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New Acquisition: 15th-Century Manuscript on the Laws of War for Knights

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A few months ago, I highlighted on this blog two medieval manuscripts that the Law Library recently acquired. In this post, I would like to announce the acquisition of another new addition to the Law Library’s growing collection of medieval manuscripts, a remarkable 15th-century manuscript of L’Arbre des Batailles (The Tree of Battles) by the Provençal author Honorat Bovet.

A page opening of the Law Library's 15th-century manuscript of l'Arbre des Batailles
The Law Library’s 15th-century manuscript of l’Arbre des Batailles of Honorat Bovet. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

Bovet was born around the year 1350 to a family situated in the town of Valernes in Provence, France. He took his vows as a Benedictine monk in the Abbey of l’Ile-Barbe in Lyon sometime before 1368 and received his doctorate in canon law at the University of Avignon in 1386. He served as the prior of Selonnet in Provence. Between 1384 and 1389 he composed L’Arbre des Batailles, which he dedicated to Charles VI of France. Charles VI in turn gave Bovet a pension and employed him in diplomatic capacities. (Millet and Hanly, pp. 147-150.) After 1393, he took up residence in Paris and remained closely connected to the royal court. (Kilgour, p. 352.)

Despite Bovet’s high degree of learning, he chose to write L’Arbre des Batailles not as an academic treatise, but as an accessible guide book for knights, heralds, and men-at-arms who engaged in combat and who were in need of a usable reference work for their endeavors. The work is divided into four books. In the first two books, Bovet offers an overview of history based in part on the Book of Revelation and on part on Paulus Orosius’ Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri vii, which was one of the primary sources of narrative history about Greek and Roman antiquity available in the West until the Renaissance. This was meant to give context to the act of combat. The third and fourth book, which comprise about three quarters of the whole work, deal with questions relating to battle. There, Bovet discusses legal and moral principles, issues of strategy and efficacy versus custom and virtue; he touches on rules governing coats of arms and trial by combat; he relates to various practical aspects of war, including compensation for combatants, ransom and relations with non-combatants. He is one of the earlier voices of compassion for non-combatants and outrage at knights who commit unwarranted harm to peasants. (Kilgour, pp. 354-356.) These topics are organized into 140 short scholastic style questions and answers that present his analysis in an easy to grasp form. Some examples will give the flavor of the questions addressed:

“Whether in time of war the ass should have the privilege of the ox”; “Whether a place can be taken by escalade in time of truce”; “Whether a Christian King can give safe-conduct to a Saracen King”; “Whether a wager of battle can be fought before a Queen.” (Myers, p. 437.)

The third and fourth book of Bovet’s work were in essence a popularization of an earlier work by the Bolognese professor of canon law, Giovanni da Legnano. Legnano’s work De bello, de represaliis et de duelo, which he composed in 1360, appeared in print in the 15th century; the Law Library owns it in this early edition. There is also a modern edition of the work with an introduction and English translation published in 1917 by Sir Thomas Erskine Holland (1835-1926).

Image of the painted miniature that adorns the frontispiece of the Law Library's 15th-century manuscript of l'Arbre des Batailles
The painted miniature on this page of the Law Library’s manuscript of l’Arbre des Batailles depicts l’arbre de douleur, or the tree of suffering. Photo by Nathan Dorn.

Bovet’s work was very well-received, a popularity attested by the existence of over 90 manuscripts of the work in collections throughout the world. The Law Library owns one additional 15th-century manuscript of the work. It was also heavily translated and adapted in other works. L’Arbre des Batailles was translated for Gilbert de la Hayes of Roslyn, Scotland in 1456. There were also Castilian, Catalan, and Occitan translations by the mid-15th century. There were at least six editions of it printed before 1501. The French poet Christine de Pisan (1364-1430), operating in the court of Charles VI, relied very heavily on Bovet’s work in writing her Livre des faits d’armes et de chevalerie (The Book of Feats of Arms and of Chivalry), which appeared in 1410. William Caxton published this work in English as Boke of the fayt of armes and of chyualrye in 1489. The Library has a modern English translation of Christine de Pisan’s book by Sumner Willard. Other works were influenced by Bovet as well, including Blason des Couleurs by Sicile, herald of Alfonso V of Aragon; Boke of Noblesse by William Worcester; Nicholas Upton’s De Studio Militari; and Le Jouvencel of Jean de Bueil.

The manuscript that the Law Library acquired is a substantial 152 parchment folios measuring 298mm x 203mm. It was likely produced in Rouen, France, around the year 1479. The binding, which is from the 18th century, is brown calf over pasteboard. The manuscript once belonged to Sir Thomas Phillipps and retains on its spine the small paper label with the number Phillipps assigned to it, 4544.

There is one large miniature on the verso of the second folio, which depicts “l’arbre de douleur” or “the tree of suffering,” an image that Bovet touches upon in his work. It is a tree with several layers of branches in which various scenes and actors appear in each layer. At the apex appears the figure of Fortune and her wheel. In the top branches, the ecclesiastical leadership can be seen at the left, and the secular rulers at the right. The second level shows a battle of mounted soldiers. At the lowest level, knights fight with axes on the left and soldiers hassle peasants on the right.

As a fun aside, there is a problem with Bovet’s name. Customarily, he has been known as Honoré Bonet. This is reflected in the Library of Congress authority record for this author. Many authors now use the form Honorat Bovet, which was proposed as a correction by French historian and paleographer Gilbert Ouy. Honorat is the Provençal form of Honoré. Bonet and Bovet are graphically indistinguishable in manuscripts, as are the attested forms Bonnet and Bouvet. Meantime, many variants are attested: Bonet, Bonnet, Bovet, Bouet, Bouvet, Bongnet, Bonnor, Bonhor, Bonhar and in Latin, Boneti, Boveti, and Beneti. Ouy pointed out that Bovet is to be preferred because the author’s armor bore an image of a young bull (bouvillon) and Bovet himself cited Carobovis as his surname (in Latin). Bovet preserves the bovine association of both the author’s name and his armor. (Millet and Hanly, pp. 138-139.)


Bonet, Honoré, active 1378-1398; Ernest Nys. L’arbre des batailles d’Honoré Bonet. Bruxelles: C. Muquardt, 1883.

Bonet, Honoré, active 1378-1398. The buke of the law of armys; or, Buke of bataillis; ed. with introduction by J. H. Stevenson. Edinburgh and London, Printed for the Society by W. Blackwood and sons, 1901.

Bonet, Honoré, active 1378-1398. Arbre des batailles. Liverpool, University Press, 1949.

Bonet, Honoré, active 1378-1398. L’arbre des batailles / Honore Bovet; edition d’apres le manuscrit Bibliotheque de Geneve (BGE), comites latentes 168 par Reinhilt Richter-Bergmeier. Geneve: Droz, [2017]

Bonet, Honoré, active 1378-1398. Arbre des batailles. Spanish. Árbol de batallas / Honoré de Bouvet; versión castellana atribuida a Diego de Valera; introducion, edicion y notas de Antorio Contreras Martin. Spain: Ministerio de Defensa, 2008.

Kilgour, Raymond L. “Honoré Bonet: A Fourteenth-Century Critic of Chivalry.” PMLA, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Jun., 1935), pp. 352-361.

Martin, Robert. “L’Arbre des batailles [Textes littéraires français, 644] by Honoré Bovetand Reinhilt Richter-Bergmeier.” Romania, Vol. 135, No. 539/540 (3/4) (2017), pp. 498-500. (book review)

Millet, Hélène and Hanly, Michael. “Les Batailles d’Honorat Bovet: Essai de Biographie.” Romania., Vol. 114, No. 453/454 (1/2) (1996), pp. 135-181.

Myers, Denys P. “The Tree of Battles of Honore Bonet / by G. W. Coopland.” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Apr. 1950), p. 437. (book review)


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