A Fool and His Money: Life in a Partitioned Town in Fourteenth-Century Franceby Ann Wroe
Ann Wroe brings to life a rich and perplexing culture of a city physically divided-as so many communities are today-by political factions in this skillful re-creation of fourteenth-century Rodez. Notes, bibliography.
Ann Wroe brings to life a rich and perplexing culture of a city physically divided-as so many communities are today-by political factions in this skillful re-creation of fourteenth-century Rodez. Notes, bibliography.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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THE PLACE, the sources and the story
I never meant to go to Rodez. When I first hit upon the idea of spending three years between Oxford and Somewhere Nice Abroad, I hoped it could be the picture-postcard part of southern France: plenty of vineyards and orchards, cypress trees, the Mediterranean near at hand. But the academic map of medieval France, just like the political map, revealed it as a huge collection of overlapping fiefs in which certain professors already sat in jealous possession. I wanted to study the Albigensians, but was told these were 'spoken for'; to look at the hinterland of Toulouse, but this was already someone's intellectual back yard; to scratch around a little in Perpignan, only to find that both town and region were a domain already conquered, plundered, and carved up.
My supervisor, Peter Lewis at All Souls, suggested I go first to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris to look up the printed catalogue of town records, the Inventaire Sommaire. It was a wet spring; Paris, which I never liked because I had learned my French in the south and had an accent Parisians mocked me for, looked frowsy and unlovely; and the Inventaire proved disappointing. I wanted to go to the south-west because I knew it and liked it, had friends there, and could think of nothing more appealing than studying under that intense sun, among the red Roman tiles, in an atmosphere thick with garlic, Gitanes and Ricard. But it became slowly clear that I would not be going there; the treasures were going to be hidden in harder places, even places that, at first sight, I might not like much.
Rodez certainly had treasures, as far as I could judge; pages and pages of fourteenth-century town documents. When I broke the news to my friends in Montauban, the grandfather proffered me a ready explanation. 'Of course it has lots of stuff left. It's such a God-awful place that no-one would want to go there even to sack it.' He turned to his neighbour for confirmation; the neighbour, underlining his words with a wide sweep of ash from a spent cigarette, replied in a growl. 'Rodez? Be, c'est un assez sale coin.'
My friends agreed to drive me up there in the same cramped 2CV, with flapping side-windows and an armchair for a back seat, in which we had made a joyful pilgrimage to the Roussillon the year before. This journey was different indeed. The road ran north-east and uphill away from broad red fields, peach orchards and baking river beds; it became narrow, winding and grey. The hills closed in; the dry-stone walls began. We crossed limestone moors, bare except for heaps of stones, solitary thistles and sheep that carried the wind in their fleeces. In the villages not a soul stirred. The houses became tall, with slate roofs dark as the rain. Their shutters were no longer to keep the sun out, for there seemed to be no sun in these high valleys. They were evidently closed to keep secrets, like grim old mouths.
Over the two years I spent there, I approached Rodez in a variety of ways; but each time there was the same sense of a journey deep into the interior. If I went by train from Paris I would always seem to reach Cahors, where I had to change, in the middle of the night. The little two-coach train to Figeac, where I had to change again, did not run after ten; I remember half-sitting, half-lying in the waiting room, stiff with lack of sleep, until the buffet opened in the morning for coffee and bread. From Figeac, another small train travelled on to Rodez. By now the track ran in the mountains, through impossibly narrow cuts and rock walls glistening with water, round improbable bends, into gardens full of cabbages and marigolds, under washing lines, up the backs of grey stone barns. Geese honked on the verges, and trees pinioned to cliffs of rock brushed against the windows. This, at least, is how I remember it, as if it were a train in dreams.
On one summer journey it stopped midway, and we were told that another train would arrive in a couple of hours. I had no idea where we were; the stop seemed to have no name to it. Nothing lay beyond the station but steep meadows high with grass and ox-eye daisies, with a lane on one side and a lazy river on the other. I left my suitcase, which was on the point of disintegrating, and walked out into the sound of birds and flies.
At the top of the lane, under a cliff, was a shabby little bar the colour of the cliff-stone, with dark green paint and awnings, where I was served a bright red grenadine by a surly man with a tea-towel over his arm; and then I walked out into the hayfields. For an hour I sat in company with the shining river and the flies. Once a grey horse came out of nowhere, swishing his tail and tearing thunderously at the grass with a swivel of long teeth. It was an hour when time sat suspended, like a still leaf from a branch: present, past and future coming seamlessly together between the coughs of two small trains.
Journeys like these became a way of acclimatising myself to the isolation of Rodez, like a diver habituating himself to the pressure of the sea. But the town itself remained mysterious. Its history seemed as hidden as its personality. Rodez did not put on airs; it had no pretensions. Its first claim to fame, the huge red sandstone cathedral, was a peculiar mishmash of styles, Gothic, fanciful, fortified and classical; nothing matched on it, and it sat, uncompromisingly, right in the middle of the town. The town's medieval walls had mostly been demolished, and its older buildings had often been bashed about a bit, or hollowed out to take modern shops. This was twenty years ago; they tell me that the place has now transformed itself, with everything that is old carefully done up and repainted. But Rodez seemed less ambitious then. Around 1974 the town adopted a motto for itself: `Rodez: Ville Moyenne'. An average place which, like an average woman, would occasionally try to tart itself up by, for example, `pedestrianising' with livid bricks the alley that led to the Codec supermarket; but which was generally content to stay much as it was.
The alley by the Codec supermarket led also to the archive building; and it was there I uncovered my first secret, the passion of many Rodez folk for the history of their place. At the back of the archives was a grassy yard. This yard was the preserve of one Canac (a name I was to encounter again), a taciturn, dark-skinned young man who wore blue overalls. Canac's job was to fix the erratic plumbing and to move the many objects in the archives that were too heavy for others to shift: bundles of nineteenth-century newspapers, pieces of farm equipment, huge paintings of notables, bits of stone. But he spent most of his time sitting on the back step, cigarette in hand, surveying the yard, which was strewn with pieces of column and column base and bits of reddish rock. I asked him about them once. `They're Monsieur Tremouille's collection,' he told me. Then, wonderingly: `You know, it's really old, all that stuff.'
How old was that? Tremouille himself, who haunted the archives like a busy wasp, had no doubt: these artefacts were Roman, and he turned them up continually. You would see him trotting through the town and up the archive stairs, a cardboard box under his arm, in his scoutmaster's shorts and socks turned over at the top, with his hair crew-cut like a boy's. Out of his box he would tip small mounds of treasures: bits of pot, slivers of column, murky corners of glass. Each piece, with its reddish dusting of mud, would be lifted lovingly between dirty thumb and forefinger to be brushed and scrutinised. These were the bits and pieces which, I was soon to learn, the people of fourteenth-century Rodez turned up in their gardens too, and decided belonged to the Saracens; but Tremouille knew better. `Romain! Romain!' he would mutter, bending over them, giving the word its long southern twang, like a breeze of anisette in the Forum. You could stop him sometimes in the street, in mid-trot, box under arm; he would invariably find time to say `Such beauties! And Roman!' before he fled away.
Apart from Tremouille, searching for physical signs of the town's past was a hit-or-miss affair. Sometimes, out in the country, I would notice a place-name that spoke of old aristocracy, but find there was little more to it than that. Chateaux could be seen from the road, half-ruined, or blighted by outcrops of stained cement holding aerials and washing. The shutters were often down, the hedges uncut; they were pieces of old extravagance that pleaded not to be looked at. I went with a friend to trespass on one once, through a scrubby wood and a meadow of long grass. We came out, unexpectedly, on an avenue of limes standing in the same long grass, with a small temple at the end of it. Somebody had smashed the temple, but it still contained paintings of nymphs and shepherds between grey triangles of damp; and we stood for a while there, uncertain whether to feel monarchist regret or Jacobin relief, while the blue Dyane sat brazenly at an angle in the middle of the drive.
But I wanted humbler evidence, too. Going home to my basement flat in the evenings, I would pass certain low arched doorways below the level of the street, sometimes closed with iron grilles, smelling of potatoes and drains; and I would surmise that these were perhaps medieval shops, burrowed into the hill like rabbit warrens. In the cathedral, I would search for medieval remains among the later layers of pious ornament, such as the Christ praying in the Garden on a mat of greengrocer's grass; and it was always a thrill to find those older pieces, whether gargoyle or carving or tomb, like a touch from far away. But to know the folk of medieval Rodez, as to know their modern counterparts, was going to require much more time and much more digging than that.
The people in the archives, researchers and staff alike, were unfailingly friendly. We were all having fun. Even Madame Fabre, who fetched the documents to the reading room and battled constantly, against the barrage of noise from the school playground outside the window, with her rhumes and her migraines, seemed positively to enjoy complaining. I would find her often in the ladies' room (which was guarded by a bust of Voltaire) pouting, sighing, adjusting her earrings, and washing down tablets with the iron-tasting tap water. The documents were putains, her colleagues cons, her children probably the death of her. Beyond the tiny window, out of which she directed her glances and her sighs, lay a grey crowd of rooftops; beyond them the Place de la Cite, lofty, haughty and austere, surrounded by tall grey buildings and loomed over by the cathedral. The square's centrepiece was a statue of a local bishop killed on the Paris barricades in 1848, who now held back with imploring hand the crowds of pigeons that wheeled round him. The motto on his pedestal, Que mon sang soit le dernier verse, `may my blood be the last to be shed', seemed to sum up the martyrised air of the fashionable in Rodez, trapped like Madame Fabre in a ville moyenne, their high heels impossible in the steep streets, as the wind blew out their hairpins.
The chief archivist himself, a sweet and shy young man, stayed most of the time in his office, for the reading room was a rambunctious place. The deputy archivist, Noel, was a communist. This was in the days when communism still had some glamour in it; and Noel, with his sharp face and little tufted beard, gleaming eyes and polo-necked sweaters, was the closest Rodez could come to political fanaticism. Even he made a joke of it. Just before noon, when the archives closed for two hours for lunch (a hiatus I always found impossible to fill, though by the end of my stay I could almost spin a coffee and a sandwich out so long), he would appear in the reading room, tap the clock, and announce that it was noon, `Moscow Observatory Time'.
Much of Noel's pleasure came from bearding the two elderly conservatives who haunted the archives, Dropy and Fournial, and making their lives wretched. Dropy was a waspish, impeccably courteous man with a finely chiselled face; he had once been a jeweller and watchmaker, which showed in his delicate hands. He was now an inveterate follower of minor aristocracy, and courtesy dictated that before he attacked the shelves, looking for the counts of Panat or Villefranche, he should offer everyone in the room an aniseed drop from the tin that rattled in his pocket. Noel would always decline, ascetically, but would then hang at his sleeve with sharp jibes about kings and revolutions, as Dropy lifted the books one by one to his weak eyes. When he was tormented enough the two would fall to passionate argument, rules of silence notwithstanding.
Fournial received the same treatment. He had the face of a benevolent toad, with slobbering mouth, and a huge stomach barely contained within the suit he always felt obliged to wear. (In summer the jacket came off, the tie was tugged down, the shirtsleeves rolled up, and a great red handkerchief was mopped across the brow.) Fournial was searching for his ancestors, convinced that there was some nobility there. In the morning he worked fast, licking his thumb extravagantly with each page he turned; after lunch he became progressively slower, sighing, snuffling, until his head dropped and he snored, with a trickle of saliva running down on to the table.
Madame Fabre would look on with distaste, one eyebrow raised; Noel would pass with remarks about the decadence of crypto-monarchists. And indeed everything Noel said to Fournial, sleeping or waking, was calculated to ignite a spark and start a political fight. Fournial was also a not-so-secret smoker; and the arguments between the two of them, out in the corridor among the glass cases containing the town's medieval charters of privileges, were characterised by Noel banging on the glass to emphasise freedom and socialism while Fournial stood, one arm suspiciously contorted, holding behind his back a Gauloise that was slowly burning down to the stub.
To this rowdy place, with its big school table round which we all sat, the documents were brought; and they were as good as the Inventaire Sommaire had suggested. In fact, they were far better, for the Inventaire could only scratch the surface of what they contained. Most of them were in good shape: the vellum still supple, the paper of the account books, of wonderful thick quality, only slightly yellower than records from three hundred years later. (This was despite the fact that, one hard winter, Canac brought a pile of registers down from the attic with the snow fresh on them.) I soon came to distinguish, and sometimes to appreciate, the handwriting of the fourteenth-century clerks: the notaries' crammed, with copious shorthand; the town treasurer's with a strong, generous, lovely script, evenly inked and effortlessly level; most precious of all, the occasional painstaking script of someone not too used to the act of writing. Here, for example, was Peyre Rollan's declaration of his properties to the consuls for tax, written with care on a very small piece of paper. Rollan was a knife-maker.
Gentlemen, God give you good life always gentlemen I have a house in the carrieyra del Bal which is next to Duran Casto and Johan Seyrac and Duran Gasto's garden the hospital of Peace of the Virgin Mother of God has 17 sous from it. Gentlemen I have a garden in Gorgon, it's held from the prior of St Amans for a rent of 6d.
Gentlemen I am your servant P Rollan I recommend myself to your mercy.
Most of the script could be read with no difficulty. There was little if any crossing out, even in the town registers, though sometimes on vellum the surface would be painstakingly scratched away, and a correction written over. But there was no sense of stuffy officialdom in these records; though they were carefully done, they were alive. There were sketches, doodles and poems; pieces of straw set in as markers; fragments of seals on fragile strips of ribbon; stray bits of paper containing the medieval equivalent of reminders; marginalia, and rude remarks. To plunge into these documents was to be caught up completely in their world; I would leave every day with my brain spinning and a jumble of small pieces of a picture in my head, some of which would slowly begin to come together and cohere.
About half these documents were written in highly abbreviated (and often careless) Latin, for which I was prepared. The rest were in Occitan, a Romance dialect nearer to Catalan than French, which is still spoken in the country regions round Rodez. This I had not met before. With a smattering of Spanish and several dictionaries (my decent French being almost no help at all), I made my way in it well enough, but from time to time it defeated me. Frustratingly, the words I could not translate were always the most interesting: natural objects, household items, slangy phrases tossed at a woman in the street. Sometimes it was the grammar as much as the words that foxed me: with all the words translated, the whole phrase still made no sense. I once took a word to Monsieur Delmas, the archivist, unable to work it out; it was something small boys would trespass for. He thought about it for some time, and eventually told me it was either pears or magpies' nests. We never did any better; I had to leave it at one or the other.
In the end, I decided to take lessons. These were offered in the Institute at night; I went along, eager to understand not only what my medieval characters were saying, but what was being shouted out around me in the marketplace. If I went into the Bourg square when the country folk came in from their smallholdings (just as they came in in the fourteenth century), Occitan was all I heard. The black-hatted grandmothers offered baskets of dandelion leaves, dried flowers, untreated fruit (which was wizened and wormy) and little crottins of goat cheese laid on straw mats; they knew the French for these things, presumably, but Occitan was the only language they cared to speak.
The lessons, however, were not a success. We were a strange set of students, of all conditions and ages, some smartly dressed, some in workers' overalls; most of the class knew Occitan pretty well to speak, but wanted to know the grammar and how to spell it, which was by no means straightforward. At the very first lesson, we came to the word for 'cradle'. One student objected; that was not the word he knew. The teacher went round the class, discovering, with mounting astonishment, that almost every village used a different word. At that point, I gave up. Perhaps I should have persevered; giving up meant that a few phrases got away entirely. I can still take an educated guess at what they mean; but for the purposes of this book, I could never render them convincingly into English. So I have had to let them go.
Translation of speech posed problems of another sort, too. To hear men and women talking across the centuries is a thrilling thing; it closes time up instantly, like the snap of two interlocking springs. The tiny word be (meaning 'well', or 'you know') was a case in point: used then, and used now, at the start of any remark needing a bit of thought, or scorn, or underlining. The word putana (whore) was another. It cropped up constantly in my documents as a favourite term of abuse, and its popularity had lasted, certainly among my colleagues; putain de voiture, putain de crayon, putain de porte, they would mutter to themselves of any inanimate object that caused them annoyance.
The word putana, like arlot (which meant the same but was applied only to men, and not to women, giving a satisfying slur of effeminacy) was never translated out of Occitan by the medieval notaries. Yet this was rare. Because most of my characters' remarks were from their testimony given in court, they were almost all put into Latin and indirect speech, except for dialect words or slang which the notary could not translate. (A favourite example of mine came from a court case of 1290, when one furious man had chased another into a house: Bernardus tunc intravit et dixit Quo loco est larlot?)
Recovering the original words that were said, or the turns of phrase, was rather like diving down through many layers of water and mud; even when they were recovered, it was difficult to sift out differences between one man talking and another. There were wonderful exceptions: the judge who, for every question, delivered an answer bristling with references to the precise section in the relevant chapter of his law books; the eighty-five-year-old who could not stop talking; the nervous confusion of a woman who had been burgled and could not get the story straight; the bluntness of sergeants. Wherever I thought I could catch the tone, I tried. But there was still no substitute for the occasional flow of original Occitan, leaping as if in full colour from the page: usually street obscenities and blasphemies, but just occasionally - as in the lament of the chief character in this story - a long impassioned outpouring straight from the heart.
The words conjured up scenes, and these in themselves were often intriguingly incomplete. Suddenly I would be in a medieval kitchen, looking out of a window as a man with a knife ran past down the street. I would be in a meadow with a courting couple, down near the river, and my idyll would be disturbed by a man running up to report an accident, a messenger fallen from his horse. I would be in bed, when suddenly I would hear the screams of a neighbour's wife and rush to the window; but it is dark, there is nothing to see, and I return to the warm sheets. I would hear someone knocking at the door on a rainy evening, and let in a strange woman; in the morning, I would find my small store of cash missing, together with a favourite cloak. Scene after scene appeared in this way, like a succession of snapshots or incidents in dreams. For a few lines I would be completely in the world of these people, with their sense of time and place and the objects and people they knew; and then the page would turn, the case would change, and they were gone again.
Clinging on to characters was an effort, but it was worth it. If I kept sharp, I could start to add on small details to the names in these scenes: where they lived, what they did, their relations, sometimes even a suggestion of what sort of people they were. As in getting to know the town outside, there was no substitute for human contact. I could never know what the medieval faces looked like - none was ever described - and I had to strain to hear the voices; but a certain continuity of character seemed to link the pages I was reading with the life in the streets around me. The medieval sergeants took on some of the bustle and officiousness of the modern policemen and janitors, for whom no detail was too small to make a meal of; the women took on the prim intentness of the bargain-hunters in Codec, picking over the packets of biscuits; and the older witnesses took on the growling, suspicious tones of the gnarled montagnards who manned the benches at the edge of the market, chewing their words for flavour like an old cigarette. Past and present ran together again: the two worlds were so deeply embedded in each other that it was sometimes hard to tell where one ended and the other began.
Going home one night, past the potato-smelling basements on the steepest slope of the hill, I saw a man sitting down to dinner in the window of a cafe. I had considered this cafe for my interminable lunch hours: it offered soup, main course, cheese or fruit for a prix fixe of 20 francs. Each table had a red-and-white checked oilcloth, set with jugs for vinegar and oil, and a white ashtray; there were perhaps six tables there, and I only ever saw one occupied. The man who sat there was perhaps in his sixties, with a pink face, round eyes and thinning hair; and as he sat, the waiter came up to tie his napkin gently round his neck. I could never work out whether the gesture was one of deference to a boss, or protectiveness of an innocent; it could have been either. Neither man gave anything away. But the elder man bent his head carefully over the bowl of soup, as if eating was something that he too had to draw out for as long as possible. And this image began to impose itself on another character I had met.
The story of Peyre Marques was unlike anything else I discovered my documents. To begin with, the evidence was in two parts, one part of which was not in Rodez at all; it turned up in Montauban, back where I had started, in the archives of the counts of Armagnac. And both parts were concerned less with the facts of a case (which might have been a theft, but was left curiously vague) than with the character of man. This was a man who, despite past successes and prosperity, could no longer look after himself. Something was happening to him, something which he found terrifying and his neighbours found inexplicable: he seemed to be losing his wits. For page after page of two registers, people debated whether or not this was so.
All historians are detectives by nature. We cling to our facts, every shred of evidence, and we like to clear up our cases. The Marques case was supremely frustrating on that count. Neither register was dated, and neither was complete. I could try to fix the date from internal evidence, such as when A was consul, when B moved, when C died; and from the script, which told me at a glance that the registers had been written up late in the fourteenth century. But I could not find the end of the story.
I looked everywhere; for if the register was already scattered in two places, why not three or four? Time and again I took the bus to Montauban, back down the mountains, under the steep river-cliffs, into the broader country. I came to know every turn of the road: the grassy lane where an old woman once got off, laden down with newspapers and a live hen in a string bag; the white wooden goose at one particularly sharp bend, advertising pate de foie gras; the wedding-tier spire of the pink church at Caussadee, and the dog asleep under drifting streamers in a cafe doorway. The pimply bus boy would get off for a beer here, jangling the money in the bag at his crotch; and I would sit watching the plane trees, their leaves somehow larger, brighter and lusher than in Rodez, and wonder where on earth I could search next.
I went to these lengths because I felt I had got to know someone, and cared about what had happened to him. I wanted to know, too, about the other people in the case and what had happened to them: the son-in-law, the wife, the creditors, the neighbours, even the cowboy builders. But history defeated me. Like friends made on holiday whose interests and conversation can fill a whole summer, but whose paths never cross ours again, the characters in the Marques case engaged me, obsessed me, and left me.
Did it matter? The purpose of my research, after all, was to find out how a partitioned medieval town worked. Every piece of evidence helped in that regard. Besides, the effort to get to know the fourteenth-century characters, as to get to know the people in the modern town around me, would never be rewarded by knowing everything. In the end, I would remain an outsider. I would never quite catch everything they said; I would never learn convincingly to discuss local preoccupations (in the modern town, it was politics and rugby); I would never eat with any pleasure the savoury tripes that were heaped on my plate. And I would never know whether Peyre Marques, in 1370 or thereabouts, had ever actually owned the pitcher of gold that turned up under his shop. But that disappointment did nothing to spoil the journey I had taken.
LIBERAL ANXIETIES and LIBERAL EDUCATION
By Alan Ryan
HILL AND WANG
Copyright © 1998 Alan Ryan. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Ann Wroe is the American editor of The Economist, and was formerly its literary editor.
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