Normandy, a region of northern France, has a long history often closely entwined with that of England, though we have managed to remain determindly seperate. Modern Normandy is largely agricultural and owes its prosperity to horse breeding, tourism and the production of cider, calvados (apple brandy) and flax.Travelling through the region today and the wealth of Medieval castles and chateaux, cathedals, churches and abbeys provides a glimpse of a time when Normandy was considered the most powerful duchie in France.
Given the rise of technology that has shaped the modern world, it is perhaps not so easy to grasp how Normandy could cite religion as playing a major part in its rise to power. It’s hardly the Vatican City with not a Borgia is sight, but it is one of Frances most glazed areas and the richest in terms of religious art.
More surprisingly perhaps, the rise in Normandy’s fortunes came about as a result of being dragged into near economic and social collapse in the wake of the fall of an Empire.
Gaul (originally populated by Celtic Gauls and our freind Asterix) had been a province of the Roman Empire centrally governed by Rome and the Divine Emperor, but by the time the last Emperor was deposed in 476AD, the Western provinces had become money pits. The fall of the Rome was not a sudden event, it was more of a slow disintegration. The cost of civil war and constant insurgences by Germanic tribes into Western Provinces and the resulting loss of income from trade, were part of a fatal economic decline that not even devaluation and high taxes could fix.
The Salian Franks, invaders and pirates from the Netherlands, were already a presence in Roman Gaul, originally as Laiti (permitted foreign settlers), then (from 357) as kingdoms supporting the Roman army. In later years they became increasingly difficult to control and by 509AD Clovis I was able to expand his territories and create a new dynasty, the Merogivinians in the new empire of Francia (France).
The fall of the Roman Western Empire, gathering pace in the last decades of 400AD’s, took with it almost all things Roman: trade, technology, the middle classes (who had been the traders), literacy, centralised written laws and the Latin language, which became confined to the church. Society was noticeably poorer, personal wealth had been stripped by high Roman taxes, the population went into sharp decline thanks to wars, famines and plagues and was short on comforts. On the plus side enemy captives were no longer fed to wild animals.
Not all things Roman were abandoned however. Gallo-Roman society had been run on the res publica (things are a public affair), the province existing for the good of the Empire, but locally administered by members of the Senate responsible to the Emperor. This suited the tribal Franks for whom law and order was very much a community affair. The new empire was divided into what would become Dukedoms and the land, along with the peasantry that came with it, assigned to followers of the Frankish King as Counts with rights to heredity. Each dukedom was allocated an army made up of local landowners, on the proviso that they would come to arms for Francia if needed.
War between the new Western Provinces was already endemic and instead of choosing an heir on his death in 511AD, the first King Clovis divided Francia into four territories with their own capital cities and gave one to each of his sons beginning centuries of civil war. Francia was united and divided only to be divided again, the right to elect a new ruler used to change dynasties until 987 when the House of Capet ruled the Kingdom of France in relative peace,
With global crop failure and famine barely a generation before (probably from a dust cloud that shut out the sun from a large volcano in the Tropics) the Frankish Kings imposed new taxes to fund an army the Counts were already providing. It didn’t go down well. After a riots in the South and North East in 574AD, the Chief Tax Collector Parthenius was lynched and tax was abolished. The Kings now had to support their kingdoms from the land alone, effectively handing power to the Counts and local landowners gathering wealth from their peasant farmers. The system of administration collapsed and by the 7th Century only 10% of the peasantry were free.
As if being economically fragile and in constant fear of war wasn’t enough, the Franks were pagans, their beliefs dating back to the Celtic iron-age and forming the basis of European folklore and fairytales. The Romans had ended 280 years of Christian persecution, now the Franks were free to resurrect it.