Christian Cameron talks Chivalry, the Hundred Years War and the Ill-Made Knight with Justin Lindsay
Christian Cameron is best known for his fiction set in ancient Greece, as seen in both his Tyrant and Long War series. But in his latest release, The Ill-Made Knight, he delivers a novel set during the 100 Years War — book one of what will no doubt prove to be a powerful new series. Our storyteller comes in the form of William Gold, a man-at-arms who climbs his way up the ranks of chivalry and into the White Company serving in Italy. He is telling his tale to eager listeners, and as it turns out, to us eager readers as well.
I jumped at the chance to interview him, and I was able to catch up with him (electronically) just as he was preparing for… yes, a Medieval tournament. Despite his classical roots, it turns out that Christian Cameron is highly qualified to write in the Medieval setting (see below). He’s got a particular passion for the 100 Years War and the world it was set in. I was able to slip these few questions in as he headed out the door. I believe his passion shines through, as does his devotion to historical accuracy and research.
JL: You’re best known for your books set in ancient and classical eras. Why haven’t you spent more time in Medieval Europe, where, as your afterward indicates, you have so much passion and expertise?
CC: When I started writing historical fiction, I was primarily interested in the Early Modern period — the Enlightenment and the birth of the United States and Canada in the American Revolution. But my honeymoon — in Greece, on the isle of Lesvos — led me to a ferocious (and continuing) love of Greece—ancient Greece, Medieval Greece, and modern Greece (warts and all). Reading Xenophon made me want to write a novel. So — the Tyrant series was born. A couple of years ago I discovered the world of Historical European Martial Arts (also Medieval Martial Arts, or Western Martial Arts, or any number of other names. I prefer the period name, Armizare) through the works of Guy Windsor, whose books I recommend. About the same period, I became interested in historical archery (actually I started with Scythian bows and moved forward to the Crimean Tartars and the English). Gradually, through study and research, I returned to my love of the later Middle Ages — the late 14th century, which, I would maintain, was the dawn of our world. It all happened then. And it gives me a bridge from my beloved Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment.
But the truth is, I love history — all of history. I love Medieval Islamic Persia and Han China and the Mongols and the Khmer and the Inca and the Huron and Timbuktu and Ottoman Turkey. And if I live long enough, I’ll write about all of them, too!
JL: Novels set in the Hundred Years War, especially if told from a British perspective, so often revolve around the archers. What drew you to the man-at-arms and the knight for this story?
CC: This is a delicate subject with the British. So first, let me show my credentials. I own a warbow — about ninety pounds of draw weight. I own a pile of very expensive arrows from light flight arrows to super-heavy horse-killers and armour-piercers. If you look carefully on Youtube, you can even see a video I made on using the warbow.
I also have a degree in Medieval History, and I wrote my honours thesis on English Retinue archers in the 100 Years War. I keep up on my reading.
So — with all due respect — most of what people believe they know about the English and their war bows is nothing but myth, roughly along the lines of the American NRA’s mythology about the American Riflemen in the American Revolution. In fact, the American Revolution was won by regular, professional soldiers with smoothbore muskets and bayonets. And the battles of the 100 Years War that the English did win — and they lost quite a few — were won by good tactics, superb morale, and a close cooperation of archers and men-at-arms. The longbow alone was — quite frankly — not worth much more than any other bow. Even the most casual study of the longbow when alone — in Flanders in the early 1340s, or in the early Scots wars — will show that without the protection and fighting skills of the men-at-arms, the longbow could not and would not stand a determined charge.
There’s no reason why it should! The Ottoman Janissaries were shooting a more powerful bow. The Mongols were, by and large, shooting bows as powerful or more powerful. In fact, most military bows of the late Middle Ages — Hungarian, Tartar, Turkish, Egyptian, English, Welsh — all were in the same band of range and penetrating power. All of these military technologies had trouble with the fully armoured knights, and every one of these cultures evolves a complex, multi-layered tactical system to defeat the knights.
This has turned into a long answer — and there are no short answers — but let me close by saying — if the long bow or war bow was the dominant technology that English readers believe it to have been — why was the main strategic tool of the English armies from 1347 to 1415 the chevauxchee, or raid in force? Why did English armies continually attempt to avoid field battles? Why did the English companies of mercenaries in the 1360s win so many fights (like Brignais, arguably a greater defeat for France than Crecy!) with so FEW archers? The longbow was an excellent weapon. It was undeniably a world class bow, and England had two hundred years during which her countryside culture maintained a truly vast body of trained, well-equipped and well-motivated archers. But they were auxiliaries to the men-at-arms, not the principal battlefield tool.
[Takes a deep breath and smiles] I wanted to have a main character who had different viewpoint on the events AFTER the great battle of Poitiers. And I wanted to talk about chivalry, a subject that I love.
JL: What is it about chivalry, and its practice in this time, that inspired you to write this novel?
CC: First, let me say again — I see the late fourteenth century as the dawn of the modern world. Many of the intellectual and technological issues we now face — or take for granted — were there in 1380.
And like it or not, Chivalry is one of them. Chivalry represents the West’s attempt to bridle violence with rules. I have heard this lampooned all my life. It is, of course, easy to find hundreds — thousands — of examples where Chivalry failed, but if you ask any fighting professional — anyone who has faced the animal — I think that all of them will tell you that the remarkable thing is that anyone ever acted chivalrously — at all! Our modern laws of war — on the treatment of prisoners, on ideas of victory and defeat, on crimes against humanity and all of that are direct outgrowths of the ethics of late medieval chivalry.
Let me add that, as a former military professional, I have nothing but contempt for those who feel that war should be ‘total’ and that when fighting our opponents we should ‘take off the gloves.’ Cowardice is always easier than courage. Torturing the prisoner is an act of fear and weakness. Let me put that another way. Our militaries and our soldiers are as much an expression of our culture as our dance and our music. If we torture prisoners and kill civilians — then that’s who we are. Chivalry made a determined attempt to mitigate the horrors of war. War will always be horrible, but who does not want some rules?
JL: To what degree was the code of chivalry, both as an ideal meant to ennoble its practitioner and as an effort to mitigate the devastation of war, a reaction to the horrors of war?
CC: Good books have been written on this subject, and I’d recommend that all your readers read two of them—Maurice Keen’s superb and seminal Chivalry and Richard Kaueper’s Holy Warriors. Kaueper was my mentor at University, and I read his books the way some people read thrillers.. I’m a ‘fan.’
Chivalry came about for complex, multi-stranded reasons, which I will probably get wrong, but here’s how I see it. There were and are almost always warrior codes — which are, in the main, about showing courage and sticking by your mates and obeying orders. But during the eleventh century, mainstream Christianity began to gain real traction with the relatively new mounted warrior caste of Western Europe, and Christ’s message — of peace and brotherly love — assorted but ill with the craving for melee and carnage of the military class.
It is a brutal fact of history that military professionals need war. Without war, they never get to test their skills. Imagine a whole class of construction professionals — stone masons, plumbers, carpenters, dry-wallers and electricians — who were never allowed to build a house. And when the purely military ethic required a display of courage as a right of passage, there becomes a need for war rather like a modern commodity. That, and the decay of various central governments and proto-states (this is getting fairly deep) left eleventh century Europe with a lot of warriors making a lot of war and in the process destroying a lot of farms and churches.
And finally, by the late eleventh century, women — at least, noble women — had begun to achieve something new — something like political power, at least of a new domestic kind. We see this reflected in the new courtly literature and the ability of women to express their own views — on knightly violence, among other things. Again, this is a very complex subject and I’m treating it broadly. But I’ve heard it argued — and believe it myself — that Western ideals of romantic love were born in the troubadour lyrics of the 11th and 12th centuries. I recommend The Lark in the Morning to anyone who wishes to read some early troubadour verse in translation.
So — three threads — women (and courtly love); Christ’s message and the church; a general and nearly universal need for peace from the rural classes—these three threads wove in with the ancient Germanic warrior code to make something very new. And very powerful. By 1400, knights had their own ethics, their own religion (strikingly different from Clerical piety) their own notions of love and their own ideas about fair play and the conduct of violence.
After all, we’re still talking about it, and it’s more than a thousand years old.
JL: The narrative structure of The Ill-Made Knight is that of a man telling his life’s story around the drinking table. What prompted this? What were the challenges and strengths you found in telling William Gold’s tale this way?
CC: I think that writing first person narrative is the most challenging and the most immersive for the writer. I do an enormous amount of research before writing these things, and lots of travel, and even some getting hit in the head… I read all of Chaucer (I did Chaucer in university) again, and I read Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and ‘winner and Waster’ and a dozen other period poems to get into the voice. But as, at some remove, Arimnestos of Plataea is my uncle Donald, the family war hero, telling tales at the dinner table, so William Gold is, I think, the authentic voice of a friend of mine — a man with many medals and many years of service to his country; a man of wide, catholic interests and yet deep patriotism. I used to believe, as an author, that I could ‘compile’ an interesting character by adding up the unique aspects of different people I observed, but I have now decided that all you build that way is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster in literary form.
I had to be sure to keep William Gold’s voice separate from Arimenstos. I had to make sure that William Gold’s experiences of the ‘Guerre de Cent Ans’ were authentic, and believable, while at the same time introducing the cast of historical characters I wanted. I wanted Sir John Chandos, Geoffrey de Charny, and Fiore de la Beri, to name a few. They all belonged to the same club — the ‘chivalry’ and the population of that club wasn’t much bigger than the citizen assembly of Athens in 450 BCE, so it wasn’t impossible to have William Gold meet them all — but as an author, you want to avoid those moments when the reader rolls his eyes and says ‘Oh my god, he’s about to meet Horatio Nelson? Are you kidding?’ and so on.
And finally — I think the hardest part is in the details. How exactly did they carry water? How is a medieval saddle different from a modern saddle? How does a knight actually travel? What does armour get packed in, for travel? Do you wear it? Really?
On and on.
A last point about the ‘scene’ of the book. On my first day of Medieval History at university, Professor Kaeuper opened a copy of Froissart and read aloud:
Si me demanda:
-Messire Jehan, avez vous point en vostre histoire ce don’t je vous parleray?
Je li respondi:
-Je ne scay aie our non aie. Faictes vostre compte, car je vous oy volentiers parler
[The Bascot asked me: ‘Sir John, haven’t you got what I’m going to tell you in your chronicle?’
‘I don’t know whether I have or not,’ I said.‘Give me your account of it, for I am very interested to hear you talk of deeds of arms.] (I’m indebted to Alistair Welsh for his online translation of this passage).
What stuck in my mind was the picture of a dozen men-at-arms sitting around the chronicler, clamouring to get their stories in. And so the book opens with William Gold as an English Bascot de Mauléon.
JL: This book is obviously well-researched. What surprises did you come across in your readings and explorations?
CC: I hope it won’t seem a commonplace to say that it is all surprises. When I was reading William Cafferro’s biography of Hawkwood — which I’d recommend to everyone — I think I bored my wife silly by constantly quoting amazing facts — rates of pay, costs of horses, all the details that make military life real. But perhaps the most amazing thing was how much information I was able to find on William Gold himself — in the Venetian Archives (now online!) and in the chronicles. The White Company and all the English in Italy are well represented in Villani and other sources, and it wasn’t until I read Cafferro and Fowler (Medieval Mercenaries, another superb work) that I understood how much research had been done since I studied all of this. And how much is left to do. I’m learning Italian this year. I hope to go read through a lot of local archives in Italy in 2015 as I get ready for William Gold’s most amazing exploit — the War of Chioggia. I think, of all the surprises I encountered, the pivotal high-tech struggle between Venice and Genoa in the late 1370s takes the cake. We who are Anglo-centric — we tend to think that the 100 Year’s War was the central act of Europe. Did you know that Genoa had a higher GNP than France? So did Venice. Both cities were more populous than London or Paris. When they fought — that was the great war of the day, not England and France. Truly, I had no idea, and now that I do, I can’t wait to write about.
Especially as William Gold was there, as a great captain.
But first, he’ll go on the Green Count’s crusade, rescue the emperor of Byzantium, and make friends with Greeks and Turks. And go to Lesvos, like all my characters…
Posted by Richard Lee