The Tree of Battles, by Honoré Bouvet
Honoré de Bouvet (also called Bonet) (ca. 1340-ca. 1410) was a Frenchman from Provence, a cleric who was prior of Salon near Embrun. He studied at the University of Avignon where he was received a doctor, traveled around France and Aragon, and held various minor official positions. His book L'Arbre des Batailles (translated at The Tree of Battles) is a treatise on war and the laws of war. Written in 1387, it is not meant to be a scholarly book, but rather written for a fairly broad readership, in ordinary French. It found great favor and was extremely influential. The work is divided up into four parts, with the last one being the largest. Bouvet writes about many different topics that deal with war and chivalry, and includes accounts of people from classical times. We have republished a few selected portions of his work.
Part 3, Chapter 6: What constitutes boldness in a knight?
Without going far from our theme, we must now consider what constitutes boldness in a knight. I say that this may be shown in several ways. I say that a knight, may be bold in order, to possess and acquire the vain-glory of this world, and its honour and commendation, simply because he sees the bold honoured and cowards dishonoured. Another knight will be bold for fear of diminishing the honour and profit of his lord, and through fear of being captured if he plays the coward. Another will be so by mere habit, because if a knight has long borne arms and harness, merely because he knows their use he will find courage in himself so that no one may speak against him for doing the opposite. There is another kind and manner of bold knight. A knight may be bold because his arms are good, because he knows well that they are arms of proof, and true. A knight is bold, too, by reason of his horse in which he has complete trust. Then there is the knight who is bold because of his good captain, whom he knows to be wise and fortunate. There are other knights who are bold through mere angry temper. Others are bold through ignorance, for they, are so simple that they know nothing of the virtue of courage but do as they see others do who are in front of them. Others, gain, are bold through covetousness to, gain riches, and for no other reason.Know that in all these kinds of boldness there is no virtue whatever; but virtue exists only in him who is bold through right knowledge and understanding, who has the will to hear reason and justice, and the will to sustain all due and possible things, by the virtue of courage. So much is sufficient concerning this virtue for the present.
Chapter 7: Whether a Man should prefer the death to flight from Battle
Now we must consider a rather difficult
question: that is, whether a man ought to choose death,
rather than flee from the battle.
I show, first,
that he should choose flight in preference
to awaiting death, and the reason is
this. It is better, according to
the philosopher, to choose what gives most
It is plain that
to live is
more agreeable and pleasant than to die, so that it is better to flee than
to wait for death.
As to the second reason: death is
the most terrible and strongest of all
things, and hence the most feared; but, since this is
not, in the nature of things, a
pleasure, it follows that
it is not desired; for choice is, influenced by pleasure, and by freedom of
prince of philosophers, holds the contrary, for the following reason: "I
say that for nothing in the world should a man
do what is dishonourable and
reprehensible. But it is plain that to flee is
wicked, and brings great reproach and shame." On this matter I wish to bring forward certain reasons which
support the philosopher's opinion. First,
our decrees say that
it is better to suffer and sustain all ills
rather than consent to evil.
But to flee
and quit the right is an evil thing.
Plainly then, he must by no means flee. A stronger proof is this: of two things
a man must choose the better, and: if he does he will
have life everlasting. So it is better to remain than to take flight to save the life
of this mortal body, which
is but meat for worms.
Chapter 8: The Punishment of the Man who leaves the Battle without the consent or command of his Constable
In this part I will put a question to make clear certain matters to which I have referred before. I put then this case. A wise and bold knight goes with his whole company, against the order of the constable or marshal of the army, to attack the enemy, and routs them utterly. I ask whether, according to the laws, this knight should lose his head.
I show first, that he should; for
the law says that the man who acts
contrary to the orders of the governor of the army should lose his head, even
though what he has done proves very profitable to his lord. The second reason is
that, according to the written laws, the man who is bound to obey his sovereign
is punished for disobedience when he acts contrary to his orders.
There is another strong, argument. An evil act should never be excused by
reason of any advantage which by chance results from it. If he has been
successful against the enemy it is by hazard, and against the general plan, for
by his departure from the host he placed the whole battle in peril of loss.
Hence he should lose his head.
must now say something on the other side. A deed of great utility should excuse
disobedience to the sovereign's command, and because of the happy issue he
should not lose his head. Again, we
must consider always the intention of him who acts thus.
It is evident that this knight acted with the best intention, so we say
there is no crime. Further, in all things we have to consider the result.
We have seen that the end, in the case of this knight, was good, and so
he should suffer no punishment.
Part 4, Chapter 8: The Duties of a good Knight
Now we must see what are
the qualities of all good knights, and
what their duties are.
I tell you that the first and principal thing is that they should keep the oath
which they have made to their lord to whom they belong, and to whom they have
sworn and promised to do all that he shall command for the defence of his land,
according to what is laid down by the laws. He is no true knight who, for fear
of death, or of what might befall, fails to defend the land of his lord, but in
truth he is a traitor and forsworn. A knight must be obedient to him who is
acting in place of his lord as governor of the host, and if he is not obedient
to him he is no good knight but is overbearing and insolent. And knights,
especially those who are in the king's service, or in a lord's, should in
thought and deed be occupied only with the practice of arms, and with cam–paigning
for the honour of their lord, and for his peace, as says the law. They must
always carry out the orders of him who takes the place and guards the interests
of their lord, and if a knight acts contrary to such command he must lose his
Chapter 9: The Duties of the Commander of the Army
Now we must consider
what are the duties of the commander of the army. This commander or duke used to
be called, and still is called in France, the great constable or marshal.
And I tell you that it is his business to give licence to soldiers to go
where need calls, for without his licence they should go nowhere at all; and
further, he should give them orders to ride, now hither, now thither, as he may
deem needful for his lord's honour. He should prevent either horses or soldiers
from leaving his lord's lands for other countries. He must see that the knights
do not pass their time in castles or fortresses.
He should not make it his business to send his men-at-arms to catch fish,
or hunt venison.
Again, it is part of his office to hold the keys of the gates of the towns where he is lodged, and to keep good guard both day and night. Also he must give an eye to the measures of bread and wine and all grains, and must punish all who have and use false measures. Then, it is part of his office to examine the quarrels and complaints of the members of his army, and to do justice between man and man. Also it is his duty to visit the sick and the wounded in his army and to see to their cure, according to what is laid down in the civil law. It is for him to control the passage of his men over rivers and waters, and he must take care that no man washes himself where the horses are to drink, lest the horses lose their sight. When the building of a fort is required he should have it built in a place where there is sufficient wood and water, and further, he should take heed that it is not too near the sea or too high in the mountains. Again, he should avoid putting his men in a place or field that is aguish, or too marshy in time of rain, or so placed that water from the high ground may damage his men. This is the doctrine of a doctor called Monseigneur Vegedus, in his Book of Chivalry. It also belongs to the constable's office to avenge injuries done to his knights; and he must be wise and well-informed in the matter of combat, for, according to the country, the place, the time, and the people against whom he is to fight, he must decide which branch of his men he can best employ that day; for sometimes the foot could give battle better on a certain day than the horse, and sometimes the horse could fight better, according to the position, the place, and the condition of the men.
Also it is the duty of this constable, who in law is called the duke of the army, to administer justice to his people in the requests they make to him: as for instance, in the case of a merchant who complains of a man-at-arms or other person. He is judge in this case, and should listen to both sides.Here, then, you have the constable's duties.
Chapter 10: How and for what Offences Knights should be punished
But we must now consider how, and for what offences,
knights should be punished. You must understand that, according to the laws, it
is death to strike the provost of the army with intent to injure him, and the
same penalty is incurred by him who is disobedient to the governor of the host, and by the man who is the first to flee from the battle while the others stand their ground.
Similarly, the man should be executed who is sent to discover the condition of
the enemy, and reveals his lord's secrets to the other side.
The same is true of the man who
refuses to be at his lord's side in
battle on the excuse of sickness, when he is, in fact, sound and well.
That man, too, must die who strikes his companion in arms without cause,
and the same applies to the man who inflicts a wound on himself and kills
himself. Again, the soldier should
die who does not defend his captain when it is possible for him to do so,
otherwise he is pardoned. And all that has been said in this present chapter is
contained in the decrees of the laws.
Chapter 14: If a Soldier has taken a Prisoner whose Prisoner should he be, the Soldier's or his Lord's?
But with regard to the matters dealt with above, it must be understood that I have spoken only of the duke or marshal when taken in battle. I ask now, if a soldier has captured him, to whom should he belong as prisoner, to the soldier, or to that soldier's lord for according to these laws it would appear that he is the soldier's prisoner because the laws say that the captive is at the disposal of the captor. I assert, however, the contrary; for, if it is the, case that the soldier is in the king's pay, or in that of another lord, the prisoners or other possessions acquired should be the lord's in whose pay the soldier is. And with regard to this the decretal says that all the booty should be at the king's disposal, and he should dispose of it at his pleasure to those who, according to his estimation, have helped him to win. And, if anyone said the contrary, he could not maintain it according to written law, for if a prisoner must belong to him who has taken and conquered him, by similar reasoning every strong castle and fortified town should be his if he took them. And it would not be reasonable that at the king’s cost and expense he should gain land, for he does all that he does as a deputy of the king or of the lord in whose pay he is. Therefore what he conquers should be his lord’s; for what he does he does not by his own industry or his own initiative.
Chapter 41: As to whether a Captain may make changes among the soldiers whom he has presented at a muster
us consider another case which may often and easily arise, and is connected with
the previous one [Chapter 40: If a soldier has accepted wages for a year may he
put another man in his place during this period?]. Suppose the King of
France takes into his pay a Lombard or German captain,
who engages himself to have under his banner a hundred soldiers. He presents
them at muster, and receives a year's pay for himself and for the hundred men. A
month later he wishes to remove, or change his people, wholly or in part. I ask
whether he may do this without the consent of his lord.
would appear that he may, because it should suffice if he serve the King with a
hundred soldiers as promised for according to the aforesaid agreement he is not
obliged to have Tom, Dick or Harry, but it should be enough if he have a hundred
men, adequately equipped with arms and horses, to carry out his contract. Again,
that he could not make changes would be hard and unreasonable. First, it may
often happen that the captain finds one of his men full of vices, riotous or
drunken, a liar, a felon, dirty, lazy or envious, a thief or a coward, when put
to the test. If, through any of
these faults, he sees that it is not to his advantage to retain the man, but
rather to his peril or dishonour - for through one worthless man the whole
company may be disgraced - how is the King harmed if he substitutes another
soldier and dismisses the vicious one? Indeed, the King cannot know in
detail the state and conduct of the men under each captain, and it is because he
cannot look to all that he entrusts governors with special charges in his army,
and ordains that one should be in command of a hundred, another of two hundred;
that this man should be marshal, that man captain; and that each should perform
his office in his place. Our Lord
Jesus Christ acted in this way when He made some of His disciples apostles,
others bishops, others preachers, others chaplains, and ordained that each
should have the charge and cares of his office.
So, without further discussion, I consider that the captain who thus
changes and substitutes his soldiers, so long as he does not do it for fraud or
deception, or for the hurt of his lord, may do it freely.
Chapter 50: Whether it is lawful to give battle on a Feast Day
Now I ask whether battle may, or should be fought on a feast day. I prove plainly that it should not, for feasts are ordained for the service of our Lord, so that on such a day we must abstain from fighting and from all worldly works. The decrees say, on this matter, that, in particular, battle should not be waged on a feast day or a day of rest.
But I can prove the opposite, for first I show, by the Old Testament, that the whole people decided that if any came against them they might go forth and give battle; so that, on this point I say truly that in case of necessity one may fight on a feast day. If the King of England came on a feast, day to fight the French King, this latter would be obliged, for the sake of both his honour and his estate, to await the English and fight them. Our master Jesus Christ gave us similar doctrine when on the Sabbath day He healed a sick man whom He saw to be in great necessity. Indeed in similar necessity, and by virtue of this example, physicians consider that in visiting the sick and administering remedies they are performing meritorious works, however great a feast day it may be. But as regards giving battle, if the necessity be not great I say that feast days should be reserved; and this is according to all the doctors of the Holy Church, and I pray God that of His grace the soldiery of today may be willing to follow this, for I doubt but that they will take little heed of it. If they see it to their advantage they would as soon ride out, scale a town, pillage or rob, on Easter Day itself as they would on Shrove Tuesday. If they did this for the public good they would be absolved in all men's minds from sin, according to one opinion; but God knows how much concern there is nowadays for the public good.
Chapter 68: If a man is a citizen of two cities which are at war, which of the two must he assist?
What shall we say in the case of the a citizen of Ghent who has a house, goods, clothes, and many other possessions, in the city of Bruges, and who is accustomed to dwell part of the year in one of these towns and the rest of the year in the other, and who has been accepted as a citizen by each; if it should happen that they are at war, which of the two should he help? I reply that he is bound to go to the help of the first, that is to say, of that one of the two towns in which he was first received as citizen, and this for the reasons declared in the previous discussion [Chapter 67 - for knights, they should help the lord that they first swore an oath to, and if possible, send a replacement to the other lord].
Chapter 69: Whether a Serf can be compelled to follow war at the command of his lord.
We must next consider whether men in state of serfdom can be constrained by their lord to go to battle or war at his pleasure. I reply that they can, for they are bound to do their lord's will and obey it (although there are few people of this sort in France, but many in Lombardy and Aragon.)
There is another kind of servitude called libertine serfdom, which involves obligations to perform certain tasks in the fields: for instance in the corn fields or vineyards. Such serfs would not be required to take part in war, for, considering the nature of their state, a new servitude cannot be imposed on them.
Chapter 70: What persons cannot and must not be compelled to go to war.
Further, there are other people who cannot be compelled to go to battle and war, such as old men, the sick, the deaf and the blind, or those who are too young to bear harness, and such like people. But if a man were wise in counsel I hold that his lord could constrain him. In case of a dumb man, although he cannot speak, yet if he is valiant and strong in body I should say that he could be constrained, if it pleased his lord. But women should not be compelled to go to war, even though they were wise, rich and strong. As for service by substitute, I do not say that they are not bound to it.
Chapter 91: Whether a soldier who goes out of his mind should be imprisoned
Let us now consider another question on a case which might also happen in time of war. Suppose a duke or a count sets out from England with a great company of Englishmen, and comes into the Duchy of Guienne to make war on the lands of the King of France. But, having arrived in this duchy, he becomes raging mad, leaves his soldiers, and then goes off like a madman alone, by woods and hedges, and is found by a soldier of the French King, who takes him and puts him in a strong prison, and says that before he goes free he will have two thousand francs in exchange for him. Let us consider whether the duke's parents and friends should pay this ransom to have him back.
It will be thought that they should, for when he came over the sea he came as an enemy of the King, and with the intention of making war on him and molesting him, and he has remained in this duchy without making peace with him. Hence we may freely say that he is still the King's enemy, although out of his mind; for a law says that we may presume that once a man has been received into a service he remains in it - and for this reason the presumption exists that a person still belongs - to the Church if he continues in the condition of a clerk. Now the man in question has come as an Englishman, and has remained in such estate all his life. Taking this into account, why should not a Frenchman imprison him as the King's enemy?
But, notwithstanding all arguments, I think the contrary, and for these reasons. We find, by written law, and good reason agrees with this, that during his madness, a man out of his senses cannot be considered as an enemy by anyone whatsoever. The reason is that he would as soon work ill to himself, or to his father, as to another, for he knows not whether he does well or ill and seeing that he has no knowledge of what he does, we say that he cannot commit an injury, for an injury cannot be committed without will, and free judgment. But all that he does proceeds from him by force of madness and fury, so that if he killed a thousand he would never be punished for it. So if he cannot be considered an enemy by any man whatsoever, I cannot see on what grounds he can be made prisoner. Again, suppose I have promised by the faith of my body, and sworn on Corpus Christi, to a healthy and sane man, that I will give him my sword when he asks for it. If he goes out of his mind, and, in that state, asks for the sword, should I be forsworn if I refused it? The laws say clearly that I should not. And since I am not required to keep faith with him who is in such state how can he pledge his faith? For he cannot undertake any obligation whatsoever, seeing that all he does while in that state is considered by the laws as if done by a dumb animal, or by a stone or tile which falls from a roof by force of the wind, and kills a man.
Further, consider well what nobility there would be in showing one's courage against a madman, or what gentility in making captive a man sick with so terrible a sickness, which should rouse all gentlemen to have pity and give help towards his cure. For in such a case every good Christian, so that no harm should be done, and so that no harm should come to the madman, is under obligation to bind him and place him where he can recover good health.And in the whole matter I conclude that he cannot be made a prisoner or pay ransom, nor can other pay it for him; and the King; of France should compel those who hold him to return him to his friends.
Chapter 92: If a man sick and out of his mind is cured in prison can his captor imprison him again?
Let us, suppose that this, same Englishman is cured while in prison, and that his captor wishes to imprison him again. I ask whether he could do so lawfully. It would appear that he could, for according to the law such a man could not make a will, nor enter into religion - not being able to live as a religious - nor could he consent to marriage, for that sacrament requires obligation and will. And just as little could he accept baptism or give it, for he has no will and baptism is not taken or given by a man without will when at age of discretion. But supposing his sickness leaves him, cannot he do all these things aforesaid? In truth he can, according to written law, and on this argument he can very well pledge his faith.
Let us look now at the other side. We have a rule to the effect that the thing which in the beginning is worthless cannot achieve value by passage of time. But I have above proved that he could not be a prisoner in the first place, and if that was true how can he be so now? A stronger reason is that, according to strict gentility, all gentlemen are under obligation to this noble lord, for he is in such great poverty of body and senses that his case cries for pity. Hence, if gentlemen are thus bound to him, and the law demands it, what gentility would there be in selling him his cure?Any man who wishes to examine this question to the bottom ill find, on both sides of the argument, so many laws and decretals as to give work for a long day. But I wish to deal with the matter briefly, so I decide that when the Englishman has recovered his senses and is in his right mind, if he wishes to return to his own people and make war as before, he may very well be kept prisoner, but if he promises to return immediately to his own land and never to arm against the King again, unless constrained by his lord, then, in my opinion, he should be allowed to go.
Chapter 93: Whether an old man can lawfully be imprisoned or put to ransom
Let us now consider another question. A French knight with his company has advanced to the city of Bordeaux. He encounters a citizen of the city, coming to hear mass in a little chapel about a league from the city, where dwells a worthy hermit. And the citizen comes along comfortably enough, with a stick in his hand, for he is a hundred years old. Thereupon the knight asks him: "My good man, where do you come from?"
“I belong to that city," says he.
“By my faith," says the knight, "you are my prisoner.”
“Oh," he says, “and why?”
“Because,” says the knight, " I am the man of the King of France, who is making war against your master's towns and lands."
“Sir," says the citizen, "Mercy, for the love of God. Take me to the King and if I must be prisoner by judgment of court let me be so, and if not, let me go free."
To this the knight agrees, and they come into the King's presence, and the knight explains that he has captured this citizen, who can very well pay ten thousand francs.
"Sire," says this citizen to the King, "you and my lord the King of England have had many great wars together which have already lasted long, for they began when I was still very young in years. And now that I am very old they are not yet finished; but I swear to you by my faith that never in my fife have I armed myself against the French, nor have I carried sword or knife or other weapon. If you demand to be further informed on this matter you will find, in truth, that he case is so. And what is still stronger, at no time did I ever rejoice in this war, and continually have I remonstrated with my lord of England, and admonished him to make good peace with you. Of all this I can fully inform you when it shall please your high Lordship and Majesty to hear it. Further, my lord, I add that, according to the arguments of written law, a man as old as myself cannot be compelled to go to war and cannot be made prisoner, and the reason is this: you could not, according to law, capture the goods, or imprison the persons, of the men of England unless the men of that kingdom were aiding their King, and furnishing help to him for the purpose of carrying on this war against you of their own free will; for if he took the goods of his men by force, then in law they would be, held blameless. And since it is the case that I have never given aid to the King of England against you, unless he has taken my goods by force and violence, you cannot consider me .as your enemy, and consequently I can by no means be made prisoner."Now without more words let us see what is the law of the matter. And I think, since an old man is privileged, that according to law he is never required to go to war, and that for good reason he cannot be a prisoner, unless he has given counsel and help for the conduct of the war; for sometimes an old man will be of, more avail by his counsel than ten soldiers. On the other hand I am far from denying that his goods can freely be taken if he has willingly aided his lord with his possessions to carry on the war; otherwise not, according to right reason.
Chapter 94: Whether a child should be made prisoner and put to ransom
The preceding matters bring me to another question. We suppose that a French soldier has captured an English child, and someone complains to the King of France, demanding that he should return the child. How should the King decide?
At first it would seem that the child should pay ransom, for according to law he- who is capable of doing the greatest thing may well do the smallest, and according to law the soldier could quite well capture the father who is of greater honour and importance than the son. Hence he may lawfully capture the son. Further, it is certain that the soldier can capture the father's goods. But the son is a part of the father's goods, for he is in his power, and the father can sell or pledge him if need arise, and for this reason he can be made prisoner.But something must be said on the other side. The first thing is that neither justice nor reason can agree that either innocence or ignorance should be oppressed. It is clear that this child is innocent of the war and that neither by person nor, counsel can he render help or succour in it. If this is so, on what grounds should he be made prisoner? Again, I have said above that a man may very well be taken prisoner, in his lord's war, if he helps in that war either by his person or his goods. And the fact is that the child can help just as little with his person as with his possessions, for he has nothing of his own in his father's lifetime, and why, then, should he pay ransom, seeing that the law states that he who has nothing can pay nothing? So that, although the matter has been in great debate, and is hard to determine on account of the conflicting customs that soldiers have used in these latter days, I hold firmly, according to ancient law, and according to the ancient customs of good warriors; that it is an unworthy thing to imprison either old men taking no part in the war, or women, or innocent children. Certainly it is a very bad custom to put them to ransom as it is common knowledge that they can have no part in war, for the former lack strength, the others knowledge. And in truth to capture them would show no great courage, for all gentlemen should keep them from harm, and all knights and men-at-arms are bound to; do so, and whoever does the contrary deserves the name of pillager. And if the King found a remedy for this I think that God would help, him, and would the sooner give him peace and victory over his enemies; and may He, by His grace, grant this in spite of all.
Chapter 95: Whether a blind man can be taken prisoner and put to ransom
While we are on the subject let us consider another matter.
A pillager has captured a blind man, and wants ransom for him,
and the blind man demands justice from
the King and asks if, according to the laws, he can be made prisoner. And on
this matter we make a remark at this point.
say, on this question, that if a blind man, in his folly or insolence, put
himself with the soldiery, and was taken prisoner, he would be worthy to receive
worse treatment than another, both in body and goods.
And this is well signified to us in the Holy Scripture, for we read how
Cain in his malice killed his brother Abel, the good and just, but a little
while after a blind man named Lameth took a bow and arrow and went off through
the fields to hunt. He heard something move, and thinking it was some beast he
aimed his bow and tried to kill it. But it was Cain whom he struck, with such
force that he killed him. Then our Lord said that the sin of Cain would be
punished once but the sin of Lameth would be punished seventy-six times.
And the reason is that he was meddling in a business with which he had no
concern, and one unsuitable to his condition and nature.
But truly, if a blind man is captured, he should be at once freed and delivered by the lord if he has enough possessions, for he is privileged as far as imprisonment is concerned. But if the soldiers have taken his goods from him I think he should lose them, except by the King's grace, because he is rich and would pay the King of England aids and taxes to support the war. But if another blind man who formerly had seen and followed war gave counsel to the King of England and to the English as to making battle, escalading a walled town or fortress, or setting an ambush, then as long as he interferes in such matters, if he is taken prisoner, he ought, in my opinion, to pay ransom. And what I have said about a blind man I say similarly of those deaf or dumb. For, if such people do not lend themselves to the making or conduct of war, certainly, in my opinion, their persons should not be imprisoned. And this is the plain truth, for the Scripture and the laws call them miserable persons; that is to say that mercy is their due.
Chapter 100: What people have of right safe-conduct in time of war
Now we must consider other people who, of right, have safe-conduct in time of war; for you have heard above how prelates, chaplains, deacons, and also conversi, hermits, pilgrims, and all the people of the Holy Church, should be in security, since even if they have no safe-conduct, it matters not, for they have it by law.
And I add that ox-herds, and all husbandmen, and ploughmen with their oxen, when they are carrying on their business, and equally when they are going to it or returning from it, are secure, according to written law. And in truth that this should be so is not without good reason, because it is expedient and convenient for all sorts of people, since those who cultivate the soil plough and work for all men and for everybody, and all manner of folk live of their labour. Therefore right reason does not permit that they should receive any ill or annoyance, seeing that they have no concern with war or with harming anyone.
These sections are from The Tree of Battles of Honoré Bonet, translated by G.W. Coopland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1949). We thank Liverpool University Press for their permission to republish these sections.