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.

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