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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Civil Life in France during the Middle Ages
By Alfred Rambaud (1842–1905)
 
From the ‘History of French Civilization’: Translation of Jane Grosvenor Cooke

IF justice was cruel, the police of Paris were feeble. The multiplicity of jurisdictions among which Paris was divided, and the right of sanctuary allowed to nearly all the churches and abbeys, permitted criminals to elude pursuit.  1
  Paris, although Philip Augustus had paved some streets and filled up the filthy holes which infected his palace, was still horribly dirty.  2
  The narrow streets, with the houses overhanging in successive corbelings so that the upper stories touched, were incumbered with stalls, sign-boards, and goods exposed for sale. Swine, geese, and cattle wandered through them. There the butchers slaughtered their beasts at night; there was no light except that of the moon when it shone. The police were not responsible for anything after sunset. When once the curfew had rung, the honest bourgeois went to his home and shut himself in securely. The watch—that is, the prevost’s archers—were too few to control the dangerous classes. To thrash the watch was a student’s sport: naturally, ill-doers feared it little.  3
  Sometimes a watchman like Gautier Rallard found an ingenious means of never entering into a fight with the robbers: he made his rounds preceded by music. The night watchman who went through the streets in a coat embellished with tears and death’s-heads,—armed with a lantern and a bell, announcing the hours, and calling the sleepers to “pray for the dead,”—scarcely interfered with the cutpurses and the pillagers of shops.  4
  The robbers, assassins, beggars, vagabonds, were organized in corporations just like the honest folk. They had their regular chiefs, their rules of apprenticeship, their trials for the mastery, their places of reunion. In Paris they formed a State apart,—the Kingdom of Argot,—where was spoken the “langue vert,” and across the boundaries of which the archers of the watch did not venture. Their elected chief was the great Coësre or King of Thune, who was drawn in a cart by dogs. He held his court—his Court of Miracles—sometimes in the cul-de-sac Saint Sauveur, sometimes in the rue des Frams-Bourgeois, or near the Convent of the Filles-Dieu, or in the streets of Grande and Petite Truanderie. He had in each province, like the king, his bailiff,—called the cagou. Sometimes he summoned a sort of States-General in the Pré aux Gueux (Beggars’ Field) near Notre Dame d’Auray. His immense people, including all the beggars, blacklegs, and vagabonds of France, were divided into numerous classes. All paid a tribute to the King of Thune, and rendered him homage.  5
  Another powerful monarch was the King of Egypt, sovereign of the Gipsies. In 1427 the advance guard of these mysterious Asiatics had appeared in Paris; a duke, a count, ten knights, followed by a hundred men, women, and children. These people, known as Bohemians, Saracens, Egyptians, Tsiganes, were soon swarming on the roads and at the gates of the towns, as showmen of bears and apes, as tinkers, counterfeiters, fortune-tellers.  6
  From these swarming crowds the army of crime was recruited. From time to time justice cast in her net, and exposed her capture in the pillory of the Halles or on the gibbet of Montfauçon; but the mass was not thereby diminished. If the prevost hung some scamp in broad day, the King of Thune in turn hung in broad night some rash bourgeois or too inquisitive sergeant.  7
  As in India there were pariahs, despised even by the slave, and whose contact was pollution, so in France there were outcast races. These were called marrons in Auvergne; cagots or cagoux in the Pyrenees; gaffots, caffots, capots, in Béarn and Navarre; cagaeux, cacuas, cacoux, in Bretagne; gahets, gaffets, in Guyenne. Whence came they, and who were they? Were they, as was said, descendants of the Mussulmans left in France by Abderrahman, or of the Spaniards who were driven from their homes by the Arabs, or of converted heretics, or of ancient lepers? No one knew, not even those who persecuted them. The only sure thing is, that they were treated like veritable lepers, forbidden to frequent churches, taverns, public festivals; forced in Bretagne and Béarn to wear a red costume, and not permitted to go barefoot on the roads or to carry arms. Marriage or any contact with them was refused. They lived in isolated villages hidden in the country, or in obscure valleys; intermarrying, hated by all and hating all the world.  8
  Although ancient slavery had disappeared from our soil through transformation into serfdom, there was a tendency to reconstitute it in Europe at the expense of the infidels taken in war. The Italian republics trafficked in their captives. In the twelfth century they were sold at fairs in Champagne, and Saracen slaves were bequeathed in a will to the bishop of Béziers. In the thirteenth century, slaves were traded in Provence. The new slavery was then in force in Roussillon,—which was not French territory,—but royal France spurned it. Then was established the maxim by virtue of which every slave who touched French soil became free. In 1402 and in 1406 the municipality of Toulouse applied this to the profit of fugitive slaves from Perpignan.  9
  In the Middle Ages, the duty of charity toward the poor was generally discharged. The pouch full of money which hung at the belts of nobles and bourgeois, men and women, was called an alms-purse; a chaplain was an almoner. Kings, nobles, and ladies were often surrounded, as they walked, by the poor whom they maintained. King Robert allowed them to enter so freely into his palace, to go under his table, to sit on the floor beside him, almost between his legs, that on a certain day one of them cut a gold acorn from his clothing. Not only did alms-givers aid the poor with money, food, and clothing; but seeing in them the image of suffering Christ, they gloried in sometimes serving them at table, and in washing their feet upon Holy Thursday. The religious orders, founded for the relief of the poor, consecrated to them at least a part of their revenues. In certain convents there were cells reserved for the poor; in nearly all, distributions of soup and bread were made at the door of the monastery.  10
  Nevertheless, this charity of the Middle Ages was unintelligent enough. The kings would have done better to aid their people instead of surrounding themselves with a few tatterdemalions; the monasteries, while distributing their charity, became by seizing upon the land a cause of impoverishment for a vast radius around them. They relieved a few poor people; but these were infinitely less to be pitied than thousands of peasants crushed under feudal laws, the ecclesiastical tenth, or the laws of the royal treasury. The problem of how to aid the poor without increasing pauperism and without offering a reward to idleness, so difficult even to modern France, was not one which the Middle Ages could solve. Moreover, the French of the thirteenth century, thoroughly imbued with religious ideas, were charitable not from philanthropy, but from piety; to secure salvation. The “virtuous poor,” with knees worn callous by many prostrations, with mouths full of prayers, well trained and indoctrinated by the Church, always present on the skirts of the sanctuary, always ready to reap the benefit of a pious thought, were very convenient to whoever wished to acquit himself of the Christian duty of charity. Poverty was too widespread to be possibly diminished; at least one did what one was called upon to do, leaving the rest to God.  11
  The sick formed a more limited category of the distressed, and charity toward them was more efficacious. From the Merovingian epoch, St. Clotilde and St. Aboflède, the wife and sister of Clovis; St. Radegonde, the wife of Clotaire; St. Bathilde, the wife of Clovis II.,—are cited as founders of hospitals. The hospitals were usually annexed to a monastery, as was that of Bathilde to the royal abbey of Chelles. At the time of the Crusades, the valiant Knights of St. John prided themselves above all upon being Hospitallers. The diffusion of leprosy in the twelfth century brought about the creation of special hospitals—leper-houses. In the thirteenth century there were nearly two thousand of these in France. They were usually managed by Knights of St. Lazarus, another military order. Louis VII. established them at the end of the Faubourg St. Denis; their motherhouse was the domain of Boigny. He also created at Saussaie near Villejuif a convent of women to care for lepers. The kings made large benefactions to these houses: when they died, their personal linen and all their horses, mules, etc., belonged to the leper-house of La Saussaie. When Jean II. died in England, so that the house was deprived of his horses, his son paid it an indemnity. Later, Charles VI. bought back from this convent for twenty-five hundred francs the horses of his father Charles V. The knights showed themselves deserving of these favors by caring not only for the lepers, but for all kinds of invalids.  12
  St. Louis was a Grand-Hospitaller. It was he who enlarged and endowed the Maison-Dieu (Hotel-Dieu) of Paris, who founded the Hospital of the Quinze-Vingts for three hundred blind men, who instituted the hostelleries des postes in the principal towns of the kingdom. Devout nobles followed his example; and in the thirteenth century Elzéar de Sabran and his wife are cited as having given everything—life and fortune—to the service of the sick.  13
  The Church did not content itself with offering prayers for travelers. In the most difficult passes of the mountains, in the snows of the Alps, rose pious hostelries: those of St. Bernard, of St. Gothard, of the Simplon, of Mont Cenis, are of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  14
  The wars with the Saracens, the Mussulman piracy on the Mediterranean, peopled the markets and prisons of the Orient and Africa with Christian captives. Religious orders,—the Mathurins, founded in 1198, and the Fathers of Mercy, founded in 1223,—went with money to ransom Christian prisoners.  15
 
 
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