How can we reconstruct medieval battles? Is it possible to discern the truth in our sources? This extract from ‘The Black Prince and the Capture of a King’ by Morgen Witzel & Marilyn Livingstone explores some of these problems.
Reconstructing the events of any medieval battle brings with it certain challenges, and Poitiers is no exception. The evidence for what happened, where, when and to whom is fragmentary and often contradictory. This should come as no surprise. Reconstructing any battle is difficult, because eyewitness accounts of what happened will often differ. The extreme levels of stress that combat imposes on soldiers plays tricks with both perception and memory. Time and space themselves become distorted. People remember things that did not actually happen, and forget many things that did happen.
At least with a modern battle, there is a plethora of different accounts and administrative records, copies of orders, recordings of radio transmissions and so on, which give the researcher a broad evidence base through which to sift. For medieval battles, even big ones like Poitiers, this is not so. The administrative records of the English crown, like the Register of the Black Prince, provide background information that can help us establish certain facts. There are a few eyewitness accounts in letters home – the Prince of Wales, Bartholomew Burghersh and others – but these letters are disappointingly brief and, we must remember, were intended for public consumption as propaganda. On the French side, the survival of administrative records has been very poor. Eyewitness accounts such as that of the Comte de Dammartin which we quoted in Chapter 8 are rare as hen’s teeth and, when they do occur, are usually found copied into other documents.
That leaves us with the chroniclers. Many chronicles make reference to the battle and the events before and after. Of these, the two best known are the chronicles of Jean Froissart and Geoffrey le Baker. Froissart was probably in his late teens when the battle was fought and did not take part in the battle. He wrote his chronicle many years later, and for his description of Poitiers relied heavily on a French chronicler, Jean le Bel, although he did have access to some eyewitnesses as well. But his account of the battle is confused and muddy, and it is not always clear that he is describing events in the order they really happened. There is a great deal that is illogical in terms of military probability. But Froissart was not trying to reconstruct the battle. He loved grand scenes that displayed the virtues of chivalry for all to see. To this end, he puts flowery speeches into the mouths of his characters, sometimes even in the heat of battle. We have quoted from a few of these speeches, where we think there is a reasonable chance that they actually were delivered; others are obviously his idea of what people might have said, or should have said, in the circumstances.
Historians have damned Froissart for his inaccuracies, but everyone uses him; for any historian of the 14th century, there simply is no choice but to cite Froissart from time to time, crossing one’s fingers as one does so. Fortunately, there is another source for the battle of Poitiers against which Froissart can be checked. The chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker contains the most detailed account of the battle, and it seems clear too that Baker really is trying to reconstruct what happened. He seems to have had access to both eyewitnesses and some official records of the campaign. He too invents flowery speeches, like the Prince of Wales’s soliloquy to his men on the morning of the battle, but he tells us quite plainly that he is inventing, and why. Like all historians, Baker got things wrong, but when researching our previous book, The Road to Crécy, we were impressed by the number of things he also got right.
Even so, there are holes in Baker’s account that need to be filled. Chandos Herald, gossipy and cheerful with a keen eye for damsels, recounts a few incidents, and several other chroniclers like Baker who had access to official documents – Robert of Avesbury and the authors of the Anonimalle Chronicle and Eulogium Historiarum, for example – can help with details too.
But gaps still remain. There are contradictions and confusions between accounts. Was Maurice de Berkeley captured during the final pursuit and chase, or midway through the battle? The latter seems on balance more likely, so we have gone with that. Did William Douglas serve with Clermont’s mounted contingent, as Froissart suggests, or with the men-at-arms on foot, as other sources seem to think? Given that Douglas supposedly advised King Jean to dismount most of his army and fight on foot, it seems unlikely that he would then volunteer to join the mounted contingent. Did the Duc d’Orléans or the Dauphin command the first division of the French army? We know that the Dauphin was hustled away from the battle by his guardians, so the second division, which saw little fighting, would seem to make more sense. All these judgements are based on the evidence as we see it, but we accept that the truth cannot be known absolutely and our judgements are to some extent acts of faith.
There are several puzzling aspects about the battle which historians have long debated, and doubtless will continue to debate. In our book, we set out what we believe happened, and our reasons for this belief.
The Black Prince and the Capture of a King: Poitiers 1356
By Morgen Witzel and Marilyn Livingstone
Published by Casemate Publishers
A new detailed account of the battle of Poitiers in 1356 which saw one of the most sensational episodes of the Hundred Years War: the capture of the French King Jean by the Black Prince.
9781612004518 | Hardback | £25.00