1 pages essay


French History

Section 2: Early Early Middle Ages to  Henri IV (10th-early 16th centuries)


This section outlines the evolution of the French monarchy under the Capetians from  feudalism through the Crusades in the Middle East to the tumultuous wars and religious persecution in Europe--events that led to territorial expansion with important political and economic consequences such as  the colonization of North America and mercantile development. These changes fostered the growth of a more heterogeneous intellectual and entrepreneurial society within France by the dawn of the 17th century--a society capable of producing new sources of wealth and prestige for the king and those to whom he could entrust the administration of his kingdom.

Key terms and concepts: Feudalism, Capetians, Joan of Arc, commendatio, Valois and Bourbon dynasties, Hundred Years' War, French letters (literary culture), Protestant Reformation, Edict of Nantes

Table of Contents:

· 10th - 14th Centuries: Early Middle Ages  Hugh Capet and the Founding of the French Royal Dynasty

· 14th-15th Centuries: Late Middle Ages

· 15th-16th Centuries: Humanism and Religious Wars

· Bourbon Dynasty

· Sources

Objectives for this section :

After completing the following readings, see if you are able to do these things:


· Define feudalism and relate the feudal order to the gradual expansion of the French royal domain by the Capetians.

· Identify Joan of Arc and describe her importance in French history.

· Explain the process of social change set in motion by the invention of the printing press (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..


10th - 14th Centuries: Early Middle Ages

The Birth of Feudalism. The disruption of the Carolingian empire prefigured the dissolution of the Frankish monarchy.  What followed in its wake was the formation of large and virtually independent principalities bound together by social and judicial institutions that persisted as a foundation for the ongoing entity that is more or less identifiable as the spirit of what we know as "France."  In reality, however, at this juncture the duchies of upper and lower Lorraine between the Rhine and the Meuse Rivers, the county of Burgundy and the ancient Roman province of Provence belonged to the imperial German crown and would remain a part of the Holy Roman Empire (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. for centuries thereafter. Within the kingdom of France there were at least a dozen independent principalities like the duchies of Normandy, Brittany, and Gascony and the county of Toulouse. These were formed on the basis of ethnic or cultural ties. The king or other bold individuals such as the counts of Flanders, Vermandois, and Champagne had also created territorial military districts.

Feudal order grew out of the insecurity resulting from the invasions and anarchy within the kingdom. This practice of patronage was known as  commendatio, according to which weaker individuals placed themselves and their property under the protection of the strong in exchange for certain services. The individual in need of protection took an oath of allegiance to his lord, to whom he became a vassal. Commendatio began under the Merovingians.

Beginning with Charles Martel, the practice of conferring property or a benefice to the vassal was institutionalized. By swearing an oath of allegiance, the vassal was granted land in return for his service. In this way, kings and powerful nobles were able to draw warriors and knights to them. As the system evolved, more men offered their service as warriors to landowners in return for fiefs (estates of land) rather than because they were weak or in need of protection. Aristocrats began to swear allegiance to a superior or suzerain. These overlords exercised a high degree of authority in a society that was made up of large land holdings fortified by castle walls. They became the arbiters of justice and the center of the society that looked to them for protection.

Hugh Capet and the Founding of the French Royal Dynasty.


            Hugh Capet

After an intermittent power struggle between ruling families, Hugh Capet  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.(940-996) was elected King of France in 987, displacing Charles, duke of Lower Lorraine, the last legitimate pretender of the Carolingian line. As duke of France and count of Paris, the early Capetians (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. initially controlled the duchy of France, which included only Paris and Orleans. But the king held the sacramental oil and was able to keep the royal domain  intact.  Beginning with Hugh, the crown was passed successively from father to eldest son without interruption until kingship became hereditary in 1179.

The Capetians were shrewd politicians who were able to extend the royal domain through marriages and private arrangements with lesser nobles for protection and support. Their history is long and filled with intrigue: from the preaching of the First Crusade in 1095 through the story of Louis VII's divorce from Eleanor of Aquitaine (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. and her subsequent marriage to Henry II of England (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., the building of Gothic cathedrals and the founding of the first universities (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., the Pope's residence in Avignon (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., the extermination of the Cathars (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. known as the Albigensian Crusade (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., and the Black Death (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. caused by what is believed to have been an outbreak of  Bubonic Plague (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..

Louis VII,                                                            Henry II Plantagenet                                                                             Aliénor d'Aquitaine

It is the Capetian dynasty (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.  with its Valois and Bourbon  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.offshoots that was to rule France for more than 800 years.

For a list of the French kings and rulers from 800 to the 2000s, go to

http://europeanhistory.about.com/library/readyref/blFranceRulers.htm (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.


This video shows an outstanding example of Cistercian architecture, founded in 1245 by a monk who ardently believed that the renewal of the Church could only come through schools and education. You will also see how important these restoration projects are to the French.

14th-15th Centuries: Late Middle Ages 

When Charles IV died in 1328, the main Capetian line was left with no male heir. Philip IV of Valois, eldest cousin of the three late kings, was brought to the throne from the related house of Valois.  Difficulties arose when Philip IV's grandson, Edward III of England, laid claim to the French crown for himself after Philip tried to confiscate Edward's French fiefs in retaliation for  having granted asylum to the French crown's mortal enemy Robert of Artois. These events gave rise to over a century of conflicts with the English that lasted from 1337 to 1453. This period of ongoing struggle is known as the Hundred Years' War (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..

Philip IV of Valois a.k.a. Phlippe le Bel (the Fair) 


Edward III of England - claimed French crown



In the midst of this conflict emerged the legendary figure of Joan of Arc (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (1412-1431), also referred to as the Maid of Orleans.

Jeanne d'Arc

In 1429, she led the French to victory, ending the English siege of Orleans through guidance from divine voices that called her to task and guided her to the side of Charles VII (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., culminating in his coronation in Reims. Joan was eventually taken prisoner by the Burgundians at Compiègne and was turned over to their English allies in return for a large sum. In 1431, she was taken to Rouen where she was tried for sorcery. On May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake as a heretic. Joan of Arc is now referred to as the Patron Saint of France.

Several films have been made about her exploits and fate. Click on the link to see the trailer for Luc Besson's film The Messenger with Mila Jovovich, John Malkovich, and Dustin Hoffman. The Messenger (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. https://ilearn.laccd.edu/images/play_overlay.png


Although the Maid of Orleans was gone, her extraordinary deeds marked a turning point in French affairs--particularly with regard to Charles VII's role as a leader of his people. He acquired a remarkable group of military counselors, most notable of whom was Jacques Cœur (1395-1456), son of a modest merchant from Bourges. Jacques Cœur used royal connections at the court in Bourges to open up trade with the East, bypassing Italian middlemen and establishing a commercial fleet supported by trading posts and sales outlets in France and neighboring countries. He also opened up silk-weaving establishments in Italy and silver-producing lead mines in the provincial areas of Lyonnais and Beaujolais in eastern France as well as in other properties. Among the offices Charles conferred on him was that of inspector-general of the salt tax (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..

Charles VII       Jacques Cœur 

Not long after Joan of Arc's death, the Duke of Burgundy decided that the English cause was lost.  In 1435, he reconciled with King Charles VII, a move that returned to the duchy all the towns along the Somme River and dispensed him from paying homage, thus making him an independent ruler. This agreement caused Paris to revert to Charles VII (1436), which made it possible for a central administration to be established there. Although Charles remained in Touraine, his reorganized army soon retook Normandy (1450) and Guyenne (1453), reducing England's claims in France to a small area around Calais, which they retained until 1558.

After the Hundred Years' War official ended in 1453, France had become a strong monarchy with a sense of national identity. This territorial consolidation was increased before the dawn of the 16th century by the incorporation of the duchy of Burgundy (1477) and Brittany (1491).

15th-16th Centuries: Humanism and Religious Wars

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the French population was decimated by war and plague. Although signs of recovery were eminent in the rapid repopulation of the country and the beginnings of economic recovery, the gains of the last half of the fifteenth century were offset by new wars with Italy (1494-1559), where French efforts to gain dominance led to a concentration of power in the hands of the Hapsburgs, the Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.


The rebirth of French letters (literary culture) began under King François I (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (1494-1547).

  François 1er

Fresh from his transalpine military campaigns, François I brought back artists and thinkers from Italy who had been influenced by the Italian Renaissance. François I is well known for the beautification of the traditional Capetian hunting fortress called Fontainebleau, which became known as the king’s house.

 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.              Fontainebleau

Nobles of refined taste took an interest in art and decoration, which they used to embellish the spectacular residences they commissioned to architects to design and build throughout the Loire Valley (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. But while war with Italy subsided, the French had to contend with an internal crisis that was to have far-reaching consequences: the spread of a new faith based on personal access to the sacred Christian texts.

The Protestant Reformation

Despite the conclusion of a Concordat between France and the Papacy in 1516 granting the crown unrivaled power in senior ecclesiastical appointments, France was deeply affected by the Protestant Reformation's attempt to break the unity of Roman Catholic Europe. As the urban population grew, the message of Martin Luther began to percolate among social classes who for the first time had access to the written word. In France, the return to Scripture and a more personal reading of the Bible had been preached by Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., who translated the New Testament into French in 1523.

Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples

Even though the spread of fundamentalist notions did not deter middle class professionals from practicing their Catholic faith, the form of Protestantism presented by Frenchman Jean Calvin was much more enticing and spread widely thanks to the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century.

Jean Calvin

His most important work,  The Institutes of Christian Religion (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. was published in Basel, Switzerland, in 1536.

 The original version was written in Latin; in 1540 the first French version appeared under the title L'Institution (de la religion) chrétienne It was a huge success.


Even before the Latin version was published in Basel, Calvin had taken refuge in Strasbourg and Basel to escape the first persecutions of Protestants by Francis I around 1532. After the publication of his book, which provided French Protestants with a logical framework for their faith, Calvin settled in Geneva where he established a seminary to train pastors and organize churches on the Geneva model. Because of their ties with Geneva, French Protestants became known as Huguenots (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Later on, when the Wars of Religion were in full swing, Calvinists formed a kind of state within a state based on democratic principles which they called the Calvinist Union.Protestantism spread among the nobility. Two princes of royal blood, Anthony of Bourbon, king of Navarre and his brother Louis, the prince of Condé, and three well-placed nephews of the powerful constable Montmorency--Cardinal Odet de Catillon, Henri d'Andelot, colonel general of the infantry; and Admiral Gaspard de Coligny--adopted the new creed.


Louis, Prince de CondéAnthony of Bourbon As the movement spread, pressure to increase persecution continued to mount. While Francis I might have preferred to remain tolerant out of respect to his alliances with German princes, the Sorbonne and the Paris Parlement, which supported the lower classes in their hatred of heresy, were not easily appeased.  When Francis I died, his son King Henri II declared an all-out war against the Protestants, whose organizations now posed a threat to royal authority. Led  by the powerful dukes of Guise, the Catholics strengthened their resolve to a point that culminated in a massacre of Huguenots (1562), starting the first of the French Wars of Religion during (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. which English, (or more likely Scottish), German and Spanish forces intervened on the side of rival Protestant and Catholic forces.


Bourbon Dynasty (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. 

Heny IV of Navarre, First Bourbon King of France


When the conflict ended, both Henri of Guise (1588) and king Henri III (1589), had been murdered and the Valois branch of the Capetians had come to an end. The heir to the throne was King Henri of Navarre, who was a Capetian of the Bourbon line and a Protestant. He ascended to the throne and in an act of conciliation agreed to become Catholic (1593). As King Henri IV (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site., he was recognized by most of the Catholic establishment (1594) as well as by the Pope (1595). In 1598, he issued the toleration decree known as the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed freedom of private worship and civil equality to all subjects of the kingdom. 




Sauvigny, Bertier de and David H. Pinkney. History of France. Forum Press, 1983  Mermier, Guy R.  France: Past and Present.  Peter Lang, 2000.