The Beginning of the Birth-pangs

Eight years before the one-thousandth anniversary of the Incarnation, in 992, an old man robed in black tottered up the gangplank of a ship bound for Jerusalem. Adso, who had long since stepped down from the abbacy of Montier-en-Der, was by now in his eighties, and perilously frail to be making such a voyage. The rigours of life at sea were notorious – and sure enough, no sooner had the voyage begun than the aged monk was sickening. Five days later, and he was dead. Father Adso would never tread the Holy Land.

But why, at such a venerable age, had the great scholar been travelling there in the first place? “He will come to Jerusalem”: so Adso had written long previously, in his celebrated discourse on the career of Antichrist. For it was there, on the Mount of Olives, “in the place opposite to where the Lord ascended to heaven,” that the climactic battle against the Son of Perdition would be fought; “and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth.”1 No mortal could know for certain when this cosmos-changing event was to take place; and Adso, in his concern to emphasise this point, had famously reassured the Queen of the Western Franks that Antichrist would not appear for so long as her husband’s family – the Carolingians, the dynasty of Charlemagne – remained in power. But times had changed. No sooner had Adso completed his letter than fearsome portents of doom had begun to overtake the royal line. In 954, Louis IV, Gerberga’s husband, had clattered out through the gates of Laon, down the hill on which the royal capital stood hunched, and galloped off into the wilds that stretched beyond. There, deep in the woods, he had caught sight of a wolf and set off in hot pursuit – but alas, the creature had proved to be a demon, and the king, thrown from his horse, had suffered crippling injuries. Stretchered to a sickbed, he had soon succumbed to a loathsome disease, which had set his body to rot: “elephantiasis pestis.”2 Death had followed shortly afterwards.

France in the year 1000

A baneful and portentous end. “Cruel and savage, fit only for wild beasts”3: so it was said of the forest in which Louis IV had met with the demonic wolf. The same might well have been said of his violence ravaged kingdom. The only realm still to be ruled by a descendant of Charlemagne was subsiding inexorably into gangsterism. As the authority of the Carolingians faded ever more into shadow, so did the realm they ruled appear ever more threatened with collapse. Of Louis himself it was said that he had owned nothing “but the title of royalty”;4 and yet the succeeding decades had proved his heirs more wraithlike still. “Justice slept in the hearts of kings and princes”;5and increasingly, across all the assorted territories that still professed a shadowy loyalty to the King of the Western Franks, the mystique of Charlemagne’s bloodline had come to seem a phantom thing. So much so, indeed, that in 987, upon the death of Louis V, a feckless fashion obsessive nicknamed by his despairing subjects “the Sluggard,” the great men of West Francia had taken a fateful step. Louis, irresponsible to the last, had died childless; and so it was, at a specially convened council, that the Frankish princes had felt themselves justified in electing one of their own number to the throne.

Hugh Capet, the new king, was a man not altogether lacking the stamp of royalty: descended from a long line of war heroes, he was also, on his mother’s side, the grandson of Henry the Fowler.

Nevertheless, he was no Carolingian; and the Frankish lords, by electing him, had very pointedly ignored the claims of a rival who was. Louis V’s uncle, an embittered and slippery schemer by the name of Charles, was widely loathed by his peers; but when, in 988, he had pressed his claim to the throne by going to war with Hugh, he had been able to make considerable headway, and even to seize back the royal capital. For three years, a bloody stalemate had prevailed; until, hoist by his own petard, Charles had been betrayed by a schemer even more devious and underhand than himself. Adalbero, the Bishop of Laon, was a man of ineffable hauteur, snake-like intelligence, and “a reputation for virtue,” as one of his fellow bishops phrased it diplomatically, “that was not all it might have been.”6 Outsmarted for once, Charles had been duly handed over to his enemies, and immured within the Capetian stronghold of Orléans. By the end of 991, he was dead. The Carolingian dynasty was now effectively extinct. A few weeks later, and Adso was taking ship for Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, proofs that the great scholar might have been correct in his calculations, and that the moment was indeed a perilous one, had not been lacking upon the broad stage of the world. In 988, in that same city of Orléans where the last Carolingian was soon to meet his end, an icon of the crucified Christ had wept “a river of tears,”7 and a wolf, appearing in the cathedral, had pulled on the bell rope with its teeth, making the bell toll. Then, one year later, a fearsome comet had blazed over Christendom. *What precisely this might have portended – whether “famine or pestilence or war or the destruction of the earth”8 – no one could tell for sure. There were many, however, who found themselves gripped by foreboding. Even those who had most prospered from the deposition of the Carolingians were not immune to a certain twitchiness.

Hugh Capet’s eldest son, Robert, who would succeed his father in 996, was notoriously sensitive to any hint that the world might be nearing its end. “What does it mean?” he would demand urgently of scholars whenever news was brought to him of some particularly menacing wonder. “Send me back your answer at once. Send it back by the same messenger I sent you!”9 His agitation – bred, perhaps, of a not entirely easy conscience – was hardly surprising; so too the circumspection with which most scholars chose to reply. Naturally, they knew their Augustine; but they knew as well what Adso had written about the coming of Antichrist, and all that it might imply for the new dynasty. One who wrote to Robert duly advised him to summon a council, to stamp out “divergent opininons,”10 and affirm once and for all that the date of the Judgement Day could not be known; but there were others who replied in more sombre terms. Unsurprisingly, it was inexplicable manifestations of blood, whether falling from the sky as rain or bubbling up from springs, which tended to elicit particularly dire warnings. Whether the imminent fracturing of things which they appeared to foretell was in turn to be interpreted as heralding Antichrist, there was no scholar bold enough to say; but there were some, in their answers, who did presume to offer hints. One, in a letter to King Robert, went so far as to echo the words of Christ Himself, when He had sat on the Mount of Olives and been asked about the ending of the world. “Nation will rise against nation,” the Lord had answered, “and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”11

Food for thought indeed. Not that the scholars who wrote to the king were calling on him to despair. Blood-curdling though their jeremiads might be, they were practical men, and they trusted Robert, as God’s anointed, to respond with practical measures. That, after all, in a fallen world, was what kings were for: to tame disorder, no matter where and how it threatened. The king himself was quite agreed. Just as solemnly as the Carolingians had done, Robert interpreted lawlessness among his subjects as a menace to the harmony of the very universe. Devotedly, he had been raised by his father to yield to no one in the grandiose quality of his self-esteem. In 981, seven years before his election to the throne, Hugh Capet had been granted an audience with Otto II in Rome; and the trauma of that experience, a mingling of awe and humiliation, had steeled in him a resolve never again to be upstaged by anyone. Because Otto, perfectly aware that his guest did not speak Latin, had insisted on speaking exclusively in that language, Hugh had provided for his son the finest teacher in all Christendom: Gerbert himself. Then, only five months after his own coronation, he had insisted that Robert be crowned joint king – like Charlemagne, on Christmas Day. As a daughter-in-law he had even sought – in vain – to procure a Byzantine princess. Had Hugh’s ambitions for his son been the sole determinant of power, then Robert would have been a very great king indeed.

But image, although important to be sure, could take the new regime only so far. For all the exuberance with which Hugh and Robert laid claim to the awesome traditions descended from Charlemagne, the unsettling truth was that the inheritance they had come into was one of impotence and crisis too. No less than the Carolingians, the Capetian kings were obliged to operate from a power base cruelly inadequate to their ambitions. Great and intimidating had Hugh seemed as a prince among other princes: the “Dux Francorum,” the “Duke of the Franks.” Seated upon the throne, however, he had soon begun to appear much shrunken. Royal weight-throwing did not come cheap – and Hugh had only marginally more resources available to him than his hapless predecessors had done. His estates, which had appeared so extensive when he ruled them as a duke, appeared a good deal less so now that they were required to bankroll him as a king. Running as they did only from Paris to Orléans, the leverage that they brought him over the great principalities of the south was precisely zero, with the result that he was first ignored there, and then, as the years passed, increasingly forgotten. Even in the more northerly dominions, where he inevitably loomed much larger, Hugh’s former peers could not quite shake off the habit of regarding him as a player not so very different from themselves. Indeed, all his regal pretensions, far from instilling in his subjects a due sense of deference, tended instead to provoke only hilarity and taunts.

“Who made you a count?” Hugh once sniffily demanded of a magnate from Aquitaine. Back, swift and cutting, came the inevitable reply: “Who made you a king?”12

Still, then, unstaunched by the enthronement of the upstart Capetians, authority continued to ebb away from the crown. It was not only the kings themselves who found this disorienting. Fractious or predatory a Frankish nobleman might be – but he was still likely to cherish memories of the gilded days of Charlemagne, when the counts and bishops of the kingdom, having travelled amid magnificent pomp to attend upon the king, would share with him in the great feasts of Easter or Christmas or Pentecost, and deliberate over the affairs of the world. Indeed, for generations of noblemen, the royal court had been the only stage of choice. There were few who would have relished being confined to a merely local power base. To moulder far from the king had traditionally been regarded as the very mark of cloddish failure. Even under the Capetians, the presence of great lords and prelates at the royal court was not unknown. Watching the Count of Flanders, say, or the Archbishop of Reims, or the Bishop of Laon, taking council with the king a spectator might have been tempted to imagine that nothing much had changed. Yet remorselessly, over the course of the calamitous tenth century, things had changed; and with consequences for Frankish society that would prove, in the long run, momentous indeed.

It was the Capetians themselves – ironically enough – who had most potently blazed a trail. *Long before Hugh’s elevation to the throne, his predecessors had set about forging themselves into a novel kind of dynasty, and their many holdings into a novel kind of inheritance. Gradually, painfully, but in the end decisively, they had ended up reconfiguring their very notion of what a family might be. No longer, as the Franks had done since time immemorial, did they take for granted the benefits of belonging to a vast and teeming clan: for these, amid the convulsions of the age, no longer appeared quite so certain as anciently they had done. Weight of numbers, after all, had not done much for the heirs of Charlemagne. Quick-fire breeding, far from preserving their imperial patrimony intact, had served in the end only to reduce it to ribbons. The great dynasties of the kingdom, long since denied the opportunity to pillage pagan enemies, had turned instead upon themselves. The resulting factionalism, which even the feuding warlords might on occasion find wearying, had begun to inspire, by the mid-tenth century, an inevitable revulsion. It was the Capetians, as befitted the most powerful Frankish dynasty of all, who had taken the lead. To a great lord such as Hugh Capet’s father, a man publicly acknowledged by Louis IV himself as “second only to the king throughout the kingdom,”13 the advantages accruing from a vast array of second cousins had appeared far from self-evident. Remorselessly, the definition of what constituted a Capetian had begun to narrow. The more distant the relations, the more ruthless the pruning. Those family members who did remain were reduced ever more to a state of inequality and dependence. By 956, when Hugh Capet succeeded his father as Duke of the Franks and inherited all the core holdings of the dynasty intact, even his younger brothers had found themselves effectively sidelined. By 996, when Hugh passed away in turn, no one was remotely surprised that Robert should have scooped up everything, lands as well as crown. As with the royal family of East Francia, so now with that of the Frankish Empire’s western half: the eldest son took all.

Bad news for the siblings of a crown prince; but good news, by and large, for the prospects of the dynasty itself. Such, at any rate – if imitation is to be judged the sincerest form of approbation – was the opinion of the Capetians’ former peers. Ferocious and unrelenting were the demands of power among the Franks; and no prince, if he wished to maintain himself in the front rank of greatness, could afford to overlook a potential competitive advantage. The Capetian drive to forge a coherent domain, one that could be handed down from father to son intact, generation after generation, had not gone unremarked by other lords. There were some, indeed, who had already trumped it. Beyond the royal heartlands that extended around Paris, for instance, bordering the northern seas, there stretched a principality already so compact and unitary that it made the Capetian domain look positively moth-eaten in comparison. Proudly, the counts of Flanders boasted of their origins as lieutenants of the Carolingians; but that was hardly telling all the story. Indeed, as their many enemies saw it, their posing as upholders of the status quo was risible: for to their neighbours they were nothing but predators, slippery and ever-ravening, “replete with the venom of viperish guile.”14 As far back as 862, the first Count of Flanders had begun a long family tradition of brutal opportunism by abducting a princess from under the nose of her royal father; and from that moment on, as count succeeded count, the dynasty had ruthlessly expanded and consolidated its holdings. Indeed, bearing in mind what was evidently a hereditary aptitude for illegality and violence, there was nothing, perhaps, that better illustrated the consistent effectiveness of those who ruled the principality than their ability to box in the ambitions of their own kindred. Only once, in 962, had a count been compelled to hive off some of his holdings to a separate branch of the family – and only then because he was old and his son had just unexpectedly died. The mood of crisis not withstanding, he had still insisted on appointing as his own successor his grandson – who at the time was merely a child. Time had proved this decision the correct one: the dynasty had endured. Indeed, by the time of the Millennium, it was as entrenched and formidable as it had ever been. Potent testimony to what might be won, amid the troubles of the age, by the simple expedient of passing down an inheritance intact to a single heir. Not all the fustian of tradition in which the princes of Flanders continued to adorn themselves could serve entirely to obscure just how startling had been their achievement in building up, from virtually nothing, a power base quite without precedent in the previous century.

Indeed, as the year 1000 drew nearer, so the entire political framework of the West Frankish kingdom appeared to be splintering and foundering upon the ambitions of rapacious princes. Unlike the counts of Flanders, most of these, as they manoeuvred for advantage, saw not the faintest advantage in claiming legitimacy from the failed institutions of the past. Along the valley of the Loire, for instance, west of the royal stronghold of Orléans, right on the doorstep of the Capetian domain, the very contours of ancient territories had begun to fade from memory, like fields abandoned to scrubland. In their place, patched together out of the plundered rubble of toppled lordships, the foundations of wholly new principalities were being laid: states that would ultimately owe little either to tradition or to mouldering property deeds. Those labouring at such a work of creation, rather than feeling any sense of embarrassment at their parvenu status, preferred instead to exult in it. As why should they not have done? They were proving themselves in the snake-pit to end all snake-pits, after all. What more certain badge of quality than to have pieced together, out of the shards of a ruined order, a state sufficient to prosper and endure? How telling it was that in the decade before the Millennium, and the decades that followed it, the prince who would most triumphantly put the Loire in his shadow bore the title of a county that seemed, in 987, when he ascended to its rule, a mere thing of shreds and patches. Such a principality – rootless, fragmented, lacking any natural boundaries – appeared to the region’s scavengers, as they sniffed at it, easy prey. But they were wrong. Time would more than demonstrate the formidable potential of Anjou.

Its new count, Fulk “Nerra” – “the Black” – claimed descent from a forester. No matter that his immediate predecessors had made a sequence of brilliant and profitable marriages, and that his own mother was a cousin of Hugh Capet, Fulk preferred not to boastof his connections with the international aristocracy, but rather to emphasise how his family had sprung like a flourishing oak from the rich, deep soil of his beloved Anjou. Generation after generation, the county had been pieced together by a succession of martial counts, each one of them characterised by a ferocious aptitude for selfaggrandisement and a memorable epithet: Fulk the Red, Fulk the Good, Geoffrey Greycloak. What inspired Fulk Nerra’s own nickname – whether the bristling colour of his beard or the notoriously savage quality of his rages – we do not know; but it is certain that he exemplified to the full every attribute of his terrifying family. Although, at seventeen, he was still young when he became count, all his childhood had been preparation for such a moment: for his father, whether amid the business of the court, or the hunt, or the mud and carnage of the battlefield, had been assiduous in steeling him for power. This was just as well: “for new wars,” as one Angevin chronicler observed pithily, “will always break out quickly against new rulers.”15 Indeed, during the early years of his reign, Fulk Nerra found himself locked in a struggle for survival so desperate that the very existence of Anjou appeared at stake, and only bold measures served ultimately to redeem it. In 991, at Conquereuil, a plain just beyond the northwestern limits of his lands, the young count dared to stake everything upon a single throw: a pitched battle against the most menacing of all his enemies, the Duke of Brittany. The Bretons, “an uncivilised and quick-tempered people, lacking any manners,”16 and with an authentically barbarous taste for milk, were most dangerous opponents; and yet Fulk it was, amid great slaughter, who ultimately secured the victory. Among the dead left on the battlefield was the Duke of Brittany himself. Fulk Nerra, still only twenty-three, had secured a name for himself as one of the great captains of Christendom.

Evidence for that, ironically enough, lay in the fact that he would hardly ever again have to prove his generalship in open combat. Nothing was regarded by experienced commanders as more jejune than a taste for pitched battles when they were not strictly necessary: for in warfare, as in the habits of daily life, it was self-restraint that was seen as the truest mark of a man. Renowned for his ferocity Fulk Nerra may have been, but he was even more feared for his guile. Certainly, he was not afraid to be underhand when the situation required it. Kidnappings were a favoured stratagem; poisonings and assassinations too. On one notable occasion, in 1008, Fulk’s agents even dared to ambush a royal hunting party, and strike down the palace chamberlain, a notorious anti-Angevin, in full view of the startled king. Crimes such as this were very much a family tradition: so it was, for instance, that Fulk’s grandfather and namesake, a man who had owed his epithet of “the Good” to his widespread reputation for piety, had not hesitated to rub out his own ward and stepson when the young boy had stood in the way of his interests. Yet Fulk Nerra, even judged by these elevated standards of ruthlessness, brought something new to the arts required of an ambitious prince: brutal and cunning he may have been, but he was also something more. In an era of ceaseless and bewildering change, he knew instinctively how best to turn all the many dramatic upheavals of the age to his own ends. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Fulk had no dread of what were termed by the suspicious “novae res”: “new things.” On the contrary – he embraced them.

The proofs of this, raised first in wood and then increasingly, as his reign progressed, in forbidding stone, were to be found everywhere across Anjou. Otto II, riding with his men through the badlands south of Rome, had witnessed the marks of something very similar: an all-consuming drive to throw up fortifications wherever possible that had been termed by the Italians, in their bastard Latin, “incastellamento.” This mania had reflected something more than simply a dread of the Saracens: for it had also served to stamp southern Italy very clearly as a land without a king – to Otto’s disgust. Battlements, it had always been taken for granted in Francia, were properly the business of royalty, and royalty alone. How else was the public order of a kingdom to be maintained? An alarming question – and one becoming, even in the lands beyond the Alps, ever less theoretical by the year. As with the silks and jewellery and exotic cooking ingredients imported by the Amalfitans, so with their fortifications: the Italians knew how to set a trend.Incastellamento was spreading northwards.

In West Francia especially, borne upon the general ebbing of royal power, the taboo against private fortresses was increasingly in full retreat. The Capetians, as they struggled to assert their authority over even the patchwork of territories that constituted the royal domain, were hardly in any position to forbid distant princes from raising fortifications of their own. The consequence, sprouting up suddenly across region after region of West Francia, like toadstools from rotten wood, was a great host of strange and unsettling structures, as menacing as they were crude: what would come to be termed in English “castles.” Here, bred of the throes of the Millennium, was yet another far-reaching convulsion – and right at its forefront, testing its limits, was the Count of Anjou.

Fulk’s enthusiasm for castles reflected a typically cold-eyed insight: that their defences might be deployed as tools of aggression. The fortifications raised in Anjou, unlike the much larger “castella”which Otto II had ridden past in southern Italy, were designed to intimidate, not protect, the local population. Planted as a forward base in hostile territory, planned as merely one of a whole ring of similar structures, investing an obdurate target and gradually throttling it into submission, a castle founded by Fulk was built to provide shelter for its garrisons, and no one else. The great discovery, one exploited ruthlessly along the whole length of the Angevin marches, was that a fortification might be no less effective for being basic. Castles, in the first revolutionary flush of their existence, provided immediate payback for an often minimal outlay of effort. It did not take much to construct one. The ideal was to locate a rock, or a spur, or a lonely hillock – a feature, in short, of the kind that only a few years previously would have been regarded as quite valueless – and plant on it some rudimentary wooden battlements. Even where the Loire valley was at its flattest, artificial mounds – or “mottes,” as they were termed – could be thrown up in a matter of months. Then, with the site secured, the castle could be progressively upgraded. Fulk, as befitted a wealthy prince with a taste for the cutting edge, often ended up constructing battlements on an awesomely imposing scale. By the end of his reign, Anjou was shielded all along its frontiers by great donjons of solid stone. Castles and county alike: both had been built to last.

Yet if the new technology could be made to buttress a prince’s ambitions, so also might it menace them. In the millennial year itself, for instance, the citadel in Angers, Fulk’s capital, was seized and held against him. As a stab in the back, this revolt was especially shocking: for its captain was Fulk’s own wife, Elizabeth, who had been caught out in an affair. The cuckolded husband, never known for his good temper at the best of times, duly swept into town upon a great fire storm of rage. The citadel was stormed; much of Angers laid to waste; Elizabeth herself captured and burned at the stake. A brutal reprisal, to be sure – but bred, as was so often the case with Fulk, of measured calculation. Even had he wished to, he could not possibly have shown mercy to his wife. Treachery from those who most owed him their love imperilled everything. If rebellion could flare up in his household, in his marriage bed, then where else might its embers lie, waiting to burst into flames? In every castle there was a castellan, appointed to serve as its captain; and in every castellan a taste for violence and ambition. “No house is weak that has many friends.” So Geoffrey Greycloak, Fulk’s father, had advised his son. “Therefore I admonish you to hold dear those of your followers who have been faithful to you.”17 A wise prescription, and one that Fulk adhered to throughout his life; yet never once did he presume to take those followers for granted. Humbly, in exchange for gifts of property, whether lands or strongholds or both, they were obliged to acknowledge their submission. Genuflecting before their lord, placing their clasped hands in his, humbly offering his foot or leg a kiss, they proclaimed themselves to all the world his “vassi”: his “vassals.” This, an ancient Gaulish word, had once referred only to the very lowest of the low, the most desperate, the unfree; and even though, by the time of the Millennium, it had proved itself a term so upwardly mobile that it was held no shame even for a count or a duke to acknowledge himself the vassus of a king, the submission that it implied was no less solemn for that. Every vassal of Fulk knew of the penalties that would be exacted for any hint of treachery: the wasting of all he owned, and the desecration of his body. A lord prepared to burn his own wife, after all, could hardly have made the consequences of rebellion any clearer. No wonder, then, that Fulk’s castellans generally opted to keep their heads down. His vassals, by and large, proved themselves true to their oaths. Anjou cohered.

Nevertheless, even on a man as hard as the Black Count, the pressures of lordship were immense. Much more was at stake than his own fortunes. “Fearful of the day of judgement”:18 so Fulk described himself. The same blood that had soaked the fields of Anjou, and served to fertilise his greatness, could not help but remind him too of the terrifying vanity of all mortal wishes. “For the fragility of the human race being what it is,” as he acknowledged bleakly, “the last moment may arrive at any time, suddenly and unforeseen.”19 Always, amid the harrying of his adversaries, and the trampling of their ambitions, and the shattering of their swords, he dreaded ambush by the deadliest foe of all. Strategies to blunt the meat-hook of the Devil, and to fend off his assaults, were never far from Fulk’s mind. So it was, for instance, haunted by the thought of the Christian blood he had spilled at Conquereuil, that he founded “a church, a most beautiful one,”20 in a field named Belli Locus, the Place of Battle. The count’s many enemies, scornful of what they saw as his crocodile tears, were naturally exultant when on the very day of its consecration a violent wind blew down its roof and a part of its wall: “for no one doubted that by his insolent presumption he had rendered his offering void.”21Perhaps – and yet to damn Fulk as a hypocrite was to misrepresent just how profoundly he feared for his soul, and for the troubled times in which he lived. “The end of the world being at hand, men are driven by a shorter life, and a more atrocious cupidity consumes them”:22 so had written a monk living in Poitiers, on the southern flank of Anjou, even as Fulk’s horsemen were raiding the fields beyond his monastery. Yet Fulk himself, had this judgement been brought to his attention, would not have disputed it. All his crimes and ravins, and all that he had won by them as well, he presumed to dedicate to a cause far nobler than his own.

How precisely Fulk saw his role was evident from his church at the Place of Battle, which he dedicated first to the Holy Trinity and then, and with great emphasis, to “the holy Archangels and the Cherubim and Seraphim.”23 These were the warriors of heaven: serried in glittering ranks before the Almighty’s throne, they served Him watchful and unsleeping, ready, whenever called upon, to descend upon His enemies and restore order to the cosmos, howsoever it might be threatened. In this, then, what did the Cherubim and Seraphim resemble, if not the followers of an earthly count – and what were the holy archangels, if not the counterparts of Fulk himself?

A most flattering conceit, of course – and inoperable without an anointed king to play the part of God. Fulk himself, shrewd and calculating, understood this perfectly. True, Robert Capet’s ministers might occasionally have to be eliminated, and his manoeuvrings blunted, and his armies put to flight; but never once, not even when tensions were at their height, did Fulk forget the courtesies that were due the king as his overlord. Robert himself reciprocated. “Most faithful”:24 so the Count of Anjou was named in royal documents. An example of near-delusional wish-fulfilment, it might have been thought – except that Fulk did indeed see himself as solemnly bound by the ties of vassalage. Even a fantasy, after all, if repeated with sufficient conviction, can come to possess its own ghostly truth. Adversaries on numerous occasions they may have been – and yet king and count had need of each other. Mighty though Fulk and the lords of other counties were, they could not afford to cut themselves entirely loose from the seeming corpse that was the crown. For any of them to have done so – to have repudiated the authority of the Capetians, to have declared a unilateral independence, to have pronounced themselves kings – would have been to shatter irrevocably the whole basis of their own legitimacy. The threads of loyalty that bound their own vassals to them would at once have been snapped. The entire social fabric would have begun to unravel, from top to bottom, leaving behind only ruin. Every pattern of authority would have been lost. Nothing would have been left, save anarchy.

And so it was – just – that the centre held. Splintered into rival principalities the kingdom may have been, yet a sense of shared identity persisted all the same. Even among the great lords of the south, where initial hostility towards the Capetians had soon dulled into indifference, no one ever doubted that there had to be a king. In truth, if anything, they needed the idea of him even more urgently than did a powerful count such as Fulk. In their territories too, the spectacle of rough-hewn castles was becoming a familiar and ominous one; but, unlike in Anjou, it was rarely the princes who were responsible for building them. “For their land is very different from our own,” as one traveller from the north explained. “The strongholds I saw there were built on foundations of solid rock, and raised to such a height that they seemed to be floating in the sky.”25 Perhaps even Fulk would have found such fortresses a challenge to subdue.

His brother lords of the south certainly did. No iron grip on their castellans for them. As a result, if the authority of the king lived on in the region as little more than a memory, then so too, increasingly, did the authority of the princes themselves. Like fish, the southern principalities appeared to be rotting downwards from their heads. But how far, and how completely, would the rottenness serve to spread? And how incurably? On the answer to these questions much would hang. Perhaps, as Adso appeared to have died believing, the very future of all humanity: for that a multiplying of wickedness was to herald the end days had been asserted a thousand years previously by Christ Himself.26 Certainly, the future of millions would prove to be at stake: men and women caught up in a terrifying escalation of lawlessness, one that would result in an unprecedented reordering of society, and leave their lives, indeed their whole world, transformed utterly. A storm was brewing, one that would ultimately come to affect all the lands that acknowledged a Capetian as their king: lands that it is perhaps not too anachronistic to refer to henceforward as France. *


No matter that they had been a Christian people for many centuries, the Franks were still more than capable of a red-blooded love of violence. So much so that Saracen commentators, with the insight that often comes most naturally to outsiders, ranked it as one of their defining characteristics – together with a ferocious sense of honour and a distaste for taking baths. Even though it was true that Frankish warriors themselves were trained to value self-restraint as the cardinal virtue of a warlord, this was in large part because, like gold, it was so precious for being rare. The black fury which descended upon Fulk Nerra at Angers, and resulted in the burning of much of the town, was regarded by his contemporaries as nothing greatly out of the ordinary. Flames invariably spread in the wake of war bands, no matter who their leader. A horseman preparing for an expedition would sling a fire-starter from his belt as instinctively as he would draw his sword. The farms and fields of an adversary were always held to be fair game. His dependants too. No less a lord than Hugh Capet, a man famed for his coolness and sagacity, thought nothing of reducing an enemy’s lands to a wilderness of blackened stubble, and littering it with corpses. “In such a wild fury was he,” men reported, “that he scorned to spare a single hut, even if there were no one more threatening in it than a mad old crone.”27

Not that a practised village-waster such as Hugh would have made much distinction between a mad old crone and any other class of peasant. From the vantage point of an armed man in a saddle, they were all of them indistinguishable, mere bleating sheep, who milled and cowered and never fought back: “pauperes.” This word, which in ancient times had been used to describe the poor, had gradually, by the tenth century, come to possess a somewhat different meaning: “the powerless.” This was a revealing shift, for it reflected how arms, once held to be the very mark of a free man, of a “francus,” a Frank, had become the preserve of the wealthiest alone. No peasant could afford to dress himself in chain mail, still less maintain a warhorse. Even an arrowhead might prove beyond his means. No wonder that the finding of a horseshoe was held the supreme mark of good luck. A great lord, knowing that there were men willing to grub in the dirt after iron that had once served to shoe his mount, could hardly help but feel confirmed in all his lofty scorn for them. Filth and mud and shit: such were seen as the natural elements of the peasantry. They were “lazy, misshapen and ugly in every way.”28 Indeed, so it struck the “potentes,” the “powerful”—there was something almost paradoxical about their ugliness: for while cropped hair, the traditional mark of inferiority, might serve as one means of distinguishing peasants from their betters, then so too did the opposite, a matted and loathsome unkemptness, befitting men who were presumed to eat, and sweat, and rut like beasts. Men, it might be argued, who fully merited being rounded up like beasts as well.

For give them half a chance, and peasants, just like pigs in a wood, or sheep on a mountainside, might all too easily stray. Once, back amid the upheavals that had followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, there were those who had slipped entirely free of their landlords, liberating themselves so successfully from an enfeebled regime of extortion that they had ended up almost forgetting what it meant to be screwed for taxes. A scandalous state of affairs – and not one that could be permitted, in the long run, to carry on. Charlemagne, labouring to rebuild the order of Rome’s vanished empire, had made certain as well to renew its venerable tradition of exploiting the pauperes. The aristocracy, their wealth and authority increasingly fortified by the expansion of Frankish power, had needed no encouragement to sign up to such a mission. Briskly, and sometimes brutally, they had set about reining in the errant peasantry. Stern rights of jurisdiction and constraint, known collectively as the “ban,” had been granted them by the king. Armed with these fearsome legal powers, the counts and their agents had been able to sting their tenants for a good deal more than rent – for now there were fines and tolls to be imposed, and any number of inventive dues exacted. The natural order of things, which for so long had been in a tottering state of dilapidation, had once again been set on firm foundations. All was as it should be. The peasantry toiled in the fields; their betters skimmed off the surplus. It was a simple enough formula, and yet upon it depended the dominance of even the greatest lord.

On that much, at any rate, all the potentes could agree. The disintegration of Charlemagne’s empire, unlike that of Rome’s, did not noticeably serve to weaken their capacity for extortion. Even as peasants learned to beware the feuding of rival warlords, and todread the trampling of their crops, the looting of their storehouses and the torching of their homes, so were they still obliged to cough up rents, and to endure the grinding exactions of the “ban.” There were those, as season followed season and year followed year, who found it ever more impossible to meet the demands being piled upon them. Divine as well as human intervention might serve at any moment to waste a peasant’s meagre fortune. Blessed indeed was the year when he did not find himself hag-ridden by a dread of famine. Every spring, when the supplies of winter were exhausted, and the fruits of summer yet to bloom, the pangs of hunger would invariably grip; but worse, infinitely worse, were those years when the crops failed, and the pangs of hunger followed on directly from harvest time.

No wonder, then, that peasants learned to look to the heavens with foreboding: for even a single hailstorm, if it fell with sufficient ferocity, might prove sufficient to destroy the fruit of a whole year’s labours. Whether such a calamity was to be blamed upon divine wrath, or the malevolence of the Devil, or perhaps even the hellish skills of a necromancer, there would be time enough to debate as the icy nights drew in and people began to starve. Then “men’s very voices, reduced to extreme thinness, would pipe like those of dying birds”;29 women, desperate to feed their children, would grub about despairingly, even after “the unclean flesh of reptiles”;30 wolves, their eyes burning amid the winter darkness, would haunt the margins of human settlements, waiting to chew on the withered corpses of the dead. In such desperate circumstances, who could blame the man prepared to countenance a fateful step, and barter away the few genuine assets that might still be left to him? An ox, for instance, which in good times could go for a whole hectare of land, was far too valuable, even during a famine, simply to be butchered for meat. Nevertheless, so ruinous a step was it for a peasant to sell his cattle that there were certain bishops, in times of particularly terrible hunger, who would grant money to the most impoverished, or dispense grain to them free of charge, so as to steel them against the temptation. These were acts of true charity: for once a peasant had struck a deal, and seen his precious oxen driven away, he would be left, come the spring, without the means to drive his plough. Nor would he have anything much further to sell: only his plot of land and then, last of all, himself. No longer a francus, he would, from that moment on, rank as merely a “servus”: a serf.*

A bitter and beggarly fate. And yet would the neighbours of an unfortunate prostrated so utterly have discerned in his ruin anything more ominous than an individual tragedy? Most likely not. Man was fallen, after all, and suffering was his lot. There were worse calamities, perhaps, in a world blighted by sickness, and deformity, and pain, than servitude. More universal ones too. In the decades leading up to the Millennium, a peasant did not need to have a startling amount of flesh upon his bones, nor of supplies stored away for the winter, nor of oxen in his barn, still to feel conscious of his liberty. Darkly though the storm clouds of famine and war had massed over France during the previous century, there remained a majority of peasants, perhaps a large majority, who persisted in defining themselves as something more than serfs – as men who were free.

This was a delusory consolation, it might have been thought, bearing in mind all the harsh exactions imposed upon them. Yet it was not wholly so. The peasantry still had some muscle. Community leaders – “boni homines” – continued to be elected. Assemblies, at which the free peasants of a neighbourhood would gather in an open field, continued to be held. Rights still existed which might be cruelly missed once they were gone. How grim an irony it was, for instance, for any peasant who did lose his livestock and his land to find himself, from that moment on, bound to both far more implacably than he had ever been while free. “I work hard,” the typical serf was imagined as eternally sighing. “I go out at first light, driving the oxen to the field, yoking them to the plough. No matter how bleak the winter, I dare not linger at home, out of fear of my lord; instead, having yoked my oxen, and fastened their harness, every day I must plough a full acre or more.”31 To the free neighbours of such a wretch, watching him hunched against the dawn cold, toiling to break up the frozen ground, bone-weary even amid snow or the iciest sleet, the spectacle would have served as a fearsome admonition. They too, of course, had to toil; but not so hard as did a serf. The crops harvested by a free man were not his only source of nutrition. Beyond the spreading fields redeemed with such labour from the great murk of the wilderness, dark and tangled forests still stretched across much of France, forbidding, to be sure, and perilous, the haunt of wolves, and angry boars, and bandits, and banished demons; but mighty storehouses rich in food and resources too. Any peasant prepared to venture out of the daylight into the primordial shade of the trees could set his pigs to eat there, or hunt game, or burn wood for charcoal, or collect wax and honey, or gather up mushrooms and herbs and berries. If there was a river flowing near by, then funnel-shaped baskets could be rigged up in its waters, to serve as makeshift fishing weirs. Even out on open fields, there were always birds to be hunted. With so much to forage, there was certainly no need to depend for sustenance on corn.

But that, in the view of great landowners, was hardly the point. Reduced harvests meant reduced surpluses; and reduced surpluses meant less for the ambitious lord to extort. Seen from this perspective, peasants who insisted on sloping off from their fields to go rabbit hunting or blackberrying or fiddling around in rivers with wickerwork were wastrels, plain and simple, letting down their betters. What other purpose did the poor have, if not to deliver the full potential of their capacity for sweat and aching muscles? Far-sighted landlords, during the final decades of the Millennium, found themselves reflecting on this question with a mounting sense of frustration – for the very earth, like a woman no longer content to cloak her own fertility, had begun to reveal to those with the necessary ingenuity and resolve to test it a hitherto unsuspected degree of fruitfulness. Startlingly, even against a background of often terrible famines, and a widespread sense that God’s creation was winding down, the scope for improving harvests appeared to be on the upsurge. Heavier makes of plough, better styles of animal harnesses and more productive methods of rotating crops – none of them novel technologies, by any means – were starting to be adopted across northern Europe on a hugely expanded scale. The finger of the Almighty too, tracing patterns across the face of the earth, appeared to be bearing witness to a swelling fecundity. Those who farmed the foothills of the Alps, for instance, could mark how the glaciers were retreating, and the tree line rising. Those who lived by coastal marshes could trace a steady shrinking of their waters. The climate was changing, with temperatures rising everywhere. To many, it was true, the resulting extremes of heat and rainfall appeared simply a further portent of doom; and yet for all that, over the long term, the warmer seasons were indisputably boosting crop yields. Or rather, they were boosting crop yields for a certain kind of lord: one whose tenants were willing without complaint to bend their backs, to reap and plough and sow, not just in fits and starts, but relentlessly, season in and season out. No easy task, to condition men and women to such a life. Whole communities first had to be bound to the soil, bound utterly, and broken to all the rhythms of the agricultural year, without any prospect of exemption or release. And yet, if that could be achieved, how great might be the rewards! How flourishing the profits from the gathering revolution in the fields! How irresistible the incentive to bury the freedoms of the peasantry once and for all!

And this not least because there was now one more nail at hand, delivered with a fatal timing to the strong and ruthless everywhere, to the final doom of the independent poor – and already, by the Millennium, being hammered with great violence into their coffin. France’s first great social upheaval was heralded, not by the storming of a single brooding fortress, as a later one would be, but by the very opposite, the raising across the whole country of a great multitude of battlements. Brilliantly although a warlord such as Fulk Nerra might learn to deploy castles to serve his strategic interests, their most seismic impact was to be experienced not in the realm of military affairs at all, but across the countryside, in the forests, the farms and the fields. Even the most prosperous of free peasants would soon learn to dread the sight of makeshift walls and towers being erected on a nearby hill. No more ominous silhouette could possibly have been imagined than that of a castle on its rock. Tiny it might be, and inaccessible, and crudely built – and yet the shadow cast by such a stronghold would invariably extend for miles. Never before had an entire generation of landlords come so suddenly into the possession of so lethal a coercive tool. Entire communities could now be dominated, cabined in and patrolled.

It was no coincidence, then, that those same decades which witnessed the sudden spread of castles over France should also have been distinguished by the systematic degradation of the peasantry’s right to roam. Woods and rivers, those primordial sources of sustenance, began to be ringed around with tolls, or else placed off-limits altogether. Inexorably, the easier it became for a lord to enforce restrictions, and to privatise what had once been common land, the faster it occurred. The poor man out with his bow and arrow in the woods, tracking some game for his cooking pot, just as his forefathers had always done, suddenly found himself branded a poacher, a criminal. No more hunting, shooting or fishing for the peasantry. Those who wanted food would now have to work for it in the fields the whole year round.

All change, it went without saying, was wicked; but change so violent and disruptive seemed especially so. Nevertheless, as even the most despairing peasant had to acknowledge, the cruelty of new laws could hardly serve to invalidate them – not if the lord responsible was a mighty prince, a duke or a count possessed of the “ban.” To campaign against such an awesome figure was immediately to be guilty of rebellion. In 997, for instance, at Evreaux, in northern France, where the peasantry had responded with naked fury to having the forests and streams closed off to them, the local count answered the supplications of their elected emissaries by having their hands and feet cut off. A perfectly pitched atrocity: for the agitators, witnessing the mutilated state of the boni homines, duly bowed their heads and melted away back to their ploughs. Naturally, terror of the count’s armoured horsemen was what had most immediately served to chill their spirits – but there had been something more as well. No less than princes, peasants lived in dread of anarchy. They might find the iron demands of an unjust law fearsome, yet there was one thing that they tended to fear even more: a world in which no laws existed. For then the weak would find themselves the prey of the strong indeed. The horror of this had been most eerily articulated back in 940, by a peasant girl named Flothilde: for she had reported to a listening monk a terrible dream, one which had returned to her every night, in which armed men pursued her, seeking to capture her and throw her down a well. Countless other peasants too, mute witnesses to the times, must have been haunted by similar nightmares. They knew the darkness which might lurk within the human soul. Better order, then, most appear to have reckoned, any order, even the harshest, than the lack of it. And so it was, in counties ruled by iron-willed princes, where the new laws, though brutal, could nevertheless be regarded as legitimate, and despite all the suffering and the misery and the restlessness which accompanied their introduction, that the poor did not revolt. The prerogatives of lordship, linking top to bottom, were maintained. Society did not crumble.

Yet princedoms as steel-girt as Flanders or Anjou were aberrations. In southern France especially, it was not long before the assaults upon the pauperes were attaining such a pitch of relentlessness and illegitimacy that it did indeed appear to many, witnessing the collapse of entire regions into savagery, as though everything were falling apart. Here, when a castellan laid claim to the powers of the “ban,” it was most likely to be a fraud. Rarely would he have had permission to build his castle from some higher authority. The opportunities were simply too spectacular, and the competition too ferocious, for any man of ambition to hang around waiting for that. Indeed, the wouldbe castellan had little choice but to move as urgently as he could, rushing with a desperate sense of greed to secure a suitable rock or hill for himself, before anyone else could beat him to the site. “For then he could do what he liked without fear, in full confidence that his castle would protect him – whereas others, if they tried to oppose him, could now be overcome easily, since they would have nowhere to hide.”32 A wildcat lord such as this, smelling the fresh timber of his battlements, feeling solid rock beneath his feet, knowing himself the master of all he surveyed, could afford to thumb his nose at the world. He owed no duty to a count, nor to anyone, except himself.

And certainly not to the pauperes. Indeed, bleeding the locals white was not merely an option for the ambitious castellan, but an absolute necessity. Banditry and intimidation had to sanction what legitimacy could not. Castles – and men to garrison them – had to be paid for. Warriors, if they were to supply their lord with effective muscle, did not come cheap: their arms, their armour and their horses all had to be purchased, to say nothing of their loyalty. To contemporaries, the gangs of mail-clad thugs increasingly being employed by castellans appeared a caste as novel as they were alarming; and chroniclers, thumbing through dusty tomes, struggled at first to find suitable terms to describe them. In English, they would end up being known as “cnichts”: a word customarily applied to household servants, and strongly suggestive of servility and baseness. Who these “knights” truly were appears to have varied from region to region; and yet it is evident that many must indeed have been of less than noble origin. Where else, after all, was an upstart lord to find recruits, if not from among the ranks of the local peasantry? And where better could an ambitious peasant, especially one with a taste for violence and a lack of scruples, look for gainful employment, than to a castellan? Food, accommodation and the chance to kick people around: all came as perks of the job. It was an attractive package – and especially amid the carnivorous nature of the times. Out on patrol with his lord, marking from his saddle how a one-time equal might flinch at the sight of him, or cringe, perhaps, in the dirt, or beg in his misery for the return of a missing daughter, or a bag of grain, or a cow, a knight would have no doubt what he was glimpsing: a fate that might easily have been his own.

And perhaps it was precisely for this reason, a terror of the abyss that still awaited them if all their menaces failed, and all their scavenging left them empty-handed, that the knights and their masters were so merciless. Month by month, season by season, year by year, their exactions grew ever worse. How gruesomely apt it was that their favoured mode of torture should have been a garrotting-chain, the “maura,” notorious for inflicting upon its victim “not one but a thousand deaths”33: a literal tightening of the screws. Robberies too, and rapes, and kidnappings: all were deployed with a brutal gusto by hit squads determined to trample underfoot every last vestige of independence in the countryside, and to reduce even the most prosperous of peasants to servitude.

So far reaching in its implications was this programme, and so convulsive in its effects, that any lord with half an aptitude for driving it through could track its progress simply by gazing out from his castle, and marking its imprint upon the fields and settlements spread out below. Landscapes fundamentally unchanged for a millennium were in the process of being utterly transformed. Rather than being left to live as they had done since Roman times, on scattered farms, or clustered around villas, or migrating year by year from hut to hut and field to field, peasants increasingly found themselves being herded together into what was in effect a human sheep pen: a “village.” Here, in this novel style of community, was the ultimate refinement of what had for so long been a lordly dream: to round up the peasantry for good. As raw and sinister as a newly founded prison, a village might bear witness to the servitude imposed not just upon the odd luckless individual, but upon an entire community. Battered down and bloodied, those peasants adjusting to the novel experience of having to live cheek by jowl with their neighbours would labour henceforward as serfs: for the subtle and various shades of freedom that might once have served to define them had been smeared and blotted out. Theywere all of them unfree now: living trophies, the spoils of violence and crime.

Not that the castellans were always blatant in their illegalities. Upstart lords, by virtue of the various prerogatives that they had usurped from the aristocracy, did often attempt to cloak their depredations behind a semblance of legitimacy – but few of their victims were fooled by that. Peasants, looking back to more prosperous times, knew perfectly well that their fathers and grandfathers had not been obliged to put up braggardly knights in their hovels; nor to walk up to the gates of a nearby castle, there to hand over all the riches of their harvest; nor to toil as unpaid porters, sweating and stumbling as they served in the train of some upstart castellan. That all these outrages could claim some vague precedent in the obligations of the “ban” did not make them any less shameless or grotesque. Justice, which had once been administered to them by their own elected leaders in open fields, beneath the sight of heaven, had been stolen from them. And so the peasantry spoke of the new customs that the Millennium was serving to bring them as “evil”; and even as they cursed, they cried out for release from their wretchedness.

But who was there to heed their prayers? Christ and His saints in heaven, of course; and sure enough, on occasion, a saint might indeed blaze out a reply. Terrifying prodigies capable of bringing a wicked lord to his senses, and dousing “the torches of his avarice,” were naturally much prized by the poor: for increasingly, interventions by the supernatural appeared the only sure way “to stop their meagre possessions from being despoiled.”34 Saints who did not protect their devotees were much resented: one woman, for instance, outraged that St. Benedict had failed to protect her from an evil lord, physically assaulted the altar in his shrine, beating it with her fists, and roundly abusing her heavenly patron. It was a truth as evident as it was regrettable, however, that even miracles performed by a living saint such as Romuald were hardly to be relied upon: for while the celebrated hermit was more than content, on occasion, to punish robber lords by having them choke to death on the meat of stolen cows, or be struck down by invisible arrows, he could hardly punish every thieving castellan, as ultimately it was his very isolation from the turbulent currents of human sinfulness that marked him out as holy. Yet even amid the swamps, Romuald and hermits like him might serve as an inspiration to the oppressed and groaning peasantry because they bore witness to the power of a lord greater and infinitely more powerful than even the most brutal castellan. The poor did not despair of the protection of Christ; nor did they doubt that He heard their groans, and pitied them. Perhaps they knew as well what had been foretold in the Holy Scriptures, that He was to come again at the end of days, to judge the living and the dead, and that the oppressed would be bade welcome, and sat at His right side, to take their place in the New Jerusalem, while the wicked were delivered over to eternal fire.

But when? When? Always the question: when? Whether there were those among the peasantry who were aware of the Millennium we do not know – for the silence of the poor is almost total. Yet such was the scale of the horrors that had overwhelmed them, and such their yearning for redemption from all their miseries, that it seems implausible that they could have been wholly ignorant of so portentous and fearsome a date. That they were living through the one-thousandth anniversary of their Saviour’s life, even as the shadows that had engulfed them were thickening into an ever more hellish darkness, would surely have struck many as a coincidence too far. Certainly, there were those among the learned who had no doubts. “For it is revealed as an evident fact by the Holy Gospel that as the last days go by, so love will be chilled, and iniquity will blossom amongst men. And they will face dangerous times for their souls… Here, then, is the cause of the evils which, on an unprecedented scale, have afflicted every portion of the world, on and around the thousandth anniversary of the birth of our Saviour and Lord.”35

Such was the judgement of one observer of his times, a monk named Rudolf Glaber; and it could hardly be dismissed as an eccentric one. The monastery in Burgundy to which he belonged was no backwater, no nest of cranks or heretics. Indeed, in all Christendom, there were few assemblages of stone and mortar that could boast a greater charge of holiness than the monastery of Cluny. The voice of prophecy to which Rudolf laid claim was nothing less than his prerogative as one of its brothers. “Truly, our life lasts one thousand years.” So had warned Odo, the second of Cluny’s abbots, decades before the anarchy that would mark the passage of the Millennium. “And now here we are, arrived at the last day of the very span of time itself.”36 These were words that no Christian could readily ignore: for they had issued from the place that seemed to its admirers, more than any other, the nearest there was to heaven on earth.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Evil times made for perilous journeys. Even before the spread of castles across the kingdom had helped to make lords out of bandits, and bandits out of lords, the roads were not lightly trodden. Hugh Capet himself, returning from Rome and his mortifying audience with Otto II, had been able to escape the attentions of kidnappers only by submitting to a yet greater humiliation, and travelling in the disguise of a groom. The decades that followed his accession had seen the dangers grow ever worse. The poor were far from alone in being the prey of predatory knights. Merchants too, as they travelled to markets, would increasingly find themselves being stopped and obliged to pay extortionate tolls, or else “be whipped for their possessions.” Pilgrims, huntsmen out with their dogs, even “noble women journeying in the absence of their husbands”: all might end up as targets.37Omnia permixta sunt”: “chaos reigns everywhere.” It was hard for the nervous traveller, hurrying to find shelter as the light thickened, glancing anxiously over his shoulder, ever fearful of the sound of distant hoof beats, to doubt that this was so. Man had indeed become predacious, it appeared, as predacious as the wolf, that sniffer after carrion, and no less cruel, no less savage in his appetites. Where, then, as the twilight gathered, was shelter to be found?

Perhaps – God’s mysterious hand being what it was – amid the very worst of the disorder. Just as there were whole regions of France that had been spared dramatic upheaval, so were there others that had been convulsed by a particular violence. In Burgundy, for instance, on the easternmost frontier of the kingdom, royal authority had collapsed no less totally than elsewhere in the south. Here, however, exceptionally, King Robert had sought to make a stand. For decades, he and his armies would persist in trampling the fields of the duchy, while the local castellans, profiting from the conditions of ceaseless warfare, grew fat on the carnage like flies on gouts of blood. A traveller did not have to venture far across Burgundy to witness marks of agony. It was no wonder to find the bodies even of children lying by the roadside. Men driven lunatic by what they had witnessed – or perpetrated, perhaps – haunted the region’s woods, spectral figures wasted by despair.

Yet Burgundy was not all horror. Very far from it. Though the duchy was violent, it was also the seat of something miraculous: a refuge from the evils of the times that even the papacy, in naked awe, acclaimed as Christendom’s most impregnable sanctuary, a veritable “haven of piety and salvation.”38 So it was, for instance, that after a particularly maddened soldier was found wandering naked in the woods outside Nantua, a town just to the south of Burgundy, the monks caring for him had no hesitation in sending him northwards to be cured, back on the very road that led to the duchy’s killing fields. An unsettling journey, no doubt, and a dangerous one – but with the promise, at its end, of true asylum.

It was the Almighty Himself, it appeared, who had fitted Cluny for such a role. All around the wide valley on which the abbey stood there stretched wooded hills, sheltering and enclosing it against the outside world – very much like the cloisters of a monastery. It was only a century previously, however, that this resemblance had first been noted: for until then the valley had been a hunting ground, and inordinately prized as such by its original owner, the Duke of Aquitaine. But in 910, William, the holder of that title, had been old and childless – and with murder on his conscience. Accordingly, for the sake of his soul, he had resolved to found an abbey; and the monks to whom he had confided this ambition had immediately pointed out, with a certain grim relish, that the ideal spot for it would be none other than his favourite hunting ground. Any reluctance that William might have felt at the prospect of forfeiting such a prize had been sternly overridden. “For you know which will serve you better before God: the baying of hounds or the prayers of monks.” To that, there had been no possible comeback; and so it was, on 11 September 910, that William had signed away the valley.

One century on, and it was evident to everyone who drew near to Cluny that the Almighty had looked favourably indeed upon the Duke of Aquitaine’s gift. Or to almost everyone, perhaps. A deserter such as the wild man of Nantua, traumatised as he was, and fearful of battlements, would no doubt have found the spectacle of the abbey’s ramparts a most alarming one at first: for flourishing monasteries, it was true, did often wear a menacing aspect. So it was, for instance, at Fleury, a celebrated foundation on the Loire, and Cluny’s only real rival as the pre-eminent monastery in France, that there towered a donjon “of squared blocks”39 no less imposing than anything raised by Fulk Nerra; while at Cluny itself, its abbot, Father Odilo, was a great enthusiast for replacing wood with stone. Yet no matter how intimidatingly the gateway of the abbey might loom above them, there was nothing beyond it for the poor to fear: no stronghold of robber knights. “For I was hungry and you gave me food.” So Christ Himself had spoken. “I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me.”40 Daily, therefore, when the starving poor gathered before the gates of Cluny, up to thirty-six pounds of bread would be handed out to them by the brothers of the monastery; and the monks, as they performed their work of charity, would prostrate themselves before each and every recipient of their alms, as though before the Saviour.

Even the abbot himself, one of the greatest men of Christendom, if he were obliged to ride out into the world, would make certain never to turn away anyone “from the bosom of his mercy.”41 The sainted Odo, for instance, had not shrunk from carrying a foul-smelling sack filled with garlic and onions for one weary old man, to the horror of his companion; while Odilo, elected to his post only six years before the Millennium, would pause whenever he saw a corpse by the roadside and have a grave dug for it, then kneel to wrap it with great tenderness in his cloak. For come the Day of Judgement, he knew, his every account would have to be rendered.

And from what lay waiting beyond the Day of Judgement, that moment of supreme and joyous mystery, when the old earth would pass away and the new Jerusalem descend from God “as a bride adorned for her husband,”42 it was the glory of Cluny, more than any other shrine raised by the hands of man, to part the veil. Always the gaze of its brethren was fixed, not on the fallen world, but on the splendours of the next. Indeed, it was their aspiration, a truly awesome one, to transcend their own mortal nature. “For if monks are perfect,” Odo had argued, “then they are rendered similar to the blessed angels.”43 The wild man of Nantua, led cringing to the gates of Cluny, would surely soon have found his terrors set at ease. Noble though the accents of the monks would have proclaimed them, nobler, often, than many a castellan, in almost every way they would have appeared to the deserter not as potentes at all but as pauperes, just like himself. At Cluny, every brother lived by an ancient and unbending rule, one that had described the practice of humility as a ladder ascending to God; and its most solemn command, “the twelfth degree,” was that a monk’s humility should be made manifest to all the world. So it was that, shamingly, he would wear his hair even shorter than a peasant’s, shaved to form a tonsure, in appearance like a crown of thorns; he would dress in a black cowl, drab and unadorned, no better than a workman’s; and at all times he would “keep his head bowed, and his eyes fixed upon the ground.”44 Inviting the wretched deserter from Nantua to sit down by the monastery gateway, the monks charged with his reception would have bowed before him, and then brought water, and washed and dried his feet. Only incidentally, however, was this done as a personal service to a filth-encrusted lunatic: for the truest benefit was to the souls of the humbled monks themselves.

Yet even that was not the highest purpose of the ritual. Back in the early years of the abbey’s existence, St. Odo had laid down a potent marker of all his hopes for the infant monastery, by insisting that visitors’ shoes as well as their feet should be washed. Excessive? There were some monks at the time who had grumbled that it was. And yet how muddied by a lack of ambition, to say nothing of worldly pride, all such moaning had been – for Cluny, as Odo had trusted, was fated to be no ordinary monastery. Unprotected by the swords and spears of mortal warriors it may have been – and yet impressions of the abbey as a mighty citadel, girt around by fearsome ramparts, were not so wide of the mark.

Of the delicate and aristocratic Odilo it was said that he had the look, not of a duke, but of a prince of the archangels – which was to cast the monastery he headed as a radiant bridgehead of heaven. No wonder, then, that demons were widely believed to lie encamped all around its outer walls, placing it under a perpetual siege, driven by “the malice that the Devil has always harboured against Cluny”;45 but fated, so long as the abbey’s sanctity held firm, never to make a breach. No wonder either that the brethren who served as its gatekeepers should have required all who entered it to be cleansed – yes, and to have their shoes washed too. Filth was precisely what enabled demons to flourish. At Fleury, for instance, in a typically fiendish display of cunning, devils had made an attempt to steal through the sewers that led up to the brothers’ lavatories; and only the monastery’s patron saint, standing invisible guard over the urinals, had served to foil their plot. At Cluny likewise, the watch kept by the monks had to be tireless and unblinking. No hint of pollution could be permitted to infect the sacred space. The infernal and the earthly: both had to be kept at bay. To pass into Cluny was indeed to pass into a realm of angels.

But what was the abbey’s secret, what the source of its fearsome sanctity? Even a visitor as lunatic as the wild man of Nantua, taking his first tremulous steps inside the monastery, would surely have found himself conscious within seconds of something strange. To any refugee from chaos, Cluny could offer that rarest and most precious of all balms: order. It was to be found in the regular spacing of rich tapestries along the walls and of sumptuous carpets along the floors, as dazzling as they were beautiful, serving to soften every footfall, and to proclaim the praises of God. Even to a visiting dignitary, fittings such as these would have appeared rare luxuries – but to a beggarman such as the deserter from Nantua they would have appeared a glimpse of paradise. Which, in a sense, they were: for the monks of Cluny, in their own estimation at any rate, were the nearest to heaven of mortals anywhere. To the great bishops of the kingdom, long accustomed to look down upon abbots such as Odilo, this was a display of arrogance that verged almost on the blasphemous; but Odilo himself and the brethren he commanded were unperturbed. They knew that the end days were drawing near. At such a moment of excruciating peril, with the future of all humanity hanging in the balance, what else should they be doing but securing on earth an impregnable outpost of the City of God?

Earlier generations of monks, following the prescriptions of their rule, had devoted themselves to manual labour, so as to display humility, and to scholarship, so as to train their souls; but the monks of Cluny had little time for either activity. Instead, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, they sang the praises of the Lord: for this, in heaven, was what the choirs of angels did. Indeed, on one occasion, it was claimed, a monk had ended up so lost in his devotions that he had actually begun to levitate. Prayers and hymns, anthems and responses: the chanting never stopped. Odo had required his brethren to recite one hundred and thirty-eight psalms a day: more than three times what had traditionally been expected of a monk. Barely a minute of a Cluniac’s life went by, in short, but it was governed by ritual, as unwearying as it was implacable. Hence, for its admirers, the monastery’s unprecedented nimbus of holiness: “for so reverently are the masses performed there,” as Rudolf Glaber put it, “so piously and worthily, that you would think them the work, not of men, but of angels indeed.”46

Here, then, was the well-spring of Cluny’s power: mysterious, tutelary, literally supernatural. Among those who reverenced it, of course, were the monks of Nantua, who had dutifully sent the deserter found wandering in the woods to be healed at the more celebrated monastery; nor was their faith betrayed. Brought before Odilo, the wild man was first permitted to listen to the brethren of the abbey as they chanted their psalms, and then sprinkled with holy water. His sanity was restored. Wonders such as this were widely reported – and the cause of much admiration. Even a living saint such as Romuald – no slouch himself when it came to performing miracles – was impressed by Cluny’s reputation. It was, the hermit pronounced, the “flower” of monasteries: a pattern for all the world.47 If such was the view from as far afield as Italy, then the perspective of those who lived directly in Cluny’s shadow was, unsurprisingly, touched even more directly by awe.

Which was just as well – for the legions of Satan were not the only adversaries hemming in the monastery. The local castellans, if not precisely demons, were menacing neighbours, nevertheless. To men whose fortunes derived from the morality of the protection racket, the monastery could not help but seem tempting prey – and all the more so because Cluny, unlike most other foundations, had no earthly lord to whom it could turn for protection. Instead, by the terms of Duke William’s charter, the abbey had been declared “free from the rule of any king, bishop, count, or relative of its founder,”48 and placed under the wing of a heavenly patron: none other than St. Peter himself. Naturally – with the Prince of Apostles absent on pressing celestial duties, and his earthly vicar, the Pope, far away in Rome – this had meant, in effect, that the abbot was on his own. An alarming prospect, certainly, with “the waves of evil breaking ever higher”;49 but it was also, amid all the gathering blackness, precisely what enabled Cluny to blaze with such effulgence as a beacon of sanctity. Independence presented Odilo with opportunity as well as danger: for it ensured that his monastery could be seen as neutral – as an honest broker. This, in an age of murderous rivalries, was no negligible qualification; and all the more so because Cluny’s aura of holiness appeared to demonstrate that it was indeed guarded over by St. Peter. Such a reflection was sufficient to give even the most brutal knight pause – for who, with the end time nearing, wished to give needless offence to the keeper of the keys of heaven?

No surprise, then, that the presence in their midst of an abbey belonging to the mightiest of all the saints should have served to inspire in the local castellans a quite unaccustomed measure of unease. There were many, it was true, who sought to vent this in the surest way they knew how. Cattle-rustling, horse-stealing, the wasting of crops in fields: Cluny endured the full range of knightly crimes. A particular explosion of violence greeted Odilo when he was elected abbot in 994. The monastery’s servants were nakedly assaulted; some were even killed. Murders such as these served to highlight the grievance that had aggravated the castellans more than anything: a trend for impoverished peasants, desperate to escape the mercies of the local knights, to opt for the lesser of two evils, and bind themselves over to the monastery as serfs. Better to be the dependants of St. Peter, such wretches had evidently calculated, than the things of a violent warlord. The monks of Cluny agreed. Certainly, they had no qualms about putting peasants to work for them in their fields, their barns, their mills. What else was a mortal’s duty, after all, if not to labour to the greater glory of God and His Church? There were some men who were called to sing psalms all day; and there were others who were called to dig. Even castellans, according to this formulation, might not always have to prowl beyond the pale: for what if they too had their part to play? “A layman who serves as a warrior,” St. Odo himself had argued, “is perfectly entitled to carry a sword if it is in order to defend those who have no swords themselves, like an innocent flock of sheep from the wolves that appear at twilight.”50 As a demonstration that this was not merely wishful thinking, Odo had cited the example of one particular aristocrat, Gerald, the lord of Aurillac, Gerbert’s birthplace, who all his life had refrained from stealing the land of the poor, who had only ever fought in battle using the flat of his sword, and who, in short, had been such a paragon that he had ended up a saint. “And every second year,” Odo had added, in a hopeful postscript, “he would go to the tomb of St. Peter with ten shillings hung around his neck, as though he were a serf, paying his due to his lord.”51

To expect castellans as well as peasants to become the dependants of St. Peter was, perhaps, pushing things – and yet the hope that the local lords might be persuaded, not merely to tolerate Cluny, but actively to contribute to its greater glory, and to that of its patron saint, the Prince of Apostles, was not a wholly ludicrous one, even so. The more grievous a sinner’s crimes, the more terrible his dread of hell was likely to be. Assaults on Cluny’s estates may indeed have been escalating – but so too, simultaneously, were donations of property to the monastery. Odilo, shrewd tactician that he was, had moved quickly to take advantage of this seemingly bizarre paradox. No sooner had he been elected abbot than he was brokering an emergency council at the nearby town of Anse. Presided over by two archbishops, no less, a formidable array of local dignitaries sought to back him up as thunderously as it could. The abbey and all its swelling portfolio of estates were declared sacrosanct. Fearsome curses were pronounced against all who encroached upon them. The knights and their masters were called upon to swear a solemn oath of peace. Yet even as the shimmering inviolability of Cluny was proclaimed anew, and in terms that brooked no possible misunderstanding, Odilo was careful to extend an olive branch to the castellans.

The anarchy of the times, brutally though it menaced the abbey, menaced its assailants too. Even the most lawless of warlords, once installed in a castle, had a stake in preserving what he had seized. No longer was it possible for the distant king to bestow legitimacy upon a usurper – but St. Peter could. Odilo, by inviting all the local castellans to swear the oath of peace together as equals, was laying before them a fearsome choice. Either they could persist in their savagery, cause and symptom alike of the cracking of the age, portents, no less than plague or famine, of the imminent end of days; or else they too, like Odilo’s monks, could take up their place in the line of battle, to serve as the warriors, not of Antichrist, but of God Himself.

Much would depend upon the castellans’ answer; and not only in the neighbourhood of Cluny. To the west, in the uplands of the Auvergne and across the great duchy of Aquitaine, where order had collapsed no less grievously than in Burgundy, attempts were being made to set the world back upon its feet that were, if anything, even bolder and more radical than Odilo’s. As early as 972, more than two decades before the Council of Anse, clergy from the Auvergne had gathered at Aurillac, site of the tomb of St. Gerald, that splendid model of how a warrior should behave, to demand that the local castellans cease their oppression of the poor; by 989, the trend for peace councils had spread to Aquitaine; and over the following decade, more than half a dozen would be staged across southern France. The instigators, by and large, were not abbots like Odilo, but bishops: men of impeccably aristocratic lineage, whose ancestors, ever since the unimaginably distant days of Roman Gaul, had believed themselves charged by Christ Himself with the maintenance of a Christian society. Now, fed up as they were with the collapse of law and order, and despairing of the ability of dukes or counts, still less of the distant king, to do anything about it, they were resolved to try to succeed where the princes themselves had failed. In this ambition, ironically enough, they were actively encouraged by the most prominent of all the region’s great aristocrats, William, the Duke of Aquitaine: for he, far from feeling that his toes were being trodden on, was desperate to shore up his crumbling authority in any way that he could. Yet it was a sign of how strange the times had become that even his backing was of less value to the bishops, those magnificent princes of the Church, than was that of the despised and bleeding poor. Desperate for assistance against the castellans, and resolved to make one final defence of their vanishing freedoms, peasants of every class, “from the most prosperous, through the middling ranks, to the lowest of all,” flocked to the peace councils – and in such numbers that it seemed to startled observers as though they must have heard “a voice speaking to men on earth from heaven.”52 Febrile and ecstatic was the mood; and the bishops, resolved to bring all the pressure that they could upon the castellans, “those wicked men who like thornbushes and briars ravage the vineyard of the Lord,”53 did not shrink from harnessing it.

So it was that the councils were summoned, not to the cloistered security of great churches, but rather to the open fields: those same fields where the peasantry, by ancient tradition, had always held their assemblies, meeting as men who were free. “And great were the passions that were stirred. High in the air the bishops lifted their crosiers, in the direction of heaven; and all around them, their hands upraised, their voices become a single voice, the people called out to God, crying, ‘Peace, peace, peace!’”54

And the foes of peace, the castellans – what was their response to be? As in Burgundy, so in Aquitaine: hesitation, initially, and some alarm. The bishops were far too sacrosanct, and the peasants far too numerous, merely to be ridden down. Nor, the truth be told, were either the most intimidating presence at the councils anyhow. To ride into a field where the Peace of God had been proclaimed was, for a castellan and his followers, to enter an arena that appeared suffused by the very breath of heaven, numinous and terrifying, where swords and spears, if unsheathed, might prove worse than useless. Beyond the seething mass of the peasantry, beyond the gorgeously arrayed ecclesiastics with their crosses, “embellished all over with enamels and gold, and studded with a great variety of gemstones flashing like stars,”55 and beyond the stern-faced princes, the true enforcers of the Peace of God stood arrayed in silence. From their crypts all across southern France the saints had been escorted, led in candlelit procession amid the chanting of psalms, the clashing of cymbals and the blowing of ivory trumpets: an awesome sight. In the south it was the habit, “a venerable and antique custom,”56 to enclose the remains of the sainted dead within statues of gold or silver, so that they looked, brought together, like a phalanx formed out of metal. There was none there, it was true, who rivalled St. Peter in rank; and yet who could dispute the terrifying power of those saints that had been assembled? Awaiting the castellans at the peace councils were relics known to have halted terrible epidemics, to have freed innocent prisoners from their chains, to have restored eyeballs to the blind, to have brought mules back to life. Why, in the very fields consecrated to the Peace of God, the holy remains had been giving certain proofs of their potency: for “many a bent arm, and many a bent leg” had been straightened, “and in such a manner that the miracles could not be doubted.”57 Well, then, might the knights in attendance at the councils have bowed their heads, slipped down from their saddles and fallen to their knees, there to swear a solemn oath before the glittering army of reliquaries that they would indeed keep God’s peace.

This was a step not to be taken lightly. Fearsome were the sanctions proclaimed against any horseman who might subsequently go back upon his word. A lighted candle, extinguished by the fingers of a bishop himself and dropped into the dust, would serve to symbolise the terrible snuffing out of all his hopes of heaven. “May he render up his bowels into the latrine”58: such was the venerable curse. Filth, indeed, was the natural condition of all oath-breakers: for it was well known that, at the very moment of his death, an excommunicant’s flesh would start to reek terribly of excrement, so that consecrated ground would refuse to receive his corpse, but would instead vomit it up in a furious spasm, to serve as food for wild beasts. What greater contrast with the relics of the saints, fragrant still within their bejewelled reliquaries, could possibly have been imagined?

It would have been no wonder, then, as the horsemen swore their oaths, if all their hopes of redemption had been shadowed by a certain sense of foreboding. Most castellans were not oblivious to the terrible yearning of their victims for a new age, one in which “the spear would rejoice to become a scythe, and the sword become a ploughshare.”59 Standing as they were in the shadow of the Millennium, they could not even discount the possibility that Christ Himself, ablaze with fearsome glory, might soon be returning to usher in a reign of peace and justice, and to consign the wicked to eternal fire. Who, after all, looking around the fields in which the Peace of God had been proclaimed, where glittering reliquaries stood massed in an impregnable battle line, could doubt that the reign of saints was indeed at hand? Which, in turn, served to prompt one obvious question: on whose side, that of the demons or of the warriors of heaven, did the castellans and their knights wish to range themselves?

In 1016, outside the Burgundian town of Verdun-sur-le-Doubs, a great cavalcade of horsemen clattered along the local roads and lanes on the way to swear a fresh oath of peace.60 They had been summoned by the local bishop; but the true inspiration, just as he had been at Anse, was Odilo of Cluny. It might have seemed, in the intervening two decades, that nothing much had changed in France. Violence was still general across the south. So too were the anguish and the misery of the poor. No less than in the decades before the Millennium, it appeared that the moment of which St. Odo had warned his successors, when time itself would be fulfilled, and “the King of Evil enter in triumph into the world,”61 might be imminent. No matter that the anniversary of the Incarnation had passed – the yet more fateful anniversary of Christ’s ascension into heaven was still to come. Hugh of Châlons, the bishop who had summoned the knights to Verdun, would certainly not have been oblivious to the swirl of apocalyptic speculations. The seat of his bishopric was Auxerre: still, as it had been back in the time of the Hungarian in vasions, a famous centre for the study of the end of days. It was at Auxerre, for instance, some ten years previously, that one scholar had publicly identified the monks of Cluny with the 144,000 harpists who were destined, according to the Book of Revelation, to “sing a new song” at the hour of judgement, and to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”62 Now, by summoning his council at Verdun, Bishop Hugh was hoping to follow the example of Odilo. As well he might have done – for Cluny, at any rate, had gone from strength to strength. Popes and kings alike had ringingly affirmed its independence. Monasteries across France – including in Auxerre – had formally submitted to the authority of its abbot.

Yet the most remarkable of all the displays of Odilo’s leadership – and the most suggestive too – had been over men who were not even tonsured. Since the Millennium, the violence that had for so long tormented the neighbourhood of his monastery had begun finally to be tamed. The local knights, inspired to share in something at least of the heroic disciplines of Cluny, had been recruited by Odilo to take their place beside the monks, to range themselves on an invisible battlefield thronged by angels and warrior saints. Such, at any rate, was the ideal. Another way of putting it was to say that Odilo, looking to rein in the criminal gangs massed against him, had succeeded in persuading them to abandon their careers of violence in exchange for his blessing and a degree of legitimacy. Certainly, however his achievements were spun, they were palpable in the valley where the famous monastery stood. A brutal convulsion in society had been successfully negotiated. Peace had been brought to the fields – and respectability to the neighbouring castles. The tide of violence, at last, had begun to recede from Cluny.

Demonstration of a potent truth indeed: that the very measures taken to buttress humanity against the looming onslaught of Antichrist, and to prepare the world for its fiery end, might serve as well to secure a new beginning, and a new model of society. Odilo was not the only leader of the peace movement to flirt with this paradox. So it was, for instance, at Verdun, that Bishop Hugh cast the horsemen assembled there both as “knights of Christ,” sworn upon the relics of saints to serve as shock troops of the heavenly, and as the agents of an ambitious programme to restore the rule of law. Where the harm, after all, in hedging a bet? Perhaps the world would end; perhaps it would not. Either way, the duty of the Church to labour in the cause of peace was hardly lessened.

Not that mixed motives were confined to abbots or bishops. The knights also had calculations to make. The pledges that they were obliged to give at Verdun were indisputably stern ones. All their favourite pastimes appeared to have been proscribed. No longer were they to amuse themselves by assaulting the defenceless; by rounding up livestock; by attacking churches; by setting fire to harvests and barns. Yet forbearance might bring its own rewards – and not in heaven alone. Upstarts as many of the horsemen were, they knew that it was no small matter to be blessed in public by a bishop. Knighthood, once it had been sanctified by oaths sworn upon holy relics, could hardly be dismissed as a criminal calling. Even the most unreasoning and thuggish henchman of a castellan, as he stood at Verdun alongside the other horsemen of the region, and knelt before the glittering reliquaries, would surely have felt, with a surge of pride, that he was being inducted into an elite. A shared code, a shared ethos, a shared commitment to the use of arms: all were being granted him. His horse, his spear, his mail shirt: these, in the eyes of God, were what would henceforward serve to define his role in the Christian order. The division between knight and serf, between a person who carried a sword and a person who carried a mattock, was being rendered absolute. If indeed the end days were imminent, then this would hardly matter: for all the different orders of society would naturally be dissolved upon the melting of heaven and earth. If, however, Christ did not return, and if the New Jerusalem did not descend from the sky, and if the seasons continued to revolve as they had always done, year after year after year, then the organisers of the Peace of God would effectively have set their seal upon the enserfment of their very allies: the poor. Such might not have been their intention – and yet they would have served as the midwives of a new order, all the same. Peace, it appeared, might indeed be redeemed from anarchy – but the price to be paid for it was the last vestige of freedom of the peasantry.

And this, as a bargain, was one that even the peasants themselves were increasingly too punch-drunk to resist. Better a master bound by the strictures of the Peace of God, perhaps, and a storehouse well stocked for the winter, than liberty and a pile of smoking rubble. Not that the master necessarily had to be a castellan. The men and women who toiled in the fields around Cluny as the serfs of St. Peter were far from the only peasants to have ended up the dependants of a great monastery. The concern of churchmen for the poor – though it might be heartfelt – was likely as well, at least in part, to reflect a concern for their own finances. No less than the castellans, great abbots and bishops stood to profit handsomely from the wholesale enserfment of the peasantry – as long as order and the rule of law could be upheld. Once, of course, the peace campaigners would have looked to the king to provide them with their security; but it was a mark of how utterly everything changed, how it had been utterly turned upside down, that the king was now looking to them. By 1016, Robert Capet had finally crushed his enemies in Burgundy. Concerned to see order established in his new domain, he toured it that same summer amid a great show of magnificence – and among the towns that he visited was Verdun-sur-le-Doubs. Over the succeeding years, he would repeatedly demonstrate his approval of what the peace campaigners were attempting to achieve – even to the extent of hosting his own councils, and affecting an ostentatious religiosity. So it was that the king, just as though he were a saint, would feed the poor at his own table; hand out his robes to them; even have it whispered that he could cure them of leprosy. That he was in truth a warlord just as rapacious for land as any castellan, and had even managed to end up excommunicated by the Pope for marrying his cousin, mattered not a jot. “Robert the Pious” he came to be called. The King of France, in short, had taken to aping the Abbot of Cluny.

There were many among the Frankish elite who were duly appalled. Bishops, in particular, haughty grandees from the ancient royal heartlands, the very cockpit of the traditional order, loathed Odilo and everything that he stood for. The Peace of God they dismissed as dangerous rabble-rousing; the claims of Cluny’s monks to be heaven’s shock troops as a grotesque blasphemy; and Odilo himself as a puffed-up castellan, “the lord of a warlike order,”63 shamelessly usurping the prerogatives of his betters. King Robert himself was serenely unperturbed. Amid all the continuing agonies of his kingdom, he had no doubt that he possessed in Cluny a truly priceless attribute, a spiritual powerhouse to illumine the present, and light the way to the future. What that future might be – whether the destruction of the world or its renewal – only time would tell. But that change was inevitable – indeed, was already irreversible – even Odilo’s bitterest critics had little choice but to acknowledge. “The laws of the land melt away, and the reign of peace is no more.” So mourned Adalbero, the aged Bishop of Laon, whose scheming, decades earlier, had helped to secure the throne for Hugh Capet. Yet even as he sought to roll back the years, to warn King Robert against the blandishments of Cluny and to resurrect the Carolingian order that he himself had helped consign to its grave, he knew that his cause was doomed. The past was gone for ever. Well might Adalbero lament: “Changed are all the orders of society! Changed utterly are the ways of men!”64

* Halley’s Comet. It would be seen next in 1066.

* The family name ‘Capetian’ actually derived from Hugh Capet himself, but in the interests of clarity, I have chosen to apply it retrospectively to his forefathers as well. Properly, these should be termed “Robertians,” “Robert” being a name that looms large in the early pages of the family’s history.

* And yet anachronistic it remains. Tracing the evolution of the phrase “Regnum Francorum,” “the Kingdom of the Franks,” into the modern French word “France” is a notoriously complex business. It was not until the thirteenth century that the formula “Roi de France,” “King of France,” was first used in royal documents, with its implication that there was a territory, rather than simply a people, of which to be the king. Nevertheless, even though the phrase that I have been using, “West Francia,” is nothing but a historian’s convenience, people did have, from the mid-tenth century on, a sense of a West Frankish kingdom that was distinct and independent from what had become the empire to the east. The old sense of Frankish commonality was gone, and in its place were the two distinct entities that would ultimately become France and Germany. Chroniclers at the time of the Millennium may still have employed the phrase “Regnum Francorum,” but what they meant by that was clearly what would later be known as France. It is that, most historians feel, which justifies the use of the word to describe the lands which acknowledged the early Capetians as kings.

*Servus,” even more than “pauper,” is a word with a complex history. Originally, it meant “slave”; and the course of evolution by which it came to mean “serf” remains intensely controversial. At the time of the Millennium, it could still be used with both meanings.

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