When I mentioned Le Morte d’Arthur recently I observed in passing the blase way in which mediaeval aristocrats fought wars with their relatives for their power, consigning thousands of their unsung soldiery to death in the process.
As it happened, a couple of days after I posted that a friend mentioned he’d been reading a history of the last millennium of England’s relationship with France. It was, apparently, humorously written, but my friend gained the same impression of warmongering rulers committing the peasants to fight and die in their personal dynastic squabbles. He suggested that for most people, being ruled by a French king or an English king would make little difference. That’s especially true for the Normans and Plantagenets, who essentially were French kings, with French as their court language, as they gradually lost their grip on the remnants of the Angevin Empire.
The conversation led me to think harder about this militaristic tendency. Reading the history of those times, the reasons for the wars with various rulers in France make more sense, as do the costs to the country, as well as the kings, of losing them. With that in mind, we should recall that almost the only role of government in mediaeval times was to protect their people militarily, both from foreign rulers and lawless brigands (with or without titles) at home. Hence rulers were a largely military caste by design.
If Le Morte d’Arthur teaches anything, it is that the knightly classes put their money where their mouth was. A century after Mallory, Henry VIII was thoroughly committed to the sport of jousting, partly because he would be required to lead his troops in battle personally in time of war. But if it was a duty, it was one he loved. Despite at least two serious jousting accidents he remained willing to be charged at full gallop by an opponent with a spear and restricted vision. Deaths in tournaments were common, despite full armour, and serious injuries inevitable, so the gung-ho attitude of knights to personal injury and violent death in Morte d’Arthur seems to be one of its more realistic features.
Apart from anything else, this should alert us to the probability that Henry’s cruel treatment of supposed traitors was not simply a question of paranoia about harm to himself, but had a genuine regard to national security. Henry had, after all, put himself in the way of physical harm from his childhood up, by choice. In fact, the complexities of the mediaeval aristocratic mindset emerge in Mallory in its later books, where the tension between seriously embraced Catholic faith and the militaristic lifestyle leading to blood-guilt are explored. Perhaps the Crusades exemplify this both in their self-sacrifice for an arguably just cause (militant Islam – what else is new?) and the abuses and personal ambitions which are well known nowadays.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of this warlike worldview, it was endemic to mankind for far longer than the age of mediaeval chivalry. The Old Testament talks about spring as “the time when kings go out to war” (2 Sam 11:1), and way back in neolithic times, mutual raiding seems to have been the norm. An astonishing 20% of all neolithic remains found in Britain – men, women and children – show signs of violent death.
But I want now to focus on the others in my conversation: the poor peasants formed into large armies as cannon (or earlier, battle-axe, fodder). I have a strong suspicion that there was not such a great ideological divide between rulers and ruled as we often suppose. I read that French diplomats in Elizabeth I’s time considered the English to be the most aggressive and violent people on earth. And we can read of riots during elections, at fairs, and when the wrong people preached in the market place, throughout our history.
Folk songs seem to confirm this violent streak. I used to be folk-musician, so gained quite an exposure to traditional ballads and so on. This was the music of the people, not the toffs. It is true that in later centuries, songs of losing loved ones reluctantly to (press-ganged) war are common:
Our decks they were spattered with blood
And so loudly the cannons did roar
And thousands of times have I wished myself at home
And all along with my Polly on the shore. (Polly on the Shore)
But they are matched by many more songs displaying a lust for battle on the part of common people matching that of the knights in Mallory (so wonderfully spoofed by John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
Where are the Spaniards who made so great a boast-oh?
For they shall have the goosey-feather, and we shall have the roast-oh. (Hal-an-Tow)
The allusion is to Elizabeth’s proclamation of a national feast of roast goose after the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Even in Cornwall, where you were as likely to be press-ganged as anywhere, the belligerent spirit was evident in song:
Once more unto her majesty then let the health go ’round
Confusion to her enemies wherever they are found
For ’tis he who will not merry, merry be
Shall never taste of joy,
See, see, the Cape’s in view,
And forward, my brave boys. (Padstow Drinking Song)
Folk-songs include, from time to time, women sharing the warlike temperament even in battle. For example, in one song a woman inexplicably takes command of a Navy ship when the captain is killed:
“Oh for quarters, for quarters!” The Spanish boys did cry.
“You’ve had the best of quarters,” the Damsel did reply,
“Oh you’ve had the best of quarters that e’er we can afford –
You must fight, sink or swim, my boys,
Or jump overboard.” (The Rainbow)
And it wasn’t just on the sea against the Spanish:
And so many were the pranks
That we played among the French,
And so boldly did I fight, my boys,
Although I’m but a wench. (The Female Drummer)
Point made, I think. Our forbears seems to have accepted, and sometimes enjoyed, warfare as a way of life, from high to low, and despite the opposition of religion (the Church, for example, had forbidden jousting when it first appeared around the 11th century, but to no avail against either the aristocratic warriors, or the crowds that filled the lists to watch).
But what of now? Have we not outgrown such primitive violence? On the contrary, I think we are more conflicted than even the mediaeval Christians, the more violent our culture has become. Two World Wars (and perhaps the mythology surrounding them) have indeed made the common people more peaceable, to the extent that we are deeply shocked to think that Monty Python and the Holy Grail actually reflects some kind of reality, though shorn of nuance.
In fact, there are signs that overall our generation has become pathologically risk-averse. A recent study suggests that the poor recruitment in US armed forces isn’t primarily for the plausible reason that the military has gone woke, but because potential recruits are too safety-conscious to “venture their wealth and persons” in the service of their nation. I must add that in this country, certainly amongst recent veterans of the forces, there is also a feeling that whatever was worth fighting for in Britain has been thrown away by the elites.
On the other hand, modern elites appear to be no less bloodthirsty than in days of old, when knights were bold. But unlike the mediaeval monarchs and barons, nowadays they never put their own lives on the line. When Boris Johnson went to Kiev to tell Zelensky that his American masters did not approve of the Istanbul peace proposals, he committed Ukraine to losing well over 100,000 of its people, and its whole economy, in a bloody war, whilst Johnson makes millions of dollars in speaking fees where no rockets come near. This NATO sabotage of peace negotiations, in order to further the long-term goal of weakening Russia, has been confirmed by the Turkish Foreign minister, the Israeli ex-PM, and members of the Zelensky regime itself.
When, as veteran Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist Sy Hersh has recently revealed, Joe Biden, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for policy, conspired with Norway’s government to destroy the Nordstream pipelines, they knew it was an act of war against the German people that involved the perpetrators in no personal risk. Even political or criminal comeback is unlikely, since the mainstream press is so controlled it has barely mentioned either of these two astonishing revelations.
The chroniclers recorded that William the Conqueror “laid waste” areas of Northern England when they rebelled against his rule. But America has in our time destroyed the industrial base of the whole of Europe, and it doesn’t even get mentioned in the news. Indeed, at the very time when it begins to look as if the US Empire, that has invaded multiple countries and engineered regime change many more, is beginning to collapse, most people in the “Free World” have no idea that there even is a US Empire.
The distancing of the people from the real world by propaganda disguised as electronic “information” enables us to forget the hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq or Afghanistan because of our actions; to pass over the fact that the harm from the earthquake in Syria has been exacerbated by Western sanctions and by the civil war that the West (Not Assad or Russia) fomented; and to regard as a deadly enemy any nation against which our governments can manufacture some false flag or balloon.
Even for many of those soldiers actually engaging these “enemies” killing becomes a detached video-game rather than the one-on-one struggle faced by mediaeval knights, archers and pikemen alike. The Apache pilot sits safely in the night sky as his chain-gun mows down unarmed Iraqis on his video-screen in a “duck shoot.” The drone operator even metes out his mass destruction from the comfort of a control room close to his home. But of course the real trick used by NATO is to get some expendable nation’s young men (and old men, and children in the case of Ukraine) to fight its wars. Even re-purposed Al Qaeda and Isis fighters will do, because the public will never be told you trained them to fight in the first place.
But when all else fails, the elites will add conscription to their propaganda and sacrifice their own boys as well, knowing that they themselves will still be safe at home waving the flag, unlike the kings of old, who waved it from their own spears and bore it on their battered shields. I sometimes wonder if the high rate of PTSD amongst our veterans has as much to do with the subconscious feeling that the cause is not actually worthwhile, as much as the undoubted trauma of modern warfare.
The US has perfected the proxy war principle so that even their NATO allies, and their economies, now become expendable tools, depleting their military reserves whilst America makes promises it won’t keep, and profits from new arms sales and from supplying oil at inflated prices.
6,000 French soldiers died at Agincourt in 1415, and 400 Englishmen. It was a sad toll, but it was a single day’s battle, and produced a clear political result. Now we spin wars out for a decade or two, and then abandon the battleground worse than we found it, and usually with the same government in charge that we first opposed. Those battlegrounds are full of a few million mostly civilian corpses, whether we’re thinking of Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Serbia, Somalia, Vietnam or any of the other warzones devastated for the sake of “Western Values.”
It seems to have been the quarrelsome character of the Israel of Jesus’s time that caused him to bewail their ignorance of what makes for peace, and to predict the total destruction of their nation by the Romans. The mediaeval British, pre- and post-conquest, had adopted Christianity, and whilst the Catholicism of that time left a lot to be desired, it was, I think, the residual sin-nature rather than poor doctrine that kept the war-blood flowing. I have no doubt that the Gospel of Christ is the ultimate source of peace, but even amongst today’s well-taught believers the actual practice of peace is not easy. How many Evangelicals have I heard hoping that someone will “take out” Putin, or taking it for granted that Chieftain tanks are the solution to relations with Russia and China both? And maybe there are few of us apart from Mennonites who, even when told the truth about a genuine aggressor, would not consider war to be justified to protect the innocent and national integrity.
Perhaps only when Christ comes will peace on earth become a reality – that certainly is the teaching of both Old and New Testaments. In the meantime, though, let’s not kid ourselves that we’re morally superior to the nation toasting victory at the Battle of Crecy or Trafalgar. Most of our wars are less justifiable than most of theirs.