Explaining Military Defeat

In this post, Christophe discusses how authors wrote about military defeat in 15th Century Burgundy.  Was the victor the captain who remained on the battlefield, or the one who captured the largest amount of prisoners and goods?  In an era of knightly ideals, the most important thing was how you framed it….


imposing castle of grey stone surrounded by moat

Gravensteen, Ghent

Fifteenth century Burgundy is known to be one of the most brilliant polities of the late Middle Ages. The Order of the Golden Fleece, the Flemish Primitives, the illuminated manuscripts or the beautiful palaces of Dijon, Brussels and Ghent are just some examples of its legacy. Yet Burgundian dukes were also warriors who led important campaigns against, alternately, England, the Holy Roman Empire, France, Switzerland, and the Low Countries, not to mention their crusading enterprises.

Two authors, Olivier de La Marche and Jean de Haynin, respectively from Burgundy and Hainault (currently in Belgium), recorded part of their martial deeds in their Mémoires. These texts help us to understand the day-to-day life and feelings of 15th century men-at-arms. Obviously, large parts of these writings were meant to idealize their dukes, to emphasize their qualities, and to celebrate their success and prowess.


Gold statue of Charles the Bold

Charles the Bold, Cathedral of St Paul, Liège

Yet, the last duke of Burgundy born from the royal French house of Valois—Charles the Bold—faced several, and increasingly dramatic, defeats. In this context, one could wonder if and how La Marche and Haynin tried to “hide the truth” of his military failures. But it would be a methodological error to think that we can so easily part the so-called “historical truth” from the “historical lies.” Veterans of both successful and catastrophic campaigns, these two writers experienced what it was like to wage war in hostile regions. This is probably what they mostly wanted their readers—Burgundian dukes and aristocrats, members of the court—to understand. Each of the events they described was thus the occasion to, more or less clearly, give their ideas about warfare and how it was meant to be. In this context, defeat was not something to be met with shame alone. Of course, it was to be prevented. But when faced with defeat, there were solutions and attitudes to adopt.

In a martial prospective, the ideal captain was the one who never abandoned his troops, the one who was a kind of “father” to them.

The point most regularly made was that defeat encompasses a wide range of situations, from total annihilation to the situation where no one exactly knew who won, at the end. Was it the captain who remained on the battlefield or the one who captured the largest amount of prisoners and goods?


Ceremonial gold chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece

Order of the Golden Fleece, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The answer of Haynin and La Marche was that what really mattered was the way in which captains acted to save as many of their men as they could, and to act as bravely and effectively as was humanly possible. In a martial prospective, the ideal captain was the one who never abandoned his troops, the one who was a kind of “father” to them. If these writers apparently minimized some defeats, it may have been less to hide the truth—that in any case would be known through other channels—than to give a model to emulate to their readers.

Last but not least, this portrait of the warrior great in defeat as well as in triumph was also used to describe the late medieval knight, no matter what his level in the military hierarchy. As this portrait began to be applied to the ordinary members of the army, it opened the way for the implicit dubbing of the entire army, commoners included. It was probably this movement that helped the knightly ideology to regenerate and survive in the Early Modern Period, not to say in Modern times…


This post is inspired by Christophe’s recent chapter in P. Delsalle, G. Docquier, A. Marchandisse, B. Schnerb (eds.), Pour la singuliere affection qu’avons a luy Études bourguignonnes offertes à Jean-Marie Cauchies (Brepols 2017).  You can read it by clicking here

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