Guibert de Nogent: The Revolt in Laon 1115
Analysis Question: Medieval society was built upon the foundation of those who work, fight and pray. According to Nogent’s description of this revolt, which specific element of these new towns was in the most critical conflict with that Medieval order?
Evaluative Question: One aspect of Medieval society we have looked at is the lending of religion and police at a very deep level in the day to day life of almost everyone in that period. What part of Nogent’s story best illustrates the everyday political authority of the Church in the lives of the people of Laon?
As we’ve discussed, one element of the recovery of Western Civilization during the High Middle Ages was the re-appearance of towns and cities, critical to the creation of trade networks and international contacts. The communal movement, the creation of separate legal rights for these new towns, was vital in the economic revitalization of western Europe. It was not always appreciated by those who were the losers – basically the bishops and landlords of the towns. Here Guibert de Nogent describes the events in Loan (a major city in northern France) in 1115.
Now after some time when be [Bishop of Laon] had set out for England to extract money from the English king, whom he had served, and who had formerly been his friend, the Archdeacons Walter and Guy, with the nobles of the city, devised the following plan: Of old time such ill-fate had settled upon that city that neither God nor any lord was feared therein, but according to each man’s power and lust the state involved in rapine and murder. For to begin with the source of the plague, whenever it happened that the king came there, he who ought to have exacted respect for himself with royal severity, was himself first shamefully fined on his own property. When his horses were led to the water morning or evening, his grooms were beaten and the horses carried off. It was known that the very clergy were held in such contempt, that neither their persons nor their goods were spared, as it is written, “Like as the people, so the priest.” But what shall I say about the baser people? No one of the countrymen came into the city, no one except under the safest conduct approached it, who was not thrown into prison and held to ransom, or was not, as opportunity served, drawn without cause into a lawsuit. As an example let me adduce one practice, which occurring amongst barbarians or Scythians, men having no code of laws, would be regarded as most iniquitous. When on the Saturday the country populace from different parts came there to buy and sell, the town folk carried round as for sale, beans, barley or any kind of corn in cup and platter or other kind of measure in the marketplace, and when they bad offered them for sale to the countrymen seeking such things, the latter having settled the price promised to buy. “Follow me,” said the seller, “to my house that you may there see the rest of the corn which I am selling you, and when you have seen it, may take it away.” He followed, but when he came to the bin, the honest seller having raised and held up the lid, would say, “Bend your head and shoulders over the bin, that you may see that the bulk does not differ from the sample which I shewed you in the market-place.” And when the buyer getting up on the pediment of the bin leaned his belly over it, the worthy seller standing behind lifted up his feet and pushed the unwary man into the bin, and having put the hd down on him as he fell, kept him in safe prison until he ransomed himself. Such and like things were done in the city. No one was safe going out at night. There remained for him nothing but plunder, capture or murder.
The clergy with the archdeacons considering this, and the nobles catching at pretexts for exacting money from the people, offer them through agents the choice of making composition by paying a sum to cover them. Now Commune is a new and a bad name of an arrangement for all the poorest classes to pay their usual due of servitude to their lords once only in the year, and to make good any breach of the laws they have committed by the payment fixed by law, and to be entirely free from all other exactions usually imposed on serfs. The people seizing on this opportunity for freeing themselves gathered huge sums of money to fill the gaping mouths of so many greedy men. And they, pleased with the shower poured upon them, took oaths binding themselves in the matter.
Pledge of mutual aid had been thus exchanged by the clergy and nobles with the people, when the Bishop returned with much wealth from England and being moved to anger against those responsible for this innovation, for a long time kept away from the city. . . .
Saying therefore that be was moved with relentless wrath against those who had taken that oath and the principals in the transaction, in the end his loud-sounding words were suddenly quieted by the offer of a great heap of silver and gold. Therefore he swore that he would maintain the rights of the Commune according to the terms duly drawn up at Noyon and Saint-Quintin. The King too was induced by a bribe from the people to confirm the same by oath. O my God, who could say how many disputes arose when the gifts of the people were accepted, how many after oath had been sworn to reverse what they had agreed to, whilst they sought to bring back the serfs who bad been freed from the oppression of their yoke, to their former state. At least there was implacable hate by the Bishop and nobles against the citizens. . . . Whenever one of the people entered a court of law, where he was dependent not on the justice of God, but on his ability to please his judges, if I may say so, he was drained of his substance to the last penny. . .
Having therefore summoned the nobles and certain of the clergy on the last day of Lent in the holy days of the Passion of our Lord . . . [the Bishop] determined to urge the annulment of the Commune, to which he had sworn , and had by bribes induced the King to swear, and the day before the Passover, that is to say, on the day of the Lord’s Supper, be summoned the King to this pious duty and instructed the King and all his people to break their oaths. . . .
The compact of the Commune being broken, such rage, such amazement seized the citizens that all the officials abandoned their duties and the stalls of the craftsmen and cobblers were closed and nothing was exposed for sale by the innkeepers and hucksters, who expected to have nothing left when the lords began plundering. For at once the property of all was calculated by the Bishop and nobles, and whatever any man was known to have given to arrange the Commune, so much was demanded of him to procure its annulment. . . . All the efforts of the prelate and the nobles in these days were reserved for fleecing their inferiors. But those inferiors were no longer moved by mere anger, but goaded into a murderous Just for the death of the Bishop and his accomplices and bound themselves by oath to effect their purpose. Now they say that four hundred took the oath. . . .
The next day, that is, the fifth in Easter week, after midday, as . . . [the Bishop] was engaged in business with Archdeacon Walter about the getting of money, behold there arose a disorderly noise throughout the city, men shouting ‘Commune’ and again through the middle of the chapel of the Blessed Mary through that door by which the murderers of Gerard had come and gone, there citizens now entered the Bishop’s court with swords, battle-axes, bows and hatchets, and carrying clubs and spears, a very great company. As soon as this sudden attack was discovered, the nobles rallied from all sides to the Bishop, having sworn to give him aid against such an onset, if it should occur. In this rally Guinimon, the chatelain, an aged nobleman of handsome presence and guiltless character, armed only with shield and spear, ran out through the church and as he entered the Bishop’s ball, was the first to fall, struck on the back of the head with a battle-axe by a certain Rainbert, who was his fellow-citizen….
Next the outrageous mob attacking the Bishop and howling before the walls of his palace, he with some who were succouring him fought them off by hurling of stones and shooting of arrows. For he now, as at au times, shewed great spirit as a fighter; but because he bad wrongly and in vain taken up another sword, by the sword he perished. Therefore being unable to stand against the reckless assaults of the people, he put on the clothes of one of his servants and flying to the vaults of the church hid himself in a cask, shut up in which with the head fastened on by a faithful follower he thought himself safely hidden. And as they ran hither and thither demanding where, not the Bishop, but the hangdog, was, they seized one of his pages, but through his faithfulness could not get what they wanted. Laying hands on another, they learn from the traitor’s nod where to look for him. Entering the vaults, therefore, and searching everywhere, at last they found him. . . .
. . . And as he piteously implored them, ready to take oath that he would henceforth cease to be their Bishop, that he would give them unlimited riches, that he would leave the country, and as they with hardened hearts jeered at him, one named Bernard lifting his battle-axe brutally dashed out the brains of that sacred, though sinner’s, head, and he slipping between the bands of those who held him, was dead before he reached the ground stricken by another thwart blow under the eye-sockets and across the middle of the nose. . . .
From The Autobiography of Guibert, Abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy, translated by C.C. Swinton Bland (London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1925),152-155, 157-159, 161-164. Slightly abridged and reprinted in Leon Barnard and Theodore B. Hodges, Readings in European History, (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 111-114