In the fourteenth century it took several months for knights and pilgrims to travel from Paris or Rome to the Holy Land, and a year or more for friars and traders to journey across Europe and all the way to China along the Silk Road. Asia, Africa, and the still-undiscovered Americas had not yet been colonized by Europeans. And Europe itself had been nearly conquered by Muslim horsemen, who stormed out of Arabia in the seventh century, sailed from Africa to capture Sicily and Spain, and crossed swords with Christians as far north as Tours, France, before being turned back. By the fourteenth century, Christendom had faced the Muslim threat for more than six hundred years, launching repeated crusades against the infidel.
When not united against its common foe, Christendom was often at war with itself. The kings and queens of Europe, a large extended family of brothers and sisters and intermarried cousins, squabbled and fought with one another continually over thrones and territory. The frequent wars among Europe's feuding monarchs reduced towns and farmland to smoking ruins, killed or starved the people, and left rulers with huge debts that they paid by raising taxes, debasing the coinage, or simply seizing the wealth of convenient victims like Jews.
At the center of Europe lay the Kingdom of France, a vast realm that took twenty-two days to cross from north to south, and sixteen days from east to west. France, the forge of feudalism, had endured for nearly ten centuries. Founded amid the ruins of Roman Gaul in the fifth century, it had been Charlemagne's fortress against Islamic Spain in the ninth, and it was Europe's richest, most powerful nation at the start of the fourteenth. But within a few decades Fortune had turned against France, and the nation was now desperately fighting for its survival.
In 1339 the English crossed the Channel and invaded France, beginning the long, ruinous conflict that would be known as the Hundred Years' War. After cutting down the flower of French chivalry at Crecy in 1346, the English captured Calais. A decade later at Poitiers, amid another great slaughter of French knights, the English seized King Jean and took him to London, releasing their royal prisoner only in exchange for vast French territories, many noble hostages, and promises to pay a colossal ransom of three million gold écus.
Stunned by the loss of its king and what it cost to buy him back, France fell into civil war. Rebellious nobles betrayed King Jean and joined with the English invaders, peasants enraged by new taxes rose up to murder their lords, and the volatile citizens of Paris split into feuding factions and butchered one another in the streets. Chronic droughts and crop failures added to the misery of the people. And the Great Plague that carried off a third of Europe in 1348-49, leaving unburied corpses scattered over fields and stacked in the streets, kept returning every decade or so for another grim harvest.
As Death stalked the land, pictured by artists of the time as a shrouded skeleton wielding a great scythe, and as black warning flags flew from belfries in plague-stricken villages, God Himself seemed to have abandoned France. When the Great Schism shook Europe in 1378, dividing Christendom into two warring camps led by rival popes in Rome and Avignon, the Roman pope blessed England's cruel and mercenary war of conquest in France, as English clerics preached a new "crusade" and sold indulgences to finance the slaughter of French "heretics."
Conquering English armies were followed into France by criminals and outlaws from all over Europe, bands of savage men known as routiers, or "the scourge of God," who roamed the countryside looting towns and villages and extorting tribute from the terrorized people. Amid the violence and the anarchy, France threw itself into a frenzy of fortification. Frightened villagers built earthen walls and dug defensive ditches. Desperate farmers surrounded their houses and barns with stone towers and water-filled moats. Towns and monasteries raised and thickened their walls. Churches were fortified until they resembled castles.
The bloodlust of war and the crusading spirit kindled by the Great Schism led to many atrocities. Not even nunneries were sacred. In July 1380 English troops mounted a brutal raid on Brittany during which they "stormed a convent and raped and tortured the nuns, carrying off some of the unfortunate women to amuse them for the rest of the raid."
In the autumn of 1380 King Charles V died, leaving the realm to his eleven-year-old son, Charles VI. France was then just two-thirds its modern size and less a unified nation than a loose patchwork of separate fiefdoms. Large territories were held by the young king's five jealous uncles, who had been appointed regents during his minority; others were occupied by enemy troops. Burgundy belonged to Philip the Bold, the most powerful royal uncle and founder of a dynasty that soon would rival France itself. Anjou belonged to another royal uncle, Duke Louis. Provence was a separate county, not yet part of France, and parts of Guyenne were held by the English. Brittany was a nearly independent dukedom, while Normandy was also infested by the English, who used it to launch raids on the rest of France, recruiting many renegade Normans to their cause. The strategic port of Calais, long an English stronghold bristling with men and arms, was pointed like a dagger at the nation's heart, Paris.
Surrounded by rivals and enemies, the boy-king in theory ruled over about ten million people. His subjects belonged to three main estates or social classes--warriors, priests, and laborers, or "those who fight, those who pray, and those who work." The vast majority were laborers, some of whom lived in towns where they kept shops, but most of whom were peasants or villeins, farming the manorial estates of their local lords or seigneurs. In exchange for protection in time of war and a strip of land for their own use, they plowed and harvested their lord's fields, cut firewood for his hearth, and yielded up shares of produce and livestock. Bound to the land from birth, they spoke local dialects, lived by provincial customs, and had next to no sense of national identity.
As the peasant served his lord, so the lord in turn served his overlord. The minor lord might be a knight holding a fief or two, the greater lord a count or a duke with many fiefs--lands held in exchange for service. A vassal--any man sworn to serve another--bound himself to his lord by the act of homage and the oath of fealty.* The vassal knelt with his hands clasped between his lord's, saying, "Lord, I become your man." Then he rose, received a kiss on the mouth, and swore to serve his lord for life. These rituals cemented the mutual bonds holding society together.
The lifelong bond between lord and vassal was based chiefly on land. As feudal law decreed, "No lord without land; no land without a lord." Land yielded life-sustaining crops as well as lucrative rents, in either coin or kind, along with levies of mail-fisted knights and men-at-arms. Land was thus the feudal nobility's main source of wealth, power, and prestige--and the most enduring thing a man could pass down, with the family name, to his heirs. Valuable and coveted, land was also the cause of many quarrels and deadly feuds.
Nowhere did men fight over land more fiercely than in Normandy, a bloody crossroads of war since antiquity. The Celts had fought the Romans there; the Romans, the Franks; and the Franks, the Vikings, before the French and the English clashed there during the Hundred Years' War. The Vikings--or Northmen, Normanni--had eventually settled, taking Frankish land and wives and turning themselves into French-speaking Normans. The dukes of Normandy, a line founded in 911, became vassals to the kings of France.
In 1066 Duke William of Normandy crossed the Channel with an army of knights, fought and defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, crowned himself king of England, and became known to history as William the Conqueror. As king of England, the Duke of Normandy now rivaled the king of France. For the next century and a half Normandy, with its prosperous towns and wealthy monasteries, remained a possession of the English crown.
In the early 1200s the king of France won most of Normandy back from the king of England in a hard-fought campaign. But English kings, being of Norman blood, still dreamed of Normandy. And many of Normandy's great families, Normans before they were French, kept an opportunistic eye toward England, always sniffing the air for winds of change.
When the Hundred Years' War began, and the English started reconquering Normandy, many Norman nobles betrayed the French king and allied themselves with the English invaders.
The loyal Normans who swore fealty to the young King Charles in 1380 included an old noble family by the name of Carrouges. Sir Jean de Carrouges III, by then in his sixties, had come of age near the start of the Hundred Years' War and fought in many campaigns against the English. The knight was a vassal to the Count of Perche, who had appointed him the military captain of Bellême, an important and coveted castle. He was also Viscount of Bellême, the king's local official--equivalent to an English shire reeve, or sheriff. In 1364 he had helped raise money for King Jean's ransom. The respected knight was married to Nicole de Buchard, a well-born lady with whom he had at least three children. The family's ancestral home was the fortified hilltop town of Carrouges, about fifteen miles northwest of Alençon.
According to legend, the Carrouges line was born of blood and violence. One story tells of an ancestor named Count Ralph who fell in love with a sorceress and kept trysts with her near a fountain in a forest glade, until one night his jealous wife surprised the two lovers there with a dagger. The next day the count was found with his throat cut. The countess escaped suspicion despite a mysterious red mark on her face. Soon afterward she bore a son named Karle, on whom the same red mark appeared when he turned seven, earning him the name Karle le Rouge. For seven generations all the family's children had this red mark, until the sorceress's anger was appeased. The name Karle le Rouge eventually became Carrouges, or so the story goes. The color red also figured in the family arms: a crimson field sown with silver fleurs-de-lis.
The family's violent past may have been folklore, but from Carrouges blood sprang a line of fierce warriors. One early lord of Carrouges, Sir Robert de Villers, fought under King Philip II in the early 1200s to win Normandy back for France. In 1287 one of his descendants, Richard de Carrouges, served as a pledge in a judicial duel, swearing to fight in the principal's place if he failed to appear for battle.
Jean III's eldest son, Jean IV, was a born warrior. His warlike visage once stared from the wall of Saint-Étienne's abbey in Caen, where a mural showed him standing in full armor next to his heavy warhorse, sword and lance at the ready. But his image has long since faded into oblivion, and with it the tough, determined features of a warrior descended from the fierce Northmen. Brought up in the saddle, the younger Jean probably had little education, since surviving documents bear only his seal and not his signature. In 1380 he held the rank of squire.* Rather than the "gallant youth" this term often brings to mind, he was a battle-hardened veteran already in his forties, one of those "mature men of a rather heavy type--knights in all but name." He seems to have been a hard, ambitious, even ruthless man, given to angry outbursts if thwarted in his aims, and capable of holding a grudge for years.
By 1380, Jean IV commanded his own troop of squires, numbering from four to as many as nine, in the campaigns to rid Normandy of the English. In war he sought to burnish his name and enrich himself by seizing booty and capturing prisoners to hold for ransom, a lucrative business in the fourteenth century. He may also have sought a knighthood, which would have doubled his pay on campaign. The Carrouges family estate probably yielded 400 or 500 livres per year in rents, at a time when a knight's daily pay on campaign was one livre, while a squire received half that.
Jean had come into part of his inheritance, including some rent-producing land, at twenty-one. Upon his father's death he would get the rest, except for the smaller legacies left to his two siblings, his younger brother Robert and his sister Jeanne. Robert, like many second sons of the nobility, could hope for only a small inheritance and so entered the priesthood. Jeanne married a knight, taking a portion of her father's land with her as a dowry. Their mother, Nicole, held some lands in her own name and would retain these and their rents if her husband died before her. But the rest would go to Jean, who had to ensure the survival of the Carrouges family name and pass the estate on to his own heir.
Jean's chief legacy was the castle and lands at Carrouges. The hilltop town commanded a broad plain of fertile farmland stretching northeast toward Argentan. A castle was first built at Carrouges in 1032 by Robert I, Duke of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror, and had been the site of several sieges. Located at a major crossroads and lying on a pilgrimage route to Mont Saint-Michel, Carrouges was also the prosperous center for annual regional fairs.
By 1380 the Carrouges family had abandoned the castle in town--attacked and burned by the English--for another fort nearby. They built this later fort sometime after 1367 at the order of King Charles V to strengthen Normandy against the English--another sign of the family's loyalty to the crown. The imposing donjon or keep still survives as part of the elegant Château de Carrouges, most of which dates from later.
The old keep is more than fifty feet high, with granite walls ten feet thick at its base. It still has many of its original defenses--including a sloping base to deflect assaults, meurtrières or elongated arrow slits for firing down upon the enemy, and an overhanging parapet with slots in its floor for dropping projectiles or boiling liquids onto besiegers below. The upper floors of this logis-tour, or residential keep, included a kitchen, living areas, servants' quarters, and a latrine that discharged through one of the walls. An interior well assured a water supply during attack or siege. Other buildings to either side of the keep housed additional servants and the garrison. The keep itself consists of two adjoining square towers, and within its massive basement walls is a clever arrangement of doorways and arrow slits that enabled the defenders to retreat from a larger chamber into a smaller one and shoot bolts and arrows into the space just vacated. The military architecture offers mute but powerful testimony to the dire conditions that the feudal nobility endured as enemy armies rampaged across Normandy and bands of robbers pillaged the countryside.
From the Hardcover edition.