Bastard Battle by Céline Minard

Céline Minard’s novel is written in a brilliant pastiche of Middle French speckled with amusing anachronisms. She has drawn inspiration from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles as well as Villon’s poems and Rabelais’ satirical pentalogy. The other major source of influence lies in kung fu movies, samurai cinema, and westerns. The anachronistic clash of these two media, the late Medieval/early Renaissance texts and popular movies of the second half of the 20th century, has brought into being a monstrous hybrid that portrays the unspeakable cruelties of the Middle Ages with cinematic intensity and panache.

The novel is set in 1437, a time when French towns still suffered from raids of well-armed, ruthless brigands known as the écorcheurs (flayers). These bands of pillagers mostly consisted of unemployed mercenaries who had earned their lurid nickname for the frequent practice of stripping their victims naked.  Denysot the Cleric, aka the Hash, aka Spencer Five, narrates the gripping story of how the small town of Chaumont is first liberated from and then successfully defended against one such band led by Aligot, the bastard of Bourbon.

For the inhabitants of the neighbouring areas, the seizure of Chaumont marks just the beginning of a chain of iniquities committed by Aligot and his troops. Using the captured town as the home base for the écorcheurs, the bastard and his lieutenants unleash a gory orgy of murder, torture, rape, and desecration wherever their forays take them. However, the bastard’s well-established routine of unredressed atrocity from time to time gets interrupted by the sudden appearance of warriors whose extraordinary fighting skills provoke cognitive dissonance in the medieval minds of the brigands. It is no wonder, for these preternaturally gifted individuals owe their skills to the conventions of action movies. The first one to shock the brazen bastard is Six-Foot Adder (Vipère-d’une-toise), a Chinese woman with Shaolin Kung Fu training, who expertly wields a pole-arm tasselled with a scalp and can single-handedly defeat scores of the murderous mercenaries. Another shock comes when the Japanese swordsman Akira (an hommage both to the famous film director and the cult manga series) demonstrates his incredible mastery by splitting with his katana a flea on the cheek of a monastery novice without causing him any injury and thus saving his life from the jeering raiders, after which he takes the bastard himself as a temporary hostage and effortlessly escapes the retribution of his men. There is also a phenomenal archer called Billy (based on Billy the Kid, naturally) whose secret weapons are a pair of miniature culverins with revolving cylinders. In contrast to the two Asian masters, Billy briefly joins the bastard’s band, but his sympathies will eventually shift to the abused citizens and villagers. The recapture of Chaumont is precipitated by the arrival of the Valencian master of the spear Enguerrand de Montorell. Instead of confronting the bastard in a fair one-on-one combat, he is forced to engage a whole bunch of his lieutenants; the resulting mêlée rapidly evolves into an organised armed resistance. The main actors of the recapture are all of the above combat experts plus three reluctant members of the bastard’s cohorts, each proficient in his own way:  the peasant Tartas, who is unsurpassed in fighting with the spiked club “morning star”,  the forger Sunday the Wolf (Dimanche-le-loup), who is well versed in espionage and reconnaissance methods, and the narrator himself, who, aside from being a competent scribe and copyist, also proves to be skilled in the fighting style of the drunken master. Thanks to these seven leaders or “the seven samurai”, as they start calling themselves after Akira fills them in on his background, the bastard and his men find themselves stranded outside the city walls, yearning for revenge.

Still from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, 1954.

Each of the seven commanders organises combat training of the townspeople in the respective discipline. Thus, for example, the donjon court becomes a dojo in which Six-Foot Adder teaches women and young men the basics of kung fu. Her most talented pupil is Brucelet, who will demonstrate wonders of hand-to-hand combat at the end of the novel, terrifying the enemy both with his fighting technique and the stridency of his battle cry. After getting the blacksmith to forge swords similar to his katana, Akira instructs his students in the subtleties of swordsmanship, while Billy is in charge of training longbowmen. All the other members of the cadre are also involved in some kind of mentorship. When the citizens are well-trained and the fortifications are reinforced, Chaumont is ready to withstand any assault of the bastard’s troops. Even if some of “the seven samurai” are destined to perish in combat, we know that Aligot de Bourbon doesn’t stand a chance. We know it, because unlike him, we have seen the films featuring fighters similar to his opponents.

The clash of the two worlds orchestrated by Céline Minard in her bastardised text is anachronistic, for sure, but it is not incongruous. The writer’s main message is that although the sets and props of the human drama change with time, the primal violence accompanying it from the very beginning will always remain a constant. The last sentence in Denysot’s chronicle is “Et ainsi ja l’histoire ne finira” (And thus the story will never end). He writes this after the story of the bastard battle is long over and all the survivors have moved on with their lives. But he doesn’t mean that story, of course. It is a pessimistic observation regarding the violent nature of humanity. On the whole, Minard’s novel is a powerful and eloquent statement about our ambivalent relationship with violence. Many of us crave its aestheticised representation in novels, films and comic books, yet we are shocked when confronted with raw violence in reality, not less because the modern civilised society has insulated our daily lives against it. With Bastard Battle, Minard makes us acknowledge this ambivalence by infiltrating into the sordid and brutal Middle Ages familiar agents of aesthetically pleasing violence, so that we can catch ourselves at the exact moment when we start feeling relief, that crucial moment when the repugnant and horrific massacre perpetrated by the brutal denizens of the medieval world gives way to the fun massacre gracefully performed by our favourite action movie heroes.

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