lords could claim command over distant lands, held for but a short time before being recaptured by a rival.
Froissart continued to travel around Europe, receiving awards and benefices that allowed him to fund his travels, eventually becoming Canon of Chimay. When he returned to England in 1395, he was dismayed by what he saw to be the end of chivalry and knightly warfare, and the beginnings of a new way of modern war, based on the incipient use of gunpowder and infantrymen. •
IN CONTEXT: THE HUNDRED YEARS WAR
The Hundred Years War was a series of conflicts waged across Europe between 1337 and 1453. The key protagonists were the English House of Plantagenet, and the French House of Valois, but each side drew many of their allies from across the continent into the war.
In 1337, Edward III challenged Philip of Valois’s claim to the French throne, and the conflict began. Despite English victories at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, France and its supporters eventually won the war, and the House of Valois retained the French throne.