Episode 55 - A Flirty French Roly-Poly (Fitness Week)
Updated: Apr 17
Today I'm going to talk about a man the sporting montage may as well have been invented for. A genuine Hollywood action hero whose skills could be used for everything from battlefield acrobatics to rescuing damsels in distress. Winner of French Ninja Warrior 1385, Jean II Le Maingre, also known by the family nickname of Boucicaut, which in old French means your choice of mercenary, treasure chest, or, erm, fish basket. Or goat face. It really is a beautifully precise language, French. Because there is no greater treasure than a basket of rotting fish. He does have quite the goatee in most artists impressions, for what it's worth.
And he was a very interesting man, Tom. He was born in 1366 and was a soldier through and through, joining his first military campaign at the ripe old age of 12 as an observer, heading off with Louis de Bourbon as a page in the Duke of Burgundy’s army on campaign in Normandy. He was knighted at the age of 16 and went on his first crusade at 18. He had a bit of a temper and a knack for a pithy one liner whilst smiting enemies, apparently shouting at one enemy who had mocked him for being young: “Do the kids in your country play THIS game”? As he knocked him to the ground and stabbed him to death.
He was a poet as well as a soldier, writing a number of epic ballads extolling the virtues of chivalry, in fact he's often credited with developing the modern idea of chivalrous behaviour, writing extensively about how to be polite in court and treat princesses well – presumably after hanging, drawing and quartering their fathers and selling them off in an arranged marriage to secure an alliance with Prussia.
In fact, when you think about knightly cliches, this guy basically ticked all the boxes - Unfortunately I wasn't able to get hold of any of his original manuscripts because they are all paywalled, but I get the impression he was a pretty vain guy – he had a biography written about himself during his lifetime, which back in the days of stunningly illustrated calligraphy was really quite some feat, presumably he had a large retinue of monks following him around with paintbrushes and giant capital letters for him to pose against whilst being painted.
The Livre des fais du bon messire Jehan le Maingre, dit Bouciquaut, or The Chivalric Biography of Boucicaut, published anonymously in 1407, is pretty much the book on how a handsome, gifted young man should behave.
And he was known for his charity work. In 1399, he founded his own order of knights, The Order of The White Lady on the Green Shield – an order dedicated to courtly love, honour, and – literally - the protecting of damsels and lady's whilst their husbands were off fighting. Which, presumably, involved regularly checking up on the long list of lonely, bored French duchesses to make sure they weren't getting too lonely. Or sad. A literal prince Charming.
But whilst he was a gentlemen in the sheets, at least the sheets of parchament, he was a beast in the streets.
Because as well as being handsome, generous, gifted, poetic, literate, pious, and having a great goatee and an enormous penis according to one anonymous biography, he loved a scrap, and prided himself on being the fittest man in the world.
In 1390, aged just 24 and whilst he was bored in a brief break between wars, he organised a tournament with three friends in Saint-Inglevert in Calais, where he and his mates took on 18 separate jousting opponents, knocking three of England's finest mounted knights clean off their horses and winning the grand prize with ease, getting him the unending admiration of King Charles VI, who made him Marshall of France just a year later.
But this is an episode on fitness, Tom, and so far we've just talked about this beautiful, generous, pious, funny, sporting Frenchman with a beautiful voice and an enormous baguette.
So where's the actual sport? Well, being the modest guy he was, we actually have a record of Boucicaut's personal training programme. Now there's plenty of manuscripts on medieval military training and sparring around – but this is pretty much the only time we have the personal training programme for a famed French knight.
And it's insane, even by modern standards. This guy would have been a parqour or callisthenics legend.
And bear in mind this was military training. So everything he did, he did in full steel plate armour – full battlefield dress, helmet and all. Bear in mind that plate armour weighs about as much as a modern soldier's battle pack and bullet proof vests, or a firefighters uniform and oxygen kit – about 25kg or 55lbs.
So, in addition to going on long runs. In steel armour, he would do the following.
Exercise 1 – He would scale the gap between walls four to five feet apart, for example between portcullis gates, and could quite easily shimmy up to the top of a castle wall and down again. As a fun variation, he would shimmy up the inside of chimneys without using his hands.
Exercise 2 – He would vault single handed onto his horse
As a fun variation, he would vault onto a passing horse at a gallop by grabbing hold of its rider – usually a trusted and probably regularly badly injured squire.
Exercise 3 – He would prop a large ladder up against a tree, climb up the underside of it using only his hands, when he got to the top, dangle single handed whilst using the other to remove his breast plate or chain mail, then climb back down.
Exercise 4 – He would punch trees or punch the ground for hundreds of repetitions at a time, to simulate repeatedly punching a wounded enemy in the head and toughen up those weak and feminine knuckles.
Exercise 5 – Just throw a rock around for a bit.
Exercise 6 – Swing a big hammer or chop some firewood.
Exercise 7 – He would do somersaults. Dozens of them at a time. In full armour. The one concession here is that he was allowed to remove his helmet for training, presumably because the pointy bit at the top would dig into the ground.
Exercise 8 – vigorous dancing. No further details given.
Vain, does stupid exercises, probably prone to injuries. I think someone just invented crossfit!
Unfortunately all this training couldn't protect any Frenchmen, no matter how noble and ripped, from thousands of longbows – and he was captured at the disastrous Battle of Agincourt in 1415 where the French were torn apart by endless volleys from English and Welsh archers. He was transported back to England, where due to his fame an extortionately high ransom was placed on his head, which the French simply couldn't afford – he died in Yorkshire in June 1421 aged 56.
Interesting fact about the Battle of Agincourt, by the way. The English army had a terrible outbreak of dysentery before the battle and so simply removed their trousers so they could shit and shoot arrows simultaneously. So the French were not only defeated by an English force half their size, but an English force fighting whilst farting loudly with their todgers out.
I’m back in Old Blighty, I’m glad we didn’t record last week because I was jetlagged and full of plane cold, quite a bad one if fact, I was quite feverish, chesty too. Everyone I’ve encountered since I got off the plane has caught it too. It came on after I visited a Chinese food market in Singapore.
· Better than the norovirus we once caught on a flight back to the UK a few Christmases ago. We managed to give it to absolutely everyone about a week before Christmas. It was a great example of deferred gratification. 48 hours of hell that allowed for 48 hours of guilt free gluttony a week later. We were quite the popular relatives.
· Have you ever had norovirus? It’s pretty unpleasant. I passed out in the toilet after vomiting so aggressively. My diaphragm felt like a trampoline that had just rebounded after having had an Elephant jump on it. Imagine what’s it like if you’re an opera singer and you vom? All that singing from the diaphragm.
· Anyway, it was quite at traumatic experience and so, being the emotionally complex and sensitive person that I am, I wrote poem to deal with the experience:
o There once was a man from New Zealand
o Who arrived with a most funny feeling
o He had a squitty poo
o And passed out by the loo
o After vomiting all over the ceiling
So, my subject this week is probably known by a number of listeners, and you, but it’s very good.
…Ancient Greek and later Roman MMA, or the pankration. Basically no rules fighting (or at least minimum rules).
· The pankration was a blue ribbon event in the Ancient Olympic Games.
· It was first introduced to the Olympic Games in 648BC, the 33rd Olympic Games
· Bearing in mind these took place every 4 years, it doesn’t take long to work out that the Olympic Games had been taking place for around 132 years already
o In fact, the original Olympic Games started in 776BC (according to experts) and lasted until 393AD when the miserable Christian fun spoiler Emperor Theodosius I decided it was un-Christian and banned it. Boring!
§ It was around this time that Roman schools started banning British bulldog, keepsies in marbles, pile-ups and football at lunchtime. And medals were awarded to everyone at Sports Day, including the fatties who couldn’t run, because it’s the taking part that counts (arse cheese!)
§ Bring back shins I say!
§ Talking of brutal games, have you ever come across ‘milling’ before? It’s an integral part of paratrooper training the UK and it involves 60 seconds of flat out boxing against another recruit, with the exception that you are not allowed to duck, weave or protect your face. The idea being that a paratroopers needs to be able manage their fear, channel their aggression and keep fighting in the face of enemy aggression. Essentially, don’t back down (i.e. when returning enemy fire).
· Anyway, so the original Olympic Games ran for around a thousand years! The modern Olympic Games only started in 1896. Incredible. It was also only one of 4 Panhellenic games, the others being the Pythian Games, Isthmian Games and the Nemean Games.
o The Pythian Games took place in Delphi at the same site as the famous oracle; I’ve visited it; very cool!
o Good pub quiz knowledge there
· So, let’s talk a bit more about what it involved.
o Well, everything really. Just no gouging, biting or crotch targeting
§ Although this sources I read weren’t 100% in agreement over this
§ And the Spartans, being, you know, Spartan, thought these rules were a bit Southern, and would make them soft, so they allowed everything… bottling, belly slams, knacker knocks, winkle twists, nipple pokes, wet willies, tackle tackles
· Oh my god, he’s pulled out the Newky brown!
§ On the subject of the Spartans, ancient sources detailed how the 300 Spartans famously and heroically holding the pass at Thermopylae, fought with pankration techniques when their weapons had been destroyed
· Pankration fighting techniques are referred to in many Greek sources. Herakles used them to fight the Nemean Lion, Theseus to fight the Minotaur. That said, the pankration was so simple, that it was basically just fighting, something humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years. So, I think it’s quite difficult to say that a fighting skill was a ‘pankration’ skill. I think it also makes it difficult to date the origins of this as a sport.
· Anyway, there are some excellent stories involving pankration champions…
· Dioxippus was crowned champion in 336BC when everyone else chose not to fight him! He was presumably one of those blokes who you just avoid (Tyson Fury, 6ft 9, 20 stone, massive chin, no brain).
o Alexander the Great invited this fighter to his court and one of Alexander’s men, a chap called Coragus, in a slightly drunken state, insults Dioxippus. He then challenges Dioxippus to a fight and Dioxippus laughs and says, come on then, let’s do this!
o Coragus turns up in full armour carrying military weaponry, including the famous Macedonian sarissa, a slightly longer pole than everyone else. Dioxippus gets naked, oils up and finds a club (not a gay club, a weapon).
o Dioxippus dodges a spear, smashes Coragus’s shield, wrestles him to the ground and disarms him. He gets him in a hold and is about to kill him before Alexander calls an end to proceedings.
o The Macedonians are humiliated by this and later frame Dioxippus for a theft, Dioxippus later falls on his sword out of embarrassment.
· In another fight, an athlete called Arrhichion in 564BC (a very famous fighter) actually won his last fight, dead. His opponent had him in a lock and suffocated him, in his final moments, he managed to dislocate his opponent’s ankle and his opponent raised his finger (the equivalent of tapping out).
· Here’s one final story to finish on: There’s another story that I couldn’t track back to a source, where both fighters died fighting. The judge then announced that the winner was the one that didn’t have his eyes gouged out.