Sun is shining this morning, as it was yesterday. Wind last night was from the north and COLD! Cold continues this morning. No snow yet. But yes, we’ve got another book review for you, so here goes:
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY: LIFE IN A PARTITIONED MEDIEVAL TOWN, by Ann Wroe. Nonfiction. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
A pitcher of gold found in a blocked drain underneath a house begins the tale. To whom does it belong? The year is 1370, the place a “partitioned” town in what is now the governmental department of Aveyron (named for the river) in modern-day southcentral France. The fourteen century, though, was far from modern, and in the Middle Ages the town of Rodez was additionally burdened (on top of feudalism, war, marauding bandits and the Black Plague) by the fact that half the town was controlled by a bishop, the other half by a count, alike only in their power over residents and in their consistent demands for taxes and tribute. As if this weren’t enough to try men’s souls, the division of power was made physical and ever-present by a wall separating the two jurisdictions, its gates locked at night. Strangers were suspect in medieval Rodez, and even residents of the town were strangers on the other side of the wall.
This is the world scholar Ann Wroe set out to explore. Originally she had hoped to research the Albigensians or the Perpignan region, but these, she found, were already “spoken for” by others, and she had to find a bit of unclaimed academic turf of her own. Rodez was still available. No one so far had wanted it. There was a wealth of surviving documentation from the period in question. Rodez it would be.
Commuting between Oxford and her new field of historical endeavor, Wroe traveled back and forth in time as well as in space. “Over the two years I spent there,” she writes, “I approached Rodez in a variety of ways, but each time there was the same sense of a journey deep into the interior.” That journey, even in the 20th century (by train), ran “through impossibly narrow cuts and rock walls glistening with water….” She recalls geese along the tracks, laundry hanging out on lines, “and trees pinioned to cliffs of rock [that] brushed against the windows. This, at least, is how I remember it, as if it were a train in dreams.” A train into the past, one might say.
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY is history, not fiction, and Wroe does not event people, dialogue or incidents. Introducing the characters, however, she describes their surroundings, along with facts to which they testified on record, in the context of the complex social, political and economic world of their world. Each character is also introduced in a chapter along with some larger issue, such as the law or debt. When we meet Gerald Canac, an important figure in the story, we learn also about the large fair held in November and June of each year and of what the fair usually brought to the town, in terms both good and bad.
“At the edge of the fairground the meadow was left uncut, full of ox-eye daisies and feathery seedling grasses that ran into the old abandoned vines. Respectable merchants like Canac avoided this part, for this was where the prostitutes set up shop.”
Though I have traveled by car through southcentral France and stayed overnight in various towns and at least one medieval country village, I entered the world of this book as if going into a foreign country. Even as a time-traveler, were time travel possible other than in books, I would be suspect in Rodez, a definite outsider. In 1370 even French was a foreign language there. Most people spoke Occitan, and legal documents were usually translated into Latin.
About 60 pages into the story, however, my perspective suddenly shifted. A group of men caught on the wrong side of the wall—after “curfew,” as it were—find themselves trudging from gate to gate in hope of reaching their homes for the night. They were not criminals and had no evil intent, only a desire to get home. At last, in desperation, they find and climb over a low fence. “Unluckily for the trespassers, some sleepless soul in that other, foreign side of town had known who they were….” A law has been broken.
Wroe tells of various ways the residents of Rodez tried to work together and help one another, despite the town’s rival authorities. “But this was a partitioned town; there was nothing natural about it.”
This was the point in the story where the people and their problems became familiar. Lines from Robert Frost came to mind: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he wrote, thinking to himself, even while helping his neighbor repair the winter-damaged wall between their two properties, “Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offense.” Put a wall between neighbors, and they become strangers to each other, jealous of trespass, quicker to suspect than to welcome one another. The Berlin Wall came down, others always go up. Sometimes mere stakes tied with bright plastic ribbon are as forbidding as stone.
In Rodez, the holders of power, the bishop and the count d’Armagnac, they who divided the place between them and made sure it stayed divided, were little in residence in their respective castles. The count was off to war or currying favor from the king, the bishop living a bookish life of ease and luxury at the court of the pope. The people of the divided town paid for the lifestyles of count and bishop—and here is the deepest irony of Rodez, one that persists in our world today: the dividers pass back and forth at will, while their quarrels fall hardest on the divided, who have nothing to gain by hating each other. Only the lawyers (another fascinating chapter!) reap benefit from the discord.
This history of a small incident and its consequences, involving faceless individuals with unfamiliar names who lived long ago and far away, is strangely compelling. Had we lived there, then, this might have been our story. Perhaps, in some ways, it is our story even today.