L’homme armé / The armed man: the remarkable life of a 15th century song and its contemporary resonance

armedman4L’homme arméThe armed man – has but one verse and a fabulous melody. It is like a door ajar, inviting us into a menacing world: “Everywhere it has been proclaimed that each man shall arm himself with a coat of iron mail. The armed man should be feared.” We don’t know its origin or who composed it, only that it emerged in the middle of the 15th century as a secular song in the French language. It enjoyed huge popularity across Europe among composers of masses, who incorporated its melody as a cantus firmus. Why did this single verse about fearing the armed man have such unprecedented resonance? The answer is in a disastrous military defeat in 1453 which cut to the very heart of renaissance cultural identity, a mirror to events and issues which strike at the core of our international identity today.

With a video of the melody arranged for lute, this article outlines the history and meaning of the song from the 15th century until the present day, including the roles of Sultan Mehmet II, Pope Pius II, and the sadly all-too-real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler.

Click to play video – opens in new window. Mid 15th century melody, L’homme armé – The armed man, arranged and played by Ian Pittaway and Paul Baker on lute and recorder. Its origin is probably Franco-Flemish, the subject of its lyric fear of armed force.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window. Mid 15th century melody, L’homme arméThe armed man, arranged and played by Ian Pittaway on lute. Its origin is probably Franco-Flemish, the subject of its lyric fear of armed force.

The origins of The armed man

battle
(As with all pictures, click for larger version in new window.)

L’homme armé doibt on doubter.
On a fait partout crier
Que chascun se viegne armer
D’un haubregon de fer.
L’homme armé doibt on doubter.

The armed man should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The armed man should be feared.

L’homme arméThe armed man – first appeared in the 1450s or ’60s and was a popular melody for two and a half centuries. Italian composer and music theorist, Pietro Aron (also rendered Piero Aaron), in his treatise of 1523, Thoscanello, stated that Dutch composer Antoine Busnois (also Busnoys) composed the melody. Aron is the only witness, and his testament is questionable.

Antoine Busnois was a singer in the Burgundian court of Duke Charles the Bold, as was Robert Morton. One of these two singers composed a quodlibet, a song which combines elements of other songs in counterpoint. This particular quodlibet, Il sera pour vous, was based on L’homme armé. Translated, the words are:

Francais403Apocalypse1250
A battle axe, sword and chain mail as shown in an illuminated manuscript from Salisbury, England, dated 1250 (now BNF Français 403 Apocalypse).

It will be fought for you
against the Turk, Master Simon,
certainly it will be,
and the axe will beat him.

His pride will be humbled
if the villain falls into your hands,
It will be fought for you
against the Turk, Master Simon,
certainly it will be,
and the axe will beat him.

Soon you will have him beaten
to please God, then we shall say
Long live Simonet the Breton,
who has fought against the Turk.

It will be fought for you
against the Turk, Master Simon,
certainly it will be,
and the axe will beat him.

These words are sung while the tenor sings:

The man, the man, the armed man,
beware of the armed man.
Everywhere is the cry:
Into battle
With an iron breastplate.

It is impossible to say who the original composer of L’homme armé was; but possible writer of the quodlibet, Antoine Busnois, was certainly one of the first composers – maybe the first composer – to incorporate its melody into a religious mass. From the 15th century onwards, a mass was a setting of a cantus firmus, a fixed tune, around which other polyphonic voices were arranged. The fact that Busnois used the secular melody in a religious setting probably indicates that he incorporated rather than composed it.

The armed man goes forth

Busnois’ use of L’homme armé in a mass was soon emulated by Franco-Flemish composers Guillaume Du Fay and Jacob Obrecht and, by the end of the 17th century, a remarkable forty mass cycles using L’homme armé had been composed by nearly as many composers – some composed more than one mass with the tune as its basis.

Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that this huge popularity was not just down to the melody and the spread of an idea that employed composers’ creativity. “The armed man should be feared” for a mass? Whatever the artistic merits of the melody, there is a political explanation, which also accounts for the words of the quodlibet, Il sera pour vous / L’homme armé: “It will be fought for you against the Turk, Master Simon”.

constantine.statueinYork
The Emperor Constantine, as depicted by a statue in York.

In AD 330, the city of Constantinople was founded by Roman Emperor Constantine on the Greek village of Byzantine. It became the capital city of the Roman/Byzantine Empire, the largest metropolis in the world, and the remaining medieval manifestation of former Roman power. Since the very idea of the European renaissance, beginning in the 14th and 15th century, was the revival of classical Roman and Greek wisdom, the symbolic importance of Constantinople cannot be overstated.

By the middle of the 15th century, Constantinople had been considerably weakened as a political force: by the power struggle between the Christianity of east and west that led to the Great Schism of 1054, splitting the church into Orthodox and Catholic; by the Black Death which took a third to half of the city’s inhabitants in 1347; by the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire, which by then had taken nearly all of modern-day Turkey. This backdrop aided the army of the Ottoman Empire in taking small towns and cities around Constantinople in order to cut off supplies to the capital, leading to an eight week siege in 1453, during which Constantine XI, the last of the Roman emperors, was killed. Military leader Sultan Mehmed II claimed Constantinople as the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, continuing the medieval struggle between Catholicism and Islam as competing faiths which, in previous centuries, had been characterised by six Catholic crusades from the 11th to 13th centuries, declared by successive popes against Muslims (in which Jews were also massacred).

The siege of Constantinople in Chronique de Charles VII by Jean Chartier, a manuscript now classified as BNF Fr 2691, created between 1450 and 1475.
The siege of Constantinople in Chronique de Charles VII by Jean Chartier (now BNF Fr 2691), a manuscript created between 1450 and 1475.

The first examples of The armed man masses appear soon after the fall of Constantinople: “The armed man should be feared. Everywhere it has been proclaimed that each man shall arm himself with a coat of iron mail. The armed man should be feared.” Who is this armed man? A representative Turk taking Constantinople? A representative Christian fighting back? Many suggestions for individuals have been made, each lacking any concrete evidence. If the armed man is a symbol, he doesn’t have to be an identifiable individual.

In the light of these events, it is very unlikely that the great many composers of France, the Flanco-Flemish school, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain who composed The armed man masses had only beautiful and skilful polyphony in mind. Tellingly, Guillaume Du Fay, as well as composing one of the earliest examples, wrote Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae ConstantinopolitanaeLamentation of the Holy Mother Church of Constantinople, a direct musical reference to the fall of the city.

Pope Pius II and Vlad the Impaler

Seeking to remedy the situation in favour of the Catholic Christian empire against the Muslim empire, Pope Pius II called for a new crusade – a seventh crusade – against the Ottomans in 1459. He had become pope the previous year, and in 1461 he declared that the new crusade should last for three years. The call went out to the leaders of Europe, to unite against the enemy rather than engaging in destructive internal power struggles. Just as the rulers of Europe had failed to come to the aid of Constantinople before or during 1453, the call to arms for another crusade to turn back the clock was almost universally ignored. One of the few to respond positively was the Prince of Wallachia in modern Romania, Vlad Drăculea, known to posterity as Vlad the Impaler and to horror film watchers as the fictionalised Count Dracula, but he was too preoccupied with his own in-fighting and defending his own territory to take part in a crusade.

Vlad did, however, play his part at home in a way that the pontiff found admirable. Vlad was made military commander of Wallachia in 1456, three years after Constantinople fell, and he immediately sought to solidify his anti-Ottoman stance. Peace between Wallachia and the Ottomans had been maintained by the payment of an annual tribute to the sultan (sovereign or ruler), which Vlad stopped in 1459, the year Pope Pius II called for the new crusade. Vlad then invaded Bulgaria and reputedly impaled 23,000 Turks on stakes.

Sultan Mehmet II, who had conquered Constantinople 9 years earlier, led the retaliatory invasion of Wallachia in 1462, with the intention of taking it for the Ottoman Empire. A series of battles followed, and Mehmet led his troops to Wallachia’s capital city, Târgoviște, where he found 20,000 more Turks impaled on Vlad’s orders. After withdrawal and the burning down of a city on the way, the Ottomans retreated altogether. The killings led to victory by neither side, but both sides claimed it.

Vlad III eats his meal outside so he can watch his impaled victims die on stakes. A woodcut from a pamphlet of 1499.
Vlad III eats his meal outside so he can watch his impaled victims die on stakes. A woodcut from a pamphlet of 1499.

It wasn’t only Turks that Vlad led to a gruesome death. Once he was military commander, he saw it as his job to put an end to the constant conflicts between the members of Wallachia’s old aristocracy, the boyars, and to take revenge on them for the assassination of his father and the live burial of his elder brother. He put on a feast for the boyars at which he had them all arrested. The older aristocracy and their families were impaled there and then. The younger nobles and their families were marched to the ruins of his fortress and kept as slaves to rebuild it, most of them dying in the process. In place of the boyars, Vlad promoted free peasants and members of the middle class to positions of power, knowing that their gratitude – and their fear – would keep them loyal. This was pure self-interest, not any sense of concern for the less well-off, as Vlad viewed the ill and the poor as work-shy vermin. The oral tradition passed down a tale of him inviting the ill and poor to a banquet, only so he could lock them inside the building to burn them alive.

The effect of the decline and fall of Constantinople on the Italian renaissance

At the time of Constantinople’s greatest need, renaissance Europe had singularly failed to come to the aid of the Byzantine city. But, while the decline and fall of Constantinople was a symbolic blow, it also fuelled and advanced renaissance learning through, at first, economic migration, and then through the influx of refugees.

Manuel Chrysoloras (left) and Theodorus Gaza (right), two Byzantine émigrés to Italy who furthered the Italian renaissance. (Engravings by Nicolas III de Larmessin, 1640–1725, and anonymous.)
Manuel Chrysoloras (left) and Theodorus Gaza (right), two Byzantine émigrés to Italy who furthered the Italian renaissance. (Engravings by Nicolas III de Larmessin, 1640–1725, and anonymous.)

There had been Byzantine émigrés to Italy long before the siege: by the turn of the 15th century, it had become clear that the days of the dilapidated empire were numbered, and some citizens looked for ways to escape the coming collapse, turning to Italy as the cultural centre of the new renaissance. One of the most well-known to make the journey was Constantinople-born Manuel (Emmanuel) Chrysoloras who, in 1390, led an ambassadorial visit to Venice to plead for aid against the advancing Ottoman Turks. When their requests for help were not met with action, the Chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati, invited Chrysoloras to live in Italy to teach Greek grammar and literature. He arrived in 1397, opening up a huge cultural opportunity: the Greek language had not been studied in Italy for 700 years. This led the way for others to follow in his footsteps, among them Theodorus Gaza (Theodore Gazis), who escaped to Italy after the Turkish invasion of his native Thessaloniki in 1430, becoming professor of Greek in the new University of Ferrara in 1447.

By the middle of the 15th century, Venice had a Greek population of around 4,000 people, concentrated mainly in the Castello district, causing Roman Catholic Cardinal Bessarion to remark at the time that Venice was ‘almost another Byzantium’. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 then resulted in Byzantines fleeing for their lives, some taking with them the cultural treasures of book-learning so lauded by renaissance scholars. It was thanks to these incomers to Italy that the classical works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch and Cassius Dio were saved from everlasting destruction, men whose histories and philosophies were to have a significant bearing on the political thought of 16th and 17th century Italy.

Most of the incomers were not professional scholars, of course, but most notably rowers on ships, commercial carpenters, and royalty in exile. However, all of the Byzantine population who had been through its higher education system were able to read classical Greek and compose new works in its style, since this legacy of language and literature was integral to Byzantine schooling. Thus many immigrants to Italy, desperate and destitute on arrival, made a huge cultural contribution by making their living as expert scribal copiers of Greek manuscripts, and in later years prepared them for printing. These almost anonymous scribes and printers are known only by their signatures or colophons (publisher’s imprint or emblem).

L’homme armé today

The melody of L’homme armé, popular from the mid 15th century to the end of the 17th century, has been revived for other treatments in recent years. The fact that the origin of the words and melody remain unknown, and that it was reworked over and over again, qualifies it as a traditional song. Apt, then, that folk band Mawkin Causley recorded it for their album, The Awkward Recruit, in 2009. Composers in the classical tradition, such as Peter Maxwell Davies, have given it their own treatment from the late 20th century on. The most musically far-reaching example has been Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, composed in 1999, commissioned by the Royal Armouries to mark the millennium. Impressively wide-ranging, its movements take the listener through the 15th century original; a traditional Muslim Adhann or call to prayer in Arabic; the Kyrie eleison, Greek for ‘Lord have mercy’; military trumpets and drums; a setting of words about the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima by Japanese poet, Toge Sankichi; part of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, describing the effect of war upon animals; a survivor mourning a friend killed in battle; and a setting of words by 15th century English author of Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, “Better is peace than always war”.

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The song fragment L’homme armé, and the many masses it was incorporated into, is not only part of a brutal medieval and renaissance past: there are plenty of places in the world where the armed man dominates, where dictators and warring factions make torture, disappearance and public murder a daily occurrence. The populations of such places fear the armed men, with their targetting of civilians, their improvised explosive devices, drones and barrel bombs. This one verse is like a door ajar, inviting us into their terrifying world of violence. The armed man still produces refugees, like those who fled Constantinople and made such a significant contribution to the Italian and wider European renaissance, like the fleeing civilians of two world wars, like those who escape over land and sea today only in order to choose life over death. Sadly, after half a millennium, those 15th century words are still current and relevant. “Everywhere it has been proclaimed that each man shall arm himself with a coat of iron mail. The armed man should be feared.”

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