The Ties that Bind

Good news! This past week has been the best week yet for new followers to mediaevalmusings! In light of this, I thought it would be appropriate to welcome new readers and old by considering one of the most fundamental and enduring of social institutions from the mediaeval period–a leader’s retinue.

As the basic unit of political formation, the retinue can be seen in many forms throughout the Middle Ages in a wide variety of cultural settings. These range from the comitatus, or war-band, which followed early Germanic leaders in raiding along the Roman frontier to the more hierarchical and institutionalised households of the later Middle Ages.

In all of these various settings, the most important feature of a retinue was it’s commitment to it’s leader, whom the men of the war-band would often be expected to protect with their lives. In return for such dedicated service, these men would often expect shares in the spoils of war, tokens of status or esteem, or perhaps even land. These relationships, however, were rarely as mercenary as the above might suggest. Through feasting and gift-giving, as well as through a shared aristocratic ethos, leaders forged personal bonds with their warriors.

A Pictish stone carving of a horse and rider in the National Museum of Scotland, roughly contemporaneous with what has sometimes been called the Heroic Age of mediaeval Wales.

We can see the Welsh manifestation of this bond in action in a mediaeval poem by Owain Cyfeiliog entitled The Drinking Horn. In it, the poet singles out members of the warband, or teulu, for individual praise as they drink together in celebration of a victory.

“Comrades went’ to battle, the poet says, ‘to be worthy of praise,
Companions in arms, armed with keen blades,
They have earned their mead, as Belyn’s men once did,
Well-remembered while a man’s left alive.’
 (Clancy, p.131.)

Here, the feasting and celebration reinforce the values of loyalty and camaraderie, and ‘earning one’s mead’ in battle for one’s lord reflects the social standing of successful warriors.

The effigy of the Black Prince, in Canterbury Cathedral. He was held up as a chivalric model by the author of his biography.

This military ethos, however, was hardly confined to the early Middle Ages, or even to western Europe. In the 14th century biography of Edward ‘the Black Prince,’ for example, the author Chandos Herald names the principal earls who fought with the Black Prince in France. Their actions, like those of their earlier Welsh counterparts, were animated by shared sentiments–those of chivalry. ‘Gaiety, noblesse, courtesy, goodness, and largesse,’ characterise this ethos, but it also required valour and prowess on the battlefield.

A depiction of a rhinoceros hunt accompanying the memoirs of Emperor Babur. Hunting was also a common aristocratic activity uniting a leader and his following.

In Central Asia and northern India, the conqueror Babur lived according to very similar principals. Throughout most of his youth, Babur lived a precarious lifestyle, attempting to win a kingdom for himself with the aid of his following. During this period, called qazaqliq in Turkish, he forged personal bonds with his warriors at majlises, parties where alcohol, music, and poetry often featured. (About which more here.) It was also a time of many defeats of Babur, who had yet to become emperor of Mughal India, and in his memoirs he writes candidly of the grief he felt when one of his retinue died.

His was a grief familiar to the Welsh poets, whose eulogies at the death of kings and comrades vividly express the precariousness of life in these military bands. Whether in the vanguard during battle or accompanying their leader into exile, the retinue often experienced the worst, as well as the best, that political involvement had to offer. The endurance and flexibility of these relationships, however, testifies to their aptitude in ordering the often chaotic political landscape–fostering loyalty, camaraderie, and exceptional bravery.

Learn More: 

Joseph P. Clancy, Medieval Welsh Poems, (Dublin, 2003).

The Life of the Black Prince can be found online here, and Babur’s memoirs, the Baburnama, here.

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6 thoughts on “The Ties that Bind

  1. OMG! I love Babur! You are the only person I know who has written about Babur and the Mughals, even fleetingly. I find the Mughals so, so fascinating. My favourite is Shah Jahan, of course! Though Aurangzeb is a character that never fails to fascinate; can’t claim to ‘like’ him though. Sorry for rambling on about the Mughals, lol. Great post.

    • Not at all! I find the Mughals really fascinating, and got to study them for the first time as part of a course on Mediaeval Iran and Central Asia. I did another post on the Mughals a while ago, called the Garden of Earthly delights, but I still wish I knew more. You would probably also enjoy the blog A Date With Delhi, which I follow, because they go to all of these wonderful Mughal and earlier Indian sites around Delhi!

      • I am a born and bred Delhiite, though don’t live there any longer. And thanks for the link. I am sure I am going to enjoy it. 😀 I was in Agra last year and it exceeded my expectations (which were pretty high to begin with). The Agra Fort has to be the single most beautiful building in the world.

        Back to Delhi, I met William Dalrymple, who writes fiction books about the Mughals, at a book signing few months ago, and he was grumbling about the state of the archives having the Mughal records in Delhi. I am not sure what is being done about it though. 😦

      • I don’t know much about the state of archives in India, either, but they must have a website. It’s unfortunate that so many historical documents are still unclassified, let alone translated or published.

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