The time of which I have been telling you, from the death of Charlemagne to the beginning of the reign of Louis the Fat, is known as the Dark Ages. And you will scarcely be surprised that these centuries should have so gloomy a name. For you have read of the wars of the kings, the rebellions of the nobles. You have heard how the lords ground down their vassals and trampled on their slaves, who were sold with the land as carelessly as a plough or a spade might be sold. You have seen, too, how the peasants, daring to tell the nobles of their misery, were punished by having their hands and feet cut off. It is well that the times when such things took place should be known as, the Dark Ages.
But from the time of Louis the Fat the darkness began, little by little, to grow less dense. Louis himself began to lighten the darkness.
In spite of his great size, which made his people call him "the Fat," Louis vi. was no sluggard. He was indeed also called "the Fighter," because his body was so active; "the Wideawake," because his mind was so quick.
In Philip's listless hands the king's power had grown less, his dominions fewer. So now, though Louis was called King of France, he owned only five cities and the lands belonging to them. His power, too, scarcely reached beyond these five cities.
From Paris to St. Denis the road was safe, but farther even the king could not travel without a strong bodyguard to protect him.
The barons had built great towers with gloomy dungeons along the highways, and as travellers passed they with their men-at-arms would sally forth, and take prisoners all whom they could. After robbing their captives the barons threw them into dungeons. Here they were often tortured until, in order to be set free, they promised to pay enormous sums of money.
Louis made up his mind that the barons should be punished, and more than that, that their power should be taken away.
To help him in this great work he had a friend who was also his prime minister. This was Suger, Abbot of St. Denis, with whom Louis had been educated.
The king himself had not many troops for his great undertaking. There were only his vassals and three hundred brave youths who had come to Paris, hoping to win their spurs in the service of their king.
But Suger and many other abbots and priests roused the peasants and townsfolk, and themselves led these rough troops to Louis's aid. The clergy were only too glad to fight against the barons, who had treated them with but scant courtesy, and had often robbed their monasteries and churches.
Thus, aided by the priests, Louis gradually cleared the highways of the robber bands, and forced the barons to live quietly in their castles. If they dared to disobey him he attacked their strongholds.
One of the most powerful of the barons was Hugh the Fair. He had trampled on the peasants and treated them worse than his dogs, until they hated him with all the strength they had.
When at length a priest led a band of these peasants against Hugh's castle, their anger against the noble was so terrible that Hugh might well wish himself far away.
Strong walls, iron gates, nothing would have kept the peasants out. But the priest who led them found a weak spot in the fortress, and through this the peasants crept within the walls, and Hugh and his followers were at the mercy of the mob.
King Louis meanwhile was attacking the castle at another point; and Hugh, fighting desperately, escaped from the mob, and surrendered himself to the king. Hugh's castle was plundered and then pulled to pieces, and he himself rendered harmless. And what befell Hugh the Fair befell many other barons throughout France.
The people, finding themselves freed from the worst oppressions of the nobles, were grateful to the king, and learned to love him well. As for the townsfolk, many of them were rewarded for their share in the struggle by being allowed to choose their own magistrates, to make their own laws, and to carry a standard or banner of their own choosing before them into battle. The towns to which Louis granted these liberties were called Communes.
In 1124, while he was still working for the good of his kingdom, Louis was threatened with war. Henry i . of England had made an alliance against France with his son-in-law the Emperor of Germany. The emperor had set out meaning to invade the east of France and to attack Rheims, the city in which the French kings were crowned.
Louis, nothing daunted, called together his vassals, and commanded the barons to come with their troops to his aid. Many of the barons, having had proof of Louis's power to compel obedience, obeyed his summons. Others, who did not dare to refuse, took care to come too late to be of any use had a battle been fought.
When the soldiers had assembled, Louis went to the abbey of St. Denis for the Oriflamme, which was the national banner of France, and carried it to the head of his army. There it waved, a banner of flame-red silk, edged with green, fastened to a rod of gold.
As the French word for gold is or, you will now understand the first part of the big name by which the banner was called. The other part flamme is our word flame.
But after all these preparations no battle was fought. For the German emperor, hearing of the great army which Louis the Fighter had assembled, and disturbed also by rumours of rebellion in one of his own German towns, first ordered his army to halt, and then ordered it to march back to Germany.
Soon after this the German emperor died, and peace was made with Henry i. , King of England. The Oriflamme, brought with so much solemnity from St. Denis, was then taken back and laid once more on the altar of the abbey.
In 1129 Louis's eldest son, Philip, was crowned king. Louis hoped that Philip would soon be able to help him to govern the kingdom. But two years later an accident shattered his hopes. For Philip, who was now sixteen years old, was riding in the streets of Paris, which at that time were both narrow and dirty, when a pig, "a diabolical pig" Suger calls it, got between the legs of his horse, and both the prince and the animal fell to the ground.
Philip was so badly hurt that he died the same night.
When the king knew that his son was dead his grief was terrible. He shut himself up alone, and for days refused to take any interest in his people.
About a fortnight after his brother's death King Louis's second boy was crowned king. Six years later, in 1137, Louis died, and his young son came to the throne.
Suger, the Abbot of St. Denis, tells us that when Louis vi. was ill he was carried on a litter to St. Denis, where he had hoped to die. "As he went," says the abbot, "all men ran together from castle and town, or from the plough-tail in the field, to meet him and show their devotion devotion to the king who had protected them and given them peace."
In the reign of Louis vi. the schools of Paris grew famous. One of the greatest teachers in these schools was Abelard, a man of great eloquence and a famous scholar. Many people journeyed from distant lands to Paris for the sake of listening to this wonderful teacher.
With the name of Abelard is joined the name of Héloïse, one of his pupils, whom he dearly loved.
Héloïse, although she loved Abelard, became a nun at his bidding, but when she died she was laid in the tomb where her master had been buried. The letters which they wrote to one another in Latin are so beautiful that they are still read with delight.