A Chivalric Life
Edited and translated by ROSALIND BROWN-GRANT & MARIO DAMEN
Welcome to the Medieval Herald! Please begin by telling us who Jacques de Lalaing was?
Jacques de Lalaing (c. 1421–53) was a knight from the county of Hainaut, one of the core principalities of the Burgundian composite state under its third Valois duke, Philip the Good (r.1419–67). He was born into a high-ranking noble family that held important functions in the administration of the county and in the household of the counts of Hainaut. He is the subject of a chivalric biography, most likely written in the early 1470s in Middle French, which we have translated and provided with explanatory footnotes and an extensive introduction. The biography follows the career of Lalaing in chronological order, from his childhood, through his early participation in tournaments organised by other knights (in Dijon, Nancy and Ghent) and his travels around Europe in order to perform in jousts that he himself devised (in the Iberian Peninsula, Scotland, Bruges and Chalon-sur-Saône) and to serve Duke Philip in a diplomatic capacity. Thereafter it narrates Lalaing’s role in the war waged by the duke in the early 1450s in order to put down a revolt by the town of Ghent and, finally, recounts his death during this war at a siege of the castle of Poeke.
This chivalric biography of Lalaing sounds fascinating, did many similar biographies exist around this time?
It was indeed a genre of its own which flourished in the fifteenth century in France and the Burgundian lands. Other examples are biographies of the French knight Jean le Meingre, alias Boucicaut, written in 1409, duke Louis of Bourbon (c.1429), and count Gaston IV of Foix (c. 1478). These works recount the life story of knights who were already famous in their own time. They were generally written by clerks, chroniclers or heralds who had firsthand or very recent secondhand knowledge of the knights’ lives in general and of their chivalric actions on the battle and tournament field in particular. Most of these biographies were ordered by these knights’ successors or heirs not only to commemorate the life of the individual knight but also to emphasise the ancient origins and renown of the noble dynasty to which he belonged. Moreover, it should be kept in mind that their deeds of arms were not only intended as a demonstration of prowess for the edification of future generations of knights but also as a sign of loyalty to the prince, in Lalaing’s case Philip the Good.
Was there anything from his life that especially stood out to you?
We were both struck by Lalaing’s travels to and through the Iberian Peninsula where he spent almost 18 months, from March 1447 until the summer of 1448. The reason for his travels was to perform an emprise, a chivalric ritual whereby a knight wore a cuff or a shackle on part of his armour that challengers touched as a prelude to undertaking combat with him. For this undertaking, he was not alone but rather accompanied by a retinue of ten noblemen, most of whom he knew personally since they nearly all originated from places near Lalaing, some nine km to the east of Douai. He took also two heraldic officers with him who were probably responsible for chronicling his adventures and thanks to whom we now can still read about them. Lalaing was at that time around 26–27 years old, and had already taken on a great deal of responsibility, taking care of all these people and horses for their transport. This was an incredibly costly affair and his biographer regularly expresses his relief when Lalaing’s hosts took care of the expenses incurred by him and his entourage. In the end, he was able to execute only one feat of arms, in February 1448 in Valladolid, which is portrayed on the cover of our book. This whole episode shows that Lalaing was more than just a wandering knight as has often been thought, since he was also a diplomat used by the duke to establish or strengthen alliances on the Iberian Peninsula as he travelled from one royal household to another.
What was a ‘chivalric life’ during the later medieval period?
That is a good but difficult question since there was no such thing as a typical ‘chivalric life’. In fact, Lalaing can in some ways be seen to be rather atypical! He was definitely not an average knight since he came from a high-ranking noble family, many of whose members had held top positions in the household and army of the counts of Hainaut since time immemorial. A key rite of passage in the life of a young nobleman, that is a squire, was of course the dubbing ceremony when he formally acquired the title and status of knight. The accolade, a blow struck with the blunt side of the sword against the neck of the aspirant knight, was often performed by a prince before a battle in order to stimulate his men’s loyalty or was bestowed after a battle as a reward for knightly deeds. Lalaing was unusual in making a special request to Duke Philip the Good to dub him at a feat of arms held on 16 December 1445 in the town of Ghent. Apart from fighting at jousts and tournaments the most ‘normal’ thing to do for a late medieval knight was, of course, to help his lord on the battlefield. In that sense Lalaing had already proved himself at an early stage during a military campaign in Luxembourg in 1443. But he is perhaps best known for his performance as a military commander during the Ghent war in 1452–53 when he led bold raids and skirmishes in the countryside of Flanders and laid sieges before castles and towns, before eventually losing his life when he was till only in his early 30s..
What’s an example of one of the “feats of arms” for which he was known?
One of his most famous feats of arms was the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs (the Pas of the Fountain of Tears). A pas d’armes, or passage of arms in English, was a ritualised tournament in which a knight on his own or a team of knights defended either a passage (such as a bridge or a gate) or a symbolic object (such as a fountain or a column) against all challengers of suitably noble birth. This particular event was staged on the island of Saint-Laurent next to the town of Chalon-sur-Saône in the duchy of Burgundy, and the impression it made on the local urban population must have been considerable; the island itself would have provided a natural stage with the river banks being an ideal spot for spectators. The event lasted for a whole year, from 1 November 1449 until 30 October 1450. The combats did not take place daily but rather at long intervals, and were fought both on foot, with pollaxes and swords, and on horseback, with lances.
The pas d’armes was popular first on the Iberian Peninsula in the 1420s, then transferred to France, Anjou and the Burgundian lands in the 1440s, and enjoyed something of a revival in Savoy in the early sixteenth century. Our interest in Lalaing’s pas d’armes when we were working on the chivalric biography has in fact led us to explore this particular tournament form in greater depth. We are now leading an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars and museum professionals as part of an AHRC-funded Research Network entitled The Joust as Performance: Pas d’armesand Late Medieval Chivalry. The main outputs of this new project will be an online research database featuring all the known pas d’armes, a virtual exhibition of arms and armour used in these events, and a scholarly publication that combines new essays on pas d’armes with English translations of the administrative, narrative and iconographic sources that commemorated them.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Jacques’s unfortunate death at the siege of Poeke from flying debris caused by a cannonball shot has often been seen as symbolising the anachronistic nature or even the end of chivalry itself in the later years of the fifteenth century. This view, first formulated by Johan Huizinga in his classic study Autumntide of the Middle Ages, still resonates today among some modern scholars. Yet the role of knights and nobles on the battlefield remained important well into the early modern era. Moreover, the ideals and practice of tournaments in this period were in fact closely related to those of warfare. Although it is true that the joust was rather unlike the actual experience of battle, deeds of arms on the tournament field were not only intended as practical military training but also, and perhaps above all, as a demonstration of prowess and a sign of loyalty to the prince. Lalaing, as can be seen from reading his biography, was clearly an exemplary figure in all these respects!
ROSALIND BROWN-GRANT is Professor of Late Medieval French Literature at the University of Leeds.
MARIO DAMEN is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Amsterdam.