August 14, 2020 by libroshombre
Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.” True enough, but sometimes, like in times of plague, warfare, civil unrest, environmental upheaval, and political incompetence, it’s soothing to reflect on even grimmer times, like the era historian Barbara Tuchman called “the calamitous 14th century.” The 1300s featured the Hundred Years War, repeated bouts of plague that devastated whole populations, rampant ignorance, several “years without summer,” and a special form of bandits known as the Guglers.
The Guglers were mercenaries, mostly English and French knights, and during lulls in the Hundred Years War these unemployed knights and soldiers “rampaged and plundered the French countryside until they were again engaged and paid by French or British overlords to do their bidding.” Tuchman said they wore pointed helmets and, they covered them with KKK-like hoods, called guglers, a Swiss term for cowl or point. During the winter of 1375 a gugler army pillaged and raped 40 Alsatian villages before invading Switzerland, whose hardy citizenry rose up and killed over 1,000 marauders, and the rest went back to devastating France.
Britannica Encyclopedia says the best surviving account of the period comes from Jean Froissart. His “‘Chronicles’ of the 14th century remain the most important and detailed documents of feudal times and the best contemporary exposition of chivalric and courtly ideals.” Wikipedia adds that “modern historians also recognize that the Chronicles have many shortcomings as a historical source,” with erroneous dates, misplaced geography, inaccurate estimations of armies and battles, and the author’s bias towards his noble patrons’ points of view.
Froissart admired the “Cult of Courtly Love,” inspired by his idealization of Eleanor of Aquitaine who fostered the courtly love movement throughout the lands she ruled two hundred years earlier in Southwest France. “The cult of courtly love developed out of a mixture of Arabic love poetry and Troubadour poetry. Eleanor’s court at Poitiers was a magnet for troubadours … They also expected better behavior than the roistering that many knights were used to at the French and English court. Men were expected to exercise manners and courtesy, which was a cornerstone of courtly love.”
Eleanor didn’t mind mixing it up politically as well. Her taste for Arabic poetry came from accompanying her first royal husband, King Louis V, to Jerusalem on the Second Crusade. They fell out after she whooped it up at the castle of her Uncle Raymond, ruler of Antioch, made Louis jealous. When their marriage was annulled (for consanguinity, or being related), she regained her lands in Aquitaine, and two months later she married Prince Henry Plantagenet, eleven years her junior, who soon became King Henry II of England. Together they had five sons and three daughters, but Eleanor took umbrage at Henry’s numerous infidelities and helped instigate her sons’ revolt again their dad, so Henry had her imprisoned for a decade. When he died, she lobbied successfully for her boy, Richard (AKA “the Lionheart”), to gain the throne.
Richard was a noted troubadour, a composer and performer of lyric poetry and songs, and not a lowly “jogleur,” one who accompanies and performs other’s songs, the sidemen of the Middle Ages. When Richard returned from a crusade and was captured by an Austrian duke and held for ransom, he often sang some of his greatest hits out his prison window. Reportedly, one of his jongleurs overheard him and reported his location to Eleanor, since another son, King John I (AKA “Lackland,”), wanted to remain in charge and refused to pay his brother’s ransom. Nevertheless, Eleanor came through and sprung her boy, as usual.
Back in the 14th century, Charles the Mad became King of France in 1380, but he wasn’t bonkers immediately. One third of France’s population died from the plague, climate anomalies had caused repeated agricultural failures, his uncles had looted the royal treasury, and the Hundred Years War was in full flower. No wonder that “in 1392, at the age of 23, Charles went completely berserk during a hunting trip with his retinue,” according to AllThatsInteretesting.com. “Seizing a sword, he suddenly cut down one of his knights” and killed three more knights, including a nasty one known as “The Bastard of Polignac,” before being restrained.
Charles sometimes forgot his name, didn’t recognize his wife, thought he was made of glass and so refused to bathe or have anyone touch him since he might shatter, and he claimed to be the reincarnation of Saint George, but he had his good moments, too. Tuchman noted that, “as a man of inquiring mind, interested in cause and effect, and in philosophy, science, and literature, he formed one of the great libraries of his age, which was installed in the Louvre.” If even Mad Charles had his silver lining, shouldn’t we emulate poet Robert Browning and “find earth not gray but rosy, Heaven not grim but fair of hue?