The Burghers of Manhattan

More satisfying theatre in 1347.

What the enraged citizenry would like to see is this:


It won’t happen, but they knew how to do political theatre better in 1347.

The story is well known in England and France, but probably not in the US, so here it is, from Wikipedia :

Edward III, after a victory in the Battle of Crécy, laid siege to Calais and Philip VI of France ordered the city to hold out at all costs. Philip failed to lift the siege and starvation eventually forced the city to parley for surrender. Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of its top leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed. Edward demanded that they walk out almost naked and wearing nooses around their necks and be carrying the keys to the city and castle. One of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered first and five other burghers soon followed suit and they stripped down to their breeches. Saint Pierre led this envoy of emaciated volunteers to the city gates and it is this moment and this poignant mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice and the facing of imminent death that Rodin captures in these figures, which are scaled somewhat larger than life. In history, though the burghers expected to be executed, their lives were spared by the intervention of England’s Queen, Philippa of Hainault, who persuaded her husband by saying it would be a bad omen for her unborn child.

It’s hard to believe that it was really down to to Philippa and luck. Look at it from Edouard’s view. (I follow Norman Davies in labelling the Anglo-Norman rulers in their mother tongue.) He is angry at the defenders for holding out, forcing him to keep his army in the field longer than he can afford: the true age of feudalism had passed and common soldiers were professionals. His army is also fed up; they expected to go home after the battle and squander the pay and ransom money, instead they’ve mouldered in an insanitary encampment for almost a year. A negotiated surrender means there is no nice sack to come, no rape and looting. Edouard therefore needs to appease them with a really good show.

He has however a choice of catharsis. He can play Fierce King, exercising swift and brutal justice on his foes – they are not nobles and can’t expect anything else; or Magnanimous King, exhibiting the regal and knightly virtue of mercy. He opts for Plan B. Throwing in a plea by his pregnant Queen is a nice touch that the sentimental goddons will surely go for. As has posterity.

Saint-Pierre and his companions must have known they had a chance, and perhaps the fix was in. But execution was a very real risk, perhaps a probability; they were genuine heroes. Rodin’s drama is justified, though he had a battle to stop the burghers of 1888 from putting their bronze predecessors on a conventional pedestal – he wanted their defiant humiliation to be approached at ground level.

Sadly I can’t see the Masters of the Universe being subjected to anything as emotionally satisfying as this. Interrogation before Congressional committees isn’t the same without Joe McCarthy. Wall Street bosses have been scared this last week, but not to the extent of really grovelling. They knew they could count on Philippa Paulson of Hainault to go down on bended knee for them. It seems to have worked.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web