Daily Archives: February 7, 2011

Agincourt and After

With each course I teach, I introduce students to my conceptualizations of “boys’ history” and “girls’ history”; the former referring to battles and anything you might find on the History Channel, the latter to everything else that happened.  Of course these are flippant and ridiculous characterizations, but at least it gets them thinking about interpretive issues as apposed to just the facts.  While working on my Renaissance course this past weekend, I encountered a scenario which can represent history for both boys and girls, one with a big battle, a prisoner in the Tower, and an earlyValentine’s Day poem.

The big battle is Agincourt in 1415, which resumed the long series of battles which later became known as the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.  This battle, like all those before it in the War, was a momentous victory for England against overwhelming odds, inspiring Shakespeare’s St Crispin’s Day/”band of brothers” speech in Henry V almost two centuries later.

One reason that English had been so dominant throughout the war was their creative way of financing it:  ransom.  Noble French prisoners would be taken prisoner on the field and given amnesties to collect large ransom demands to ensure their ultimate release.  After Agincourt, however, one notable prisoner of war was not given amnesty or release:  Charles d’Orléans.  The Duke of Orleans, as he is known in the English sources and in Shakespeare’s play, was simply too high up in the French line of royal succession and too connected (by blood and marriage) to be released.  And so he remained an English captive for 25 years, several of them in the Tower of London.

The Duke in Wallingford Castle, National Library of the Netherlands

To relieve the boredom of his long imprisonment (which as you see from the images above, was quite a splendid captivity), the Duke started writing poetry in the romantic style of his near-contemporaries Chaucer and Petrarch.  The ballads addressed to his wife back in France reference Cupid, Courts and Castles of Love (illustrated below in miniatures from a late fifteenth-century Flemish manuscript in the British Library) and St. Valentine’s Day. 

The Duke had very little time with his Duchess, Bonne d’Armagnac, before his capture and imprisonment.  Their betrothal is illustrated in one of the most magnificent illuminated manuscripts of the late Middle Ages:  Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry as that Duke was Bonne’s grandfather.  This was in 1410; in 1415 he was captured at Agincourt, and when he returned in 1440 the Duchess was dead (but he quickly found another).

Given the circumstances and the fashion of the times, the Duke’s”valentines” are a bit plaintive:  I am already sick of love/my very gentle Valentine; Strengthen, my love, this castle of my heart.  More cheerful examples—the products of printing, liberation, and an ever-expanding market, are displayed in the windows of Roost on Front Street in Salem.

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