European Middle Ages
The French

   There is no real distinct break between the Germanic culture of the Franks and the distinctly European culture of the French, based as it is on several models—classical, Latin, German, Celtic, and Scandinavian. The area within the boundaries of France had one of the most dynamic histories of diversity in the European Middle Ages, occupied as it was at first by native Europeans, then the Celts, then the Romans, then the Germans, and, in the last wave of migration, and influx of Scandinavians. The amazing thing about this history is the culture that the French forged from all these materials, eventually, with England, becoming the central culture in the larger process of the invention of Europe.


The Carolingians   The emergence of a distinct European culture in France emerged with the creation of the Carolingian dynasty among the Franks in Gaul. The early Franks fiercely protected their culture even against inroads made by Christian missionaries. While the Merovingians had consolidated power over all of Frankish territories, Frankish Gaul still remained culturally diverse with distinct populations of both Celts and Franks.

   But the Merovingians, as discussed in the section on the Germans, were being caught up in a larger project by the church to found a new central government in Europe to provide the foundation for the conversion of Europe to Christianity. The Merovingians, so promising at the start, did not prove to be this foundation.

   That foundation would appear in the person of Carolus Magnus or Charlemagne, who ruled Frankish Gaul from 768-814 and from whom we derive the name, "Carolingian." Backed by the papacy, Carolus Magnus embarked on a tireless series of wars of conquest; by the end, he had fought just about every European state around. He eventually controlled most of central Europe, the northern sections of Italy, as well as Frankish Gaul.

   Carolus Magnus, however, did not have a working model of government over such a vast territory, so he improvised. He appointed regional governors to rule separate localities—these he called counts—and he granted the counts tremendous independence and authority. Almost all the centralized functions of the state, such as the raising of revenue and the maintenance of a military, fell exclusively to the administration of the diverse counts. These two functions would eventually divide. Among the nobility, the count was responsible for revenue and finances while a separate title, the duke, took responsibility for the maintenance of a military.

   The problem, however, was in controlling all of these folks. While it made sense to devolve authority to more or less autonomous local governments, there was nothing to insure their loyalty outside of the physical presence of the monarch. In order to bring some semblance of centralized authority to this system, Carolus Magnus instituted the office of the missi, meaning "sent out" in Latin. The missi travelled around the kingdom and checked up on the counts, dukes, and local officials. The Carolingian model of government, then, contained two very new innovations that allowed for the paradoxical creation of a centralized government over autonomous local governments.

This was to be a significant innovation—the government of Carolus Magnus was the first, centralized government in western Europe after the collapse of the western Roman Empire. The model he formed, a centralized government that consisted largely of independent local rulers, would become the foundation of the later innovations in government structure in the later Middle Ages.

   The administration of a large and diverse population also demonstrated the inadequacies of German judicial methods which largely relied on oaths and the ordeal. If two parties had a dispute, they would swear oaths and undergo either a physical trial of torture or fight one another. Roman models of jurisprudence were largely lost in the darkness of time. Carolus Magnus invented a new judiciary form that was built on the Germanic model: the inquest. In a dispute between two people, the judge at an inquest would call several people forward and have them, under oath, deliver their impressions and opinions concerning the dispute. The inquest was eventually abandoned on the continent but was continued in England by the Normans, particularly Henry I. In England and later America, the inquest would eventually develop into the jury trial.

   For our purposes, however, the most important aspect of Carolus Magnus's rule was his formal patronage of Christianity and learning. Of all the events in early European history, this was the most significant first step in developing a distinct European monoculture. So important was this period that historians have called it the Carolingian Renaissance. From this point onwards, a process began that eventually identified "Europe" as synonymous with "Roman Christian"—this process started with Carolus Magnus's attempt to revive learning.

   Carolus Magnus took upon himself the mission of not only controlling most of Europe, but catalyzing the spread of Roman Christianity among Europeans. With the fall of the western Roman Empire, however, Europe had become largely illiterate and this produced a major obstacle to the spread of Christian culture. The most vital and important centers of literacy and learning, however, had sprung up in Anglo-Saxon England in the early 700's. In order to jump start a revival of learning, Carolus Magnus imported an Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk, Alcuin (d. 804), to institute schools and a program of learning.

   Alcuin's basic task was to revive literacy among Frankish clergy and nobles. However, he primarily based his educational program on classical models—in fact, the entire system mirrored the Roman system of education and included grammar and rhetoric. He also used classical as well as Christian works—in the later Carolingian period, heavy emphasis would be placed on Roman writers such as Cicero and Vergil. It is for this reason that the period is called a "renaissance," for it is the first conscious attempt to revive and use classical culture in a distinctly different cultural setting.

   But the revival included more than just literature and education. In the court of the later Carolingian king, Charles the Bald, the philosopher John the Scot reintroduced Neo-Platonism into European culture and began a strain of mystical and humanistic Christianity that would eventually effloresce in the Italian Renaissance.

   Alcuin introduced other innovations into the Carolingian world. In his effort to increase literacy, Alcuin invented a new style of handwriting that would develop into Carolingian script. Now, I know handwriting is boring, but the great innovation the Carolingians made in writing was to make it readable . Carolingian script is immensely simple and rigorously neat. In order to speed up the writing process, the Carolingians also introduced miniscule letters, that is, lower case letters. Look at this page. See the capital letters? Before the Carolingians, that's what every letter of a sentence would look like. See the small letters? They're there because of the Carolingians.

   It is a mistake, however, to read the Carolingians primarily as a continuation of classical culture or the re-establishment of that line of cultural transmission. The cultural context was far more complex. Not only were the Carolingians adopting classical culture to their Germanic world view, they also imported almost all of their learning from the Anglo-Saxon and Irish worlds with only a few scholars coming from Italy. The Carolingian Renaissance, then, was a dynamic period in which the Franks actively imported distinct cultural practices from two very different worlds: the Anglo-Saxons and the Celtic Irish. Over the next one hundred and fifty years, this unique mix of classical, Christian, French, Anglo-Saxon, Irish, and later Scandinavian, culture.

   The Carolingians, however, fell victim to the unique government that they had established. While Carolus Magnus could hold this improbably system together, his son and successor, Louis the Pious (814-840), couldn't. By the end of the ninth century, Frankish Gaul had become a series of more or less independent kingdoms under the control of individual dukes. Even though the Carolingian dynasty lasted until 987, the Carolingian monarch was largely irrelevant in the government and control of the territories all throughout the tenth century.


Feudalism   The single most important innovation of the Carolingian period was the steady development of feudalism from the governmental model developed under Carolus Magnus. This term, feudalism, has been the subject of tremendous and rancorous debate for over a century. Suffice it to say that there was no such thing as "feudalism" in the Middle Ages—the term was invented much later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The legal, political, economic, and ideological practices that the term has been applied to vary widely across time and geography—this diversity of practices largely renders the term nonsensical.

   Still, there are enough common elements to these practices that the concept of "feudalism" is helpful in starting to understand medieval history and culture, though it is less helpful as you understand more. So, in this spirit, let's come to terms with the origins of medieval feudalism.

   It is impossible to account for the origins of feudalism. One distinct origin, of course, was political—in trying to organize a large empire, the Carolingians created a series of relatively autonomous local official, dukes and counts, that were partly under the control of royal representatives. Economically, the feudal system seems to have originated among the monasteries being built throughout Frankish Gaul. Many of these monasteries found themselves with more arable land than they needed or could farm. The abbot, then, granted a "precarious tenure," called a precarium, to commoners. In exchange for rent. Another origin was cultural: the system of feudalism derived from the tribal logic of the Germanic warrior-band, called a comitatus by the Roman historian, Tacitus. The comitatus was held together by the warriors' loyalty to their lord; in return, they enjoyed the protection of the lord. This system is extremely common among tribal groups and is one of the only systems of law and jurisprudence in primarily tribal societies. This, in fact, is why the entire practice got the name, "feudalism." In the comitatus system, as in all tribal systems of clan protection, if a crime was committed against an individual, it was the obligation of the entire comitatus (or clan group) to avenge the wrong. This led to feuds between warrior-bands until some restitution stopped the cycle of retribution.

   This three-fold inheritance shows the problem with coming to terms with feudalism. Many historians regard feudalism as primarily a system of government—it is first and foremost a system of decentralized government. Other historians emphasize the economic aspects—here, the use and dispersal of resources determines the social and political structure of feudalism. In recent years, the majority of historians emphasize the cultural and ideological aspects of feudalism—here, feudalism is a system of thought that organizes identity and social class. Feudalism, of course, is all of these. Just as its origins can't be separated, so its reality as a political, economic, and cultural practice, or set of diverse practices, can't be separated.

   The entire structure of feudalism is built on the foundation of lordship, that is, a concentration of political, economic, and cultural power in the nobility rather than in a centralized figure such as the monarch. From a political point of view, the nobility control the state in their roles of maintaining an independent military and exercising a certain amount of autonomous control over the finances and revenues from the lands under their control. The nobility were granted these powers, as well as decentralized economic power, by swearing to protect the king, a cultural practice inherited from the Germans. The nobleman became a vassal of the king; the word, "vassal," comes from the Celtic word for "boy." As the Roman Empire began to crumble, aristocrats would surround themselves with young warriors; this, too, was partly the origin of the feudal system.

   From an economic perspective, the nobility functioned as chief tenants on land granted to them by the monarch—this land grant was called a fief and the granting of land to a noble was enfeoffment. The nobility rented the land, enfeoffed minor nobility below them, and especially used a dependent class of serf laborers to farm the lands directly under their control. These serf laborers had to farm land belonging to the noble but were also allowed to keep the produce from adjoining strips of land that they farmed. Until the last century and a half of the Middle Ages, almost all the labor in feudal territories was done by what can only be considered slaves. This economic system has been called by historians manorialism; while a fiefdom points to the region of land under the political control of a vassal or sub-vassal, the manor refers to that land under the economic control of the vassal.

   Enfeoffment was not an irrevocable process. If the monarch felt that the nobleman was not being true to his obligations, he could declare the fiefdom in forfeiture. Equally, the vassal could break the feudal bond in a process called diffidatio. In either case, the result always involved warfare—vassals did not willingly give over forfeited fiefdoms and monarchs never tolerated the breaking of the feudal bond. Because individual nobility could enfeoff land to vassals beneath them, the same rules applied there as well. A nobleman could declare a sub-vassal's lands in forfeiture or a sub-vassal could break the feudal bond.

   From a cultural perspective, each area of localized control became a potential center of cultural production. The court culture that develops in the later Middle Ages is diffused throughout the areas under more or less feudal control. It also produces a social ideology to buttress the conflicting claims of monarchs and autonomous nobility. Court culture of the Middle Ages sought to legitimize the social hierarchy that placed a political, warrior aristocracy over what were essentially slave laborers; most of the literature and culture of the Middle Ages was in the service of developing the ideals of this aristocratic class. These ideals were summed up in courtliness and chivalry, which entailed education, loyalty, warrior virtues such as self-sacrifice and courage, and behaviors. In the twelfth century, this court culture arising from feudalism would produce its highest cultural forms in chivalric literature, entailing both courtliness and warrior ideals, and courtly love, an exclusively literary phenomenon articulating ideologies of gendered behaviors. By the time these cultural products appear, however, feudalism had largely been replaced by more centralized governments. The later middle ages is a period of challenges to the decentralized aspects of feudalism, so the chivalric and courtly culture developed at the time has a strong subversive and critical aspect to it.

   The most critical cultural aspect of feudalism, whether or not you accept that such a system ever existed, was the stress on interpersonal relationships. Unlike anything in classical, Celtic, or Germanic society, the feudal system produced a series of obligations that were voluntarily entered into. While the essential logic comes from the tribal and kinship logic of obligations and reciprocity, the relationship between lord and vassal became increasingly contractual and conflictual in its basic orientation. The entire system was based on loyalty , and the cultural ideology that developed from it stressed the importance of loyalty in interpersonal relationships. As a result, interpersonal relationships became the main focus of medieval political, ethical, and literary accomplishment. The greatest products of the later medieval court culture, such as chivalric literature and courtly love, were ruthlessly focussed on interpersonal relationships, loyalty, and the mechanisms through which interpersonal relationships go awry.

   Feudalism developed slowly. Its origins, as stated above, lay in the German comitatus and the practice by Roman aristocrats in the later Empire of surrounding themselves with a group of loyal, young fighters, a practice called patrocinium or "holding clients." The next stage involved granting to warriors lands in exchange for their service. This happened early on but did not become the dominant feature of feudalism until beyond the tenth century. By the end of the tenth century, when most historians agree that feudalism was in place, almost all of the vassals of the French monarch had no lands.

   The next stage involved the granting of lands by the nobility to soldiers beneath them—this was sub-vassalage or subinfeudation. This was largely due to a change in warfare technology. Both the Romans and the Germans fought on foot—soldiers on horse were extremely rare and almost never fought. Between the fifth and eighth centuries, however, central Europeans began to develop methods of cavalry fighting. This meant creating a new breed of fighter, the horse soldier or chevalier (cniht or "knight" in German).

   Outfitting an infantry was a fairly inexpensive affair; outfitting a cavalry took enormous amounts of resources. Individual lords who were asked to supply a large number of chevaliers couldn't afford to outfit these horsemen themselves. So they began to enfoeff large tracts of lands to chevaliers, or knights, who would then use the extra resources to outfit themselves.

   The development of knighthood significantly changed the picture of medieval society. In its primitive way, it created a new kind of social mobility. It inspired knights to seek out lords who would grant them large areas of land and inspired both other knights and the nobility to actively seek out more fiefdoms to add to their own. This land hunger fueled many of the historical events of the early Middle Ages, such as the conquest of England by the Normans, the conquest of Wales and Scotland, and so on.

   The next stage, carried out largely by the Carolingians, was to decentralize monarchical power by diffusing it to enfeoffed nobility. This created a precarious governmental situation. The remainder of the Middle Ages in France, England, and Germany would involve a long series of struggles between the centralized authority of the monarch and the decentralized authority vested in the nobility.

   The very last stage was developed in the north of France in the duchy of Normandy. This duchy had been granted by the Carolingians to raiding Scandinavians, hence the name, "Normans," or "men from the North." The Normans adopted the feudal system as developed by the Carolingians but added one significant twist. They used, paradoxically enough, the decentralized authority of the feudal system to increase the power of the centralized authority—in this case, the duke.

   The feudal system was largely in place in France by the tenth century. By that century, the noblemen had extracted from the monarch the rights to collect taxes and to run their own courts—the centralized authority of the monarch had largely disappeared. When the Normans invaded England in the latter half of the eleventh century, they brought the feudal system there as well. In the twelfth century, the system was adopted by German kingdoms and principalities. It was never, however, adopted in its fullest forms Italy, the Slavic countries, or Muslim Spain. As a European phenomenon, then, feudalism was a very limited experiment—the bulk of European culture went in other directions.


The Capetians   When the Carolingian dynasty came to an end in the tenth century, the government had become so decentralized that the monarch was relatively irrelevant. A new dynasty began when Hugh Capet, the count of Paris, became king in 987. The Capetian dynasty lasted until 1328, but the first Capetians had no success in centralizing government. Throughout this entire period, France was essentially composed of independent political units that in many ways began to develop a high degree of cultural independence as well. When the Capetians began to unify the country in the twelfth century, they literally had to do it from the ground up.

   At the end of the Carolingian period, the word, "France," was being used to describe the geographical area that had been under the control of the Franks. This word, however, was only a geographical term. In political, economic, linguistic, and cultural terms, this territory was composed of an incredible diversity of small states with differing sub-cultures and languages. The area to the north spoke a series of languages and dialects that would eventually produce modern-day French—the area controlled by the King in the north-central region, the Ile-de-France, included these languages. To the south, however, the French spoke languages a dialects related to Spanish and Italian; to the west, near Germany, German languages often prevailed.

   The various duchies and counties were nominally under the control of the king. Technically, the king was the overlord of the dukes and counts, but in the later years of the Carolingians and the first couple centuries of Capetian rule, the dukes and counts ran their regions as more or less independent kingdoms. They dealth with each other independently, administered and taxed their own regions without any interference from the monarch, and refused to submit any feudal obligations to the king when they were requested. The situation was so bad during the first century of Capetian rule, that the monarchs didn't even control their own territory, the Ile-de-France. Instead the territory came under the control of "robber barons" who set up their own castles. The monarch, fearing for his life, rarely left Paris.

   The situation began to change with Louis VI, called Louis the Fat or Louis the Wide-Awake, who ruled from 1108-1137. While all the earlier Capetian monarchs hatched grand plans to conquer and unify other regions, Louis assumed the more modest task of reseizing control over his own domain, the Ile-de-France. By the end of his reign, he had defeated the robber barons and so provided himself with a source of revenue from his own lands the earlier Capetians lacked.

   In the reign of his son, Louis VII, from 1137 to 1180, things began to turn around. In fact, most historians date the beginning of the French state to Louis VII. It happened mainly by accident rather than any systematic effort on Louis's part to assert control over France. Two situations contributed to an elevation of his importance as a centralized figure. By the twelfth century, the military power between various duchies and counties had equalized. Settling disputes militarily had become extremely costly and the military equality between barons obviated negotiated settlements. The second accident was the ascendancy of Norman power in France. The Anglo-Norman king, Henry II, acquired a vast stretch of central France, the Duchy of Aquitane, when he married Eleanor of Aquitane (who, by the way, had divorced Louis VII). This gave Henry II control over the huge territory of Normandy in the north and Aquitaine in the south and gravely upset the balance of power among the French barons.

   For these two reasons, the French nobility for the first time since the early Carolingian period, began to turn to the Capetian monarch to help in settling disputes. The French monarchy suddenly grew in prestige and importance as the barons began to regard Louis as the counter-balance to Henry II.

   It was under Philip II Augustus (1180-1223) that the monarchy began to make dramatic gains in centralizing its authority and in building the bureaucracy that would be the foundation of French political power for the next several centuries. His most impressive gains came from seizing territory from the English king, John, who, as the son of Henry II, had succeeded Henry II's son, Richard I.

   His most important and brilliant innovation, however, was the establishment of a bureaucracy to govern royal lands. Initially conceived as an administrative structure for only those areas under his control—no bigger than any other county or duchy—this administrative system would become devestatingly effective in exercising royal control over the whole of France.

   He based his system on the office of the bailli which was no more than an extension of the bailliff , or "lord's servant." The bailli served as the local representative of the king, just as the sheriff and the judge did in England. However, the bailli combined all the functions of the sheriff and the judge: he was responsible for collecting taxes, enforcing royal laws, and judging civil and criminal legal disputes.

   In England, however, the sheriff was always drawn from the family of local nobility and so had close ties to the nobility and to local politics. Philip Augustus, however, hired the bailli directly; he had no ties to local families or politics. This was partly due to the fact that the office was only intended for royal domains. The effect, however, was profound. When the royal interest conflicted with local interests, the bailli was fiercely loyal to the monarch. Since his position was entirely the result of the creation of a bureaucracy, like all bureaucrats he worked tirelessly to maintain that bureaucracy and to expand it.

   There's one final addition to this picture. The creation of the bailli as the centerpiece of a royal bureaucracy also coincided with the growth of universities—the greatest and most central of these universities was the University of Paris. This gave Philip an incredible source for royal administration; the universities provided educated, intelligent, literate, and dedicated servants. Among these new servants were the magistri, or "masters," who, with the "masters" degree became local officials. This administrative system of bailli and magistrates became the foundation for what would eventually become the most powerful, centralized state in European history before the twentieth century.

   Philip's greatest advantage, however, really came with the conflicts between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire and the English monarch. Philip Augustus shrewdly allied himself with Pope Innocent III against both of these opponents. As a reward, Innocent granted to Philip all the southern French territories that Innocent gained in a crusade against heretics. While Philip did not participate to any significant in this conquest of southeastern France, he certainly reaped the benefits. So, while Philip had gained control of northern France under his own steam, still, by the end of his reign, he controlled almost all of France. The remainder of southern France would fall to the conquering hands of Louis VIII, who reigned from 1223-1226.

   The later Capetian monarcy is primarily marked by the phenomenal growth of the royal administration. This administration was also becoming more complex and bureaucratic: by the middle of the thirteenth century, the royal government had clearly divided into separate financial and judicial branches. An entire professional class of ministers arose that ruthlessly expanded the power of royal administration often with the complete ignorance of the monarch. Composed almost entirely of lawyers, the royal administrators used all kinds of legal chicanery and out and out fraud to control localities and repress opposition from nobility. In the process, they introduced a new instrument of government: slander. They found that if you could shower an opponent with a huge number of serious charges, like witchcraft, heresy, murder, sodomy, and so on, eventually one of them would be believed and your opponent would fall. This would eventually become one of the dominant modes of political discourse in medieval France (as it is on talk radio and television in modern America).

   The end result was the rapid dissolution of the powers of the nobility. The surprising thing about French history is how passively the nobles accepted this diminution of power. Historians have many theories, but perhaps the most persuasive was that the nobles were not greatly oppressed by royal taxation and were greatly benefitted by the centralization of judicial proceedings which spared them expensive and dangerous conflicts with neighboring nobility. Another additional explanation was that the various regions of France were essentially separate cultural, linguistic, political, and economic units as in Italy. They remained separate and distinct all throughout the Middle Ages. This particularism, especially in economic matters, obviated any unification among the nobles as happened England. In England, as the Norman monarchs consolidated their power, the nobles as a single body resisted that expansion of power. One of the most remarkable characteristics of the Magna Carta of 1215—the charter which spelled out powers granted to the king and to the nobles in England—was that it advanced the interests of the nobility as a whole, "the community," rather than individual interests. The particuarlism of French politics and economics prevented the nobility from even seeing that they had common interests and a common cause against the king. As a result, the late Capetian monarchs could raise taxes and run the judiciary without the interference of assemblies of noblemen.

   The last and one of the most powerful of the Capetian monarchs was Philip IV, or Philip the Fair, who ruled from 1285 until 1314. This was the high point of Capetian power—the administration had grown substantially and had become utterly ruthless in the prosecution of royal interests. In fact, the royal administration had become so arrogant and France had become so powerful, that the French even came to control the papacy. The French control of the papacy under Philip perhaps did more than anything else to permanently destroy the legitimacy of that office. So outrageous was this control, that when the papacy fell to Boniface VIII (1294-1303), that pope openly defied the French monarch. When Philip went to war against England (under the rule of Edward I), he simply taxed the clergy to raise revenue. The pope declared this illegal and threatened excommunication. But the French monarch retaliated by not allowing any money to go out of France and so deprived Boniface of all the revenues raised by the church in France. The pope had to capitulate, but he again asserted papal primacy in 1301.

   The French administration had spent almost a century in perfecting legal means of battling opponents, and the pope was not invulnerable to this. They showered the pope with all kinds of legal charges, including witchcraft and pederasty, and eventually kidnapped him. Imagine that!

   When Boniface died, the French cardinals had enough influence to elect a French archbishop, Clement V, to the papal throne. Clement decided to reside in Avignon, which was not actually in France, simply to protect himself from the Roman cardinals who opposed him. There was nothing unusual about this—many popes had resided outside of Rome for one reason or another. The most salient aspect of Clement's rule, however, was that he was a complete stooge of the French monarch and did everything he was asked, including allowing Philip to tax the clergy. It is this subservience to the French king that earned the Avignon papacy its designation as being in "Babylonian Captivity," in reference to the Hebrew Exile of the sixth century BC. The Avignon papacy, which lasted until 1377, was perhaps the most disruptive event in medieval history for it almost completely undermined the authority of the church and led to the rampant anti-clericalism of the later Middle Ages.

   When Philip died, his three sons successively assumed the throne but each one died without an heir. In 1328, the direct Capetian line of succession had finally come to an end—one of the great fortunes of the Capetian line is that each king always died with a male heir in place. The English king, Edward I, had married the daughter of Philip; his son, Edward III was then the direct descendant of Philip through the female line. So Edward, who controlled parts of Normandy and all of Aquitaine in central France, claimed the throne. Thus would begin over a century of conflict between these two powerful states, a conflict known as the Hundred Years War.


The One Hundred Years War   When Edward III claimed the French throne as the grandson of Philip the Fair, the French nobles would have nothing to do with it. They correctly saw that both Edward, his ministers, and his nobility were far more concerned with English interests than with French. So the nobility gathered in an assembly known as the Estates General to articulate the novel proposition that the succession could not pass through the female line. They then offered the crown to Philip of Valois who came from a family that had branched off from the Capetians.

   Edward, of course, would have nothing to do with this. One of the great warrior-kings of English history, Edward invaded France and eventually seized the port town of Calais and beat the French in a series of encounters. Though terribly outnumbered by the French, who had far more resources and manpower than the English, the forces under Edward managed to repeatedly defeat the French. The cause of these victories lay in both superior military tactics and the introduction of a new technology: the longbow. Unlike the crossbow, the longbow could be fired repeatedly with little pause—and it was almost as powerful a weapon as the crossbow. The infantry and cavalry of the French simply walked into a shower of arrows and were devestated. After a major defeat at Poitiers in 1356 and the English capture of the French king, the French signed the Treaty of Bretigny with the English. This gave to the English a monstrous ransom for the French king and made Edward III the king of over one-third of French territory.

   The English king, however, did not hold on to these gains for long. Under Charles V (1364-1380), the French largely regained most of the territory they had lost to the English—by 1380, the end of Charles's reign, the English only occupied parts of Aquitaine and the city of Calais. These victories were largely due to significant innovations on the monarch's part. First, he created a permanent professional army. This was not only effective against fighting the foreigners, it was also a profound step in breaking the power of the French nobility who had previously been responsible for maintaining the military. Secondly, he put the army under the command of a professional general rather than leading the army itself—traditionally, it was the king who led the army.

   After the death of Charles, the French state fell into a period of confusion and disunity. The heir to the throne, Charles VI, was only a boy, so the government fell victim to competing factions among the nobles. Fortunately for the French, the same thing happened across the channel first with the monarchy of Richard II, who ascended the throne as a boy, and then under Henry IV, who usurped the throne and had to deal with its consequent civil disorders.

   Under Henry V (1413-1422), however, the English concentrated their energies entirely on France. Benefitting from the disorder in France by allying himself with the most powerful duchy in France, that of Burgundy, Henry managed to conquer almost all of northern France. In addition, he extracted from the old king Charles the promise that the throne would be his at the death of Charles. Henry died before this could happen, but the French throne reverted to his infant son, Henry VI, when Charles died. The French now had an English and for the first and only time in history, France and England were one political unit.

   This was anathema to the French nobles, but the son of Charles, Charles VII (called "Charles the Well-Served"), could not really decide on pressing his claim to the throne. Resistance to the English, then, was haphazard and sporadic. This all changed in 1419 when a young teenage girl emerged on the scene: Joan of Arc. The daughter of a farmer, she claimed to have heard the voice of God that proclaimed Charles the rightful king and obligated her to dress as a warrior and inspire the French to gather their forces against the English. She quickly convinced some French nobles and, in an audience with Charles, fired him up with zeal against the English. This was the turning point. She would later be the person responsible for defeating the English seige of the city of Orléans, but she was captured by the Burgundians and handed over to the English, who burned her as a heretic.

   The damage, though, had already been done. Charles VII was fired up to regain the crown and the nobility, through the example of Joan, rallied to his cause. Even the Burgundians, so crucial to Henry V's successes, changed sides and allied themselves with Charles. By 1453, the only English possession in France was the city of Calais. The English monarchs, however, would nonsensically continue to call themselves "King of France" or "Queen of France" for the next several centuries.

   While the history of warfare is certainly interesting, the most significant development of the Hundred Years War was the development of a professional army under the direct control of the monarch. This was perhaps the final and most important step in the development of a centralized monarchy for it rendered the nobility both irrelevant and powerless. With a standing army of his own, the French monarch no longer was dependent on the nobility. This, combined with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1438, which gave the monarch complete control over both the personnel and the revenues of the French church, resulted in the most powerful monarchy of the Middle Ages.

   Following the Hundred Years War, the French monarchs then embarked on territorial aggrandizement. Charles's successor, Louis XI (1460-1483) managed through diplomacy and deception to gain the entire territory of Burgundy—which was almost the same size of France at the time. The France of modern times was born—this would be the France that would develop the principles of absolute monarchy and centralized authority that would become the staple of the modern Western political scene in the modern period.

Richard Hooker

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-6-98