Teaching Knighthood and the Late Medieval Battlefield using the Knights of The Messenger

Matthieu Chan Tsin (Coastal Carolina University)

When Luc Besson and Sony released The Messenger in 1999, movie reviewers were quick to judge the director’s version of Joan of Arc’s story as historically inaccurate.  However, the same critics oftentimes identified the bloody representations of medieval warfare found in The Messenger as some of the film’s strongest historical assets. In his article Beyond Historical Accuracy: A Postmodern View of Movies and Medievalism, A. Keith Kelly commented on the reception academics usually reserve for commercial movies. He noted that “the treatment of medieval or medieval-inspired films by academic medievalists is often apathetic in nature, or explicitly contemptuous” (1).  A. Keith Kelly also added that “this sort of hypercritical approach to medieval movies is inadequate, however, because of the basic premise upon which it is based that medieval movies should be accurate portrayals of history and are judged accordingly” (2). As educators, we must sometimes remember that modern students are more likely to have seen the movie version of a medieval work than to have read the original.  This fact does not necessarily mean that medieval movies should be introduced into the classroom as an attempt, a trick, to reach a “public” born into an audio and video age. Although “not all medieval movies have as their goals historical accuracy” (4), we are free to identify, as movie-critics did for other purposes, which parts of a movie can be used to illustrate how things once were; and which parts pose a problem with historical accuracy and could be used to introduce constructive dialogue. This article will study how Luc Besson’s The Messengerdepicts the men who fought alongside Joan of Arc: the knights of the later stages of the Hundred Years War.  This study of the knights of The Messenger will focus on knighthood, close-combat, and military technologies to identify material from the movie which could be used to teach who the knights of the late Middle Ages were, and how they fought. This article will also introduce contemporary sources, chronicles and romances, which will help further illustrate the depiction of the French knights found in The Messenger.

Men of history and legends, the knights of the Middle Ages are fascinating figures, members of the most exclusive fraternity of warriors. Although the main French knights of The Messenger were inspired by actual historical figures (Jean de Dunois (1402 – 1468), Poton de Xaintrailles (1390 – 1461), Etienne de Vignoles (1390 – 1443), Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), and Jean II of Alençon (1409 – 1476), they suffer from many common stereotypes. These knights are depicted as harsh, brash, and loud individuals who are eager to fight, seem to enjoy the brutality of the battlefield, and give little value to tactics and strategy, other than bloody frontal assaults. Some elements of Luc Besson’s depiction of knights agree with history. Military fervor and battle ecstasy is portrayed in The Messenger when all knights, including Joan of Arc herself, seem to charge blindly into the battlefield, thus echoing Alençon’s boast of “I always agree to attack!”  In Le Jouvencel, a treatise aimed at teaching young men to be good knights and efficient commanders, Jean de Bueil exhibits similar knightly fervor when he writes “… I tell you that the proudest thing in this world is to watch a good man-at-arms in front of you, and that nothing can prevent him from coming straight at you other than the blows you give him” (T. II, p.114).[i] If such military fervor found its mark within the ranks of the fighting aristocracy, it did not necessarily translate into victory on the battlefield. After the disasters of Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), or Agincourt (1415), French knights had indeed earned an infamous reputation on the battlefield.  Their effectiveness and status as professional soldiers were questioned.  In the Chronique Normande, Pierre Cochon points to French knights when explaining how a smaller English army was able defeat an overwhelmingly larger French force at Agincourt: “and it rained a lot that night, there was a lot of mud and men-at-arms found themselves stuck in it up to a foot deep. And the two armies gathered on both sides, and the French thought that would win because of their great force.  By pride, they announced throughout their army that on one would battle unless they were noble, which would be a sufficient number of men to defeat the English.  All the gros-vallés (light cavalry) were put behind.  And the two armies clashed with such force that, in conclusion, the English defeated the French” (274).[ii] There is little doubt that Pierre Cochon, as others during his time, attributed the defeat of Agincourt solely to the French knights, who had let their pride get in the way of sound tactics and had engaged the English army without any support.  Luc Besson modeled his knights after the knights of the early stages of the Hundred Years War: throughout the movie they seem to attach little importance to strategy and battle plans, and happily partake in gruesome fighting (probably because men in battle provide more excitement to the screen than men standing around a map for any length of time, although the result is that elaborate planning was de facto taken out of medieval warfare.)  But the knights of the later stages of the war were professional soldiers who could no longer afford the same disregard for their own life with which their predecessors had thrown themselves into battle.    The fighting conditions of the past had now disappeared. Infantry was well equipped by the time of the Orléans campaign and knights were now just as likely to become a casualty as foot soldiers.  If nine hundred knights met in battle and only three were killed In 1119 at Bremule, and only five knights lost their life during the 1127 year-long Flanders war (Rogers 255), one thousand knights were killed in one day at Courtrai (1302), and one thousand six hundred knights were killed at Agincourt (1415).  In his article The Military Revolution of the Hundred Years War, Clifford Rogers quotes Orderic Vitalis when attributing the low number of casualties at Bremule to the knights’ defensive equipment and behavior. Orderic Vitalis explained that knights  “were all clad in mail and spared each other on both sides, out of fear of God and fellowship in arms; they were more concerned to capture than to kill the fugitives” (Vitalis 6:241). But Clifford Rogers clarifies that while noble warriors did spare each other in battle, it was mostly due to the attractive ransom a prisoner was likely to pay (256). The higher casualty figures from later medieval conflicts come from developments in weaponry and tactics, which helped breach the gap between noble warriors and common soldiers. Moreover, these higher figures also come from the fact that commoners were not able to gather large amounts of money to pay any ransom.  Furthermore, commoners did not “share in the ‘fellowship in arms’ which bonded chevaliers even of different nationalities. Quite the opposite: the class differences between knight and bourgeois or peasant often encouraged extreme bloodthirstiness” (Rogers 256). Wars were no longer fought for honor. Armies fought for strategic victories and knights were put to death just like common soldiers.

Throughout the Middle Ages, war had developed into a profession, a science which required a specialized set of skills, and a specific education. The knights of The Messenger would have known better than to throw troops into a frontal assault against a heavily fortified boulevard without thorough preparation and planning. In the movie, when Joan first meets Dunois, she is eager to go straight to the fortifications and send the English a message. It is Dunois who insists that she should wait and that she should first enter the city. At this precise moment in the movie, Dunois illustrates his skills as a commander, for he is not only thinking about morale within his besieged walls, he also has in mind his garrison’s urgent need for supplies. Then the next morning, he fell victim to Besson’s stereotyping and led an ill-fated attack. French knights of the later stages of the conflict had evolved into professional soldiers who possessed a sophisticated understanding of warfare, and who well aware of the evolutions which had taken place since the early French defeats. In order to illustrate this intellectual shift, we could turn once more to Jean de Bueil, himself one of Joan’s companions. He was a knight with a remarkable understanding of warfare and its evolution who wrote that “war ha[d] become very different. In those days when one had eight or ten thousand men, it was considered to be a very large army; today, it is quite different.” (T.I, cclxxxi).[iii] Like La Hire and Xaintrailles, Jean de Bueil was a knight who had risen up from the ranks to become on the most powerful men of his time and just like many, he had benefited from an increasingly intellectual approach to war which had started as early as the twelfth century.  In The Hundred Years War, Christophe Allmand noted that knights could no longer be fighters, but also had to be thinkers, men capable of planning complex strategies (52-3). And Jean de Bueil, one of these fighters, provides evidence that knights were aware of the changes which inspired Allmand’s analysis when he wrote that: “according to ancient generals, public speakers, and historians, leading [troops to] war is a matter of artful skills and shrewdness, to which arts and sciences should be applied” (T.I, 15).[iv] Unfortunately, the knights of The Messenger forgot to evolve along military sciences and threw themselves against a heavily defended position some sixty minutes in the movie. This assault not only reminds us of these early tactical mistakes committed by French knights, but also gives us a two-fold opportunity. On the one hand, this part of the movie may be used to induce dialogue: would knights and soldiers really attack in such manner? How would students think the attack should have proceeded? On the other hand, this assault gives us a chance to show that the actual fighting had been the result of a strategic move. The historical attack on the boulevard Saint Loup (may 4, 1429) did start without Joan of Arc. Jean de Dunois, who had been greatly involved in the campaign, had previously left the city.  As he was returning with additional troops, La Hire rode out to meet him and to ensure that the returning column led by Dunois would be safe from any attack from the English of the boulevard Saint Loup (Nicole 51). An attack on the boulevard itself followed, the circumstances of which are not well known. But the men from the city did not rush out to the boulevard in sudden fashion.  It was a tactical move for defenders to come out and protect the men coming back.  In his book Le Jouvencel, Jean de Bueil describes such a tactical move as “one of the subtleties of war [since] the most dangerous time of the day is when troops are going through gates” (T.I, 38).[v] The French presence close to the boulevard was a diversion to allow Dunois to pass safely, an maneuver initially solely conducted to keep the English at bay. When Joan heard of the attack, she did not blindly rush out as she does in The Messenger.  Enguerrand de Monstrelet reports that: “Joan the Maid rose early and spoke to several captains and other men-at-arms, persuading them in the end to arm and to follow her because she wanted, as she put it, to get at the enemy, adding that she knew they would be defeated.  The soldiers and captains were amazed at what she said, but they nevertheless armed and went with her to that part of the English fortifications known as the Bastille Saint Loup, which was particularly strong. It was held by three of four hundred English but they were soon beaten and all of them either killed or wounded or captured, and the tower was demolished and burnt. Then the Maiden returned to Orléans with all the knights and men she had led, and there she was celebrated and acclaimed with joy by all ranks of men” (Nicole 51). The assault on the boulevard Saint Loup might have started without Joan, but it was not the result of a harsh and sudden decision by French knights, it was initiated by a deliberate tactical operation.

One aspect of the movie which attracted much attention was the graphic violence depicted throughout the battle scenes of the siege of Orléans. Such is Luc Besson’s enthusiasm to show the medieval battlefield, sometimes uncomfortably close, that film critique Charles Taylor was prompted to report that the movie is just “an excuse for [Besson] to parade himself as [an] Epic Filmmaker” because “Joan’s story is an excuse to play with a whole new set of toys. He got to play with spaceships in The Fifth Element, big guns and explosions in La Femme Nikita and The Professional, various undersea geegaws in The Big Blue, even the Paris Metro in Subway. In The Messenger, Besson lets loose with catapults and flaming arrows, boiling oil and swords, galloping horses and clanking armor, and a whole assortment of evil spiked thingies that are smashed — at regular intervals — into various heads and chests and limbs” (http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/1999/11/12/messenger/index.html). This review of The Messenger gives us an opportunity to wonder about the violence depicted in the movie. Is the graphic violence of medieval combat used as a selling point, a shock factor which gives Luc Besson the chance to play with close-ups and special effects? Or is there any truth to the extreme violence of hand-to-hand medieval combat as shown by Luc Besson?

fig. 1: cranium with cut and arrow hole

fig. 1: cranium with cut and arrow hole

fig. 2: cranium with cuts and arrow holes

fig. 2: cranium with cuts and arrow holes

fig. 3: foot severed from lower leg

fig. 3: foot severed from lower leg

fig. 4: femur cut by powerful blow

fig. 4: femur cut by powerful blow

fig. 5: Skeleton with legs cut off

fig. 5: Skeleton with legs cut off

fig. 6: skull with coif cut

fig. 6: skull with coif cut

fig. 7: Skull with several cuts

fig. 7: Skull with several cuts

Most chronicles describing medieval battles of the Hundred Years War were written by men like Froissart, Monstrelet, or Cochon.  These men were not knights or soldiers. Their accounts of battles mostly came from first-hand and second-hand reports.  Therefore we find little material in written sources which could be used to assess Luc Besson’s vision. However, archeological research and more specifically research conducted on warriors’ graves can help us.  In 1905 and late 1920s, archeologists, famously Bengt Thordeman who reported his findings in Armour from the Battle of Wisby 1361, opened mass-graves which contained hundreds of bodies from a battle fought at Wisby, Gotland, in 1361. From the wounds found on the skeletons, researchers concluded that the battle had been a violent close-quartered fight, and that weapons such as swords, axes, crossbows, maces, morning-stars, war-hammers, and lances had been used. Such weapons are seen in use in The Messenger and are historically appropriate for the kind of fighting shown in the movie during the attack on the boulevard Saint-Loup and the assault on the Tourelles. About one thousand and eight hundred bodies have been excavated from the mass-graves of Wisby.  The most frequently discovered type of injuries was those inflicted by slashing / cutting weapons; swords and axes. Injuries from arrows were also plentiful.It was notedthat almost half the bodies bearing the marks of arrow wounds also bear the marks of deep cuts (figures 1 and 2). This indicates that half the warriors initially injured by arrows either continued to fight and pressed on into the melee, or were left behind for dead as they were too heavily wounded to keep moving, and were later permanently dispatched where they lay.  Injuries caused by cuts (lateral blows from axes or swords) ranged from scratches left on bones (with probable extensive damage to flesh and tissues) to completely severed bones or large holes in the cranium.  One scene in The Messenger shows a knight cutting off a soldier’s leg with a single swing of his sword.  Is such a blow possible?  Leg injuries must have been common since lower extremities did not have strong armor and shield did not protect them.  Bengt Thordeman found a foot which had been separated from the rest of the leg by a single blow which had passed obliquely through the fibula, the tibia, the upper part of the talus, and the medium part of the tuber calcanei (fig. 3). He also discovered a body whose right femur had been severed by a single blow which had come obliquely from above and had penetrated about two third of the leg (fig. 4, p. 164). Further evidence of the rage which reigned over the medieval melee was demonstrated by the discovery of the remains of a man whose two legs had been cut off by a blow which struck the right and left tibias (fig.5, p. 165). Wounds inflicted to the face or the head were just as horrific as wounds inflicted to lower limbs even though the head usually benefited from a much better level of protection.  Yet, many cranial wounds were found on the bodies exhumed at Wisby.  Some bodies were exhumed with a mail coif still protected the skull.  In one case, the coif had been cut to pieces and the blow had partially penetrated the bones of the cranium (fig. 6, p. 64).  Other skulls bore marks which showed that noses and ears had been cut off, close enough to leave cut marks on bones.  Other skulls had been hacked at so severely that large portions of the bones were cut off (fig. 7, 167).

The medieval battlefield was indeed an extremely violent environment where soldiers fought at close quarter for strategic purposes and to ensure their own survival.  Luc Besson’s close and personal depiction of the medieval battlefield might have shaken some viewers, but it seems to conform to the findings of Bengt Thordeman, who noted: “bearing in mind the remarkable toughness and strength a live bone possesses, we are astonished at the enormous force with which some of the blows must have been struck.  For we must always take into consideration the fact that the weapon had first to penetrate the clothing, which consists partly of strong armor, then the flesh and occasionally also a bone, before it is finally stopped by another” (163).  Wounded soldiers were dispatched even though they were no longer able to fight, horrific wounds were inflicted; the age of chivalry was long gone.

In The Messenger, the most recognizable example of medieval military technology is a trebuchet captured by the French and used to attack the Tourelles.  Other than a little comic relief, this weapon brings little to the story and even less to teachers using The Messenger in the classroom.  By the time the campaign of Orléans started, great progress in artillery had been made and both cannons and gunpowder weapons were extensively used with success by both English and French armies. In his article The Use of Gunpowder Weaponry by and against Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years War, Kelly DeVries describes the evolution of gunpowder weaponry and its use during the campaign of Orléans.  As remarked by Kelly DeVries, the evolution of late medieval gunpowder weaponry can be divided into three periods: 1326 to 1382, 1382 to 1436, and 1436 to 1494, which places Joan of Arc and the siege of Orléans at the end of the second period.  In order to understand which kind of weapons were available to troops fighting for Orléans, we should assess the state gunpowder weaponry in 1429.  The first period of gunpowder weaponry development was marked by experimentations and the invention of the new technology.  By 1326, primitive guns had begun to appear in Europe.  In the late 1330’s and 1340’s gunpowder weaponry could be found in the armories of cities such as Lille, Lucas, Aachen, Rouen, Deventer, London, Dover, etc…  The siege of Cambrai in 1338, the sieges of Tournai, Quesnoy, Mortague, Saint Armand, and Marchiennes in 1340, the sieges of Rennes and Hennebout in 1342, and the siege of Calais in 1346-7 were all fought with guns.  Guns then grew in numbers, in capabilities, and in value as weapons.  As the Hundred Years War progressed, guns were used more and more frequently.  Fortifications began to acquire gun ports in order to defend against gunpowder bombardment.  By the end of the first period of gunpowder development, guns were already able to breach fortifications.  The first of such victories came in 1377 at the siege of Odruik, where Philip the Bold used cannons which fired ninety-one kilogram (two hundred pound) balls which breached the walls.

The second phase of gunpowder weaponry, which leads us to The Messenger and the knight who fought alongside Joan of Arc, began with encouraging successes for gunpowder weapons in sieges and on battlefields.  From November 24 1407 to January 7 1408, the siege of Maastricht saw the town being shelled by 1514 bombard balls, an average of thirty a day.  When Joan of Arc arrives at Orléans in February 1429, gunpowder weapons had been used in Europe for one hundred years.  Kelly DeVries noted that there had never been an engagement in world’s history to that time which had involved more gunpowder weaponry on both sides than the siege of Orléans.  Both the residents inside the city and the French relief army had guns.  Moreover, the Tourelles, in English hands, were defended by an “extremely large number of gunpowder weapons” (7) as it had been rebuilt as an “English gunpowder weaponry fortification” and had been “filled with guns of all caliber and sizes” (9).  Chronicles have not reported on any particular trebuchet at the siege of Orléans.  However, the Journal du siege d’Orléans notes the French gun “Bergière” while the Chroniques de la Pucelle credit one “Jean le cannonier” whose culverin had been most effective (11).  The choice of a trebuchet as the sole long range artillery weapon may link the world of The Messenger to that of Ridley Scott’s crusade epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005), thus cancelling some 250 years of military technological evolution in the mind of our students, and perpetuate a certain idea of the Middle Ages: that of a stagnant world.

We must now consider The Messenger as didactic material to teach lessons on the knights and knighthood of the late Middle Ages.  We have studied knights, close combat and artillery in Luc Besson’s movie.  For all its efforts to be accurate, The Messenger presents us with an interesting dilemma.  Knights of the late Middle Ages are depicted with many stereotypes that could be applied to men who would possess little understanding of warfare, while also being hailed as military elite.  Warfare has been simplified: attacks are made with the legendary efficiency of frontal assaults thrown against well defended positions, and while strategy, if any, is developed over a map, it is only in a few seconds.  The Messenger presents an accurate depiction of knights at war in the later stages of the Hundred Years War only in the most horrible reconstitution of hand-to-hand combat.  Luc Besson’s choices do pose a series of problem for the use of The Messenger as a teaching tool:  Why avoid the intellectual and technological developments of medieval warfare (would not have cannons added sufficient thunder and destruction to keep modern audiences entertained)?  Is the bloodshed appropriate for the classroom?  These shortcomings present great opportunities for questions and dialogue, and also present the educator with a platform, a starting point upon which a lesson plan can be built, and open the door for the introduction of other sources that can illustrate or contradict the vision of the medieval world found in The Messenger.  Luc Besson’s battlefield will shock students as it shocked viewers and film critiques, but it will make a valid point: fighting conditions on the late medieval battlefield were far from the chivalric ideals of courtly romances.

Works Cited

Allmand, Christopher. The Hundred Years War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Cochon, Pierre. Chronique Normande, ed. Ch. De Robillard de Beaurepaire. Rouen:  Librairie de la Société de l’histoire de Normandie, 1870.

DeVries, Kelly. “The Use of Gunpowder Weaponry by and against Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years War,” War and History 14.1 (1996): 1-16.

Kelly, A. Keith. “Beyond Historical Accuracy: A Postmodern View of Movies and Medievalism.”   Perspicuitas. 2004. <http://www.perspicuitas.uni-essen.de>.

Nicolle, David. Orléans 1429 France Turns the Tide. Oxford: Osprey, 2001.

Rogers, Clifford. “The Military Revolution of the Hundred Years’ War.” The Journal of Military   History 57.2 (1993): 241-278.

Thordeman, Bengt. Armour from the Battle of Wisby 1361. Ed. Brian Price. Highland Village: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001.

Vitalis, Orderic. Ecclesiastical History. Tr. Marjorie Chibnall. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

 

Notes

 [i] “Et je vous dy que la plus fierre chose de ce monde est de veoir ung bon homme d’armes viz à viz de soy et quant il n’y a riens qui le destourne de venir devers soy, fors les coups que on lui donne” (Le Jouvencel, T. II, p.114).

[ii] “Et la nuit, fist fort temps de pluie, que le boe estoit si grande que les gens d’armez y estoient jusques à un pié de haut.  Et assemblèrent les os d’un costé et d’autre ; et quidierent les Franchois avoir tout gagné, veu leur grant forche, et par orgueul firent crier en leur ost que nul n’alast en la bataille, s’i n’estoit noble, et furent tous les gros vallès boutez ariere, qui estoient assez pour desconfire les Englois […] Si aprocherent les deux os si fort les unz vers autres que, en conclusion, les Englois desconfirent les Franchois” (Chronique Normande, 274).

[iii] “Mais, depuis son temps, la guerre est devenue bien différente.  Pour lors, quand on avoit huit ou dix milles hommes, on comptait que c’était une très grande armée; aujourd’hui, c’est bien autre chose” (Le Jouvencel, T.I, cclxxxi).

[iv] “selon les anciens dictateurs, orateurs, et historieurs, que la conduite de la guerre est artifficieuse et subtille ; par quoy s’i convient gouverner par art et par science …” (Le Jouvencel, T.I, 15).

[v] “… c’estoit une des subtillitez de guerre. Car la plus perilleuse heure du jour est l’entrée de la porte” (Le Jouvencel, T.I, 38).


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VII, Issue 1, Spring 2009
http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/F09/messenger.php

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies