The greatest sign of the decline of western civilization was the inability to launch a navy to stop the Vikings.
Continuing Empire of the Franks Splits and Decays,
our selection from A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times by François P. G. Guizot. published in 1869. The selection is presented in ten easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Empire of the Franks Splits and Decays.
Time: 844 – 848
Place: Rivers of France
As for the second fact, the formation of the three kingdoms which were the issue of the treaty of Verdun, various explanations have been given of it. This distribution of certain peoples of Western Europe into three distinct and independent groups, Italians, Germans, and French, has been attributed at one time to a diversity of histories and manners; at another to geographical causes and to what is called the rule of natural frontiers; and oftener still to a spirit of nationality and to differences of language. Let none of these causes be gainsaid; they all exercised some sort of influence, but they are all incomplete in themselves and far too redolent of theoretical system. It is true that Germany, France, and Italy began at that time to emerge from the chaos into which they had been plunged by barbaric invasion and the conquests of Charlemagne, and to form themselves into quite distinct nations; but there were, in each of the kingdoms of Lothair, of Louis the Germanic, and of Charles the Bald, populations widely differing in race, language, manners, and geographical affinity, and it required many great events and the lapse of many centuries to bring about the degree of national unity they now possess. To say nothing touching the agency of individual and independent forces, which is always considerable, although so many men of intellect ignore it in the present day, what would have happened, had any one of the three new kings, Lothair, or Louis the Germanic, or Charles the Bald, been a second Charlemagne, as Charlemagne had been a second Charles Martel? Who can say that, in such a case, the three kingdoms would have taken the form they took in 843?
Happily or unhappily, it was not so; none of Charlemagne’s successors was capable of exercising on the events of his time, by virtue of his brain and his own will, any notable influence.
Attempts at foreign invasion of France were renewed very often and in many parts of Gallo-Frankish territory during the whole duration of the Carolingian dynasty, and, even though they failed, they caused the population of the kingdom to suffer from cruel ravages. Charlemagne, even after his successes against the different barbaric invaders, had foreseen the evils which would be inflicted on France by the most formidable and most determined of them, the Northmen, coming by sea and landing on the coast. The most closely contemporaneous and most given to detail of his chroniclers, the monk of St. Gall, tells in prolix and pompous but evidently heartfelt and sincere terms the tale of the great Emperor’s farsightedness.
“Charles, who was ever astir,” says he, “arrived by mere hap and unexpectedly in a certain town of Narbonnese Gaul. While he was at dinner and was as yet unrecognized of any, some corsairs of the Northmen came to ply their piracies in the very port. When their vessels were descried, they were supposed to be Jewish traders according to some, African according to others, and British in the opinion of others; but the gifted monarch, perceiving by the build and lightness of the craft, that they bare not merchandise but foes, said to his own folk, ‘These vessels be not laden with merchandise, but manned with cruel foes.’ At these words all the Franks, in rivalry one with another, run to their ships, but uselessly; for the Northmen, indeed, hearing that yonder was he whom it was still their wont to call Charles the ‘Hammer,'[*] feared lest all their fleet should be taken or destroyed in the port, and they avoided, by a flight of inconceivable rapidity, not only the glaives, but even the eyes of those who were pursuing them.
* After his grandfather, Charles Martel.
Pious Charles, however, a prey to well-grounded fear, rose up from table, stationed himself at a window looking eastward, and there remained a long while, and his eyes were filled with tears. As none durst question him, this warlike prince explained to the grandees who were about his person the cause of his movement and of his tears: ‘Know ye, my lieges, wherefore I weep so bitterly? Of a surety I fear not lest these fellows should succeed in injuring me by their miserable piracies; but it grieveth me deeply that, while I live, they should have been nigh to touching at this shore, and I am a prey to violent sorrow when I foresee what evils they will heap upon my descendants and their people.'”
The forecast and the dejection of Charles were not unreasonable. It will be found that there is special mention made, in the chronicles of the ninth and tenth centuries, of forty-seven incursions into France of Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Irish pirates, all comprised under the name of Northmen; and doubtless many other incursions of less gravity have left no trace in history.
The Northmen,” says Fauriel, “descended from the north to the south by a sort of natural gradation or ladder. The Scheldt was the first river by the mouth of which they penetrated inland; the Seine was the second; the Loire the third. The advance was threatening for the countries traversed by the Garonne; and it was in 844 that vessels freighted with Northmen for the first time ascended this last river to a considerable distance inland, and there took immense booty. The following year they pillaged and burnt Saintes. In 846 they got as far as Limoges. The inhabitants, finding themselves unable to make head against the dauntless pirates, abandoned their hearths, together with all they had not time to carry away. Encouraged by these successes the Northmen reappeared next year upon the coasts and in the rivers of Aquitaine, and they attempted to take Bordeaux, whence they were valorously repulsed by the inhabitants; but in 848, having once more laid siege to that city, they were admitted into it at night by the Jews, who were there in great force; the city was given up to plunder and conflagration; a portion of the people was scattered abroad, and the rest put to the sword.”
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