The gamble of hereditary monarchy now replaced a competent ruler with a lovable idiot. Charles VI was twelve when his father died; his uncles acted as regents till he was twenty, and allowed him to grow up in irresponsible debauchery while half of Europe marched to the brink of revolution. In 1359 the workingmen of Bruges, wearing red hats, stormed the historic hôtel de ville in transient revolt. In 1366 the lower classes of Ypres rose in rebellion, preaching a holy war against the rich. In 1378 the Ciompi established in Florence the dictatorship of the proletariat. In 1379 the starving peasants of Languedoc—south-central France—began six years of guerrilla warfare against nobles and priests under a leader who gave orders to “kill all who have soft hands.”27Workers revolted in Strasbourg in 1380, in London in 1381, in Cologne in 1396. From 1379 to 1382 a revolutionary government ruled Ghent. In Rouen a stout draper was crowned king by an uprising of town laborers; and in Paris the people killed with leaden mallets the tax collectors of the King (1382).
Charles VI took the reins of government in 1388, and for four years reigned so well that he won the name of Bien-Aimé, Well-Beloved. But in 1392 he went insane. He could no longer recognize his wife, and begged the strange woman to cease her importunities. Soon only the humblest servants paid any attention to him. For five months he had no change of clothes, and when at last it was decided to bathe him a dozen men were needed to overcome his reluctance.28 For thirty years the French crown was worn by a pitiful imbecile, while a virile young king prepared to renew the English attack upon France.
On August 11, 1415, Henry V sailed from England with 1,300 vessels and 11,000 men. On the fourteenth they landed near Harfleur, at the mouth of the Seine. Harfleur resisted gallantly and in vain. Jubilant with victory and hurried by dysentery, the English marched toward Calais. The chivalry of France met them at Agincourt, close to Crécy (October 25). The French, having learned nothing from Crécy and Poitiers, still relied on cavalry. Many of their horses were immobilized by mud; those that advanced met the sharp stakes that the English had planted at an angle in the ground around their bowmen. The discouraged horses turned and charged their own army; the English fell upon this chaotic mass with maces, hatchets, and swords; their King Hal led them valiantly, too excited for fear; and their victory was overwhelming. French historians estimate the English loss at 1,600, the French loss at 10,000.
Henry returned to France in 1417, and besieged Rouen. The citizens ate up their food supply, then their horses, their dogs, their cats. To save food, women, children, and old men were thrust forth beyond the city walls; they sought passage through the English lines, were refused, remained foodless and shelterless between their relatives and their enemies, and starved to death; 50,000 French died of starvation in that merciless siege. When the town surrendered, Henry restrained his army from massacring the survivors, but he levied upon them a fine of 300,000 crowns, and kept them in prison till the total was paid. In 1419 he advanced upon a Paris in which nothing remained but corruption, destitution, brutality, and class war. Outdoing the humiliation of 1360, France, by the Treaty of Troyes (1420), surrendered everything, even honor. Charles VI gave his daughter Katherine to Henry V in marriage, promised to bequeath to him the French throne, turned over to him the governance of France, and, to clear up any ambiguity, disowned the Dauphin as his son. Queen Isabelle, for an annuity of 24,000 francs, made no defense against this charge of adultery; and, indeed, in the royal courts of that age it was not easy for a woman to know who was the father of her child. The Dauphin, holding south France, repudiated the treaty, and organized his Gascon and Armagnac bands to carry on the war. But the King of England reigned in the Louvre.
Two years later Henry V died of dysentery; the germs had not signed the treaty. When Charles VI followed him (1422), Henry VI of England was crowned King of France; but as he was not yet a year old, the Duke of Bedford ruled as his regent. The Duke governed severely, but as justly as any Englishman could govern France. He suppressed brigandage by hanging 10,000 bandits in a year; judge therefrom the condition of the land.
Demobilized soldiers —écorcheurs (skinners), coquillards (shellmen)—made the highways perilous, and terrorized even large cities like Paris and Dijon. Over Normandy the ravage of war had passed back and forth like an infernal, murderous tide; even in luckier Languedoc a third of the population had disappeared.29 Peasants fled to the cities, or hid in caves, or fortified themselves in churches, as armies or feudal factions or robber bands approached. Many peasants never returned to their precarious holdings, but lived by beggary or thievery, or died of starvation or plague. Churches, farms, whole towns, were abandoned and left to decay. In Paris in 1422 there were 24,000 empty houses, 80,000 beggars,30 in a population of some 300,000.31 People ate the flesh and entrails of dogs. The cries of hungry children haunted the streets.