France Besieged



THE France of 1300 was by no means the majestic realm that today JL reaches from the Channel to the Mediterranean, and from the Vosges and Alps to the Atlantic. On the east it reached only to the Rhone. In the southwest a large area—Guienne and Gascony—had been added to the English crown by the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1152); in the north England had taken the county of Ponthieu, with Abbeville; and though the English kings held these lands as fiefs of the French monarchs, they maintained over them an effectual sovereignty. Provence, the Dauphiné, and Franche-Comté (“free county”) belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, whose heads were usually Germans. The French kings ruled indirectly, through their close kin, the princely appanages of Valois, Anjou, Bourbon, and Angoulême. They ruled directly, as royal domains, Normandy, Picardy, Champagne, Poitou, Auvergne, most of Languedoc, and the Ile-de-France the “island” of north central France centering about Paris. Artois, Blois, Nevers, Limoges, Armagnac, and Valentinois were governed by feudal lords who alternately lip-served and fought the kings of France. Brittany, Burgundy, and Flanders were French fiefs, but they were, as Shakespeare called them, “almost kingly dukedoms,” behaving as virtually independent states. France was not yet France.

The most vital and volatile of the French fiefs at the opening of the fourteenth century was the county of Flanders. In all Europe north of the Alps only Flanders rivaled Italy in economic development. Its boundaries fluctuated confusingly in time and space; let us denote it as the region enclosing Bruges, Ghent, Y pres, and Courtrai. East of the Scheldt lay the duchy of Brabant, then including Antwerp, Mechlin (Malines), Brussels, Tournai, and Louvain. To the south of Flanders lay the independent bishoprics of Liége and Cambrai, and the county of Hainaut, around Valenciennes. Used loosely, “Flanders” included Brabant, Liège, Cambrai, and Hainaut. On the north were seven little principalities roughly composing the Holland of today. These Dutch regions would not reach their flowering till the seventeenth century, when their empire would stretch, so to speak, from Rembrandt to Batavia. But already in 1300 Flanders and Brabant throbbed with industry, commerce, and class war. A canal twelve miles long joined Bruges to the North Sea; a hundred vessels sailed it every day, bringing merchandise from a hundred ports in three continents; Aeneas Sylvius ranked Bruges among the three most beautiful cities in the world. The goldsmiths of Bruges made up an entire division of the town’s militia; the weavers of Ghent provided twenty-seven regiments of its armed forces, which totaled 189,000 men.

The medieval guild organization, which had dowered the craftsman with the dignity of freedom and the pride of skill, was now giving way, in the textile and metal industries of Flanders and Brabant, to a capitalist system* in which an employer supplied capital, materials, and machinery to shop-workers paid by the piece and no longer protected by the guild. Admission to a guild became ever costlier; thousands of workers became journeymen—day laborers—who went from town to town, from shop to shop, getting only temporary employment, with wages that forced them to live in slums and left them little property beyond the clothes they wore.1 Communistic ideas appeared among prolétaires and peasants; the poor asked why they should go hungry while the barns of barons and bishops creaked with grain; and all men who did not work with their hands were denounced as parasites. The employers in their turn complained of the risks their investments ran, the uncertainty and periodicity of supplies, the foundering of their cargoes, the fluctuations of the market, the tricks of competitors, and the repeated strikes that raised wages and prices, unsettled the currency, and narrowed some employers’ profits to the edge of solvency.2 Louis de Nevers, Count of Flanders, sided too strongly with the employers. The populace of Bruges and Ypres, supported by the neighboring peasantry, rose in revolt, deposed Louis, plundered abbeys, and slew a few millionaires. The Church laid an interdict upon the revolted regions; the rebels nevertheless forced the priests to say Mass; and one leader, stealing a march of 450 years on Diderot, vowed he would never be content till the last priest had been hanged.3 Louis appealed to his liege lord, the French king; Philip VI came, defeated the revolutionary forces at Cassel (1328), hanged the burgomaster of Bruges, restored the count, and made Flanders a dependency of France.

France in general was much less industrialized than Flanders; manufacturing for the most part remained in the handicraft stage; but Lille, Douai, Cambrai, and Amiens echoed the textile busyness of the near-by Flemish towns. Internal commerce was hampered by bad roads and feudal tolls, but favored by canals and rivers that constituted a system of natural highways throughout France. The rising business class, in alliance with the kings, had attained by 1300 to a high position in the state and to a degree of wealth that shocked the land-rich, money-poor nobility. Merchant oligarchies ruled the cities, controlled the guilds, and jealously restricted production and trade. Here, as in Flanders, a revolutionary proletariat simmered in the towns.

In 1300 an uprising of poor peasants, known to history as Pastoureaux—shepherds—surged through the cities as in 1251, gathering resentful prolétaires in its wake. Led by a rebel monk, they marched southward, mostly barefoot and unarmed, proclaiming Jerusalem as their goal. Hungry, they pillaged shops and fields; resisted, they found weapons and became an army. In Paris they broke open the jails and defeated the troops of the king. Philip IV shut himself up in the Louvre, the nobles retired to their strongholds, the merchants cowered in their homes. The horde passed on, swelled by the destitute of the capital; now it numbered 40,000 men and women, ruffians and pietists. At Verdun, Auch, and Toulouse they slaughtered all available Jews. When they gathered in Aiguesmortes, on the Mediterranean, the seneschal or sheriff of Carcassonne surrounded them with his forces, cut off their supplies, and waited till all the rebels had died of starvation or pestilence except a few, whom he hanged.4

What kind of government was it that left France at the mercy of greedy wealth and lawless poverty? In many ways it was the ablest government in Europe. The strong kings of the thirteenth century had subjected the feudal lords to the state, had organized a national judiciary and administration with a trained civil service, and had on occasion summoned an Estates-or States-General: originally a general gathering of estate owners, then a consultative assembly of delegates from the nobility, the clergy, and the burgesses or middle class. All Europe admired the French court, where powerful dukes, counts, and knights mingled with silk-robed women in elegant festivities and graceful cuckoldry, and clashing jousts in glittering tournaments sustained the glamour of chivalry. King John of Bohemia called Paris “the most chivalrous residence in the world” and avowed that he could not bear to live outside it.5 Petrarch, visiting it in 1331, described it less romantically:

Paris, though always inferior to its fame, and much indebted to the lies of its own people, is undoubtedly a great city. To be sure, I never saw a dirtier place, except Avignon. At the same time it contains the most learned men, and is like a great basket in which are collected the rarest fruits of every country. There was a time when, from the ferocity of their manners, the French were reckoned barbarians. At present the case is wholly changed. A gay disposition, love of society, ease and playfulness in conversation, now characterize them.

They seek every opportunity of distinguishing themselves, and make war against all cares with joking, laughing, singing, eating, and drinking.6

Philip IV, despite his quasi-piratical confiscations from Templars and Jews, bequeathed an almost empty treasury to his son (1314). Louis X died after a brief reign (1316), leaving no heir but a pregnant wife. After an interval his brother was crowned as Philip V. A rival faction sought the throne for Louis’ four-year-old daughter Jeanne; but an assembly of nobles and clergy issued the famous ruling (1316) that “the laws and customs inviolably observed among the Franks excluded daughters from the crown.”7 When Philip himself died sonless (1322), this ruling was repeated to bar his own daughter from the throne, and his brother was proclaimed king as Charles IV.* Very probably the decisions aimed also to exclude from the succession the sister of Philip IV, Isabelle, who had married Edward II of England and had borne Edward III (1312). The French were resolved that no English king should rule France.

When Charles IV died without male issue (1328) the direct line of Capetian kings came to an end. Edward III, who had become King of England the year before, presented to the assembled aristocracy of France his claim to the French throne as a grandson of Philip IV and the most direct living descendant from Hugh Capet. The assembly denied his claim on the ground that Edward’s mother could not transmit to him a crown from which she herself had been excluded by the rulings of 1316 and 1322. The barons preferred a nephew of Philip IV, a count of Valois; so Philip VI began that Valois dynasty which ruled France till Henry IV inaugurated the Bourbon line (1589). Edward protested, but in 1329 he came to Amiens and did homage, and pledged full loyalty, to Philip VI as his feudal lord for Gascony, Guienne, and Ponthieu. As Edward grew in years and wile, he repented his homage, and dreamed again of sitting on two thrones at once. His advisers assured him that the new Philip was a weakling, who planned to leave soon on a crusade to the Holy Land. It seemed a propitious time to begin the Hundred Years’ War.

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