1. The Coming of the Carolingians: 614–768
When Clotaire II became king of the Franks, the Merovingian dynasty seemed secure; never before had a monarch of that family ruled so large and united a realm. But Clotaire was indebted for his rise to the nobles of Austrasia and Burgundy; he rewarded them with increased independence and enlarged domains, and chose one of them, Pepin I the Elder, as his “Mayor of the Palace.” The major domus—“head of the house”—had been originally the superintendent of the royal household and overseer of the royal estates; his administrative functions grew as the Merovingian kings concentrated on debauchery and intrigue; step by step he took control of the courts, the army, the finances. Clotaire’s son King Dagobert (628-39) checked for a time the power of the major domus and the grandees. “He rendered justice to rich and poor alike,” says the chronicler Fredegar; “he took little sleep or food, and cared only so to act that all men should leave his presence full of joy and admiration”;17 however, Fredegar adds, “he had three queens and a host of concubines,” and was “a slave to incontinence.”18 Under his negligent successors—the rois fainéants or do-nothing kings—power passed again to the mayor of the palace. Pepin II the Younger defeated his rivals at the battle of Testry (687), expanded his title frommajor domus to dux et princeps Francorum, and ruled all Gaul except Aquitaine. His illegitimate son Charles Martel (the Hammer), nominally as mayor of the palace and Duke of Austrasia, ruled all Gaul under Clotaire IV (717-19). He resolutely repelled invasions of Gaul by Frisians and Saxons, and saved Europe for Christianity by turning back the Moslems at Tours. He supported Boniface and other missionaries in the conversion of Germany, but in the critical financial needs of his career he confiscated church lands, sold bishoprics to generals, quartered his troops on monasteries, beheaded a protesting monk,19 and was condemned to hell in a hundred sermons and tracts.
In 751 his son Pepin III, as major domus to Childeric III, sent an embassy to Pope Zacharias to ask would it be sinful to depose the Merovingian puppet and make himself king in fact as well as name. Zacharias, who needed Frank support against the ambitious Lombards, answered with a comforting negative. Pepin called an assembly of nobles and prelates at Soissons; he was there unanimously chosen king of the Franks (751); and the last of the do-nothing kings was tonsured and sent to a monastery. In 754 Pope Stephen II came to the abbey of St. Denis outside of Paris, and anointed Pepin rex Dei gratia, “king by the grace of God.” So ended the Merovingian dynasty (486-751), so began the Carolingian (751-987).
Pepin III “the Short” was a patient and far-seeing ruler, pious and practical, loving peace and invincible in war, and moral beyond any royal precedent in the Gaul of those centuries. All that Charlemagne accomplished was prepared by Pepin; in their two reigns of sixty-three years (751-814) Gaul was at last transformed into France. Pepin recognized the difficulty of governing without the aid of religion; he restored the property, privileges, and immunities of the Church; brought sacred relics to France, and bore them on his shoulders in impressive pageantry; rescued the papacy from the Lombard kings, and gave it a spacious temporal power in the “Donation of Pepin” (756). He was content to receive in return the title of patricius Romanus, and a papal injunction to the Franks never to choose a king except from his progeny. He died in the fullness of his power in 768, after bequeathing the realm of the Franks jointly to his sons Carloman II and the Charles who was to be Charlemagne.
2. Charlemagne: 768–814
The greatest of medieval kings was born in 742, at a place unknown. He was of German blood and speech, and shared some characteristics of his people—strength of body, courage of spirit, pride of race, and a crude simplicity many centuries apart from the urbane polish of the modern French. He had little book learning; read only a few books—but good ones; tried in his old age to learn writing, but never quite succeeded; yet he could speak old Teutonic and literary Latin, and understood Greek.20
In 771 Carloman II died, and Charles at twenty-nine became sole king. Two years later he received from Pope Hadrian II an urgent appeal for aid against the Lombard Desiderius, who was invading the papal states. Charlemagne besieged and took Pavia, assumed the crown of Lombardy, confirmed the Donation of Pepin, and accepted the role of protector of the Church in all her temporal powers. Returning to his capital at Aachen, he began a series of fifty-three campaigns—nearly all led in person—designed to round out his empire by conquering and Christianizing Bavaria and Saxony, destroying the troublesome Avars, shielding Italy from the raiding Saracens, and strengthening the defenses of Francia against the expanding Moors of Spain. The Saxons on his eastern frontier were pagans; they had burned down a Christian church, and made occasional incursions into Gaul; these reasons sufficed Charlemagne for eighteen campaigns (772-804), waged with untiring ferocity on both sides. Charles gave the conquered Saxons a choice between baptism and death, and had 4500 Saxon rebels beheaded in one day;21 after which he proceeded to Thionville to celebrate the nativity of Christ.
At Paderborn in 777 Ibn al-Arabi, the Moslem governor of Barcelona, had asked the aid of the Christian king against the caliph of Cordova. Charles led an army across the Pyrenees, besieged and captured the Christian city of Pamplona, treated the Christian but incalculable Basques of northern Spain as enemies, and advanced even to Saragossa. But the Moslem uprisings that al-Arabi had promised as part of the strategy against the caliph failed to appear; Charlemagne saw that his unaided forces could not challenge Cordova; news came that the conquered Saxons were in wild revolt and were marching in fury upon Cologne; and with the better part of valor he led his army back, in long and narrow file, through the passes of the Pyrenees. In one such pass, at Roncesvalles in Navarre, a force of Basques pounced down upon the rear guard of the Franks, and slaughtered nearly every man in it (778); there the noble Hruodland died, who would become three centuries later the hero of France’s most famous poem, the Chanson de Roland.In 795 Charlemagne sent another army across the Pyrenees; the Spanish March—a strip of northeast Spain—became part of Francia, Barcelona capitulated, and Navarre and Asturias acknowledged the Frankish sovereignty (806). Meanwhile Charlemagne had subdued the Saxons (785), had driven back the advancing Slavs (789), had defeated and dispersed the Avars (790-805), and had, in the thirty-fourth year of his reign and the sixty-third of his age, resigned himself to peace.
In truth he had always loved administration more than war, and had taken to the field to force some unity of government and faith upon a Western Europe torn for centuries past by conflicts of tribe and creed. He had now brought under his rule all the peoples between the Vistula and the Atlantic, between the Baltic and the Pyrenees, with nearly all of Italy and much of the Balkans. How could one man competently govern so vast and varied a realm? He was strong enough in body and nerves to bear a thousand responsibilities, perils, and crises, even to his sons’ plotting to kill him. He had in him the blood or teaching of the wise and cautious Pepin III, and of the ruthless Charles Martel, and was something of a hammer himself. He extended their power, guarded it with firm military organization, propped it with religious sanction and ritual. He could vision large purposes, and could will the means as well as wish the ends. He could lead an army, persuade an assembly, humor the nobility, dominate the clergy, rule a harem.
He made military service a condition of owning more than a pittance of property, and thereby founded martial morale on the defense and extension of one’s land. Every freeman, at the call to arms, had to report in full equipment to the local count, and every noble was responsible for the military fitness of his constituents. The structure of the state rested on this organized force, supported by every available psychological factor in the sanctity of anointed majesty, the ceremonial splendor of the imperial presence, and the tradition of obedience to established rule. Around the king gathered a court of administrative nobles and clergymen—the seneschal or head of the palace, the “count palatine” or chief justice, the “palsgraves” or judges of the palace court, and a hundred scholars, servants, and clerks. The sense of public participation in the government was furthered by semiannual assemblies of armed property owners, gathered, as military or other convenience might dictate, at Worms, Valenciennes, Aachen, Geneva, Paderborn … usually in the open air. At such assemblies the king submitted to smaller groups of nobles or bishops his proposals for legislation; they considered them, and returned them to him with suggestions; he formulated the capitula, or chapters of legislation, and presented these to the multitude for their shouted approval; rarely the assembly voiced disapproval with a collective grunt or moan. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, has transmitted an intimate picture of Charles at one of these gatherings, “saluting the men of most note, conversing with those whom he seldom saw, showing a tender interest toward the elders, and disporting himself with the young.” At these meetings each provincial bishop and administrator was required to report to the King any significant event in his locality since the previous convocation. “The King wished to know,” says Hincmar, “whether in any part or corner of the Kingdom the people were restless, and the cause thereof.”22 Sometimes (continuing the old Roman institution of inquisitio) the representatives of the King would summon leading citizens to inquire and give under oath a “true statement” (veredictum) as to the taxable wealth, the state of public order, the existence of crimes or criminals, in the district visited. In the ninth century, in Frank lands, this verdict of a jurata, or sworn group of inquirers, was used to decide many local issues of land ownership or criminal guilt. Out of the jurata, through Norman and English developments, would come the jury system of modern times.23
The empire was divided into counties, each governed in spiritual matters by a bishop or archbishop, and in secular affairs by a comes (companion—of the king) or count. A local assembly of landholders convened twice or thrice a year in each provincial capital to pass upon the government of the region, and serve as a provincial court of appeals. The dangerous frontier counties, or marches, had special governors—graf, margrave, or markherzog; Roland of Roncesvalles, for example, was governor of the Breton march. All local administration was subject to missi dominici—“emissaries of the master”—sent by Charlemagne to convey his wishes to local officials, to review their actions, judgments, and accounts,’ to check bribery, extortion, nepotism, and exploitation, to receive complaints and remedy wrongs, to protect “the Church, the poor, and wards and widows, and the whole people” from malfeasance or tyranny, and to report to the King the condition of the realm; the Capitulare missorum establishing these emissaries was a Magna Carta for the people, four centuries before England’s Magna Carta for the aristocracy. That this capitulary meant what it said appears from the case of the duke of Istria, who, being accused by the missi of divers injustices and extortions, was forced by the King to restore his thievings, compensate every wronged man, publicly confess his crimes, and give security against their repetition. Barring his wars, Charlemagne’s was the most just and enlightened government that Europe had known since Theodoric the Goth.
The sixty-five capitularies that remain of Charlemagne’s legislation are among the most interesting bodies of medieval law. They were not an organized system, but rather the extension and application of previous “barbarian” codes to new occasion or need. In some particulars they were less enlightened than the laws of King Liutprand of Lombardy: they kept the old wergild, ordeals, trial by combat, and punishment by mutilation;24 and decreed death for relapse into paganism, or for eating meat in Lent—though here the priest was allowed to soften the penalty.25 Nor were all these capitularies laws; some were answers to inquiries, some were questions addressed by Charlemagne to officials, some were moral counsels. “It is necessary,” said one article, “that every man should seek to the best of his strength and ability to serve God and walk in the way of His precepts; for the Lord Emperor cannot watch over every man in personal discipline.”26 Several articles struggled to bring more order into the sexual and marital relations of the people. Not all these counsels were obeyed; but there runs through the capitularies a conscientious effort to transform barbarism into civilization.
Charlemagne legislated for agriculture, industry, finance, education, and religion as well as for government and morals. His reign fell into a period when the economy of southern France and Italy was at low ebb through the control of the Mediterranean by the Saracens. “The Christians,” said Ibn Khaldun, “could no longer float a plank upon the sea.”27 The whole structure of commercial relations between Western Europe and Africa and the Levant was disturbed; only the Jews—whom Charlemagne sedulously protected for this reason—connected the now hostile halves of what under Rome had been a united economic world. Commerce survived in Slavic and Byzantine Europe, and in the Teutonic north. The English Channel and the North Sea were alive with trade; but this too would be disordered, even before Charlemagne’s death, by Norse piracy and raids. Vikings on the north and Moslems on the south almost closed the ports of France, and made her an inland and agricultural state. The mercantile middle class declined, leaving no group to compete with the rural aristocracy; French feudalism was promoted by Charlemagne’s land grants and by the triumphs of Islam.
Charlemagne struggled to protect a free peasantry against spreading serfdom, but the power of the nobles, and the force of circumstance, frustrated him. Even slavery grew for a time, as a result of the Carolingian wars against pagan tribes. The King’s own estates, periodically extended by confiscations, gifts, intestate reversions, and reclamation, were the chief source of the royal revenue. For the care of these lands he issued a Capitulare de villis astonishingly detailed, and revealing his careful scrutiny of all state income and expense. Forests, wastelands, highways, ports, and all mineral subsoil resources were the property of the state.28 Every encouragement was given to such commerce as survived; the fairs were protected, weights and measures and prices were regulated, tolls were moderated, speculation in futures was checked, roads and bridges were built or repaired, a great span was thrown across the Rhine at Mainz, waterways were kept open, and a canal was planned to connect the Rhine and the Danube, and thereby the North with the Black Sea. A stable currency was maintained; but the scarcity of gold in France and the decline of trade led to the replacement of Constantine’s gold solidus with the silver pound.
The energy and solicitude of the King reached into every sphere of life. He gave to the four winds the names they bear today. He established a system of poor relief, taxed the nobles and the clergy to pay its costs, and then made mendicancy a crime.29 Appalled by the illiteracy of his time, when hardly any but ecclesiastics could read, and by the lack of education among the lower clergy, he called in foreign scholars to restore the schools of France. Paul the Deacon was lured from Monte Cassino, and Alcuin from York (782), to teach the school that Charlemagne organized in the royal palace at Aachen. Alcuin (735-804) was a Saxon, born near York, and educated in the cathedral school that Bishop Egbert had founded there; in the eighth century Britain and Ireland were culturally ahead of France. When King Offa of Mercia sent Alcuin on a mission to Charlemagne, the latter begged the scholar to remain; Alcuin, glad to be out of England when the Danes were “laying it desolate, and dishonoring the monasteries with adultery,”30 consented to stay. He sent to England and elsewhere for books and teachers, and soon the palace school was an active center of study, of the revision and copying of manuscripts, and of an educational reform that spread throughout the realm. Among the pupils were Charlemagne, his wife Liutgard, his sons, his daughter Gisela, his secretary Eginhard, a nun, and many more. Charlemagne was the most eager of all; he seized upon learning as he had absorbed states; he studied rhetoric, dialectic, astronomy; he made heroic efforts to write, says Eginhard, “and used to keep tablets under his pillow in order that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; but as he began these efforts so late in life, they met with ill success.”31 He studied Latin furiously, but continued to speak German at his court; he compiled a German grammar, and collected specimens of early German poetry.
When Alcuin, after eight years in the palace school, pled for a less exciting environment, Charlemagne reluctantly made him Abbot of Tours (796). There Alcuin spurred the monks to make fairer and more accurate copies of the Vulgate of Jerome, the Latin Fathers, and the Latin classics; and other monasteries imitated the example. Many of our best classical texts have come down to us from these monastic scriptoria of the ninth century; practically all extant Latin poetry except Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, and nearly all extant Latin prose except Varro, Tacitus, and Apuleius, were preserved for us by the monks of the Carolingian age.32 Many of the Caroline manuscripts were handsomely illuminated by the patient art of the monks; to this “Palace School” of illumination belonged the “Vienna” Gospels on which the later German emperors took their coronation oath.
In 787 Charlemagne issued to all the bishops and abbots of Francia an historic Capitulare de litteris colendis, or directive on the study of letters. It reproached ecclesiastics for “uncouth language” and “unlettered tongues,” and exhorted every cathedral and monastery to establish schools where clergy and laity alike might learn to read and write. A further capitulary of 789 urged the directors of these schools to “take care to make no difference between the sons of serfs and of freemen, so that they might come and sit on the same benches to study grammar, music, and arithmetic.” A capitulary of 805 provided for medical education, and another condemned medical superstitions. That his appeals were not fruitless appears from the many cathedral or monastic schools that now sprang up in France and western Germany. Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans, organized schools in every parish of his diocese, welcomed all children to them, and forbade the priest instructors to take any fees;33 this is the first instance in history of free and general education. Important schools, nearly all attached to monasteries, rose in the ninth century at Tours, Auxerre, Pavia, St. Gall, Fulda, Ghent, and elsewhere. To meet the demand for teachers Charlemagne imported scholars from Ireland, Britain, and Italy. Out of these schools were to come the universities of Europe.
We must not overestimate the intellectual quality of the age; this scho lastic resurrection was the awakening of children rather than the maturity of such cultures as then existed in Constantinople, Baghdad, and Cordova. It did not produce any great writers. The formal compositions of Alcuin are stiflingly dull; only his letters and occasional verses show him as no pompous pedant but a kindly soul who could reconcile happiness with piety. Many men wrote poetry in this short-lived renaissance, and the poems of Theodulf are pleasant enough in their minor way. But the only lasting composition of that Gallic age was the brief and simple biography of Charlemagne by Eginhard. It follows the plan of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, and even snatches passages therefrom to apply to Charlemagne; but all is forgiven to an author who modestly describes himself as “a barbarian, very little versed in the Roman tongue.”34 He must have been a man of talent nevertheless, for Charlemagne made him royal steward and treasurer and intimate friend, and chose him to supervise, perhaps to design, much of the architecture of this creative reign.
Palaces were built for the Emperor at Ingelheim and Nijmegen; and at Aachen, his favorite capital, he raised the famous palace and chapel that survived a thousand dangers to crumble under the shells and bombs of the Second World War. The unknown architects modeled its plan on the church of San Vitale at Ravenna, which owed its form to Byzantine and Syrian exemplars; the result was an Oriental cathedral stranded in the West. The octagonal structure was surmounted by a circular dome; the interior was divided by a circular two-storied colonnade, and was “adorned with gold and silver and lamps, railings and doors of solid bronze, columns and crucibles brought from Rome and Ravenna,”35 and a famous mosaic in the dome.
Charlemagne was profusely generous to the Church; at the same time he made himself her master, and used her doctrines and personnel as instruments of education and government. Much of his correspondence was about religion; he hurled scriptural quotations at corrupt officials or worldly clerics; and the intensity of his utterance forbids suspicion that his piety was a political pose. He sent money to distressed Christians in foreign lands, and in his negotiations with Moslem rulers he insisted on fair treatment of their Christian population.36 Bishops played a leading part in his councils, assemblies, and administration; but he looked upon them, however reverently, as his agents under God; and he did not hesitate to command them, even in matters of doctrine or morals. He denounced image worship while the popes were defending it; required from every priest a written description of how baptism was administered in his parish, sent the popes directives as numerous as his gifts, suppressed insubordination in monasteries, and ordered a strict watch on convents to prevent “whoring, drunkenness, and covetousness” among the nuns.37 In a capitulary of 811 he asked the clergy what they meant by professing to renounce the world, when “we see” some of them “laboring day by day, by all sorts of means, to augment their possessions; now making use, for this purpose, of menaces of eternal flames, now of promises of eternal beatitude; despoiling simple-minded people of their property in the name of God or some saint, to the infinite prejudice of their lawful heirs.” Nevertheless he allowed the clergy their own courts, decreed that a tithe or tenth of all produce of the land should be turned over to the Church, gave the clergy control of marriages and wills, and himself bequeathed two thirds of his estates to the bishoprics of his realm.38 But he required the bishops now and then to make substantial “gifts” to help meet the expenses of the government.
Out of this intimate co-operation of Church and state came one of the most brilliant ideas in the history of statesmanship: the transformation of Charlemagne’s realm into a Holy Roman Empire that should have behind it all the prestige, sanctity, and stability of both Imperial and papal Rome. The popes had long resented their territorial subordination to a Byzantium that gave them no protection and no security; they saw the increasing subjection of the patriarch to the emperor at Constantinople, and feared for their own freedom. We do not know who conceived or arranged the plan of a papal coronation of Charlemagne as Roman emperor; Alcuin, Theodulf, and others close to him had discussed its possibility; perhaps the initiative lay with them, perhaps with the councilors of the popes. There were great difficulties in the way: the Greek monarch already had the title of Roman emperor, and full historic right to that title; the Church had no recognized authority to convey or transfer the title; to give it to a rival of Byzantium might precipitate a gigantic war of Christian East against Christian West, leaving a ruined Europe to a conquering Islam. It was of some help that Irene had seized the Greek throne (797); now, some said, there was no Greek emperor, and the field was open to any claimant. If the bold scheme could be carried through there would again be a Roman emperor in the West, Latin Christianity would stand strong and unified against schismatic Byzantium and threatening Saracens, and, by the awe and magic of the imperial name, barbarized Europe might reach back across centuries of darkness, and inherit and Christianize the civilization and culture of the ancient world.
On December 26, 795, Leo III was chosen Pope. The Roman populace did not like him; it accused him of various misdeeds; and on April 25, 799, it attacked him, maltreated him, and imprisoned him in a monastery. He escaped, and fled for protection to Charlemagne at Paderborn. The King received him kindly, and sent him back to Rome under armed escort, and ordered the Pope and his accusers to appear before him there in the following year. On November 24, 800, Charlemagne entered the ancient capital in state; on December I an assembly of Franks and Romans agreed to drop the charges against Leo if he would deny them on solemn oath; he did; and the way was cleared for a magnificent celebration of the Nativity. On Christmas Day, as Charlemagne, in the chlamys and sandals of a patricius Romanus, knelt before St. Peter’s altar in prayer, Leo suddenly produced a jeweled crown, and set it upon the King’s head. The congregation, perhaps instructed beforehand to act according to ancient ritual as the senatus populusque Romanus confirming a coronation, thrice cried out: “Hail to Charles the Augustus, crowned by God the great and peace-bringing Emperor of the Romans!” The royal head was anointed with holy oil, the Pope saluted Charlemagne as Emperor and Augustus, and offered him the act of homage reserved since 476 for the Eastern emperor.
If we may believe Eginhard, Charlemagne told him that had he known Leo’s intention to crown him he would not have entered the church. Perhaps he had learned of the general plan, but regretted the haste and circumstances of its execution; it may not have pleased him to receive the crown from a pope, opening the door to centuries of dispute as to the relative dignity and power of donor and recipient; and presumably he anticipated difficulties with Byzantium. He now sent frequent embassies and letters to Constantinople, seeking to heal the breach; and for a long time he made no use of his new title. In 802 he offered marriage to Irene as a means of mutually legitimizing their dubious titles;39 but Irene’s fall from power shattered this elegant plan. To discourage any martial attack by Byzantium he arranged an entente with Harun al-Rashid, who sealed their understanding by sending him some elephants and the keys to the Christian holy places in Jerusalem. The Eastern emperor, in retaliation, encouraged the emir of Cordova to renounce allegiance to Baghdad. Finally, in 812, the Greek basileus recognized Charlemagne as coemperor, in return for Charlemagne’s acknowledgment of Venice and southern Italy as belonging to Byzantium.
The coronation had results for a thousand years. It strengthened the papacy and the bishops by making civil authority derive from ecclesiastical conferment; Gregory VII and Innocent III would build a mightier Church on the events of 800 in Rome. It strengthened Charlemagne against baronial and other disaffection by making him a very vicar of God; it vastly advanced the theory of the divine right of kings. It contributed to the schism of Greek from Latin Christianity; the Greek Church did not relish subordination to a Roman Church allied with an empire rival to Byzantium. The fact that Charlemagne (as the Pope desired) continued to make Aachen, not Rome, his capital, underlined the passage of political power from the Mediterranean to northern Europe, from the Latin peoples to the Teutons. Above all, the coronation established the Holy Roman Empire in fact, though not in theory. Charlemagne and his advisers conceived of his new authority as a revival of the old imperial power; only with Otto I was the distinctively new character of the regime recognized; and it became “holy” only when Frederick Barbarossa introduced the word sacrum into his title in 1155. All in all, despite its threat to the liberty of the mind and the citizen, the Holy Roman Empire was a noble conception, a dream of security and peace, order and civilization restored in a world heroically won from barbarism, violence, and ignorance.
Imperial formalities now hedged in the Emperor on occasions of state. Then he had to wear embroidered robes, a golden buckle, jeweled shoes, and a crown of gold and gems, and visitors prostrated themselves to kiss his foot or knee; so much had Charlemagne learned from Byzantium, and Byzantium from Ctesiphon. But in other days, Eginhard assures us, his dress varied little from the common garb of the Franks—linen shirt and breeches next to the skin, and over these a woolen tunic perhaps fringed with silk; hose fastened by bands covered his legs, leather shoes his feet; in winter he added a close-fitting coat of otter or marten skins; and always a sword at his side. He was six feet four inches tall, and built to scale. He had blond hair, animated eyes, a powerful nose, a mustache but no beard, a presence “always stately and dignified.”40 He was temperate in eating and drinking, abominated drunkenness, and kept in good health despite every exposure and hardship. He often hunted, or took vigorous exercise on horseback. He was a good swimmer, and liked to bathe in the warm springs of Aachen. He rarely entertained, preferring to hear music or the reading of a book while he ate. Like every great man he valued time; he gave audiences and heard cases in the morning while dressing and putting on his shoes.
Behind his poise and majesty were passion and energy, but harnessed to his aims by a clairvoyant intelligence. His vital force was not consumed by half a hundred campaigns; he gave himself also, with never aging enthusiasm, to science, law, literature, and theology; he fretted at leaving any part of the earth, or any section of knowledge, unmastered or unexplored. In some ways he was mentally ingenuous; he scorned superstition and proscribed diviners and soothsayers, but he accepted many mythical marvels, and exaggerated the power of legislation to induce goodness or intelligence. This simplicity of soul had its fair side: there was in his thought and speech a directness and honesty seldom permitted to statesmanship.
He could be ruthless when policy required, and was especially cruel in his efforts to spread Christianity. Yet he was a man of great kindness, many charities, warm friendships, and varied loves. He wept at the death of his sons, his daughter, and Pope Hadrian. In a poem Ad Carolum regem Theo-dulf draws a pleasant picture of the Emperor at home. On his arrival from labors his children gather about him; son Charles takes off the father’s cloak, son Louis his sword; his six daughters embrace him, bring him bread, wine, apples, flowers; the bishop comes in to bless the King’s food; Alcuin is near to discuss letters with him; the diminutive Eginhard runs to and fro like an ant, bringing in enormous books.41 He was so fond of his daughters that he dissuaded them from marriage, saying that he could not bear to be without them. They consoled themselves with unlicensed amours, and bore several illegitimate children.42 Charlemagne accepted these accidents with good humor, since he himself, following the custom of his predecessors, had four successive wives and five mistresses or concubines. His abounding vitality made him extremely sensitive to feminine charms; and his women preferred a share in him to the monopoly of any other man. His harem bore him some eighteen children, of whom eight were legitimate.43 The ecclesiastics of the court and of Rome winked leniently at the Moslem morals of so Christian a king.
He was now head of an empire far greater than the Byzantine, surpassed, in the white man’s world, only by the realm of the Abbasid caliphate. But every extended frontier of empire or knowledge opens up new problems. Western Europe had tried to protect itself from the Germans by taking them into its civilization; but now Germany had to be protected against the Norse and the Slavs. The Vikings had by 800 established a kingdom in Jutland, and were raiding the Frisian coast. Charles hastened up from Rome, built fleets and forts on shores and rivers, and stationed garrisons at danger points. In 810 the king of Jutland invaded Frisia and was repulsed; but shortly thereafter, if we may follow the chronicle of the Monk of St. Gall, Charlemagne, from his palace at Narbonne, was shocked to see Danish pirate vessels in the Gulf of Lyons.
Perhaps because he foresaw, like Diocletian, that his overreaching empire needed quick defense at many points at once, he divided it in 806 among his three sons—Pepin, Louis, and Charles. But Pepin died in 810, Charles in 811; only Louis remained, so absorbed in piety as to seem unfit to govern a rough and treacherous world. Nevertheless, in 813, at a solemn ceremony, Louis was elevated from the rank of king to that of emperor, and the old monarch uttered his nunc dimittis: “Blessed be Thou, O Lord God, Who hast granted me the grace to see with my own eyes my son seated on my throne!”44 Four months later, wintering at Aachen, he was seized with a high fever, and developed pleurisy. He tried to cure himself by taking only liquids; but after an illness of seven days he died, in the forty-seventh year of his reign and the seventy-second year of his life (814). He was buried under the dome of the cathedral at Aachen, dressed in his imperial robes. Soon all the world called him Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, Charlemagne; and in 1165, when time had washed away all memory of his mistresses, the Church which he had served so well enrolled him among the blessed.
3. The Carolingian Decline
The Carolingian renaissance was one of several heroic interludes in the Dark Ages. It might have ended the darkness three centuries before Abélard had it not been for the quarrels and incompetence of Charlemagne’s successors, the feudal anarchy of the barons, the disruptive struggle between Church and state, and the Norman, Magyar, and Saracen invasions invited by these ineptitudes. One man, one lifetime, had not availed to establish a new civilization. The short-lived revival was too narrowly clerical; the common citizen had no part in it; few of the nobles cared a fig for it, few of them even bothered to learn how to read. Charles himself must bear some blame for the collapse of his empire. He had so enriched the clergy that the power of the bishops, now that his strong hand was lifted, outweighed that of the emperor; and he had been compelled, for military and administrative reasons, to yield a dangerous degree of independence to the courts and barons in the provinces. He had left the finances of an imperially burdened government dependent upon the loyalty and integrity of these rude aristocrats, and upon the modest income of his own lands and mines. He had not been able, like the Byzantine emperors, to build up a bureaucracy of civil servants responsible only to the central power, or capable of carrying on the government through all vicissitudes of imperial personnel. Within a generation after his death the missi dominici, who had spread his authority through the counties, were disbanded or ignored, and the local lords slipped out of central control. Charlemagne’s reign was a feat of genius; it represented political advancement in an age and region of economic decline.
The cognomens given to his successors by their contemporaries tell the story: Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat, Charles the Simple. Louis the “Pious” * (814-40) was as tall and handsome as his father; modest, gentle, and gracious, and as incorrigibly lenient as Caesar. Brought up by priests, he took to heart the moral precepts that Charlemagne had practiced with such moderation. He had one wife, and no concubines; he expelled from the court his father’s mistresses and his sisters’ paramours, and when the sisters protested, he immured them in nunneries. He took the priests at their word, and bade the monks live up to their Benedictine rule. Wherever he found injustice or exploitation he tried to stop it, and to right what wrong had been done. The people marveled to find him always taking the side of the weak or poor.
Feeling bound by Frank custom, he divided his empire into kingdoms ruled by his sons—Pepin, Lothaire, and Louis “the German” (whom we shall call Ludwig). By his second wife, Judith, Louis had a fourth son, known to history as Charles the Bald; Louis loved him with almost grandparental infatuation, and wished to give him a share of the empire, annulling the division of 817; the three older sons objected, and began eight years of civil war against their father. The majority of the nobles and the clergy supported the rebellion; the few who seemed loyal deserted Louis in a crisis at Roth feld (near Colmar), which thereafter was known as the Lügenfeld, the Field of Lies. Louis bade his remaining supporters leave him for their own protection, and surrendered to his sons (833). They jailed and tonsured Judith, confined young Charles in a convent, and ordered their father to abdicate and do public penance. In a church at Soissons Louis, surrounded by thirty bishops, and in the presence of his son and successor Lothaire, was compelled to bare himself to the waist, prostrate himself upon a haircloth, and read aloud a confession of crime. He took the gray garb of a penitent, and for a year was imprisoned in a monastery. From this moment a united episcopate ruled France amid the disintegration of the Carolingian house.
Popular sentiment revolted against Lothaire’s treatment of Louis. Many nobles and some prelates responded to the appeals of Judith to annul the deposition; a quarrel among the sons ensued; Pepin and Ludwig released their father, restored him to his throne, and returned Judith and Charles to his arms (834). Louis took no revenge, but forgave all. When Pepin died (838) a new partition was made; Ludwig did not like it, and invaded Saxony. The old Emperor again took the field, and repelled the invasion; but he fell ill of exposure on the way back, and died near Ingelheim (840). Among his last words were a message of forgiveness to Ludwig, and an appeal to Lothaire, now Emperor, to protect Judith and Charles.
Lothaire tried to reduce Charles and Ludwig to the rank of vassals; they defeated him at Fonteney (841), and took at Strasbourg an oath of mutual loyalty famous as our oldest document in French. In 843, however, they signed with Lothaire the Treaty of Verdun, and partitioned the empire of Charlemagne into approximately the modern states of Italy, Germany, and France. Ludwig received the lands between the Rhine and the Elbe, Charles received most of France and the Spanish March. Lothaire received Italy, and the lands between the Rhine on the east and the Scheldt, Saône, and Rhone on the west; this heterogeneous terrain, stretching from Holland to Provence, took his name as Lothari regnum, Lotharingia, Lothringar, Lorraine. It had no ethnic or linguistic unity, and inevitably became the battleground between Germany and France, repeatedly changing masters in the bloody fluctuations of victory and defeat.
During these costly civil wars, weakening the government, man power, wealth, and morale of Western Europe, the expanding tribes of Scandinavia invaded France in a barbarian wave that resumed and completed the havoc and terror of the German migrations of four centuries before. While the Swedes were infiltrating Russia, and the Norwegians were getting a foothold in Ireland, and the Danes were conquering England, a mixture of Scandinavians whom we may call Norse or Northmen raided the coastal and river cities of France. After the death of Louis the Pious these raids became great expeditions, with fleets of over a hundred vessels fully manned with oarsmenwarriors. In the ninth and tenth centuries France endured forty-seven Norse attacks. In 840 the raiders sacked Rouen, beginning a century of assaults upon Normandy; in 843 they entered Nantes and slew the bishop at his altar; in 844 they sailed up the Garonne to Toulouse; in 845 they mounted the Seine to Paris, but spared the city on receiving a tribute of 7000 pounds of silver. In 846—while the Saracens were attacking Rome—the Northmen conquered Frisia, burned Dordrecht, and sacked Limoges. In 847 they besieged Bordeaux, but were repulsed; in 848 they tried again, captured it, plundered it, massacred its population, and burned it to the ground. In the following years they dealt a like fate to Beauvais, Bayeux, St.-Lô, Meaux, Évreux, Tours; we may surmise something of the terror by noting that Tours was pillaged in 853, 856, 862, 872, 886, 903, and 919.45 Paris was pillaged in 856, again in 861, and burned in 865. At Orléans and Chartres the bishops organized armies and drove back the invaders (855); but in 856 Danish pirates sacked Orléans. In 859 a Norse fleet sailed through Gibraltar into the Mediterranean; raided towns along the Rhone as far north as Valence; crossed the Gulf of Genoa, and plundered Pisa and other Italian cities. Baffled here and there by the fortified castles of the nobles, the invaders rifled or destroyed the treasures of the unprotected churches and monasteries, often burning them and their libraries, and sometimes killing the priests and monks. In the litanies of those dark days men prayed, Libera nos a furore Normanorum—“Deliver us from the Norse fury!”46 As if in a conspiracy with the Northmen, the Saracens took Corsica and Sardinia in 810, ravaged the French Riviera in 820, sacked Arles in 842, and held most of the French Mediterranean coast till 972.
What were the kings and barons doing in all this half century of destruction? The barons, themselves harassed, were loath to go to the aid of other regions, and responded weakly to appeals for united action. The kings were busy with their wars for territory or the Imperial throne, and sometimes encouraged the Norse to raid a rival’s shores. In 859 Archbishop Hincmar of Reims directly accused Charles the Bald of negligence in the defense of France. Charles was succeeded (877-88) by worse weaklings—Louis II the Stammerer, Louis III, Carloman, and Charles the Fat. By the accidents of time and death all the realm of Charlemagne was again united under Charles the Fat, and the dying empire had another chance to fight for its life. But in 880 the Norse captured and burned Nijmegen, and turned Courtrai and Ghent into Norman strongholds; in 881 they burned Liege, Cologne, Bonn, Prüm, and Aachen; in 882 they captured Trier, killing the archbishop who led its defense; in the same year they took Reims, forcing Hincmar to flight and death. In 883 they seized Amiens, but retired on receiving 12,000 pounds of silver from King Carloman. In 885 they took Rouen, and sailed up to Paris in 700 ships with 30,000 men. The governor of the city, Count Odo or Eudes, and its Bishop Gozlin led a valiant resistance; for thirteen months Paris stood siege, and made a dozen sorties; finally Charles the Fat, instead of coming to the rescue, paid the Northmen 700 pounds of silver, and gave them permission to go up the Seine and winter in Burgundy, which they pillaged to their hearts’ content. Charles was deposed, and died in 888. Odo was chosen king of France, and Paris, its strategic value now proved, became the seat of government.
Odo’s successor, Charles the Simple (898-923), protected the region of the Seine and the Saône, but raised no hand against Norse depredations in the rest of France. In 911 he conceded to Rolf or Rollo, a Norman chieftain, the districts of Rouen, Lisieux, and Évreux, which the Normans already held; they consented to do feudal homage for them to the king, but laughed in his face as they performed the ceremony. Rollo agreed to baptism; his people followed him to the font, and slowly subsided into agriculture and civilization. So Normandy began, as a Norse conquest in France.
The simple king had found a solution for Paris at least; now the Normans themselves would block invaders entering the Seine. But elsewhere the Norse raids continued. Chartres was pillaged in 911, Angers in 919; Aquitaine and Auvergne were plundered in 923; Artois and the Beauvais region in 924. Almost at the same time the Magyars, having ravaged southern Germany, entered Burgundy in 917, crossed and recrossed the French frontier unhindered, robbed and burned the monasteries near Reims and Sens (937), passed like consuming locusts through Aquitaine (951), burned the suburbs of Cambrai, Laon, and Reims (954), and leisurely looted Burgundy. Under these repeated blows of Norse and Hun the fabric of social order in France verged upon total collapse. Cried an ecclesiastical synod at Trosle in 909:
The cities are depopulated, the monasteries ruined and burned, the country reduced to solitude.… As the first men lived without law … so now every man does what seems good in his own eyes, despising laws human and divine…The strong oppress the weak; the world is full of violence against the poor, and of the plunder of ecclesiastical goods…. Men devour one another like the fishes in the sea.47
The last Carolingian kings—Louis IV, Lothaire IV, Louis V—were well-meaning men, but they had not in their blood the iron needed to forge a living order out of the universal desolation. When Louis V died without issue (987), the nobles and prelates of France sought leadership in some other line than the Carolingian. They found it in the descendants of a marquess of Neustria significantly named Robert the Strong (d. 866). The Odo who had saved Paris was his son; a grandson, Hugh the Great (d. 956), had acquired by purchase or war almost all the region between Normandy, the Seine, and the Loire as his feudal realm, and had wielded more wealth and power than the kings. Now Hugh’s son, called Hugh Capet, had inherited this wealth and power, and apparently the ability that had won them. Archbishop Adalbero, guided by the subtle scholar Gerbert, proposed Hugh Capet as king of France. He was unanimously elected (987), and that Capetian dynasty began which, in direct or collateral line, would rule France until the Revolution.
4. Letters and Arts: 814–1066
Perhaps we exaggerate the damage done by the Norse and Magyar raids; to crowd them into a page for brevity’s sake darkens unduly the picture of a life in which there were doubtless intervals of security and peace. Monasteries continued to be built throughout this terrible ninth century, and were often the centers of busy industry. Rouen, despite raids and fires, grew stronger from trade with Britain; Cologne and Mainz dominated commerce on the Rhine; and in Flanders thriving centers of industry and trade developed at Ghent, Ypres, Lille, Douai, Arras, Tournai, Dinant, Cambrai, Liége, and Valenciennes.
The monastic libraries suffered tragic losses of classic treasures during the raids, and doubtless many churches were then destroyed which had opened schools on the lines of Charlemagne’s decree. Libraries survived at the monasteries or churches of Fulda, Lorsch, Reichenau, Mainz, Trier, Cologne, Liége, Laon, Reims, Corbie, Fleury, St. Denis, Tours, Bobbio, Monte Cassino, St. Gall…The Benedictine monastery at St. Gall was acclaimed for its writers as well as for its school and its books. Here Notker Balbulus—the Stammerer—(840-912) wrote excellent hymns and the Chronicle of the Monk of St. Gall; here Notker Labeo—the Thick-lipped—(950-1022) translated Boethius, Aristotle, and other classics into German; these translations, among the first productions of German prose, helped to fix the forms and syntax of the new tongue.
Even in harassed France the monastic schools were lighting up these Dark Ages. Remy of Auxerre opened a public school at Paris in 900; and in the tenth century schools were established at Auxerre, Corbie, Reims, and Liege. At Chartres, about 1006, Bishop Fulbert (960-1028) founded a school that became the most renowned in France before Abélard; there the venerabilis Socrates, as his pupils called him, organized the teaching of science, medicine, and classical literature as well as theology, Scripture, and liturgy. Fulbert was a man of noble devotion, saintly patience, and endless charity. To his school, before the end of the eleventh century, would come such scholars as John of Salisbury, William of Conches, Berengar of Tours, and Gilbert de la Porree. Meanwhile, now at Compiègne, now at Laon, the Palace School established by Charlemagne reached the height of its glory under the encouragement and protection of Charles the Bald.
To this Palace School, in 845, Charles invited divers Irish and English scholars. Among them was one of the most original and audacious minds of the Middle Ages, a man whose existence casts doubt upon the advisability of retaining the phrase “Dark Ages” even for the ninth century. His name doubly revealed his origin. Johannes Scotus Eriugena—“John the Irishman, born in Erin”; we shall call him simply Erigena. Though apparently not an ecclesiastic, he was a man of wide learning, a master of Greek, a lover of Plato and the classics, and something of a wit. A story that has all the earmarks of literary invention tells how Charles the Bald, dining with him, asked him Quid distat inter sottum et Scotum— “What distinguishes” (literally, what separates) “a fool from an Irishman?”—to which John is said to have answered, “The table.”48 Nevertheless Charles was fond of him, attended his lectures, and probably enjoyed his heresies. John’s book on the Eucharist interpreted the sacrament as symbolical, and by implication questioned the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread or wine. When Gottschalk, a German monk, preached absolute predestinarianism, and therefore denied free will in man, Archbishop Hincmar asked Erigena to write a reply. The resultant treatiseDe divina praedestinatione (c. 851) began with a startling exaltation of philosophy: “In earnestly investigating and attempting to discover the reason of all things, every means of attaining to a pious and perfect doctrine lies in that science and discipline which the Greeks call philosophy.” In effect the book denied predestination; the will is free in both God and man; God does not know evil, for if He knew it, He would be the cause of it. The answer was more heretical than Gottschalk’s, and was condemned by two church councils in 855 and 859. Gottschalk was confined in a monastery till his death, but the King protected Erigena.
In 824 the Byzantine Emperor Michael the Stammerer had sent to Louis the Pious the Greek manuscript of a book, The Celestial Hierarchy, believed by Christian orthodoxy to have been composed by Dionysius “the Areopagite.” Louis the Pious turned the manuscript over to the monastery of St. Denis, but nobody there could translate its Greek. Erigena, at the King’s request, now undertook the task. The translation deeply influenced Erigena, and re-established in unofficial Christian theology the Neoplatonist picture of a universe evolving or emanating out of God through different stages or degrees of diminishing perfection, and slowly returning through different degrees back into the deity.
This became the central idea of John’s own masterpiece, De divisione naturae (867). Here, amid much nonsense, and two centuries before Abélard, is a bold subjection of theology and revelation to reason, and an attempt to reconcile Christianity with Greek philosophy. John accepts the authority of the Bible; but since its sense is often obscure, it must be interpreted by reason—usually by symbolism or allegory. “Authority,” says Erigena, “sometimes proceeds from reason, but reason never from authority. For all authority that is not approved by true reason seems weak. But true reason, since it rests on its own strength, needs no reinforcement by any authority.”49 “We should not allege the opinions of the holy Fathers … unless it be necessary thereby to strengthen arguments in the eyes of men who, unskillful in reasoning, yield rather to authority than to reason.”50 Here is the Age of Reason moving in the womb of the Age of Faith.
John defines Nature as “the general name for all things that are and that are not”—i.e., all objects, processes, principles, causes, and thoughts. He divides Nature into four kinds of being: (1) that which creates but is not created—viz., God; (2) that which is created and creates—viz., the prime causes, principles, prototypes, Platonic Ideas, Logos, by whose operation the world of particular things is made; (3) that which is created and does not create—viz., the said world of particular things; and (4) that which neither creates nor is created—i.e., God as the final and absorbing end of all things. “God is everything that truly is, since He makes all things and is made in all things.” There was no creation in time, for this would imply a change in God. “When we hear that God made everything, we ought to understand nothing other than that God is in all things—i.e., subsists as the essence of all things.”51“God Himself is comprehended by no intellect; neither is the secret essence of anything created by Him comprehensible. We perceive only accidents, not essences”52—phenomena, not noumena, as Kant would say. The sensible qualities of things are not inherent in the things themselves, but are produced by our forms of perception. “When we hear that God wishes, loves, chooses, sees, hears … we should think nothing else than that His ineffable essence and power are being expressed by meanings co-natural with us” (congenial to our nature) “lest the true and pious Christian be silenced concerning the Creator, and dare say nothing of Him for the instruction of simple souls.”53 Only for a like purpose may we speak of God as masculine or feminine; “He” is neither.54 If we take “Father” as meaning the creative substance or essence of all things, and “Son” as the divine Wisdom according to which all things are made or governed, and “Spirit” as the life or vitality of creation, we may think of God as a Trinity. Heaven and hell are not places, but conditions of soul; hell is the misery of sin, heaven is the happiness of virtue and the ecstasy of the divine vision (the perception of divinity) revealed in all things to the soul that is pure.55 The Garden of Eden was such a state of soul, not a place on the earth.56 All things are immortal: animals too, like men, have souls that pass back, after death, into the God or creative spirit from whom they emanated.57 All history is a vast outward flow of creation by emanation, and an irresistible inward tide that finally draws all things back into God.
There have been worse philosophies than this, and in ages of illumination. But the Church properly suspected it as reeking with heresy. In 865 Pope Nicholas I demanded of Charles the Bald that he should either send John to Rome for trial, or dismiss him from the Palace School, “that he may no longer give poison to those who seek for bread.”58 We do not know the outcome. William of Malmesbury59 relates that “Johannes Scotus came to England and our monastery, as report says; was pierced with the iron pens of the boys whom he instructed,” and died from the results; probably the tale was a schoolboy’s wishful dream. Philosophers like Gerbert, Abélard, and Gilbert de la Porrée were secretly influenced by Erigena, but for the most part he was forgotten in the chaos and darkness of the age. When in the thirteenth century his book was exhumed from oblivion it was condemned by the Council of Sens (1225), and Pope Honorius III ordered that all copies should be sent to Rome and there be burned.
In these disturbed centuries French art marked time. Despite Charlemagne’s example, the French continued to build their churches on the basilican plan. About 996 William of Volpiano, an Italian monk and architect, became head of the Norman abbey of Fécamp. He brought with him many of the devices of the Lombard and Romanesque style; and apparently it was his pupils who built the great Romanesque abbey church of Jumièges (1045-67). In 1042 another Italian, Lanfranc, entered the Norman monastery at Bee, and soon made it a vibrant intellectual center. Students flocked to it in such number that new buildings had to be provided; Lanfranc designed them, perhaps with some more expert help. Not a stone remains of his structures; but the Abbaye aux Hommes at Caen (1077-81) survives as a testimony to the powerful Romanesque style developed in Normandy by Lanfranc and his fellows.
All over France and Flanders in the eleventh century new churches were built, and artists adorned them with murals, mosaics, and statuary. Charlemagne had directed that church interiors should be painted for the instruction of the faithful; the palaces at Aachen and Ingelheim were decorated with frescoes; and doubtless many churches followed these examples. The last fragments of the Aachen frescoes were destroyed in 1944; but similar murals survive in the church of St. Germain at Auxerre. These differ only in scale from the style and figures in the manuscript illumination of the time. At Tours, in the reign of Charles the Bald, a great Bible was written and painted by the monks, and presented to the King; it is now No. 1 of the Latin codices in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris. Still more beautiful is the “Lothaire” Gospel also made at this time by the monks of Tours. The monks of Reims, in the same ninth century, produced the famous “Utrecht” Psalter—108 vellum leaves containing the Psalms and the Apostles’ Creed, exuberantly illustrated with a veritable menagerie of animals and a museum of tools and occupations. In these lively pictures a lusty realism transforms the once stiff and conventional figures of miniature art.
5. The Rise of the Dukes: 987–1066
The France that Hugh Capet ruled (987-996) now stood out as a separate nation, no longer acknowledging the suzerainty of the Holy Roman Empire; the unification of western continental Europe achieved by Charlemagne was never restored, except momentarily by Napoleon and Hitler. But Hugh’s France was not our France; Aquitaine and Burgundy were virtually independent duchies, and Lorraine would for seven centuries attach itself to Germany. It was a France heterogeneous in race and speech: northeastern France was more Flemish than French, and had a large German element in its blood; Normandy was Norse; Brittany was Celtic and aloof, dominated by refugees from Britain; Provence was still in stock and speech a Roman-Gallic “province”; France near the Pyrenees was Gothic; Catalonia, technically under the French monarchy, was Goth-alonia. The Loire divided France into two regions of diverse cultures and tongues. The task of the French monarchy was to unify this diversity, and make a nation from a dozen peoples. The task would take 800 years.
To improve the chances of an orderly succession, Hugh, in the first year of his reign, had had his son Robert crowned co-king. Robert the Pious (996-1031) is accounted a “mediocre king,”60 perhaps because he shunned the glory of war. Having some dispute over boundaries with the Emperor Henry II of Germany, he arranged a meeting with him, exchanged presents, and reached a peaceable agreement. Like Louis IX, Henry IV, and Louis XVI, Robert had a kindly feeling for the weak and the poor, and protected them as well as he could from the unscrupulous strong. He offended the Church by marrying his cousin Bertha (998), bore excommunication patiently there for and the taunts of those who thought her a witch; finally he separated from her and lived unhappily forever afterward. At his death, we are told, “There was great mourning and intolerable grief.”61 A war of succession followed between his sons; the elder, Henry I (1031-60), won, but only by the help of Robert, Duke of Normandy. When that long conflict (1031-9) ended, the monarchy was so impoverished in money and men that it could no longer prevent the dismemberment of France by powerful and independent lords.
About the year 1000, through the gradual appropriation of surrounding territory by great landowners, France was divided into seven main principalities ruled by counts or dukes: Aquitaine, Toulouse, Burgundy, Anjou, Champagne, Flanders, and Normandy. These dukes or counts were in nearly all cases the heirs of chieftains or generals to whom estates had been granted, for military or administrative services, by the Merovingian or Carolingian kings. The king had become dependent upon these magnates for mobilizing troops and protecting frontier provinces; after 888 he no longer legislated for the whole realm, or gathered taxes from it; the dukes and counts passed laws, levied taxes, waged war, judged and punished, as practically sovereign powers on their estates, and merely offered the king a formal homage and limited military service. The authority of the king in law, justice, and finance was narrowed to his own royal domain, later called the Ile de France—the region of the Saône and middle Seine from Orléans to Beauvais and from Chartres to Reims.
Of all the relatively independent duchies, Normandy grew most rapidly in authority and power. Within a century after its cession to the Northmen, it had become—perhaps through proximity to the sea and its position between England and Paris—the most enterprising and adventurous province in France. The Norse were now enthusiastic Christians, had great monasteries and abbey schools, and reproduced with a recklessness that would soon drive Norman youth to carve new kingdoms out of old states. The progeny of the Vikings made strong governors, not too finicky about their morals, nor palsied with scruples, but able to rule with a firm hand a turbulent population of Gauls, Franks, and Norse. Robert I (1028-35) was not yet duke of Normandy when in 1026 his eye was caught by Harlette, daughter of a tanner in Falaise. She became his cherished mistress according to an old Danish custom, and soon presented him with a son known to his contemporaries as William the Bastard, to us as William the Conqueror. Weighed down by his sins, Robert in 1035 left Normandy on a penitential pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Before going he called his chief barons and prelates to him and said to them:
By my faith, I will not leave ye lordless. I have a young bastard who will grow, please God, and of whose good qualities I have great hope. Take him, I pray you, for lord. That he was not born in wedlock matters little to you; he will be none the less able in battle … or to render justice. I make him my heir, and I hold him seized, from this present, of the whole duchy of Normandy.62
Robert died en route; for a time nobles ruled for his son; but soon William began to issue orders in the first person. A rebellion tried to unseat him, but he put it down with dignified ferocity. He was a man of craft and courage and farseeing plans, a god to his friends, a devil to his foes. He bore with good humor many quips about his birth, and signed himself, now and then, Gulielmus Nothus— William the Bastard; but when he besieged Alençon, and the besieged hung hides over their walls in allusion to his grandfather’s trade, he cut off the hands and feet, and gouged out the eyes, of his prisoners, and shot these members from his catapults into the town. Normandy admired his brutality and iron rule, and prospered. William moderated the exploitation of the peasantry by the nobles, and appeased these with fiefs; he dominated and presided over the clergy, and appeased them with gifts. He attended devoutly to his religious duties, and shamed his father by unprecedented marital fidelity. He fell in love with the beautiful Matilda, daughter of Baldwin, Count of Flanders; he was not disconcerted by her two children and her living but separated husband; she sent William away with insults, saying that she “would rather be a veiled nun than marry a bastard”;63 he persevered, won her, and married her despite the denunciations of the clergy. He deposed Bishop Malger and Abbot Lanfranc for condemning the marriage, and burned down part of the abbey of Bee in his rage. Lanfranc persuaded Pope Nicholas II to validate the union; and William, in atonement, built at Caen the famous Norman Abbaye aux Hommes. By this marriage William allied himself with the Count of Flanders; in 1048 he had already signed an entente with the king of France. Having so guarded and garnished his flanks, he proceeded, at the age of thirty-nine, to conquer England.