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France in the Middle Ages covers an area roughly corresponding to modern day Francemarker, from the death of Charlemagne in 814 to the middle of the 15th century. The Middle Ages in France were marked by:

  1. West Francia (843-987) and the Viking invasions and the piecemeal dismantling of the Carolingian Empire by local powers,
  2. the elaboration of the seigneurial economic system and the feudal system of rights and obligations between lords and vassals,
  3. the growth of the region controlled by the House of Capet (987–1328) and their struggles with the expanding Norman and Angevin regions,
  4. a period of artistic and literary outpouring from the 12th to the early 14th centuries,
  5. the rise of the House of Valois (1328–1589), the protracted dynastic crisis of the Hundred Years' War with the Kingdom of England (1337–1453) and the catastrophic Black Death epidemic (1348), and
  6. the expansion of the French nation in the 15th century and the creation of a sense of French identity.


From the middle-ages onward the French rulers believed their kingdoms had natural borders: the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Rhine. This was used as a pretext for an aggressive policy and repeated invasions. This however had little basis in reality for not all of these territories were part of the Kingdom and the authority of the King within his kingdom would be quite fluctuant. The lands that composed the Kingdom of France showed great geographical diversity, the northern and central parts enjoyed a temperate climate when the southern part were closer to the Mediterranean climate. While there were great differences between the northern and southern parts of the kingdom there were equally important differences depending on the distance of mountains: mainly the Alps, the Pyreneesmarker and the Massif Centralmarker. France had important rivers that were used as waterways: the Loiremarker, the Rhone, the Seinemarker as well as the Garonnemarker. These rivers were settled earlier than the rest and important cities were founded on their banks but they were separated by large forests, marsh, and other rough terrains.

Administrative divisions

Before the Romans conquered Gaul, the Gauls lived in villages organised in wider tribes. The Romans referred to the smallest of these groups as pagi and the widest ones as civitates. These pagi and civitates were often taken as a basis for the imperial administration and would survive up to the middle-ages when their capitals became centres of bishoprics. These religious provinces would survive until the French revolution. During the Roman Empire, southern Gaul was more heavily populated and because of this more episcopal sees were present there at first while in northern France they shrank greatly in size because of the barbarian invasions and became heavily fortified to resist the invaders.

Discussion of the size of France in the Middle Ages is complicated by distinctions between lands personally held by the king (the "domaine royal") and lands held in homage by another lord. The notion of res publica inherited from the Roman province of Gaul was not fully maintained by the Frankish kingdom and the Carolingian Empire, and by the early years of the Direct Capetians, the French kingdom was more or less a fiction. The "domaine royal" of the Capetians was limited to the regions around Parismarker, Bourgesmarker and Sens. The great majority of French territory was part of Aquitainemarker, the Duchy of Normandy, the Duchy of Brittany, the Comté of Champagne, the Duchy of Burgundy, and other territories (for a map, see Provinces of France). In principle, the lords of these lands owed homage to the French king for their possession, but in reality the king in Paris had little control over these lands, and this was to be confounded by the uniting of Normandy, Aquitaine and Englandmarker under the Plantagenet dynasty in the 12th century.

[[File:Conquetes Philippe Auguste.gif|thumb|The territorial expansion of France under Philip II Augustus, 1180 to 1223

Philip II Augustus undertook a massive French expansion in the 13th century, but most of these acquisitions were lost both by the royal system of "apanage" (the giving of regions to members of the royal family to be administered) and through losses in the Hundred Years' War. Only in the 15th century would Charles VII and Louis IX gain control of most of modern day France (except for Brittany, Navarremarker, and parts of eastern and northern France).

The weather in France and Europe in the Middle Ages was significantly milder than during the periods preceding or following it. Historians refer to this as the "Medieval Warm Period", lasting from about the 10th century to about the 14th century. Part of the French population growth in this period (see below) is directly linked to this temperate weather and its effect on crops and livestock.


France in the Middle Ages was the most populous region in Europe (and the third most populous country in the world, behind only Chinamarker and Indiamarker ), although there were great differences in density between the populated north and the relatively unpopulated south. In the 14th century, before the arrival of the Black Death, the total population of the area covered by modern day France has been estimated at around 17 million. Paris, the largest city in Europe, may have had over 100,000 inhabitants. The Black Death killed an estimated one-third of the population from its appearance in 1348. The concurrent Hundred Years' War slowed recovery. It would be the mid-16th century before the population recovered to mid-fourteenth century levels.

In the early Middle Ages, France was a center of Jewish learning, but increasing persecution, and a series of expulsions in the 14th century, caused considerable suffering for French Jews; see History of the Jews in France.


Up to roughly 1340, the Romance languages spoken in the Middle Ages in the northern half of what is today's France are collectively known as "ancien français" ("Old French") or "langues d'oïl" (languages where one says "oïl" to mean "yes"): following the Germanic invasions of France in the fifth century, these northern dialects had developed distinctly different phonetic and syntactical structures from the languages spoken in southern France, which are collectively known as "langues d'oc" or the Occitan language family (of which the largest group is the Provençal language). In the east, Francoprovençal (considered a transitional language between langues d'oïl and langues d'oc) and Germanic languages were spoken; in the far south, Catalan (considered a tranistional language between Iberian languages and "langues d'oc") was spoken. The Western peninsula of Brittany spoke Breton, a Celtic language.

The various "Langues d'oïl" and "Langue d'oc" dialects developed into what are recognised as regional languages today. Languages that developed from dialects of Old French include: Burgundian, Champenois, Franc-Comtois, Francien (theoretical), Gallo, Lorrain, Norman, Anglo-Norman (spoken in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066), Picard, Poitevin, Saintongeais and Walloon. Languages that developed from dialects of the Occitan family include: Auvergnat, Gascon, Languedocien, Limousin, Provençal, and, arguably, Catalan.

Because of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, medieval French was also spoken in the Anglo-Norman realm, including England (at least in the ruling classes), from 1066 to the 1300s.

From 1340 to the beginning of the seventeenth century, a standardised French language became clearly distinguished from the other competing Oïl languages. This is referred to as Middle French ( ) and would be the basis of Modern French. Although French gradually became an important cultural and diplomatic language, it made few inroads into Occitan and other linguistic regions other than in areas where the French monarchy had established significant control.

Among educated elites, clercs, and members of the clergy, Medieval Latin was the predominant diplomatic and legal language in France until the middle of the 16th century.


The Carolingian legacy

During the later years of the elderly Charlemagne's rule, the Vikings made advances along the northern and western perimeters of his kingdom. After Charlemagne's death in 814 his heirs were incapable of maintaining political unity and the empire began to crumble. The Treaty of Verdun of 843 divided the Carolingian Empire, and Charles the Bald ruled over West Francia, roughly corresponding to the territory of modern France. This kingdom would evolve over centuries into the modern nation state of France.

Viking advances were allowed to escalate, and their dreaded longboats were sailing up the Loiremarker and Seinemarker Rivers and other inland waterways, wreaking havoc and spreading terror. In 843 Viking invaders murdered the Bishop of Nantes, and a few years after that, they burned the Church of Saint Martin at Toursmarker, and in 845 the Vikings sacked Parismarker. During the reign of Charles the Simple (898–922), Normans under Rollo were settled in an area on either side of the Seine River, downstream from Parismarker, that was to become Normandy.

The Capetians

The Carolingians were subsequently to share the fate of their predecessors: after an intermittent power struggle between the two families, the accession (987) of Hugh Capet, Duke of France and Count of Paris, established on the throne the Capetian dynasty which with its Valois and Bourbon offshoots was to rule France for more than 800 years.

The Carolingian era had seen the gradual emergence of institutions which were to condition France's development for centuries to come: the acknowledgement by the crown of the administrative authority of the realm's nobles within their territories in return for their (sometimes tenuous) loyalty and military support, a phenomenon readily visible in the rise of the Capetians and foreshadowed to some extent by the Carolingians' own rise to power.

The old order left the new dynasty in immediate control of little beyond the middle Seine and adjacent territories, while powerful territorial lords such as the 10th- and 11th-century counts of Bloismarker accumulated large domains of their own through marriage and through private arrangements with lesser nobles for protection and support.

The area around the lower Seine, ceded to Scandinavian invaders as the Duchy of Normandy in 911, became a source of particular concern when Duke William took possession of the kingdom of Englandmarker in the Norman Conquest of 1066, making himself and his heirs the King's equal outside France (where he was still nominally subject to the Crown).

France in 1223
Worse was to follow. A protracted succession dispute among William's descendants ended in 1154 with the coronation of Henry II. Henry had inherited the Duchy of Normandy through his mother, Mathilda of England, and the County of Anjoumarker from his father, Geoffrey of Anjou, and in 1152, he had married France's newly-divorced ex-queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ruled much of southwest France. After defeating a revolt led by Eleanor and three of their four sons, Henry had Eleanor imprisoned, made the Duke of Brittany his vassal, and in effect ruled the western half of France as a greater power than the French throne. However, disputes among Henry's descendants over the division of his French territories, coupled with John of England's lengthy quarrel with Philip II, allowed Philip II to recover influence over most of this territory. After the French victory at the Battle of Bouvinesmarker in 1214, the English monarchs maintained power only in southwestern Duchy of Guyenne.

The 13th century was to bring the crown important gains also in the south, where a papal-royal crusade against the region's Albigensian or Cathar heretics (1209) led to the incorporation into the royal domain of Lower (1229) and Upper (1271) Languedoc. Philip IV's seizure of Flanders (1300) was less successful, ending two years later in the rout of his knights by the forces of the Flemish cities at the Battle of the Golden Spurs near Kortrijkmarker (Courtrai).

Saint Louis

King Louis IX (1214–70) desired a fair justice for all and created new tribunals in that purpose and tried curing lepers himself. The oak of Vincennes below which, at least according to the myth, he often did justice represents the affection his subjects had for him. For some time he remained under the influence of his mother Blanche of Castile, who supported a policy of expanding the borders of the Kingdom. However Louis IX realised many people were discontent in his realm and ordered a large inquiry in 1247 in which his subjects were allowed to expose their griefs with the state and several major reforms were enforced afterward. During the first part of his reign he was known to collect expensive horses, however after his first crusading failure he became a lot more modest and lived a simple life.

Louis IX received an education comparable to that of his father, utilizing private tutors rather than a monastic course of study. He acquired a respectable competence in mathematics, reading, writing, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. His surviving writings show he could present his points in a logical and organised way in both French and Latin. He became a highly skilled knight and developed a passion for horses.

As the oldest surviving son of Louis VIII, Louis IX was crowned king of France in 1226. Only 12 years of age, he was too young to rule independently, but as there were potential rivals the young king was switfly crowned to avoid all contestations. Indeed, the rules of the French succession were as yet unclear to many for Hugh Capet had been elected rather than succeeding his father; most French kings were crowned by their father when the latter was still alive to avoid the election. Fortunately for the young king, he was supported by many powerful nobles who were loyal to the Capetians and who took great care to keep potential rivals from assuming control of the kingdom. The church of France and ultimately the pope clearly defended this position.

Regency and revolts
The butt regency proved efficient, as Blanche left all decisions to the administrators and only acted as a form of executive power. She stood against all insults and personal attacks against her private life in her objective to support the state. She was the target of all possible insults and was accused of being the mistress of many nobles and even a bishop. These were surely only lies intended to undermine her authority. Many nobles were missing at Rheims when Louis IX was made King: the Count of Flanders was still imprisoned since Bouvines, the Count of Champagne was forbidden to come and others simply refused to attend. However, the Countess of Flanders replaced her husband, and the Duke of Burgundy was also present. There were revolts against Blanche in the following years; the first one was led by Duke Pierre Mauclerc of Brittany, Count Hugh XI of La Marche and Count Thibault of Champagne in January 1227. This revolt was supported by King Henry III of England, but he sent them no help. Because of the lack of support and the fact they would have been fighting their king, this revolt failed. Its authors were pardoned and were given money in return for paying homage to the king.

During the same period the residents of Languedoc, seeking an end to the Albigensian Crusade, called for peace. Count Raymond VII of Toulouse entered negocations with Blanche, and the outcome would have important consequences for the crown. They signed the Treaty of Meaux-Paris in which Raymond VII was allowed to keep his lands until his death. Attendant to the treaty, his only daughter, Joan, married Count Alfonso of Poitiers, with an important condition: in the event that they should die without an heir, control of the Languedoc would revert to the crown. Indeed, Alfonso and Joan died without a son, and the king gained direct access to the Mediterranean sea through his royal domain, significantly changing the balance of power. Many changes followed in the Languedoc, the most evident of which was the creation of the Inquisition, a new form of police power combining older techniques (e.g. torture) with more recent ones like tribunals in which evidence was presented and judgment the outcome of formal argumentation. The University of Toulouse was also founded during the same period.

Troubles would rise again in the north when greater numbers of people rebelled against Blanche, but the king was always present when there were conflicts and this often had its consequences. Popular opinion began to turn against the regency. When the church asked Blanche to punish people participating in Mardi Gras she ordered every man guilty of participation to be arrested and sentenced. Professors and students of the University of Paris were the first victims of this policy, resulting in the strike of 1229. Many professors were offered to go to London to teach there and most of them moved to Orléansmarker. Blanche ultimately had to give up and the pope granted privileges to the University of Paris. The Count of Boulogne subsequently attacked the Count of Champagne, and in 1230 the King of England landed in Brittany to engage the King of France. The Royal Army quickly moved against the English forces, and Henry III fled to Bordeaux to sail back to England. Taking advantage of this diversion, Blanche moved to assist the Count of Champagne, gaining territories for the French crown. The last revolt was led by Pierre Mauclerc and was suppressed directly by Louis IX in 1234, now old enough to rule in his own right.

The Hundred Years' War

The death of Charles IV in 1328 without male heirs ended the main Capetian line. Under Salic law the crown couldn't pass through a woman (Philip IV's daughter was Isabella, whose son was Edward III of England), so the throne passed to Philip VI, son of Charles of Valois. This, in addition to a long-standing dispute over the rights to Gascony in the south of France, and the relationship between England and the Flemish cloth towns, led to the Hundred Years' War of 1337–1453. The following century was to see devastating warfare, peasant revolts (the English peasants' revolt of 1381 and the Jacquerie of 1358 in France) and the growth of nationalism in both countries.

French losses in the first phase of the conflict (1337–60) were partly reversed in the second (1369–96); but Henry V's shattering victory at the battle of Agincourtmarker in 1415 against a France now bitterly divided between rival Armagnac and Burgundian factions of the royal house was to lead to his son Henry VI's recognition as king in Paris seven years later under the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, reducing Valois rule to the lands south of the Loiremarker River.

France's humiliation was abruptly reversed in 1429 by the appearance of a restorationist movement symbolised by the Lorraine peasant maid Joan of Arc, who claimed the guidance of divine voices for the campaign which rapidly ended the English siege of Orléansmarker and ended in Charles VII's coronation in the historic city of Rheimsmarker. Subsequently captured by the Burgundians and sold to their English allies, her execution for heresy in 1431 redoubled her value as the embodiment of France's cause.

France in 1435
Reconciliation in 1435 between the king and Philippe the Good, duke of Burgundy, removed the greatest obstacle to French recovery, leading to the recapture of Paris (1436), Normandy (1450) and Guiennemarker (1453), reducing England's foothold to a small area around Calaismarker (lost also in 1558). After victory over England, France's emergence as a powerful national monarchy was crowned by the "incorporation" of the Duchy of Burgundy (1477) and Brittany (1532), which had previously been independent European states.

The losses of the century of war were enormous, particularly owing to the plague (the Black Death, usually considered an outbreak of bubonic plague), which arrived from Italy in 1348, spreading rapidly up the Rhone valley and thence across most of the country: it is estimated that a population of some 18–20 million in modern-day France at the time of the 1328 hearth tax returns had been reduced 150 years later by 50% or more.


The period after the death of Charlemagne was marked by an economic crisis caused by political instability; town life all but disappeared. However, this had changed by the 11th century. The introduction of new crops, the improvements in the climate, and the introduction of new agricultural technologies created a large agricultural surplus. This was accompanied by the growth in town life, trade, and industry. The economy once again collapsed in the fourteenth century because of war, bad weather, and the Black Death.

The rural economy was based on the manor; in urban areas economic activity was organized around guilds.


France had a feudal system of government ; the royal power was extremely limited . In rural areas feudal lords handled matters such as defense, and the maintenance of law and order. This was the result of the chaos that followed the Germanic and Viking invasions.The feudal hierarchy started with Kings at the top. The next step down were the Liege lords, Dukes, and other nobles with titles who were given manors and diocese(fiefs) to control within the King's Domain. Below them were the vassals, or lesser lords who controlled smaller pieces of land on the Leige lord's manor. Each manor had its own army made up of knights, who were warriors that owed the King a minimum of 40 days of military service. Below the knights were serfs. Serfs were peasants who were indebted to the vassals, and in order to pay off their debt, they had to work the land and give half of their crops to their vassal.A serf was bound to their land, meaning that they could not travel without permission. A serf's debt could be sold from one manor to another. If the lord of the manor died, then the serfs would continue to pay their debt to the new lord.In urban areas popular agitation led to the setting up of autonomous "communes" that served as units of self-government.



See also


  1. Elizabeth M. Hallam & Judith Everard, Capetian France 987–1328, Editions Longman pp. 1–2
  2. McEvedy, Colin, and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 55–58.
  3. Gérard Sivéry, Saint Louis, Editions Tallandier pp. 11–41

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