Those ambitious and too powerful vassals were not the greatest evils menacing the Carlovingian kings. It was the incessant invasions of a race of barbarians coming out of the north, which was going to bury the past under a ruin of a different sort. There seemed no defence from these Northmen, as they were called, who swarmed like destroying insects upon the coast, up the rivers, and over the lands; three times sacked Paris, the scars to-day being visible in that impressive Roman ruin, the Palais des Thermes, the home of the Caesars, and of the Merovingian kings, which they partially burned.
Fortified castles with towers and moats and drawbridges sprang up all over the kingdom for the protection of the rich. After seven invasions all the old cities, Rouen, Nantes, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Orleans, Beauvais, had been devastated, and France in coat of mail was hiding behind stone walls.
In looking through the vista of centuries it is easy to read the eternal purpose in the chain of cause and effect; and also to see that events, no less than kings, have their pedigrees. The terrible child of the Northman was the Feudal System; which was again the father of those romantic and picturesque children, the Crusades; and these, the creators of a European civilization, whose children we are!
Who can imagine the course of history with any one of these removed—each an apparently inevitable step in the unfolding of a mighty design, utterly incomprehensible at the time?
Someone has said that “the Lord must like common people, because he made so many of them.” The path for the common people in France at this time led through heavy shadows. But a darker time was approaching. A system of oppression was maturing which was soon to envelop them in the obscurity of darkest night.
Those Scandinavian freebooters called Northmen, and later Normans, were the scourge of the kingdom. Nothing was safe from their insolent courage and rapacity.
The rich could intrench themselves in stone fortresses, with moats and drawbridges, and be in comparative security, but the poor were utterly defenceless against this perennial destroyer. The result was a compact between the powerful and the weak, which was the beginning of the feudal system. It was in effect an exchange of protection for service and fealty.
You give us absolute control of your persons—your military service when required, and a portion of your substance and the fruit of your toil—and we will in exchange give you our fortified castles as a refuge from the Northmen. Such was the offer. It was a choice between vassalage, serfdom, or destruction outright.
Simple enough in its beginnings, this became a ramified system of oppression, a curious network of authority, ingeniously controlling an entire people. The conditions upon which was engrafted this compact were of great antiquity, had indeed been brought across the Rhine by the German conquerors; but the Northmen were the impelling cause of the swift development of feudalism in France.