By Steven Muhlberger
Humour (and its cousin wit) may be a universal trait, but there are certainly many different types. And just as you may not find your neighbour’s jokes very funny, humour from different countries and eras may be difficult to understand. Was that bon mot meant to be mean or appreciative?
Here are a few jokes and witticisms from the Hundred Years War. See what you think of the companions’ humour — since all these stories have a military element.
Where the sun shines
Companions listened closely to their commanders, and as a result leaders’ most famous sayings were circulated among the armies. In 1380 the citizens of Puy-Notre-Dame asked the French Constable Bertrand if he would be willing to go before Chateauneuf-de-Randon, whose garrison was destroying the countryside, and deliver it from the English. After he had agreed, he addressed the companions who were accompanying him:
“My dear companions, brothers and friends, since we are not far from there, I pray you, accompany me there, and you will see what we will do. For, with God’s blessing, we will have at them, lads, and if the sun can get in, so can we.” At these words the companions laughed and said that they would accompany him with a good heart.
Decades later, this rather slight line was still being repeated. It was funny because in a moment it proved capable of turning the mood of an elite company.
On another occasion the English captain Robert Knowles sent a quirky message to the Constable of France: “You have made me eat my horses here at this castle of Brest, as I made you eat yours at the siege of Rennes; so go the changes of fortune and war.” The humour comes from the fact that these captains, even though they fought on opposite sides, had a keen appreciation of their common experience.
Listen to your mother
Did the Duke of Bourbon’s men laugh when he felt obliged to moderate his siege at Belleperche – because the duke’s siege engines frightened his mother? The Duke of Bourbon shot at the English garrison day and night. The duchess, who was being held by the English, was terrified when they shot inside; so she ordered the duke her son not to shoot anymore. Jean Cabaret reports that the duke obeyed her. Likely the duke found nothing very humorous about the situation but his enemies may have found reason to laugh.
Helping the English
Sometimes, however, the wit was much sharper. The Duke of Bourbon, while leading an expedition to Granada, received news that the English at Burgos “were suffering a great mortality.” The local leaders asked the Duke’s advice. The Duke of Bourbon answered on his feet, “Since they are dying it is good that we should go and help them die some more.”
Is physical humour the most universal? Elsewhere I have told the story, passed on by Froissart, of a knight named Ernauton who feeling the cold at Christmas time, stoked an inadequate fire at the court of the Count of Foix. Ernauton, impatient, found as ass loaded with firewood, picked it up, and threw animal and his load into the flames. It was an amazing feat of strength but also in Jean Froissart’s words, “a ridiculous trick.” People (including the Count) were apparently amused rather than horrified.
A little wordplay
Sometimes medieval humour was much more elaborate, aimed at an audience of readers rather than listeners. Jean Froissart was a master of the long story. One such story tells how the Count of Flanders escaped from the urban rebels of Bruges and Ghent during the uprising of 1382. The Count was reduced to wandering by himself through the streets of Bruges and hiding under the “wretched bed” of a poor woman’s children. Froissart paints a grim picture of the Count’s fear:
The Count of Flanders had heard the whole conversation [of rebels who were hunting him] as he lay huddled in the little bed. The state of fear he was in can be imagined. What thoughts must he have had who in the morning could say, ‘I am one of the great princes of Christendom’, and that same night was reduced to such littleness?
Froissart then shows the Count recovering his spirits and escaping the city. The change of tone is very quick, almost unbelievable. While walking through a countryside that he doesn’t know he runs into one of his own knights:
[Said the knight]’ You’ve given me a lot of trouble looking for you round Bruges. How did you get away?’ ‘Come, come, Robin,’ said the Count, ‘this is no time to relate our adventures. Try and get me a horse, I’m tired of walking. And take the Lille road, if you know which it is.’ ‘Yes, sir, I do know,’ his knight replied.
Are we meant to take this at face value? And what did the 14th-century audience think?
Even such well-known figures as Froissart often bent the truth. We benefit nonetheless in our understanding by being exposed to the dialogue – or at least a shadow of the dialogue — that took place in the unique world of the professional military man.
Steven Muhlberger, before his recent retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include the “Deeds of Arms Series” published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: Froissart’s Chronicles – BNF Français 2662 fol. 102r