Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Commune of Laon

The history of the kingdoms of Europe has a double aspect, that of the arrogant rule of kings and nobles, and that of the enforced submission and occasional insurrection of the common people, whom the governing class despised while subsisting on the products of their labor, as a tree draws its nutriment from the base soil above which it proudly rises. Insurrections of the peasantry took place at times, we have said, though, as a rule, nothing was gained by them but blows and bloodshed. We have described such outbreaks in England. France had its share of them, all of which were speedily and cruelly suppressed. It was not by armed insurrection that the peasantry gained the measure of liberty they now possess. Their gradual emancipation was gained through unceasing protest and steady pressure, and in no sense by revolt and bloodshed.

A different story must be told of the towns. In these the common people were concentrated and well organized, and possessed skilled leaders and strong walls. They understood the political situation, struck for a definite purpose, and usually gained it. The history of nearly every town in France tells of some such demand for chartered privileges, ordinarily ending in the freeing of the town from the tyranny of the nobles. Each town had its municipal government, the Commune. It was this body which spoke for the burghers, which led in the struggle for liberty, and which succeeded in gaining for most of the towns a charter of rights and privileges. Many stirring incidents might be told of this fight for freedom. We shall confine ourselves to the story of the revolt of the Commune of Laon, of which a sprightly contemporary description exists.



At the end of the eleventh century Laon was a bustling and important city. It was the seat of a cathedral and under the government of a bishop; was wealthy and prosperous, stirring and turbulent; was the gathering-place of the surrounding people, the centre of frequent disturbances. Thierry draws a vivid picture of the state of affairs existing within its walls. "The nobles and their servitors," he says, "sword in hand, committed robbery upon the burghers; the streets of the town were not safe by night nor even by day, and none could go out without running a risk of being stopped and robbed or killed. The burghers in their turn committed violence upon the peasants, who came to buy or sell at the market of the town."

Truly, town life and country life alike were neither safe nor agreeable in those charming mediŠval days when chivalry was the profession of all and the possession of none, when the nobility were courteous in word and violent in deed, and when might everywhere lorded it over right, and conscience was but another word for desire. As for the treatment of the peasantry by the townsmen, we may quote from Guibert, an abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy, to whose lively pen we owe all we have to tell about Laon.

"Let me give as example," he says, "a single fact, which had it taken place among the Barbarians or the Scythians would assuredly have been considered the height of wickedness, in the judgment even of those who know no law. On Saturday the inhabitants of the country places used to leave their fields and come from all sides to Laon to get provisions at the market. The townsfolk used then to go round the place carrying in baskets or bowls or otherwise samples of vegetables or grain or any other article, as if they wished to sell. They would offer them to the first peasant who was in search of such things to buy; he would promise to pay the price agreed upon; and then the seller would say to the buyer, 'Come with me to my house to see and examine the whole of the articles I am selling you.' The other would go; and then, when they came to the bin containing the goods, the honest seller would take off and hold up the lid, saying to the buyer, 'Step hither and put your head or arms into the bin to make quite sure that it is all exactly the same goods as I showed you outside.' And then when the other, jumping on to the edge of the bin, remained leaning on his belly, with his head and shoulders hanging down, the worthy seller, who kept in the rear, would hoist up the thoughtless rustic by the feet, push him suddenly into the bin, and, clapping on the lid as he fell, keep him shut up in this safe prison until he had bought himself out."

This has more the aspect of a practical joke than an act of barbarism. But withal, between the cheating of the peasantry by the burghers, the robbery of the burghers by the nobles, and the general turmoil and terror, there might have been found more delightful places of residence than the good city of Laon in the eleventh century. The story of this city is a long one. We are here concerned with but one episode in the tale.

In the year 1106 the bishopric of Laon, which had been for two years vacant, was bought by Gaudri, a Norman by birth, and a man of no very savory reputation. He was a clergyman with the habits of a soldier, hasty and arrogant in disposition, hurrying through the service of the mass, and dallying with delight over narratives of fighting and hunting, one of the churchmen of wickedly worldly tastes of which those days presented so many examples.

Laon soon learned something of the character of its new bishop. Not long was he in office before outrages began. He seized one man whom he suspected of aiding his enemies, and put out his eyes. Another was murdered in the church itself, with his connivance. In his deeds of violence or vengeance he employed a black slave, imitating in this some of the Crusaders, who brought with them such servants from the east. No lawless noble could have shown more disregard of law or justice than this dignitary of the church, and the burghers of Laon viewed with growing indignation his lawless and merciless course.

Taking advantage of the absence of Bishop Gaudri in England, the burghers bribed the clergy and knights who governed in his stead, and obtained from them the privilege of choosing their own rulers. "The clergy and knights," we are told, "came to an agreement with the common folk in hopes of enriching themselves in a speedy and easy fashion." A commune was set up, and given the necessary powers and immunities.

Gaudri returned, and heard with fierce wrath of what had been done in his absence. For several days he stayed outside the walls, clouding and thundering. Then the burghers applied the same plaster to his wrath as they had done to the virtue of his representatives. They offered him money, "enough to appease the tempest of his words." He accepted the bribe and swore to respect the commune. This done, he entered the city in state.

The burghers knew him somewhat too well to trust him. There were higher powers in France than Bishop Gaudri, which were known to be susceptible to the same mercenary argument. A deputation was therefore sent to King Louis the Fat at Paris, laden with rich presents, and praying for a royal confirmation of the commune. The king loved the glitter of cash; he accepted the presents, swore that the commune should be respected, and gave Laon a charter sealed with the great seal of the crown. All that the citizens were to do in return, beyond meeting the customary crown claims, was to give the king three lodgings a year, if he came to the town, or in lieu thereof, if he failed to come, twenty livres for each lodging.

For three years all went well in Laon. The burghers were happy in their security and proud of their liberty, while clergy and knights were occupied in spending the money they had received. The year 1112 came. The bishop and his subordinates had got rid of their money, and craved again the power they had sold. They began to consider how the citizens might once more be made serfs. They would not have hesitated long but for that inconvenient grant of Louis the Fat. But King Louis might be managed. He was normally avaricious. The bishop invited him to Laon to take part in the keeping of Holy Week, trusting to get his aid to overthrow the commune.

The king came. The burghers were not long in suspecting the cause of his coming. They offered him some four hundred livres to confirm them in their liberties. The bishop and his party offered him seven hundred livres to restore their power. The higher offer prevailed. The charter was annulled, and the magistrates of the commune were ordered to cease from their functions, to give up the seal and the banner of the town, and no more to ring the belfry-chimes which indicated the beginning and the ending of their sessions.

Wrath and uproar succeeded this decree. The burghers had tasted the sweets of liberty, and were not ready to lose their dearly-bought independence. So violent were they that the king himself was frightened, and hastily left his hotel for the stronger walls of the episcopal palace. At dawn of the next day, partly in fear and perhaps partly in shame, he departed from Laon with all his train, leaving the Easter festival to take place without him.

It was destined to be a serious festival for Bishop Gaudri and his crew of base-souled followers. The king had left a harvest of indignation behind him. On the day after his going all shops and taverns were kept closed and nothing was sold; every one remained at home, nursing his wrath. The next day the anger of the citizens grew more demonstrative. A rumor spread that the bishop and grandees were busy calculating the fortunes of the citizens, that they might force from them the sum promised the king. The burghers assembled in burning indignation, and forty of them bound themselves by oath to kill the bishop and all those who had aided him to destroy the commune.

Some rumor of this got afloat. Anselm, the arch-deacon, warned the bishop that his life was in danger, and urged him not to leave his house, and, in particular, not to accompany the procession on Easter-day. Thus CŠsar had been warned, and had contemned the warning. Gaudri emulated him, and answered, with a sneer of contempt,—

"Pooh! I die by the hands of such fellows!"

Easter-day came. The bishop did not appear at matins, or at the later church service. But, lest he should be called coward, he joined the procession, followed by his clergy and domestics, and by a number of knights with arms and armor concealed under their clothes. Slowly through the streets moved the procession, the people looking on in lowering silence. As it passed a dark arch one of the forty rushed suddenly out, crying, "Commune! commune!" No one joined him; the crowd seemed intimidated; their feelings subsided in a murmur; the procession continued on its way undisturbed.

The next day another procession took place. This day the bishop had filled the town with peasants, who were charged to protect his church, his palace, and himself. The people kept quiet. All went well. Bishop Gaudri, satisfied that the talk of danger was all a myth, now dismissed the peasants, feeling quite secure.

"On the fourth day after Easter," says Guibert of Nogent, "my corn having been pillaged in consequence of the disorder that reigned in the town, I repaired to the bishop, and prayed him to put a stop to this state of violence.

"'What do you suppose,' said he to me, 'these fellows can do with all their outbreaks? Why, if my blackamoor, John, were to pull the nose of the most formidable amongst them, the poor devil durst not even grumble. Have I not forced them to give up what they called their commune, for the whole duration of my life?'

"I held my tongue," adds Guibert; "many folks besides me warned him of his danger, but he would not deign to believe anybody."

For three days all kept quiet. The bishop and his myrmidons busied themselves in calculating how much cash they could squeeze from the people. The people lowered like a gathering storm. All at once the storm broke. A sudden tumult arose; crowds filled the streets. "Commune! commune!" was the general cry; as if by magic, swords, lances, axes, bows, and clubs appeared in the hands of the people; with wild shouts of vengeance they rushed through the streets and burst into the bishop's palace. The knights who had promised to protect him hastened thither and faced the infuriated populace. The first three who appeared were hotly attacked and fell before the axes of the burghers. The others held back. In a few minutes more flames appeared in the palace, and in no long time it was a mass of seething fire. The day of vengeance had come.

The bishop had fled to the church. Here, having no means of defence, he hastily put on the dress of one of his servants and repaired to the church cellar, where were a number of empty casks. One of these he got into, a faithful follower then heading him in, and even stopping up the bung-hole. Meanwhile, the crowd were in eager quest for the object of their wrath. The palace had been searched before being set on fire; the church and all accompanying buildings now swarmed with revengeful burghers. Among these was a bandit named Teutgaud, a fellow notorious for his robberies and murders of travellers, but now hand and glove with the commune. The bishop had named him Isengrin, the by-word then for wolf.

This worthy made his way into the cellar, followed by an armed crowd. Through this they went, tapping the casks as they proceeded. Teutgaud halted in front of that in which the bishop was concealed—on what suspicion does not appear.

"Knock in the head of this," he ordered.

He was quickly obeyed.

"Is there any one here?" he asked.

"Only a poor prisoner," came a quavering voice from the depths of the cask.

"Ha! ha!" laughed Teutgaud; "so it is you, Master Isengrin, who are hiding here!"

Seizing the trembling bishop by the hair, he dragged him without ceremony from the cask. The frightened culprit fell on his knees and begged piteously for his life. He would do anything; he would give up the bishopric, yield them all the money he had, and leave the country.

Insults and blows were the only replies. In a minute more the unfortunate man was dead. Teutgaud, true to his profession, cut off his ringer to obtain the episcopal ring that glittered on it. Stripped of its clothing, the body was hurled into a corner, and the furious throng flung stones and mud at it, as the only vent remaining to their revengeful passions.

All that day and the night that followed the armed and maddened townsmen searched the streets and houses of Laon for the supporters of the murdered bishop, and numbers of them shared his fate. Not the guilty alone, but many of the innocent, perished before the blind wrath of the multitude. "The progress of the fire," says Guibert, "kindled on two sides at once, was so rapid, and the winds drove the flames so furiously in the direction of the convent of St. Vincent, that the monks were afraid of seeing all they possessed become the fire's prey, and all the persons who had taken refuge in this monastery trembled as if they had seen swords hanging over their heads."

It was a day and night of frightful excess, one of those dread occasions which arise when men are roused to violence by injustice, and for the time break all the bonds of mercy and moderation which ordinarily control them. Regret at their insensate rage is sure to succeed all such outbreaks. Retribution is likely to follow. Consternation came to the burghers of Laon when calm thought returned to them. They had defied the king. What would he do? To protect themselves they added to the burden of their offences, summoning to their aid Thomas de Marle, the son of Lord Enguerraud de Coucy, a man who was little better than a brigand, and with a detestable reputation for cruelty and ferocity.

De Marle was not quite ready to undertake this task. He consulted his people, who declared that it would be folly for their small force to seek to defend such a city against the king. He thereupon induced the burghers to meet him in a field, about a mile from the city, where he would make answer to their request. When they had come, he said,—

"Laon is the head of the kingdom; it is impossible for me to keep the king from making himself master of it. If you fear his arms, follow me to my own land, and you will find in me a protector and a friend."

Their consternation was extreme at this advice. For the time being they were in a panic, through fear of the king's vengeance, and the conference ended in many of them taking the advice of the Lord of Marle, and flying with him to his stronghold. Teutgaud was among the number that accepted his protection.

The news of their flight quickly spread to the country places around Laon. The story went that the town was quite deserted. The peasants, filled with hopes of plunder, hastened to the town, took possession of what empty houses they found, and carried off what money and other valuables they could discover. "Before long," says Guibert, "there arose between the first and last comers disputes about the partition of their plunder; all that the small folks had taken soon passed into the hands of the powerful; if two men met a third quite alone they stripped him; the state of the town was truly pitiable. The burghers who had quitted it with Thomas de Marle had beforehand destroyed and burnt the houses of the clergy and grandees whom they hated; and now the grandees, escaped from the massacre, carried off in their turn from the houses of the fugitives all means of subsistence and all movables to the very hinges and bolts."

What succeeded must be briefly told. The story of the events here described spread through the kingdom. Thomas de Marle was put under ban by the king and excommunicated by the church. Louis raised an army and marched against him. De Marle was helpless with illness, but truculent in temper. He defied the king, and would not listen to his summons. Louis attacked his castles, took two of them, Crecy and Nogent, and in the end forced him to buy pardon by a heavy ransom and an indemnity to the church. As for the burghers who had taken refuge with him, the king showed them no mercy. They had had a hand in the murder of Bishop Gaudri, and all of them were hung.

The remaining story of Laon is too long for our space. The burghers continued to demand their liberties, and in 1128 a new charter was granted them. This they retained, except during some intervals, until that later period when the mediŠval system of municipal government came to an end, and all the cities and towns fell under the direct control of the deputies of the king.