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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's two novels of adventure in the fourteenth century, The White Company and Sir Nigel, seamlessly blend real history and imaginative fiction into spirited, fast-paced narratives that draw us in, eager witnesses to the medieval soldier's life. Eclipsed in popularity by his Sherlock Holmes stories, they have nonetheless found a lasting readership. Never out of print since their first publications in 1891 and 1906—more than fifty editions of The White Company were printed during Conan Doyle's lifetime alone—they remain memorable for their accessible style, nonstop action, gentle humor, larger-than-life characters, and vibrant imagery. The White Company follows the mustering of English troops in 1366-7 as they march to defend the ousted king of Spain against the usurper's army. Seen through the eyes of young Alleyne Edricson, raised in a monastery and now experiencing the secular world for the first time as squire to the valiant knight Sir Nigel Loring, this is history painted on a very personal level. Along the way, Alleyne encounters all manner of characters, noble and peasant, honorable and venal, master and victim, who populate a world of both beauty and horror. The early life of Loring himself is told in Sir Nigel. We travel with him as his first encounters with danger in battle-torn France transform an undisciplined youth into a warrior and knight. Conan Doyle fervently believed that these works would shine a clear new light on a dramatic era in English history and for over one hundred years his many readers have agreed with him.
Born in 1859 in Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle is primarily known today for his tales of the ultimate Victorian consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. He also earned fame during his lifetime for his science-fiction adventure, The Lost World, his humorous short stories about Napoleon's soldier, Brigadier Gerard, and his historical novels, including Micah Clarke (1889), The Refugees (1893), The White Company, and Sir Nigel. The latter two, he declared, were his most satisfying works and his greatest literary achievements. Until his death in 1930, he remained by degrees bemused, puzzled, and angered that the public should constantly be asking him about Holmes while apparently ignoring his historical fiction.
The Middle Ages had long been a subject of fascination for Conan Doyle. As a boy, he had been entertained and taught by his mother with stories from medieval history and tales of his forebears, traced back five hundred years to their Anglo-Norman and Irish-Catholic roots. Following the many branches of the family tree also meant understanding the science of heraldry, which the young Arthur embraced under his mother's enthusiastic tutelage. And he had learned from her to admire and practice the ideals of chivalry: loyalty, bravery, humility, and respect for all, especially for the poor and for women.
With such an upbringing it is not surprising that Conan Doyle's literary preferences tended toward stories of medieval adventure, knighthood, and chivalry. Among his earliest favorites were Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) and Charles Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), both set in the period.
After completing his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh, Conan Doyle settled in Southsea, a seaside suburb of Portsmouth, and established a medical practice while submitting for publication, with mixed results, a stream of stories and novels, including Holmes' first appearance, A Study in Scarlet (1887). With the modest success of his first historical novel, Micah Clarke, set in the mid-eighteenth century, Conan Doyle decided to attempt another more ambitious one, a story that would reflect his love of the Middle Ages. He chose the mid-fourteenth century, a period he believed to be "the splendid dawn of modern England."
In the spring of 1889, Conan Doyle moved into a rented cottage in the New Forest of Hampshire where he read a considerable stack of books about the period. All that summer he researched, returning to Southsea in the autumn with volumes of notes to begin writing the novel, which he finished in July 1890. He remembered the final moment clearly more than thirty years later: "As I wrote the last words of The White Company I felt a wave of exultation and with a cry of 'That's done it!' I hurled my inky pen across the room, where it left a black smudge upon the duck's egg wall-paper. I knew in my heart that the book would live and that it would illuminate our national traditions."
The White Company appeared as a serial through 1891 in England in the prestigious Cornhill Magazine and was published in book form later that year in England and America. It was generally well received. "As brisk and lively as could be wished," wrote The Athaneum. The Saturday Reviewassured its readers that the book "will be devoured with eagerness by all healthy-minded Britons who love adventure." Even American reviewers were caught up in the patriotic frenzy. "We Americans cannot but share the pride of our English cousins in the heroic deeds of our common ancestors," enthused San Francisco's Overland Monthly.
It would be fifteen years before Conan Doyle would complete a companion work to The White Company. Written in the summer and fall of 1905, Sir Nigel was published late the following year. The events of the story begin seventeen years earlier than those of The White Company. Now confident in his writer's voice, he introduced a personal note: In Dame Ermyntrude, Nigel Loring's mother, Conan Doyle gives us a loving portrait of his own mother, whose teachings and stories had started him on his journey to the fourteenth century.
Critics were also kind to Sir Nigel. The Daily Mail thought that it "should take its place on the shelves near to the immortal company of Sir Walter Scott."
Though these two novels have fallen under the shadow of the great detective, they have nonetheless remained popular and influential. Winston Churchill wrote, "The works I like even more than the detective stories are the great historical novels which, like Sherlock Holmes, have certainly found a permanent place in English literature." Author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., recalled reading The White Company as a child. Anthony Burgess wrote that the book is "vivid, always plausible, never lacking in life."
For atmosphere, language, and history, Conan Doyle relied heavily upon the great chronicler of the fourteenth century, Jean Froissart, whose Chronicles is packed with brave knights' exploits, passages of arms, diplomatic maneuverings between states, and great battles between colorful armies. Froissart's historical accuracy is generally disparaged, but as a portrait of the manners, styles, and speech of the time, the Chronicles is a goldmine.
For further contemporary color, Conan Doyle called upon two fourteenth-century pioneers of the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 - 1400) and William Langland (c. 1330 - c. 1387). Chaucer is well known to us for his Canterbury Tales, which gives us a taste of the rich stew of fourteenth-century life. Langland was the author of the alliterative poem The Vision of Piers Plowman, a monument of early English poetic art with its great themes of truth and honor.
Conan Doyle assumes a great deal of historical knowledge on the part of his readers, plunging right into each narrative with very little exposition. For the English reader of 1891, this was probably a reasonable approach, but in the twenty-first century such details have fallen out of common knowledge, so a brief historical backgrounder is in order.
Life and events in England and France during this period revolved around the Hundred Years' War, actually a series of wars between the two countries. The conflict was rooted in the desire of the English monarch to possess the crown of France, or at least a large portion of its territory known as Aquitaine (or Guyenne), and the French king's corresponding efforts to remove English rule from the area. Apart from isolated French raids on southern English seaports, the war was waged exclusively on French soil. It is generally considered to have erupted in 1337 with mutual declarations by Edward III of England and Philip VI of France.
England entered the war as the underdog, but soon proved itself by decisively winning a series of important battles: a naval encounter at Sluys (1340) and land battles at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). Poitiers was particularly significant for both sides in that one of the captured nobles was King John of France, who had succeeded Philip VI in 1350. Among the deciding factors in these victories was a new weapon of which the English alone were masters and against which defense was extremely difficult: the longbow.
Medieval soldiers were as much motivated by greed as by patriotism: Every combatant, from the wealthiest knight to the humblest spearsman, could hope to greatly improve his material life by returning home laden with plunder. Ransom was another source of revenue for the invading armies. Captured barons and local politicians could be held for payment or released on the promise that an appropriate ransom would be paid. Lowlier citizens and men-at-arms whose standing did not make them ransom-worthy were simply killed.
From about 1347, Edward himself spent relatively little time engaged in the direct management of the war, leaving the task of campaigning to his son, Edward, Prince of Wales, who would be known in future centuries as the Black Prince.
The war was driven into hiatus between 1348 and 1350 by the arrival of the Black Death, bubonic and pneumonic plague which killed as much as one-third of the European population and made maintaining an army unrealistic for either side. During this period of relative peace, there were still excuses for the two nations to continue their bickering, not least of which was supporting rival claimants to the dukedom of Brittany in northwestern France. The many bloody skirmishes spawned by this dispute, and the resumption of full-blown hostilities leading to the battle of Poitiers itself, form much of the story of Sir Nigel.
After Poitiers in 1356, the prince immediately released his troops, who found themselves far from home with no source of income. Accustomed to the rewards of plunder, they formed the so-called Free Companies and proceeded to ravage the French countryside. In Paris, the government was powerless to protect the peasantry from the depredations of the Companies. Anger smoldered into flame in 1358 in a vicious peasant uprising called the Jacquerie, after the derisive name Jacque used by the nobles to refer to the typical peasant.
In 1360 the war was halted again by the treaty of Brétigny and two years later Edward III ceded Aquitaine to the Prince of Wales, who would hold court in its capitol, Bordeaux, for seven years. Once again, though there was no open warfare between England and France during this period, there were still opportunities for battle. The Spanish crown was contested by Pedro the Cruel, king of Castile, and his illegitimate brother Don Enrique (Henry) of Trastamare. Pedro was supported by the English, Henry by the French. As The White Company opens in the spring of 1366, armies are forming in southern France and northern Spain, and history is shepherding them inexorably toward their collision at the battle of Najera (Navarette) the following year.
In England, meanwhile, Edward III had achieved a stable central government and was in the process of repairing a longstanding national division. After William of Normandy had conquered England in 1066, his French-speaking barons had established rule over the local Saxons who spoke Old English. By Edward's time, the rift between master and serf had closed somewhat and, though the king himself barely spoke English, there was considerable interaction between the two groups and the Saxon language was being transformed into Middle English.
In England, as elsewhere in Europe, the nobility (and those who aspired to it) shared a great chivalric ideal. The fourteenth-century knight saw himself as the moral descendent of the mythical King Arthur: defender of the faith, upholder of justice, champion of the oppressed. The ideals of chivalry—prowess, honor, loyalty, courtesy, and courtly love—governed relationships, war, politics, indeed life itself, and provided some hope of order in a chaotic, brutal, and often arbitrary world.
But in spite of this unifying standard, real power was still largely fragmented, held by bickering local barons with no central source of order, so the Church emerged as a central civilizing influence in a society that desperately needed one. A commoner could not aspire to a position of nobility; his only paths to material improvement lay in joining his lord's army or taking holy orders. The Church would take in a young man, educate him in languages, art, and sciences, and train him to assume a position of respect in the community.
There was an actual White Company. It was formed out of the Free Companies in eastern France and was recruited as a mercenary army to fight in Italy in 1361. It finally broke up in 1364, two years before the story of The White Company opens. There was also a real Sir Nigel (or Neil or Nele) Loring. Knighted for bravery at Sluys, he was one of the original twenty-five knights of the Order of the Garter founded by Edward III in 1348. He became chamberlain (household manager) to the Black Prince following the battle of Poitiers, fought at the prince's side and was sent by him on important diplomatic missions.
Conan Doyle's aim in writing these novels was to reveal the everyday life of this period of English history, to make it accessible by wrapping it in an engaging story, and to celebrate the chivalric ideal. He felt that earlier authors such as Scott had concentrated on the maneuverings of the upper classes and the grand sweep of armies, at the expense of telling the human experience of the humble soldier, particularly the English archer. He shows us the beginnings of the new movements for social justice emerging in France and England. And he wanted us to know that in the midst of an ocean of misery and cruelty there flourished tiny islands of enlightenment and beauty, exemplified by the delicate works of stained glass that were among the highest achievements of the period's art. Conan Doyle was never less than enthusiastic in any of his writings, and every page of these stories pulses with life and glows with his love of the times.
Arthur Conan Doyle was certain that his two medieval novels "would illuminate our national traditions" and was disappointed that they became known as simple boys' adventures, playing second fiddle to Sherlock Holmes. Yet creating an adventure that can still quicken the pulse and fire the imagination after over a century is no small feat in itself. What a bonus, then, that Conan Doyle has been able to weave into these engaging stories a wealth of detail that shines a brilliant light on the fourteenth century, making it accessible to a new generation of readers.
Douglas Elliott has been writing about the life and works of Arthur Conan Doyle for over twenty-five years. He is the author of The Curious Incident of the Missing Link: Arthur Conan Doyle and Piltdown Man and the co-editor of The Annotated White Company.
Posted October 13, 2013
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Posted October 18, 2011
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