CHAPTER V: DECAY OF CHARLES THE GREAT'S EMPIRE (AD 814-887)
Lewis, the son of Charles the Great, was a prince who had very much
of good in him, so that he is commonly called the Pious. But he was
of weak character, and his reign was full of troubles, mostly caused
by the ambition of his own sons, who were helped by a strong party
among the clergy, and even by Pope Gregory the Fourth. At one time
he was obliged to undergo public penance, and some years later he
was deprived of his kingdom and empire, although these acts caused
such a shock to the feelings of men that he found friends who helped
him to recover his power. And after his death (AD 840) his children
and grandchildren continued to quarrel among themselves as long as
any of them lived.
Besides these quarrels among their princes, the Franks were troubled
at this time by enemies of many kinds.
First of all I may mention the Northmen, who poured down by sea on
the coasts of the more civilized nations. These were the same who
in our English history are called Danes, with whom the great Alfred
had a long struggle, and who afterwards, under Canute, got
possession of our country for a time. They had light vessels--
serpents, as they were called--which could sail up rivers; and so
they carried fire and sword up every river whose opening invited
them, making their way to places so far off the sea as Mentz, on the
Rhine; Treves, on the Moselle; Paris, on the Seine; and even
Auxerre, on the Yonne. They often sacked the wealthy trading cities
which lay open to their attacks; they sailed on to Spain, plundered
Lisbon, passed the Straits of Gibraltar, and laid waste the coasts
After a time they grew bolder, and would leave their vessels on the
rivers, while they struck across the country to plunder places which
were known to be wealthy. They made fortified camps, often on the
islands of the great rivers, and did all the mischief they could
within a large circle around them. These Northmen were bitter
enemies of Christianity, and many of them had lost their homes
because they or their fathers would not be converted at
Charlemagne's bidding; so that they had a special pleasure in
turning their fury against churches and monasteries. Wherever they
came, the monks ran off and tried to save themselves, leaving their
wealth as a prey to the strangers. People were afraid to till the
land, lest these enemies should destroy the fruits of their labours.
Famines became common; wolves were allowed to multiply and to prey
without check; and such were the distress and fear caused by the
invaders, that a prayer for the deliverance "from the fury of the
Northmen" was added to the service-books of the Frankish Church.
Another set of enemies were the Mahometan Saracens, who got
possession of the great islands of the Mediterranean and laid waste
its coasts. It is said that some of them sailed up the Tiber and
carried off the altar which covered the body of St. Peter. One party
of Saracens settled on the banks of a river about halfway between
Rome and Naples; others in the neighbourhood of Nice, and on that
part of the Alps which is now called the Great St. Bernard; and they
robbed pilgrims and merchants, whom they made to pay dearly for
being let off with their lives.
Europe also suffered much from the Hungarians, a very rude, heathen
people, who about the year 900 poured into it from Asia. We are told
that they hardly looked human, that they lived like beasts, that
they ate men's flesh and drank their blood. They rode on small
active horses, so that the heavy-armed cavalry of the Franks could
not overtake them; and if they ran away before their enemies, they
used to stop from time to time, and let fly their arrows backwards.
From the Elbe to the very south of Italy these barbarians filled
Europe with bloodshed and with terror.
The Northmen at length made themselves so much feared in France,
that King Charles III, who was called the Simple, gave up to them,
in 911, a part of his kingdom, which from them got the name of
Normandy. There they settled down to a very different sort of life
from their old habits of piracy and plunder, so that before long the
Normans were ahead of all the other inhabitants of France; and from
Normandy, as I need hardly say, it was that William the Conqueror
and his warriors came to gain possession of England.
The princes of Charles the Great's family, by their quarrels, broke
up his empire altogether; and nobody had anything like the power of
an emperor until Otho I, who became king of Germany in 936, and was
crowned emperor at Rome in 962.