How far should a warrior in battle? It has been a question that every soldier has probably thought about, and many have had to face. Even in the Middle Ages this was a question that was debated.
One view comes from Honoré Bonet, a French scholar living around the end of the 14th century. He composed a work in the 1380s called The Tree of Battles, which looked at warfare and how it should be fought. He examined dozens of questions about chivalry, including what were the duties of a good knight, whether a vassal is obliged to aid his lord, and even if priests and clerics should fight in war. In this section, he asks:
Whether a Man should prefer the death to flight from Battle?
Now we must consider a rather difficult question: that is, whether a man ought to choose death, rather than flee from the battle.
I show, first, that he should choose flight in preference to awaiting death, and the reason is this. It is better, according to the philosopher, to choose what gives most delight. It is plain that to live is more agreeable and pleasant than to die, so that it is better to flee than to wait for death. As to the second reason: death is the most terrible and strongest of all things, and hence the most feared; but, since this is not, in the nature of things, a pleasure, it follows that it is not desired; for choice is, influenced by pleasure, and by freedom of choice.
Yet Aristotle, prince of philosophers, holds the contrary, for the following reason: “I say that for nothing in the world should a man do what is dishonourable and reprehensible. But it is plain that to flee is wicked, and brings great reproach and shame.” On this matter I wish to bring forward certain reasons which support the philosopher’s opinion. First, our decrees say that it is better to suffer and sustain all ills rather than consent to evil. But to flee and quit the right is an evil thing. Plainly then, he must by no means flee. A stronger proof is this: of two things a man must choose the better, and: if he does he will have life everlasting. So it is better to remain than to take flight to save the life of this mortal body, which is but meat for worms.
In this discussion I wish to add my own opinion, and it seems to me that if a knight is engaged in battle with Christians against Saracens, and thinks that by his flight he Christians may lose the battle; he must await death rather than take to flight, because he knows he will die for the Faith and be saved. If, on the other hand, he knows that by remaining he will not be helpful to the extent of preventing the loss of the battle, and he finds that he can save himself, and escape the hands of his enemies, I say he should go. If, however, he sees and recognises clearly that flight will not mean escape, indeed he would do better to stay; for it is better that he should await the issue defending himself and others, and die with his comrades, if God permits it, than that in such case he should flee. If a knight is fighting against Christians in his lord’s service, I tell you, as I said before, that he should be willing to die to keep the oath of his faith to his lord. I say the same of the knight in receipt of wages from the king or other lord, for since he has pledged to him his faith and oath he must die in defence of him and his honour; and thus does he maintain in himself the virtue of courage, so that he fears nothing that may befall in fighting for justice.
The entire work has been translated by G.W. Coopland in The Tree of Battles of Honoré Bonet, published by Liverpool University Press in 1949.