Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Patriotically Correct

Book Cover
Although there are a vast number of books written about the Hundred Years War there is a distinct skew in terms of what is written about concerning the Hundred Years War. For example English historians tend to concentrate on the victories of Edward III, the Black Prince and Henry V. English historians tend to ignore periods like the DuGuesclin period (1365-1380 C.E.) and the period from 1430-1453 C.E.1

The closing period of the Hundred Years War especially has been ignored by English speaking historians or treated in summary accounts rather briefly.2

Thus it is something of treat to see published a detailed account of the last phases of the war. Juliet Barker fulfills the need to have a comprehensive narrative history of this time period with her book Conquest.3

The book covers the period 1417-1450 and covers the history of the English kingdom of France, as such it does not cover developments in Guyenne and therefore ends with the expulsion of the English from Normandy in 1450.

As such it is a good overall narrative of this time period and developments in Northern France from an English point of view. Certainly it is a very useful narrative of the war in northern France during this time period. It is a reliable and a useful one stop place to find out about military developments during the war.

Also its overview of the ins and outs of political developments in England during this time is both comprehensive and useful.

As a military narrative of such events as the battle of Verneuil,4 it is very good; with, in fact, first class writing.

Sadly though the book has considerable deficiencies as a history. It is to put it bluntly anti-French.

The book goes out of its way to characterize one French leader, after the other as brigands, raiders, looters etc., and as duplicitous and treacherous. Thus Charles VII, the Dauphin, is treated as a treacherous, duplicitous liar. Ms. Barker continues in her book to treat Henry V, as an almost godlike hero king.5 That Henry V was at least as Machiavellian, duplicitous and as hypocritical as Charles VII is ignored, along with his considerable brutalities.6

Thus we get a chapter about the French resistance in occupied Normandy that denies the resistance any motives of “real” patriotism except the desire to pillage and spread destruction. The role of the English in spreading devastation directly or through forces they control is down played but the role of “Dauphinist” raiders highlighted and emphasized. Thus the considerable atrocities committed by the English are down played and largely ignored. Instead the French are blamed.7

The message seems to be that the French, who are treacherous it seems, are to blame for all the destruction by resisting the English. That the English claim to France was bogus and that the English were fighting a war of conquest is largely ignored. Of course what Ms. Barker also down plays is the existence of the vast series of English protection rackets in France called the patis.

Thus Ms. Barker quotes liberally the anti-Armagnac denunciations of the Bourgeois of Paris, (Ms. Barker ignores convention and insists upon translating Bourgeois as Citizen, thus Anglicizing the very French Bourgeois.), and she carefully ignores practically all the many harsh things the Bourgeois says about the English. Not to be found in the book is this little gem.
He [Duke of Bedford] was always building, wherever he was; his nature was quite un-English, for he never wanted to make war on anybody, whereas the English, essentially, are always wanting to make war on their neighbours without cause. That is why they all die an evil death; more than seventy-six thousand of them had by now died in France.8
The above is not found in Ms. Barker’s book along with many, many similar remarks.

About Joan of Arc Ms. Barker just cannot help herself she must engage in rank mud hurling speculation.
The refusal to allow a negotiated surrender can perhaps be attributed to the Pucelle. [Joan of Arc] There is no doubt that she wanted a fight. Unlike the professional soldiers, she was unencumbered by the baggage of the chivalric code and, with the moral authority of the divinely chosen, it seems she was able to persuade the duke to do as she wished. The slaughter of prisoners that followed the assault, which was against the laws of war, since they posed no threats to the victors, may also perhaps be attributed to Jeanne’s enthusiasm for the utter destruction of the enemy.9
This passage is a masterpiece of distortion and character assassination it is also largely a fantasy. There is of course little evidence to indicate that Joan rejected the chivalric code, certainly she took part in negotiations for ransoms for one thing. There is of course no evidence that Joan had anything to do with rejecting the offer to negotiate in this case, and besides it was during an assault so despite Ms. Barker’s pooh-poohing it was probably indeed lost in the din. As for the slaughter of prisoner’s being against the laws of war. Well yes it was but this was one rule that was universally violated. The aristocratic men involved in war making could not be bothered generally with keeping prisoners not worth a ransom alive. So that victorious battles were usually followed by the massacre of camp-followers and common soldiers not worth a ransom. The English for example engaged in widespread massacre of prisoners after Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt, and Verneuil. As for “Jeanne’s enthusiasm for the utter destruction of the enemy”, pure fantasy on the part of Ms. Barker.10

Ms. Barker then quotes a letter that Joan sent to the Hussite Heretics threatening to go to Bohemia and destroy them as an example of how unhinged Joan was is sort of lost when it is pointed out that the letter to the Hussites is an almost certain forgery.11

A further annoyance is the fact that Ms. Barker continues to refer to the supporters of the Dauphin, later Charles VII, as Armagnacs long after the conference of Arras that ended the French civil war between the Burgundians and the Charles VII’s faction. Ms. Barker seems to be totally unaware that Armagnacs were just one faction that supported Charles VII. That they were other French groups that supported Charles VII because they considered him the legitimate ruler seems to escape her. But then using the term Armagnac enables Ms. Barker to continue to portray Charles VII and his party as a group of treacherous, pillagers and robbers with no “real” positive motives.

Finally Ms. Barker’s portrayal of English politics during this time period smacks of the soldiers being let down by the supine, weak government at home. In other words we were stabbed in the back sort of mythology. Ms. Barker seems to not really take seriously the very serious economic and other problems that severely constrained the government of Henry VI. Nor does she seem to be aware that the English effort of the 1430’s after the tide had turned against the English was significantly greater than in the 1420’s when England was largely successful.12

Thus Ms. Barker’s treatment of the Truce of Tours breathes the air of treachery and betrayal of our valiant men.13 In fact Ms. Barker’s whole treatment of the government of Henry VI breathes stabbed in the back mythology.14

In the end this book is well worth reading as a military history narrative. However in terms of interpretation and analysis it is seriously flawed by “Patriotic Correctness”

1. A classic example is Burne, Alfred H., The Hundred Years War, Penguin Books, London, 2001.

2. For example IBID above.

3. Barker, Juliet, Conquest, Little, Brown, London, 2009, pub. In USA by Harvard University Press, New York, 2012.

4. IBID. pp. 79-84.

5. See Barker, Juliet, Agincourt, Little, Brown, New York, 2007.

6. See Seward, Desmond, The Hundred Years War, Atheneum, New York, 1978, & his Henry V as Warlord, Penguin Books, London, 1987, for a distinctly more real and less adulatory look at Henry V.

7. Barker, 2009, pp. 61-75.

8. Anonymous, A Parisian Journal: 1405 - 1449, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1968, p. 307.

9. Barker, 2009, p. 120.

10. Footnote 6.

11. Barker, 2009, p. 139. For why the letter is likely a forgery see Fudge, Thomas A., Editor, The Crusade against Heretics in Bohemia, 1418-1437, Ashgate, Bodmin Cornwall, 2002, p. 284. For more balance views on Joan of Arc see Pernoud, Regine, & Clin, Marie-Veronique, Joan of Arc, St. Martins Griffin, London, 1998, and Devries, Kelly, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader, Sutton Pub, London, 2003.

12. See Seward, 1978, 1987, and my post Here.

13. Barker, 2009, pp. 323-353.

14. A vastly better and more nuanced discussion of Henry VI and his reign can be found in Griffiths, R.A., The Reign of Henry VI, Sutton Pub., London, 1998. Seward’s two books listed above also provide a rather interesting corrective of Ms. Barker’s account. It is also interesting to note that the UK cover of Conquest has an English soldier on it whereas the US cover as Joan of Arc on a horse. 

Pierre Cloutier

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