On October 25, 1415 (St. Crispin’s Day), the army of King Henry V of England engaged the army of Charles VI of France at Agincourt, in Northern France. The battle was famously depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Estimates say that as many as 10,000 Frenchmen died, while as few as 112 Englishmen perished (the numbers reported vary somewhat). Henry’s speech before the battle is classic:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Somewhere that morning, unrecorded by Shakespeare, a French farmer awoke and fed his pigs. He milked his cows, said his prayers, and wondered whether winter would be early. He heard about the battle some weeks later and shook his head.
Agincourt was a single battle in a conflict known as the Hundred Years War, a contest between the Plantagenet rulers of England and the House of Valois, the Rulers of France. Our farmer had many counterparts across France and England, who “now a-bed,” managed to miss the excitement and the danger. They went about their business, encumbered by the increased taxes levied by their overlords to support the constant warfare. However the history books tell it, this was not a war between England and France. It was a war between royal houses. Our farmers carried on their lives as well as they could despite the war games of the wealthy.
Battles such as Agincourt make for great drama and entertaining movies. The history books generally move from one such event to another, creating a narrative that makes the world turn on such occasions. It is, of course, much ado about nothing.
The history of the world lies with the farmer and his wife and children, safely in their beds, or sweating in their fields. Those who lay dead on the battlefield might very well have represented the end of their line, remembered by Shakespeare, but erased from the genetic memory of the generations to come. The lore surrounding those who hold “power” in this world, serves only to feed the illusion that such power is the pivot point of history. Many aspects of our modern world have invested this world-view with enormous value.
It is relatively easy to deconstruct the claims of “England versus France” if it can be seen as Plantagenet versus Valois. But our modern world has changed its mythology and declared every man a king. In a democracy, it is everyman’s war, “us versus them.” At its worst, modern democratic warfare targets civilians with impunity. Those asleep in their beds may very well discover that they are unwittingly on the battlefield as the bombs fall around them.
In 1415, there was little difference between a farmer in England and a farmer in France. They were both Catholics, and attended the same Mass in Church. “England” and “France” were words used by Royalty but not yet a primary part of the common man’s life.
The rise of the nation state (something largely coterminous with the Reformation) was also the rise of a “national” consciousness. National Churches (a hallmark of the Reformation) helped reinforce this new self-awareness. Of course, nothing had changed to differentiate farmer from farmer across the Channel. Their lives, though now separated religiously, remained largely indistinguishable.
The myth of national consciousness has never abated. The modern nation is an abstract concept, reinforced by massive propaganda and martial law. We are taught to think in terms that were once foreign to our ancestors. It is also foreign to the Kingdom of God.
Henry V’s speech suggests that the average guy in England, unfortunate enough to have missed the battle, would rue the day. The implication, of course, is that “this battle is important.” It is another way of saying, “I am important.” And this is patently untrue.
The Scriptures describe a different view of history:
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are… (1 Cor. 1:27-28)
The narrative of history offered in the Scriptures is not the tale of kings and battles. The most important characters are utterly obscure: a shepherd, a girl, a slave, a fisherman, a carpenter, a vine-dresser. The word of a young girl, just past puberty, is later described by a Church father as the “cause of all things.”
Our culture magnifies the narrative of political, military, and financial power. In the stories it tells us, we imagine ourselves to somehow be participants in their lives. But that is to dwell in the realm of imagination. The truth of the world can be found in the words of that young girl:
He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. (Lk. 1:51-53)
The truth of our existence is in the hands of God, who has great regard for the life of the farmer and his family, and those quietly “a-bed,” while the imaginations of the falsely mighty run their course.
The gospel and the commandments of Christ are written from the perspective of those that “are not,” even while they imagine themselves to be among those that “are.” When the Rich Young Man came to Christ, he was among those who were “powerful.” He had the ability to do much “good.” Christ’s invitation to him was to join the dispossessed. That same invitation is given to all of us. Renouncing the “imagination of our hearts” we are invited to come to our senses.
The world as seen through the eyes of its “managers” (whether they are royals or simply the “body politic” of modern democracies) is a false vision. Such a view-point always fails to see what is truly taking place and wrongly assigns responsibility and respect where it does not belong. The outcome of history is solely in the hands of God. Though our lives consist of a thousand million tiny things, they are the things that matter. Love. Pray. Share your stuff. Be kind. Forgive your enemies. It matters.