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The middle of the fourteenth century was one of the most calamitous periods in the French annals. There was hardly any affliction or disgrace which did not fall upon the kingdom during those disastrous times. Edward the Third, of England, had carried his arms into the heart of France. King John was made a prisoner, and the army of the French over. thrown at the battle of Poictiers. The capital was in a state of sedition. A traitorous prince of the blood was in arms against the sovereign authority. Famine, the certain and terrible companion of war, for several years desolated the country. In 1348, the great plague, the most extensive and unsparing recorded in history, visited France as well as the rest of Europe, and consummated the work of hunger and the sword. To these calamities we must add the Jacquerie, or insurrection of the French peasantry, which seemed to fill the cup of woes to the brim, and was marked by all the circumstances of horror incident to the sudden rising of an exasperated and ignorant populace.
The companies of adventurers, or mercenary troops, in the French and English service, finding no immediate occupation during the truce between the two countries, scattered themselves over France in search of pillage. No force existed sufficiently powerful to check these robbers in their career. Unswayed by superstition, they compelled the Pope to ransom him. self, in Avignon, by the payment of forty thousand
France continued to be the passive victim of their violence, even after the pacification was concluded with England, till some were diverted into Italy, and others led by Du Guesclin to the wars of Castile. Impatient of these sufferings, the peasants, formerly oppressed by their lords, and now left unprotected by them, grew desperate, and, rising everywhere in arms, carried the disorders to the last extremity. The wild state of nature seemed to be renewed in the bosom of society; every man was thrown loose and independent of his fellow-citizens, and the whole populace of France was in a state of furious insurrection. This is commemorated in history by the name of the Jacquerie, from the title of Bon Homme Jacques, or Good Man Jacques, commonly applied to the peasantry.
This insurrection first broke out in 1358, at Beauvoisis in Brie upon the Marne. At first, it was nothing more than a disorderly troop of about a hundred persons, without any leader, who, after discussing their grievances, began to declaim against the nobles of the kingdom, the knights and squires, by whom they felt oppressed. Murmurs of revenge were heard, and at length a voice arose, declaring that it would be a meritorious act to destroy them all. To this declaration a general assent was given ; and all the persons present, encouraging each other to violent measures, immediately ran to such arms as they could seize, which were, in general, nothing more than knives, and sticks shod with iron; marched tumultuously to the house of a knight in the neighbourhood, broke it open, murdered him and all his family, and burnt the house. They next attacked the castle of another knight, cap
tured and destroyed it, murdering all the inmates under circumstances of the greatest atrocity. In a short time, their numbers increased to six thousand persons, who spread themselves in every quarter, burning, plundering, and murdering all before them. The better sort of people abandoned their dwellings and fled for their lives. Consternation prevailed throughout the country. The multitudes of the insurgents increased everywhere in their onward movements, and before long they amounted to a hundred thousand.
- This infuriated rabble," as Froissart says, “plundered and burnt all the houses in their march, mur. dered every gentleman, and violated every lady and damsel they could find. He who committed the most atrocious actions, and such as no human creature would have imagined, was the most applauded, and considered as the greatest man among them. I dare not write the horrible and inconceivable atrocities they committed. When asked, for what reason they acted so wickedly, they replied, they knew not, but did so be. cause they saw others do the same ; and they thought that by this means they should destroy all the nobles and gentlemen in the world."
A body of nine thousand of these savage boors broke into the city of Meaux, where the wife of the Dauphin, the Duchess of Orleans, and above three hundred other ladies had taken shelter. The most horrible enormities were about to be committed, and the unfortunate fugitives gave themselves up for lost. They had no defence against this ferocious mob, except sixty knights led by the Count de Foix and the Captal de Buch. But these gallant knights, animated by the true spirit of chivalry, advanced boldly to the gates of the market-place, where the ladies were lodged, and fell upon the tumultuous rabble, who, struck with a panic at this intrepid attack from a handful of men, gave way and fled in a most disorderly rout. The knights pursued them and drove them from the town with much slaughter. Great numbers were forced into the river, where they were drowned, and their whole loss on that day was not less than seven thousand. On the return of the knights to Meaux, they set fire to the town, where they burnt to death all the peasants of the neighbourhood they could find, be. cause the townspeople and the peasantry had assisted the rioters in their outrages.
After their repulse at Meaux, these banditti began to encounter resistance from other quarters. The gentlemen of Beauvoisis, Corbie, and Vermandois, finding themselves unable, without assistance, to check these increasing violences, had sent for help to their friends in Flanders, Hainault, and Bohemia. Aided by auxiliaries from these countries, they took the field against the common enemy, who, ill-armed, and with. out discipline or order, could not stand their attacks. These wretches were cut to pieces and dispersed, wherever they were found. All who were taken were hung upon the trees along the roads. The king of Navarre put to death in one day, near Clermont, upwards of three thousand. An individual, who was called their captain, was taken prisoner and sent to the Dauphin, who, understanding that he had assumed the title of King, caused him to be crowned with an iron trevet heated red hot, and then hanged for his barbarous cruelties.
The deplorable condition of France at this time, and for a considerable period afterward, is strikingly exhibited in a letter of Petrarch, who made a journey to Paris in 1360. “ When I beheld the kingdom lying under the desolation of fire and sword, I could hardly persuade myself that it was the same country which I had formerly seen so rich and flourishing. I could recognize nothing. All that met my view was a frightful solitude, the extreme of misery, general desolation, lands run to waste, fields devastated, houses in ruins. Not a building was to be seen, except those defended by fortifications, or enclosed within the walls of cities. Paris was surrounded by heaps of ruin and marks of conflagration. That despoiled and melancholy city appeared still to dread a repetition of the horrors to which it had lately been a prey; and the Seine, in bathing its walls, seemed to weep for its miseries and fear new calamities."