In 1338, the story has it, a notorious French exile named Robert of Artois strutted into the London palace of King Edward III, bearing a stuffed heron on a silver platter. “Clear the way, you miserable failures,” he said to the assembled lords. “I have a heron … the most cowardly bird of all birds … And since it is cowardly, it is my intention to give the heron to the most cowardly one who lives, or who has ever lived: that is [King Edward], disinherited of the noble land of France of which he was rightful heir.”
Only a madman would talk to a medieval king in this way. But as the story goes, Edward was chastened, having been reminded of his claim to the French crown (in his capacity as grandson to Philip IV). “Since ‘coward’ is thrown up to me, I should defend myself,” the king said. “I vow and promise to God in heaven and his sweet Mother, who nourished Him, that before this year is ended … I will cross the sea, my subjects with me, and I will … set the country ablaze and there I will await my mortal enemy, Philip [VI] who wears the fleur-de-lis.”
The Vows of the Heron is fiction—a Flemish satire of the English bloodlust that would fuel the Hundred Years War between England and France. In the poem, it is not just Edward who is caught up in the bellicose spirit, but all the lords and ladies around him, each describing the coming carnage as an expression of love, courage, and Christian spirit. Walter of Manny (who would prove to be an especially brutal soldier of fortune) pledges to set a French city “aflame some morning, and I will destroy that city and kill the people and leave them with gaping mouths.” Another declares that “I would not spare church or altar, or any pregnant woman I might find.” Even the pregnant queen ghoulishly declares “that my fruit will never leave my body until you have led me to [Flanders]. And if it is ready to be born before that time, I will kill myself with a great steel knife. Thus will my soul be lost, and the fruit will perish.”
Like all great works of satire, The Vows of the Heron has aged much better than the propaganda it satirized. And while 14th-century Flemish readers might have appreciated it as dark comedy, there was also a terrifying undercurrent that remains apt to this day: In times of war, dictators invariably dress up sadistic acts of aggression with ennobling pretexts. Notwithstanding Edward III’s grand claims and chivalric pretentions, his campaign in France and the Low Countries consisted in large part of scorched-earth terrorism. During Henry of Grosmont’s chevauchée of 1346, to cite but one example, the English spent more than a week sacking Poitiers and slaughtering the inhabitants. Numerous churches and priories were destroyed, their clerics either put to the sword or held for ransom. Yet this was the same Henry who’d be celebrated in his time as a war hero, and later in life as a devout Christian penitent and author.
The rise of nationalism has meant that dictators can no longer hype wars of naked aggression using the language of personal or dynastic ambition: The modern method is to present oneself as a champion of some historically victimized community that has been stripped of its dignity and lands. Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin’s fixation on reclaiming antique Soviet glories and redrawing maps in a way that corrects imaginary injustices is a reflex that Plantagenet warmongers and satirists alike would find recognizable. The same is true of Putin’s attacks on civilian targets, and his apparent plan to encircle Ukraine’s population centres. Edward III starved out Calais. And Putin may do the same to Kiev.
A week ago, Putin tried to justify his unprovoked invasion by accusing Western nations of a plot to destroy Russia through territorial encroachment and the “degradation and degeneration” of traditional Slavic values. Putin also suggested Ukraine’s government is led by neo-Nazis waging a “genocide” against Russian-speaking citizens. All of this is so spectacularly dishonest that one can scarcely imagine anyone believing it. (Both parents of Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, are Jewish. And at least four of his paternal grandfather’s close relatives died in the Holocaust.) But apparently, many remain under Putin’s spell, especially those older Russians eager to blame outsiders for the shame and poverty associated with the breakup of the USSR. It is an atavistic mindset that privileges honor and vengeance, while consigning innocent civilians to the role of history’s bit actors. And so as bad as things get for Russian forces in Ukraine, it’s hard to see Putin retreating, as the whole disastrous project seems to have become wrapped up with his medieval self-conception as Russia’s saviour.
In the last hours of Edward III’s monumental victory at Crécy in 1346, King John of Bohemia famously galloped into a hail of English arrows and blades, so that he could lay a single stroke of his sword upon an enemy soldier before dying—an act of suicide that the blind king preferred to the disgrace that would follow defeat. (“Absit, ut rex Boemie fugeret.”) My own view is that John was something of a psychopath, as he not only threw away his own life in a pointless postscript to a battle that his side had already lost; but also the lives of his companions, all of whose horses were tied with ropes to the king’s mount during that final charge. But to the medieval mind, life without honor was forfeit, which is why “Jean l’Aveugle” became a national hero to some; while French King Philip VI, who wisely retreated when Crécy turned into a rout, was buried as a failure. Presented with a choice between these two Edwardian-era role models, I’m pretty sure I know which one Putin would pick. And I don’t really think he cares how many people are tied to his horse when he makes his last charge.
In the final lines of The Vows of the Heron, the author provides a mock upbeat ending, noting that while “many good men will die” in the coming war, the queen did indeed give birth to a healthy child in Antwerp, thus allowing her to “accomplish her vow.” That Putin might not recognize this to be satire would scare me even if it weren’t for the fact that this 21st-century warlord is armed with weapons a million times more destructive than long bows and trebuchets.