Scene of Surrender
Auguste Rodin's 'The Burghers of Calais'
Jean Froissart arrived at the court of Edward III in 1362 during a wave of plague that killed almost one in four heirs of landed estates across France. He had every reason to flatter Queen Philippa, who became his patron. This relationship naturally affected his work as a historian. Consider his portrayal of the 1347 Siege of Calais, when Edward III set out to conquer a logistical and economic port of entry into France following his victory in the field at Crécy.
The city surrendered, but only after eleven months of resistance while the French king failed to relieve them. Enraged by this impertinence, Edward demanded that six of the town burghers come out of the gate hatless and shoeless, with nooses around their necks and the keys to the city in their hands. The implication was that their deaths would preserve the rest of the city’s population. However, instead of an execution, a royal court scene played out — one that, from centuries of distance, seems clearly performed in public with purpose.
Then the noble queen of England, who was heavily pregnant, humbled herself greatly and wept so tenderly that none could bear it. The valiant and good lady threw herself before her lord the king and said “Ah, my dear lord, since I came across the English Channel in great peril, as you well know, I have asked nothing of you, nor required any favor. Now I humbly pray and request of you favor, that for the Son of Holy Mary and the love of me, you shall wish to have mercy on these six men.” The king waited a little before he spoke and he looked upon his good lady his wife, who wept so tenderly on her knees before him.
Warned against the possibility of a poor omen for his child, Edward then spared the men and forgave the town’s stubborn defense. Nothing about this scene strikes me as the least bit unplanned or spontaneous. It makes perfect sense as a scripted event, a pre-arranged royal court performance for public consumption.
Philippa and Edward already had ten children by this point. Theirs was such a famously happy marriage that she has been held up as an archetype for every “royal mother” of England since the 14th Century. A popular regent whenever her husband was absent trying to conquer France, Philippa was hardly a political neophyte or an innocent abroad. She was just very good at playing the part.
Moreover, Calais was essential to their plans for France. Medieval logistics limited any campaign, completely explaining why the Hundred Years’ War lasted 116 years. For example, Edward only agreed to the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360 because a storm had destroyed his camp and swept away a small mountain of supplies. Seeing rather few open battles, but many prolonged sieges, the entire protracted on-and-off conflict was focused on fortified points of control between periods of local truce.
Being the defender, France had natural advantages in this contest. Both sides used the emerging tactics of “small war” and scorched earth. Chevauchee, the French word for a grand, destructive cavalry sweep through contested lands, became a constant feature of this positional warfare. As you might imagine, civilians suffered the most, which brings me to Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece The Burghers of Calais.
Like the Trojan Women of Euripides’s play, these are tragic figures of woe and stoicism facing the abyss. Like some other poliorcetic artworks from the Belle Epoque that I have explored in this series, Rodin’s burghers are a portrait of the French nation in mourning after defeat at German hands in 1871. Indeed, the city fathers had previously arranged for another artist to do the work before the war only to see the contracted artist march off to fight. With the economy recovering a bit, renewed interest in a town square centerpiece led to Rodin’s commission. Five years later, he produced a stunning view of siege warfare as a state of mind.
Handing over keys to the city is a universal ritual of the Old World. Natural symbols of access and authority, they appear in accounts of the surrender ceremonies at fortified places all over Eurasia and North Africa. The overlarge man holding Rodin’s overlarge key bears it as a heavy burden. His face is a study in resigned courage, like Daniel walking into the fire, or poilus going over the top, or Gaels made victim, or doomed Frankish crusaders. I can only hope to face Death with something like his strong visage.
Each figure has its own unique character, as though Rodin was dissecting the responses of grief into a system of understanding such as the Kübler-Ross model. These are psychological portraits as impressionistic as any masterwork of the era.
Froissart did not live to see the end of the war he chronicled. With each generation, the conflict grew less humane and more desperate. The story of the burghers is a propaganda device which did not define, much less confine, the slaughter that took place over four generations. In an act of artistic reversal, Rodin has turned this false dawn into an allegory of his more present suffering.
Hatless and shoeless was the sackcloth and ashes of the Middle Ages. This is self-abasement amid the pity of destruction, a wailing and gnashing of teeth. Human sacrifice is a theme as old as time, reenacted in every mass bloodletting, as present in cultural narratives even today as it was in the Mesolithic. Sparing the victim is a merciful act, a godlike act, a king or queenlike act that changes the entire world of possibility.
But the men trudging towards salvation do not expect reprieve. Rodin wanted this sculpture set at ground level, where we could all be among the burghers and walk their path with them in a sort of secular calvary. A moment as intimate and sacred as anything imaginable has been transformed into an experience for us all to share. During an age of gathering nationalism, Rodin produced a plea for peace in a universal language. As long as there is life, there is hope, and we soldier on.