T HE Merovians and Carolingnians had occupied the throne during more than five centuries, and the scepter had now passed into the hands of the third, or Capetian race, which was to supply all the other kings who afterward ruled in France.
The new ruler had, at first, very little power, and was master merely of his own duchy, which included only about one twentieth of what we now call France. Besides humoring his twelve peers, Hough tried to keep on good terms with some hundred and fifty petty noblemen, who had the right to coin money and were practically kings, their castles begin their capitals.
In those days such lords made war against one another without consulting the king, and sometimes even annexed lands and assuming titles. One nobleman having done this, Hugh haughtily inquired, "Who made you count?" But the nobleman, in nowise daunted, pertly retorted, "Well, who made you king?"
In fact, Hugh was so little a king at first that he dared not even punish such insolence as this, but was obliged to overlook it, and go on as best he could. He felt far from secure on the throne, and to make sure his son Robert would eventually succeed him, he had the young man crowned during his own lifetime.
No great progress was made in France under Hugh Capet. Not only were the nobles turbulent, but many people were already uneasy at the thought that the end of the world was drawing near. You must know that there were some people in those days who said that in the year 1000 the Last Judgment would take place; for it was thus that they interpreted a passage in the Bible.
Many people, thinking they would soon have no further use for their money, houses, and lands, now gave all they had to the Church, or distributed their goods among the poor; for they believed that such gifts would help to secure the forgiveness of sins they might have committed. Some farmers thought it useless to sow grain as usual in the fall, or to plant crops of any kind, since they could not expect to gather the harvest. As the weather happened to be very bad just then, every storm was viewed as a new and sure sign that the end of the world was near at hand.
But the year 1000 came, and nothing happened! Day after day people expected the Judgment, which did not come. Then they fancied that perchance an error had been made in reckoning the exact time of Christ's birth, and two or three years passed thus in uncertainty. As they still continued to exist, they now imagined that the end of the world would come 1000 years after Christ's death, instead of after His birth, and as Christ lived some thirty-three years, this view kept people uneasy a long time.
All through the beginning of the eleventh century, therefore, few improvements were made in the country, and at times many people merely lived from day to day, in hourly expectation of the end. As there were many little wars in this period also, the result was great poverty and several terrible famines.
Then, as always happens, after the famines came plagues; for idle, dirty, ill-fed people are much more likely to catch and spread diseases than those who work hard, keep clean, and are properly fed. In fact, so many people died of the plague that whole towns and villages were deserted, and wolves roamed through the empty streets and houses, vainly seeking something to eat.