Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 1
One of the strangest sights that we find in our work documenting the Romanesque churches of France is the phenomenon of fortified churches. There is something so completely disconcerting about seeing a church surmounted with defensive towers, crenelations, and battlements. It is one thing to see a church as part of a castle, but quite another to see a free-standing structure studded with defensive measures. There is, of course, a very good reason for this to have happened.
Barbara Tuchman writes of the “calamitous 14th Century” in her book “A Distant Mirror” that one of the chief plagues of that time was the Hundred Years War. The conflict between the Plantagenets of England and Valois of France over the throne of France lasted from 1337 to 1453. The war was fought entirely on French soil and devastated much of the country. One of the reasons for the devastation was a change in the military orders.
The feudal world provided a liege lord with an army of vassals in time of need, but this was not sufficient for a war that carried on for so long. Disputing kings simply did not have the funds necessary to keep a standing army in the field, so they began hiring mercenaries. To feed and supply the troops, the English developed a system call “pâtis“, or ransoms of the country. A town or village where the troops were garrisoned would be required to pay for their upkeep. This didn’t generate any revenue for the cause, but it was a windfall to the mercenaries, who often made a fortune by extending “pâtis” out of their immediate area of garrison.
These bands of mercenaries, known as routiers, began to function as self-sufficient armies with their own leadership and no allegiance except to those who paid them. Their real survival depended on controlling a region, and control them they did. Robbery, murder, pillage, and rape were the result. The English captured the Poitevin town of Lusignan in 1346 and it was left in the command of a captain, Bertrand de Monferrand. His troops laid waste to “fifty parishes, ten monasteries, and destroyed towns and castles throughout southern Poitou.”
During the periods of truce in the Hundred Years War, the routiers stayed together, their ranks swollen by the unemployed soldiers from both armies, and they ranged far and wide in France, destroying and robbing as they went. Southern France and the Provence were especially hard hit. Later the companies devastated Burgundy and by the beginning of the fifteenth century were laying waste to northern and eastern France.
These companies were highly organized on a military basis and often had their own uniforms. Some, like the Bande Blanche of Arnaud de Cervole who was known as l’Archiprêtre (The Archpriest), had their own uniforms. Detachments of soldiers sent to curb them were defeated and the companies continued their depredations. The King of France tried to hire them away to fight elsewhere and this worked sometimes, but too often not. Some of the routier companies found their way to the fertile internecine wars of Italy and prospered. John Hawkwood’s White Company fought for and against the Papacy and Hawkwood himself became famous and much honored.
The only constant in this ever-changing equation was that the land of France was brutalized and pillaged for a century. A company of routiers would show up at a town and demand a ransom. If it were not paid, the town would be attacked and devastated. There was no recourse to justice and it must have seemed to the populace that they were being ravaged by wild beasts.
The churches were a constant target because they held items of value and because they were the center of life in the towns and villages. In the Aquitaine, so many of these churches were attacked and damaged, if not destroyed. The architecture changed to account for these violent times – monasteries and churches were fortified for defense. Sometimes this helped, but all too often, it did not.
The architecture certainly suffered, but perhaps more importantly, so did the faith of the people. They lost their belief in the protection of the church, which could not protect the people, nor even the churches and the clergy. No punishment came to the evil-doers, in fact they seemed to prosper. And the warlike aspect taken by the churches did nothing to support the message of peace, a message that must have seemed cruel and mocking in the world of the routiers. And the kings who cried “Havoc” found that the dogs of war bit the hands of those who fed them and seemed to have an insatiable appetite for more. This is a lesson that all rulers must learn, but none seem to understand.