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Hoisted from the Archives: A Shiver in My Spine: Chevauchee

December 12, 2003: A Shiver in My Spine: Chevauchee

One side effect of having the text of 10,000 books from Project Gutenberg newly-downloaded onto your laptop is that you can read the introduction to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales while proctoring your undergraduate exam. But I just ran across a passage that puts a shiver in my spine, a passage about the KNIGHT'S son, the SQUIRE:

With him there was his son, a younge SQUIRE,
A lover, and a lusty bacheler,
With lockes crulle as they were laid in press.
Of twenty year of age he was I guess.
Of his stature he was of even length,
And wonderly deliver, and great of strength.
And he had been some time in chevachie,
In Flanders, in Artois, and Picardie,
And borne him well, as of so little space,
In hope to standen in his lady's grace.

"...had been some time in chevauchee..." (as it is usually spelled).

Let me tell you how the Hundred Years War (during which Geoffrey Chaucer was an English government functionary) worked. An English army ventures into France. The French have more knights, more horses, and lots of castles. As long as the French harass the English--cutting off detachments, ambushing vanguards, surprising foraging parties--the English will (a) fail to take territory (for besieging castles is difficult and time consuming, and (b) find their army attrited away. Only if the English can induce the French to charge the English longbow archers while they are entrenched behind their wooden stakes can the English win a pitched battle, and in the aftermath of a massive victory like Crecy or Poitiers or Agincourt press forward and pick up the mass surrenders that gain them provinces.

So how can the English kings and princes persuade the French to charge the longbows? The answer the English found was the chevauchee: send your cavalry and your archers (who can march pretty fast) through French provinces, moving as fast as possible, burning and killing everything in their path. Perhaps the destruction will enrage the French enough that they will lose their heads and charge. Perhaps the French will feel that they must fight--whether it is good tactical ground for them or not--out of a sense of duty to their vassals and serfs. Perhaps the English get a pitched battle fought under favorable tactical circumstances. If not, they will come home having suffered few casualties, and laden with at least some booty, having had a merry time burning crops, burning villages, and killing peasants, and extorting valuables from small walled towns that do not want to risk the chance that the English army would halt and attempt a full siege.

That is what's hidden beneath Chaucer's three merry lines:

And he had been some time in chevachie,
In Flanders, in Artois, and Picardie,
And borne him well, as of so little space,

Truly this is the kind of activity after which one can "hope to standen in his lady's grace."

Right now I'm seeing burned French villages and butchered peasants in my mind's eye, and contrasting it with Chaucer's further description of the SQUIRE:

Embroider'd was he, as it were a mead
All full of freshe flowers, white and red.
Singing he was, or fluting all the day;
He was as fresh as is the month of May.
Short was his gown, with sleeves long and wide.
Well could he sit on horse, and faire ride.
He coulde songes make, and well indite,
Joust, and eke dance, and well pourtray and write.
So hot he loved, that by nightertale
He slept no more than doth the nightingale.
Courteous he was, lowly, and serviceable,
And carv'd before his father at the table.

The past is truly another country. (Of course, much of the world in the present is another country--all of the world outside the borders of the U.S.A. is another country, in fact.)