A number of modern graphic novels depict medieval people, places and events, several of which are listed on the Medieval Comics blog. I have recently begun to consider how medieval warfare is portrayed in these works, in particular the depiction of conduct in war and chivalric behaviour. Many of these graphic novels provide a ‘soldier’s-eye-view’ of the battlefield and medieval warfare. Prominent in all of them is the practice of taking prisoners. Or not, as the case may be.The medieval code of chivalry was created in large part to protect the knightly warrior and to ensure his ability to survive his battlefield experience – it was, after all, a creation of the military elite, for the military elite. But the code of chivalry was never something that was consistently followed.
As a code of conduct chivalry was enforced through peer pressure rather than hard-and-fast rules, and it was applied differently in different circumstances. Chivalry also took little note of the infantry, and the foot soldiers in turn recognised little benefit in showing mercy to those who would give them no quarter.
The image of the infantry exacting its revenge on the knightly class is explored explicitly in several examples. In Agincourt 1415, the English infantry pick over the remnants of the French cavalry charge. As the narrator comments:
The depiction of Crécy (1346) is similar. Warren Ellis’s narrative emphasises a ‘class conflict’ at work in the actions of the English infantry as his soldier-narrator wanders the battlefield casually ending the lives of stricken French knights:
Some we took prisoners…many we did not. You takes yer knife, you finds a gap in that fine armour of theirs. Under the arm. Into the groin…Killed ‘em quick like.
At times knights too are shown to have little mercy towards their fellows. In Le Trône d’Argile, during the aftermath of the battle of Baugé (1421), the French commander orders the massacre of all prisoners. English knights gain a measure of revenge a few years later when they massacre the Scottish knights at the battle of Verneuil (1424). Even the great warrior king, Henry V, orders the massacre of his French prisoners at Agincourt. And many of these events did occur. Chivalry was about winning, as much as it was about winning well. The practicalities of the medieval battlefield also made surrender highly problematic. The reality of two large armies fighting in a vast mêlée made it difficult for any warrior to find safety in submission.
See, peasants aren’t supposed to kill knights…Peasants should stand and do as we’re told…But we’re not taking prisoners or carrying wounded baggage around with us. So, we slide the long mercygiver up under the armpit into their heart.
And yet knights were able to surrender at times. Chivalric conduct, exhibited by some, made this possible – possible enough that knights continued to fight in the hope, and perhaps even the expectation, that they would survive their experience.
- On Dangerous Ground: Bannockburn 1314, by Fiona Watson and Conor Boyle (2014)
- Crécy, by Warren Ellis and Raulo Cáceres (2007)
- Agincourt 1415, by Will Gill and Graeme Howard (2015)
- Le Trone d’Argile, by Nicolas Jarry, France Richemond and Theo (2006-2015)
- Hawkwood: Mercenaire de la Guerre de Cent Ans, by Tommy Ohtsuka (2016-2017)
Dr Iain MacInnes is a lecturer and programme leader in Scottish History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has recently published his first monograph on the subject of Scotland’s Second War of Independence, 1332-1357.