How to Fight a Mastiff in the Streets of London

If you are a great knight, the answer apparently is to bite it in the cheek:

He drew his sword and hurried towards the mastiff, which circled around him but kept his distance because of the weapon. “Now,” said Tirant, “I know you fear my sword, and I wish no wone to say I bested you in unequal combat.” He threw his sword behind him, whereupon the mastiff took two or three mighty leaps, ran as fast as it could, and seized the weapon in its teeth. Having carried it to the other side of the square, the dog dashed towards Tirant … They locked together with great fury, biting each other with all their strength. The mastiff which was huge and vicious, knocked Tirant down three times and pinned him to the ground. The fight lasted half an hour, but the Prince of Wales told his men not to interfere until one or the other had emerged victorious. Poor Tirant’s arms and legs were covered with bites, but finally he seized the dog’s neck, squeezed with all his might, and bit its jowl so hard that it fell down dead.”

I’ve already written about the medieval Catalan novel Tirant lo Blanch, which recounts the increasingly fantastical adventures of knight as he moves from grand tournaments in England to saving the Byzantine Empire and conquering North Africa. It’s a wild story in which superficial realism in clothes, arms, and battles is combined with bizarrely fantastic scope. Early on, Tirant kills four crowned kings of Europe in four challenges at the tourney, which bothers no one. Later, he will conquer and Christianize the entirety of North Africa and Ethiopia (!) and extend the Byzantine Empire all the way to Samarkand on the Ganges (!!). The princess-turned-dragon one of the bit players finds on a deserted island is odd, but hardly the least plausible part of the whole narrative.

Tirant’s multi-regicidal campaigns (he kills so many Saracen and Turk kings that I’ve lost count) would be a fascinating topic for Kimberley Kagan, whose book The Eye of Command examined how historical narratives like Caesar’s Gallic Wars explain the basis of victory in battle. Most of Tirant lo Blanch was the work of the Valencian knight Joanot Martorell, and so the descriptions of jousting and single combat – and the trash-talking that precedes them – are quite plausible. The later, larger battles, on the other hand, seem mostly to hinge on the commanders involved plunging into the thick of battle and smiting the enemy commander and those around him.

If this sounds like something other than a wholehearted endorsement, it’s because I’m not entirely sure what to make of the novel. The best parts are definitely those, like the “cartels of defiance” that pass between knights, which draw on the personal experience of Martorell or his co-author, Marti Joan de Galba. I enjoyed reading Tirant, but that was as much for the incongruity of its world-view as for what the book brought on its own terms.

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