The authority of the past —"Forage in the blood of French nobility"

In order to provide moral legitimacy to Henry's war, the two bishops - Canterbury and Ely - further mobilize the patriotic discourse about the glorious past. Patrick Collinson has shown that the history of the past was a ready source for the construction of a sense of nationhood in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period.[19] There was not just one but many pasts to fall back on and different social groups turned to different accounts of the same events. Chronicle plays capitalized upon the militaristic past of relentless warfare as a source of exemplary models.Canterbury urges Henry to:

Look back into your mighty ancestors.

Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire's tomb,

From whom you claim: invoke his warlike spirit,

And your great-uncle's, Edward the Black Prince,

Who on the French ground played a tragedy,

Making defeat on the full power of France,

Whiles his most mighty father on a hill

Stood smiling to behold his lion's whelp

Forage in the blood of French nobility (1.2. 101110)

Ely similarly encourages the king to imitate "these valiant dead,/And with your puissant arm renew their feats" (115-116).

When describing the Black Prince, Canterbury uses an image of destructive incorporation similar to the one mentioned above in relation to war: Edward III watched his son " forage in the blood of French nobility" (110). The Cambridge New Shakespeare edition explains that to forage means "to feed on, to engorge himself with (used of armies taking food from local sources)".[20] The image tends to project a cannibalistic feast of the English on French soldiers. It becomes all the more gruesome if we add the picture of Edward III smiling in approbation. The terrifying images suggesting an excess in violence are absent in Holinshed's text: "When the Frenchmen were clearlie overcome, and those that were left alive fled and gone, so that the English heard no more noise of them, king Edward came downe from the hill (on the which he stood all that day with his helmet still on his head) and going to the prince, embraced him in his arms, and kissed him".[21] Why should Shakespeare have exaggerated the forerunner's violence? Is the Black Prince's "foraging in blood" worthy of imitation and "renewal"? The past as a normative example is subtly contested.[22]

The same episode involving the Black Prince and his father is described later in the play from the perspective of the French.The French King praises Henry's virtues and remembers the "memorable shame" the French army experienced at Crecy fighting Henry's ancestors—

When Crecy battle fatally was struck,

And all our princes captived by the hand

Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales;

Whiles that his mountain sire, on mountain standing,

Up in the air, crowned with the golden sun,

Saw his heroical seed, and smiled to see him,

Mangle the work of nature, and deface

The patterns that by God and by French fathers

Had twenty years been made. (2.4.5462)

Covert meanings seem to contradict the encomium the French king makes to Edward III and his son. The image of destructive incorporation in Canterbury's description ("forage in the blood of the French") is replaced with other, equally strong ones: the Black Prince mangled the work of nature and defaced the patterns made by God and by French fathers. He erased ("defaced") what was considered to be sacred - the work of nature, God's pattern and the patriarchal system implied in the reproductive and educational work of fathers.

The verb "mangle" is used later on to deplore the pitiful state France has been turned into after so many devastating wars. The Duke of Burgundy pleads with Henry: "Why that the naked, poor and mangled peace,/ Dear nurse of arts, plenties and joyful births,/ Should not in the best garden of the world,/ Our fertile France, put up her fertile visage?" (5.2.34-37). The "mangled peace" is a battered and destitute woman on whose nursing skills depends the regeneration and prosperity of the country. Once again mangled suggests the very erasure of the "natural", life giving capacity of the country.

The violence of the images is calling for greater reflective distance towards the glorious past. Our present responses do not, however, necessarily match those of the Elizabethan audience: excessive violence against the external enemy be he French or Irish, could well have been welcome in those times.[23]


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