The political and social order of the Middle Ages was feudalism. Land ownership was the pinnacle of wealth and power, and from it was derived, at least for men, the obligation of service to a liege lord as a knight in battle. Not even high birth could replace the importance of land.
Without land, a human being was nothing, and many men flocked to the standard of a would-be conqueror. Success would mean a grant of land. When William the Bastard set out to take the kingdom of England from Harold Godwinson, for example, thousands joined his army. The defeat of Harold at Hastings meant confiscation of the finest estates in the kingdom, offered to faithful followers of the new king.
“Under the feudal system, force was the true and habitual guarantee of right,” wrote Francois Guizot in The History of Civilization in Europe (1828). “All rights had perpetual recourse to force to make themselves recognized or obeyed.” Strife was common among strong, violently prideful, and ambitious men accustomed to settling their affairs on the battlefield. The sentiments of the age were captured in a song, “Time Table,” by the Progressive rock band Genesis:
A time of valor, and legends born
A time when honor meant more to a man than life
And the days knew only strife to tell right from wrong
Through lance and sword
Until the long bow changed warfare in the Middle Ages, a king, duke, lord, or baron required mounted, armored knights to fight his battles. The greatest soldiers available, they were drawn from his liege men. Like cavalry in a later age, or the great tanks of the twentieth century, mounted knights were the backbone of any army, a symbol of power surpassed only by the great castles, terrifying and formidable against mere foot soldiers. Guided by the chivalric code – bravery, courtesy, honor, and gallantry (at least toward those of the higher classes) – fighting was their entire way life. When they weren’t at war, they were practicing their art in the many celebrated tournaments that entertained royalty, nobility, and peasantry alike.
Chivalry, and the knights who fought for it, “was not an order in the sense that it had definite form, with a code written down … and with acknowledged leaders,” wrote Thomas Costain in his History of the Plantagenets. “Rather it was a state of mind, a passionate belief which had grown out of crusading faith. All men whose station in life permitted could enter of their own free will into this lofty realm of knightly ideals and high emprise…. Knights swore fealty to their liege lords and were ready to render up their lives for fellow knights; but the existence of men who tilled the soil or worked at benches was of no concern whatever.”
The conferring of knighthood, like other traditions, evolved over time. From the original, simple practice of tapping the shoulder with a sword had come a grand ceremony. On the evening before, the candidate was first shaved and then bathed in scented water. “While he bathed,” wrote Costain, “two old knights talked to him solemnly about the duties of the order.” He would then spend the entire night standing in a chapel, “keeping watch over his armor and saying prayers and meditating.” At dawn, he would bath again, go to confession, hear a mass, and be offered a candle with a coin stuck in the tallow. It was then time to enter a grand hall, where he was “given the accolade” and encouraged to do right by his God, his lord, and his lady. Before retiring to a mighty feast, fixed to the heels of his boots were a pair of golden spurs.
The Commercial Cities of the Low Countries
Gradually, times changed, and feudal notions of conquest, and its accompanying obligations, were replaced by our modern concepts of proper social relations. The single greatest factor contributing to this development was the growth of commerce, and nowhere was commerce more fully embraced, and its benefits more fully felt, than in Medieval Europe’s towns and cities, what James Bryce called “centers of … intellect and freedom.”
Urban centers would purchase their autonomy in the form of royal charters from a higher lord, gaining an independence that would transform them into city-states – virtual “republics” run by the free merchants and tradesmen known as burghers, though they were often subject to the caprice of more powerful neighbors. Nevertheless, “the feudal class was obliged to concede the right of burghers to move about freely, to buy and sell,” notes Larry Siedentop in the introduction to Guizot’s History. “The seeds of a new social class were thus planted, the seeds of what became the bourgeoisie, a class resting on individual property rights.”
At the close of the thirteenth century, wealth was concentrating in the Low Countries, an area today occupied by parts of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. One region, Flanders, experienced a particular boon from its domination of the textile industry. English wool was the best in Europe, and thanks to the favor showed by the English king Edward I, Flemish cities like Ghent, Bruges, Lille, Ypres, and Courtrai became large and thriving commercial centers.
Dependence on English wool naturally oriented Flemish loyalty across the English Channel, rather than southward to France – much to the chagrin of the French king, Philip IV, known as “the fair,” not for his magnanimity but rather for his charming good looks. A taciturn leader, tall and proud, Philip followed the guidance of his own heart. Being a king, he had little patience for the rights of lowly upstarts. Weavers and other tradesmen were not his concern.
Costain called this “the magnificent century,” a pre-Renaissance era during which the arts, sciences, and architecture would again thrive, for the first time since the fall of Rome. “The ways of living were changing and beginning to bear a traceable resemblance to modern conditions. This had started with an expansion of trade and acquirement of wealth among those who had never known the meaning of ease, the men of business and their workers.” With wealth, opulence, and autonomy came a jealous love of independence – for this was also an epoch of nascent political rights. The Flemings were prepared to fight for it all.
The Flemish Militia
The Flemish towns had no army of retainers to fight their battles. Rather, protection came from their “trained bands,” as Costain calls them, organized in the different sections of the city “under the command of a hooftman and, over all of them, a captain-general who was called the beleeder von der Stad.” They were the common people, the burghers, regularly gathering on the Cauter, an open area called “the Place of Arms” in the city center, where they trained with the mace, called a goedendag, and the geldon, a long spear. A generation later, when thunderclouds gathered between England and France that would break out into the Hundred Years’ War, Flanders would unite under an organized policy of armed neutrality. In Ghent, they signaled their resolve by ringing a huge bell in St. Matilda’s Church. Raised on its rim were the words, “When I bellow, there is trouble in the Flanders-land.”
In 1297, the stout and resilient burghers began to resist attempts by King Philip the Fair to exercise power in Flanders. The Count of Flanders, Guy de Dampierre, openly allied himself with Edward I of England. Philip responded by sending in an army and taking de Dampierre hostage, replacing him with a compliant governor named Jacques de Chatillon. The people of Ghent resented the move and rose up, massacring the French garrison. French knights then entered Bruge and began harassing the townspeople. Early in the morning of May 18, 1302, every Frenchman in the city was killed. Flanders was now at war with the king of France.
Under the able and experienced command of Robert II of Artois, a force 8,000 strong, including thousands of mounted knights and their squires, supported by large numbers of infantry, spear men, and crossbowmen, moved to relieve the French garrison at Courtrai, besieged by the Flemish militia, a united force of men from the cities of Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres with a combined strength of around 9,000, of whom just 400 were nobles, mounted primarily to signify their leadership positions. Robert of Artois must have thought himself certain of victory, seeing the inferior forces arrayed against him. At the time, one mounted knight was considered equal to ten infantry; militia would have been considered little better than rabble. He would crush these truculent, rebellious weavers.
But things did not go according to Robert’s plan. On July 11, the opposing sides faced each other across a field outside Courtrai. Prior to the arrival of the French army, the wily Flemings dug numerous ditches across the field, into which drained water from the nearby river of Lys, and covered them with tree branches. Robert first sent in his infantry and archers, who seemed to be carrying the day, but driven by that “crusading faith” of his class, Robert wanted the glory to go to the mounted knights. He either recalled his foot soldiers or, as Costain claims, “he was in such a hurry to finish the battle with his noble horsemen” that he ordered them to run them down in a charge against the militia. The militia held firm, and the knights, caught in the quagmire of mud and ditches, floundered and fell, easy targets for the Flemish fighters. Robert II was surrounded and killed. A French relief force from Courtrai attempted to help, but the militia had expected this maneuver and countered. The surviving French soldiers, realizing that all was lost, attempted to flee but were pursued for miles. It was common practice to ransom noblemen captured in battle. The Flemings, however, took no prisoners. “All they had ever wanted was to be left alone to make and sell their cloth and live in comfort and honor. Their idea seems to have been that battles were won by killing as many of the enemy as possible.”
The Spoils of Victory
Contempt for common people, and their burgeoning pretensions, pushed King Philip to send an army into Flanders that would be, in Hallam’s words, “discomfited … with that utter loss and ignominy to which the undisciplined impetuosity of the French nobles was pre-eminently exposed.” Never did he expect that lowly, local militia could resist the power of mounted, armored knights, the greatest soldiers of the age. It was this conceit that drove Robert to send his horsemen onto a muddy field, only to see them (and himself) unhorsed by the Flemings’ geldon and then clubbed to death with their goedendag. A reminder of this victory would remain hanging in an abbey in Courtrai for eighty years – seven-hundred pairs of golden spurs.