In the year of Our Lord, 1539, or thereabouts, in a small town in the centre of France, or thereabouts, three middle-aged men sat together in the corner of a tavern, in silence. They were Piers L'Hernault (more secular than religious), Onfroi Parsley (more religious than secular), and Gosse Barnard (majoritarian) – three of the twelve town councillors. When their council meeting began that morning, their town was Champs des Navets (Turnip Fields); controversially, when it ended, Saint Luc de la Chemise. Now, these three from adjacent farms were sharing a drink before setting off together on their journey home.
It always fell to the ebullient Barnard, in such situations, to begin the conversation.
‘Well, my dear friends, are we not happy that outsiders can no longer refer to us as “those Turnips”?’
It was the right question – intended to maintain the peace – but his fellow councillors knew it was just that. A reference to any other of the issues involved might have ended in uproar.
It all began some five years before when Madame L’Hernault almost tripped over on her way out of a bakery in the market town of Grancy. She was a woman in a hurry, with provisions to buy and the sun in descent. Yet lying before her on the ground was a grubby-faced adolescent boy, matted hair, barefoot, dressed only in a shabby, soiled chemise that, draped upon him, made a relief of his emaciated form. She had but one child, a daughter, and it seemed that God’s will did not extend to another, the son her husband had always hoped for. Her mother’s heart pressed her to crouch and tend to him. She roused him and sat him up.
‘Are you hungry?’
‘Yes, I am hungry.’
‘How do you come to be here?’
‘I am beaten and starved, so I must escape.’
‘Who are they that you must flee?’
‘If I tell you, you will send me back.’
She eyed him for a moment, deciding what to do.
‘Humf . . . not before I fill your belly!’
Without further ado, she pulled him up and led him from stall to stall until they finally arrived, she the more heavily laden, at the covered ox wagon where her husband was waiting.
Madame L’Hernault was prepared for her husband’s enquiring look and responded by tilting her head to one side, raising her eyebrows and smiling a half smile. L’Hernault knew, then, that he would be compelled to agree with whatever his wife had determined.
‘I found him lying in the dust outside the baker’s. Look at him! We must feed him before we send him on his way.’
As they made their darkling way along the potholed excuse for a road that linked Grancy to L’Hernault’s farm beyond Champs des Navets, no further words were exchanged between the party of three.
‘What is your name?’
L’Hernault accompanied his question with a fatherly smile. Their daughter, Melisende, seated at her father’s side, stared at this scarecrow of a boy, moving her head from side to side, as if a new perspective would provide the answers she sought. She wondered how such a long broomstick in a chemise could have such a passingly pleasing aspect. She wondered what he might think of her. She deduced that they were of a similar age.
But the boy was busily engaged with a mug of milk, a slab of bread and a large piece of cheese. His reply to L’Hernault came between two gulps of milk.
‘My name is Luc.’
L’Hernault was considering his next question when his wife put an end to it.
‘We must take him to Curé Albert in the morning.’
Luc became ashen-faced and turned to L’Hernault. He spoke as if gripped by fear, as if hunger was a distant memory.
‘If you take me to Curé Albert, he will send me back to Abbé Michel who will beat me to death. But if you allow me to stay I will teach you and your daughter to read and write.’
Madame L’Hernault dropped her wooden spoon into the pot of stew she was busy preparing. L’Hernault, however, made it plain that he regarded Luc’s plea as little more than youthful hyperbole. Nevertheless, he asked why their daughter should learn to read and write. Luc replied for the sake of good manners, now without animation: ‘She will be more appealing to a suitor who can read and write, and such a suitor will surely be more prosperous than one who cannot.’
Madame L’Hernault slept fitfully that night, her anxiety unmistakable to all the next morning as she rattled about the kitchen in noisy preparation of the family breakfast. Luc determined that he must settle her mind, at least on one matter – that her compassion was not for a dissembling wastrel. So in that small pause between the end of grace and the first mouthful, Luc spoke up. It took the others by surprise, but sensing his earnest intent, they let him proceed uninterrupted.
‘I was a foundling of the convent Notre Dame du Secours Perpétuel. When the nuns discovered I was a clever child, I was taken to Abbaye Saint-Siméon. The scribes of the Abbaye saw how quickly I recognised words and, at the direction of Abbé Michel, taught me to read and write Latin and French. Then, one day, the Abbé discovered me in the corner of a storeroom at a desk, secretly doing work for one of the older, slower scribes. It was work upon scrolls that I was not supposed to see. Abbé Michel put me in a cell and beat me often and gave me little food.’
Luc paused, his eyes growing wide as he leant forward to speak with all the gravity his youth could muster.
‘You are cheated by Abbé Michel.’
L’Hernault stopped eating, sat back in his chair and looked indulgently at the boy, hoping that Luc was mistaken rather than deliberately trying to garner favour through deception. Madame L’Hernault looked at her husband, more sad than dismayed. Melisende looked down with a barely concealed grin – a nervous grin prompted by the hope that the boy had not gone too far. But Luc continued before L’Hernault could ask for an explanation.
‘You surely must know that your land and the lands of your neighbours, before they were held by the Church, many years ago belonged to the Comté. But you have not been told that when the King seized them from the Comté, he did not give them to the Church. He gave only the care of them to Church, not to own, but to keep for the former vassals of the Comté who had worked his lands.’
Indulgence turned to intense interest as L’Hernault leant forward to bring his face closer to the boy’s, the better to interrogate his reaction.
‘What you say . . . how can we believe what you say? And why do you say it? Is it that you wish our protection – that this can become your home? I see that you have been made to suffer, that you have been mistreated, you say, by Abbé Michel. But even so, could not that be in punishment for your sins . . . perhaps, bearing false witness?’
‘No, Monsieur, I do not lie. You must understand that I speak from my readings of scrolls. It was written that that the King believed the power of the Comté was too great and it was for this reason he took away much of the Comté’s lands. He wished those lands to be owned by those who had worked them, but feared that they would be soon lost by their new owners if they did not know how to manage them. Monsieur, most of what you grew and your animals when of age were taken as rent by the Comté. Is that not so, Monsieur?’
‘Yes . . . that was so. But now we pay rent in money to the Church, and we are become better able to provide for our needs. Abbé Michel told us that the King had set the amount of the rent. Is that not what the King had wished?’
‘It was what the King had wished, but for no more than two years. The King feared that you may not manage well when it came to selling what your land produced – that which the Comté had before taken as rent. If you were able to pay to the Church for two years the rent set for your land, it would be proof that you could prosper.’
L’Hernault held up his hand for Luc to stop.
‘Why did the King not wish the Church to become the new owners of these lands, instead of the Comté? Why would he wish us, mere peasants, to own the land we worked?’
‘He wished it, Monsieur, because at the Abbaye they say the King is in dispute with the Pope these many years. So the King did not wish to reward the Church, but to pay the Church for its service – ensuring that your rent was paid. The duty of the Church was to guide you in the ways of managing your farms so that you were able to trade your produce, as they do at the Abbaye, and pay your rent. And when the lands were transferred to you, you were to be told that the land was a gift to you from the King. In this way, you would become his loyal subjects owing fealty to no other but the King – loyal subjects capable of paying the King’s tax.’
L’Hernault held up his hand again, but only for a brief pause.
‘So you say, young Luc, that we were to own our lands . . . to own our lands after two years, if we had paid our rent to Abbé Michel for those two years . . . that the Abbé has wrongly taken money from the peasants of Champs des Navets. Young Luc . . . you are calling Abbé Michele a thief. Is that what you intend?’
‘I wish only that you should know the truth, Monsieur.’
L’Hernault sat back in his chair, this time to ponder, to ponder and to examine Luc’s face from a distance, fixedly, looking for any break in his demeanour. The pause was long.
His wife and daughter waited in silence, heads bowed, not knowing what to make of Luc’s words, not knowing how L’Hernault was about to react. They feared that he might suddenly explode with indignation at the impudence of this young upstart attempting to take advantage of his good nature by impugning the good name of Abbé Michel. Or he might not, and then they could not fathom what he might do.
But L’Hernault knew that men of the cloth were men first, and the cloth came after. He saw some sincerity in the boy’s eyes, enough that he should continue to explore.
‘Young Luc, you must know that these are serious matters. How can you be sure that what you say is true?’
‘I know it to be true, Monsieur, that I read of these matters in scrolls that Abbé Michel wished to keep secret. I am as you see me, kept in a cell and starved because I learned of these secret matters. And, Monsieur, I believe that Abbé Michel would kill me if I am returned, either to keep safe his secret, or for his revenge if I have disclosed it.’
L’Hernault rose from his chair and began to pace, but soon sat down again. Even if all that Luc had said were true, he thought, what then was to be done about it?
‘Young Luc, how are we to know what is written on scrolls that are kept at Abbaye Saint-Siméon? And how, then, if it is so written . . . how are we to make these lands transferred from the Church to us? These are surely not simple matters. Abbé Michel would oppose us, and then what are we to do? We cannot use force upon an Abbé, as he were an ordinary man! We cannot break God’s law and the King’s law to gain our rights under the King’s law. How do you say we should right this wrong, even if it is so?’
‘I do not know how to answer you, Monsieur, but I read the edict from the King bearing seal of the King’s Notary. Therein was the instruction that it should be taken to a magistrat so that it may be copied and recorded in the magistrat’s register. I do not believe that this has been done, for were it so, how then could Abbé Michel claim rent to which he was not entitled? I believe, Monsieur, that this matter may only be settled by a magistrat.’
L’Hernault mulled it over, and over, so that hours became days. In the end, he determined that it was not a decision for him alone to make.
As L’Hernault expected, the town council divided along religious lines: the more secular, sceptical but open-minded, the more religious, incredulous. But to his great relief, not one held him up to scorn. Rather, all were agreed that the matter should be investigated, and in the uttermost secrecy.
All of the more proximate magistrats were considered confidants of Abbé Michel, and so L’Hernault and Luc were dispatched to the distant town of Conques. Upon arrival at the home of the town magistrat, they were met by a maid who showed them to an anteroom and left there with instructions to sit and wait. L’Hernault found the stiff formality of the anteroom unsettling, eventually rising from his chair to pace, only to return immediately with the sound of an approaching footfall. But his unease became chagrin when a woman entered the anteroom – surely a portent of further delay.
Madame Prudhomme read L’Hernault’s concern but ignored it in favour of discovering his purpose. She spoke before they had time to stand.
‘You are not from Conques, Monsieur, to my knowledge. Yet you and this boy are in Conques, and you are here, in my home. To what purpose, Monsieur?’
L’Hernault and Luc stood, believing that they were in the presence of the wife of the Magistrat of Conques or his majordomo. L’Hernault replied, with deference.
‘Dear Madame, we are come to see the Magistrat of Conques on a matter of some . . . some . . .’ ‘Delicacy’, Luc added to relieve L’Hernault’s difficulty.
‘Delicacy’, repeated Madame Prudhomme. ‘Delicacy. What delicacy is this?’
‘Oh, dear Madame,’ L’Hernault replied, ‘of such delicacy that only the Magistrat may be told.’
‘As you wish. Follow me.’
L’Hernault and Luc followed Madame Prudhomme from the anteroom into a room with books lining both side walls – a display of such opulence as to make them draw breath. At the end of the room was a desk which had the benefit of light from the two tall windows behind it. Madame Prudhomme sat at the desk and faced her two visitors. There were chairs placed elsewhere in the room, randomly, but none immediately adjacent to the side of the desk where L’Hernault and Luc stood. They stood in silence. Madame Prudhomme thought to leave them in some bewilderment before addressing them.
‘Now you may speak of your delicate matter.’
‘But, Madame . . .’
‘Madame Le Magistrat de Conques, Monsieur.’
Madame Aceline Prudhomme had buried two husbands, most recently her considerably older consort, Gidie Prudhomme, Magistrat of Conques. In his declining years, Gidie had passed all of his responsibilities to his wife, retaining the office in name only. This was widely known in Conques and upon her husband’s death, the Conques Town Council, no doubt mindful of her store of private information about them, earnestly petitioned the King for a special dispensation to allow Madame Prudhomme to be installed as their magistrat.
Now that she had sewn confusion in the minds of these two distant travellers, Madame Prudhomme decided to make light of it. They had not travelled such a long distance without some serious purpose, and most serious purposes in the world of men, in her experience, involved money.
‘You may now speak in confidence of your delicate matter, as you wished Monsieur, to the Magistrat of Conques.’
L’Hernault began with a halting introduction, but soon deferred to Luc to carry the matter thereafter. When he concluded, they were both surprised that the Magistrat had no questions for them and needed no time to ponder. She responded almost immediately, as if they should have taken it for granted that she would take up their cause.
‘Monsieur, the matter shall proceed as follows: I shall consult the King’s Notary – I have had correspondence with him before – but my correspondence on this occasion shall be brief, simply to secure an appointment. Such a matter as this must be communicated in person, for even trusted messengers are not beyond lapses, and it could be greatly to our disadvantage if our purpose is known abroad. So I must travel to the King’s Court. I will reduce to writing my understanding of the case I am to present to the Notary and calculate my fee for this service, and you should also have my separate estimate for securing the transfer of lands to those entitled to claim them. That latter fee, of course, shall apply only if the contentions of young Luc prove true. Meet me here tomorrow at noon when I shall have made both calculations and written up our case for presentation. You will read all three documents and if you find them in order, sign your agreement to proceed as proposed. I shall have the maid direct you to a tavern. Good day, Monsieur, and Jeune Monsieur Luc. You, young boy, have a charming way. You are clever. I predict you will prosper.’
The impression of Madame Prudhomme conveyed to the Town Council by L’Hernault was confirmed by the substance and tone of the letter they received from her some three weeks later. She advised that Luc had indeed stated the case truly: the peasants of Champs des Navets had long since been entitled to own their lands, and the rent exacted by the Church for more than three years past must be returned to them. She set a time and place for all who were so aggrieved by the actions of Abbé Michel to rendezvous with her on the road to Abbaye Saint-Siméon.
Nevertheless, a minority of the more religious remained unmoved in their incredulity. They reasoned – without reason, in the minds of the more secular – that an Abbé appointed by let of the Pope could never have committed such sins with such purposeful intent. Yet not one of their number was absent from the caravan of ox wagons that lumbered towards the rendezvous with the Magistrat of Conques.
The roads, if they could be called roads at that time and place in France, were unsuitable for horse-drawn carriages. It was not uncommon, therefore, that both men and women of means would ride, horse-astride, rather than endure the time and discomfort of travel by ox wagon. And it was thus that four ox wagons laden with aggrieved peasants found the impressive figure of Madame Prudhomme and her servant, separately horse-astride, ready to lead them to Abbaye Saint-Siméon.
The monks of Abbaye Saint-Siméon could not recollect the sight of such an odd procession ever before entering their domain. But that a woman not in religious garb should be among them – this, they were sure, was without precedent. And their surprise grew to outrage when this profane woman strode boldly to the entrance of the Abbaye, and on through its open doors, without even the slightest acknowledgement of their presence.
A small group ran to pursue her and found her waiting for them. As they caught their breath, she demanded to know the whereabouts of Abbé Michel. This further inflamed their ire and one of their number made to manhandle her towards the entrance. The slow theatrical menace of his approach, affected to amuse his confrères as much to intimidate this solitary woman, ended with the sharp sting of her riding crop across his cheek. Such was the force and deftness of her blow, he was sent reeling, bloodied and in great pain. And so, as she turned her attention to his audience, they grabbed their wounded leader and fled, leaving Madame Prudhomme to close the entrance doors behind them.
Madame Prudhomme found Abbé Michel dining in his private refectory before news of her presence had reached him. Reflexively, he rose to protest her impertinent intrusion, and it was then that both parties took measure of their physical differences – the Abbé, short with embonpoint that rendered him almost as tall lying down as standing up; the Magistrat, tall and in fine fettle.
Yet Abbé Michel remained undaunted. Notwithstanding her superior stature and his lack of experience in such encounters, he, a member of the preeminent sex, stepped forward with confidence.
Madame Prudhomme, however, had met the Abbé’s kind of presumption before.
‘My dear Abbé, please, sit. It behoves you to listen to the Magistrat of Conques.’
Madame Prudhomme paused, and with head to one side, conveyed her malicious intent with hooded eyes and sarcastic smile.
‘You, Abbé, are but a petty man, your withered loins no match for my intellect, fecund with inventions to reveal your true character. I have consulted the King’s Notary. You have ignored the King’s edict and stolen from his subjects.’
Madame Prudhomme threw a scrolled parchment onto the table before the Abbé, now seated, and made show of resting her riding crop behind it.
‘Sign this document transferring land titles to each of the former vassals named therein, now, or I will have you arrested, imprisoned, and by intercession with the Pope, defrocked. Then you will bring forth the amount you have stolen from these entitled landowners so that each may attend upon you to receive your apology and carry away the money you stole.’
Hubris to humiliation, withered loins moistened, the trembling Abbé completed his volte-face by signing the cross and then the document.
Not many seasons after these tumultuous events, L’Hernault and Luc (now his adopted son) and Melisende (under Luc’s tutelage as their record-keeper) were commissioned to find new markets for the now more productive farmers of Champs des Navets. But once his two charges had proved themselves, L’Hernault felt able to remain behind.
Unsurprisingly, propinquity led to romance. And on the day of their marriage, Melisende, without hint of irony, reminded Luc of his good fortune to have such an educated wife.
But what of the change – “Champs des Navets” to “Saint Luc de la Chemise”? That was as much a tribute to Luc as a sacrilegious poke in the eye for Abbé Michel – Abbé Michel, by his own devices reduced to a figure of derision and fun, except, of course, among the religious of unquestioning faith.
Indeed, it seems there will always be those who find their adherence to Mother Church beyond the reach of reason. Never more was this evident than in Parsley’s reply to Barnard as that group of three town councillors sat sharing a drink: ‘My family, going back generations, were buried in Champs des Navets, not in Saint Luc de la Chemise. According to Abbé Michel, they must now be disinterred and buried again in this new town to reclaim the blessings of Christian burial!’
And even today, are there not echoes of Abbé Michel’s convolution applied, not to the rites of Christian burial, but to the rights of whomsoever and whomsoever to marry?