The Corner

The one and only.

Defense de Fumer


Two readers have e-mailed in to ask what that huge cigarette is doing in the foreground of Laurens’s painting, and why Robert and Bertha are so terrified of it.

I forgot to explain that tenth-century France was a smoke-free zone, following an edict of Charlemagne’s. At Robert’s moment of weakness following his excommunication, an upstart nobelman, the Comte de Gaulois, had attempted to re-introduce the foul weed, selling it to the mainly-illiterate Parisians in packs bearing the image of a camel. This proved to be a marketing blunder, as the camel reminded Frenchmen of their narrow escape from Saracen rule in 732. The unfortunate Gaulois was arrested, tried, and sentenced to be torn to pieces by wild dogs. The monster cigarette in Laurens’s painting was one of his ill-fated promotional efforts.

Alistair Horne has Robert’s number:

[Hugh Capet's] heir was accorded the nickname of “Robert the Pious” (996-1031), which he did little enough to earn. Almost his first act was to repudiate the wife his father had found him, Rosala of Italy, while hanging on to her dowry. He promptly contracted a love-match with an older woman, his widowed cousin Berthe of Burgundy, who already had five children. He was excommunicated. After resisting papal pressure for five years, Robert capitulated. He dismissed the queen he loved, and married Constance of Provence — a terrible shrew who punished him by filling his days with nagging tantrums, and his court with plotters, thieves, and debauchees from the Midi. Later Robert tried, unsuccessfully, to re-wed his true love, Berthe. To ingratiate himself with a disapproving Pope, he burned alive fourteen “heretics” in Orléans, drawn “from among the best priests and leading laymen of that town” — thereby establishing himself as a precursor of the Inquisition. Robert the Pious also set about rebuilding the Paris abbeys of Saint-Germain-de-Prés and Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, which had lain in ruins ever since the Norse raids. In an otherwise unspectacular reign of thirty-five years, he became the first ruler in centuries to embark seriously upon the reconstruction of Paris. But much of France as Robert the Pious left it must have been in a parlous state. When his successor Henri I (1031-60) married Anne of Kiev from supposedly backward Russia in 1050, she was not impressed by her husband’s domain; nose in the air, she wrote to her father, Yaroslav the Great, complaining that it was “a barbarous country where the houses were gloomy, the churches ugly, and the customs revolting.”

Life in mid-medieval Europe wasn’t all beer and skittles, you see?

(Is it quittin’ time yet?)