Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Lessons learned - the Battle of Cravant during the Hundred Years' War

31 July 1423, during the Hundred Years‘ War, 10 miles south of Auxerre in Burgundy, an Anglo-Burgundian army under the Earl of Salisbury defeated a Scottish-French host twice their size in the Battle of Cravant.

“The enemy saw 1 500 men or more all in view in the water up to their chain, their lances and pommels." (Jean de Wavrin “Le livre de trahisons de France envers la maison de Bourgogne“)

A 15th century illustration of the Battle of Cravant from the “Vigiles de Charles VII” by Martial d'Auvergne (1420 – 1508).

After Henry V’s death and his infant son’s coronation, war flamed up in France again. 
The Dauphin, son of Charles the Mad who disinherited him and crowned Henry of England in his stead, began to invade Burgundian territory north of the Loire to establish communications with the Champagne, lost to him since the Treaty of Troyes. The town of Cravant was a thorn in the side of his advancing army and put under siege by his men from Armagnac, Lombard mercenaries and a large contingent of Scottish warriors under John Stewart who were there more or less only there to fight the English. The latter arrived from Auxerre with their Burgundian allies, trying to outflank the besiegers but were quickly outmaneuvered.

A 19th century reimagination of the battle.

Both sides had learned their lessons from previous battles and were drawn up opposed along the banks of the small river Yonne, no flashy cavalry charges, knights were to fight in close orders and dismounted, both sides had their archers and crossbowmen and artillery, both had reasonable defensive positions, the Dauphinists just had twice the numbers of the Anglo-Burgundians. However, when a Burgundian artillery and English archery barrage brought the French centre into disorder, Salisbury ordered a quite unEnglish massive charge across the shallow river and turned the enemy’s disorder into a rout, while a charge of Robert Willoughby’s men across a small bridge separated the French from the Scots. The Scots tried to make a stand when the rest of the Dauphinists fled but where overwhelmed and slaughtered, almost to a man. The Anglo-Burgundians had won the day against the odds.

Thomas Montacute, 4th Earl of Salisbury, charging across the river Yonne, another French 19th century depiction of the climax of the Battle of Cravant 

After the victory at Cravant, the two allies went separate ways and pursued their individual goals, mostly plundering, taking enemy nobles for ransom and besieging cities and castles until they reunited to defeat the Dauphinsts in the following year at Verneuil. But English dominance on the battlefields of France was on the skid already, with internal strife that ended in the Wars of the Roses and the Dauphin reasserting his followers more and more and the tables finally turned at the Siege of Orléans five years later.

More on:

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

“The spectacle of the hula, the festive dances of the Oahuans, filled me with admiration." - "Rurik's" Voyage around the World

30 July 1815: The 180-ton brig “Rurik“, sailing under Imperial Russian colours and commanded by the Russian lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue, left Kronstadt (today a part of St Petersburg) in search of the Northwest Passage and what was to become the second Russian global circumnavigation.

“The spectacle of the hula, the festive dances of the Oahuans, filled me with admiration. The words celebrate the fame of some prince. In the dance, the human form represents itself in a constant flow of easy, unrestrained motion in every natural and graceful position." (Adalbert von Chamisso, “Voyage around the World”)

Louis Choris (1795 - 1828) - "Rurik" dropping anchor near St Paul's Island in the Bering Sea, illustration from Chamisso's "Views and Remarks on a Voyage of Discovery, and Description of a Voyage Round the World" (1817)

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Russia and Tsar Alexander I began to develop a keen interest in trade with Asia. On top of that, Russia had established a colony in what is today Alaska that could only be supplied over 5.000 miles of wilderness by the overland route through Siberia. The fabled ice free Northwest Passage through the Arctic connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean seemed to be an ideal trade route for Russia as well as every other European seafaring nation.

Almost a Gauguin - Choris' drawing of women on the beach of the Sandwich Islands (1817)

“Rurik”, named after the legendary Varangian lord of Ladoga and Novgorod, set forth right into the other direction at first, rounding Cape Horn during Winter 1815/16 and sailing north to Chile and then into the tropical Pacific and Oceania away from the usual trade routes. Aboard were, besides Kotzebue’s 25 crew, the painter Louis Choris and the Franco-German naturalist and well-known Romantic poet Adalbert von Chamisso. Together with von Kotzebue’s account of the journey, all three men left invaluable scientific and artistic records.

Louis Choris: "Danse des femmes dans les iles Sandwich." (1817)

Besides Chamisso’s vivid account of “Rurik’s" visit in King Kamehameha the Great’s newly founded Kingdom of Hawai’i, his travelogue includes further descriptions of fauna and flora as well as fascinating descriptions of the people living in places like Othaite (Tahiti) and other Polynesian islands, as well as men and women, their clothing and customs from the northern Pacific area, where the “Rurik” sailed next, Kamchatka and the Innuit living in what was then Russian America, bitterly criticising the conduct of the Europeans there.  At least they bequeathed the word “Parka” to the Europeans' languages spoken at home, an Aleutian word meaning “animal skin”.

Louis Choris: A Chuckchi family in front of their home near the Bering Strait (1817)

With Kotzebue’s health and “Rurik's" seaworthiness slowly deteriorating, the ship returned via the Philippines, the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope to St Petersburg, arriving there after a three years’ expedition without having achieved her original goal – finding the Northwest Passage. It was finally discovered by Amundsen in 1903, not quite, at least not until 2009, ice free. Kotzebue sailed again to the Pacific and completed his third circumnavigation of the globe in 1826 – he made his first with the Russian Admiral von Krusenstern in the frigate “Nadezhda” in 1806. Chamisso became curator of a natural history museum in Berlin and Choris was finally killed by Mexican bandits in Veracruz. 

More on:

Sunday, 28 July 2013

USS "Constellation" - The last wooden all-sail warship of the U.S. Navy, commissioned in 1855

28 July 1855, the U.S. Navy commissioned its last wooden all-sail warship, the sloop USS “Constellation” in Norfolk, Virginia.

“ ...the Congress have substituted a new constellation of stars instead of the Union in the Continental Colours.” (Dr Ezra Stiles)

Tomaso de Simone (1805 - 1888): "USS Constellation" (1862)

Named after the “new constellation of stars” on the flag of the United Stars, the 180' sloop was the second ship of its name, succeeding the successful frigate that distinguished itself in the Quasi-War of 1798 with France, capturing one and disabling another French frigate. Even though the term “sloop-of-war” denoted a small cruiser in the days of Nelson’s navy, sloops employed by most Western seafaring nations during the second half of the 19th century were actually larger and far better armed than the frigates sailing two generations before.

In international, far-away waters, remote from the next coal bunkers, sailing ships still had an advantage over the cutting-edge armoured and steam-powered warships of the 1850s, since they could operate independently for a far longer time. Thus, USS “Constellation” accomplished her first missions off the coast of Africa, capturing three slavers and freeing 705 people carried off on board the bark “Cora” and releasing them to Monrovia.

A postcard showing USS "Constellation" in 1908,
she was the oldest commissioned U.S. warship afloat at this time

The capture of last of the three, the brig Triton, coincided with the outbreak of the US Civil War, thus “Constellation” brought in the first Confederate prize the Union Navy made. After a refit at home, she spent most of the war chasing Confederate privateers in the Mediterranean, returning to Mobile in 1864 and finally sailing as a training ship since the 1870s with the nickname “Cradle of Admirals” until she was used for stationary training in Newport at the turn of the century and even was, for a short period during the summer of 1942 the flagship of the US Atlantic Fleet.

USS “Constellation” was finally decommissioned in 1955 and can be admired today as a Museum Ship in Baltimore. For a while, rumours went around that she actually was the rebuilt 1797 frigate, since the latter was broken up at Norfolk Navy Yard when the sloop’s keel was laid there, but during the intensive restoration of “Constellation” during the late 1990s, it could indeed be proven that she was not the same ship. Still, she is one of the oldest preserved ships of the US Navy and surviving sailing ships from the 19th century.

USS “Constellation” docked in Baltimore’s Inner Harbour (photo by Chuck Szmurlo taken Feb. 11, 2007 and found on wikimedia commons)

Saturday, 27 July 2013

"It is a woman" - The botanist and explorer Jeanne Baré

27 July 1740, botanist and explorer Jeanne Baré (Baret), the first recorded woman to have circumnavigated world and member of the de Bougainville expedition to the South Seas, was born in La Cornelle in Burgundy.

“But how was it possible to discover the woman in the indefatigable Baré, who was already an expert botanist, had followed his master in all his botanical walks, amidst the snows and frozen mountains of the straits of Magalhaens, and had even on such troublesome excursions carried provisions, arms, and herbals, with so much courage and strength, that the naturalist had called him his beast of burden? A scene which passed at Taiti changed this suspicion into certainty. M. de Commerçon went on shore to botanize there; Baré had hardly set his feet on shore with the herbal under his arm, when the men of Taiti surrounded him, cried out, It is a woman, and wanted to give her the honours customary in the isle. The Chevalier de Bournand, who was upon guard on shore, was obliged to come to her assistance, and escort her to the boat.” (“A Voyage Round The World”, Louis de Bougainville)

Jeanne Baré in sailors' garb

Baré was born in poor circumstances and, allegedly after losing a lawsuit, fled to Paris dressed up as a man. Noboday knows how she had acquired her quite obviously comprehensive understanding of botany, but she approached Philibert Commerçon, the botanist of de Bougainville's expedition and signed on as his assistant. If Commerçon knew about her true identity and if they were engaged in more than a professional relationship is unclear but not improbable. In any case, entered in the muster rolls as Jean Baret and wearing sailors’ garb, Jeanne was aboard de Bougainville’s fluyt “Étoile” when she left Nantes on 15 November 1766 together with the “La Bodeuse” frigate for the South Pacific. According to de Bougainville’s report, Jeanne’s cross-dressing went unrecognised and she attracted attention only by doing hard manual work for Commerçon during shore leaves as well as giving solid scientific support during the collection and examination of plants. Other sources claim that the officers and crew of the “Étoile” indeed became suspicious. Jean didn’t use the ship’s head, refused to strip down for the traditional crossing-the-line ceremony when the expedition reached the equator and her smooth cheeks after a months-long voyage were equally noticeable. Allegedly she claimed she was a eunuch. 

Gustave Alaux’s (1887 – 1965) imagination of de Bougainville’s arrival in Tahiti

Besides Bougainville's official statement about her being found out to be a woman by the Tahitians and had to be protected, other sources claim that she was assaulted by the crew, either before or after the event. Commerçon, who is responsible for naming a genus of flowering plants native to South America “Bougainvillea”, and Baré finally left the expedition on Mauritius were they both explored and classified the local plant life until Commerçon died in 1773. Baré opened a tavern in Port Louis, married an army sergeant named Dubernay and returned to France in 1775, thus completing the circumnavigation. She claimed the money left for her in Commerçon’s will and settled with her husband in the Dordogne. At least her effort to have circumnavigated the world was officially recognised and she received a moderate pension by the French Ministry of Marine.

"Tahitians Presenting Fruits to Bougainville Attended by His Officers",
by an unknown French 18th century artist

However, Commerçon did indeed name a plant after her, a Malagasy melica, Baretia bonnafidia, being able to sprout different sets of leaves, oblong, square, irregular, quite fitting for Baré, thought Commerçon, for a “working-class woman who travelled ... further than any aristocrat." More than 70 plants, insects and molluscs are named “commersoni” in his honour, though. Her story was taken up by historians as well as botanists in recent years and in 2010, Eric Tepe of the University of Utah named a further plant after her, a solanum, now called “solanum baretiae”.

Friday, 26 July 2013

"He ...who puts jesting above everything else" - On George Bernard Shaw's Birthday

26 July 1856, the Irish playwright, critic, pacifist and political activist George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin.

“Bernard Shaw, who makes his Caesar gape at a stony Sphinx as if he were a Cook’s tourist, and forget to take leave from Cleopatra when he sails from Egypt, shows what a clown he is who puts jesting above everything else.” (Sigmund Freud)

Seeing the world turned upside down several times during his long life from the Victorian to the post-war period, Shaw nonetheless stayed true to himself, a brilliant wit and writer and a confessed socialist who flirted with radical ideas that have the odeur of being quite despicable in hindsight, such as Stalinism or Eugenics.

Starting his career as a music and theatre critic in 1880s’ London, Shaw soon made a name for himself as a sparkling epigrammatist as well as the author of five novels, became a member of the Socialist Fabian society and did not make any pretence of his persuasions that bordered, from time to time, on the radical.

Besides being an incredibly shrewd aphoristic, Shaw is best known as a playwright who invented his own form of theatrical play, more or less a discussion drama having various ideas embodied in the dramatis personae pinned against each other, while the plot is secondary to the staged clash of ideas – while malicious gossip has it that the dialogue in itself is secondary to the author being witty. Nonetheless, he does that with flying colours – in all of his more than 60 plays.

Shaw was awarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 "for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty" and truer words were seldom said as justification during the last 100 years. Shaw is an interesting amalgam of phil- and misanthropy, to the point like few others and as deluded as many, an eccentric like many of his characters and… after all is said, a man.

More on:

Thursday, 25 July 2013

An Early Medieval Arms Embargo

25 July 864, Charles the Bald, then King of West Francia, issued the Edict of Pistres during a diet in Normandy. The so-called “capitulary” forbade trading the high quality Frankish weapons and horses to Vikings, as well as ordering the fortifying of towns and bridges over navigable rivers and commanding every man who owned a horse to serve in his new cavalry – one of the initials for the birth of French chivalry.

“Chivalry!---why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection---the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant ---Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.” (Sir Walter Scott, “Ivanhoe”)

Frankish Cavalry from the mid-9th century (from the Zurich Psalter)

During the first half of the 9th century, Viking raids in East and Middle Francia had grown from being a bloody nuisance to a real threat. Not only coastal settlements were hit, the Norse sailed their sleek warships up the rivers Rhine and Meuse, Loire and Seine and sacked places like Cologne, Paris and Tours, with the various
Frankish armies usually fighting rather each other than the raiders.

Charles the Bald, Charlemagne’s recently crowned grandson, had to do something. The idea to let rich landholders arm themselves and their men and contribute to the defence of the kingdom instead of having a large standing army, wasn’t exactly new in the 860s, the foundations of feudalism had already been laid at least 100 years before by Charles Martell and Pepin, but somehow the idea did not really seemed to have put down roots in terms of organising a local defense.

Charles the Bald (823 - 877)

After the Edict of Pistres, however, easily assembled warbands of mounted, armoured and well-armed local nobility and their immediate retainers begun to fight back more or less efficiently, as well as fortifying not exactly the towns but their own strongholds and protecting his vassals – the basic idea of a medieval feudal lord, well armed living in a castle. The Viking Age did not end at all for the next two hundred years though and only 50 years later, the Norwegian warlord Hrolf Ragnvaldsson was enfeoffed with his own Dukedom and became Charles the Simple’s vassal Robert of Normandy – in order to stop him raiding.

If the Edict of Pistres with its arms embargo was actually a trade blockade against Norse merchants is open to debate, but would support the idea of a not only violent expansion of the Scandinavians during the Viking Age.

More on: