France: Royal Power Revives, 1108-1226


The coronation of Philip II Augustus in the presence of Henry II of England.

Louis VI (r. 1108-37) ascended the throne at the start of the 12th century, the ruler of a principality, centered on Paris and Orléans, still only small and unruly. A born fighter, the king set out to reverse both those facts by waging constant war against the chatelain families in his domain, some of whom wielded considerable power. A king who suffered from poor health and too healthy an appetite-by his mid-40s he was so obese that he could no longer mount a horse-he who was thus dubbed “the Fat” was greatly assisted in his late reign by two able advisers, Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis (ca. 1081-1151), a younger son from a family of minor knights, and Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who won fame and influence as the founder of the Cistercian monastic order. Abbot Suger advanced the prestige of the royal house by promoting its ties to Denis, the saint long venerated whose bones were interred, along with those of French kings, in the abbey named for him. Founded by the Merovingians at Paris, the Abbey of Saint Denis was restored by Suger to its ancient splendor.

Suger continued to cultivate the glory of the house of Capet as adviser to Louis’s second son. Modest and pious, yet rash and indecisive, Louis VII (r. 1137-80) made the abbot’s task difficult. Left behind as regent while Louis went off on the Second Crusade in 1147-a venture that ended in disaster-Suger called on the king to return posthaste to face a mounting threat from a nearby territorial prince. The Angevins-the counts of greater Anjou (Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Vendome, and Saintonge)-had amassed immense wealth in land, beginning under Geoffrey, “the Fair” (r. 1129-51)-called Geoffrey Plantagenet because he wore a sprig of broom in his hat-and culminating under his son Henry II (r. 1151-89), who added England and Normandy to his already extensive domains. Louis waged war to prevent the transfer of Normandy to the Angevins, but he had to settle instead for only a small slice of territory (Norman Vexin).

A personal catastrophe now compounded this political setback when, in 1152, Louis, who had grown increasingly distant from his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), secured a dissolution of his marriage. Eleanor promptly wedded Henry II, adding Aquitaine and Gascony to make Henry’s holdings breathtakingly vast. By the 1170s, Henry ruled, or controlled, all of western France, and although he did homage in theory to Louis as his vassal for these lands, his power base here made him, in fact, a rival ruler. Louis fought back as best he could, fomenting discord between Henry and his sons, but he could do no more than contain Angevin power. A combination of political skill, diligence, and luck would win for Louis’s son Philip a good deal more.

Though chroniclers present an image of a man little liked by contemporaries- he is portrayed as cynical, calculating, and greedy with a taste later in life for wine, women, and good fellowship-Philip II “Augustus” (r. 1180-1223) possessed a sharp political acumen and a powerful ambition. His marriage to Isabelle of Hainault (1170-90) brought him Artois as the queen’s dowry, which made at least a start in the territorial competition with his Angevin neighbor. Rivalry was inevitable between Philip and Richard I “the Lionheart” (r. 1189-99), Henry II’s son. Only a truce between the two, when they agreed to fight the Third Crusade (1189-92) together, separated their warring. Battling resumed in 1198 while Philip proceeded to chip away at Angevin power in Normandy by buying the support of the nobility, towns, and clergy with attractive concessions. When Philip declared that John I (r. 1198-1216), Richard’s successor, had forfeited his French fiefdoms for failing to respond to a summons to appear at court, the war went on into the next Angevin reign. Philip overran Normandy by July 1204, when he seized Rouen. Royal influence made headway in Maine, Touraine, Anjou, and Brittany. By 1207, nothing of the once mighty Angevin empire remained north of the Loire. To put the stamp of royal authority on newly acquired territories, Philip built many castles, their characteristic circular stone towers (donjons) dotting the land, and he raised a specialist mercenary corps of troops that became an important part of the French army.

Philip was fortunate also in having already instituted experimental means that could now be extended to aid in administering the newly won lands. In 1189, he established the baillis, officials charged with preserving royal interests and ensuring that the king’s prévots-the principal agents of local government-collected the revenues due the Crown. At first, the duties of the baillis-called sénéchaux in the south-were fluid, but by the late 13th century, they would become the chief financial and legal agents of the Crown within the local areas under their jurisdiction.

Philip won massive territorial gains, but his hold on them remained insecure unless he managed to defeat his rivals definitively in combat. He did so in a spectacular way when he bested the English king together with his allies, the count of Flanders and the Holy Roman Emperor, at the Battle of Bouvines on July 27, 1214. This victory marked a major milestone in the rise of the French monarchy in making it possible for the king to consolidate his conquests and incorporate them into his realm.

The task of building the monarchy’s territorial base continued under his son. Louis VIII (r. 1223-26) differed from his father in being allegedly chaste and saintly, but like him, he, too, was an ambitious and able soldier. In his brief three-year reign, he conquered Poitou and captured much of Languedoc from the English. Though some acquisitions- Brittany, Anjou, Maine, and Auvergne-were given in grants (appanages) under Philip and Louis to enrich younger sons and grandsons in the royal family, the two monarchs remained much the most prominent property holders, ruling the royal lands in the Ile-de-France and Normandy, as well as castles and counties in the Languedoc and elsewhere. In saving the French throne from the Angevin threat, they made the monarchy the dominant force in the kingdom.

It was a kingdom undergoing economic advancement and social change. Population expanded as the birthrate rose and life expectancy increased. Commercial life stirred and prosperity grew, starting in the 10th century, continuing in the 11th, and blossoming full-blown in the 12th. Agricultural production increased in the wake of meteorological changes that brought both drier and warmer weather and in conjunction with the introduction of technical improvements in working the land. Weightier plows, reinforced with iron, replaced lighter, wholly wooden ones, while the heavier and stronger horse took the place of oxen as draft animals. Cereal cultivation intensified, barley and rye yielding to wheat in many areas. Bread was the staple food, and so plowed land made up 80 to 90 percent of cultivated soils. Even peasants might eat meat-beef, mutton, pork, and poultry, but not game, which was scarce. Fish ponds dotted inland locales to meet the demand required by the numerous meatless days-some 150 a year-prescribed by the church. Wine growing was very important; vineyards spread as far north as Flanders. Population pressure and the promise of higher agricultural yields stimulated land clearance and reclamation, and from the late 11th century, new villages and religious communities began to appear.

Society was stratified into three formal classes, each with its assigned function: the clergy, who cared for souls; the nobles, who fought and helped govern; and the peasants, who labored to provide the food and material needs of everyone. The noble class had won its position in the early age of feudalism-the ninth, 10th, and 11th centuries-largely due to changes in warfare. Many knights had become nobles, and the class reached its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries. During this time, the life of a noble centered around his castle-its walls, towers, and battlements dominating the countryside to symbolize his temporal power. Since each landholder exercised jurisdiction over his tenants, each was very much a “lord” (dominus), even though he himself held his land in fief from some higher lord as his vassal.

The noble, mounted on his great warhorse and housed in his stone castle, lived a world apart from the peasants, whose rude huts clustered about the castle gates. The term generally used for peasant was villein or vilain, derived from Latin villa, and by the 13th century, it had acquired a negative tone consequent with the lowly status of those to whom it referred.

Under feudalism, the great rural estates so characteristic of Carolingian times disappeared. In time, too, land arrangements associated with feudalism also changed. Though the lords of the manor still exercised judicial and financial rights over peasants on their lands, by the 13th century in northern France, the heavy labor services of the peasants began to be commuted in return for money rents, sums that paid for lavish lifestyles for the nobility and for new churches and almsgiving for the clergy. Provided they paid rent, tenants practically owned their plots; they were left free to hand them over to heirs or even leave them uncultivated. In the west, farms were leased for a fixed term, tenants paying either a fixed sum of money (fermage) or a portion of their crops (métayage). The great church-owned estates were also increasingly hired out to rich peasants. New dues were levied that came to be viewed as customary (coutumes): The lord held monopolies over milling, baking, and wine pressing; he levied tolls and fees at fairs and markets; and he could impose taxes or demand military service. The great majority of peasants lived close to subsistence even in the best of times and, though disease wreaked havoc among all classes, the peasantry suffered disproportionately from its ravages. Compounding the precariousness of their life, warring nobles might destroy their crops and kill peasants.

It was an age when one’s social rank could easily be discerned by what one wore. Church sumptuary laws allowed dukes several gowns a year, though they invariably exceeded the limit, whereas the poor might wear garments passed down through several generations. Rich ladies sported elaborate headdresses and dressed themselves in gowns of silk and cotton; the wealth of the wearers could be determined by the color of their clothes-bright colors, such as red and yellow, were more expensive than dull ones.

Trade began to intensify and then to spread across wider regions, bringing with it a revival of a vibrant urban life that saw the introduction of a new class-merchants and craftsmen-to medieval society. Towns multiplied in the 11th and 12th centuries under the active encouragement of kings, dukes, and counts, anxious to benefit from the wealth generated by the production and exchange of goods that took place there. Paris, Toulouse, and Lyon prospered on the profits in wine, oil, grain, metalwork, and leather. Troyes and others towns in Champagne were renowned across Europe for their great trade fairs. New ports appeared, such as Harfleur, and new inland towns, such as Caen and Lille. The use of silver currency became widespread.

Because they remained outside the tripartite class division, townsmen were essentially nonfeudal. They were free, and, as such, they could defend themselves and their rights-the walls of a city studded with turrets made it as much a fortress as any castle. If they owed allegiance to the king or to the lord on whose lands their towns stood-and, as these grew, their cities-it was on the basis of free choice, not personal homage. When they organized into groups, they endowed themselves with the clout to win rights to self-governance. Starting sporadically in the late 10th century, rulers granted privileges or franchises, namely, exemptions from tolls and dues in return for a fixed payment and political liberties permitting varying amounts of administrative and judicial freedom. By the 13th century, towns everywhere enjoyed these rights.

Town dwellers were stratified by wealth-at the bottom, unskilled laborers; above them, craftsmen; and, at the top, merchants and those who lived off their properties, rents, or money lending. The well-to-do controlled town government, profiting from their power to set low taxes for themselves and to spend town revenues on their own lavish lifestyles.

By the 12th century, Paris had emerged as the indisputable capital city, surpassing in size and prosperity all other towns in the kingdom’s northern lands. The island in the center of the Seine-the Ile de la Cité-that had been semirural earlier was built over in the 11th century, and the great cathedral of Notre-Dame located there was completely reconstructed beginning in 1163. Under Philip Augustus, city streets were paved in 1186, and a wall, replete with more than 70 towers, was raised around the town in 1189-90. The king also directed construction of the Louvre castle.

Paris, together with Montpellier, boasted the only two medical colleges in northwestern Europe. In about 1180, the first college-the Dix-Huit-was founded, launching the University of Paris. Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) issued a bull extending recognition as a legal corporation in 1210. In about 1256, Robert de Sorbon established La Sorbonne, a school to permit poor scholars to continue their education. A center of theological studies, as an ecclesiastical tribunal it won prestige in western Europe second only to the papacy as a religious authority. The Sorbonne became just one of several colleges at the by now well-established University of Paris, all of them situated on the left bank of the Seine River in an area that would emerge as the Latin Quarter, the capital city’s famed center for scholarly and artistic activities. The masters who taught here gradually formed a tight-knit fraternity, earnestly debating each other over theological and philosophical questions. It was an exercise in intellectual inquiry indicative of the rise of a literate culture.’


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