Sunday, October 25, 2015

About the Battle of Agincourt

As several news outlets have remarked (here, here, and here, among others), today, 25 October 2015, marks the sexcentenary of the Battle of Agincourt. Notably depicted with a stirring bit of battlefield rhetoric in Shakespeare's Henry V, it is remarked upon as a high point for England in the Hundred Years War, another in which the common folk of England emerged triumphant over a numerically superior and better-provisioned French force. And because it does make such a presentation of common folk fighting and winning against substantial odds, it is a piece of the medieval that lends itself to refiguration, not only by Shakespeare and those who have continued to produce his plays, but also in more "accessible" writing--as Linda Davies's comments, linked above, indicate.

The medieval English reliance on the longbow in the conduct of war, particularly the Hundred Years War that factors heavily into understandings of "the medieval," emerges in the most prominent twentieth-century refiguration of the medieval, and one that exerts substantial influence on works still emergent: Tolkien's Middle-earth. Their effectiveness plays out in Peter Jackson's movie adaptations of the relevant works, certainly, as this scene demonstrates--but the Elves are not the analogs of the English in Tolkien's works. It is instead the Númenóreans and their descendants who are the analogs of the English,* and their association with the longbow expected of the later medieval English emerges in some of the peripheral materials of the corpus. Unfinished Tales makes the note in "A Description of Númenor" that "it was the bows of the Númenóreans that were most greatly feared" by the enemies of that people, describing as a standard military practice something not unlike the withering repeated volleys of arrow-fire the English armies released at Agincourt, Crécy, and Poitiers.

How Agincourt and things like it continue to emerge in figurations and presentations of the medieval--not only the fantasy literature that frequently admits of overt medievalism and the historical fiction and fictionalized histories that strive to be "authentically" medieval, but also other presentations of the medieval in other guises and genres--bears examination, to be sure. That Agincourt still attracts the attention it does suggests--along with relatively recent attention to a Caxtonian incunabulum, medieval optics, Richard III, medieval antibiotics, and the Holigost--that the work the Society does, tracing the manifestation of the medieval in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (and beyond, perhaps?) is of some value to the world at large. People outside the academy remain interested in what happened centuries in the past, and they remain captivated by the ways in which what happened in such times is presented anew; the Society remains interested in examining the accuracy of such depictions, and so it must remain interested in developing and refining standards against which to assess that accuracy.

Continued study of what is left of what has been is therefore necessary, and contributions to Society materials of such studies--no less than those which explicitly examine medievalism--are welcome. Please send submissions along.

*See "Moving beyond Tolkien's Medievalism: Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies," my chapter in Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms: From Isaac Asimov to A Game of Thrones, 185 and 196n3. (Why would I not plug a Society volume or my contribution to it?)

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