From Miniatures of French History, by Hilaire Belloc, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1926; pp. 1-54.
Miniatures of French History
THE FOUNDING OF MARSEILLES
IT was the women who made Marseilles, and through women did there first come to this land writing and the living record of heroes, and wine, and building with stone, and a knowledge of the gods.
For the Phoceans, a Greek people from under the sunrise, had sent forth (many hundred years — more than five hundred years before the Romans came to make Gaul) a shipload to wander and to find new land. But that ship’s company a matron of Ephesus had gathered together. She was their priestess, and her goddess was at the prow. And that women thus led had come about in this fashion: —
The Phocean men having consulted an oracle, the oracle had told them that they should send to Ephesus, where great Artemis, the sister of the Sun, had her temple and her shrine. So the 2 Phoceans sent an embassy to the shrine of the goddess, and while they were there great Artemis appeared in a dream to Aristarché, a matron of that city, and said to her (standing by the bed with her hands uplifted), “Take one of these statues which are sacred to me, and join you these Phocean men under their captain, Simos, and his son Protis, merchants, and sail with them to the new land.”
The long Phocean ship, narrow and lithe in line like a greyhound, low in wall, shot forward under fifty rowers. She so roamed from headland to headland westward all the summer through, and her lookout peered for harbours that no man had yet taken, and for an open emplacement where the new city might stand. All the while the figure of great Artemis, the sister of the Sun, whom Aristarché served with sacrifice, stood upon their prow, and all their good fortune in the beginning of this thing was from women altogether. So they went on from headland to headland, still finding every place of vantage taken; and still shooting westward by the day, anchored through the summer nights under the shelter of some jutting land.
Though they had so sailed for many days through the Mediterranean weather, they had 3 not yet found a place for a city. Round the long bay which the Ligurians see from their high hills above the shore, round the bended knee of the north Italian waters, they found cities and islands and promontories encircling little gulfs, but none that would welcome them, and none standing empty for those who would seek new land.
Until at last, when they had passed and marked far inland to the north the high snows of the Alps, and when they had so divided the waters westward for many days more, they came to a shelter cunningly hidden by a god, but discoverable to sailors who had long known the sea. It was a place where many might pass and never guess an entry, but where one with keen eyes would discover, masked under a turn of rock, the gates of a harbour; and thither the helmsman steered them round with his broad oar astern, right round in a sweep (for the haven is cut backward, looking as it were not to the sea, but back again on to the land). And when they had passed the narrow gates they found themselves in a clear, deep pool, with firm rock all about and riding for a hundred ships.
There did they let go the anchor, and came to rest after so long a wandering.
About the shores of this perfect harbour they saw no men, or houses of men, nor tillage of 4 fields, nor temples of the gods, but very barren hills high inshore; and the place seemed theirs altogether.
When, therefore, they had landed, still under the guidance of the priestess Aristarché, and sent messengers up into the bare hill country and the low, spare brush of that land, those messengers came back to tell them that all this part was the country of a Ligurian king, and this king was friendly to strangers, and his name was Nam; nor had this people any knowledge of the sea, nor did they use boats and sails and oars, nor were they jealous of their port.
But first, before he would talk of anything with ambassadors, King Nam must give a feast; for he had a daughter to wed, and by the custom of her people she must choose her mate at this feast and declare him at the board. To this feast the Phoceans were bidden, and their embassy sat, with King Nam at his side, having for their chief men Simos the merchant, their captain, and the young man Protis his son; there also round the board sat the chiefs of the hill men, each from his tribe, for each was a suitor and hoped that King Nam’s daughter would choose him. The name of that princess was Gyptis, nor did she come to 5 the feast where the men were, for she was a virgin.
But when the feast was done and the time for her entry had come, the king sent for the princess and ordered that all should be done according to custom. And she came into the room like one dreaming, and she held in her right hand a chalice full of pure water, which she was to give to whomever she would, or to whomever the gods directed her. And that man to whom she gave it should be her husband.
Gyptis then, going round the board while all watched her, put forward the chalice in her hand and held it out to the young man Protis, the stranger from overseas; and he took it and drank, and the king applauded, saying, “This thing was done by the gods.” For it was a god that had guided the virgin, and great Artemis presided here, though the Ligurians did not know her, for they were barbarians.
Once again, therefore, had the goddess worked by a woman, and the chieftains from the hills did not complain, for they knew her presence.
Protis, rising up and taking the cup, drank from it and confirmed the espousals, and the Ligurian men swore firm friendship with the newcomers, and granted them the shore; and, since 6 a harbour was their desire, King Nam made over this empty harbour to them, where the Phoceans, with great rejoicings and thanks to the goddess, built all that a city should have — a council-house, and a market-place, and walls, and gates, and a place for games, and a stronghold also upon a height behind the harbour, and the temples for the gods. But their chief temple they raised to Artemis, and put in it that statue of her which they had brought from very far away, from the Phocean land and from home.
When all this was done, and the city founded and the harbour ordered, and ships sailing out and in, Gyptis and Protis, man and wife, were saluted king and queen of the city; but she queen more than he king, because it was the women that had made Marseilles, and they owed themselves all to the goddess.
Now when Gyptis and Protis had thus taken their thrones to rule over Marseilles from youth to age, they took new names as befitted their new station and the new fortunes of the Phocean land, and in these names they bore record of the great good that had happened. For Protis, the lucky bridegroom, called himself Euxenos, which is in Greek the “well fortuned guest”; but Gyptis, who had brought him so great a dowry, putting 7 off the Ligurian name that her mother had given, put on a Greek name also, and called herself “Aristoxena,” which is in Greek “the best of hostesses.” And she worshipped with him her husband, and with all the Phoceans, at the shrine of Artemis, which Aristarché served, the priestess of the city. And so they ruled until they died.
This is the way in which Marseilles was founded, and thus it was that the women founded Marseilles.
THE FALL OF THE VENETI
JULIUS CÆSAR had thought to have subdued all the country of Gaul and all the tribes inhabiting it, and he had left in garrison, upon this point and that, certain of his lieutenants with their legionaries, while he himself went off to another and distant part of his command — the mountains of Illyria, which overlook the Adriatic Sea; and this was in the winter, fifty-six years before our Lord was born.
But during that winter, when the gathering of food for the armies had made the Roman officers in Gaul send out messengers and embassies for the gathering of grain, the seafaring men of Brittany, always in a way apart from other men, and hard, and keeping their own counsel, and difficult to subdue, had secretly prepared revolt and had sent all up the Channel past by what is Normandy to-day, and by what is the Boulonnais to-day, and Ponthieu and the Artois, summoning to their aid any of the sailors that would dare to come, men knowing the rough seas, well provisioned with many ships. They sent also over 9 the sea to Britain for aid, and from all these parts upon either side of the Narrow Seas, they found alliances, for they were preparing a great thing. Cæsar, far off in the south, heard nothing of all this, and the great officers, his lieutenants in Gaul, were also ignorant of what was toward, so silently and rapidly did the Bretons work.
Until, as the year turned, young Crassus, who was in command over the Seventh Legion and had cantoned it for the winter in the country about the lower Loire, and who, like the others, had sent out his messengers to get wheat from the tribes around, heard that his embassy to the Veneti (by that name were these Bretons then called), Velanius and Silius, had been detained, and that the tribes farther on to the north in Normandy held also other deputies whom he had sent thither to levy food. Even as he heard this, young Crassus learnt from those whom the Veneti had sent to him with the news of their proud act, that if he would have his legates back he must himself give up the Breton hostages whom he had in his camp. Now these Bretons, the Veneti of Vannes, in thus detaining the Roman officers and in sending to their general such a message, knew that they had thrown down a challenge of life and death against all the power of Rome.10
Out from that coast to the north and to the south of the Loire’s mouth stretches for ever all away to the west the great ocean, here stormy beyond most seas and filling and emptying the rocky bays with swift irregular tides, and beating upon islands and many heaped boulders of stone that are islands at high water, and at low water joined to the mainland by spits of sand.
This sea the Veneti held, and they were the masters of it altogether, for though their own land did not reach to the Loire itself, yet their great ships were dreaded and obeyed for many a day’s sail, and the rare shelters behind the juts of rock or within the islands they claimed to be theirs, even when the land about was tilled by another tribe. These great ships of theirs, which were their pride, stood up like castles out of the sea, very high at poop and prow, and of marvellous thick timber, with huge foot-square baulks and the nails clamping them thick as a man’s thumb, so stout was all their building and so great and heavy their ships of war. Iron also — and this seemed strange to the Romans and a sort of terrifying thing — were their anchor cables, and the vast square sails, whereby such weights of wood and men and iron were moved, were 11 not of canvas but of hide, another thing monstrous in Roman eyes
Against this power of theirs by sea the Veneti were very sure that the little men from the south could do nothing, cunning though they were in arts, and always favoured by fortune in their wars, and full of wealth, and coming — the leaders of them — from palaces for homes. For the Veneti were sailors, and sailors ever believe that the sea is wholly theirs, and is a certain defence against all evil and a certain avenue to all good fortune. But the Romans were soldiers, ignorant of the sea and fearing it, nor had they any fleet on those shores, nor could they seemingly make one which could at all dispute the mastery of the Atlantic with the great leathern-sailed vessels and their high freeboards that could withstand all the anger of the sea. And more than this, the Veneti knew what a labyrinth was all that coast under the water of it, and how many shoals and rocks there lay hidden by the tide, and where these lurked; and they knew what fate would befall vessels that struck, and they knew the shoals whereon their own great boats, flat in the bilge, could lie unharmed when the tide left them, but which would wreck hulls too deep and narrow, and ignorant of the peculiar custom of those waters.
To Cæsar, far off in the Illyrian mountains, this news had been sent by young Crassus posthaste, and he heard it as he was setting out to watch in Italy his rivals and his friends; for Cæsar, while he conquered Gaul, was thinking much more of how later he might rule Rome. He saw what peril lay to him and all his fortunes in this sudden pride of the Veneti, and in all this rising of the sailors who knew the Northern Sea from the Straits to the two Cornwalls. First he ordered, and that immediately, the subject tribes round about the Loire’s mouth, and especially those who held the valley of the Charente and the harbours thereabout, and the men who lived upon the banks of the Loire itself, to build a fleet speedily and to send up such vessels as they had, that Crassus might have some weapon at least to his hand, and he sent up from the Roman shores — from the Mediterranean, that is — and from the Roman province which to-day we call Provence, rowers and men skilled in piloting, and a levy of the seafarers of the inland sea. But with all this he knew that he was attempting a doubtful thing, for his ships had no great strength, nor their sailors the skill of the Veneti, and their hulls were small and weak; and as for the Mediterranean rowers, they knew nothing of the Atlantic 13 sweep, with its great rollers of Biscay under the south-west wind, nor of the heaving of the tides.
Next Cæsar, when he had laid his plans for Italy at Lucca, upon the road to Rome, came northward quickly into Gaul, and was himself upon these coasts of the Veneti at the moment when spring breaks over the wind-harried land and the wide heaths of the Bretons. And with his armies he laboriously worked up the coast, beleaguering first one stronghold of theirs and then another, but all the summer through (during which heavy storms broke continually, for that season was a wild one) he failed, and the Veneti kept him at bay. They could hold the sea in spite of the weather; their stores and camps were on the islands and peninsulas to be approached only by the painful thrusting out of causeways from the shore, and when at last any one of these should be taken the sailor folk had only to put their people and their goods aboard and to sail to some other not yet conquered refuge.
Until he had the better of their fleet — if, indeed, he could ever hope to master it — Cæsar must despair of conquest, and with this successful stand of all the northern shores he would lose Gaul.
At last, towards the end of that summer, there 14 came a day in which his fortunes and those, therefore, of France and all the world were decided. For a gentler air was upon the sea coming up from the southward, and the Roman fleet, which wild westerly weather had kept imprisoned in the Loire for all these weeks, could clear at last.
It was upon a day when the sea was thus friendly, but the wind strong enough and steady to fill their sails, that the boats came out from the Loire mouth, making for the open sea.
There is in that country a great slope of open land standing above the sea and crowned by the old town of Guerande. And there, upon the low heights that leaned back from the sea and that overlooked islands and half islands upon the shore below and the harbour behind Croisic (where now the salt marshes are), lay stretched the Roman army, awaiting, helpless and as onlookers, the coming fight.
For as the light ships of the Roman fleet came sailing and rowing round the corner of the land, and appeared in procession upon the great open of the sea, from the harbour at the feet of the army the whole Venetian fleet, two hundred and twenty monsters, with their dark leathern sails and their enormous hulls shadowing the sea, stood out, with the wind upon the port beam, 15 under the same weather, and marshalled in the open for the fight. It was not quite noon.
Commanding those light, swift, but puny vessels upon whom his fate and that of all Gaul depended, Cæsar had placed Brutus, young, in his twenty-ninth year — Brutus, his darling, who was later to kill him in the Senate House at Rome. And this Brutus had designed, as his one hope against his enemy so greatly stronger at sea, something whereby he might board. For the Roman was a soldier, and sure of victory with the sword. This something was an armament in his light ships of long poles, to the ends of which were lashed curved blades — as our bill-hooks. Against those high freeboards and against those tall poops the turrets which the Romans might run up upon their own decks availed nothing, and it was under the peril of a plunging fire from above and at the cost of a slaughter of which we are not told, that the southern rowers, bending violently to their work, shot up alongside of their great enemies, now two, now three engaging upon either side some one Venetian hull. The hooks ran out and up, the blades caught the halyards, and the oarsmen, suddenly backing water, cut through those ropes cleated to the enemy’s bulwarks; and here and there, all up and down the line, the Roman 16 legionaries, watching from the heights upon the shore, saw the great leathern sails come crowding down, and the crew beneath them helpless. And everywhere the little southern men swarmed up the sides of the great Breton ships and boarded; and everywhere the sword conquered, though the long fight lasted through the afternoon under a wind that slowly died away.
Thus did Cæsar and his men see victory accomplished on the sea below them, before the sun had set over the calm to the west.
When all was lost, some remnant of the Venetian fleet not yet captured brought up their helms a-weather and stood to run before what was left of the southerly breath that evening into their harbours of the north. But the slight wind betrayed them, for before darkness it had utterly died away.
Thus was the issue of the Western world decided, and soon after all the land of the Veneti was in Roman hands, their great men put to the sword, and such of their people as had not fled sold into slavery, for a terror to all the other dwellers along the coasts of the sea.
THE DEATH OF MARTIN
WHERE the river Loire runs shallow or suddenly rising over its broad bed, broken by willowed banks of sand that stand above the summer stream and are, in spates, drowned up to their topmost branches; where it goes between sharp, low green hills on either side, wherein caves are a habitation for men; all down its valley, by Tours there was a murmuring and a noise. It was November, and there were storms in the valley. The suddenly risen water drummed against the wooden piles of the long bridge of Tours, and was swirling brown and thick up to the lower branches of the trees in the islands. Nor could a boat go easily against it, though towed by strong horses.
Men were passing backward and forward to the north and to the south over that long bridge of trestles from Tours, the town, with its low roofs of spread red tiles, to the caves upon the farther shore, where was a hive of monks: all out of their cells to-day and eagerly hearing the news in the market-place. The very old man, Martin, 18 the bishop of the city, was dying at Candes, miles away up the river. He had not been able to come back to his own.
He was more than a king here, for he was also an ambassador of heaven, and when he had gone along the streets muttering to himself and blessing rapidly those who knelt before him, men felt that they had met not a man only but a spirit. The Emperor’s Count who took the Pleas was small before him. The city held to Martin, and it was his own.
Its walls were filled not only with his long presence, but with the stories, grown greater through days of marching, of his strange missions into the eastern woods: into the Morvan, and the dark Vosges; and of dead men risen, and of lights seen in the sky. Also the army remembered him. He knew the quarters outside the walls where the huts of the barbaric soldiers were, and whence passed into and out of the gates of the city the gentlemen, their officers, marked upon their armour with silver and with gold. The soldiers had both songs and tales of Martin as he had been sixty years before, riding at the head of a column in his purple cloak; and those who had visited the German mountains and 19 the valleys below the Danube could remember the portents of his birth.
Up there at Candes he lay dying, with some priests about him and the monks of a new house. He lay stretched upon a bed of reeds, still muttering to himself in a sort of sleep, the very old man. They watched for his passing as they stood around, and it seemed to them as though heaven was bending and touching earth to make a way for the ascent of his spirit. All the Church of Gaul was centred here in his lean and broken body, and three full generations which had seen Gaul changed from the pagan to the Christian thing. He still muttered faintly to himself upon his bed of reeds.
Within his closed mind, which no longer received the voices of this world, there passed great dreams or memories, and the perpetual wandering over the earth in the pursuit of his Lord filled Martin now, as he lay dying, with scene after vivid scene in which he stood outside himself and saw himself, and remembered all his time.
He felt, as his mind so wandered, a strong horse beneath him, and he was upon that western road which came up to the western gate of Amiens, straight from the Beauvaisis. He was a young 20 soldier; he was not much more than a boy. Against the metal scales of his jerkin the sword hilt tinkled as he rode; the air was keen with winter; there were dark clouds over the east, and a great menace of snow. The rolling upland was bare right up to the brick wall of the city. His mount moved impatiently through the biting wind, and as he went he saw, crouching at the gate of the city, that beggar man, the memory of whose eyes had filled all his life thenceforward. He remembered the look and how, with shame, but compelled by a fire within him (and looking up to watch whether the guard had noted an officer’s folly), he had quickly cut his coat with his sword and thrown the fragment of warmth down to the half naked man. He saw — he saw the eyes still following him through the gate, not only with gratitude, not only with benediction, but also with prophecy, and he rode on into the town, ashamed in his mangled accoutrement, hiding the cut as best he could with his left bridle arm, but still thinking of those eyes. And Martin, lying there dying after full sixty years, murmured so that men around him could hear the words, “It was the Lord, Martin; it was the Lord.”
Next he was in the deep woods of the Æduans, 21 high up in the hills, three days and more from posting-houses and from stone roads. The forest was damp all about him. He was in a clearing with two priests, his companions, and the wilder men of the hills were watching him sullenly while he broke their uncouth idol with an axe and preached to them the living God. But as he watched them he doubted their mood, and as he went back down the hills he feared their trapping him — even the chief whom he had baptized. Then all those trees quite faded, and he was in a place where the magnificence of the emperor shone — a huge figure, too strong and squat, with a bull neck corded, and the heavy, flushed face of exaggerated command. And he saw standing, richly clothed amid a group of clients, the eager, furtive, not sane face of Priscillian, and yet he pleaded for the life of that man. And lying so in his weakness and dying, his lips tried to frame the cry which came but as a whisper, though a whisper shrill within the soul: “The Church will have no blood. He is a bishop. The Church will have no blood.” And again he was in the forum outside the palace wall at Treves, standing ashamed and with head bent, defeated, while the crowd came laughing and jostling by from the execution of the magician. He stood there 22 alone and baulked, knowing that blood had been shed, and that he had been powerless.
Next, time rolled back within him, and he was but just free of his uniform, still so very young and full of his first fervours, and behind him were high mountains and about him the meres, the ditches, the reeds, the low lines of trees, and the hot sky of Lombardy. The straight imperial road ran right before him for a mile and more, and he limped along it at the end of his long, lonely journey towards the splendours, the high colonnades and the clangour of Milan. And even as he went, wholly bound up with himself and considering his mission from the Lord, he felt again that great fear which is not of this world, and which stands at last on the threshold of every death. His heart began to faint in him, and his thews were loosened, so that he could hardly stand. There was evil all around, and that awful presence of the Pit. Martin in his dream groaned and turned upon the reeds whereon he lay, so that the priests about him thought his agony had come. Within his mind he was still upon that Milan road, and still the oppression of evil grew, and still the dreadful mastery of the abyss and of things condemned. Then he heard once more right through him in 23 its deep tones, as he had heard it then in his boyhood, the challenge of hell, bidding him answer whither he was bound and what business he purposed to do. And Martin, as he lay dying, was again himself of those days, and found himself answering again from within: “Oh, thou foul beast, I go to do the work of my Lord.” And again the mortal cold seized him everywhere as he felt, vibrating through his being, not heard by mortal ears, the mighty challenge of the receding ghost: ‘Martin, I will thwart you every way, and I will defeat you in the end.”
The despairs seized him even as the scenery within his closed mind, and even here, in the article of death, the old man raised himself upon one elbow a little and stared all about. He had opened his eyes. He saw the room and the priests about him; one moved forward as though to touch him, but the others held him back. And a young man but lately tonsured, an Angevin from the valley, said with sobs, “O, my father, do you not know me?”
Martin, seeing that young face, smiled for a moment, but outwards only, for within the terror had returned. Though he now saw real men and the very walls of the stone room wherein he lay, and the true sky beyond the open arches, 24 a November sky of driving cloud, yet was he in the presence of that terror, and he called out in a loud voice, challenging it: “Thou foul beast, I say to thee again, thou foul beast, what power hast thou over me? I have faithfully served my Lord, and I have done many and wonderful things for Him.”
When the old man had said this so loudly, and while those about him were drawing back, many crossed themselves, feeling a combat of great power passing before them. They saw their father suddenly loosed from terror, and his limbs relax, and the falling upon his face of an awful dignity, which at the last relapsed into a stern but conquering smile. And so he lay backwards and was dead.
That evening they said Mass, and the absolved the body laid out upon a bier before the altar, an surrounded, as custom is, with lights, and the women also sang. And when the morning came they put the body of Martin upon a boat draped with hangings as fitted the greatness of the man and of his office and all the evangelization of the Gauls. And certain skilful men having been chosen from among the river people to guide the boat over the turning of the flood water, they brought it down to Tours, and there 25 they buried him amid a great concourse of the people, and all his monks lamenting him from the caves beyond the river. Then, when some years had passed, the devotion of his successors built a little chapel over that famous grave, and a bishop from foreign parts sent a sculptured marble for the tomb, and later still another church was raised in memory of the apostle. And one hundred years and another hundred years and another went by to the added glory of his tomb, until pagan savages of the north came and ruined it; and when it had risen again in splendour above him, other enemies, heretics, came and ruined it again, leaving it all desolate and bare walls, and at last only two towers of what had been his shrine. But for the third time, and in our day, men built the shrine again, and there it is, as you may see it if you go. And so it will be, perhaps, for many lives of men to come — the Church rising and falling, and the tomb of Martin continuing in the midst.
THE BAPTISM OF CLOVIS
THE great plains of Champagne were white with snow, and the small rivers of that land made little black ribbons across the desert of frost. On the high hills that overlook the plain from the west the deep forest of leafless trees stood out as black against the sky in frost. The town of those flats, all square, with its low Roman walls and plain arched gates, was dark against the snow in the midst of the level. The straight arrow of the road making for the western gate was dark also against the snow by the passage of so many feet and of so many wheels and horsemen, for an army had gone past.
It was in the Christmas time of the year 496. The army was the army of that king from the Netherlands, a leader of the Frankish auxiliaries and their master in the forces of Rome. His rough name of a Flemish sort his soldiers repeated as Clodveg, or some such sound. For us and for our history it is Clovis, and there followed him in that band of auxiliaries men, some of his own small tribe which lay round Tournai and the 27 Lowlands, some from the Seine. Four thousand of them, perhaps; a column marching to his orders and ready to support his government, for government there must be.
Rome no longer truly governed.
Although these auxiliaries, like every other soldier, thought themselves Roman indeed, and were citizens indeed, and used the money, and when they could read could read only the letters of Rome; and though, apart from the army, all that world in town and country was Roman through and through, yet there went out now no orders from Rome to Gaul and the north. The sacred town was far. No tribute, though levied in the Roman name, went its way southward by the great roads to Italy. No writ came borne by a messenger to the Counts, each in his City.
Of that great body of arms which had been the pride and the sustenance of society there was now left nothing but these chance bodies, the auxiliary or regular, drawn from barbarian stock, fighting one with another each for its leader’s command — and yet some one must govern. The money that passed with the emperor’s head upon it (the head of the emperor far off in new Rome upon the Bosphorus) must be paid to an order, 28 and some tax on it must sustain some chief who could settle between man and man and could put terror into wrongdoing, and confirm to a free man his brother’s inheritance and the obedience of his slaves — yet there was still no government, nor any Justiciar in all these fields of Gaul. But the cities as best they could, jealously guarding their walls and arming their burghers for defence, stood each alone and kept their monies for their own chiefs; and the Counts, who once had been the officers of the empire, lingered on: or stripped of power to the benefit of some greater citizen and wealthier, or still ruling, but ruling of their own right and with no charter from Cæsar: nor revocable, nor truly appointed.
For fifteen years all up and down the open country in between the woods, and all up and down the old state roads still strong and hard, from city to city in the vague shocks of the time, this garrison that followed Clovis had triumphed. For Clovis the boy had led them first when he had come out of the Lowlands, barely fifteen years, and now, a man of thirty, he led them still. And it was with these his men never yet conquered that he had passed through that Christmas weather into the town of Rheims. He had come to assume government at last, and since Cæsar 29 far away no longer ordered, to take up the business of ordering, between the cities of the north and among free men.
For now one hundred years had most men of the cities accepted the Faith. And though amid the dwindling soldiery the gods of the pagans lingered, and though the auxiliaries, barbaric like the rest, followed, each group of them, the customs of the tribe whence it sprang, and for the most part did not yet know Christ, yet as they marched through that land they were marching through Christian land, and by this time the feasts of repose and the songs they heard and answered, and the rites of marriage when they would wed into the folk about them, and the rule whereby alone their children could succeed to their land when they had done with arms, all these things were Christian. Stronger than the cities, much more real than the empty name of Cæsar, was the Church; and in each city a great priest, ordering the wealth of the clergy, administrating their wide farms and their thousand slaves, speaking with ancient authority and remembering Rome, ruled, and was a bishop. Of these the greatest in that time was Remigius, whom we call St. Remi, the lord in Rheims and the father of Champagne.
This man, whose judgment and whose word 30 weighed much more with Gaul of the north than many soldiers, had seen the young man Clovis thus conquering to the east and to the west, passing through the gates of the cities and breaking in battle the Germans of the Rhine, so that from the day of his victory no more hordes came out from the forests, where there are no towns, into the plains of Gaul. To the south, in the name of Rome, there governed men who hated the Catholic name and who had a pride in hating it, because in the days when they had risen to power and to be kings (each over his body of garrisons, in the name of the emperor) the emperor’s court itself had accepted heresy, and the Catholic millions were despised. Here, in the north, fate still hung doubtful who would seize power, and, if he seized it, whether he should stand with the bishops of the Church or against them like the southern lords.
Clovis, three years before perhaps, had wed Clotilde of great beauty and young, and for herself Catholic, niece of the Burgundian king; and when their first son was born to them she had him baptized as should be baptized the son of a king (for Clovis was called “king” by the Franks, the soldiers of his troop). But the child had died, and in his death Clovis had learnt a terror of the 31 Cross. Yet was his second son also baptized with pomp, as though there were already about this warrior, his father, something imperial. And this second child lived. Then it was that in his battle with the German horde, out near the Rhine and in the thickest of the press when victory or rout hung even, Clovis made a loud vow to the God of Clotilde if he should be victorious over the Germans he would follow Him. He had won the victory, he had driven them over Rhine, and now at last with his men he was riding into Rheims for the feast, and Remigius knew that now Gaul, in the north, and as far southward as such armies could conquer, would be governed with the bishops and with the Church.
In the Basilica of Rheims, round-arched and long, Remigius ordered hangings of the richest dyes, come from the old time before the wealth and order of the empire had failed; and round the baptistry also he had the same colours displayed, and out of doors in the keen air across the streets of the town, and with pennons in the market-place, he ordered decorations as though for a victory. Pagan men come in from the hills understood the greatness of the moment. For all the history of France and the turning of it lay here, since Clovis, who must now take up government 31 in the Roman name, and restore the fortunes of these cities, was to abandon the old and powerless gods and be baptized.
They burnt incense in the baptistry on that short winter day, and lit a crowd of candles, making the round place glorious. But Clovis thought of the army, and before he would do so great a thing he appealed first to the soldiers (whom a chief must hold), lest too many of them should regret the old gods. But those who spoke for them bade him go forward, and whatever he did they would also do.
Then Clovis knelt for baptism amid those lights within, and Remigius, the great bishop, said over him not only the sacramental words, “. . . . of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” which are the making of Christian men, but also those other famous words: “Bow down the head, Sicambrian, adore what thou hast burnt, and burn what thou hast adored.”
When Clovis arose from the fount he had entered the company of Christian men. There were to be new things in Europe from that time and for ever, because the Gallic sword, which is the chief maker of Europe, had passed into the hands of a man so baptized. The proud heresies of the south were to pass at last, and there was to 33 go out, even into the Germanies, where as yet were no cities nor letters, nor the art of building with stone, that influence from Gaul which has made of those forests an European thing. From this baptistry at Rheims set out a new story for the West.
As for the soldiery, these too for the greater part (three thousand of the men of his small army) were baptized when Clovis was baptized; and the new men to be recruited into the host for the new wars were to march henceforward in the Catholic name; and everywhere the peoples in suspicion of their not-Catholic lords, by the Alps as by the Apennines, by the Cevennes as by the Pyrenees, were to look to the north and to the Franks for their sword and for their deliverance.
THE BREAKING OF ISLAM
WHEN Christendom was Christendom at last, and all seemed bound together under one bond, the Emperor far in the East building his great Church, the Pope ruling in the West from Rome in the name of Christ, unseen lord of all Roman men; when Britain itself, swept by the pagans, was returning to the light of Europe, and when even in the Germanies, or on the edges of them, missionaries had begun to do their work, there had arisen, by the mischance whence prevents perfection in any human thing, a new enemy far away in the desert.
In the hot sands of which Europe knew nothing, and which were for century upon century a boundary to all Roman things, in an obscure town free from Roman rulers, in a market-place of the Arabs near the Red Sea, there was arisen a man who was to change all. This was Mahomet.
Mahoment, acquainted with the Faith, selected from manifold Christian truth what few points seemed good to him, and composed a new heresy 35 alive with equality and the reduction of doctrine to the least compass; rejecting mysteries — save that of immortality. He denied the Incarnation and left the Eucharist aside.
Mahomet had visions and heard divine commands. Stones spoke to him, and he perceived the glories of heaven. But more than this, in the desert places and under the brazen sun, he was filled with a command to teach what he had seen and known. He must re-make men. For this mighty task he found two mighty levers — brotherhood and simplicity — and to these he joined the delight of arms. For those who followed him were to be equal and to be brother one with another, and this particularly as soldiers; and they were to spread through the world by the sword and by example the teaching that there was but one God, and that all subservience to men or to the forms of men, or the calling of a man a god, or the painting, or the drawing, or the sculpture of men, was an abomination. This something, simple, enthusiastic with the sword and proclaiming a binding equality, rose from the desert suddenly as its columns of sand rise in the whirlpools of hot air. It moved forth, as do those columns of sand. It came in a cavalry charge with Arab horses, and it conquered 36 everywhere. All men who found it seized it gladly or submitted, and the great prophet was not dead a hundred years when this Arabian thing, riding out to destroy the Christian name, was hammering at Constantinople in the east, had burnt all through the African north, had swept Spain, had harried every coast of the Mediterranean Sea, had crossed the Pyrenees, and was striking at the heart of Christendom in Gaul.
Never had an issue so great been joined upon our western fields. Never since then, of all the great issues, has an issue so great been determined among all the great battles that our rivers have seen.
All Spain, I say, save the hills of the northwest, was held by this new power. Everywhere our shrines were subdued and our people despised, the subjects of these soldiers, when, from Spain as their base and possession, the Arabs determined to settle the quarrel for ever and to destroy the West in Gaul. It was the year 732 of the Incarnation. It was just a hundred years since Mahomet had died.
Across the high heart of the Pyrenees run, side by side in two gorges, two roads. The one is that which runs by the noise of the river 37 Aragon, and has above its summit the high peak Garganta; the other comes by the Gallego, and has by its summit the twin granite peak of the Midi. By these roads came, pouring over the high hills into Gaul, the myriads of the Arabs. And as they came they cried in every town of the plains that there was but one God, their God, and our shrines were desolate. The destroyed our harvest, they burnt our farms, they seized our citadels, they made still northward to decide whether the whole word should be Christ’s or theirs. And Abdul Rahman, the viceroy, led them.
So they rode in their white cloaks, the thousands of them, on their light Eastern horses that were so quick of foot, and having on the thigh their short, curved scimitars, and slung at their saddle their small round shields. They came to the broad Garonne with its vineyards, and Eudes, the Duke of all the country, came out to meet them, and was defeated utterly. The walls of Bordeaux could not keep them out. They surged into that town; they burnt its churches also.
The broad Garonne was no barrier for them, nor the Dordogne beyond. They came up to Poitiers, and Poitiers first resisted. Its walls were too strong. Abdul Rahman burnt the 38 Church of St. Hilary without the walls, then left that hill town for a further attack when his triumph should be achieved, and led his myriads northward still on up the great road to Tours. For Tours was St. Martin’s shrine and the heart of Gaul, and there should the doom of Christendom be decided.
There was in government over the armies of Gaul in that day a man called Charles, whom men also called “The Hammer.” For many years had he warred with his men behind him against the other great ones in the north, for he was the bastard of the chief of the French who governed in the name of kings that were no longer kings.
This man Charles was forty-four years old, very strong and greatly dreaded, and all the things that the French had done in the old days he did, raiding in particular the Germanies, burning the pagan shrines in their forests, an taking tribute from the barbarians. Eudes also, in the south, he had had warred against and defeated; but Eudes, now in this flood of the Arabs, called to Charles the Christian in the north, and Charles answered. He gathered universal levies from all the cites of the north, and from the valleys of the Loire and of the Seine, and from the edges of the Netherlands, and the forces of the east, 39 and marched as though with a whole nation of men against the Saracens.
It was already autumn. Abdul Rahman was half-way come from Poitiers to Tours.
The place where his advance was halted by the coming of the French host is memorable.
It is a bare upland between the two rivers of the Vienne and of the Clain, lonely, with few hamlets, and in the midst of it to-day the ruins of a great Roman tower and the last traces of the great Roman road. There, in that autumn weather, the men scouting before the vast army of Charles found upon a Sunday evening the miles of tents, and saw the troops of horses picketed and the sheaves of spears, and rode back to the Chief with their news. There also in that bare plain, between the two rivers, which is to-day as deserted as ever, was the soul of Europe to be decided one way or the other, and the fate of the Christian name.
The Christian men came in their dense columns over the bridge where the rivers join. They poured into that peninsula; they also fixed their camp from stream to stream, and their great body of heavier horses, and their weapons, which were not spears nor scimitars, but the long sword and the long shield and the battle-axe; and they 40 were summoned to the sound of horns and of great oliphants.
Now one day passed and another, and nothing was done; but at night each of the hosts could see the fires of the other, murky in the damp autumn weather, red against the low mists; and every morning, as the late sun rose beyond the valey of the Vienne over the damp fields of October through the fogs, the northern men heard the Arab call to prayer, shrill and singing, and the challenge to their faith and their name. And the Arabs could also see, far off across the space that divided them, men differently habited from the soldiers of Charles. The knew them well, for Spain was full of them. They were the priests.
So one day passed, and another and another, and yet no battle was joined; until at last a week had passed, and it was Saturday. Upon that morning, then, the leader of the Mahommedans, looking northward again to see what the camp of his enemies did, saw it covered all along its front by one packed line, dense, and cramped together as a faggot is cramped in its bond, all facing southward and hiding the tents behind with their line: for this was the army of Charles, now drawn up for battle.41
There was a southern man, a Spaniard, who saw that sight, and who said that the men of the north were frozen men — men fixed by the cold with frozen faces, and he said that so standing all in line, not moving at all, they seemed to be a wall.
Then, before such a sight, the Arab army moved and swirled; there was the saddling of horses and the calling of the companies together with the shrill tube, and the words of the East cried from one to another, and accoutrement upon every side, until the light horses and their white-cloaked riders were ready, some with the thin lance levelled, some with the bared scimitar in hand, for the charge; and among them many wore mail, fine and closely linked, and iron upon their heads. But all were mounted for speed and for the rapid turning of a horse this way and that. The line charged. You might have seen the breaking of the white cloaks against those tall northern men, like the breaking of waves against a ridge of rock that bounds the sea. And when from that first charge they rode back, leaving the line unbroken, then one could see, scattered everywhere before that line, the bodies of men fallen, and of horses which the battle-axe had felled.
But again those thousands charged, and again 42 and with every charge lost more, not breaking the northern line. All the short autumn day was full of this fury and of these cries of the Orient, and of the scurry of hoofs; and throughout the full hours the men of Charles took the strain, killing and breaking the attack until, when the night fell, the assault had ruined itself; and in the counting of the dead they found that Abdul Rahman himself had fallen.
The night that followed so furious a day was a night of exhausted sleep. The army of Charles woke upon the morrow to see the day broadening before them over the plains still strewn with so many thousands of men and horses dead, and of wounded who had barely lived through the cold of the night.
As the early mist drew off the could perceive the Saracen tents still standing as widespread as a great town, but they heard no call to prayer nor any shrill trumpet, and they saw no horses at the cords. Charles’s men were set out again for battle, but no enemy showed — only the dead. The columns were marched across the field, through the damp grass and stubble of it, all pounded into mud with the charging and the charging again of such hosts of horse. As they drew near, the skirmishers, riding ahead, challenged; 43 but there was no reply; and as men passed for loot from tent to tent, finding all manner of wealth — blades damascened and jewelled in the hilt, and silks of Asia, cloths, and carpets and hangings, and ornaments of gold, and richly-painted parchments, the sacred writings of these desert men — they found no one alive save here and there some deserting slave who begged for mercy, or a wounded man still breathing, but too near his death to have followed the retreat. For during the night the wreck of that innumerable flood which had crossed the Pyrenees in the rising of the year had drawn back south hurriedly, leaving its train and its tents and its wealth to fall into the hands of the French.
Thus was Christendom saved in the tongue between the rivers, a little south of Chatellerault, and a day’s march north of Poitiers; and if you go there to-day you will find the Roman tower still standing in a ruin, and a little village where the left of the Mahommedan line charged, called Moussais; and when you ask the people of the place what they call Moussais, they will tell you, “We call it Moussais of the Battlefield.” So well does a peasantry remember after the passage of more than a thousand years.
UPON the 14th of August, a Friday, in the year 778, the Vigil of the Assumption, the great host of Charlemagne was marching out northward across the burnt plains of the Spanish uplands to where, high against the sky before them, stood the Pyrenees.
The Emperor that year had come down the valley of the Ebro and had fought in that march of Christendom against the Mahommedan. He had held, but no more than held; and now he was turning back home with all his thousands, and with his great baggage train of loot and of provision, with his nobles and his prelates and his barony, as it says in the song: —
“Charles the king in a tide returning;
Charles the king and his barony.”
He was still a young man in the pride of life. He was still full of his great business, which was the restoration of the world and the pressing out of Christendom by arms against the barbaric Germans to the east, and here, though here only 45 in defence, against the Mahommedan to the south.
It was from Pampeluna, a Christian citadel which the Mahommedan could not hold, that the king thus set out to return over the passes to France and to the larger land — to the places where there was grass, and where the waters ran clear and brimming, after the treeless, parched mud and the empty torrent beds of Spain.
So the whole host went northward in its interminable column, mile upon mile. The camp that evening they pitched at the foot of the mountains; but the Basques all around watched them with spies from the hills, and envied so much wealth, and hated so many foreigners among them.
Before the next day dawned — Saturday the 15th of August, the Assumption — the vanguard was marshalled, and filed away upon the long straight Roman road that goes still upward and northward into the summits, and when the sun rose it took full the limestone cliffs of Altbiscar, which are marvellous under the morning.
It was not till all those thousands upon thousands had gone their way, a cloud of dust behind them and the debris of their bivouacs, that a smaller body of the train, the rearguard, was 46 marshalled to follow on. It had for captain and leader Roland, the Count of the Marches of Brittany, and with him were others of the Court — Adhelm, the chief of the royal table, and Eggihard. They had for their task that day to get over the pass and follow till evening the march of the main column. It was a matter, perhaps, of fifteen miles. Nor had they any warning of danger, for they were not in the enemy’s country, and the last of the Emirs was two days’ march behind them.
Where the Roman road between Gaul and Spain here crosses the Pyrenees, the sunlit side of it upon the Spanish southern slope rises most gradually towards the mountains, up a great shelving bank, as it were, miles broad and a whole countryside in length. It rises so gradually that men marching do not feel the strain, and an army has almost approached the limit of the ascent before it knows that the ascent has begun. For all that the shelf of land is lifted high into the air, and the notch, which is the Pass of Roncesvalles, seems, as you come on to it from the south, to touch the very plain. There is, indeed, just before that notch is reached, one little rise of less than a mile, which no man would take to be the passage of such mighty hills, so slowly and 47 by so much cunning of nature has he been introduced to the high places. Here the woods are deep upon either side, and the last lift of the road goes up through greensward, very pleasant and cool after the dust of the plains. Before the rearguard, as the horses of its leaders took this rise, stood the edge of the saddle, clean marked against the noon sky — a crescent of wild grass sharply meeting the blue. It was when they had reached this height, Roland and his companions, that there opened before them the great sight of the gorge that plunges down, a passage into the Gauls and the larger land. Very far away to the north, a hazy line like the sea, framed between two distant mountain sides, was the level of the French flats and the Landes.
Down the sharp steep, on either side of the profound gorge, vast beech woods hung, falling in billows of greenery one below the other in the darker green of beech in August; such is for the solemn forest which clothes all that dark ravine, and from its unseen profundity there rises the noise of a torrent. This gulf is Roncesvalles. And down the western side of the awful valley, drawn like a thread through the forest, goes the old road, gradually lowering until, ten miles away 48 and more, it comes to the waterside and to the mouth of these narrows at last.
By that road was the rearguard to go.
The noon woods in the hot summer weather were nearly silent. There was some murmur of insects in them, but no twig broke beneath the steps of a man. There was no hint of the many that watched and spied, hidden deep in the undergrowth. The captains had loosed their helmets from their heads, they had hung them on the saddle-bows as the road went down through the beech woods; the shadows were cool. And the companies of the rearguard sang in the ease of the descent, and the drivers on foot were guiding their beasts, for the way was narrow and precipitous to the right, where the ground sank to the torrent below. One hour and two hours the column so went forward, with nothing about it, as it seemed, but the silent mountain tops — the bare rocks lifting up above the green of the forest, and the noise of the torrent always nearer and nearer as they went downwards.
There is a place in Roncesvalles where the gorge singularly narrows and the steep sides become precipitous cliffs approaching one towards the other. Here also the old road has come down to some few hundred feet from the 49 torrent bed, and as the head of the column reached this place the sound of the water was much louder in their ears. Roland and his peers, remembering Spain, were refreshed, for now at last they were in the gateway of the Larger Land — the Terra Major, Gaul, their home.
Here, where the ledge of the road passes through the defile above the river, it also turns, so that a leader looking backward does not see more than some few yards of the column following him. It was in this place, in the Pass of Roncesvalles, in the mid-afternoon I think (seeing how their march was planned), that the disaster broke.
First came bounding down in longer and in longer leaps from the rocky ridges, thousands of feet above, one great boulder. It sprang over the way, missing men and beasts and wagon, but striking confusion and fear. They heard it crashing in the woods below them, and breaking through the bushes and splashing into the water at last. The column was halted and bewildered. There were horses thrown back upon their haunches and wagons slewed across the way, and angry calls from the leaders to disengage the block, and the bunching up of those marching on from behind, who had not seen what happened. Upon such a confusion came a rain of smaller 50 stones (but stones that could kill a man), bounding down the mountain side. One team was swept away, its wagon toppling after it, its wagoner pinned beneath. One file was cut rigt asunder, and the cries of those crushed under the weight of the rock made echoes from side to side of the gorge.
There was a little pause in which one heard the shouting of the officers to rearrange the line, and mixed orders for defence in a place where no defence could hold. Then from the far side of the narrows, from the dense wood of the opposite steep beyond the stream, came the whistling of an arrow, sharp, utterly new, meaning men and men enemies, though not a face was seen. It struck a captain’s horse behind the shoulder. The beast squealed and reared and threw its rider, and then, still staggering upon its hinder limbs, fell backward over the steep and was caught in the sharp edges of the wood still screaming. That first arrow was a signal. There came at once a flight of others, and another flight, and another. Men fell crawling upon every side, and the narrow way was a surge of them struggling for cover where there was none, or trying to climb over and around their fellows and to hide beyond the bend. Into the midst of the welter 51 came a new discharge of the great stones from above, and then with a sort of universal cry (all the rearguard of Charlemagne’s host being now confused and hopeless) the forest awoke, the hills were full of voices: and the Basques were upon them.
Roland of the Breton March, riding at the head of his command far down the road and well past the bend, had heard the first cries of distress and the first turmoil. He had thought that some blunderer had lost his wagon down the steep, or that the column had received one of those checks which, in marching down a narrow way, bad management will give. He was for riding back at first when, at a place where a level of grass breaks the rocky steep and leads away up from the road to the left, to the heights above it, he saw issuing out from the woods before him the press of the mountaineers. With him was his guard and certain of his peers.
Before the shock came upon him he had looked down into the road, which he could well survey from such a place, and he saw in a moment what had come. He saw the summer sky of the afternoon, blue but misty above them, and the deep forest which had been so silent all about, and he saw, high in heaven, between the peaks, one great 52 bird and then another, slowly circling upon black wings. And he saw the whole body of the rearguard stretched out upon a mile of the way, of the narrow way, and everywhere dark masses of men not in the accoutrement of the host, livelier, striking with knives, not sworded; and perpetually, as men fell, and as traces were cut and teams destroyed, these enemies would leap off into the undergrowth again laden with booty. All the while there rang in that echoing place cries in a tongue he did not know, and that no man knew — the Basque tongue, the oldest tongue of the world. And urging the mountaineers on and on, in rush after rush from the heights, in charge after charge from the depths, was the little bagpipe of the mountains, screaming its war scream — the little bagpipe of goatskin, with its two flutes which the mountaineers threddle with their fingers, while their eyes gleam. That was what he saw — the destruction of all for which he stood responsible to his young king, who, in the plains below, had already camped his great army after the passage of the mountains.
Men see such things manifold and disastrous in one manifold and disastrous moment; and Roland had seen this in the moment between his reining up upon the sward above the road 53 and the charge of the mountaineers against him. He drew the two-handed sword from its sheath; he had not time, nor any of his companions, to helm; but in some hope of succour, or in the determination to die, he formed them into a little square against the onrush. But even as they formed they were borne down. The mountaineers were upon them in a hundred, and then in a thousand, stabbing with the short knife, and with three men to take the place of one who went down under the long sweep of the sword, delivered heavily from the saddle.
The beasts were stabbed down, and the riders, as they fell heavily, stabbed upon the ground. It was a swarm of foot against few horses that destroyed that knot of captains. Behind them the resistance had almost ceased, the column was extinguished. Among the dead and the dying, and the horses now no longer plunging but still and fallen, the derelict wagons, full of the loot of Spain and of the provision of so great a host, stood gaping for the robbers. The mountaineers climbed with odd laughter up the sides of those wooden things, and passed one to another, quarrelled over, fought over, ivory and gold, and good wines, and salted meats, and hangings and stuff for tents, and cloth of the Saracens, and spices.54
When evening came on there began to draw away from that place of death the thousands who had so triumphantly designed the surprise, and the wreckage was left in Roncesvalles under the open night, with its leaders lying dead round Roland, and their mounts dead also upon that little place of grass beside the road.
They say that not one man escaped from the slaughter of Roncesvalles to the main army, and to Charlemagne and to the Larger Land. But this cannot be so, for from that dreadful place there went forth at least such men as could tell the story and make it greater, until there rose from it, like incense from a little pot, an immortal legend which is the noblest of our Christian songs. Therein you may read the golden story of Roland — how he blew the horn that was heard from Saragossa to Toulouse, and how he challenged God, holding up his glove when he died, and how the angel took him to the hill of God and the city of Paradise, dead. And as the angel so bore him Roland’s head lay back upon the angel’s arm, like the head of a man in sleep.
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