Medieval(ish) matters #5: chivalry, medieval killer rabbits and prisoners of war in the 15th century

HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove rounds up the latest medieval stories on the website this week – considering chivalry, medieval prisoners of war, and rabbits in medieval marginalia

A scene from the Smithfield Decretals depicting a rabbit beheading a man. Rabbits seem to have a strange place in medieval imagery – and are depicted as having strangely violent tendencies.

I’ve been contemplating chivalry, violence and slavery this week. Oh, and vengeful rabbits. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in lockdown too long, though it’s more to do with the fact that I was writing up a little web piece about the practice of taking prisoners in the Hundred Years’ War off the back of my podcast interview with Southampton University’s Dr Rémy Ambühl, an expert in such matters. Last week it was, as you might have noticed, the anniversary of the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, which followed Henry V’s famous Agincourt victory, so it’s a timely thing to be thinking about. (On that, Dr Paul Dryburgh and Dr Euan Roger at the National Archives ran an informative twitter thread on the documents associated with the Treaty.)

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So, Dr Ambühl and I talked a fair bit about how combatants could actually be taken prisoner during the course of a melee (which reminded me of an interesting conversation I had last year for our podcast with Dr Lauren Johnson about the depiction of the heart of the fighting in the battle of Agincourt in the film The King):

Another part of the discussion was about the legal and moral justification for taking prisoners of war, which is bound up with concepts of chivalry and the medieval law of arms.

What is chivalry – and where does it come from?

Chivalry, as far as I can see, is a difficult concept to define, with various ideas as to what it boils down to. What it wasn’t, according to another expert in the field, the University of York’s Dr Craig Taylor, was the romantic idea that some hold today of “knights going round treating war as if it was some kind of game”.

Where chivalry comes from is complicated. One line of thought is that chivalry as a concept evolves from the aftermath of the implosion of Charlemagne’s empire. Charlemagne (c747–814) of course famously created a huge European empire, which then fragmented on his death. If you listen to the excellent In our Time podcast on chivalry (featuring Professors Matthew Strickland, Miri Rubin and Laura Ashe), Professor Strickland explains how in the late ninth/10th centuries, bands of heavily armed warriors formed around local lords and developed an ethic of war different to that which existed in the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian world (where the end result of being ‘on the wrong side’ of a battle left you with two choices: death or slavery). Because they were essentially kinsmen, these Frankish warriors, says Strickland, developed a ‘brothers-in-arms’ mentality that allowed for honourable surrender, and from that a culture of clemency and ransom began to blossom.

The concept of chivalry was never a constant nor probably that clearly defined

On that point, I’ve been reading a fascinating new book edited by Professor Laura Ashe and Dr Emily Joan Ward called Conquests in Eleventh-Century England, 1016, 1066.

I’m hoping to record a podcast with Dr Ward about this soon, but one of the articles, by Professor John Gillingham, is about warfare and slavery in the 11th century, and he makes some fascinating points about how the Anglo-Scandinavians up to 1066 – and indeed Vikings, Irish, Scots, Welsh and Strathclyde Britons – were generally happy to kill men during and after battle, but preferred to send women and children to slave markets. By contrast, the “only human plunder the Normans took were those who were worth returning to family and friends after payment of a ransom, i.e. nearly always men”.

So there are probably both economic and self-preservation forces at play in this developing idea of chivalry. Historians of the subject these days are at pains to point out that the concept of chivalry was never a constant –nor probably that clearly defined. Dr Taylor, for instance, points out that “There was no simple, fixed set of rules or standards for how such men should behave, and certainly no sense that to be chivalrous was a black or white proposition. Princes, noblemen and knights were expected to demonstrate prowess, courage and loyalty, as well as other important qualities such as largesse, mercy and prudence, in the pursuit of honour, fame and glory.”

Once a man had been taken prisoner, canon law required that he be treated with pity and mercy

There was a difference between killing someone on the battlefield and killing them after their surrender. Dr Taylor in his book Chivalry and the Ideals of Knighthood During the Hundred Years War notes that:

“The legal theorists and other writers debated questions such as the way in which prisoners were treated after their capture. For example, they emphasised the important distinction between acts that were committed during the heat of battle and violence inflicted upon prisoners after they had formally surrendered and therefore been accepted into the protection of their captor.

“[The late medieval thinkers and writers] Honorat Bovet and Christine de Pizan acknowledged that, in ancient times, captors had been able execute their prisoners at will, and also argued that, in their day, those taken in battle could be killed. Once a man had been taken prisoner, however, canon law required that he be treated with pity and mercy, and both writers emphasised that the only possible justification for killing an enemy away from the battlefield was that he might escape and thereby prolong or escalate the war.”

You might assume, then, that chivalry was really for the benefit of the losers (or at least the knightly losers, not the lower classes), as a bit of an insurance guarantee that you wouldn’t automatically end up dead or sold off into slavery if you didn’t win every battle. In fact, there is an idea that chivalry would have perpetuated endemic fighting because it allowed knights to continue battling each other over and over again.

However, as Dr Taylor notes in the book cited above:

“The taking of prisoners in high and late medieval warfare is often assumed to be an extension of the courtliness and politeness cultivated at the court and described in chivalric literature. In reality, the most powerful argument for mercy on a medieval battlefield was financial. Prisoner-taking was an extremely profitable business during the age of chivalry, both for soldiers and for the captains and commanders above them.”

Prisonnier de guerre

This chimes with what Dr Ambühl has noted in his research, which is based on tracing the origins of the French phrase prisonnier de guerre [prisoner of war]. He has noted that the ‘ransom culture’ expressed in the 14th and 15th centuries was not so much about mercy and protection for the losers, but more about the economic rights of the winners, who wanted to be able to ensure that they got what they were owed by ransoming those they had vanquished.

As he says in his article Joan of Arc as prisonnière de guerre, in the English Historical Review:

“The late medieval prisonnier de guerre [prisoner of war] was not first and foremost a combatant whose life ought to be spared, but rather an individual who could be traded (like a slave), either ransomed, exchanged or sold, and for whom even the crown had to pay the master. The prisonnier de guerre was primarily defined by their economic value which derived from the manifest property rights of the master in the prisoner.” Indeed, he has found a reference in 1434 to the English knight Sir William Bucton maintaining in court that his prisoner “was nothing but a slave who was in no position to do anything without the express consent of his master.”

It’s quite startling, to me at least, to hear talk of slavery in the 15th century like this. Anyway, listen to the podcast and you’ll find out a lot more on the topic:

This does take me back to the subject of our conversations in the virtual Medieval Life and Death festival last week. Dr Hannah Skoda talked about violence in the Middle Ages, and what was acceptable and what wasn’t, and clearly the development of chivalric ideas plays into that conversation.

The growth of chivalry with the associated concept of ‘courtly love’ also informed the topic of Dr Sally Dixon-Smith’s talk on medieval love and marriage. All five talks, including ones on medieval food from Professor Chris Woolgar, religion from Dr Emma Wells, and medicine from Dr Elma Brenner, are still available to watch and enjoy on our website, along with the final wrap-up discussion with all our contributors.

Medieval killer rabbits

Another topic we discussed in our virtual festival – and particularly in the wrap-up – was the strange place that rabbits seem to have in medieval imagery. Search online for ‘medieval killer rabbits’ and you’ll find a wealth of blog posts about the strangely violent tendencies of bunnies in the Middle Ages.

A scene from the Smithfield Decretals depicting a rabbit beheading a man. Rabbits seem to have a strange place in medieval imagery – and are depicted as having strangely violent tendencies.
A scene from the Smithfield Decretals depicting a rabbit beheading a man. Rabbits seem to have a strange place in medieval imagery – and are depicted as having strangely violent tendencies. “It’s the sort of thing to give you nightmares,” says David Musgrove. (Photo by Album/British Library/Alamy Stock Photo)

One particular image, from the British Library, is excellent. It  shows a frankly terrifying scene where some vengeful rabbits capture their erstwhile human hunter, tie him down, try him, and then kill him. It’s the sort of thing to give you nightmares. I’m glad I didn’t see it when I was a boy, because I think I’m still traumatised and scared of rats since reading Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Samuel Whiskers.


On the podcast: Karen Harvey explores the unusual case of Mary Toft who caused a sensation in 1726 by apparently giving birth to rabbits


Anyway, what about those rabbits? I asked Dr Skoda if she could explain why rabbits do appear in such curious guise in medieval marginalia in the wrap-up panel discussion, and she had a great answer, which I repeat for you here:

“If you were to look up, for example, the Luttrell Psalter in the first half of the 14th century, you find loads of examples of rabbits depicted in the margins of this absolutely beautiful manuscript. Many of them are doing pretty vicious things – some very comical.

“What exactly is the purpose of these rabbit figures riding snails, carrying lances or brutalising another creature? The answer might be very controversial – Marginalia in manuscripts in general is something that stimulates a lot of debate. People can’t really decide whether it’s just intended as entertainment – or whether there’s a genuine kind of subversive message there.

“By the later Middle Ages, breeding rabbits has become a really big thing. In many ways, by the second half of the 14th century, it is kind of a symbol of oppression. The more that breeding rabbits becomes important, the more poaching rabbits becomes tempting – and the more exploitation is symbolised by the response to poaching. Perhaps these depictions of rabbits demonstrate that rabbits embody a sense of oppression and exploitation, because of what landlords are doing.

“In 1381 in the Peasants’ Revolt in St Albans, the rebels take control of the pillory. They symbolise the fact that they’ve taken control of the pillory by putting a rabbit on it. So you have rabbits as clearly embodying a sense of social protest.

“I’ll just quickly add a few words about hares. I’m not quite sure how to recognise rabbits and hares separately in manuscripts, but hares are a symbol of cowardice. So if you get hares depicted as knights, then they are saying something really quite subversive and comical about medieval knights.”

And that returns us neatly to the start of this blog, in a satisfying circular sort of fashion, from knights, to leporids, and back once more to knights.

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David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. Do let him know if you have anything to add about medieval killer rabbits. Read the latest in his medieval matters  blog series here