La Male Mort

La Male Mort

« La Male Mort », the sudden death that terrifies the fifteenth century French, because it does not grant the necessary time to prepare to appear before one's Creator, is associated with the man of war.

Even if the armies are relatively small and the military operations localized, small bands of armed men circulate almost everywhere. Sometimes they wade through without causing any damage, taking from the peasant a strict minimum; some of them even pay for what they take. But often they spread through the countryside to pillage, ransom, rape, and murder, knowing neither friend nor foe. For the peasant there is a single alternative: flee or attempt to defend himself.

Fleeing towards the next castle or wood might be the first reflex but sometimes, driven by despair and fear, threatened village populations gather and attack isolated warriors. Often, frightened at their own audacity, fearing retaliation, the peasants then implore the King's justice to grant them forgiveness.

Examples of peasant revenge abound in the Chancellerie registers: some of them ambush the warriors in the woods; others, their houses threatened by fire, club to death the incendiary; others, having taken pillagers as prisoners, drown them in the nearest pond rather than freeing them and exposing themselves to a retaliation.

I found this piece in Armagnacs et Bourguignons — la maudite guerre, an excellent book on the french civil war at the end of the Hundred Years' War. The "Male Mort" seems not only dealt by men of the sword, the peasants are in the trade as well.

Here is another extract, one page later:

The bailiff, as soon as the enemy's advance has been signalled, orders on all public places to put the bailiwick in a state of defense. The inhabitants of the countryside must take all their livestock and their food and retreat into the fortified city or the closest castle. There, a lodge will be rented to them by the captain or the lord until the danger wanes. Meanwhile, the refugees will have to take their share of guard turns, lookout turns, and in the financial support of the man at arms of the garrison.

The agents of the lord trace through their circonscriptions to ensure nobody and nothing is left in the countryside. The enemy, upon arrival, musn't find anything to "refresh" itself. It's thus necessary to demolish ovens and forges, and to render mills unusable.


The baillif pays particular attention to the inspection of small fortresses, if they are too weak to resist, they must be neutralized or at least rendered unhabitable, to prevent the foe from using them as shelter or as forward bases to launch destruction raids.

The milking of the peasants is aggravated by the crisis.

In some provinces, disorganization is so wide that the population have to flee to the woods. This phenomenon increases the insecurity and the royal or ducal authorities attempt to prevent it at any cost. Bands of uprooted peasants team up and become as dangerous as the bands of men-at-arms are. They too pillage, ransom, and murder. They're called « larrons », or « guetteurs de chemins ». When taken, they are quickly executed. Some regions are infested by those bands. That's the case for Normandy after the english conquest. A big crowd of Normands have fled messily the troops of Henry V. Nobles and commoners together are sheltering in the woods. They are qualified as « brigands », and like "beasts and wolves" they terrorize the areas held by the English. It goes beyond simple brigandage, their main targets in Normandy are the English and their friends.

Finally, I can't resist translating this extract about medieval intel:

An intelligence network is set up, bridges, roads, and crossroads are under surveillance, riders are ready to raise the alarm for any suspicious movement. Lookouts, knowing every inch of the countryside, leave the city or the castle every night to explore the surroundings. If the enemy camp is not too far, spies are sent. Franciscans and soldier girls are used for the task (they have in common an ability to circulate easily...).