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The Commune Of Laon
by [?]

The history of the kingdoms of Europe has a double aspect, that of the arrogant rule of kings and nobles, and that of the enforced submission and occasional insurrection of the common people, whom the governing class despised while subsisting on the products of their labor, as a tree draws its nutriment from the base soil above which it proudly rises. Insurrections of the peasantry took place at times, we have said, though, as a rule, nothing was gained by them but blows and bloodshed. We have described such outbreaks in England. France had its share of them, all of which were speedily and cruelly suppressed. It was not by armed insurrection that the peasantry gained the measure of liberty they now possess. Their gradual emancipation was gained through unceasing protest and steady pressure, and in no sense by revolt and bloodshed.

A different story must be told of the towns. In these the common people were concentrated and well organized, and possessed skilled leaders and strong walls. They understood the political situation, struck for a definite purpose, and usually gained it. The history of nearly every town in France tells of some such demand for chartered privileges, ordinarily ending in the freeing of the town from the tyranny of the nobles. Each town had its municipal government, the Commune. It was this body which spoke for the burghers, which led in the struggle for liberty, and which succeeded in gaining for most of the towns a charter of rights and privileges. Many stirring incidents might be told of this fight for freedom. We shall confine ourselves to the story of the revolt of the Commune of Laon, of which a sprightly contemporary description exists.

At the end of the eleventh century Laon was a bustling and important city. It was the seat of a cathedral and under the government of a bishop; was wealthy and prosperous, stirring and turbulent; was the gathering-place of the surrounding people, the centre of frequent disturbances. Thierry draws a vivid picture of the state of affairs existing within its walls. “The nobles and their servitors,” he says, “sword in hand, committed robbery upon the burghers; the streets of the town were not safe by night nor even by day, and none could go out without running a risk of being stopped and robbed or killed. The burghers in their turn committed violence upon the peasants, who came to buy or sell at the market of the town.”

Truly, town life and country life alike were neither safe nor agreeable in those charming mediaeval days when chivalry was the profession of all and the possession of none, when the nobility were courteous in word and violent in deed, and when might everywhere lorded it over right, and conscience was but another word for desire. As for the treatment of the peasantry by the townsmen, we may quote from Guibert, an abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy, to whose lively pen we owe all we have to tell about Laon.

“Let me give as example,” he says, “a single fact, which had it taken place among the Barbarians or the Scythians would assuredly have been considered the height of wickedness, in the judgment even of those who know no law. On Saturday the inhabitants of the country places used to leave their fields and come from all sides to Laon to get provisions at the market. The townsfolk used then to go round the place carrying in baskets or bowls or otherwise samples of vegetables or grain or any other article, as if they wished to sell. They would offer them to the first peasant who was in search of such things to buy; he would promise to pay the price agreed upon; and then the seller would say to the buyer, ‘Come with me to my house to see and examine the whole of the articles I am selling you.’ The other would go; and then, when they came to the bin containing the goods, the honest seller would take off and hold up the lid, saying to the buyer, ‘Step hither and put your head or arms into the bin to make quite sure that it is all exactly the same goods as I showed you outside.’ And then when the other, jumping on to the edge of the bin, remained leaning on his belly, with his head and shoulders hanging down, the worthy seller, who kept in the rear, would hoist up the thoughtless rustic by the feet, push him suddenly into the bin, and, clapping on the lid as he fell, keep him shut up in this safe prison until he had bought himself out.”