Friday, December 24, 2010

Abstract: Outrance and Plaisance

Will McLean “Outrance and Plaisance” in Journal of Medieval Military History 8 (2010): 155-170


Modern writers on medieval deeds of arms often use the term à outrance to describe combats fought “using the normal weapons of war” and à plaisance to describe combats using “specially modified weapons with sharp edges removed or blunted”.

However, during the 15th century, when the terms were most often used to describe contemporary deeds of arms, writers in Burgundy, France, Spain and England used the terms very differently. Sharp weapons of war and blunt weapons could be used in both sorts of combat. Instead, arms à outrance were distinguished by the willingness of the champions to fight until one side or the other was captured or killed, unless the judge or judges stopped the fight. This could happen either in the context of a judicial duel or a high stakes combat by mutual consent.

Arms à plaisance were less extreme, and would typically end as soon as an agreed number of blows were struck, or as soon as a combatant was carried to the ground.

The author quotes contemporary accounts of the extraordinary combats that 15th century writers described as à outrance. They show what happened in the rare cases when they were fought to the finish, as well as the less uncommon fights that were halted or proposed but not accepted. He also quotes 15th century accounts of a more limited combat à plaisance that was nonetheless fought with sharp weapons.

Combats à outrance were extraordinary events and their potential to end in legalized homicide presented the judges with a dilemma. Their response gives a measure of how extraordinary these combats were. In deciding whether and how far to allow deeds of arms to proceed under their control, rulers struck a delicate balance among competing goals: displaying their own power, fairness and authority, gratifying noble subjects, entertaining the populace and maintaining good order in their realm.

Potentially more dangerous than any other combats by consent, combats à outrance offered correspondingly greater opportunity for fame, honor and renown. In several cases those offering to do arms à outrance wore devices, conspicuous tokens that signified their willingness to fight in this way, further advertising the courage of the bearer even if no combat transpired.

A more correct understanding of the medieval terms helps us to realize that even in arms à plaisance, the participants could use sharp weapons to create a highly realistic approximation of true mortal combat. Arms à outrance were even more dangerous, and when voluntarily undertaken allowed a small number of the bravest men at arms to win honor and renown by publicly demonstrate their courage and confidence in their own prowess, freely exposing themselves to risks and hazards that were deliberately extraordinary.

De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History

With the launch of our annual The Journal of Medieval Military History, it was decided at our 2002 business meeting to begin an annual membership fee, which would cover the cost of each member’s journal, and to help pay for some of the Society’s other activities. The fee has been set at $35 (U.S.) for individuals, with the first $30 going to cover the cost of each member’s copy of the journal. This price will be significantly lower than the institutional and non-member price. The remaining $5 will go to De Re Militari.

The dues year runs from one Annual Meeting (which takes place at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in May) to the next. Active membership entitles you to receive a copy of the Journal when it is published, usually in the fall (so that, for example, if you pay your membership at the 2009 Annual Meeting, your membership will be valid until May 2010, and Volume 7 of the Journal will be shipped to you in late fall of 2009.) Active members will receive renewal requests about a month before the expiration of their membership.

It is not clear how late in the year you can sign up for membership and still receive the Journal.

You can read a fair amount of my article in preview at Google Books.

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