Jean Froissart, (1333 - 1400), was a poet and chronicler of European feudal times. His Chroniques are a detailed account of chivalric and courtly ideals during the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). This was a series of conflicts whose main contenders were the English House of Plantagenet, and the French House of Valois. The war started when Edward III and Philip de Valois both contended the French throne. These armed conflicts between England and France grew into a broader power struggle involving factions from across Western Europe, fueled by emerging nationalism on both sides.
Froissart's description of events were aimed at detailing "honourable adventures and feats of arms”. His narrative covers weddings, funerals, and great battles between 1325 and 1400. He lived in several European courts and travelled widely to Scotland, England, Italy, France, and the Iberian Peninsula.
Froissart's history is based on reporting dialogues and factual events thus permitting readers to judge for themselves. There is an emphasis on pomp and grandeur to suit the courtly tradition but victims and suffering are neglected.
The author uses an academic, moralising approach encouraging his readers (the late medieval feudal aristocracy) to admire chivalry as an ideal. The narrative also contains certain historical flaws in dates, geographical errors and bias in favour of the author's sponsors such as Guy II, Count of Blois. (It wouldn't be until two centuries later that Cervantes parodied the chivalric narrative replacing it with the formal realism of the novel.)
The Chroniques are divided into 4 volumes:
Book I is based on the work of the Flemish writer Jean le Bel who wrote Vrayes Chroniques. Froissard's intention was to improve the quality and historical accuracy of his own work. It opens in 1326 with the coronation of the English king Edward III and Philip de Valois' accession to the French throne (1328). It ends in 1379.
Book II deals with the events in Flanders and the Peace of Tournai beginning with a fuller account of events from 1376. It continues until the peace treaty between the men of Ghent and the Duke of Burgundy in 1385.
Book III concerns Spain and Portugal. The volume returns to 1382. Some events already included in Book II occupy 29 chapters in this next volume. The remainder recount the following years until 1389 and end with the brief truce between England and France and the preparations for Queen Isabella de Baviera's entry into Paris to marry Charles VI.
Book IV describes the festivities of Isabella's entry and finishes in 1400 with the death of Richard II of England and the election of the Emperor of Germany. This volume also narrates the Battle of Poitiers and a visit to England in which he expresses shock at the frailty of the royal government.
The term is derived from the French for horseman chevalier. Originally it was a warrior code of honour and it evolved to mean knightly ideals such as courtly love, honour and virtue.
Froissart presented a romantic image of the chivalric ideal and its aristocratic followers. In particular he praised the medieval tourney in all its chivalrous aspects. During a truce a tourney was organised at Inglevere:
"At the beginning of the charming month of May, the three before-mentioned young French knights were fully prepared to maintain their challenge in the lists at Saint Inglevere. They first came to Boulogne, where I know not how many days they tarried, and then went to the monastery of Saint Inglevere. On their arrival, they learnt that numbers of English knights and squires were come to Calais. This gave them much pleasure; and to hasten the business, and that news should be carried to the English, they ordered three rich vermilion-coloured pavilions to be pitched near the appointed place for the lists, and before each were suspended two targets, for peace or war, emblazoned with the arms of each lord. It was ordered, that such as were desirous of performing any deed of arms should touch, or send to have touched, one or both of these targets according to their pleasure, and they would be tilted with agreeably to their request." (Book IV, ch. 13)
Warfare in Europe was making changes to battle tactics in the 14th. century and Froissart offers an account of the battle at Crecy where new strategies were being employed. At the outset of the Hundred Years War chivalry was still practised but by the end a new concept of battle was in vogue.
Chivalric tactics were inspirational on the battlefield and emphasised display: knights wielded jewelled swords, inlaid armour, plumed helmets, liveried horses and colourful banners of arms. The sight of a heavily armoured troop of magnificently dressed cavalry may have won many conflicts before they even began. The Combat of the Thirty is a battle described by Froissart which displays the ritualised aspect of chivalric combat:
When the day had come, the thirty companions of Blandebourch heard Mass and then armed themselves and left for the field where the battle was to take place. And they dismounted and ordered all those who were there that none of them should be so bold as to intervene for any reason whatever. Thus did the thirty companions whom we will call "the English;" and they waited a long time for the other thirty, whom we will call "the French."
When these had come, they dismounted and gave the same command. And when they all had come face to face, they spoke a little, all sixty of them, and then stepped back a pace, each party to its own side. And then they made all their people retreat well back from field. Then one of them gave a signal and immediately they ran over and fought fiercely all in a pile, rescuing one another handsomely when they saw their companions in trouble."
As Froissart observed, however, chivalric strategies of battle began to wane after Crecy (1346):
"The Englishmen, who were in three battles lying on the ground to rest them, as soon as they saw the Frenchmen approach, they rose upon their feet fair and easily without any haste and arranged their battles. The first, which was the prince's battle, the archers there stood in manner of a herse and the men of arms in the bottom of the battle. The earl of Northampton and the earl of Arundel with the second battle were on a wing in good order, ready to comfort the prince's battle, if need were."
Cavalry was gradually being replaced by piles and longbows. The formation placed men at arms with archers at their sides. The English arrows fell on the "splendidly mounted" French horsemen. This new tactic defeated the purpose of the cavalry:
"The wonderful effect of our archery and arrows was such that, flying through the air as thick as snow… they did leave no disarmed place, of horse or man, unstricken and not wounded."
On his return visit to England in 1395 Froissart observed with disappointment that knightly style warfare was ending with the introduction of gunpowder and infantry.
In Book II Froissart also describes the 14th. century peasant revolts which horrified the feudal lords. These were Froissart's sponsors and it is clear in the Chroniques that he expresses hostility towards the rebellious insurgents. Praising chivalric courage, however, was reserved for those who fought in favour of the landowners.
"It is customary in England, as in several other countries, for the nobility to have great privileges over the commonalty, whom they keep in bondage; that is to say, they are bound by law and custom to plough the lands of gentleman, to harvest the grain, to carry it home to the barn, to thrash and winnow it: they are also bound to harvest the hay and carry it home. All these services they are obliged to perform for their lords, and many more in England than in other countries. The prelates and the gentlemen are thus served. In the counties of Kent, Essex, Sussex and Bedford, these services are more oppressive than in all the rest of the kingdom.
The evil-disposed in these districts began to rise saying they were too severely oppressed; that at the beginning of the world there were no slaves, and that no one ought to be treated as such, unless he had committed treason against his lord, as Lucifer had done against God: but they had done no such thing, for they were neither angels nor spirits, but men formed after the same likeness with their lords, who treated them as beasts. This they would not longer bear, but had determined to be free, and if they laboured or did any other works for their lords, they would be paid for it."