Five thousand Frenchmen and a crock of gold

A Fool and his Money: Life in a partitioned Medieval Town by Ann Wroe Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99; Divided European communities are nothing new. A L Foreman reads a medieval reconstruction

"Such are the times, my friend, on which we are fallen," lamented the poet, Petrarch, in a letter of 1366, to his friend Boccacio. He was by now an old man, an unwilling witness to the devastation wreaked on France by plague, famine, and the English army, led by the Black Prince. The west of France had fragmented into terrified citadels, fortified by high stone walls and round-the-clock guard watches. Petrarch's despairing cry at his times echoed the grief felt by hundreds of thousands who saw no end to their suffering.

The medieval town of Rodez in 1370, the setting of A Fool and his Money, was on the border of the English domain in Languedoc. Two years before, Charles V had seized back most of the territory from Edward III. Although the town never experienced any fighting, the war was close enough to have a marked effect on its culture and economy. Ann Wroe visited Rodez in 1975, and was captivated by the strong links of the town to its 14th-century past. She decided to write a history of the town through its legal records, using as her starting point a lawsuit between a merchant, the eponymous "Fool'' of the title, and his son-in-law. Her approach, while scholarly, is deliberately impressionistic.

A Fool and his Money follows in the tradition of The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg and Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. But unlike her precursors, her project is not to explain a century or cosmogony but to superimpose the past upon the present. "There was," she writes, "and still is, a little packhorse bridge at Laguiole, with barely room for a loaded beast to pass..."

In the 14th century, the town was divided in two, with each half governed by separate authorities and laws. The part closest to the top of the hill, the City, contained the half-finished Cathedral and was governed by the Bishop who supported the English. The Bourg, lower down both socially and geographically, was the centre of commerce under the fiefdom of Jean I of Armagnac, who supported Charles V.

The merchant, Peyre Marques, lived in the Bourg. He had become absent- minded to the point of distraction, and had long ago lost the money he had buried beneath his house. One day, while he was out, workers investigating a flood next door opened up his basement and uncovered a jar of gold under a blocked drain. But his son-in-law, Canac, was there and decided to keep the money, claiming "finders keepers.'' The mason who uncovered the jar of gold came from the City, while the workers who dug it up lived in the Bourg. Marques's wife, long embittered by her husband's failures, had family in both parts of the town. They all testified in court, as did friends, neighbours, and the people who happened to be in the street at the time.

Ann Wroe has used their voices to make a collage of vivid pictures. As each witness comes forward, she describes their lives, the attitudes which would have coloured their testimony, even the road they might have taken to the court.

Unfortunately, not all the court records survived and there is no indication of how the lawsuit was resolved. The book is less the story of a forgetful merchant than a window onto 14th century life in Rodez. It is how the 5,000 inhabitants lived in partition against the backdrop of a divided and chaotic country which fascinates Anne Wroe. It was "a town where, if you did huge favours for people on the other side, they did not necessarily thank you for it, but behaved as if you were still a stranger who could not entirely be trusted." The more irrational the division, the more tenaciously, it seems, the two communities clung to their separate identities.

Ann Wroe has written an imaginative and sympathetic history of an idiosyncratic town. A Fool and his Money is popular history at the highest level.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering