Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Maybe a few less in the Bande des Frères

Shakespeare, of course, depicts the Battle of Agincourt (1415) in Henry V, which gives us the famous "Crispian's Day" speech, here delivered with aplomb by the great actor Laurence Olivier.

KING. What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

The Battle of Agincourt is legendary in English history; badly outnumbered, the army led by Henry V decisively defeated the French, in large part by their use of the English longbow. The battle opened up a new phase in the Hundred Years' War (largely squandered by Henry's descendants), and is an important part of the English national identity.

So, it's understandable that recent reassessments might not be warmly welcomed. The NYTimes has a good article on this:
"Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.

The historians have concluded that the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one. And depending on how the math is carried out, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight, said Anne Curry, a professor at the University of Southampton who is leading the study."
They further argue that Charles IV was suffering from serious mental illness and France was cash-strapped making it hard to believe that they could have raised an army six times the size of the English army in so short a time. Chroniclers and eyewitnesses might have exaggerated a bit. But, of course, tax records from that time are not necessarily much more reliable- actually the problem with archives is that there are always huge gaps to fill with one's imagination or hunches.

This is also the fun of historical detective work. There's no doubt that Agincourt was a great and historical victory, although the oft-made claim that it was the greatest victory in military history might be a bit overstated. Nevertheless, this story hints at another exciting part of historical detective work: the past is always relevant in the present.

No comments: