Medieval Europe was almost constantly at war. The Wikipedia page listing conflicts in Europe has over 50 battles fought in the 14th century alone. Many of these were part of the Hundred Years’ War, between England and France. This war nominally began in 1337 when King Edward III’s claim to the throne of France was rejected, and didn’t end until 116 years later with the Battle of Castillon on July 17, 1453.
Battle in the 14th century had strict rules and customs. There was a hierarchy among the soldiers. The main fighters would be the knights, with their horses, armor and a retinue of foot soldiers to support them. Due to the cost, knights were mainly from the nobility (and conversely, those who were not of high birth but managed to become knights joined the ranks of the nobility later on). The knights were supported by light cavalry – wealthy commoners protected by lighter armor carrying lances, javelins, bows or crossbows. The lowest class of soldiers was the infantry. These foot soldiers were often serfs, recruited by the landowning knights, or mercenaries from all over Europe. The infantry was by far the most numerous part of the medieval army, but often considered the most disposable.
With their sense of chivalry, tradition and hierarchy, the knights looked down on the infantry as unimportant. But they also considered them insignificant in battle. Often, the knights would charge headlong to fight one another, focusing solely on their social counterparts, and virtually ignore the infantrymen.
But King Edward III realized that the traditional hierarchy with its battle tactics wasn’t the best way of winning wars. His grandfather, Edward I had defeated William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk largely due to his reliance on the longbow. Although a longbow looks like a simple piece of wood – preferably yew – it took years of training and practice to master the weapon. But what a powerful weapon it was. A skilled man could shoot half a dozen arrows a minute and each arrow was capable of killing a man at over 200 yards. It could penetrate armor and bring down the horses upon which the knights rode.
So, in 1363, Edward III mandated that every adult man practice archery on every feast day, Sunday and holiday (and at the same time banned soccer and other sports):
The King to the Lord-lieutenant of Kent, greeting: Whereas the people of our realm rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practice archery – whence by God’s help, it is well known that high honour and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises – and that now skill in the use of the bow having fallen almost wholly into disrepute, our subjects give themselves up to the throwing of stones and of wood and of iron; and some to handball and football and hockey; and others… even to other unseemly sports less useful and manly; whereby our realm – which God forbid – will soon, it would appear, be void of archers.
We, wishing that a fitting remedy be found in this matter, do hereby ordain, that in all places in your country… a proclamation be made to this effect: that every man … if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows… and so learn and practise archery.
Moreover we ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball, football or hockey… or other such idle games.
With this decree, not only did he ensure he would have a well-regulated militia of longbowmen he could call up when necessary, but also elevated the role of the archer to become an important part of the army and strategy. And the requirement for every adult man to practice shooting closed the gap somewhat between the cavalry of nobles and the infantry of commoners. They were all united in their knowledge of archery.
Edward had upended tradition of reliance mainly on the mounted knights by recognizing the importance of the longbow. And this led him to some stunning victories.
Just 13 years after his archery decree, Edward fought the French in the Battle of Crécy. On July 12th, 1346 , Edward and his army, transported on more than 700 boats, landed in the Contentin Peninsula to claim the Kingdom of France that he believed was rightly his (he was the nephew of the previous king). His men began fighting their way along the Seine, towards Paris sacking towns on their way. By August 12th, the English were encamped only 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the French capital.
There were somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 English and Welsh soldiers on the outskirts of Paris. The French King Philip VI had at least twice as many men, and according to some estimates as many as 120,000. His troops were supported by Genoese crossbowmen. This Italian elite corps of professional soldiers would go into battle protected by pavises – large shields carried by a soldier behind which three crossbowmen could shelter to protect themselves from enemy arrows. These well-trained Genoese soldiers could fire only two arrows a minute, and their range was shorter than that of the English and Welsh longbowmen.
Despite superior numbers, the French were decimated at the Battle of Crécy. The English had time to rest and encamp, digging pits before their positions to halt any cavalry charge. They had set their position at the top of a hill and were well rested, having been there since dawn.
Philip’s men were spotted by the English around noon. Philip set up a council of war where the French officials were confident of victory but advised waiting until the next day before attacking. However, the soldiers – whether at Philip’s command or out of simple confusion and chaos – began the battle immediately.
As the Genoese crossbowmen moved forward, a sudden rainstorm broke over the field. The English longbowmen removed the strings from their bows and placed them under their hats to keep them dry and prevent them from becoming slack. The Genoese had leather strings in their bows so could not protect them from becoming wet. They were also without their protective pavises which had been left behind in the chaos with the baggage along with their reserve ammunition. They quickly shot no more than two volleys and turned to flee from the rain of arrows coming from English archers.
But Philip’s knights following behind hacked the crossbowmen down as they ran. The nobles didn’t think much of the archers at the best of times, didn’t bother to wait for them to be prepared or properly armed, and now viewed them as cowards. Because they thought that the real fighting was for the mounted knights.
The English longbowmen continued firing into the carnage of the French killing, their own archers. The ground was now muddy, slippery and treacherous, especially for the horses. And the English, standing at the top of the hill, continued to unleash volley after volley at the French.
Time after time the French charged towards the English. Each time the soldiers and their horses were met with a barrage of arrows, which could penetrate armor and bring down the unprotected horses. Yet they continued charging late into the night. In a tremendous display of bravery, John of Bohemia rode out towards the English intending to bring them down with his sword, despite the fact that he was 50-years-old and completely blind. The medieval chronicler Jean Froissart described the event:
…for all that he was nigh blind, when he understood the order of the battle, he said to them about him: ‘Where is the lord Charles my son?’ His men said: ‘Sir, we cannot tell; we think he be fighting.’ Then he said: ‘Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.’ They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire, and so they went on their enemies.
The lord Charles of Bohemia his son, who wrote himself king of Almaine and bare the arms, he came in good order to the battle; but when he saw that the matter went awry on their party, he departed, I cannot tell you which way. The king his father was so far forward that he strake a stroke with his sword, yea and more than four, and fought valiantly and so did his company; and they adventured themselves so forward, that they were there all slain, and the next day they were found in the place about the king, and all their horses tied each to other.
Eventually, Philip abandoned the battle. Thousands of nobles had been killed – more than 2,200 heraldic coats were taken from the field as war booty by the English – and well over 10,000 lower-born foot soldiers. The French losses included one king (John of Bohemia), nine princes, ten counts, a duke, and archbishop and a bishop. This was in keeping with the prevailing chivalric ideals that it is better to die in battle than to dishonorably flee the field.
Meanwhile, the English, who had upended the traditional rules of chivalry with their reliance on archers, suffered only about 40 casualties (though some historians think it may have been about 300).
Edward went on to conquer Calais which the British held on to for the next two centuries.
King Philip and his army had tradition on their side. They held firm to the hierarchy of battle and the noble goal of dying honorably in battle. Meanwhile, Edward had realized more than a decade earlier that the way to win wars was to rethink the battle strategy and rely heavily on his archers, though they were not high-born or even wealthy. From then on, the longbow became a dominant weapon in the battlefields of Western Europe and English and Welsh archers were highly prized mercenaries.
Time and again, battles and wars were won by one army using new tactics and weaponry while their opponents clung fast to tradition and honor. In the struggle of tradition against innovation, often the traditionalists are forced to rethink.
It is not only in war that traditionalists are left behind as the reality evolves around them. One area where this concept is clear is in religion. Many religions adapt with time, due to new realities or a change in social values. In doing so, they leave behind those who are still wedded to the old order of things.
The destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE was a time of great upheaval for the Jewish community in Israel. The priestly-led, Jerusalem-based religion was forced to adapt into a rabbinic-led faith centered around the synagogue and the study hall. Many were unable to adapt and disappeared from the tradition.
But an equally important change happened in the process of halacha.
But first, let’s talk about the weekly Torah portion, Hukat. The portion begins with the laws of the red heifer. The ashes of the red heifer were used to purify people who had come into contact with a corpse. It was essential for the functioning of the Temple, because everyone who came there (and everyone had to come three times a year) had to be ritually pure to partake of the sacrifices.
Yet the laws of the red heifer were full of contradictions. For example, when sprinkled on someone who was ritually impure, the ashes made that person pure. Yet at the same time, the person who did the sprinkling became impure, and had to immerse in a mikva before partaking in anything holy.
The laws of the red heifer are so difficult that even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, was unable to fathom the reasoning behind them. Bamidbar Rabba 19:3 says:
King Solomon said: All these I explained. But the section of the red heifer, I investigated and asked and examined, but ‘I said will get wisdom, yet it was far from me,’ (Ecclesiastes 7:23).
The red heifer is considered the ultimate statute, beyond human logic and reason. However, the midrash (Pesikta de-Rav Kehana: Para) associates the laws of the red heifer with one particular rabbi:
Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina: When Moses went up to Heaven, he heard the Voice of the Holy One, blessed is He, who was sitting and learning the section of the Red Heifer. He was saying the halakha in the name of the one who said it: Rabbi Eliezer says, “A heifer is one year old and a cow is two years old…” (Mishna Para 1:1). Moses said before the Holy One, blessed is He, “Master of the Universe, the upper and lower [worlds] are in Your dominion yet You sit and say the halakha in the name of [a creature of] flesh and blood?”
The Holy One, blessed is He said to him, ‘Moses, in the future there will be one righteous man who will stand in my world, and he will begin with the section about the Red Heifer first… [Moses] said before Him, ‘Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that he should be a descendant of mine.’ The Holy One, blessed is He, said, ‘By your life he is a descendant of yours, for the verse says, “The name of the one was Eliezer” (Shemot 18:4). This means that the name of that unique [righteous person] is Eliezer.’
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos was the ultimate traditionalist. He was described by his teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, as “A plastered cistern which does not lose a drop,” (Avot 2:8). He retained everything he was taught and boasted (Nida 7b) that he only ruled in accordance with what he had learned.
It was taught: R. Eliezer said to R. Joshua, ‘You have not heard but I have heard; you have only heard one tradition but I have heard many; people do not ask him who has not seen the new moon to come and tender evidence but only him who has seen it.’
Rabbi Eliezer was the standard-bearer of the tradition. In fact, his contemporary, Rabbi Yehoshua compared him to the Torah that Moses received at Sinai (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:3):
Rabbi Eliezer’s Yeshiva was shaped like an arena, and in it there was a stone reserved for him to sit upon. Once, Rabbi Yehoshua entered [Rabbi Eliezer’s Yeshiva]. He began kissing the stone [upon which Rabbi Eliezer had sat] and said, “This stone is like Mount Sinai, and the one who sat upon it is like the Ark of the Covenant.”
Both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua had seen the Temple. They had lived in Jerusalem until just before its destruction. But in the post-Temple era, Judaism needed to evolve and change. It was a new world and innovation would be the only way to survive.
Rabbi Yehoshua embodied the new Judaism, which would be based on reasoned argument and majority rule. Rabbi Eliezer held fast to the old-world order, where everything was in accordance with God’s will. This dispute came to a head in an incident described by the Talmud in Bava Metzia 59b.
[Rabbi Eliezer] replied, ‘If the halacha is like me let the Heavens prove it.’ A voice came out of heaven and said, ‘Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer for the halacha is like him in every case?’ Rabbi Joshua stood up on his feet and said, ‘It is not in Heaven.’
The Talmud goes on to tell that many years later, Rabbi Natan met Elijah the prophet and asked him what God did at that time. Elijah said, “God smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.’”
According to the rabbis of the Talmud, God Himself agreed to the new system of halachic decision-making. Which then became the basis of all future Judaism. This is why the Talmud (Menachot 29b) tells of Moses traveling through time to visit Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and being unable to understand anything being said there.
Moses prayed that Rabbi Eliezer should be one of his descendants. And like Moses, Rabbi Eliezer was unable to adapt to the new halachic process. Although his views are recorded throughout the Mishna, the halacha is almost never in accordance with his opinion.
But his traditionalist approach is why God invoked Rabbi Eliezer’s name and teachings in connection to the red heifer. In the new system of logic, argument and reasoned decision making, the red heifer was an enigma. But it fit in perfectly to the worldview of Rabbi Eliezer, where the word of God was all that mattered. No matter how much things changed, regardless of the new reality of a post-Temple Judaism, Rabbi Eliezer’s views remained fixed at Sinai. He was the ultimate originalist.
King Philip clung to tradition, but lost the battle to King Edward who upended the heraldic codes of war. Rabbi Eliezer continued the traditions of Moses, but his views were written out of the later halachic books.
As society evolves, the originalists cling to the past. But ultimately they are swept away by the new reality and the world moves on without them.
Thanks to Tim Harford, who spoke about the Battle of Crecy on his Cautionary Tales podcast.
My current series on WebYeshiva is entitled, “Rebuilding After Destruction Through Text” and is live every Tuesday. I spoke last week about Rabbi Eliezer and the other students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, most of whom were unable to adapt to the new reality. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.